Roland PAD8 Octapad
Roland strike a happy note with a new MIDI percussion device that doesn't fill the stage or empty your pocket. Nigel Lord and Alex Murray declare it a hit.
Roland's new PAD8 Octapad looks innocuous enough, but it could revolutionise the way percussionists see their music — and how musicians see percussion.
Strange though it may seem, there are now almost as many noiseless musical instruments on offer as there are noisemaking ones. MIDI is what's to blame, of course, because MIDI is what's making musicians realise the value of playing the same sounds from different instruments. For them to be able to do that, the hardware manufacturers have started building boxes that are used to control other boxes, rather than act as instruments in their own right.
Such a box is the Roland PAD8 Octapad, though unlike many of the silent instruments, this one looks as though it might make some noise of its own, as it has eight rubber pads on it that serve a fairly obvious musical purpose; it certainly isn't a mysterious, uninviting unit in the black box tradition.
The PAD8 allows you to use sticks, fingers or whatever takes your fancy to play the sounds of MIDI instruments. Most obvious candidates for the job of being controlled are MIDI drum machines, but that doesn't stop you linking the Octapad to a keyboard instrument for triggering pitched sounds. The Octapad provides dynamically sensitive control of your sound source, primarily through having touch-sensitive pads onboard, but also by means of up to six external electro-pads (optional) which can be connected to the unit via inputs on the rear panel.
Logistically, the PAD8 can be used freestanding or mounted on a standard tom-tom holder, the idea being that many drummers will want to site it somewhere close to the rest of their kit. Its wedged-shaped profile and high-impact silver plastic construction convey a convincing hi-tech image, underlined by Roland's new logo emblazoned across the unit's rear edge. It's tough, too. So tough, in fact, that it's even possible to stab at the rubber-membrane buttons on the PAD8's control panel with smart raps from a drumstick — though this is not to be recommended.
The onboard pads are arranged in two rows of four; the configuration is a playable enough size if you're using a PAD8 on its own, but might present problems if you try any tricky interplay between the unit and regularly-sized drums or pads. Like the casing, the black plasticised playing surfaces are very tough, being fashioned from the same material featured on Roland's PD10 and 20 pads. For the uninitiated, these offer a certain elasticity, but are quite limited in terms of 'feel'. It's better than the old Simmons SDS5 riot shield stuff, but some way behind the new SDS9 and, of course, real drum heads. Still, these considerations are only really going to be of significance if you're a drummer used to hitting something more sympathetic; if you aren't, you're unlikely to find the Roland pads wanting.
One of this Roland's really clever design points, and one that should have other electro-drum manufacturers tearing their hair out wondering why they didn't think of it first, is that despite the pads' close proximity to each other, false triggering has been avoided by 'out-of-phase' switching. This means that hitting one pad instantly turns it on, and all the others off — but at such a speed that the entire process is completely undetectable. Neat, and it works.
To the right of the playing area are a vertical series of five status-indicating LEDs, and beneath these, the main two-digit LED display. The lower half of the control panel is occupied by four Edit Buttons, which correspond to the status LEDs' Curve, Note Number, MIDI Channel and Sensitivity functions. There are also two Step Up/Down incrementor buttons (these don't auto-repeat as you hold them down, but parameter values can still be set fairly quickly using a Skip function). Beneath all this lie four buttons which you use to access the PAD8's quartet of patch memories — more on these later.
Round the back, there are jack sockets for Patch Shift and Program Change footswitches, an Edit Protect switch (leave it on if you want to make sure the Octapad's memory isn't erased accidentally), MIDI In and Out sockets, six External Pad inputs, and sundry other items.
Fine. But what can you do with it all? First off, individual voices may be assigned, via specific MIDI channels, to any of the pads. So if the PAD8 is being used alongside a drum machine, for example, each instrument — snare, hi-hat, toms and so on — can be played through its own pad. If you're using one of Roland's own range of MIDI-equipped machines — TRs 707, 727, 909 and, presumably, the new 505 when it appears — with the PAD8, the system can be set instantly to a play-ready state by holding down a couple of buttons while switching the unit on. If you're using anyone else's MIDI gear, though, you have to assign each voice or sound to its own pad manually. Having said that, one of the Octapad's most economical companions could be the Korg MR16 drum voice module — so long as you don't mind playing in real time only.
