Following the success of the Octapad and Octapad II, Roland have come down-budget with a MIDI percussion controller to suit all pockets. Simon Trask scores a hit.
Roland have been slow to bring out a budget version of their highly successful Octapad. Now they've been spurred into action by Yamaha's under-a-ton DD5 Digital Drums.
WHEN ROLAND INTRODUCED the Pad8 Octapad MIDI Percussion Controller back in 1986 they literally hit upon a winning formula. The Octapad seized upon the separation of controller and sound source encouraged by MIDI, to occupy a middle ground between the electronic drumkit and the drum machine. In doing so it appealed both to those musicians who wouldn't dream of sitting behind a drumkit but who had, nonetheless, discovered the delights of programming rhythms on a drum machine, and to electronic and acoustic drummers who wanted an easy means of incorporating electronic sounds from any MIDI drum machine, synth or sampler into their percussive arsenal.
Last year's Pad80 Octapad updated the concept with more programmable memories and features, but made no move in the direction of affordability. Bearing in mind that hitting things can be fun, it's not surprising that both Casio and Yamaha have included pads on some of their cheap 'n' cheerful home keyboards, but it is Yamaha's DD5 digital drum unit (reviewed MT, July '89) which has taken the Octapad concept into truly budget territory with its £99.99 price tag. Although the DD5 has onboard sounds and preset rhythms, qualifying it as a preset drum machine, its four drumpads and MIDI Out socket (but no MIDI In) have qualified it as the poor man's Octapad.
ROLAND'S NEW PAD5 Handypad represents the company's response to the DD5. Compared to Yamaha's unit it retains preset rhythm patterns, forgoes onboard sounds, adds a fifth pad, doesn't come with a pair of drumsticks and costs around half as much again. It's a battery-powered unit (6xAA-type) measuring a compact 13" (W) x 9" (D) x 2" (H) and weighing just over 3Ibs, making it eminently portable. An Auto Power Off feature shuts off the power if the unit is left untouched for more than ten minutes, so forgetfulness won't lead to tears.
The Pad5's arrangement of three large and two small velocity-sensitive pads (measuring just over 3" and 2" in diameter respectively) is a very natural and comfortable one in practice. The rubber pads themselves are firm enough to take any bashing they might receive - if anything they're too firm, with none of the bounciness you'd expect from an acoustic drum head, or for that matter from the Octapad II's pads.
A small rotary control on the Pad5 allows you to adjust pad sensitivity on a sliding scale from stick to hand playing, with the latter allowing you to play the pads conga-fashion quite comfortably. However, while stick sensitivity provides a good dynamic range from the pads, the hand sensitivity setting has a more limited range not at all comparable to that of an acoustic drum.
The Pad5's MIDI 0ut socket is recessed into the unit's rear panel, and you can clip the MIDI cable into either or both of two fasteners located on each side of the socket for extra security. Roland take their insistence on making MIDI channel ten The Rhythm Channel (begun with the MT32) to its logical conclusion by allowing the Pad5 to transmit only on channel ten. You'll need to bear this in mind if your slaved MIDI instruments power up on channel one. However, if you're routing the Pad5 via a sequencer then rechanneling its MIDI data should be as easy as altering the record track's channel assignment.
THE PAD5 HAS 14 preset rhythm types stored permanently in onboard ROM: 8 Beat 1, 8 Beat 2, 16 Beat 1, 16 Beat 2, Rock 'n' Roll, Slow Rock, Funk, Rap, Shuffle, Swing, Bossa Nova, Samba, Cha Cha and Waltz. Each type has original, variation, intro and fill-in patterns which are selectable from front-panel buttons. The fill-in patterns are one bar long, as are the intro patterns (with the exception of Cha Cha and Waltz), while the original and variation patterns are each two bars long.
Pattern play is controlled from a dedicated Start/Stop button, while tempo can be adjusted between 40 and 240bpm by means of a dedicated tempo knob. However, it appears that the Pad5 doesn't transmit Start/Stop commands and MIDI clocks via MIDI - presumably to avoid starting a drum machine when you only want to play its sounds. This doesn't mean you can't sync a sequencer or a drum machine to it, though.
Five Pad Cancel buttons allow you to drop parts in and out of the preset rhythms in real time, the idea being that you can play the relevant pads along with the rest of the rhythm. You can adjust the volume of the Preset Rhythms in relation to the pads by holding down a Rhythm Select button and turning the Sensitivity knob.
"The Pad5 is aimed primarily at the amateur musician but could also find a niche for itself among more serious musicians."
