As the proud owner of a few of the most dicey vintage analog drum machines (including the Mattel Synsonics and Boss Dr. Rhythm), I can honestly say that I’m a big fan of gear that has real character. I want to be up front about this because there’s been a lot of Internet chatter about Akai’s new Rhythm Wolf analog groovebox. Whereas some products are instant hits out of the gate, others inspire passionate debate, with some users falling in love and others feeling buyer’s remorse. The Rhythm Wolf is a love-it-or-hate-it box with a lot of really cool features and a sound all its own—and that alone is reason to give it a closer look.
From a hardware standpoint, the Rhythm Wolf is impressively constructed. Its 24 knobs and real wood end caps give it a decidedly vintage feel, while the all-metal chassis inspires confidence from a touring perspective. It really feels like it could take a beating on the road.
Under the hood, the Wolf includes five drum sounds and a simple bass synth. Since the engine is fully analog, the knobs are old-school potentiometers and can’t store presets or receive MIDI. Since a lot of modern analog gear operates in this manner—notably Arturia’s popular Brute synths and Korg’s MS-20 Mini—I didn’t really think of this as a flaw, just something to be aware of.
Each drum has its own set of parameters, so let’s look at those individually.
Kick. The Rhythm Wolf’s kick includes parameters for tuning, attack, and decay, and has a lot of sonic range. Tuned high with a short decay, it nails that tiny Roland CompuRhythm sound. Tuned low with a long decay and a lot of attack click and it definitely veers into TR-808 territory.
Snare. The Wolf’s snare is comprised of two sine-like tones and a noise generator. The tune knob changes the balance between the high and low tones, while its noise parameter governs the volume of the noise, so if you want to use it as a quirky tom you can just turn the noise to zero. The decay knob controls the decay of the noise only. With a lot of noise and a short decay, you can conjure up vintage Korg and Roland snares. Long decays give a straight-up unfiltered noise sound that reminded me a lot of my Mattel Synsonics. At that extreme it’s cheesy, to be sure, but has its applications in indie and experimental tracks.
Percussion. Like the snare, this instrument consists of two tunable sine-like tone generators (both with a quick decay) and a noise generator that adds a gated burst of white noise to the sound. Each tone generator includes a tune knob, but no volume parameter, so both are always present and mixed. The noise mix parameter simply controls the level of the noise burst. With noise off, the end result sounds a bit like a CR-78 conga mixed with a touch of clave. Add the noise and you’re back in Synsonics territory. That said, it would’ve been cool to have the noise knob work as a balance control between the two types of sources.
Hi-hats. The Wolf’s hi-hat section includes two knobs that affect both open and closed hats equally: tune and decay. The primary sound of these hats is reminiscent of the TR-808 and Korg Volca Beats, with that grainy metallic noise character—which would be awesome if the tuning and decay knobs were properly calibrated. As is, the tune knob’s effect is barely perceptible at either extreme and the decay knob makes the closed hat far too long when setting the open hat to a standard decay time. I found myself just leaving them both with a short decay and using the subtle differences as a means of adding accents to their patterns.
What’s really interesting about the range of drum sounds here—and I haven’t seen any other reviewers mention this—is that each drum sounds radically different at low and high velocities. In this month’s Rhythm Wolf online loop six-pack, I recorded each eight-bar groove with the first four bars at low velocity and the second four at maximum velocity. The results were extreme enough to made me think that a lot of users might miss this fact when approaching the device casually, so be sure to give those loops a listen.
Structurally, the Wolf’s bass synthesizer strongly resembles a TB-303 with selectable saw or square, filter cutoff, resonance, envelope amount and decay parameters in place. While it doesn’t have the beef of a real 303, it’s capable of some decent synth riffs that are evocative of the acid house scene. That said, its got two serious issues that could be deal-breakers for some users. The first issue is that boosting the resonance to maximum lowers the synth’s overall volume considerably, so the closer you get to the 303 squelch, the quieter it gets. The second issue is more grave—and I’m not the only reviewer who’s noticed this: It’s simply not in tune. I tested this via MIDI and played a pattern of octaves using C. It’s not a just a little off; it’s downright microtonal.
In addition to the synth and drums, there’s a global distortion—the “Howl” knob—that’s applied to the entire mix. Tiny amounts add a bit of grit while extreme settings deliver filthy industrial-sounding results. It also adds considerable noise to the signal, which frankly a lot of vintage guitar pedals do as well, so there’s that. If it were my design, I’d have added a subtle noise gate to the output, like on quite a few classic instruments, but hey, you can do that in your DAW if you’re really concerned about it.
The Rhythm Wolf also includes a rather capable Roland-style sequencer that works in conjunction with the MPC pads, as well. While it only has 16 patterns, there are clever tools for live performance, like being able to use the pads for muting and soloing sounds, as well as nifty fill button. It also sends out MIDI information if you want to trigger other gear. Getting around on the sequencer was a painless process and even novice users should be able to master it within an hour or so.
While some of the above assessments may make this product seem more like a sheep than a wolf, I have to say that I actually really like the Rhythm Wolf as a bizarre and flavorful drum machine. If you’re looking for a dance floor-ready groovebox, you should probably go for a Roland TR-8 or Korg Electribe. But if you’re the kind of artist who surfs eBay looking for deals on apocrypha like the Mattel Synsonics (which incidentally, was used by Kraftwerk) or obscure classics like the Boss DR-55 or Korg KPR-77 (both of which appeared on countless ’80s new wave hits), then the Rhythm Wolf could be your new best friend. It’s fantastic for indie synth-pop and experimental IDM sounds—and if you just treat the bass synth as an extra weird tone generator, you’ll be fine.
Five fully analog drum parts with adjustable parameters. Integrated bass synth. Flexible pattern sequencer. Six MPC-style pads. Built like a tank.
Bass synth is out of tune. Hi-hat tune parameter doesn’t do much.
A quirky analog groove box with loads of character.
$299 list | $199 street | akaipro.com