KAT dk10 Percussion Controller
Musicians often shy away from percussion controllers, preferring to bang out drum parts on a keyboard rather than learn a new system. But this new, simplified controller from KAT could take away your fear of sticks — Paul D. Lehrman finds it's once beaten, forever smitten...
Many professional percussionists have been using MIDI percussion controllers for years, both in the studio and in live performance. They give the drummer access to a whole new vocabulary of sounds, and even let them assume roles far afield from what drummers are supposed to do — look at Bill Bruford's remarkable work with melodies and ostinatos for a prime example. But there are two types of musicians who in large measure have shied away from drum controllers: non-drummers who lay down drum grooves and fills from their keyboards, often resulting in boring and clunky drum parts; and die-hard acoustic drummers who are convinced that MIDI is an evil plot to put them out of work.
There are a number of reasons why non-drummers have stayed away from MIDI percussion controllers. First, they're expensive. Second, they have traditionally been difficult to program, with loads of features like onboard sequencers, velocity-based note switching, umpteen kits in memory, and trigger inputs and outputs, which are unnecessary and confusing to those who just want something to bang on. Third is the problem of technique: a lot of keyboardists can tap out wonderfully complex rhythms with their fingers, but give them a pair of Regal Tip 5As and they might as well be a couple of chicken legs. Many percussion pads aren't sensitive enough to respond to fingers, and so these are useless to anyone who can't use sticks.
A lot of drummers who aren't yet into MIDI will quietly admit that they would like to take advantage of electronic percussion, but they too have been intimidated by the complexity and learning curves of existing systems, and yearn for something relatively simple.
KAT, the American percussion controller manufacturer, has recently released the dk10, and it addresses many of these problems. The least expensive multi-pad controller in their line, it is nearly identical in appearance to the more elaborate drumKAT EZ 2.0 and 3.0 controllers.
The dk10's 10 pads are arranged in a semicircle with two 'ears' — you might say that it looks more like a cartoon mouse than a cat, and I wouldn't argue.
There are jacks in the back for note-editing and channel-editing footswitches, a hi hat-closing footswitch, and a kick pedal. There are MIDI In and Out jacks, an on-off switch, and a jack for 9-volt DC power. The construction is sturdy sheet metal, with rubber feet on the back for tabletop use. It also works fine on a heavy-duty black music stand, as long as you tighten the top very well. There are screw holes in the back for mounting on an optional stand.
The pads are quite responsive, although their sensitivity is not adjustable. Playing them with fingers yields good results, and you can even get the velocity up near 128 if you don't mind using your knuckles. In most cases, however, if you play a track with your fingers you'll want to globally boost the velocities after the fact. The velocity range with sticks, on the other hand, is just fine.
Programming the dk10 is simple, because there isn't much to program besides the note assignments of the pads. You do this by plugging the supplied footswitch into the note-editing jack, stepping on it and holding it, and then repeatedly hitting the pad you want to program. The MIDI note assigned to the pad increments by a half-step each time you hit it, and you can listen to the results through the drum machine or MIDI instrument the device is hooked up to. If you overshoot, step on the pedal twice and hold it, and the notes start back down. When you've got the right note, release the pedal, and go to work on another pad.
Every time you invoke a programming function, the device sings a little 'tick-tock' song out of a tiny speaker on the side, and each function has its own song. Since there's no display (not even a power light), these aural cues are all the feedback you're going to get. Fortunately, it's difficult to get lost.
There are 10 factory-programmed kits, covering many popular drum machines as well as the General MIDI percussion map, and four of them are user-definable. To change kits, you turn off the box, press and hold the pad corresponding to the kit number you want, and turn it back on. The box sings out the kit number, bleeping from 1 to 10 times. Storing and copying kits, or saving and loading the memory using MIDI system exclusive, involve similar combinations of movements. They're not entirely intuitive, but they're easy enough, and the manual is quite clear.
The hi-hat pedal serves two purposes: it makes a sound by itself when you press it, and it changes the sound produced by any pad that's in 'hi-hat mode'. Normally, these sounds would be various hi-hat samples (closing, open, and closed), but they don't have to be. Several different pads can be in hi-hat mode, each programmed with a different pair of sounds: for example, a pad might be set up so the pedal switches it between high and low bongos, and another between open and muted congas. You need a second footswitch to program the hi-hat pads; any synthesizer sustain pedal will do.
If you do use an ordinary footswitch (like the supplied one) for the hi-hat pedal, the velocity of the note produced by the pedal itself will always be 64. If you want different velocities, you have to get the optional hatKAT foot pedal. For the kick drum, an ordinary footswitch won't work at all — you need one of three special pedals available from KAT.
Deliberately left out of the dk10, in order to keep both the price and the complexity level down, are a number of features that many other percussion controllers have. But, by the vast majority of users anyway, these features won't be missed. For example, many controllers have velocity-switching on the pads: they send different notes depending on how hard you hit them. Today, however, many drum synths and samplers let you velocity-switch sounds internally, so being able to do it on the pads isn't so important. Calling up different kits with program changes is another common feature, but it's really only crucial if you're playing live — in the studio, you don't usually need to be able to change kits on the fly. As mentioned earlier, the sensitivity of the pads is not adjustable, and neither is the gate time (the time between note-on and note-off), but KAT's factory settings are perfectly usable for most conventional applications.
The dk10 is a good-quality, very playable, solid percussion controller which, at £549, won't break your bank account. Nor will it sit gathering dust until you've got a weekend to devote to learning it — you'll be up and running on it in no time. Whether you're a keyboardist or a drummer, if you've been putting off getting a percussion controller for some reason, you may now be out of excuses.
KAT dk10 £549 inc VAT.
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Review by Paul D. Lehrman
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