In many ways the $2,059 Pērkons appears to be the drum machine sibling of SYNTRX by Erica Synths. It’s not just that they share a chassis and knobs. But they’re both pricey niche instruments that focus on having a unique character rather than cramming in as many features as possible. But while they’re both compelling but impractical devices, that’s where the similarities end.
Speaking of using Percons gets very complicated very quickly. So let’s loosen things up by talking pure specs. It’s a four-voice digital drum machine with several different sound engines and algorithms per track, paired with multimode analog filters and drive. There are four 16-step sequencer tracks with four different shuffle algorithms, ratchets, and probability settings. In addition to a master output, headphone output, and master send and return effects jacks, there are also individual outputs for each voice, along with separate sends and returns and trigger inputs for each voice, not to mention MIDI in and out. Plus an analog bucket brigade delay (BBD), an optical compressor and an LFO.
In short, there is a lot of sound-forming power here. Sure, it doesn’t have micro-timing, and you’ll have to chain multiple patterns together if you want more than 16 steps, but there’s still a decent number of features to take advantage of.
The four voices have no prescribed use, but some are better suited to certain sounds than others. And each has a unique set of engines with multiple modes. For example Voice One has a wavefold drum, a wavetable drum and a simple drum algorithm. The mode switch then chooses between three different transients for the folding drum, three different wavetables or three different simple waveforms, depending on the algorithm chosen. And each algorithm has associated parameter one and two distinct controls.
This basic setup is shared across all four voices, just with different algorithm options. While voices one and two work better for kicks and toms, voice three is the best choice for claps and snares, and voice four is ideal for hi-hats and cymbals.
I think it’s important to pause here and point out that I might say things like “best for snares” but aren’t typical drum sounds. Don’t come to Pērkons expecting 808-Kick – you won’t get them. But that’s part of its appeal. It doesn’t sound like other drum machines and it oozes character. This is quite refreshing in an age of countless clones and rehashes just trying to repackage beloved sounds of the past.
However, that character and unique timbre might put some people off. Even I was initially overwhelmed by what I got out of the Pērkons in the first few days. But once I stopped trying to bend it to my will and just let it do what it was designed to do, I got around pretty quickly. These sounds are decidedly digital and lean toward the aggressive end of things. Do you like 90’s industrial music? You will like Pērkons. Digital hardcore? I have the drum synth for you.
In fact, after years of doing mostly more relaxed and atmospheric styles of electronic music, I’ve found myself dialing into hard, blown out guitar tones a la Nine inch nails Broken jamming with Pērkons. I was taken back to my high school days with black t-shirts and long, greasy hair. And I wasn’t mad about it.
The only tip I have is hold the drive knob tight and be generous with the supercharger. I think part of the reason I was a bit lukewarm at first was because I was trying to dial in these effects subtly and sensibly. Which, frankly, was probably pretty stupid of me to expect subtlety from a drum machine named after the Baltic god of thunder.
The Pērkons is decidedly old school in its approach to interface design. There is no screen or menus to dive through. Instead, almost all of the machine’s functions, from sequencer playback mode to shuffle percentage to LFO target, are controlled via the 64 step buttons or four trigger buttons. This means that basically anything beyond simply entering individual drum hits requires pressing a combination of two or three keys at the same time.
For example, if you want to set the probability that a certain step will be played, you need to hold down the step you want to change, the probability button, and one of the four trigger buttons to select a percentage (10, 25, 50, or 90 percent). The benefit is that it’s easy to manipulate a pattern while it’s playing since you don’t have to do any menu diving. And once you figure out the basics of how the interface works, it’s pretty easy to understand since everything is labeled. The downside is that some things have relatively limited options, like probability. If you want to make a move to play a 33 or 75 percent chance, you’re out of luck. Similarly, in shuffling, there are predetermined percentages, although these are not labeled.
You also need to be careful to press the keys you want in the correct order. When you press the pattern/ratchet button before You start holding down a certain step, then you won’t add a ratchet, you’ll change patterns. And if you haven’t saved what you’re working on, it’s gone forever. Pērkons can be fun, but it can also be very unforgiving.
Although the user interface is dated, Pērkons has a number of new-school features to keep it from becoming too robotic. In addition to shuffle and probability, you can change length, add accents, multiply or divide tempo, choose one of four “grooves” and choose one of four different playback modes: forward, reverse, ping-pong or random. And each of these can be done per lane. So you can make track four just 13 steps long and ping-pong from start to finish and back at half speed, while track one plays at double speed with a 50 percent shuffle, and track two has a unique groove, but only eight steps long is .
All of these options are welcome, but can feel a bit unwieldy at times. The lack of a robust menu system is both a gift and a curse. While it keeps everything handy, it also means you have to memorize a bunch of keyboard shortcuts to change or check settings.
Another thing worth noting is that while Pērkons is primarily a drum machine, it’s also a synthesizer. Don’t expect to plug in a keyboard and play funky basslines, though. Instead, it’s best approached as a drone instrument. You can’t play the voices chromatically, at least on the current firmware. However, if your hearing is good enough, you can tune each step individually to create a bass line.
Changing the parameters for each step is also easy. You simply hold the aim trigger button and start turning the knobs. It works much the same as parameter locking on outrageously modern instruments from the likes of Elektron. If you prefer to tweak things on the fly, you can just hit the record button and start turning the knobs to record the automation. You can even change the algorithms and voice modes step by step, which really expands the variety of sounds available to you in a given pattern.
But the most important thing is that Pērkons is absolutely fun to play. Frustrations with some interfaces aside, it lends itself to live tweaking. And, just like its distant brother, the SYNTRX, the hardware is incredible. The trigger buttons on the right feel like they were ripped right off an IBM Model M. Each step button has an insanely satisfying click. And the buttons basically have the perfect resistance. All of this is housed in a large metal body with wooden cheeks that feels like it was built with the express purpose of being abused.
That said, I can’t just recommend everyone to go out and buy a Pērkons. It’s definitely aimed at a specific audience. And its price of $2,059 means it has to be you Yes, really invested in this more aggressive sound aesthetic. While it offers plenty of features and connectivity for the money, they’re definitely aimed more at a professional audience than the casual bedroom producer. But if you’re looking for something rugged, totally unique and powerful to blow some heads with a thunderous kick, the Pērkons could be the perfect drum machine for you.
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