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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Synth DIY: Envelope Generators

An envelope’s basic purpose is to generate a changing control signal that ramps up and down between predetermined levels. Controls typically determine the rate of change of parts of the slope and/or the level a slope will reach. Some envelopes include controls for hold times for a certain stage of the envelope, or delay times before activation.

A more thorough explanation can be found in Sound On Sound’s Synth Secrets series, a very useful reference for many aspects of synth programming.

Various synthesizer envelope controls

Various synthesizer envelope controls

 

Even a cursory search shows there are so many envelope generator circuits to be found online that it might seem wasteful to present a few more. However, I wanted to collect a few of my own designs here to illustrate different kinds of envelope circuit, and to offer different ways of achieving them.

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Envelopes by type

AR (attack-release):

I will add more items to this list over time.

Envelope Circuits: a simple AR design using op amps

A very simple Attack-Release envelope generator can be built with a dual op amp and just a handful of extra components. The input stage is basically the same as my op amp gate buffer, with only its output resistor changed; the rest is a simple low-pass resistor/capacitor setup with an output buffer. Here’s how it works:

The input acts as a comparator. When the gate input goes high, the comparator output goes high, and the capacitor is charged up via D2 and the Attack pot RV1; when the gate goes low, the comparator goes low, and the capacitor discharges through the Release pot RV2 and D3. The diodes directionalise this process, so the attack time is governed only by the Attack control, etc. The output is a very simple unity-gain follower.

 

Operational Amplifier Attack-Release Envelope

Operational Amplifier Attack-Release Envelope Schematic

 

With the values shown, attack and release times range from just a couple of milliseconds to around 5 seconds. Larger values for the pots and/or cap will extend the times proportionally, smaller ones reduce them. The 560 Ohm resistor sets the minimum time against a given capacitance.

With an op amp such as the LM358, the output will swing between 0V and approximately 1.5V below the positive rail. If a lower output level is desired, add a potential divider of resistors in the low-mid single Ks after the output buffer amplifier, taking the overall output from their junction.

Supply voltage is not critical, but as mentioned above, the LM358 op amp will swing to around 1.5V below supply at maximum. It does, however, swing to ground too, which when operated on a single supply is necessary in obtaining a correct ‘gate low’ output. If you cannot find a 358, use another op amp which will swing rail to rail, or ground to near-positive.

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A circuit like this makes a nice addition to synths with only one envelope, such as the Moog Werkstatt and Mother 32, or Arturia Microbrute. It will run from a 9V battery and is small enough to build into the Werkstatt itself, or indeed any small external box of your choice. You could easily build one for a Eurorack modular system too, and it will run happily on +12V or +15V.

For details of how to modify the Werkstatt, take a look at my Werkstatt page.

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Op Amp AR, parts list:

U1: LM358 or similar
D1-3: 1N4148 or equivalent
C1: 1µ poly non-polarized
R1,2: 100k 1/4W resistor (I use 1% Metal Film types, but 5% Carbon are also fine)
R3: 82k —”—
R4: 18k —”—
R5: 560Ω —”—
R6: 1k —”—
RV1,2: 1M linear pot
Input and output connectors as desired.

Synth DIY: Gate Buffer

One of the simplest DIY utility circuits you can build is a gate buffer: you put a gate signal into one end, and get a gate signal out of the other.

Although this might sound unnecessary, there are several reasons you might want a gate buffer:

  • compatibility problems between gate/trigger inputs and outputs on different equipment: see my page on the Arturia Beatstep, for example
  • the need to trigger multiple devices from one source: passive splitter cables or mults sometimes result in signal loss and therefore unreliable triggering
  • tightening up the edges of gates/triggers: for various technical reasons, some trigger outputs are relatively slow to rise and/or fall; in a worst-case scenario, this can skew the timing of down-line devices. A buffer with multiple outputs can deliver a set of tight, sharp pulses simultaneously.

I offer two simple designs here, one using discrete components, the other using an op amp. Both require just a handful of parts, both will run off a wide range of DC supply, including a 9V battery, and both can be made very compact if you ever want to include them inside another piece of equipment as part of a build or mod.

