I've got to be honest. I've never really been a fan of drum machines. While I love the idea, in the real world I've found almost every one I've tried to result in a fiddly, clumsy, unnatural and ultimately unmusical experience. The fills never seem to be quite where you want them or how you want them to sound, the starts can be difficult to time and the endings – well, the less said about how they can finish a song, the better. To top it off, as a guitarist, my hands are too busy to be flicking switches and turning knobs.
So it's with some trepidation that I take on the BeatBuddy Mini, a pedal-based "drum machine" which promises to counter all of the above mentioned shortcomings and more. Gizmag was very impressed with it's big brother, the original BeatBuddy, which was released in 18 months ago via an Indiegogo campaign that raised more than four times the target. The original BeatBuddy impressed us due to it's intuitive nature, its non-quantized beats, its natural and musical sound and its flexibility. Not to mention the fact that you could genuinely operate it with your foot.
The Mini is very similar to its larger, more expensive sibling. But its lower cost obviously means it goes without some features. Quite of few of them, actually. Whereas big brother had a full colour display, the Mini has a smaller mono display. It also comes with around half of the original's 200-odd songs. And in terms of sound quality, the Mini's resolution is reduced to 16-bit compared with 24-bit in big brother. It also misses out on MIDI syncing, the ability to add, edit and save content, a headphone jack and stereo outputs.
On the positive side, at US$150, it's $150 less than the original, still sounds great and, having the same basic user interface, is still pretty easy to use while your hands are busy on the fretboard. While you might consider using the original BeatBuddy in a band situation, the Mini is more suited for solo and duo performances, jamming, busking, song writing, and bedroom practice. Indeed, it would make a brilliant alternative to a metronome, making practice time sound great and much more fun.
Onto the performance
Well, there's mainly good news here. Firstly, and crucially, the beats sound like they're coming from a real drummer. Even though it's only 16-bit sound, it's still very high resolution and the drum kits don't sound like they're coming from a machine. Indeed, they are quite musical and very pleasing to the ear.
As per the advice in the manual, we hooked directly up to the PA for most of our testing. Guitar and bass amps can clip some of the sounds, so aren't ideal, but we still managed to get a reasonable sound through the amp with a bit of tweaking. However, a PA really is the better option.
On the pedal itself, which is around the same size as a standard Boss pedal, are two knobs and one footswitch. One knob controls the volume of the drums, while the other is a multifunctional knob used to select genres, songs and tempo. You twist the knob to the desired menu item and then press it to select.
The patterns are broken up into genres, and then each genre has a sub menu of songs. For example, you can select Rock as the genre, and then chose from "Rock 1" through to "Rock 5" for different variations. All up, there are 100 songs to choose from (compared with 220 in the original BeatBuddy) which are broken up into 21 different categories. The time signature and tempo are displayed on the LCD screen, and the tempo is adjustable by pressing the knob until the "Tempo" light fires up. Time signatures are fixed, as are the drum kits, although the library of 100 songs has most possibilities covered.
Once you've made your selections, you press the footswitch once to get it going. Pleasingly, it launches into the song with a well timed intro fill and then keeps looping. Each song also has a verse and a chorus variation. To make a transition, you hold the same footswitch down. As long as you hold it down, a transition pattern will play until you release the footswitch. Once released, the song makes the transition. To add a fill, press the footswitch briefly once. It times the fill perfectly in the bar so it never sounds clumsy, although you do have to have your wits about you and make sure you press the switch at the right time. Finally, to end the song, double press the footswitch and the BeatBuddy Mini will go into an "outro" fill and finish at the end of the bar.
One of the great features of this pedal is how the fills work. Getting fills right without hands has always been an Achilles heel of the drum machine, and one of the reasons I've never really liked them. Triggering a mis-timed fill can completely ruin an otherwise excellent performance. Not so here. The ability to launch into a perfectly timed fill at the click of a pedal is a joy. It does take some practice and some concentration, but gets easier to get right the longer you use it. Unfortunately, the BeatBuddy Mini only has one unique fill per song available (the original has three), but they still sound great.
If you're going to add the BeatBuddy to your musical arsenal, it's also worth considering the optional two-button footswitch (pictured below). It plugs into the main pedal and brings another degree or flexibility to the interface. Although it adds two more buttons for your foot to worry about, it actually makes the device a lot more user friendly. The additional functions are powerful, but basic. One button adds an accent whenever you step on it, while the other pauses and re-starts the beat. We found the pause function also doubled as a different way to start a beat (ie, if you don't want an intro fill) or likewise if you want to end suddenly without a fill.
You can also use the optional footswitch to choose and scroll through menu items, as well as set the tempo, making for a truly hands-free experience.
The unit is powered via a supplied 9 V, 500 mA center negative power supply and does not run on batteries. A company spokesman told us that the draw would be too great for a meaningful battery supply and the risk would be a sudden stop to the beat mid performance. That said, we were also told an external battery pack is being developed for buskers and performers who don't have the option of mains power.
All in all, I'd have to say the BeatBuddy Mini is not only the best drum machine I've experienced, it's also the only one I can get to sound good without having to use my hands. As a result, it's also the only one I'd consider using live. There may well be other good options out there, but it's the ease of use and great sounds that make the BeatBuddy Mini a very compelling product. The small form factor make it even more attractive. It can literally sit on your pedal board along with everything else.
I personally haven't tried the original BeatBuddy, but based on our earlier reviews and my experience with the Mini, it looks as though Singular Sound really has come up with a couple of excellent and unique products in a very crowded musical world. However, given how many more features you get in the original BeatBuddy for only $150 more, it's difficult not to think the Mini is a little bit on the expensive side and that the original is still not only the best, but also the best value.
Product Page: BeatBuddy Mini
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