Simmons' reply to Roland's popular Octapad comes complete with built-in sequencer, but is it a match for the Octapad II? Nicholas Rowland checks out the rhythm competition.
From the state-of-the-art SDX, Simmons have turned their attention to the more immediate needs of the drummer, percussionist and keyboard player.
AS THE DUST began to settle following the (eventual) arrival of the SDX in all its 16-bit, zone-sensitive glory, a few of us were beginning to wonder where that left Simmons in relation to the Common Musician.
However, there's been no need to speculate for long, as, with customary aplomb, Simmons have already started to advertise their future intentions: a son of SDX christened the DrumStation; and the Trixer, a sound source cum effects box cum mixer, to be used in conjunction with acoustic drums. Now, while I have a sneaking suspicion that the advertising campaigners may be drawing their pensions long before we actually see anything in the flesh, the third post-SDX product, the Portakit, is most definitely rolling off the production lines as I speak (the review model was number 0006 so by my reckoning there must be at least five others).
Billed as "A Good Idea Got Better" (no, I couldn't work out the grammatical logic of that one either), the Portakit is a trigger-to-MIDI converter with 12 built-in pads along the lines of the Roland Octapad. Although it may sound a little melodramatic, perhaps "MIDI percussion control station" might be a more apt title since the Portakit is a mite more complex than your usual interface between things clobbered and machines MIDI.
For example, you can use one of the pads to generate MIDI effects like Pitch Bend, Aftertouch and various Control Changes such as Portamento, Balance and Pan with the amount of effect proportional to the pressure exerted on the pad. In case you're not quite sure what effect this has, think of it as having a pitch-bend and modulation wheel as per a keyboard - it certainly makes for interesting exploitation of both percussive and melodic sounds.
Probably the most exciting feature is the on-board eight-note polyphonic sequencer, allowing you to record and play back 12 sequences of up to 240 bars in length while playing further rhythms over the top. Rhythms can be made even more complex through the MIDI echo facilities with the number and spacing of repeats programmable for each pad.
The Portakit both reads and generates MIDI clock information while MIDI Stop, Start and Continue commands can be sent at the touch of a footswitch, thereby making it ideal for live control of sequencers and drum machines. Also useful for live work is the fact that the 50 Kit or Patch memories can be ordered into 20 programmable Songs and then recalled in order.
Add to all this two MIDI outs (one of them switchable to Thru) and as you can see, MIDI percussion control station is not so OTT after all.
ON THE SUBJECT of live work, the Portakit certainly feels as though it's been built with the rigours of The Transit Life in mind. Indeed, both in terms of construction and design, it forestalls any criticism Simmons may have received in the past for not paying due attention to these aspects. And the 32-character LCD is backlit too.
The 12 grey pad areas are surrounded by ribbed black rubber, so if you miss, you're not going to cause much undue damage. All the control buttons are made of the same rubber as the pads. This makes them as virtually indestructible as the rest of it, but it does mean that the old fingers get a bit sore with the extra force need to press them to get a result (try programming the Portakit for any length of time and you'll see what I mean). A "beep" sounds whenever these buttons are pressed, which I found extremely useful, though it can be disabled.
A handle on the back panel justifies the "Porta" bit of the name (although with the unit weighing in at a pretty hefty 22 pounds, I wouldn't recommend trying to run for the bus with it tucked under your arm), and a clamp is available for mounting the unit on a special stand.
The rather unconventional layout and different shapes of the different playing surfaces (apart from the obvious connotations of hexagonals) is explained by a graphic on the control panel which reveals that the 12 pads are distributed in the time-honoured tradition of the real live drum kit... more or less. Clearly, Simmons are still trying their best to make drummers feel at home.
Around the larger central Snare pad are clustered four slightly smaller ones labelled Hi-hat, Tom 1, Tom 2 and Tom 3. The long oblong one below the snare is the Rim and to each side of this are two small Percussion pads. Finally up in the left and right hand corners of the playing area are two half-hexes, Cym FX and Cym 2 respectively.
Clearly, any pad can trigger whatever sound you want, the labels being there for convenient referral when programming. However, in a couple of cases, there is a deeper logic.
For example, if you plug Simmons' optional hi-hat pedal (code-named SFP1) into the back panel, the hi-hat pad becomes capable of sending out two completely different sets of MIDI information according to whether the pedal is open or closed. But in this case, I have to say that by following convention and positioning the hi-hat pad to the left of the snare, Simmons have slipped up quite badly. The fact is that, because both pads are at the same height (unlike their counterparts would be on an acoustic kit), it's actually extremely difficult to play them as hi-hat and snare in the usual cross-handed manner.
