By Francis Preve
IT’S EASY TO SEE WHY AN ENTIRE INDUSTRY HAS BEEN CHOMPING AT THE BIT
to get its hands on the Tempest. Combining Dave Smith’s legendary analog synthesis
design with Roger Linn’s category-defining drum machine vision, calling it an analog
beatbox is a severe understatement. Sure, you can use it as the ultimate drum machine,
but its core design is that of an instrument. The grooves it generates are playable in
truly musical ways, so that your beats are alive in a way that puts the Tempest in a category
all its own.
At the core of Tempest is a shockingly powerful
four-oscillator synth engine that has Dave
Smith’s fingerprints all over it. The two analog
oscillators have the same vibe as the Prophet ’08,
Mopho, and Tetra, with sawtooth, triangle, saw/
triangle blend, and variable-width pulse options
for each—not to mention sub-oscillators for
bombastic bass. The two digital oscillators can be
mixed with the analog ones, and are dedicated
to playing drum samples—hundreds of options
range from various types of noise, to sounds
from the LinnDrum, to TR-808 and 909 type
hits, and a lot of things in between, including the
Prophet-VS. The two sample oscillators are the
only digital elements in the signal path—unlike
the Evolver, there’s no digital conversion going
on for effects purposes. I’m a bit disappointed
not to see user sampling as well, but you can do
so much by simply blending and tuning these
four oscillators that by the time you get to filtering
and modulation, you likely won’t miss it.
Speaking of filters, the Tempest offers a
fully resonant lowpass affair like Dave’s other
synths. Two- and four-pole options are present,
along with an audio mod knob for adding
FM from oscillator 1. The lowpass filter is
followed by a highpass filter, which is crucial
for emulating the insectile percussion that
dominated ’70s and ’80s era drum machines
from Korg and Roland. At the end of the chain
is a feedback knob that routes the VCA output
back into the filters for analog nastiness that’s
beyond simple distortion.
Modulation amenities include five envelopes
(pitch, filter, amp, and two aux envelopes that
you can assign to almost any parameter) and two
freely assignable LFOs. Naturally, these LFOs
can sync to tempo, but even cooler, their range
extends all the way up to C4, so ring mod and
FM effects with oodles of sidebands are yours for
the asking. There’s also a slew of standard MIDI
modulation sources like mod wheel, note number,
pedals, and so on. At the end of the signal chain are level and pan controls for each drum,
along with a MIDI-based delay effect that can be
applied to each drum in a kit individually.
The Tempest shares six simultaneous voices
across its 16 pads. You can have a different sound
on each pad, of course, but only six voices can
“speak” at the same moment. With all these
synthesis tools, though, you can make some truly
astonishing sounds that are far more complex and
evolving than any other groovebox, so whether
this limitation is significant depends on how you
plan to use the Tempest. Case in point, many
dance grooves are just kick, snare, and hat layered with minimal evolving percussion and synth riffs,
so six voices is enough. Let’s also not forget that
most drummers have only four limbs.
After fiddling with the Tempest’s synth engine
for an hour or so, it was time to start making
my own beats. So I looked for the pattern select
buttons . . . and looked and looked. After about
15 minutes of head-scratching, I cracked open
the manual, then started watching the You-
Tube quick-start guide. I soon realized that the
Tempest is more than a drum machine—it’s a
new kind of instrument that raises the whole
concept of a groovebox by an order of magnitude.
Roger and Dave have taken the essence of a drum
machine and made almost every aspect playable.
Since this approach is entirely new, with neverbefore-
seen parameters, it’s best to just describe
what a Tempest session actually feels like.
The Tempest’s data structure is organized
as follows: A “sound” is a single drum or synth
patch, a “beat” is a pattern with up to 16 sounds
arranged in a kit, including all automation and
sound data. A “project” consists of 16 beats. In
addition, you can load separate components from each type of file. For example, if you want a kit,
you can load sounds from a selected beat without
loading the beat itself.
So, to start a Tempest groove from scratch, the
first thing you do is whip up a kit using the synthesis
tools. If sound design isn’t your bag, import just
the kit sounds from an existing beat—or use an
initialized factory project as a starting point, which
is how I got off the ground. Just load the project,
initialize the pattern in its beats, and save (with a
new name to be on the safe side).
From there, hit the 16 Beats pad function, hit
the first pad to select the first pattern slot, select
the 16 Sounds pad function to play that beat’s
sounds from the pads, and start recording. If you’re
coming from an MPC background, just start beating
on the pads and making a groove. If you’re a
Roland-style producer, hit the 16 Sounds button, select a pad, then hit the 16 Steps function, and the
pad lights chase through the steps like on a TR-808.
