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Reviewing the Korg KR-55 and KR-55b Retro Analogue Rhythm Machines

Reviewing the Korg KR-55 and KR-55b Retro Analogue Rhythm Machines

I’ve recently purchased and have been using both the Korg KR-55 and KR-55b on some new Anjelicas Baby tracks. I really enjoyed the hands on use and retro sound of these two machines. If you are into electronic, electronica, new wave, electro, synthpop, dance or pop music in general you will love adding these sounds to your music productions.

Made in (1982), the Korg KR-55b was the successor to the popular (1979) Korg KR-55. Korg were one of the companies at the cutting edge of analogue technology when everyone was attempting to recreate the sound of a real drum kit. For its time it was revolutionary and very easy to operate. It had twice the allotted 48 drum programs of the KR-55 with a very handy switch for changing the swing time on some of the patterns selected. However, on the KR-55 all of the patterns could use this swing function since now the new machine had routed the switch for accessing the new bank of 48 preset drum patterns. Also, the drum patterns were not identical to the original KR-55 with simply a new set of 48 programs added for good measure. For some this might be disappointing. For others this expanded the patterns of an otherwise limited preset drum pattern arrangement. Obviously, one would need to own both drum machines to achieve this.

Interestingly, it could be used as a trigger device for other Korg synthesizers such as the Korg Delta. It had a foot peddle jack socket on the back for plugging in a foot peddle for stopping and starting the drum machine and inserting drum fills in live performances. The peddle came with the original unit as standard as I remember. It even had six knobs for controlling the drum volumes.

It was comparable in many ways to the Roland TR808 analogue drum machine in terms of its fat bass drum and electro like hi hats and snare etc. So why did it not stand the test of time like the Roland TR808 has?

Well both drum machines suffered in the mid (1980’s) from the overriding desire by artists to use the then extremely fashionable digitally sampled sounds from real drum kits offered by, for example, the Fairlight Music Computer.

However, what may have saved the Roland TR808 was the heavy use of the drum machine by the then new electro and hip-hop artists from the USA particularly from New York.

Also, more damming to the Korg KR-55 and KR-55b was the fact that the drum machine was preset and could not be programmed. It played in mono and had no separate outs for each individual drum and did not have any midi implementation.

Despite its drawbacks, it has held a cult like status. Many believe that Depeche Mode used the KR-55 on their first album Speak and Spell. To my ears I suspect this is true. Also, they are quite rare these days and make an interesting alternative to the done to death TR808 and with modern computers the sounds and drumbeats can be easily recorded and edited in software packages such as Cubase or Logic. You can even get retro fits to increase the amount of outputs the drum machine has. They can be brought for around £150 or lets say $200-300. It is a pretty cheap price considering what you can do with it once you implement it into a modern studio setting.