How to Turn Your Colecovision into a Drum Machine

I first go bitten by the chiptune music production bug a few years ago when I found out that I could use my Gameboy as a musical instrument. I already had a flash cart and a Gameboy, so getting a copy of LSDJ for $5 and putting it on the flash cart was a no-brainer. Doing so introduced me to a magical world of bleeps and bloops, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

I didn’t stop there, though. I got everything I could get my hands on: Nanoloop (another music production tool for the Nintendo Gameboy), NTRQ for the NES, and Synthcart for the Atari 2600.

That last one really got me thinking. I can make music on the Atari? Sure, I could just get VST plugins for my DAW like Super Audio Cart or Aly James’s Super PSG and FM Drive (I already have all of these plugins and they’re great), but there was something about making chiptunes on the original hardware that I found particularly compelling. An Atari, though? How? What about the Intellivision or the Colecovision? Can I also make music on those early consoles?

I became obsessed with making chiptunes on pre-1983 video game crash consoles. Those old consoles sound so crunchy and noisy due to the limitations of their primitive hardware. I had to have more than just that one Synthcart for the Atari 2600. Then I found it: CVDRUM.

Behold!

CVDRUM is a work of genius. Written by Frank Emanuele, this cart turns your Colecovision into a drum machine. Upon finding this information I quickly bought a cartridge of CVDRUM off of the Atari Age Website. $25 to turn my Colecovision into a drum machine? Yes! It’s modestly priced and it accomplishes something that I did not know was possible. Just like getting a copy of LSDJ, this decision was an easy one to make. Also, just like LSDJ, this cartridge opened me up to whole new realm of possibility.

I got my CVDRUM cartridge shortly after ordering it and, upon its arrival, I immediately plugged it into my Colecovision. I hooked the Colecovision into my CRT TV and turned everything on. After booting up a synthesized voice yelled out from my TV “E-MANCANICS!” as the E-Mancanics logo flashed on the screen (Synthesized speech on the Colecovision? Is there anything this console can’t do?). Another screen loaded, this time thanking people from Atari Age for their help with the project. Right after that yet another screen appeared, displaying a pixelated Colecovision with a snare drum on it and the CVDRUM logo:

I did what it told me to do. I pressed one of the fire buttons located on the side of the Colecovision controller and I was finally taken to the pattern editing screen:

The grid layout made everything easy enough, so I went to work on making a simple four-on-the-floor drum pattern. After everything was entered I hit play to savor the magical sounds of CVDRUM.

And oh, were those sounds magical!

I think it’s safe to say that CVDRUM does not sound like drums. It doesn’t even sound like an imitation of something that isn’t a drum trying to sound like drums. CVDRUM is what happens when you describe to an alien what drums sound like and then that alien attempts to recreate what you described to them using parts it found in a Radio Shack that has been abandoned for 40 years.

Should that fact turn you off from using CVDRUM? Hell no! It’s time to think outside of the box, fellow music producers. Drums are passé. You want your drum tracks to stand out? Use CVDRUM. I guarantee you that no one has ever imagined drums the way Frank Emanuele imagined drums for the Colecovision. CVDRUM is a breath of fresh air in a world already inundated with every variety of drum machine and drum sample that you could possibly want.

Besides, there are plenty of drum machines out there that don’t really sound like drums, and yet they are coveted by music producers all over the world. Take the legendary Roland TR-808, for example. In the documentary 808  (yes, there’s a documentary on the 808 drum machine, and it’s awesome) the creator of the 808 explains that memory was very expensive in the early 80’s when the 808 was being manufactured. To get around this, 808 creator Ikutaro Kakehashi used analog synthesis to capture the character of each drum sound, rather than using samples of actual drums. That character gave the 808 its own unique sound, and for that reason the Roland TR-808 is still heavily used in popular music today. Nothing else sounds quite like it.

Likewise, I think it’s safe to say that nothing, no drum machine or drum sample, sounds quite like CVDRUM.

Still not sold on CVDRUM? You’re hopeless. Have fun making music that sounds like everyone else’s music. Are you on board? Welcome to the exciting world of Colecovision drum tracks! Let’s get started.

You get a total of eight sounds with CVDRUM: A kick, a snare, a high hat, a bell, a low tom, a mid tom, a high tom, and a ride cymbal. Everything you need to give your chiptunes the boost they need!

The sounds are… Interesting. The CVDRUM kick is a nice, short, low blip—a synthesized thud that works pretty well. I’ve made similar sounds many times with LSDJ, seeing as how the drum kits that come with that program aren’t particularly loud. I like a kick that has some presence so I usually use one of the pulse wave channels to create a low, thumping square wave, and for that reason the CVDRUM kick is a sound that is very near and dear to my heart.

The snare sounds like an arpeggiated square wave, which is a sound that I have also made many times using LSDJ. I would have preferred something that had some white noise on it, a la the snappy Roland TR-808 snare, but hey, these sounds are meant to be unique. Expect the unexpected. Besides, this quick arpeggio works well enough.