The nearby Fixed Level button lets you toggle velocity
sensitivity on the fly, so you can easily keep your
kicks hard and your shakers lively.
Which brings us to a key point: One of the
core aspects of Tempest’s playability is its heavy
reliance on using the pads as a user interface tool,
not just as drum triggers. To get into Tempest
quickly, it pays to familiarize yourself with the Pad Function area of the control panel. For example,
the 16 Beats parameter (which I initially
didn’t realize turned the pads into pattern selectors)
becomes extremely elegant as you advance
in experience, since it makes switching patterns
a right-brain performance activity rather than a
left-brain programming task.
Once you have your basic groove down on
the first pad/beat slot, hit Copy, then the first
pad, then hit the second pad. Boom—the pattern
is copied to the next pad and you can add
or subtract drum parts. Because the Tempest is
really a wickedly powerful analog synth, pressing
the Beats and Time Steps buttons together puts
the Tempest into what’s called 16 Tunings mode.
Now, each pad plays a different note (using the
sound from the most recently selected pad), so
you can whip up melodies and bass lines. Cooler
still, when you switch to this mode, the display
and soft knobs now select different keys and
scales, so switching to, say, blues in E requires
two just knob twists. Th e final two pad modes
include 16 Levels, which assigns a sound to all 16
pads in increasing volume, and 16 Mutes, which
lets you toggle each drum on or off .
Once you have a bunch of pattern variations
assigned to different pads, complete with melodies and/or bass lines, the Tempest truly
becomes the ultimate interactive groovebox.
For fans of intricate edits and glitch, the Roll
button can do much more than just snare fills.
When 16 Beats is selected, pressing this button
makes the entire pattern stutter on the
current sixteenth-note—or other value based
on the Beat Quantize setting. Another button,
Reverse, plays drum sounds backward, which
is cooler still when you realize it’s inverting all
of the drum envelopes as well! Like in Ableton
Live, you can set the quantization for switching
between patterns, so when you hit a pad to
play a different groove, the Tempest will wait
until the next bar, the next sixteenth-note, or
anything in between.
Taking it up another notch, a pair of ribbon
controllers can be assigned to synth parameters
both at the pad (sound) level and globally. At the
sound level, the ribbons can control almost any
synth parameter—assignments are savable per
sound. Epic. At the beat level, programmable for
each pattern, the ribbons can control oscillator
pitch, lowpass or highpass cutoff , all attacks, all
decays, and a few other very useful assignments. Each ribbon can also affect an alternate destination
via the shift key. In 16 Sounds mode (in
which each pad plays a diff erent one-shot sound),
you can use them to record parameter moves
into your grooves, which is great for electro and
dubstep-style swoops and wobbles.
Rounding out the mix, there’s an analog
distortion and compressor integrated into the
master stereo outs. Rather than being slapped
on as an afterthought, these are extremely well
implemented, with pre-distortion highpass filters
that reduce low-end mud, and post-distortion
filters to simulate guitar amp speakers. Th e compressor
sounds great as well.
The Dave Smith website lists features that are in
the immediate update pipeline, like time signatures
other than 4/4, MIDI over USB, playability
as a polysynth via MIDI, and an increase to 32
sounds per kit. It’s only because of the fever pitch
of demand that Dave and Roger took the Tempest
to market before implementing all these, but all the
same, I predict you’ll still be scratching the surface
of what the Tempest already does when they arrive.
The Tempest is indeed the mother of all grooveboxes.
Here’s an analogy: there are quite a few
DAWs to choose from, but only Ableton Live lets
you seamlessly perform as well as arrange. That’s
the concept here. Once you get the hang of performing
your grooves, the results breathe in a way
that just can’t be achieved with other products.
Under the hood is something akin to a six-voice,
16-track Evolver, with one of the most advanced,
truly musical performance sequencers as its heart.
Plus, other than two of its four oscillators offering
sample-based sounds, it’s analog through and
through. We’re blown away by the Tempest. Even
at two grand, it’s going to change the way cuttingedge
electronic artists, composers, and sound
designers perform and compose grooves. How
many new instruments can claim that?
PROS Fully analog signal
path. Incredibly deep synthesis
tools. Unprecedented realtime
performance features. Great
sounding distortion and compressor
on master bus.
CONS Slight learning curve
to user interface. Unit tested
only does 4/4 time, though
we’re told other time signatures
will work by the time
you read this.
The mother of all grooveboxes.
$2,199 list | $1,999 street
OS VERSION TESTED 1.1.
SYNTHESIS TYPES Analog and
OSCILLATORS 4 (2 analog and 2
FILTERS 2/4-pole switchable lowpass,
POLYPHONY 6 simultaneous voices
out of 16 dynamically assigned