Review: BeatBuddy drum machine in a stomp
When musician David Packouz couldn't find a stomp-based drum machine that didn't sound, well, like a drum machine or one that could provide fills, changes and accent hits on the fly, he set about designing and building his own. He took his BeatBuddy project to Indiegogo in December 2013 and it went on to raise more than four times its funding goal by the close of the crowdfunding campaign. The first post-crowdfunding production run started shipping at the end of August and Gizmag was offered a system for review. But with my attention focused elsewhere during September (namely the IFA and Photokina trade shows), I had to hold off until mid-October to start spending some quality time with this nifty drummer-in-a-box pedal. And it was definitely worth the wait.
Singular Sound's BeatBuddy has a somewhat similar look to my Boss stomps, though is quite a bit larger. Including all of the jacks and ports, the BeatBuddy measures 91 x 131 x 66 mm (3.6 x 5.2 x 2.5 in) and weighs 515 g (1.1 lb). It looks well made and sturdy, and sports a stylish anodized aluminum case, anti-slip rubber bottom and pedal top, black knurled metal knobs and soft touch navigation buttons.
Multi-layered dynamic drum samples from Miami-based session drummer, producer and audio engineer Goran Rista of the GoranGrooves Studio and advanced loop transition algorithms lend a sense of realism to the output. Processing power comes from an ARM Cortex A8 running at 600 MHz with support from 1 GB of DDR2 RAM, but rather than feature internal storage, the BeatBuddy's collection of 10 drumsets and more than 200 songs spread over 22 genres are stored on the included 4 GB SD card, which slots into the body of the unit at the back.
This has a number of advantages, including being able to grow content without being limited to built-in storage, a friend's BB songs, kits and settings can be used by simply swapping out cards, the device itself doesn't need to be physically connected to a computer to modify unit's content and if the card is lost or becomes corrupted, the user can simply transfer fresh files to another card and slot it in.
A quick tour of the BeatBuddy
The unit doesn't have an on/off switch, it powers on as soon as the included 9 V 500 mA center-negative power supply is plugged in (no battery here folks). The left side of the pedal has a 3.5 mm output jack for connecting headphones, 6.4 mm left/right (mono or stereo) output jacks and a MIDI sync port (the latter was not used during this review, but integrates the BeatBuddy with other MIDI-enabled devices and acts to keep everything exactly on the beat).
Down the right side are 6.4 mm instrument input jacks (though the BeatBuddy will work without having an instrument plugged into it and doesn't add any of its own flavoring to a guitar's tone), a 6.4 mm footswitch jack and a headphone monitoring volume dial.
Up top, there's a 1.8-inch color LCD display with six lines of information about the chosen song. The first line shows the name of the song, below that is the folder location of that song, then there's the time signature, playback status, current drumset selection and volume/tempo values. The background color is used to indicate song status (blue when the beat is stopped, for example, or green when the main beat is playing or yellow for a fill). When a song is playing, there's also a scrolling bar moving across the display to indicate the measure of the beat.
To the right of the display are four navigation buttons and a tap tempo button, there are three knobs below to adjust overall output volume, select the drum set and increase or decrease the tempo (bpm). Users can either use the four navigation buttons to access genre and song folders, or a combination of pushes and turns on the drum set and temp knobs. Pushing down both drum set and tempo knobs together brings up the device settings menu.
The review unit was accompanied by a two-stomp footswitch (available as an option for US$29). The left stomp fires an accent hit (such as a hand clap or cymbal crash) when pressed and the right stomp pauses playback or, if no song is playing, advances to the next song in the selected genre folder.
Grooving to the beat of a different drum
The instruction manual states that the pedal produces line-out level analog sound and recommends plugging it into a full range stereo sound system rather than an amp, noting that many electric guitar and bass amps are not full range so higher frequencies may be clipped. Though there was indeed a quality difference when adding the BeatBuddy to the end of my effects chain and sending the output to my guitar amp, routing drum sounds through a PA system or home hi-fi setup is not always going to be possible or convenient.
Choosing a clean output on the amp rather than high gain/distortion, and letting the other stomp effects in the chain take care of the coloring, limited the bleed through to the drum sounds so, for the most part, I was happy to take a little output sound quality hit for much of my play time with the BeatBuddy. There is one minor issue when using the same amp for output as the guitar, however, which I actually liked but some may find annoying. The kick drum can cause the guitar to tremolo slightly to the beat, though this can be lessened by lowering the bass EQ on the amp.
One of the many cool things about the BeatBuddy is that it works straight out of the box. When selecting a song to play along to, it's probably a good idea to have a few dry runs so that you know what all the fills and transitions sound like before you crank up the volume on your guitar and swing your axe to the beat. Having familiarized myself with a ditty called Blues 4-6/8, I pushed down the pedal and the intro started.
