One of the highlights of this year's Musikmesse was German synth maker MFB's Tanzbär Analoger Drumcomputer, which recalled the classics of yesteryear but with its feet planted firmly in the 21st century. With an all-analogue engine, the MFB-Tanzbär offers control over multiple drum sources that can be independently programmed, accessed over MIDI and/or CV/gate and, to an impressive extent, independently routed via the unit's back panel.
When numerous drum plug-ins provide high-quality samples of classic beat machines, any analogue drum machine needs a sound engine with a significant x-factor if it's going to pique the interest of producers. Thankfully, MFB-Tanzbär doesn't lack in this regard, offering a flexible yet consistently tight sound for all of its instrument types: two bass drums, snare, rimshot, cymbal, open and closed hi-hats, claves, claps, low-tom/conga, mid-tom/conga, hi-tom/conga, cowbell, maracas and dedicated instruments for basslines and melodies.
The level of control afforded to each sound varies from source to source. Bass Drum 1 and the snare engine have the most. Bass Drum 1 provides attack and decay controls, while pitch and tune offer coarse and fine tuning to allow for easily matching the tuning of the kick to the rest of your track (or not, if you prefer). There's a separate noise generator for Bass Drum 1, too, and the low-pass filter features a single control to vary cutoff. The snare drum controls also provide twin tuning dials, and a rotary labeled "Snappy" lets you produce longer, noisier and brighter snare sounds reminiscent of the 909. There's also an independent decay control for this function. You can set both the tone and the overall decay amount for the snare, allowing for super-tight muted blips to splashier, more insistent electro sounds.
The other instruments' sound engines offer more modest controls, but they still let you squeeze a wide range of tones from each source. Most provide tone or tune dials alongside decay, and the clap sound also has its own filter. Above the control dials there's a row of tiny level dials for each sound engine. While I accept that space is at a premium here, these dials are extremely difficult to read, even in well-lit studios. Their indented top edges (to point to the current level) require more than a second glance, and I wouldn't want to be reaching for one of these to make adjustments on stage. The outputs from these dials then feed a corresponding collection of output ports on the rear panel, so that you can patch individual sounds into an audio interface or mixing desk. The bass drum and clap sounds get their own outputs, and the other outs cover pairs of sounds that keep compromises to a minimum. A global audio out can also be used with headphones. You'll find MIDI in, out and through ports (but no USB) on the rear panel, and these allow for much more than simple note trigger. Each physical control on the top panel can be operated via a dedicated MIDI CC parameter, so you can easily program a decay or tuning adjustment to any of the instruments.
The Analoger Drumcomputer isn't merely a comprehensive collection of sounds; it's also a tool for sequencing them. You can create and save up to 144 core patterns and toggle A/B alternatives on the fly. For variations, both fills and flam-rolls can be created and recalled, and you can chain patterns for a longer sequence of steps. The running-light sequence of classic Roland drum machines represents these visually. The number of steps for each instrument, though, is truly independent, meaning that if you want your bass drum pattern to play across 16 steps, there's nothing to stop you from programming a 13-step sequence for a percussion instrument alongside it. It's a great way to keep grooves flowing and unpredictable, and this feature will appeal hugely to those drawn to less conventional musical forms. There's also a shuffle function for the sequencer to bring some swing into your patterns. Accents and bends can also be programmed for playback through the sequencer, and if you're looking to put together a truly analogue rig, the CV and gate ports can drive any other compatible gear.
Keep in mind that there's a learning curve to be navigated with the Tanzbär. As you can see from the photos of the bottom strip, for example, while you can trigger each drum from a dedicated button, you'll also have to navigate an extended series of commands attached to each of these. Similarly, the Data dial on the right side of the unit can target a number of parameters, so be ready to experiment. The review unit shipped with a German-only manual, too. While the lists of MIDI CC controls make sense in any language, prepare to be patient as you uncover the Drumcomputer's secrets.
In these days of all-singing, all-dancing workstations and sample libraries, it can seem hard to justify the expense of a dedicated analogue drum machine. But as niche items go, this one is an absolute cracker. It sounds fantastic, and there are enough controls to suit any number of genres. The extended MIDI control means that nothing needs to remain static. Even if you don't tweak parameters on the fly you can control everything from your workstation or, conversely, drive a collection of sequences using the DrumComputer as the central nerve system. However you want to work, the Analoger Drumcomputer is ready to march to your beat.