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Discrete (transistor) Buffer

The transistor buffer is a two-stage circuit, with each stage inverting the incoming signal.

Think of a gate signal as a logic on, or a logic off. When there is no gate present, the first transistor is held off by its base resistor. The base of the second transistor is therefore tied to +V by the two 47k resistors; as it is a PNP type, it is therefore off, and the output is held low.

Conversely, when the input is high, the first transistor is switched on, and the base of the second transistor is taken low. This pushes the second transistor into conduction, and the output is taken high.

Precise voltage levels depend upon the level of the gate signal going in, and the positive supply rail. The circuit will operate on a wide range of positive DC supply: in a 5V logic circuit, from a 9V battery, a 12V or 15V rail in a Eurorack system, etc. The input resistors and diode provide input protection; so, for example, you can send a bipolar square LFO into it with no ill effects, or use it to make a reliable 9V gate from a 15V one without the impedance issues of a simple passive potential divider. It will also allow you to increase a low gate to a high one, so you could (for example) run a 5V signal into this, powered on an existing 15V rail, and get a 15V gate out. With a standard signal diode and two normal low-power transistors, you can trigger this circuit with just a couple of volts.

Gate Buffer using Transistors

Gate Buffer: Transistor version

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Op Amp Buffer

The op amp version of this gate buffer circuit consists of a single op amp stage set up as a comparator: one voltage is compared to another, and the output goes high or low depending which input is the higher.

The potential divider at the inverting input provides our reference voltage. The non-inverting input takes the external gate signal we want to buffer.

When there is no gate signal, or it is low, the inverting input is higher, and the output is therefore low. When the gate signal is high, the non-inverting input is higher, and the output is high.

Gate buffer: op amp version

Gate buffer: op amp version

The circuit is designed to run from a single-sided supply, ie. ground and positive. For this purpose, an op amp such as the LM158/358/324 (single, dual, and quad versions respectively) is suitable as the low output state goes to the 0V rail. Their high output state is around 1.5V below positive supply.

The voltage reference provided by the potential divider at the inverting input should be adjusted for purpose: using a 9V supply, the values given will trigger the comparator at around 1.6V; even with a low battery, this circuit should trigger around 1.2V. With a 12V or 15V supply, replace the 18k resistor with something in the region of 10k-15k. This would keep the trigger level around 2V or a little lower, which is high enough to be a clear ‘on’ signal, but not so low as to be confused with a slightly high ‘off’ signal (the Arturia Beatstep ‘off’ gate signal hovers around 0.6V, for example).

It would be possible to use a dual-rail op amp just as well, which would require the addition of a diode on the output to clip the negative-going signal.

I have used an op amp here rather than a dedicated comparator; devices such as the 311 cannot be directly substituted in this circuit.

Moog Werkstatt: adding a proper Filter CV input

Note: I make reference to the Moog Werkstatt schematics throughout. Copyright prevents me reposting them here; they can be found on Moog’s website.

After the VCO Frequency CV and Gate inputs, perhaps the next most useful control we can modify is the VCF cutoff frequency. The Werkstatt already has switches to select either LFO or EG filter modulation in positive or negative amounts. Many synthesizers also have a Keyboard Tracking control which routes the CV generated by the pitch control source to the filter cutoff, allowing the filter to open up as higher notes are played. The amount of this modulation is often governed by a pot — giving continuous variable control — but is also often implemented with a switch — giving either preset amounts of modulation, or at its most basic just on/off (that is, 100% or nothing). At 100% Keyboard Tracking, a self-resonant filter can be used as a sine wave oscillator, the pitch of which will follow the keyboard.

Various filter tracking controls

Various filter tracking controls

 

The Werkstatt’s filter has a CV input on the header, which is fine for simple self-patching, but two problems show themselves when you want to control this parameter from an external source: firstly, the necessity of hacking a cable together as described previously; secondly, the accuracy of tracking. The Werkstatt’s existing filter CV input point does not, in my experience, give accurate 100% tracking from an external V/oct CV, which spoils sounds that require the resonance to boost harmonics that are locked to note pitch.

