Programming a Roland CR-78 using a Korg Electribe’s sequencer

I recently bought a Roland CR-78. It’s an old drum machine from the 80’s, the first one from Roland that let you program and save your own patterns instead of just using presets. We used samples of it on both our first album and the last EP, it has some great drum sounds that we keep falling back on. I’ve wanted one for a long time, and have been patiently waiting to find one in nice condition at a decent price. Unfortunately for me, like a lot of other vintage analog gear, the prices have just continued to go up. Finally, I said screw it and bought one anyway.

Now that I have the real thing, I’ve found it’s pretty fun to play with, cool and quirky looking, and sounds great. The biggest problem is the programmer device that you need to program it is pretty rare and ends up being almost as expensive as the currently rather overpriced CR-78 itself. The programmer also seems kind of tedious to use, it’s a manual note by note step editor rather than the x0x type sequencer that Roland developed soon afterwards for the TR-606 and TR-808, so you have to pre-plan the pattern in your head and then enter things into it in sequential order: hit, rest, rest, rest, hit, rest, hit, etc.

Anyway, using Google and reading up about programming the CR-78 on various sites across the net, I found there was no good solid explanation for how to program the thing sans programmer. One person mentioned they used a pedal in the programmer slot to record notes in real time; I’m a techno geek who sequences everything, so that didn’t really appeal to me except as a last resort. Another person mentioned they used their computer’s sequencer to send out audio clicks to the CR-78 and program it. That was getting warmer, but still wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

(Edit: After searching through the Analog Heaven mailing list archives, I have found several people suggesting a similar approach using the trigger outs of synced up analog drum machines, including a message from Mike Peake back in 1998. The Electribe/Kenton setup I’m using has some advantages given its cost, sequencer memory and timing flexibility, but I am definitely not the first to suggest using the x0x sequencer of another drum machine to program the CR-78.)

I had already used my Kenton Pro Solo mk2 to sync up the CR-78 with MIDI clock. Note that the CR-78 uses a 1/4″ clock input and a non-standard 12cpqn clock, unlike the DIN SYNC used for the TR-606, TR-808 and other drum machines, which is why I had to use the Kenton. I also already had an Electribe ER-1, which is a cool little drum machine with a fantastic x0x style sequencer interface that sends MIDI. My thinking was: if a pedal could program the CR-78 in real time, surely a gate signal from the Kenton could do the same, and maybe I could sync everything up and then use the sequencer of the Electribe to clock and trigger the Kenton which would in turn clock and trigger the CR-78, resulting in a nice x0x interface for the CR-78.

After some experimentation, I got it all to work. As a bonus, I found I can play an extra realtime part on the CR-78 using the Electribe sequencer, giving me a total of five simultaneous sequenced CR-78 parts (four triggered internally by the CR-78, one externally by the Electribe). Also, the CR-78 only has enough internal memory to save four different two bar patterns, but I found that by saving the patterns internally in the Electribe and then dumping/programming them into the CR-78 as needed I now have access to a lot more stored patterns.

So, here’s the procedure I used to get it all to work:

PART 1 – Sync the Electribe up with the CR-78

Hook the Electribe MIDI OUT to the Kenton MIDI IN with a MIDI cable.
Hook the Kenton AUX 1 (CLOCK) to the CR-78 EXT CLOCK with a 1/8″ to 1/4″ patch cable.

Next we need to configure the Kenton and the Electribe so they can communicate correctly:
Set Parameter 1 of the Kenton to 1. This sets MIDI channel to 1.
Set Parameter 20 of the Kenton to CL. This sets the AUX 1 port to output clock.
Set Parameter 41 of the Kenton to 2. This sets the clock to 12 cpqn, which is what the CR-78 uses.
Set the MIDI channel of the Electribe to 1. Press MIDI pad, choose top parameter, set to 1.
Set the MIDI filter of the Electribe to send everything. Press MIDI pad, choose fourth down parameter, set to three ovals.
Set the clock of the Electribe to internal. Press Global pad, choose fourth parameter down, set to int.

Now, make a completely blank pattern in the Electribe with all steps for all instruments empty. Set the pattern length to 1 and use a pattern scale of 16th notes. Read the Electribe manual if you don’t know how to do this.

Select a preset rhythm pattern such as DISCO-1 on the CR-78.

Press START on the CR-78, and then press play on the Electribe. The CR-78 should start playing the preset rhythm sequence in time with the ER-1. Adjust the tempo on the Electribe and make sure the CR-78 follows.

Note that if both drum machines are currently playing but the CR-78 is not synced properly within the pattern, do the following to restart and resync everything:
Press START/STOP on the CR-78 to stop its sequencer.
Press stop on the Electribe sequencer.
Press START/STOP again on the CR-78. It won’t start yet, but will reset the sequencer to the beginning of the pattern.
Press play again on the Electribe. They should now be playing in sync.

PART 2 – Trigger CR-78 sounds using the Electribe

Hook the Kenton GATE (S-TRIG) to the CR-78 (TS-1) WRITE with a 1/8″ to 1/4″ patch cable.

Get the Electribe and CR-78 synced up and running as described in Part 1.