Being a clever little so and so, the PAD8 can memorise four different eight-way combinations of voice-to-pad assignments, along with five other parameter edit functions. The full range of these functions includes the following: the setting of MIDI channel numbers so that specific voices on drum machines, or individual notes on synths, may be accessed; pad sensitivity; dynamic control (ie. output level in relation to striking force), which Roland refer to as Curve; Minimum Velocity, which sets the level relative to minimum pad striking force; and Gate Time, which controls the duration of any of the accessed sounds. Using these parameters, you can construct a complex envelope to reflect, as much as possible, the nuances of your playing style.
Clearly, voice-to-pad assignment and the setting of MIDI channel numbers have to be set individually for each pad, but the really interesting thing about the PAD8, from a performance aspect in particular, is that the other four parameters can be set individually too. In other words, sensitivity and dynamics (say) can be adjusted separately for each pad/voice combination — which adds enormously to the machine's versatility, and makes it a far more expressive instrument. Bear in mind, though, that your connected MIDI instrument will have to be capable of receiving sensitivity data for that expression to come through.
This is particularly so given the added facility of being able to recall any of the four combinations of parameter values by pressing the appropriate Patch Preset button, or by using a footswitch to step through the four patches repeatedly.
If you put your mind to it, it's possible to envisage some fascinating applications of the PAD8 when used in conjunction with various sound sources. With a synth connected, you can assign a particular note to each pad, so that if you have a percussion voice programmed into that synth, it becomes possible to set up a range of eight perfectly-tuned drums in descending thirds, fifths or indeed any musical interval. (A MIDI number of 60 denotes Middle C, 59 denotes B below Middle C, and so on).
Additionally, it's quite possible to connect the Octapad to a synth and drum machine simultaneously, with say the bass, snare drum, hi-hat and cymbal voices assigned to four of the pads, and a synth sound to the other four. If you're lucky enough to have a multitimbral MIDI synth such as a Casio CZ or a recent Sequential model, so much the better: you can set a different synth sound to a different MIDI channel, and thence to a different pad on the Roland. You could be luckier still, and possess sufficient numbers of MIDI synths to prevent your selection of sounds appearing samey. The permutations are endless — your bank balance may not be.
The PAD8 also has the ability to transmit program change information, so you can alter synth voices remotely from the controller. The idea is that you set up a program change in advance, by determining a Bank Group and Bank Number combination for a particular pad, and using the table included in the manual in conjunction with the program change table that should (with luck) be included in the manual of your chosen MIDI sound source. Then, simply by hitting the relevant pad, you send the program change information down the MIDI channel to the chosen device (with all previous MIDI Channel/Note number information remaining unchanged). So with one flick of your wrist, the connected DX7 Patch 14 (Funk Bass), flips over to Patch 25 (Marimba). Wonderful stuff.
And the good news doesn't stop there. As we mentioned earlier, the PAD8 also incorporates an analogue-to-digital interface that allows up to six external pads to be connected. The input is designed to work with a wide range of electro-pads from an equally wide range of manufacturers — which if you think about it, makes the Octapad a convenient, economical means of MIDIfying an existing set of pads.
Once you've done that, anyone who can tap out a rhythm on a table can also gain access to sampled sounds from drum machines or keyboards, can start, stop and record drum solos or musical sequences on machines like Roland's own MSQ700, and can even alter settings on MIDI-equipped delays and reverbs. Again, the possibilities are truly endless.
Roland themselves envisage the Octapad selling to bands with drummers and a drum machine, to the percussionist who wants access to unusual, synth-based sounds, or to the performer who'd like to inject a little spontaneity into a drum machine backing. Certainly, if you're a drummer or musician already in possession of a suitable drum machine or synth, then the PAD8 offers a whole range of potentially inspiring musical and performance options.
The inclusion of both MIDI Out and In, on what is basically a 'MIDI Out' device, is primarily for the purpose of connecting two PAD8s together, but can also be used to interface the unit with other instruments — and therefore other players.
In most respects, then, the Octapad proves to be a machine of brilliant design and intriguing possibilities. Maybe it isn't quite the clever so and so that it might be; flexible though the PAD8's MIDI and routing options are, it could surely do with having a bigger memory — four patch presets seems tantalisingly few. And although it's inevitable given the inherently complex nature of the MIDI system, the Program Change function does seem messy and too involved — even if it is a great boon in live performance.
But none of this takes much away from the Octapad. It's a unique instrument, capable of opening a lot of doors for musicians who like to hit things to make their noise, but who are looking for new ways of doing so. Given that there are more finger-tappers than there are 'real' musicians, it could even encourage non-players to take up the hobby of making music. And from there, anything can happen.
Price RRP £399 including VAT
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