The high hat is great. It sounds like one of the glitch samples that comes with an Ableton Live pack. Did you think you were getting a short duration white noise high hat like all of the other chiptune trackers out there? Think again!

The bell sounds like someone put a ton of portamento onto a square wave. The square wave note of the bell slides quickly to its destination and then… Silence. It sort of sounds like a bell? Whatever, close enough! I would have preferred the detuned overtone sound of the 808 cowbell but, again, CVDRUM is re-imagining drums. It’s not going to sound the way that you think it is going to sound.

The low tom is a square wave arpeggio going downward in pitch. It’s the kind of sound that would have been used in an old school 80’s video game to replicate the sound of someone falling down the stairs. It’s perfect. Don’t dispute me.

The mid tom sounds exactly like the low tom, except higher pitched.

The high tom is just a high pitched square wave with a short release. Just a square wave blip? Don’t worry, it works well enough. Trust me!

The ride cymbal sounds like a chime or a bell. It’s very high pitched and metallic sounding. Why wasn’t this used for the bell sound? Because it sounds too much like a bell. Again, you don’t want drums that sound like drums. You want CVDRUM, which is better and more original than actual drums.

Now that we have our eight drum sounds it’s time to start getting to work on making a pattern.

Right off the bat there are some limitations. I’ll start with the first one: The tempos are limited to 67.87, 73.53, 80.21, 88.24, 98.04, 110.29, 126.05, 147.06, 176.47, and 220.97 beats per minute. Right out of the gate CVDRUM is forcing me to rethink music. I’ve never put fractions of a beat into the BPM of my DAW before. I usually pick some nice, round number, but no, that’s not how CVDRUM works.

Also, these tempos are not precise. When I set Ableton to the tempos listed above and tried recording my CVDRUM patterns they didn’t match up precisely. My guess is there are some numbers that should have come after the decimal point that have been omitted, but no matter. If you want to play along to CVDRUM your best bet is to use a live instrument so you can keep up with these wacky tempo markings. If you set up other drum machines or synths to auto-play along to these tempos it’s not going to work.

At the pattern screen (pictured below) press up or down on the Colecovision controller (make sure it’s the player one controller). This will select a tempo. If you’re already in pattern edit mode (pressing “*” enters pattern edit mode) you can exit by pressing “1.” Then you can select a tempo.

The patterns are limited to 16th notes and one measure of 4/4. However, given that there is a sequence mode, this limitation isn’t so bad. The sequence mode allows you to string all of the patterns you create together to form a song. Sure, you can’t make a beat in ¾ time that uses swing eighth notes, but there’s still plenty you can do with this program. CVDRUM’s setup is very similar to the way a Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator works. I am a big fan of this, having cut my teeth on just about every Pocket Operator Teenage Engineering has out at the moment. For that very reason I took to creating patterns and sequences with CVDRUM in no time.


Your eight instruments are listed vertically in the left hand row: 1=Kick, 2=Snare, 3=High Hat, 4=Bell, 5=Low Tom, 6=Mid Tom, 7=High Tom, and 8=Ride Cymbal.

Each corresponding horizontal row determines where you are placing each instrument in each of the four beats. Each horizontal group of four little circles is one beat, and each little circle is a 16th note within that beat.

Hit “1” on your Colecovision player one controller to select the pattern you wish to edit. This is pattern 1 (hitting “2” would select pattern 2, “3” is pattern 3, etc.). Then hit the “*” key. You can now edit your pattern. A blue cursor will show up, and you can now hit the fire button on the sides of the player one controller to select where you wish to place a drum hit. If you put your hit in the wrong place don’t worry. Scroll over to the place you made your mistake, hit the fire button again, and it will erase the offending hit.

Each of the four beats is divided up into four 16th notes, so select where in the beat you want each instrument to hit. For example, a simple four on the floor beat with a snare on beats two and four and a high hat on the offbeat would look like this:

Note that there is a filled in red circle at the beginning of each beat in instrument 1’s horizontal column. Instrument one is the kick, so the kick will play at the start of each of the four beats in pattern 1. I placed instrument 2, the snare, on beats two and four (note the filled in pink circles in instrument 2’s horizontal column. That’s a snare at the start of beats two and four). Now note the filled in yellow circles in instrument 3’s horizontal column. These are high hats in the offbeat, on the third little circle or 16th note of each beat.

When you’re done editing just hit the “1” button on the player one controller. This exits pattern editing mode. To listen to your pattern enter play mode by pressing “0.” Your pattern will play. You did it! You’ve just created your first CVDRUM pattern. You’re well on your way to making a killer chiptune. Since you’ve hit “0” you’re now in play mode, which means you’re out of the pattern editing mode, so (as mentioned previously) you can adjust the tempo by pushing up or down on the joystick (adjusting the tempo can not be done in pattern editing mode. Note that the tempo is at the top of the pattern edit screen next to the letters “BPM”).

