Modal CRAFTrhythm review – gone too soon?

The CRAFTrhythm refines Modal Electronics’ CRAFTsynth kit idea, and uses the same DSP to create a seriously impressive sample-based drum machine

Modal CRAFTrhythm – £99 – no longer available new.

  • Clever little build-it-yourself sample-based drum machine
  • Exceptionally flexible, with great desktop or mobile app support
  • Originally £99, the last ones sold for £39 two years after launch

One of the drawbacks of writing reviews of kit you’ve bought, rather than been loaned to test, is that the temptation to wait for the best deal, or only find something when it’s been out for ages, can mean you’ve written a lot of words for something that no-one can buy.

Now usually, with synths and tech, that just means ‘can’t buy used’ – but in the case of the CRAFTrhythm kit, chances are once the last handful have sold there won’t be another hidden stash lurking, and that’s a real shame.

The Modal CRAFTrhythm DIY kit drum machine

It should be £99, but Gear4Music’s sale – the reason it, and the CRAFTsynth 1.0 came within my reach reach during the financial stresses, and desire for distractions, of 2020’s pandemic – means the last ones in stock sold for £39. Gear4Music were the exclusive retailer for this Modal kit; it looks like once the last one went, that’s it… and this review will just be a record of what Modal (and you, if you got one to assemble) made.

For what it’s worth, though the £39 CRAFTrhythm sold out within days of the sale getting some publicity!

I’m going to treat the review as it if it were stil a £99 instrument – partly in the hope that Modal, or anyone else wanting to follow suit with a similar kit, can see that it’s worthwhile and there’s a margin in it. I doubt this kit could continously sell profitably for £39 – but hey. You never know.

One thing’s for sure: I told my friends, my co-workers about it. I’m delighted that I got one for myself, and on the off-chance some remain, I’m telling you as well – this is a great kit and a great drum machine.

Not a toy! The CRAFTrhythm is fun to play with - but it's a serious sample-based drum machine

Like the manual says – it’s not a toy!

What is the CRAFTrhythm, and what can it do?

  • Sample-based 8-track drum machine with powerful sequencer
  • CD-quality mono samples, per-track filter and mixer, USB connectivity
  • One flaw: no sync in/out other than USB MIDI

Modal introduced the CRAFTrhythm in 2017, and it went on sale in early 2018 with a bit of a bump as an extra item on Kickstarter, too. It follows the mini-desktop synth model of the CRAFTsynth, and it’s a similar DSP-based kit that needs no soldering or special skills to assemble, but is satisfying to slot together and play.

Many of these sorts of kits – yes, even ones as high as £99 – are best dismissed as short-lived gifts, but Modal hit upon a great balance with the CRAFTsynth kit – the CRAFTrhythm looks like it’s taken it to another level.

Modal CRAFTrhythm fully assembled

It uses CD-quality samples – 16-bit, 44.1Khz mono – and has an impressive 15Mb storage for them, enough for several minutes of percussive sounds. A single sample can be up to 2 minutes in length, making loops and musical structures/textures easy to incorporate into the toolbox. Sample stretch, shift and pitch tools allow fairly sophisticated manipulation of the sounds, too – and almost everything can be accessed from the front panel.

Although it’s self-contained and battery-powered with the optional Adafruit 727 battery pack, it really comes alive with USB connection to a computer or mobile device, where the Modal App can be used.

You have storage for 64 samples, 16 patterns (8 tracks, 16 steps, but far more flexible than many low-cost 16-step matrix sequencers), 8 drum kit presets, and there are four animation tracks too.

LEDs indicate step, bank, kit or pattern, and the 10 touch-sensitive pads are responsive and easy to use. You can choose a bank and tap the pads to your heart’s content – and it recognises more than one pad at once, though the layout isn’t exactly ideal for finger-drumming.

Each of the 8 tracks has a mixer, two-pole resonant low-pass filter, dedicated amp and filter Attack-Hold-Decay envelopes, and a tune function with sophisticated (for the cost and size? No. Just overall!) sample manipulation via stretch, speed or shift.

