Palmtree Instruments Airdrums
From America comes a set of unique MIDI percussion controllers that work by sensing the direction you shake them in. Rick Davies previews them.
THERE'S NO DOUBT about it. Since Simmons unleashed their first hexagonal drum pads upon the music industry, we've been seeing more and more sophisticated percussion controllers being developed. Dynacord have the Rhythm Stick. Roland have the Octapads. And Simmons' own MTM has taken things even further by letting drummers trigger chords or sequences of notes from the same pad.
Now an American company called Palmtree Instruments have designed the Airdrums - two hand-held tubes which trigger MIDI instruments merely by the user shaking them up, down, left, right, or by rotating them. But these two tubes shouldn't be underestimated; each one can trigger six different MIDI events, which can be programmed ahead of time into any of 30 patches. Alternatively, they can process MIDI messages received via MIDI In.
The Airdrums' sensors are triggered by acceleration rather than force-sensing, so playing them is more like playing hand-held percussion instruments than it is like playing drums.
Maracas, for example, don't make any sound if you move them at a steady speed, but start making noise when you make abrupt movements. Likewise with the Airdrums: when you move either tube, nothing happens until you stop moving them at which point the internal sensors detect a negative acceleration, and programmed MIDI events are sent from the Airdrums' MIDI Out.
Each tube has six internal acceleration sensors, and each one can be programmed to generate specific MIDI events (such as playing a C chord on a synth or triggering a kick drum on a drum machine), or to replay notes or chords received at MIDI In (creating rhythmic accents on music played by another musician). So altogether, there are 12 complex events to be played from these two innocent-looking padded tubes.
An indentation along the side of each tube accommodates your thumb, and acts as a "this side up" reference point. The front panel sports 30 program-selection switches, which double as parameter selectors when you're creating or editing patches. Although these switches are numbered 0-29, there are only 29 patches (1-29). The "0" switch toggles between the current patch and the one selected just before it. A 32-character LCD shows all the various patch names and parameters as you program them.
There are 12 tube sensor switches, with LEDs which light whenever activated from the corresponding tube. The switches select whichever sensor you wish to program, and when in Play mode, mute the sensor. Sometimes it's useful to mute one or two sensors to suit a particular application, so there's no chance of accidentally triggering unwanted MIDI events. (It's also possible to program either auxiliary footswitch to mute any combination of sensors on either tube, simply by programming the footswitch to do so.)
Programming the Airdrums isn't difficult, once you understand the types of message you can program it to transmit, and how to use the internal message busses. These allow you to program some sensors to turn others off- thus a C chord triggered by shaking the left tube to the left could be turned off by rotating the right tube to the right, which might trigger a crash cymbal sample at the same time.
Some rather neat features have been included, like a Swap function which allows you to swap the functions of any two sensors. And the trigger threshold and response curves are programmable for each sensor, as is the type of event it triggers (Note On, Note Off, or Note On followed by a Note Off with programmable gate time).
As mentioned earlier, it's possible to capture MIDI events sent by another instrument, and then re-transmit these by triggering any sensor.
The Airdrums deal with MIDI in a manner that is likely to make them welcome in many a MIDI studio setup, and the range of possibilities they open in live performance is enormous.
As percussion controllers they're unique, yet they do not rely solely on novelty to make them attractive. And after the first couple of minutes spent getting used to the feel of the tubes (the acceleration-sensing technique does feel different from actually hitting things), playing the Airdrums becomes very intuitive.
So yes, the Airdrums should make plenty of friends when they make their way into the hands of some imaginative musicians. And coming from out of the blue as they have, they should enjoy a lot of attention for some time. As soon as their UK distributor has been named, we'll let you know.
Review by Rick Davies
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