The mod below overcomes these problems by giving the Werkstatt a separate, tunable Filter CV Input that can be trimmed to give suitably accurate pitch tracking.

How it Works

As with the Pitch CV Input mod, we’re going to simply duplicate the existing control input and make a slight alteration. The existing header input for cutoff control mixes its CV via a 47.5k resistor. In order to be able to give tunable tracking, this mod is going to use a 43k resistor and a 10k variable trimmer in series. 100% tracking should be somewhere towards one end of the trimmer’s range.

Werkstatt filter CV mod schematic

Werkstatt filter CV mod schematic

 

Solder the two extra components to the board, take the third leg of the trimmer to TP17 (purple wire in the photos below), and take the outer leg of the resistor to the input jack, which is mounted and grounded exactly as for the CV and Gate jacks.

 

Werkstatt filter CV input mod PCB top

Werkstatt filter CV input mod PCB top

 

Werkstatt filter CV input mod PCB rear

Werkstatt filter CV input mod PCB rear

 

Werkstatt filter CV input mod rear wiring

Werkstatt filter CV input mod rear wiring

 

Werkstatt filter CV input mod jacks

Werkstatt filter CV input mod jacks

 

Fine Tuning

Tuning the tracking is similar to tuning the pitch (a process described in the manual) — with the Werkstatt open, connect the external CV and play as normal, using full resonance on the filter, with the cutoff tuned so you can hear the pitch of its self-oscillation. Adjust the trimmer so the filter’s resonant frequency scales up the keyboard at the same rate as the note pitch — that is, two notes played an octave apart should give a resonant filter peak an octave apart.

Because the Werkstatt’s VCO cannot be silenced without modification, it might be easier to disconnect the pitch CV control while tuning the filter; alternatively, if you have a way of multing the pitch CV, connect it to both pitch and filter. You might try setting the filter to resonate at an obvious harmonic such as a 5th above the pitch, as any deviation in the tracking will result in some noticeable sonic artefacts.

More Ideas

Of course, you might not want a simple fixed 100% tracking filter. It would be possible to add a pot to allow the user to vary the tracking amount; you could install a switch to select between different resistors to give preset fixed trackings; you could route the pitch CV to a break-contact on the filter CV input jack so that it tracks by default unless a jack in insterted to over-ride it. My own mod is simple and quick and functional, and hopefully will provide a point of departure for your own experimentation.

 

Werkstatt filter CV input mod in use

Werkstatt filter CV input mod in use

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Parts used:

43k 1/4W 1% MF resistor
10k trimmer
1/8″ panel mount jack socket

Moog Werkstatt: adding a proper Gate input

Note: I make reference to the Moog Werkstatt schematics throughout. Copyright prevents me reposting them here; they can be found on Moog’s website.

In its original form, the Werkstatt’s own keyboard generates the Gate signal to trigger the envelope, and there is no obvious ‘Gate Input’ on the header. The existing Gate Out can be (ab?)used as a Gate In, but it’s not ideal, because as with most of these header points, anything coming in here isn’t buffered from the internal signal.

Adding a proper Gate In to the Werkstatt is straightforward enough, though a little more involved than the CV input; my approach doesn’t require the cutting of any traces, the only hack-work being the hole in the enclosure for a jack socket. It does require the end of one wire to be soldered to rather small SMT (surface-mount) components though, so you’ll need a suitably fine tip for your iron and a steady hand.

Werkstatt gate mod schematic

Werkstatt Gate Input mod schematic

 

How it Works

The Werkstatt’s keyboard scanner outputs a logic high at U19 pin 3 when it detects a key press. As well as stopping the scan and loading the current key value into a latch (which feeds the VCO CV), this signal is buffered to provide a Gate, and differentiated to provide a Trigger. The Key On signal is buffered inversely by the Schmitt trigger of U14-F before being flipped back positive by U14-D. In order to add our external gate without affecting any other part of the keyboard circuit, we only need to bring the input of U14-D low. In this way, we can use both the Werkstatt’s own keyboard and an external Gate without having to switch between control sources.

