Dave Smith Instruments & Roger Linn Design Tempest review

The highly anticipated analogue drum machine finally arrives

  • $1999
The Tempest is a fully self-contained drum/synth box and is great if you don't want to be tied to a computer.

MusicRadar Verdict

Redefines what a drum machine should be. Doubtless destined to be a future classic.


  • +

    The hybrid sound engine sounds just right for drums and synth duties. Sequencer has classic Linn/MPC60/3000 feel. Extremely tweakable for studio and live performance.


  • -

    Still quite a few issues to fix with the OS.

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It's no surprise that the Tempest has been getting beat-centric producers salivating since the prototype BoomChik and Linndrum II were shown at NAMM 2007/8.

With legendary electronic instrument designers Dave Smith (Sequential/DSI) and Roger Linn (Linn drum machines/Akai MPC60/3000) behind it, it was bound to cause a stir.

The Tempest builds on Dave and Roger's heritage - the Linn part is the sequencer/digital side and Smith's part is the analogue side.

In essence, the Tempest is an analogue/digital synth based on tweaked Evolver/Tetra/Prophet 08 voice chips, mated to a much-improved MPC-style sequencer, all built with live performance in mind.

It's not a sampling drum machine and you can't yet upload your own samples, though rumour has it user sample upload might come soon. Those that want a new MPC-style sampling drum machine will have to wait for Linn's upcoming new machine.

The Tempest's six-voice polyphonic sound engine has two digitally-controlled analogue oscillators (DCOs) and two digital oscillators containing one-shot drum machine samples (16MB/approx 450 sounds) including useful noises/waves from FXpansion and Goldbaby's sample libraries.

There's no removable storage media or any way to expand the Tempest's memory but the soundset is thankfully very versatile. There's a sub oscillator per voice (like the Mopho and Tetra) that adds a square wave an octave below the oscillators and several types of digital noise (white, pink and green for starters) so there's plenty of scope - from analogue and digital drum hits, to noises and FX.

The Tempest is also killer for bass, leads and bleeps and will be great for chords once polyphonic mode is implemented. Until then, several monophonic bass or lead lines can be layered up and chords can be built the same way.

Basslines and leads are recorded using the pads in 16 tunings mode, which maps each pad to a note from the several onboard scales. This works great, plus we successfully recorded notes into the Tempest's sequencer via a MIDI keyboard using OS 1.02.

The amp, filter, pitch and two auxiliary envelopes (all ADSR or AD with peak and delay) are snappy - perfect for punchy one-shots, basses and bleeps/FX and the pitch envelope is great for dive-bombing sonics, twisted FX or pitch-drooping toms.

Also, the two auxiliary envelopes can be assigned to any of the Tempest's 58 modulation destinations, reinforcing the Tempest's status as a serious synth in its own right.

Sure, it's all a bit overwhelming at first but after a couple of days you'll have it down.

Modulation-wise there are two LFOs with triangle, saw, reverse saw, square and random wave shapes and the LFOs can run freely or be synced to the current beat or via external MIDI clock - the possibilities here are very deep indeed!

Moving onto the hardware, the eye-catching metal and wood design feels solid throughout and is well laid out for live tweaking. There are 24 dials, 49 switches, a superb bright turquoise OLED screen, plus two pressure and position sensitive ribbon strips placed like pitch and mod wheels, each of which can send to two mod destinations.

If you hold down shift and press the 'latch on' buttons you effectively get two more of these sliders, with another two lots of destinations, so that's eight real-time live FX destinations for starters!

These sliders are a unique and indispensable addition to the Tempest's performance tools and are much quicker to use than dials or wheels, enabling super-slick beat twists and filter/mod changes on the fly.

The roll and reverse functions are killer too. Roll is like note repeat on an MPC but it can also be set to roll the entire beat, as well as sounds within a beat (great for stuttering effects and real-time fills) and it also has its own independent quantise and settings for which part of the beat it affects.

Reverse can be applied in the same way - to the whole beat or a sound within a beat! Genius! The 16 blue-backlit pads feel great and more responsive than those on an on MPC.

The blue lights look stunning and give a clear visual indication as to what's going on in the main modes: 16 beats, 16 sounds, 16 mutes, 16 time steps, 16 tunings and 16 levels.

À la mode

In 16 beats mode, each pad triggers a different beat, making it easy to arrange a tune on the go and tweaking any front panel parameter in real-time affects the whole beat.

Filtering or stuttering the beat using roll or reverse, or using the envelope decay to shorten all the transients adds significant drama to your performance.

In 16 sounds mode, each pad represents a different sound within a beat/kit and each pad can be processed independently. 16-time steps mode includes a 16-step sequencer where each of the 16 pads represents a step in the sequence.

In this mode (and the 16 sounds mode) there's also another 16 sounds accessed via the Sound Bank B button (total 32) though it's not yet active in OS1.02 and the maximum number of bars currently available within a beat is restricted to four, though this is soon to be upgraded to eight.

Workflow-wise the Tempest is very conducive to live tweaking and beat recording though needs streamlining in places. There's a long list of current bugs and missing features that Chris Hector at DSI is fully aware of and working hard to address with upcoming OS updates.