The Cym FX pad also serves a dual purpose, acting both as a normal pad and as the MIDI performance control generator referred to above. These performance effects can also be applied by a footpedal, thereby leaving both hands free for playing, in which case that particular pad becomes disabled. As with the pad, pressure on the pedal equals more effect.
In yet another mode, this pad can act as "damper", sending MIDI Note off information when touched to bring all sounds currently playing to an abrupt halt. Quite useful for choking cymbals or lengthy synth sounds.
I know the digital drummer isn't supposed to worry about these things, but as regards playability, the pads are extremely good, with a fast stick response. Being slightly spongy, stick noise is kept to a minimum so you're not going to sound like a hundred bonking crickets when a small venue precludes the use of heavy amplification.
The appropriate apocalyptic terminology for the hardware in the pads is Force Sensing Film Technology, and I'm assured it completely eliminates crosstalk. I can well believe it.
A choice of ten dynamic curves is programmable for each pad, thereby allowing you to tailor them both to your playing style and the sound in use. Minimum Dynamic (the minimum level produced by even the lightest stroke) can also be programmed per pad on a scale of 0-99.
The back panel houses six further inputs for external trigger sources, be they pads, drum bugs, mics or tape. One labelled Bass can be used in addition to the 12 onboard playing surfaces, while the other five (Percussion 1-4 and Cym 2) disable the equivalent playing surfaces.
This will be welcome news to those of you who've correctly surmised that those four oblong percussion pads really are extremely small (approx 2" by 1") - okay for close work in a studio, but not that much of a target if you're using the Portakit on a darkened stage or in conjunction with a bigger setup where you have to stretch across other instruments to get to it.
Whatever the type of external trigger, the Portakit has a unique (trade-marked) facility called Learn which allows it to quickly adapt to the trigger source and produce a clean MIDI trigger. This it does by remembering the envelope shape of the incoming signal through a process akin to sampling. Providing that subsequent hits roughly correspond to the stored envelope profile, the Portakit will produce the appropriate MIDI trigger. It may sound convoluted, but it works extremely well, and is particularly useful when triggering from tape, a notoriously difficult exercise in balancing levels.
GLOBAL PARAMETERS PROGRAMMABLE for each of the 50 Kit memories include MIDI program change numbers (16 available per Kit - one per channel), MIDI effect on/off and type (what function the Cym/FX pad is to serve) and Kit tempo (40-240bpm). The latter is important not only when using the Portakit to control external devices through generating a MIDI clock, but because it also has a profound effect on the length of notes and the timing of echoes.
There are six programmable parameters per pad, per Kit: Note Type, Number and Duration; Dynamic Control and Curve; and MIDI Channel. Editing each is a matter of hitting the appropriate programming button, then hitting the relevant pad (quicker than cycling around the pad types with the left/right arrow keys) and altering values with the up/down arrow keys.
Note Type is the most interesting option, offering Single, Echo or Chord options. The range of MIDI note numbers covers 0-127 (C2-G8). Echo gives you up to 15 programmable repeats, with the rate set by Note Duration. Chords can be major, minor, major 7th or minor 7th with the selected note acting as the root.
To make assigning notes easier, the Portakit can learn them direct from the sound source itself. Providing the instrument generates MIDI note information, the current pad's MIDI note and channel number will automatically change to match any information it receives while in Note Type edit mode.
The length of single notes and chords (the time between the sending of Note On and Off information) is determined by Note Duration and they are expressed in terms of the Portakit's internal clock. This has a resolution of 96ppqn and each Duration increment (0-255, programmable) is worth 2 pulses. Hence, a value of 24 will give you an eighth note, a value of 48 a quarter note, 96 a half note and so on. Obviously though, the exact length of the note in "real time", will vary with the tempo of the Kit.
At 120bpm, each increment is approx ten milliseconds, but half the speed and you'll double the length. Simmons quote the maximum length possible as 25 seconds - great for setting up a primeval drone over which to improvise with more percussive voices.
With echoed notes, the programmed duration time determines the space between repeats. Since different repeat spacings values can be programmed per pad, you can set up some extremely interesting rhythmic textures - for example, running triplets across straight fours.
When Dynamic Control is activated, repeats will die away at a rate determined by the strength of the initial force. On single notes and chords the length will vary according to how hard the pad is hit.
As you can imagine, there's quite a lot you can do with all this, particularly when building up combined melodic and percussive Kits. The ability to create full chords from just a root note is especially useful if, like me, your musical knowledge doesn't extend much beyond finding middle C on the piano. Simmons have discovered that if you make the melodic side of things easy to access, then people are more likely to use them.