The solution is to use a simple NPN in saturation to take U14 pin 9 to ground when its base is taken high. In other words, a positive external Gate will take the gate inverter input low, just as does the keyboard gate detector. Because there is a diode in the way (D14), our added transistor is isolated from the keyboard scanner clock and data-bus, so there won’t be any accidental mis-readings of the keyboard CV.

Another advantage of this solution is that the Werkstatt’s own envelope retains its Gate/Trigger operating modes, as our external Gate also gets differentiated; we are activating the Werkstatt’s envelope, not over-riding it.

The modification takes just four components and a socket, and fits easily on the PCB. The hardest part is soldering the wire from the collector of the transistor to the appropriate point on the Werkstatt’s circuit – I chose to solder it across the connection between R89 and C64, as the two solder points make a convenient place to lay a thin wire and give it a firmer purchase.

I presume you’ll be doing both CV and Gate input mods; the socket ground can be wired to the CV In socket ground, which I wired to a solder tag around the nearby PCB mounting screw (see also the CV Input page).

Werkstatt gate input mod smt solder point

Werkstatt Gate Input mod SMT solder point

 

Werkstatt gate mod extra components highlighted

Werkstatt Gate Input mod extra components highlighted (PCB top)

 

Werkstatt gate mod PCB rear highlighted

Werkstatt Gate Input mod extra components highlighted (PCB rear)

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Parts Used:

33k 1/4W 1% MF resistor
100k 1/4W 1% MF resistor
1N4148 signal diode
BC549C NPN transistor
1/8” panel mount socket
wire

These parts are what I had handy. Pretty much any NPN with reasonable gain can be used here, and the signal diode is a generic one.

Moog Werkstatt: adding a proper CV input

Note: I make reference to the Moog Werkstatt schematics throughout. Copyright prevents me reposting them here; they can be found on Moog’s website.

The existing header on the Werkstatt allows for a VCO pitch CV to be patched in. Although the pitch can already be modulated by either the LFO or the EG (selected using a panel switch), the patch header input means you can use both simultaneously – or an external CV, if you can cable it up.

When you start wanting to connect control sources to the Werkstatt, one problem is pretty obvious: the header connections provide a signal path, but there’s no ground. The user manual suggests cobbling interconnects together from hacked cables, taking a ground from the cable to a screw on the case (or the ground on the audio jack), but this isn’t a very neat solution. Better to add a proper CV input jack so you can directly and simply hook up your external CV source.

Moog themselves (at the time of writing) do sell an add-on jack board, which provides both a row of minijacks and a signal ground, but the problem still remains of the lack of buffering – the inputs and outputs are taken straight to the signal point, which may cause issues when mixing signals and/or there is a resultant loading of a signal in either direction. The mods here avoid these troubles.

How it Works

The circuit is very simple. Looking at p.2 of the official schematic, we can see the existing header CV input is mixed in via a resistor R46 and trimmer VR5. This trimmer can be carefully adjusted to give a 1V/octave response for your external CV.

It would be super-easy to simply wire a jack to the CV point on the header, but this has the disadvantage that inputs are not isolated from each other. Better (and still easy) is to replicate the two passive components and route them to the same mix point.

Here are my additions to the circuit:

Werkstatt CV modification schematic

Werkstatt CV modification schematic

Here is the mod in situ:

Werkstatt CV input mod (top)

Werkstatt CV input mod (top)

Werkstatt CV input mod, rear

Werkstatt CV input mod (rear)

The handiest solder points for connecting the extra components to the existing circuit are TP14 and TP10. Either will do:

Werkstatt CV input mod routing

Werkstatt CV input mod routing

The jack is wired to be brought to the side panel beneath the header. In this photo the Gate mod jack is also in place. The jack grounds are wired together, and then to a solder tag that connects to the nearby screw post. The existing screw is long enough to accommodate a washer or two:

Werkstatt mod ground point

Werkstatt mod ground point

Drilling the hole in the case is simple and quick, and a label finishes the job:

Werkstatt with CV and Gate mods

Werkstatt with CV and Gate mods

The accompanying Gate Input mod is also detailed on this site.

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Parts Used

68k 1/4W 1% MF resistor
100k trimmer
1/8” panel mount socket
3mm solder tag
3mm washers (x2)
wire

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