Dance music, it seems, has come full circle. Techno’s roots began with affordable oddball hardware, abused into new genres. And now, the appetite for cheap little boxes that make grooves is back.
But does “cheap” and “analog” always make for a winner? Well, not necessarily. But let’s find out why.
This is the AKAI Rhythm Wolf. When we first saw it, it was clear people would want it, because physically, visually, it has the things you’d want – even before you get to the accessible price. There are velocity-sensitive pads for each part, coupled (cleverly) with x0x-style buttons for simple 16-step patterns (which you can chain into 32-step pattern). There are the requisite controls for changing step length, and recording step sequences or performances. There’s ample I/O – proper MIDI in/out and thru (plus MIDI over USB), gate trigger in and out, and separate mono outputs for the synth and drums.
This is the body of a usable drum machine. It has all the controls you’d want, in a form factor people are bound to love.
Take the Rhythm Wolf out of the box, and until you plug it in, you’re still likely to be reasonably happy. The knob caps are somewhat unpleasant to tweak, but the build is otherwise great for a $200 piece of kit. It’s heavy and solid, with a metal case, and oddly has a bigger footprint than a new Elektron. The pads work just fine (even if AKAI now calls any pads “MPC”), and the triggers respond with a satisfying click. I’ll even excuse the strange plastic faux-wood end-caps; they don’t do any harm.
Of course, you’re probably not going to use a drum machine without plugging it in, and that’s where things suddenly go very wrong. There’s no gentle way to put this. It sounds not good.
The bass drum is fine. You can pitch it down and get something fairly workable. Personally, I feel it doesn’t compare with other offerings, and now thanks to KORG, that includes the dirt-cheap volca BEATS with its floor-rattling kick. But it’s usable.
The snare drum and percussion are, in my opinion … not fine. At best, they resemble sort of white noise generators; at worst, they’re flat and unusable. The hats and cymbals are even worse: noise-y, clang-y affairs that qualify as what they are, but only just.
The upshot is, even with the full range of knobs, I wasn’t able to find a set of variations I’d want to record. The sounds are perfectly fine for a $50 boutique kit, but not something that has an AKAI badge.
Then there’s the bass synth, which seems to crowd out an already-flawed design with something you don’t really want. The single-oscillator affair starts out sounding thin, so you think, perhaps, you’ll add the filter and it’ll improve. But the more you add resonance, the quieter the filter gets – the opposite of what you want. As mediocre as the drum parts are, the synth seems like wasted space.
Adding insult to injury, the so-called “Howl” knob just seems like overdriving gain: things get a bit louder and distorted and mostly you add copious amounts of background noise.
In fact, it’s all so shocking, I had a hard time telling anyone about it. If I described it without actually playing it, they didn’t believe me. I put off sitting down to write this review, partly because I knew I’d need to make some sound samples or video, and I really didn’t want to. (It doesn’t help that I’m my own editor, and no one from AKAI called wondering where the loaner was.)
But, then in my inbox, I got this video. And sure enough, it says exactly what I already said. I was relieved: maybe I’m not crazy.
The creator, space travel made easy, doesn’t mince words:
The other week I got myself an Akai Rhythm Wolf.
This was such a promising little drum machine but was one of the biggest let-downs I’ve ever had with hardware.
Watch the video to find out why I thought it so piss-poor.
He gets further than I did: I was already so unhappy with the synth that I didn’t bother to think about whether it would hold its tune across its multi-octave range. But it doesn’t. Yikes.
All of this is a shame, because recording patterns itself on the Rhythm Wolf is great fun, combining live performances on the pads with the x0x steps at the bottom. There actually isn’t another standalone drum machine I can think of for less than a grand that has something like this apparently-obvious combination of controls. The one kit that can compete is, ironically, Akai’s MPC. But they seem to have exited the standalone drum workstation market apart from entry-level stuff.
As it happens, you can use the pads and step triggers to transmit MIDI, both over USB and the onboard MIDI ports. But in another disadvantage to AKAI’s analog approach, you can’t use any of the 21 onboard parameter knobs to transmit MIDI – they’re analog only. So I don’t think you’d buy the Rhythm Wolf as a drum machine.
The box is fairly big and potentially hackable, so it’s conceivable someone would mod this into something, well, better. But they might just build their own drum machine instead.
Not everyone is unhappy with it. Presumably because it does make some noises, and the patterns are fun to play, and it has knobs, I’ve seen some happier YouTube users, and more power to you. Richard Devine used it as sort of a weird modular source for his Eurorack rig … but then, much of the actual sound is coming from elsewhere.
What you could do is of course route it through a whole bunch of guitar pedals. That, at least, sounds rather good, and then you can have fun. And in fairness, a lot of electronic instruments sound better with processing. So someone will find a way to make this their own.
Full review at: Create Digital Music