To stop the pattern from looping over and over simply press “9.” Now you can repeat this process until you have created all of the patterns that you want. Just press numbers 1-9 for the pattern number you wish to edit, then hit “*’ to edit them. Yes, you are limited to 9 patterns, but that’s not a big deal due to the sequence editing mode.

Sequence editing mode lets you string the patterns that you have created together in order to make a song. To enter sequence edit mode from the pattern edit mode hit “#” on the player one controller. You are now in sequence edit mode:

Once you’re in this screen press “2” and you can edit which patterns you want to play and place them in whatever order you want them to play in. Just like pattern edit mode a blue cursor will appear. Now enter the number of the pattern you want to play by hitting the left fire button and entering the number of the pattern you want using the number keys (blank spaces will play four beats of silence so that’s an option, too). The right fire button will enter the pattern number you have selected so you can move on and edit the next space. If you hit the “#” key as a pattern number this will create a repeat, causing the sequence to loop back to the beginning (Note that I have done this in the fourth space. In the above sequence CVDRUM will play pattern 1, 2, and then 3 before repeating patterns 1, 2, and 3 again). If your song is less than the 56 measures available in the sequence edit mode then, when the sequence is played, it will play through all of the blank measures at the end before looping back to the beginning. I strongly suggest using the repeat by pressing the “#” key at the end of your song if you don’t fill all 56 measures with patterns, otherwise you will have to sit through a bunch of blank measures before the sequence repeats again. Hit “3” when you’re done editing and then “0” to play your patterns in order from left to right. Press “9” to stop playing or the sequence will loop endlessly.

Want to play for longer than 56 measures? Sure, you can just repeat the entire sequence of patterns you made over and over again, but CVDRUM also has a Live Play Mode! Just enter sequence mode (“#” on the controller if you’re in pattern edit mode. Make sure you’re not in sequence edit mode. Pressing “2” on the sequence screen allows you to edit, while pressing “3” exits sequence editing). Now hit “4” on the controller. You’re now in Live Mode!

Just hit a number on your controller and it will play the sound listed under each number. Congratulations, you’ve just become one of the most unique drummers that has ever lived! Practice every day so that you can one day become the Neil Peart of Colecovision drumming!

So there it is, all the features of CVDRUM. With the exception of Live Mode CVDRUM is limited to 56 measures in a sequence, 9 patterns, 8 instruments, and 10 very specific tempos.

OR IS IT?

Obviously the limitations of CVDRUM weren’t enough for me, a guy who likes making songs that don’t have tempo and measure restrictions. The solution was simple, and that’s why I sampled all of the sounds featured in CVDRUM.

Sampling the Colecovision takes a bit of work and the right equipment (the latter of which I don’t have, so I used an old VCR that I had lying around). First, I connected the Colecovision into a VCR. I connected the video out from the VCR into my CRT TV. For the audio, I hooked the lone RCA audio out wire from the VCR into an RCA to ¼ inch jack adapter (I know, I would have liked stereo, too, but that’s the only VCR I own. If you know of a better way or own a superior VCR then, by all means, leave a comment below and help me out! Then again, I don’t know if CVDRUM even does stereo sound. All of the samples I recorded sounded exactly like what came out of my TV, so I think it worked). I then connected that ¼ inch audio jack into my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which is a USB audio interface.

I started up Ableton on my laptop and set my audio preferences to ASIO and the Scarlett 2i2 interface. I entered live mode on CVDRUM, hit record on Ableton, and played each sound.

I now have a recording of every CVDRUM instrument! Yes! Sadly, there was a lot of white noise involved. I don’t know why. I think either my old Colecovision or my old VCR is a bit noisy, probably from wear and tear over the years. Perhaps there’s a loose connection somewhere, I don’t know. At any rate, I took each of these samples, noise gated them, and threw them into an Ableton drum rack.

Now I can do anything with these sounds! Alter the pitch, add swing to them, put them in any tempo, etc. I made a video of a simple beat I created using nothing but my CVDRUM Ableton drum rack. It’s up on Instagram:

I can not recommend CVDRUM strongly enough. You can purchase a copy of it here. Please support Frank Emmanuele and the brilliant work that he has done. He has accomplished the impossible so he deserves both your respect and your $25.00 US.

You can download my Ableton drum rack and samples of CVDRUM in the link below. I have to warn you, though: These samples are a bit heavy on the white noise. Yes, they’re still noisy even though I noise gated them. If I were you I would either 1.) Noise gate them further to get rid of the bits I missed, or 2.) Get a copy of CVDRUM and make these samples yourself. Take it from me, it is 100% worth your time and effort.

Click here to download my Colecovision sample pack and corresponding Ableton drum rack. I don’t know how to share an Ableton drum rack so I just took all of the files, both the samples and the drum rack, and put them into a zip file. I’m not sure where you need to put the samples, but I am 100% sure that the .adg file needs to go in the Ableton drum rack directory. Worse comes to worse you can just build your own drum rack from the samples. Google was very bad at helping me find this info so if you know of a solution that could make this process go a little smoother then please leave a comment below.

Have fun making next level chiptunes!

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