There’s a third envelope generator dedicated to pitch shift, too – the number of tricks inside the CRAFTrhythm is worthy of 1980s high-end drum machines!

Unlike many of Modal’s low-cost instruments, the CRAFTrhythm’s line output is stereo, not dual-mono. Each drum track has its own panning control, which combined with the filter and automation can deliver a seriously expressive, complex and clear sound for such a small machine. The only limitation is the quality of the samples you give it, really.

That stereo output opens up another possibility – you could use one of your tracks to sync to devices like the Pocket Operator, by panning a click track hard left, and all audio, hard right. I’ve yet to try this myself, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work (and pass audio through the PO the same as chaining the PO devices normally).

Animation – parameter automation

Every pattern has 8 16-step tracks for instruments. It also has four 16-step tracks for parameter-lock automation, each of which can be assigned to adjust one of 17 parameters.

The 4 automation tracks can each run at different clock divisions, and is assigned to a parameter which can be as basic as level, or as unusual as selecting which sample is played on that step. Each automation track is applied to a single track out of the 8 available, but each pattern has its own bank of ‘Animation’ tracks.

Clock divisions for automation allow gradual building effects over several bars, adding a layer of complexity that, frankly, is unbecoming of a drum machine you could pick up for £99, let alone £39…

Amazingly, nearly all of this is accessible from the front panel of the kit itself – 16 buttons, four potentiometers (knobs are extra – 15mm diameter, 6mm knurled shaft should fit without obscuring the markings, or you could print your own front panel cover – it’s less easy to hack, as the connectors are labeled like the CRAFTsynth).

How easy is it to build?

CRAFTrhythm packaging includes clear assembly instructions

Like the CRAFTsynth, the build really is a ten-minute process – slot together the PCBs, connect with jumper blocks, attach the rubber foot strips and potentiometer shafts, and play. It has a jumper for battery or USB power, and the same stereo headphone and line-out ports.

Easy assembly, using jumpers to hold the parts together and make electrical connections too

Any kid who can put together an airfix model, fiddly craft set or more advanced Lego should be fine with it, and the box provides a neat surface for assembling it – or storing the parts when done. The packaging is really nicely done, too.

Samples are preloaded, so you don’t need to get the computer/phone involved to use it straight away, but you will need a powerbank or the battery pack to power it. It’s fine running off a USB hub and needs no drivers to show as a MIDI device or be recognised by the free Modal app.

Modal App – CRAFT gets crafty

  • Modal App runs on Windows, Mac OS or mobile devices
  • iPad or iPhone need Camera Connection Kit, Android, USB host support
  • Sample library, organisation and pattern programming all in one

Like Modal’s other synths, the CRAFTrhythm shows its depth best when connected to the Modal app, which is a one-stop shop for manual, patches, programming and firmware maintenance.

If anything, the CRAFTrhythm shows just how incredibly powerful this user interface is, and Modal should be very proud of the balance they’ve struck between ‘a funky aesthetic’ and ‘an app a beginner can use’ – though some elements are less clear, there’s nothing in there that is hard to understand.

Using the app makes it easier to understand what you can control from the CRAFTrhythm’s front panel, as well.

Pattern sequencer

The pattern sequencer is easy to reconigse and easy to use, with quick access to kits and samples. You can use fills, too, vastly expanding the palette of beats you can assemble with pattern chaining and automation. This is one area where using Modal app is far easier than tapping in a beat on the buttons; if nothing else, you can also visually see what the groove and swing settings are up to.

The CRAFTrhythm is unusually expressive for a £99 drum machine, and compared to things like the Pocket Operator devices it might be considered a rival to, it’s much, much easier to get to grips with and remember where all the functions are.

Voices can be shaped with tuning, levels, panning and filters, including sample stretch, pitch and speed controls

Shaping the 8 instruments (chosen from up to 64 samples, arranged as banks of 8) are panning, level, filter envelope, sample manipulation and of course, automation…

Parameter automation tracks

Which takes place through four automation sequences that can be assigned to one destination each – almost every parameter can be modulated, and clock dividers allow an automation to build over several repetitions of a pattern, fading in a drum, or panning in the stereo field, or even changing the sample used.