Issues include not being able to see the second lot of 16 steps in a beat, undo record not working, Sound Bank B not working, roll not working in mutes mode, playlist (beat chaining) is still not active, the screen doesn't scroll to the pad/sound you are hitting/editing in the events screen, no quick way to instantly revert back to the saved version of the beat while playing (though you can quickly unmute everything you've muted in 16 mutes mode and revert single sound changes quickly) plus it's not yet possible to sequence external gear.

Finally, one of the most needed missing/upcoming features (along with the aforementioned sampled upload) is automatic pop-up menus so that when you hit a button or turn a dial you know where you are, as it's easy to get lost in the deep OS.

Strangely enough though, even bearing these small bugs in mind, the Tempest still feels complete enough as it is so don't put off purchasing to wait for the new OS.

Tempting sound

So how does the Tempest sound and feel? Well, imagine a pimped up MPC3000 or 60 sequencer attached to a DSI Mopho/Evolver with real-time control/effects and you get the idea.

It has that sought after human-yet-tight groove that Linn does brilliantly, though you can't currently switch off quantise.

Sound-wise it punches hard with a clear yet not super-clean high end, a nice mid range presence and a tight yet extended low end. The filters sound excellent - raw yet controlled - and the net result is that you can slot the Tempest straight into a mix without the need for much processing, plus the onboard compression, distortion, MIDI delay and filtering really add a lot of scope.

In terms of alternatives we'd reference NI's Maschine and Elektron's Machinedrum but really, no digital DAW can come close to the Tempest's sound/feel when really pushed.

The Tempest filters don't break up, they drive and saturate and no digital system will sound as smooth. The bottom line is the analogue engine and the way it interacts with the sequencer is unique and it's far easier to use than the Machinedrum - its street price won't be that much more (around £1,400) - and it's more flexible than the Jomox or a real 808, 909 etc.

Though the Tempest is marketed as a drum machine, it's really a six-voice DSI analogue poly with a sequencer. There's also a useful onboard mixer with panning, level, delay sends and mutes/solos.

Importantly, most functions happily work without having to stop the sequencer too, which is great. Our only wish here is that there was a reverb and EQ onboard as on the prototype Linndrum II.

Recording beats is easy - simply press record while the sequencer is playing, the beat will loop and you overdub/erase sounds as you want (like an MPC) or enter each sound manually using the 16 steps in event mode.

A big plus is you can record the real-time effect ribbon data into the sequencer and edit it in event mode. Event edit is very close to using a DAW's piano roll editor and enables you to refine each step in a beat for pitch, volume, time shift, velocity, tuning and the FX ribbon data. Anyone switching from a DAW to hardware will thus feel very at home in this mode.

Tempest as a synth

The Tempest is a serious six-note poly synth in its own right (once poly-mode is switched on in an OS update) so make sure you add it to your list if you are looking for a great sounding analogue/digital synth in your studio.

It has all the necessary parameters that you would look for in a keyboard laden poly synth, though keep in mind if your beat uses five voices, you can only have a monophonic synth running.

There's oscillator sync, several glide modes (perfect for emulating 303 basslines) fine tuning, key follow, sawtooth, triangle saw/tri and variable pulse waves, five envelopes, Prophet VS waves, several digital noise types, Osc 1+2 mix, wave reset for extra cutting sounds, pre and post filter mixing, filter FM, two LFOs, audio modulation, a Curtis low-pass filter with resonance that can be switched between two- and four-pole modes and a discrete high-pass filter too - that's one filter better than the Prophet 08!

Then of course there's amp feedback, which is much like running the output back into its input (a famous Minimoog trick) a great sounding distortion (though we wish the control would be more subtle at its lowest value) and a single dial compressor that also sounds very musical when acting on any of the Tempest's sounds.

In all honesty, if the Tempest was the only analogue synth you'd ever owned, you'd be happy!

As you've probably worked out, this is a supremely deep machine and we can't cover every aspect here. Though the OS is still incomplete we admire DSI for getting it out to the public and in the main it works great.

Yes it's pricey but it's quite unique too and there's a lot onboard. Put it this way, if you're a beat maker starting a setup from scratch that doesn't do much sampling and just wanted great analogue drums, a real analogue poly synth, an analogue distortion box and analogue compressor with an MPC3000-style sequencer, step sequencer plus digital samples, there's no way you could do it for the same price as the Tempest.

The Tempest could seriously revolutionise your approach to beat, bass and effect making largely due to its plethora of real time controls and expanding feature list, not forgetting it's a totally self contained solution that could allow you to ditch cumbersome computer setups onstage.

In the studio, the Tempest could easily be used for all your drums and could replace aging old poly and mono synths. It's all there in one box, plus soon it will be able to sequence external gear too with its super tight clock that is far more solid than the one on Logic.

Nothing else drum machine-related on the market is this powerful in terms of hands-on synthesis. Yes, Maschine is a lot cheaper, can sample and has a limitless number of sounds but the Tempest is a long-term investment and is about quality not quantity. Plus we're sure the Tempest, like all hardware, will hold its value.

The Tempest sounds, feels and looks the part and that's the bottom line. OS improvements aside, DSI and Roger Linn have created something special. The Tempest is a future classic.

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