The Roland Boss DR-880
"Dr. Rhythm" Hands On Review
The Roland Boss DR-880 is a rhythm-producing powerhouse for the performing guitarist.
This hard to classify device is part drum machine, part bass guitar synthesizer, part guitarist effects package, and part backing band. All in all, Roland has packed the DR-880 with realistic sounds and a wide-variety of features, including:
- Clean, realistic drum and bass-guitar sounds
- Direct input connection for guitar
- Audio-out ports for amp, P/A, or headphones (can also be used for analog computer input)
- Built-in COSM Drive/Amp models
- Effects such as chorus, delay, reverb, wah, crunch, and more
- Built-in drum patterns you can edit
- Composition function for drum and bass sounds
- Touch tempo metronome
- Play-pad for real-time drum or bass sounds
- Built-in chromatic tuner
- much more...
But, rather than simply list features or repeat information you can find from the Boss product page, let's take a hands-on look at a few features of the DR-880, to see if it may be the right product for you.
Tools for the Guitarist
A drum machine is nice, but what can this box do for the average guitarist? Quite a bit, actually.
Connection is a breeze. Simply plug any electric or acoustic-electric guitar 1/4-inch cable into the clearly labeled input port on the front of the unit.
Multiple outputs allow you to choose between headphones, mono or stereo output through 1/4" or RCA sockets. The output signal from the 1/4" socket is perfect for either a P/A system or an amplifier (the output signal strength is determined with a custom setting), and the RCA socket works great with stereo systems or dedicated monitors.
Next, activate the rock-solid chromatic tuner with a simple press of the "Tuner" button. The tuner is activated and the output signal is muted. The back-lit display is easy to read and provides all the information you need. The automated output muting is great for quick on-stage tuning and for ensuring that sounds do not escape by an accidental bump of the Play button.
If you want to use one of the built-in guitar effects (using the Roland GT-6 sound-engine), simply press the "Effects" button and spin the master Value dial to spin through 50 preset effects or 50 custom effects created by you. The presets are customizable, but must be saved into one of the 50 custom spaces. You control each effect by varying one of five parameters: Amp-simulator (examples: warm-clean, crunch, power stack, 5150 Drive, Metal Stack), Noise Suppressor, Sound Effects (such as compression, wah, chorus, tremolo and pan), Delay, and Reverb.
Using only these key guitar features makes the DR-880 a very nice, portable sound processor. But, there's much more to this machine.
Backing Band In A Box
The DR-880 provides several ways to create backing percussion and bass sounds:
- Use E-Z Compose to quickly build a pattern with high-hat, snare, percussion, and bass guitar.
- Use the touch-pad to play (or record) drum or bass sounds in real-time.
- Modify and save one of the 500 pre-build patterns.
- Build a pattern from scratch in the Compose Editor.
- Load the machine with MIDI from your keyboard or PC.
I used the DR-880 for several months to act as a bass guitarist and drummer for our small church band. It never missed a practice, and never missed a beat. The ability to mix guitar, bass, and drum through separate volume controls was key to balancing the DR-880 with the rest of the group.
The instruction manual was difficult to follow, but after you've spent enough time with the unit it all begins to make sense. Many users strongly recommend the instructional video to quickly understand how to program the unit and understand some of the built-in shortcuts. You can see a sample on the proaudiodvds.com product page.
If you want a quick overview of the power of this device for back-up or practice, take a look at the BOSS demo video.
If you use the DR-880 on stage, you'll begin to love the LOOP function and the ability to control certain operations (start/stop, advance to next loop/song, loop on/off, wah, volume) using foot pedals.
Nothing's perfect, and you may not agree with some of what I classify as blemishes, but it's only fair that I tell you of what I view as weaknesses of the DR-880.
You can backup the data on the DR-880 (a plus), but you can only back it up as a bulk file. There's no way to export a set of patterns, for example, edit them on your PC, then reload the updates for playback.
By far, the greatest limitation is the lack of expandable memory. Fewer and fewer recordable devices are fixed memory, but the Dr. Rhythm is one of them. Perhaps even worse, there's no way to know if you're about to exhaust available memory. When you hit the max, the machine simply says "Memory Full." Time to clear memory and restart from backup.
Looping is a great way to play through a portion of a song: intro, verse, chorus, etc. but you can only turn the loop on or off once for any song, and there is no way to jump back to a passage (such as the chorus).
There's no easy, predictable way to control ritard (the gradual slowing of the tempo). If you need to slow a song down over a measure or two, it's best to simply drop any tempo-related drum beats out and restart with the new tempo.
I recommend the Boss DR-880. The drum and bass sounds are great, the built-in features for the guitarist provide a variety of sounds to experiment with, and features such as tap-tempo, recording, and beat-by-beat editing give you complete control over over playback and on-stage accompaniment.
The unit should hold up well, so purchasing used from a site like eBay could be an option for the frugal. If you'd like a new unit, you can pick one up from MusiciansFriend.com for $499.
Yahoo has an active discussion board for the DR-880. Members are helpful. A subscription is required, but takes only a short time to complete.
You can view specifications, FAQ's, and even download the instruction manual at the BOSS product site.
Finally, a short "How To" article on the Boss User's Group page describes the DR-880, and explains COSM.