Once maligned for its inauthenticity, the sound of the analogue drum machine roared back into fashion in the late 80s, eventually becoming less a trend than a standard. Today’s marketplace is packed with the pounding progeny of a handful of well-known machines - nearly all of which bear the badge of Roland.
Indeed, their CR-78, TR-808 and TR-909 units helped to shape modern music, despite the youngest being a full 35 years old! These familiar sonic touchstones are obvious choices for replication by both hardware and software developers. However, Roland weren’t the only innovators in the rhythm machine game. Indeed, all three of the Japanese giants produced some bangin’ boxes: Yamaha produced the MR-10 in 1980, and Korg’s very first product was an accompaniment device released with the absurd name of the ‘Doncamatic’ way back in 1963. This massive monstrosity used a rotating disk that triggered the voice circuits in order to produce its sputtering rhythms. Released under the brand name Keio Electronic Laboratories, the Doncamatic series eventually encompassed three more variants before giving way to the seminal Mini Pops line.
The final Doncamatic, the DE20, was released in 1966, as were the first of the Mini Pops series, the MP5 and MP7. Significantly, these machines were designed around solid-state circuits – possibly the first drum machines to make this technological leap. The more familiar Mini Pops 3 appeared the following year, later appearing as the SR-55, a re-badged version distributed by Univox.
Top of the Pops
The MP3 is the very epitome of cheese, inside and out, designed as if to be transported to the nearest fromage frais factory in the back of a Cathedral City lorry. A sloping, beknobbed front panel descends from a shoe-box sized enclosure wrapped in faux wood veneer. Inputs and outputs are nestled in an inset around the back, next to a cubby hole that hides the power cable when not in use. Silver knobs seemingly ordered right out of a Radio Shack catalogue offer a modicum of control over volume, tone, and tempo, along with one that controls Bass Drum and Snare Drum variations for the Fox Trot rhythm, and another for Brush/Cymbal. Ten chunky white push buttons and two slide switches allow the selection of any of 20 different patterns. A large and lovely rocker switch engages the rhythm (as does a pedal input around the back), and a jewelled lamp indicates that the unit is powered on.
The preset patterns offer four voices of simple analogue percussion, including a tubby kick, sizzling snare and resonant clave. The rhythms themselves would be the perfect choice for your grandma’s organ recital at the local church hall - rhumba, samba, waltz, and a handful of rather catchy rock beats. Pure gorgonzola, these - but plumb them through a bit of spring reverb and you have instant Oxygene (Jarre used the similar MP7).
Unsurprisingly, Keio’s next big product would be an organ, and they’d soon adopt a new name - ‘Korg’ - to reflect their newfound path. Not long after that, they’d unleash their Mini Korg synth, signalling the direction that would eventually earn the company worldwide recognition and respect.
Three great plugin alternatives to the Mini Pops
Superwave Tiny Pops
Cheap and cheerful, this is a Windows-only option that offers the Mini Pops 7 sound, but with control over tuning, amp decay, plus resonant filtering with control over both frequency and resonance. And that’s per drum! You can also adjust each drum’s level, toggle sustain and send its signal to the main or multi outputs.
Ben Anderson V-Pops
If you’re on Windows and are dying for that Doncamatic sound, you can avail yourself of this percolatin’ percussion pluggie from Ben Anderson. It’s a bit long in the tooth, but the sound is classic Keio. Here, though, you’re not limited to just the prefab rhythms of the originals, as V-Pops provides you with actual pattern editing.
Logic-Cafe Mini Pops Drum Machine for EXS-24
If you’re on a Mac and need a taste of classic Korg drums, you can get over to Logic-Cafe and grab this sample set of an unspecified Mini Pops unit for Logic Pro’s included EXS-24 sampler. Plus, Logic-Cafe have done the hard work for you, rolling the samples into a pre-fab instrument.