Boss DR-55: an overview

Boss DR-55 photo

Boss DR-55

The Boss DR-55 is a humble little black box that runs on batteries, and provides the user with 8 memory slots for programmable rhythm patterns. Kick, Snare, and Rimshot can be programmed as desired, as can an Accent control that boosts the volume of the steps on which it appears. The Hi-hats are non-programmable and appear at every step, every other step, or not at all, as governed by a switch. The sounds themselves are generated by analogue circuits, and are simple but punchy, sounding similar to the CR-78. The only other control over the sounds is an overall Tone control, which is kind of a one-knob EQ and emphasises the lows or highs as swept along its rotation.

The patterns are in two halves, labelled A and B. The Variation switch sets whether the pattern plays only its A part, only its B part, or cycles between A and B. Each part is either 12 or 16 steps in length, as governed by the memory slot selected. There are 6 * 16-step memories and 2 * 12-step memories. Generally, each step is assumed to be a semi-quaver or 16th-note. In 12-step patterns, the pattern is simply shortened to 12 steps and therefore at a given tempo will play three quarters the length of a 16-step pattern at the same speed; there is no onboard way to define the pattern as being in 3/4 time, or in triplets, etc. The onboard clock allows running speeds of around 30-300 BPM, if 4/4 time is assumed.

Programming

Patterns are programmed by selecting Write Mode and tapping the Beat/Rest buttons for the length of a pattern. The sounds are programmed separately, as governed by the Sound switch, allowing independent writing of the Kick, Snare, Rimshot, and Accent. Each time a button is pressed, the step is written with the appropriate data, and the pattern moves on to the next step. Both the pattern memory and the A/B switch function during programming just as during playback, allowing either or both parts of a pattern to be programmed. Programming is exited by switching back to Play Mode. All sounds are heard during programming.

All changes made to the running of the patterns are made in real time from the panel. If the pattern or the pattern mode is switched during playback, the change is instantaneous.

Rhythms can be started and stopped either from the panel or via a footswitch, connected to a 1/4” jack on the right-hand panel.

Connections and Power

Though the DR-55 cannot be clocked from another device, it can act as a master clock for other devices. There are two outputs: DBS, which puts out a 5V pulse on every step, and CSQ, which puts out a 5V pulse on every Accent hit. When the CSQ output is connected, the Accent is disabled from the onboard sounds. The Accent level control has no effect on the output pulse level.

The only other output is a 1/4” mono audio jack, which carries the mix of all sounds. There is no way to independently set their levels.

The DR-55 runs on 4 * 1.5V AA batteries, which are fitted in a holster that attaches to what looks like a regular PP3 clip. However, it must be noted that the memory IC used in the DR-55 is only tolerant of low voltages (no more than around 7V max), and a fresh 9V PP3 will destroy it permanently and irreversibly. The effect of a blown memory seems to be two-fold: patterns cannot be written, and sounds appear arbitrarily/on every step. The only solution is to replace the memory. Of course these ICs are obsolete and hard to find. Look after your DR-55!

While good batteries are kept in the DR-55, memory is retained during power-off. Low batteries affect memory retention and sound. It should also be noted that the DR-55 will not power up without a jack plugged into the audio ouput.

To sum up, the DR-55 is an enjoyable but limited machine. It is a cheap source of a basic set of CR-78 style analogue percussion sounds, and is fun in combination with synthesizer arpeggiators and analogue sequencers.

Examples of the DR-55 in famous recordings include Carnage Visors by The Cure, and Truth by New Order.

Here’s a short video of me programming the DR-55. It was made to illustrate a working sale item, but shows effectively how cumbersome by modern standards the programming is. Simple rhythms are relatively painless to input, but anything remotely fancy takes a bit of thought. Best to write them down first, or trust to chance and see what happens…

Apologies for the terrible sound quality. You get the idea, though.

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