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.
OS VERSION TESTED 1.1.
SYNTHESIS TYPES Analog and sample-playback.
OSCILLATORS 4 (2 analog and 2 digital).
FILTERS 2/4-pole switchable lowpass, 2-pole highpass.
POLYPHONY 6 simultaneous voices out of 16 dynamically assigned sounds.