Sample selection and management on the Modal app

The sample librarian and array allows quick, easy playback and recall – assembling kits is a drag-and-drop exercise on your desktop computer, and like patterns, you can store several configurations to be reloaded quickly.

What’s it running on?

Like the CRAFTsynth 1.0 kit, you’ll find a 72MHz MK20DX256 VLH7 ARM Cortex M4 acting as a DSP and an SGTL5000 Codec, a few support components and though I haven’t looked, I’m going to guess the extra chip is the non-volatile RAM for samples.

The Cortex-M4 processor

It’s less hackable than the CRAFTsynth in that the pinouts aren’t clearly labeled, but then to improve it you’d be into making a whole new front panel, adding different line outputs or similar.

Memory, perhaps, and the audio Codec

I’m sure the potential’s there, but it works well enough – all the cleverness is in software, not so much the hardware. Well, ignoring the fact that 21st-century microelectronics are kinda insanely-clever to start off with – that tiny square chip above is a remarkably powerful audio processor, for example…

A verdict, you say? Product evolution in action…

I appreciate that at this stage, I’ve done what I always do and talked about a musical instrument without providing sounds. This will be rectified, but I want you to take a moment and look at the pictures, particularly if you’ve seen my CRAFTsynth kit review.

What Modal did with the CRAFTrhythm is provide a level of polish that should have seen this little drum machine in every High Street shop – like the time Urban Outfitters were selling Lomography plastic film cameras, or Stylophone reissues littered Selfridges vying for that last-minute ‘gifts for blokes’ panic.

Even the packaging for the CRAFTrhythm is perfect – just the right glossy finish, the ideal density of foam, easy instructions and a feeling that if you needed to store it, you could take it apart and rebuild it later without losing parts or the box being too flimsy.

Touches like the perfectly-scaled line drawing show some real love and attention was put into it; of course, the samples provided could also indicate that too…

There's a 1:1 scale line drawing of the CRAFTrhythm in the manual/box art. Talk about detail!

The only detail I’d fault on it, and it’s one shared with the CRAFTsynth, is the reliance on USB for MIDI and more crucially, synchronisation with other instruments. There’s plenty of PCB space, so the lack of a clock in/out on the rhythm is a properly baffling omission when even Pocket Operators force a click-track out of their stereo outs.

Modal CRAFTrhythm ownership envelope

  • Attack – lovely packaging, easy construction, instant fun
  • Decay – lack of sync ports is annoying
  • Sustain – sound quality and programming is brilliant, app helps, limited only by your sample quality really
  • Release – caseless design might relegate it to ornaments, but once you’re using it you’re unlikely to let it go. Resale value may be low due to kit/built status

Of course, for the mainstream audience for this sort of easy-build DIY kit – gifting and gadgets – the lack of sync doesn’t really matter. And here’s where the sad part of the CRAFTrhythm comes in, just as another manufactured consumer holiday approaches…

Unlike the typical Haynes kit, or other ‘Fathers’ day’ or other stereotype (wouldn’t tech-obsessed mothers also like something other than short-lived flowers for their special day?) gadget-gift, the CRAFTrhythm is actually good.

It becomes considerably more accessible with the app (and you need to use it to load samples), yet most of the power is provided right there, plug in batteries, headphones and get playing. You could plug it into your HiFi or portable speaker and really enjoy it, and get musical with it, or even use it in a serious recording, or in a pub band… it’s an entirely credible drum machine.

And it’s gone. At least for now, Modal’s shown no indication that a CRAFTrhythm follow up is in the works, and the CRAFTsynth 2.0 lost the gadget-gift kit charm – though not the low price.

I’m sad that at Christmas 2020, the question of ‘what the hell are we going to get $awkwardgrownadult‘ won’t be answered with ‘a silly little drum machine they can assemble while still full of Christmas dinner, but will actually make decent sounds all year’.

OTOH, I’m very glad I snapped one up before they were gone…

A perfect pair, but they don't link without a USB host...

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