Remember that, unlike the DD5, the Pad5's preset rhythms have to be played on an external instrument via MIDI in order to sound. This means that they're played via MIDI notes, with each sound having its own note value. Ah, but how do Roland know what notes to use? Simple. They refer to the factory assignment of drum sounds to notes which they've standardised across a number of their instruments. This means that if you own a Roland R8, R5 or TR626 drum machine, U110, D110 or MT32 synth module, E20, D20 or D10 synthesiser or RA50 Real-Time Arranger you can plug it into the Pad5 and, providing you haven't changed the factory assignments, play the Handypad's preset rhythms without any further adjustments. It follows from this that drumkit assignments on other instruments will require a spot of editing before you can get down with the Samba and the Rock 'n' Roll.
BUT WHAT IF you're quite happy to avoid the Pad5's preset rhythms altogether? Well, you're still governed by the MIDI note assignments of the preset rhythms, as these determine what notes are assigned to the five pads. There are five sets of preset pad assignments across the 14 rhythm types, though in practice only two which are completely different.
You can program one set of five pad/note assignments yourself, but this isn't stored through power-down, so each time you switch on the Pad5 you have to re-program it. Clearly Roland decided against including battery-backed RAM in their pricing calculations. The otherwise welcome Auto Power Off facility doesn't make life any easier, because whenever you leave the Pad5 untouched for more than ten minutes you lose your pad assignments. No tea break till you've finished recording those rhythm parts.
To select the user memory you just press the Pad Assign button. You can then play the pads using whatever notes have been assigned, playing along with the preset rhythms if you wish (the pad assignments won't affect the notes of the rhythms). The user memory defaults to a factory-defined combination of notes each time you power up the Pad5. To enter Pad Assign mode you hold down the Pad Assign button and hit any one of the pads. From now until you press the Pad Assign button again you can assign a note to each pad in one of two ways. Successively hitting a pad causes the Pad5 to cycle through the MIDI note range 25-94 one note at a time, starting from the previously-specified note value. You just keep hitting the pad till you find the note you want (alternatively, pressing the Cancel button decrements through the note range). A more direct way can be to press one of the Rhythm Select buttons anything up to five times (for instance, Rhythm Select button three allows you to select one of MIDI notes 35-39). A chart is included in the manual to help you locate the MIDI note number you want. With practice you could probably set up your pad assignments fairly quickly using this method, but not in the time it would take to recall an existing memory. Such are the sacrifices which have to be made in the name of affordability, it seems.
However, if your sequencer can remap incoming notes in real time, and allow you to readily switch between a number of (re)maps (as does C-Lab's Creator/Notator, for instance), you can overcome the Pad5's programming limitations by transferring the onus of programmability to the sequencer. This approach not only allows you to trigger different sounds on a drum machine but to play different pitches on a synth or sampler.
Owners of Akai's XE8 drum expander or Alesis HR16 or HR16B drum machines can let their instruments take the programming strain, as they're able to define multiple MIDI receive "drumkits" which can then be selected via MIDI patch changes. By predefining patch changes in a sequencer you can change drumkits at the relevant moments, thus changing the sounds which you're playing from the Pad5's pads. You can also get around the possible limitation of the Pad5's single MIDI transmit channel if your sequencer can separate incoming notes by note range onto different MIDI channels (like Creator/Notator's 'ghost" tracks, for example).
THE PAD5 IS one of those crossover items which is aimed primarily at the amateur musician (hence the preset rhythms and the emphasis on straightforward no-frills operation), but could also find a niche for itself among more serious musicians who nonetheless can't justify forking out for an Octapad. What's the difference between the two types of musician? Well, if you're in the latter category you'll probably wish that Roland had replaced the ROM memory used for the preset rhythms with battery-backed RAM memory for storing multiple sets of pad/note assignments.
Patently the Pad5 isn't suited to live performance work, though perhaps if you're performing a solo cabaret gig using any of the Roland instruments mentioned earlier you might find its preset rhythms useful. However, I can see it being an asset in the home studio, especially where its lack of programmability can be made up for by sequencer facilities as suggested earlier. Of course, many musicians are used to playing their rhythm parts from a keyboard or from drum machine pads, or even entering them directly into a sequencer. Certainly, judged purely in terms of the number of sounds you have simultaneous access to, a keyboard wins out easily (you don't have to bother about programmable pad assignments, either). If you're recording a succession of rhythm parts in an overdub loop then a keyboard may be the best choice. But if you want to add the greater spontaneity of an extended percussion workout over a repeating pattern, then the quite different physical interface offered by a set of pads strikes me as being entirely more appropriate, not to mention more fun. Yamaha's DD5 offers no particular advantages of programmability over the Pad5, and if you can afford the extra money then you might find the latter's extra pad, and the greater ruggedness of its pads, make it a better bet.
Price £159 including VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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