Monday, January 25, 2010

A Pint of Beer and a New Tattoo: Audio Damage Tattoo Reviewed

(picture stolen from

They say (or somebody does anyway) that drum machines have no soul but who's to say that? And Roger Linn lols @ u. Soul is a subjective, unquantifiable concept. And its not about "live" You can't tell me that every single hip-hop tune made with machines like the TR-808 or MPC is soulless. The same goes for any electronic beats. Sure, many are but that's the fault of the composer/producer.

I was still wanting NI Maschine and still peeved by the fact that it'd require me to get a new computer when I ran across Tattoo. Seems to have just come out and it does look promising. TR-styled 12 channel drum synth with nice step sequencer and randomization functions? Will control other midi instruments? And demos sound nice. Audio Damage doesn't offer demo versions but they will refund your money. So it seems like a sure thing... more review and audio examples after the jump...

( Screenshot swiped from Audio Damage. But that's what it looks like!)

The soul of a new machine?
Tattoo works as advertised. There are some issues which I'll get to. But it sounds damn good. Tattoo probably can get brutal if you want it, but I say it mostly sounds round and buttery. It's not a clone of one machine like the 808 or 909. The sounds are basically a greatest hits of Roland's analog machines: 808 or 909 kick, separate 808 and 909 snares, 909 rimshot, 808 cowbell (one of my fave drum sounds ever), hats based on the 808 and 606 (yay!), and DR-110 and 808 cymbals. Claps they say were more or less identical across all the old machines and the toms are original, I do like the toms. No samples, everything was synthesized. Everything is tweakable - disappointingly not *extremely* so but in a very usable way at least. Things like tuning, envelope, filters (on cymbals and rimshot), waveform (to switch from 808 to 909 kicks), saturation (on kicks) and in the name of flogging dead memes, a "more" cowbell button. I think Audio Damage should make something called "The Mango" as well. Or Longcat.

It looks great too, rather NI, reminds me of both Maschine and Limelight, the latter being my previous favourite virtual drum machine. (Suprise: its Tattoo now) The little mod sequencer reminds me of Limelight's in particular. It's one of Tattoo's best features, useful for fills or randomizing velocity and it can be used to sequence every drum voice parameter (!). The main step (Pattern) sequencer is not idiosyncratic like Limelight (which is admittedly rather charming there) - looks a bit like Maschine but cleaner. It goes down to 32nd notes, fine for house and techno, even pretty good for idm/break/glitch/core wankers like me. Pattern length can be set to 2x16 if you're using 16th notes, this is nice for some variation in techno beats. It can do 16th or 8th note triplets if you want.

The real fun happens when you start playing with the step randomization features. There are basic random buttons. And better, probability sliders: one can be set to remove notes, the other adds them. Random notes can be set to 32nd notes even in a 1/16 pattern, this is useful for glitchy bollocks. What's more, it sounds a lot funkier than say Ableton's Beat Repeat. That's your soul, right there, I found it. Also the global Swing (based off the 909) sounds very nice indeed.

And get this: velocity/note info (including random notes, sucka) can be sent to other instruments via midi. Tattoo plays really nicely with other instruments in Live. And of course you can record midi clips out of it. Note: this only works with the VST version. Tattoo's internal synth can be turned off too as to save on CPU when controlling other instruments.

So some issues: a standalone version would have been nice. Granted, I personally don't use standalones much but for playing around. Tattoo is only available as a VST or AU. Also, there seems to be a problem with stability with using Tattoo and Live, at least on the laptop I used. (I put Tattoo on my netbook so maybe that's it) I still have a copy of Live 7 and it just won't boot up if Tattoo is in my VST folder. Live 8 runs fine, 90% of the time - I save often - render Tattoo to audio clips. Tattoo works just fine in FL Studio and Renoise however. Also, in Windozeland at least, use ASIO. When controlled by midi clips in Live, it had weird timing issues unless I used ASIO, and not just ASIO4all. Also it made ugly audio glitches used this way; these thankfully went away when I set Tattoo's sync to "midi note". Note (lol) Audio Damage say this setting is useful for having Tattoo sync to your DAW's groove templates. Or to play in odd time signatures. As they say, "Want to recreate the 5/8 portion of Tarkus? No problem."

As I said before, I initally expected a lot more flexibility with regards to drum synthesis, something like the Korg ER-1 or, as I'd imagine it not having used one, the Kawai XD-5. And as much as I'd like it to, Tattoo will not play samples. This would have been a nice and elegant feature to implement but probably goes against Tattoo's philosophy of being a virtual analog drum synth. Besides, its hella easy to hook Tattoo up to sample players like Ableton's Drum Racks or Impulse. And when I hooked it up to Kontakt, I came.

Some examples (maybe boring)

iia: Tattoo playing it's preset Minimal kit (I just took the OH's decay way down) and controlling ProtoPSG and TBL, with some wonky randomized bits. Needs compression on the drums, better mixing on the synths.

tattooKontakt: Tattoo controlling Kontakt (Plinko kit) with a random bit @ the end that reconciles to being less random. "OMG I'm so random! (Holds up spork)"

Stoopit: more idmish, just Tattoo's Super Duty kit, a bit modified. Uses mod sequencer too for pitched bass, etc.

Jabberwock: Starts off with just Tattoo (modified Gritchy IDM kit) then adds a bit of Kontakt (Maschine dubstep kit), VOPM and PlasticCZ (Jabberwocky preset lol.) controlled by Tattoo.

Teal Deer: I like it, I like it bunches. It cured my Maschine GAS.. As a virtual analog drum machine, Tattoo rocks and more so with its sequencer hooked up other instruments. With Kontakt and Live, its a great combo. Maybe you can buy a Machine Drum or, for an R8 (with the 808 and 909 cards of course) but Tattoo is $80 and totally worth it. (Well more.)

Tattoo page
Check Audio Damage's YouTube channel for some nice examples

Also be sure and snag their free Rough Rider compressor. I like it.

And here's an (old) drummer joke. Q: Why is a drum machine better than a drummer? A: You only have to punch the information into the drum machine once.

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