Roland PAD80 Octapad II
MIDI Pad Controller
Roland's follow-up to their successful Pad8 Octapad features expanded memory and enhanced programmability. Simon Trask hits it off with Roland's new percussion controller.
One of the most popular MIDI percussion devices to date is Roland's Octapad, finding favour with drummers, percussionists and keyboard players alike; is the Octapad II a worthy successor?
SO YOU WANNA thwack something? Here, hit these pads. These days it's not only drummers and percussionists who like to hit things. Drum machines and MIDI have opened up rhythm programming to any musician who fancies laying down a beat. For keyboard players, the keyboard itself has become a means of playing drum and percussion sounds, whether those sounds be from drum machines or samplers.
But the keyboard isn't an ideal way of entering rhythm parts. For one thing, the physical actions of playing a keyboard and of hitting a pad are very different. For many musicians who would never set foot behind a drum kit but want to record their own bass 'n' snare - and for drummers wanting a straightforward way of adding electronic sounds to their kit - the MIDI percussion controller is an ideal compromise.
Roland recognised this more than two years ago, when they brought out the Pad8 Octapad controller. The Pad8 combined eight pads and trigger-to-MIDI electronics in one sleek, compact unit. It was straightforward to use, would comfortably fit into any instrument setup, and proved to be a great success. But times have changed and musicians demand more from their controllers nowadays. Cue the Pad80 Octapad II.
LIKE ITS PREDECESSOR, the Octapad II offers eight velocity-responsive pads in a sleek, compact unit with LED window and control buttons positioned to the right of the pads. The most annoying aspect of the original Octapad was its modest complement of four patches, which really didn't do justice to the many possibilities it offered. In contrast, Roland's new Octapad offers 64 patch memories (organised as 8X8) and eight patch-chain memories. A further 64 patches can be stored on a plug-in RAM card (M128D). You can switch between internal and card memories by pressing the Card button. Additionally, all data or individual patches can be transferred between internal and card memories. Similarly you can dump and load all or individual patches via MIDI SysEx.
One use for the Octapad's patches is to store note allocations for sounds from a variety of drum machines. Roland have included several patches designed for their TR505 and TR626 drum machines (drum and Latin patches in each case) and the rhythm part of their D110 multi-timbral expander. Extending this idea could be particularly useful for studios, whether it be patches for individual drum machines or favoured instrument combinations.
THE OCTAPAD ALLOWS you to set the following parameters for each of its pads: MIDI channel (1-16), MIDI note number (0-127), gate time (0.2-4.0 seconds), velocity response curve (1-7), pad sensitivity (1-16), patch number (off, 1-128), layer type (mix, velocity mix, velocity switch) and pan amount (off, -31 to +31).
A rear-panel recessed switch allows you to switch between edit and play modes. Editing on the Octapad is an extremely straightforward process, helped in part by the All button. Press this and all pads will assume the value of the current parameter on the selected pad (useful if, for instance, you want to set all the pads to the same MIDI channel).
The combination of pad-sensitivity and velocity-response settings allows you to tailor the Octapad to your own taste and to the responsiveness of individual instruments. The pads themselves are firm yet have just the right amount of bounce to the ounce to make them non-tiring to play.
Having independent MIDI channel settings for each pad means that you can decide what instrumental texture you want for each Octapad patch. For instance, you could have the lower four pads playing sounds on a drum machine and the upper four playing a bass sound on a sampler. Obviously if you've assigned several pads to the same channel, you'll need to make sure that only one patch change value is sent (by turning transmission off for the other pads).
Having MIDI note settings for each pad allows you to access different sounds on a drum machine or to play melodies and riffs on pitched instruments. If your instrument(s) can respond to the MIDI pan controller, you can also instantly configure your selected sounds in the stereo image - particularly handy for, say, drum machine sounds. What is a pity is that when you're editing patch-change and pan settings the Octapad doesn't transmit them over MIDI (it only does this when you call up the Patch outside of edit mode).
The gate-time setting delays sending note offs for the specified duration, necessary when playing sustaining sounds because the act of hitting a pad is momentary and bears no relation to the intended duration of a sound. However, the parameter value range on the II is a disappointment, with the minimum value not being short enough and the resolution (a fifth of a second) not being fine enough. In fact, the original Octapad was better in this respect.