Echo is perhaps the most exciting device from a rhythmist's point of view. Indeed, Simmons are one of the few companies who have tried to encourage the use of this seriously neglected tool. For the stand-up percussionist in particular, it means you can set up bass drum pulses and then do the business over the top.
However, I can't help feeling that certain features are missing. Like the ability to layer just two or three percussion sounds and then control them dynamically, with say a harder hit giving you either a completely different sound or a combined one. Yes, you can layer percussion sounds with the chord function, providing you do your sums and assign the right MIDI numbers to the source, but an extra function specifically dedicated to this would have been welcome.
THE PORTAKIT'S 20-SONG memory gives you the ability to organise and recall the Kit patches in a sequence of events at the same time sending out MIDI Start, Stop, Continue and Song Select information. This gives you the ability to remotely select different songs on, say, a sequencer, then set it going and play along with a combination of different types of Kit. Each Song can be up to 20 events long, and like Kits and indeed Sequences, they can be given an eight-character name.
The only problem here is that changing to a new patch cuts off all information from the previous one. So if you have an echoed note or a long chord still playing, it will be mercilessly chopped off by the patch change. Let's say it doesn't make for smooth transitions.
Now the fun part, the Portakit's sequencing capabilities. The facts so far: 12 sequences, eight-note polyphonic, all up to 240 bars long, providing that the total of 10,000 MIDI events is not exceeded. (A special utility function allows you to keep an eye on the percentage of remaining memory at all times). Since the Portakit happily stores all controller and patch change information as part of the sequence on complex pieces that memory tends to get eaten up faster than you think.
All input is in real time, with as many overdubs as you wish within the eight-note limit. Recording a new sequence allows you to define time signature, bar count and tempo. The metronome menu allows you to adjust the accompanying click to suit. Through this menu you can also select quantise values for the sequencer with a choice of 1/4, 1/6, 1/8, 1/12, 1/16, 1/24, 1/32 or Off. Note that unless quantise is set to Off, any MIDI effects are quantised too.
Whether overdubbing or starting from scratch, you can choose to record after a two-bar count in, or immediately you hit your first pad. In the latter case, the metronome will play even before you've made the hit, and as soon as you do it will automatically reset itself to the beginning of the bar.
Once the required number of bars have been recorded, the sequencer automatically jumps to Play to enable you to hear what you've recorded. By pressing Record again you jump back into Overdub mode.
However, at this point you can change the way the first track is played back, either by changing the tempo, or by switching it from single playback to Loop. In this case, the track will loop continuously until the Stop button is pressed or it clocks up 240 bars. Basically this allows you to set up a fairly basic one- or two-bar rhythm - a bass and snare beat for example - then overdub something like a longer, more expressive hi-hat part over the top.
Once you've decided to accept the overdub (you can abort it if you wish and start again with the original sequence), this overwrites the first track and replaces the old bar count. For example, if you loop a two-bar track and play a six-bar overdub, you've got a six-bar phrase which can be further looped during the next, say, 18-bar overdub. By the way, finished Sequences can be looped in playback too.
By anybody's standards these sequencer facilities are fairly limited. For example, if you make a mistake during a long overdub, you've got to go back and do the whole lot again. Or you've got to wait for the whole thing to play through before adding just a couple of cymbal crashes, or whatever, just at the end. It's also pretty frustrating if at some point you've created a section which, if taken in isolation and perhaps looped at a slightly different point, would make an extremely interesting rhythm in its own right.
That said, there's no doubt that as a musical sketch pad or just as a convenient way of remembering what you've played, at a rehearsal for example, it's an extremely handy facility to have available. And, should you want to get down to some fine editing, you've always got the option of dumping the whole lot to a more powerful sequencer. This is best done using the Portakit's MIDI System Exclusive implementation. You can also save and indeed load Kit and Song data this way, either to any device which supports MIDI system exclusive transfers or to other Portakits, if you happen to have a few more lying round the house.
DESPITE THE CRITICISMS, I have to conclude that the Portakit is the sort of instrument that my house was made to have lying round. Simmons' forte has always been in taking fairly tried and trusted technology and putting it together in a way which somehow allows you to approach the problem from a different angle.
Inevitably the Portakit will be competing most directly with the new Roland Octapad (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), since they fall into roughly the same price category. Keyboard players seeking an alternative to accessing their existing equipment via a keyboard may prefer the Octapad's more comprehensive note layering and what might appear to be a more logical pad layout. But, to my mind, the Portakit scores on three important points - its obvious capability to take hard knocks; its ability to generate MIDI control information; and the sequencer. OK, it doesn't cover every base, but it's an instrument which is great fun to sit down and mess about with on rainy Sunday afternoons. And quite frankly, how often does that happen?
Prices Portakit. £599; mounting bracket, £25.
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Review by Nicholas Rowland