This song used the standard drum set by default, but this can be changed to one of nine other sets, including Metal, Percussion and Voice. Naturally, I had to try each and particularly warmed to the Ethereal and Voice kits. Each song comprises a number of different parts wrapped around a looped main beat. As well as offering a visual indication of where the beat is in the measure, the scrolling bar also caters for more precise firing of fills, accent hits and transitions.
Like many of the those on offer, this song came with three fills on each of the two main song parts (verse and chorus). Each fill runs sequentially by default and is triggered by pushing down the pedal. Holding down the pedal fires a transition sequence and releasing launches into the main beat of the next song part.
After spending a good long while noodling to Blues 4-6/8 and its various parts, I double-tapped the pedal to engage the outro beat and ended the song, which brings me to another positive in favor of the BeatBuddy. Unlike so many other so-called drum machines I've tried over the years, this one allows a player to keep both hands on the axe and put foot-tapping to good use controlling the beat.
I have spent the last few weeks going through each of the BeatBuddy's supplied genres, songs and drum sets and have found the device very easy to use. The feeling of having your very own session drummer at your command, day or night, is very empowering (and this one is always on time, never complains and doesn't try to steal away with your girlfriend between sets). Woodshedding to a beat is much better than flying solo for licks, chops and riffs. In addition to helping me to better keep time, trying out the various genres has forced me to expand beyond my normal comfort zone and try new things. Not all of my experimental jams have been successful, but I feel that it's been beneficial all the same.
Though having a set number of songs to choose from might at first appear limiting, it's actually quite a time-saver for jamming and practice, and there's always the option to adjust, combine or otherwise fine tune the supplied songs or create new ones for a gig with the help of the free software. And because the sounds are sampled from a real session drummer bashing out a beat rather than digital approximations, together with the fact that when a fill consists of a bunch of repeated notes (such as a drum roll), the system will choose from a pool of samples of that note rather than just offer up exactly the same one, the overall feel is more life-like.
Digging deeper with BeatBuddy Manager
After I'd pretty much tested the patience of all those forced to listen to my incessant beat-driven axe-olympics, it was time to look at the BeatBuddy Manager software. It's still in beta and Windows only for the moment, so there may be some bugs to be worked out (though I didn't experience any odd behavior) and finding your way around might involve a bit of experimentation, but the manual and user forum can be very helpful in this regard. After installing and launching, I imported the files from the SD card into the BB Workspace folder on my laptop (I could go through the process step by step, but BB forum member Jonathan Aldridge has already done so on his YouTube channel).
The Manager software allows the player to arrange and configure content on the pedal, or more precisely to the pedal's SD card, and create, control and upload custom-created projects to the BeatBuddy. Because the BeatBuddy has been developed as a stand-alone performance tool, users can't actually generate new beats or sounds using the system, but custom drum sets and songs can be generated using 16- or 24-bit WAV file samples in other software and imported into the system as MIDI files.
Upon launch, the interface shows a virtual BeatBuddy pedal to the left, under which is the Project Explorer where songs, drumsets and settings are listed. Clicking on a genre then a song name in this window, for example will produce the highlighted song in the Playback window to the right.
Each song is broken down into its parts here and the Play control to the top or the virtual pedal can be used to kick off the intro and move into the rhythm. The virtual pedal is then used like the real one to bring in the various fills and transitions. There's a drop-down box at the top to select playback using different drum sets. Playback is ended by clicking the Stop button or by double-tapping the pad to the bottom of the virtual pedal.
Parts of a song can be added or removed, the order of drum fills can be changed, and the behavior of the optional footswitch altered. When the appetite for tweaking has been satisfied, projects can be named and saved for later recall.
If you make a mess of the unit's content while tinkering in the Manager software, a copy of the default content can be downloaded from the BeatBuddy website, and extra BeatBuddy content will also be available in the future (the GoranGrooves Studio is reported to be currently working on additional drum sets, which are expected to be available for users to buy and download by the end of this year).
The BeatBuddy Manager software is, of course, still being developed, but I found it very easy to use and an excellent way to create custom drum parts or just adjust the supplied songs to taste. Updates and changes are on the horizon, new features will be added and the user interface may yet undergo some visual massaging. The process of improvement is reported to be continuous, even after the package blasts out of beta.
The bottom line
Before the BeatBuddy arrived, I had been using Zoom's RhythmTrak or a DR-3 from Boss to supply my bedroom practice or solo performance beats. At $349 (including free shipping within the US), Singular Sound's MIDI-based system costs more than either of those examples and is limited to drum sounds only out of the box. However, the convenience of the form factor, its ultra-realistic drum sounds, ease-of-use and ability to build and load in custom kits and songs combine to make the BeatBuddy worth every extra dollar.
"What makes this drum machine different than others is that the beats have been played in by a drummer as opposed to being programmed," said master of the beat Goran Rista. "So, the beats have a much more natural feel and sound than other machines." And I couldn't agree more. Highly recommended.