What this means is that where, for instance, you want to play a fast bassline you'll have to tailor the envelope of your chosen sound to work in the context of the Octapad. A bit of a pain if you're drawing on a pool of sounds which you might also want to play from a keyboard.
Layer is a particularly interesting development from the original Octapad, allowing up to three notes to be played from each pad. Each note can be any pitch within the MIDI 0-127 range, so you can define very wide spreads - even play more than one sound if you're using a split texture.
Mix allows all three notes to be played together, "velocity mix" brings in the second and third notes depending on how hard you hit the pad, while "velocity switch" switches between the three notes on the same basis. The velocity switch points are preset by Roland, so the chosen velocity response curve will determine when the different notes switch in.
ON THE REAR panel of the Pad80 are MIDI In, Out and Thru connectors together with LCD contrast knob, edit on/off switch, patch shift up and down inputs, hold pedal input, mod/bend/aftertouch input and six external pad inputs (all on jack sockets).
As on the original Octapad, the II can transmit messages from a total of 14 pads (eight internal and six external), with the external pads being given the same set of parameters as the internal ones. These are programmable per Octapad patch.
Like the onboard pads, you must hit an external pad in order to access its parameter settings. One sad consequence of this otherwise sensible approach is that anyone not wanting to use external pads can't make use of their settings - for instance to send out MIDI patch-change messages to MIDI'd signal processors.
As an alternative to buying external pads (and all the paraphernalia for mounting them) you can hook up two or more Octapads. By setting Soft Thru to "on" on the slaved Octapad, incoming MIDI data from the master will be merged with data from the slave, and the resulting combination will be transmitted from the slave's MIDI Out. By setting both units to the same basic channel, and the System Chain parameter of one to master and of the other to slave, selecting patches on the master will automatically select the same patches on the slave. Clearly you could chain more than two Octapads together in this fashion, if you had the inclination and the money.
Of course you aren't just restricted to connecting up Octapads. The II's MIDI merge facility allows you to hook up any other MIDI instrument that you may care to use as a controller. For instance, you could get in your MIDI guitarist friend and record guitar/percussion duets, if your sequencer is capable of recording on more than one MIDI channel or track.
Now to those other rear-panel sockets. The patch-shift up and down inputs are tremendously useful, as they allow you to change onboard patches without interrupting your playing in any way. The multi-function mod/bend/aftertouch input allows you to control any combination of these three effects from a single pedal. For modulation you can set delay and depth parameters. Curiously, the delay parameter has a smaller minimum value (0.04 secs) and a finer resolution (0.02 secs) than the gate-time parameter - which, if you'll excuse the expression, seems a bit derriere-about-face.
For pitch-bend you can set polarity, depth, decay and dynamic response (the latter making depth dependent on how hard you hit the pads). For aftertouch you can set a threshold above which the data generated from the connected footpedal will be sent. All these parameter settings are programmable per patch. There's no doubt these enhance the capability of the Octapad - for instance you could use aftertouch to introduce a volume swell on a string chord, or to control the timbre of a sustained sound (depending, of course, on the aftertouch effect programmed on the slaved instrument). However, controller data can only be sent on one channel (1-16).
In contrast, the hold pedal follows a curious "floating" channel assignment (which appears to be the highest or lowest active channel, depending on whether notes are played before or after the pedal is depressed).
Roland have given their new Octapad a Patch Chain facility which allows you to arrange your Octapad patches in any order you want. Up to eight such chains may be specified (Roland call them Tracks), with a maximum 32 steps per chain. Both internal and card patches can be included in each chain. You use the Octapad's Bank buttons to select the Track, and the Number buttons or the patch shift footswitches to step through the Track in either direction. Tracks can't be saved to RAM card, but they can be transferred via MIDI (individually or as a group).
ME, I LOVE the Octapad II. But then I really enjoy hitting things (for strictly musical purposes, of course). There's no way the II should only be thought of as a drummers' or percussionists' tool. You no longer need to be a drummer to put together a rhythm track. At the same time, you shouldn't think of the Octapad as only being suitable for laying down drums 'n' percussion. Bass lines, chordal accompaniments and melodies are all within the II's capabilities. Not that it's a substitute for a keyboard, merely an alternative means of playing musical parts which might benefit from the thwack factor in some way.
If rhythmic interest is a feature of your music, or if you own a studio and want a percussive controller but don't fancy having an electronic drum kit lying around, the Octapad II should definitely be on your hitlist.
Price £540 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask