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Erica Synths Perkons HD-01 review

Erica’s flagship drum machine is an uncompromising instrument with a unique approach. Greg Scarth discovers why it’s worth every penny of its high-end price tag.

The Erica Synths Perkons HD-01 is a drum machine which bucks many of the recent trends in studio tech. It’s big, heavy and it’s agnostic when it comes to the tired old analogue vs digital debate. It’s also expensive. At £1,688, the Perkons is in some ways a throwback to the 80s, when drum machines were serious investments for serious musicians; the vibe here is yeah, you’d better make sure you get an album out of this thing to justify the purchase.

In terms of how it works, the Perkons certainly isn’t a throwback. There are four hybrid voices, each with a digital sound engine which feeds into a multi-mode analogue filter and analogue overdrive circuit. The Perkons is an uncompromising, unique design, but based on Erica’s track record that’s no bad thing.

Pērkons is the Latvian word for thunder but also refers to the god of the skies, lending the HD-01 a playfully ominous tone from the off. Erica never shy away from bold concepts, and the premise here is a drum machine and synthesiser that will “change your approach to electronic rhythm synthesis – an instrument which bears the weight of a storm”. Removing it from its box, you immediately get the sense that the quality here justifies the punchy £1,688 price tag and the high-concept design philosophy. Build quality is rock solid, with the Moog-style knobs feeling familiar from Erica’s Black Series Eurorack modules. The layout is clear and easy to understand from the very beginning, with controls divided into intuitive sections for the voices, effects, master settings and compressor, tempo and transport, and modulation.

Controls for the four voices are visually identical, but the four circuits are based on different sound generation algorithms, giving them all their own range of sounds and lending them better to different percussive elements. In fact, each voice offers a choice of three algorithms, each of which has three different modes. Only one algorithm – Wavetable Drum – is duplicated across the four voices, meaning that you have a total of 33 different sound engines to choose from. The only real downside of this approach is that there’s no visual indication of what the algorithms and modes are on the Perkons’s front panel, aside from the numbers next to the toggle switch. Likewise, the purpose of the Parameter 1 and Parameter 2 controls can vary substantially from one algorithm to another, and the absence of a screen means there’s no quick visual indication of the parameter other than a glance at the manual. Whether that matters will depend on your personal approach to using the instrument; in a live setting, you might need to be careful not to switch algorithms without planning ahead, because you run the risk of suddenly dialling in a radically contrasting sound and finding your Param control now does something completely different.

The versatility of the Perkons’s various algorithms and modes is remarkable, not least because very few modes are specifically intended for use as a single type of percussion instrument. There are dedicated snare and bass drum modes on one of Voice 3’s algorithms, and Voice 4 has an algorithm dedicated to acoustic hi-hats and ride cymbals, but everything else is designed to be open-ended. Sonically, the various algorithms can do ‘analogue’-sounding kicks and snares as well as more realistic impressions of acoustic percussion instruments, but overall the character lends itself particularly well to darker, more edgy sounds. The Perkons feels ideally suited to techno, electro and tech-house in particular. If you want a modern impression of classics like the 808 and 909, other instruments might suit you better, but there are plenty of options out there if that’s the case; Erica are trying to do something new and original here.

Four voices might seem slightly underwhelming compared to other drum machines offering six, eight or more dedicated voice circuits, but the way the Perkons works is designed to get the most out of the four. Crucial to this is the excellent step sequencer, with four rows of 16 keys representing the four voices, effectively giving you immediate access to a separate step sequencer for each voice. In practice it’s akin to a beat grid in a DAW, with secondary functions accessed using the same bank of keys in combination with the shift key.

‘Secondary functions’ is underselling the depth of the Perkons sequencer to a large extent; this isn’t just your basic x0x step sequencer design, but one which incorporates automation recording, per-step parameter locks, ratchets and probabilities, live time division and multiplication, plus groove humanisation. The most distinctive aspect of all those options is the way that the Perkons encourages you to think of each voice as a way to create and program multiple sounds using the parameter locks, whether it’s a melodic kick/bassline, various different hi-hat sounds on one track, a couple of different variations on a snare sound, or anything else you can imagine.

At over £1,600, the Perkons sits on a par with some similarly high-end options including the Soma Labs Pulsar-23, the Modor DR-2 and the Jomox Alpha Base. All four are pleasingly different in their overall approach and philosophy. The Pulsar is the most experimental, offering a percussive take on Soma’s ‘organismic’ synthesis. The DR-2 is another digital instrument, but much more focussed on programming and step sequencing than the Perkons. The Alpha Base is the most traditional option, with an emphasis on analogue sounds. Among those varied options, the Perkons wins out on hands-on playability and performance, while not feeling hindered by its lower voice count.

High-end instruments rarely tend to have flaws these days, which is of course not a bad thing. Rather than rating them on how many features they have, the emphasis shifts towards character. The Perkons ticks so many boxes when it comes to features that you’re very unlikely to be disappointed – MIDI and trigger inputs, insert effects for each voice, digitally emulated bucket brigade delay, analogue bus compressor, and so on – but it’s in terms of character where it really shines, with a powerful, gritty tone and exceptional versatility in terms of shaping and sculpting different sounds. All of the aforementioned premium drum machines do more or less the same thing on a basic level, but they go about it in various different ways. The success of a drum machine like the Perkons rests heavily on how well Erica’s design philosophy translates to character, and the bottom line is that it’s here in abundance.

Greg Scarth

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