No Drumkit Required
Phil Collins explores the Octapads.
The fact is, whether the Roland Pad 8 supplements or stands in for a conventional kit, it can access an unlimited range of percussive or pitched sounds with unbelievable ease. As Phil Collins discovered.
What do you buy the studio which has everything? Phil Collins' work place fairly accurately fits that description. Dominated by an immense SSL computer controlled mixing desk with recording equipment, ancillary gear and instruments to match, the studio which he shares with the other members of Genesis is the powerhouse for most of Phil's projects. When we spoke to him he was working there on the soon to be released Genesis album. And the newest piece of equipment he had acquired for that purpose was a Roland Octapad controller – or rather two of them – to add new ideas for rhythm work.
Not surprisingly for someone who started out on drums, a proportion of Phil's songs originate from rhythm ideas. As on In The Air Tonight a typical tune might originate from a drum pattern and be built up with other tracks afterwards. Phil takes an interest in everything to do with drumming, keeping a collection of kits (he asserts that he never sells one) and owning, in his own words 'all the Roland rhythm machines'.
Roland rhythm machines have had a special place in Phil's playing and composing largely because of the originality and special characteristics of their sounds. From being an early exponent of the old CR-78 he progressed to the TR-808 and TR-909. Being an accomplished drummer, he has just one criticism of the new digital range such as the TR-707 andTR-505 – they're too good!
"The previous ones didn't sound like drums, so I used them to get different percussion sounds that I couldn't get with a drum kit. These ones sound just like drums, and so those are sounds I can get by playing a kit," The exception is the TR-727 with its wide range of Latin percussion sounds, which Phil finds a very valuable addition to his repertoire.
Nevertheless the most important recently introduced Roland product is, for Phil, the Pad 8. Because of his constant exploration for new sounds, he particularly welcomes a device designed to access and control any MIDI equipped sound source or sampler at, so to speak, the flick of a stick. So what can the Pad 8 do for Phil that his exciting several hundred thousand pounds worth of studio gear and instruments can't?
"It allows you to control lots of different things simultaneously. What I do is combine different drum machines through MIDI channels to give me maximum access and complete control of feel and timing."
Plus, of course, it's a convenient way of accessing pitched instruments?
"What it will do is play any MIDI instrument, which opens up a whole new range of possibilities for percussion notation."
Like most musicians today, putting together a song is, for Phil, a mixture of playing and programming. With the Pad 8, programming becomes a lot more like playing anyway, so there is no need to lose life and spontaneity by getting bogged down in complicated procedures.
"An important application is programming through MIDI sequencers. You can put down complex rhythm patterns without having to go through the tortuous routine of slowing the tempo right down and inserting patterns to build up a track. With the Pad 8 you can play many more things in real time – and to me that's important in song writing as well as performing and recording."
Phil is a master of adapting and exploiting new technology, but would not describe himself as technically minded.
"I haven't a great deal of patience. Technical problems I'll usually hand to someone else to sort out, and with a baffling piece of equipment I'll give the manual to an engineer and say 'go through this and tell me what it does in layman's terms.' I'm no good with manuals, I get bored after they spend two pages telling me how to plug it in."
And the Pad 8?
"Oh, the Pad 8 is instant. No complex procedures – I could use it straight away. The same applies as with the programming procedures. With the Pad 8 I can just get on with it and play."
Accordingly, the Pad 8 is being incorporated immediately into the current Genesis project. The new album, which has not yet been named, will feature a Pad 8 triggering all the percussion sounds from a variety of MIDI instruments including the TR-727 and Phil's Emulator. It was, regrettably, not yet available when he took the drummer's stool for Howard Jones' new album, but it may feature in his work with Eric Clapton whom he's currently producing. Because of his production work and his willingness to take on new challenges he likes the sound of, Phil is obliged to be something of a musical chameleon, changing styles and discovering sounds to fit a wide variety of different artists, to say nothing of film scores, and so on. The Pad 8, with its user-friendly access to anything MIDI, is an ideal tool for someone who keeps changing his sound.
Even better than one Pad 8 is two Pad 8s linked together, and Phil also frequently uses this set-up to trigger twice the number of percussion sounds or notes or MIDI channels he would be able to access with one. Another useful trick is to "use the audio from a recorded track into the input of a Pad 8 so you can trigger MIDI percussion from a track you've already laid down."
Since all of Genesis use the studio there has inevitably been some interest in Phil's activities and now he's no longer the only Pad 8 user. Mike Rutherford has acquired one and uses sticks to program his own rhythm machines, and rhythm lines in his work with Mike and the Mechanics. Mike is, of course, a long standing Roland devotee and an expert exponent of the GR-700 guitar synthesizer as well as an Octapad player.
Meanwhile Phil Collins is taking things a step further by considering the live applications of the Octapads.
"I haven't used them live as yet, but without doubt they will be a godsend! Using Pad 8s it will be possible to play some percussion instruments it's almost impossible to get over live, such as Marimbas and bell type instruments."
Nor should there be any problem with playing quality. Phil, who is accustomed to the best of top quality acoustic kits, judges the Pad 8 playing surface to be: "Very responsive. As good as a non-skin playing surface could be."
In short, Pad 8s have the feel, the dynamics and the versatility to make them a powerful instrument on their own or a perfect supplement to conventional or electronic kits. A drummer's (or rock star's) gateway to everything MIDI can offer, for just £399. As the man says, "A steal!..."
Roland Newslink - Summer 86
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