Press one of the PROGRAM RHYTHMs (I-IV) buttons on the CR-78. Make sure none of the preset rhythms are still playing, only the existing CR-78 programmed sequence (if its been programmed) should be playing.

Clear the CR-78 sequence by flipping the PROGRAMMER switch down to ALL, then press the CLEAR button, then set the PROGRAMMER switch back to PLAY mode. You have erased that memory slot, so the CR-78 should no longer be playing any sounds.

Select the CR-78 drum sound you want to trigger by using the PROGRAMMER INSTRUMENT SELECTOR knob.

Next, repeatedly hit one of the instrument pads on the Electribe, Percussion Synthesizer 1 is good. You should hear it trigger the selected CR-78 sound. The Electribe is sending a MIDI note to the Kenton each time you press the button, the Kenton then sends a gate signal for that note to the CR-78 which triggers the drum sound.

Program a simple one bar pattern on the Electribe’s x0x sequencer using that single Electribe part. You should hear the notes you set on the Electribe sequencer trigger in time on the CR-78 as the pattern is played.

PART 3 – Program the CR-78 user patterns

You should already have an Electribe sequence running and triggering the CR-78, and a CR-78 user pattern cleared and ready to program from Part 2.

Flip the PROGRAMMER switch up from PLAY mode to MEMORY mode. All four PROGRAMMER LEDs should briefly flash and the CR-78 will make a little sound. You should hear the Electribe triggering the CR-78 sequence that you are programming.
Let the programmed pattern run at least two bars, until you see the first CR-78 PROGRAMMER LED for TRACK 1 start flashing in time with the sequence you have programmed. Now flip the PROGRAMMER switch back to PLAY.

Manually clear the drum pattern on the Electribe sequencer by pressing the pads until none of them are lit, but keep the sequencer running. You should still hear the sequence you just programmed playing on the CR-78 sequencer even though the Electribe is no longer triggering it.

The CR-78 sequencer can save up to four instrument tracks this way. You will repeat the same basic procedure to program the next three CR-78 instruments:
Select the new CR-78 sound with the INSTRUMENT SELECTOR knob.
Program a drum sequence into the Electribe sequencer by pressing the pads as it is running, which should trigger the CR-78 sound in time with the pattern.
Flip the CR-78 PROGRAMMER switch up from PLAY to MEMORY, and let the pattern run for a couple bars. Wait for the CR-78 PROGRAMMER LED for TRACK 2-4 (depending on which instrument track is being programmed) to start flashing in time with the sequence being programmed, then flip the CR-78 PROGRAMMER switch back to PLAY.
Manually clear the drum sequence in the Electribe, and then listen to your sequence continue to be played by the CR-78 sequencer along with the other previously programmed instrument tracks for that rhythm sequence.

Once you have programmed all four instrument tracks, keep the CR-78 PROGRAMMER switch in PLAY position, select a new fifth CR-78 instrument using the INSTRUMENT SELECTOR, and you can now also play a fifth track using the Electribe’s sequencer. The accent track is a good choice, or you can use the Electribe’s sequencer to program a longer and more complicated percussion sequence, or whatever you want. Note you can also play along like this when preset rhythms are activated.

OTHER STUFF YOU CAN DO ONCE EVERYTHING IS WORKING

The CR-78 sequencer can save two bars worth of sequences for each track. Using the above method, we were basically filling both bars twice with the same repeated single bar Electribe sequence. To program both bars, just set the Electribe pattern loop length to 2, and program a two bar sequence on it like you would normally, and that pattern will get saved in the CR-78 sequencer. See the Electribe manual if you don’t know how to do this.

Also, you can set the Electribe pattern scale to use 1/32 notes instead of 1/16 notes… again, just set it up like you would if you wanted to program the Electribe to do the same thing, and program the CR-78 as above. This will let you program some nice quick hihat or snare rushes. Using this scale, a two bar sequence will fill all four 16 step sections of an Electribe sequence set to pattern length 4, which works out nicely.

The CR-78 can only save four patterns of four instruments each, which is pretty weak. Hey, it was the first drum machine with memory, cut it some slack. You can get around this by just saving the sequences in your Electribe and programming them into the CR-78 when needed. A good way to do this is to use a different Electribe instrument (Percussion Synthesizers 1-4 work nicely) for each of the CR-78 instrument sequences. Note that you can only program one CR-78 instrument track at a time, and the programming method described above can not distinguish between different note values being sent from the different Electribe parts. So, when you are programming the sequences into the CR-78, you will need to SOLO the appropriate Electribe part as you program the corresponding CR-78 parts one by one. A bit of a pain, but it goes pretty quick once you get it down…

Edit: I received an e-mail from someone with a MIDI-retrofitted CR-78 who tried this and had his CR-78 freak out. So if you are using a CR-78 with a MIDI kit added on, be careful about using this setup.
“The synchronisation worked perfectly for about an hour when all of a sudden the CR78 threw a fit and poured out multiple random rhythms at vastly fluctuating tempos whilst the 4 red Programmer Track lights went a little crazy (nb: the 4 user programmes are empty and not in use). I disconnected the Kenton and tried the CR78 alone… same thing again.” I don’t know any reason for this to happen, and it hasn’t happened with mine after a lot of use, but again use caution if you are using modified gear.