Roland SPD8 Total Percussion Pad
Roland's latest 8-pad midi percussion controller adds internal sounds to a tried and tested formula. Paul Ireson checks it out.
Roland may not quite have a monopoly in the field of quality electronic percussion products, but it's a pretty close thing. The Octapad, their classic controller design, was updated two years ago to the Pad80 with significantly improved MIDI facilities, and now the concept of an 8-pad controller appears in the form of the SPD8 Total Percussion Pad. The grand title of Total Percussion Pad is perhaps justified by the fact that the SPD8 actually includes drum sounds of its own, besides allowing you to trigger external modules via MIDI. Although the MIDI facilities are in some respects not as powerful as the Pad80's, and its physical construction is just a little less solid, the SPD8 is still a beautiful MIDI percussion controller — so it's a pleasant surprise to find that the SPD8 is actually cheaper than the Pad80 was when it was first released.
The playing surface of the SPD8 is a rubber mat, divided into eight sections by raised rubber strips. Each area provides a single pad for triggering. The arrangement is not as confidence-inspring as the separate pads of the Pad80, but it works fine. I never noticed adjacent pads responding to off-centre strikes on another. The pads are best played with drum sticks — anything less, and you'll have a hard time getting the best out of the pads' velocity response. It's actually quite hard to trigger them with your hands. An optional clamp set is available, should you want to mount the SPD8 on a drum stand, but I suspect most users will be content to sit it on a handy table top, or keyboard stand perhaps.
Above the pads are a group of 12 buttons that access all control and editing functions. The SPD8's memory offers you 32 Patches, each of which holds a set of MIDI and sound parameters for each pad. You can step through the Patches in numerical order, or assemble them into a Patch chain for performance. Editing is a simple matter: enter edit mode, select a sound or MIDI parameter by successive pushes on the Sound or MIDI buttons (LEDs light up next to a list of parameters to indicate which parameter is currently selected), select a pad by hitting it, and adjust the parameter with the up/down increment buttons. Hit another pad, and you're now editing that set of pad parameters. A set of eight representations of the pads flash to indicate which pad you are currently editing, and when you've finished editing, they flash when pads are hit.
Round the back of the unit are stereo audio output jacks, and phones output and a stereo line in via mini jacks (which in my opinion shouldn't be let anywhere near serious gear, unless absolutely necessary). The idea of the stereo line in is to let you play along to a tape, or whatever, and the signal is simply mixed into the stereo output of the SPD8. Next come three footswitch buttons, one for Patch shifting, and two for... well, wait and see. There is no MIDI Thru socket; only In and Out. The power supply is external.
Pad parameters fall into two categories: sound and MIDI. Sound parameters relate to the internal SPD8 sound that is assigned to a pad, and MIDI parameters to the MIDI data that a pad will generate when struck. The sound parameters are: Instrument (you can choose one of 39 drum sounds): Pitch (-12 to +12 semitones); Decay (lets you shorten or lengthen an instrument's basic decay time); Velocity Filter (see below); Pan (13 positions); Velocity Curve (choice of five). You can also set a volume for each pad. Each of the 39 drum sounds actually comes in three variations, with a high-pass, low-pass, and a notch filter (here called a 'combination' filter. By choosing one of the variations, you are choosing what type of filtering to apply to the basic sound, and the Velocity Filter parameter (1-8) then allows you to specify how the dynamics of playing the pad will affect the drum sound. Basically, set the parameter higher, and more sound will get through as you hit the pads harder. The volume/velocity sensitivity is unaffected by all this. The filtering can be quite severe, and it does more than merely allow you to add a little extra expression, although it's certainly a great way of doing just that. If you want to hear the basic sound, and not have any filtering applied, you can just select either the low or high-pass version, and set the Velocity Filtering to its minimum value.
MIDI parameters are: MIDI channel; Note Number; Gate Time (0.1 to 4 seconds); Velocity Curve; Velocity Sensitivity; Program Change (sent when the SPD8 Patch is selected). I was a little disappointed to find that you can only assign one MIDI note per pad, not three as on the Pad80.
The effective number of pads is increased by the provision of the two assignable footswitch sockets I mentioned earlier. Number one can be used either as a simple trigger for internal sounds and MIDI notes (like a ninth, non-velocity sensitive pad), or as a hold pedal. The former function is of course perfect for triggering kick samples in time honoured fashion, while the latter adds to the SPD8's potential as a MIDI controller — remember, you don't have to trigger just drum sounds, and you could build up a chord on a MIDI'd expander by holding the pedal down and hitting several pads in quick succession. More importantly, the hold function gives you control over how long a note will sustain for.
The second optional footswitch effectively doubles the number of pads you have available — hold it down, and you can program another set of eight 'shifted' pads. When playing, all you have to do is hold the footswitch down, and you have temporarily replaced the primary pad set with the footswitch set. Let go, and you're back to normal. There is no provision to accept an input from extra external pads.
The SPD8's on-board sounds, all 16-bit, are of Roland's usual high standard in this area. The list consists essentially of basic kit sounds (with a selection of kicks and snares), and a range of percussion sounds which has a slight bias towards those suitable for pitched playing.
The SPD8 is unusual for a percussion controller in that it has its own sounds onboard, and you can of course play these via MIDI, from a sequencer or keyboard, as well as from the pads. Mapping of incoming MIDI notes to SPD8 sounds is carried out according to the MIDI settings of the pads in the current Patch, so if a pad is assigned to generate note number 64, then an incoming note number 64 will trigger the pad's sound. The pad's MIDI channel setting is ignored; rather, a Basic Channel parameter can be specified (as a global parameter), on which all pads will respond. This channel can also be used to switch Patches on the SPD8 remotely, which is rather handy, because without Patch switching you will not have access to all 39 sounds over MIDI. Even allowing for the second, footswitch selected, set of pads (all of which can be assigned MIDI notes) and the trigger footswitch, you can only access 17 sounds at once — a little disappointing. The unit is 9-note polyphonic, and individual sounds will play polyphonically — that is, a second, softer, strike on a cymbal pad will not cut short the decay of the mighty crash that's just dying away.
The SPD8 can hardly fail to be a winner, combining as it does the essence of the Pad80's functions with a fine set of its own sounds, for considerably less money than Pad80 (though it's still not that cheap). If it's a basic drum-to-MIDI convertor that you want, then both Roland and Yamaha have produced much cheaper, more home keyboard-oriented pad units that will translate your finger-tappings into MIDI messages quite happily — no need for an SPD8. And you can play them with drumsticks, but only in much the same way as you can type away at your computer keyboard with pieces of lead pipe. If you want to actually hit the thing, if you want the extra MIDI facilities, or if you think that an extra 39 drum sounds with dynamic filtering might just come in handy, then the SPD8 has to be the way to go in percussion control.
£399 Inc VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Preview by Paul Ireson
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