MIDI Percussion Controller
The indisputable leader of the gang
If you find yourself with nothing to do with your hands on stage or prefer to maintain an element of spontaneity in your rhythm programming - try beating a Kat...
You'd expect an instrument called Kat to have a distinctive appearance, and the first of the breed, the Kat Percussion Instrument (designed with mallet players in mind), certainly was remarkable if only for its utilitarian design - foam rubber pads and battleship grey boxes. Anyone with an interest in such things may remember its release back in 1988, when the general concensus of opinion was that it was one of those machines which was brilliant in concept but lacking in visual appeal and (probably) durability.
Now there's a new instrument - the drumKat - this time aimed at all percussionists (not just mallet players), but equally distinctive in appearance - though with its two, rounded, ear-like protuberances on top of a larger, rounded, head-like cluster of pads, that appearance is considerably closer to a mouse than a cat. In fact, without wishing to seem to be taking the Mickey, there's something decidedly Disneyesque about it. It definitely takes a little getting used to. Kat themselves, would, I'm sure, claim this to be a sensible and ergonomically sound design for a drum pad controller. Myself, I'm in two minds about it - for reasons I shall come back to later.
Though it may not be obvious from the photographs, the playing area of the drumKat is actually divided up into ten separate pads, though programming allows you to combine these to form fewer, but larger, playing 'zones'. Much like a MIDI controller keyboard, the drumKat provides no sound of its own, but rather, generates MIDI information which can be used to trigger sounds from any MIDI source, of which the drum machine is only one example. In addition to the onboard pads, it is possible to connect up to nine further drum pads - or bugs attached to drums or other surfaces - and derive MIDI triggers from these.
Given centre stage on the top panel is a four-line (4 x 16 character) display which provides you with all the information you require when programming, and this is back-lit for use in darkened areas and adjustable for viewing angle to remain readable irrespective of how the drumKat is adjusted on its stand. Round t'back, you'll find all the connection hardware - a three-pin mains socket, a set of nine jack trigger inputs, a 'click' out jack, the four footswitch sockets and a generous complement of MIDI in and out ports - two of the former and four of the latter. In addition, there's a miniature jack socket for 'breath control', an extra 9V power supply input socket and a 'CV' input on the side of the drumKat.
These latter items all relate to new features and facilities which will be included in the drumKat with its next software upgrade. The review model came with software version 2.5 installed, but apparently this is soon to be upgraded to version 3.0. The upgrade is offered free to users of the drumKat (as, presumably, future upgrades will be).
It may have occurred to you from looking at the accompanying pictures, that for a sophisticated MIDI control device, the drumKat seems to have precious few switches and knobs with which it can be programmed. More specifically, it doesn't seem to have any switches and knobs with which it can be programmed. In fact, the onboard pads are used to enter data and perform the many editing functions which are provided across the three main operational modes: Play, Pre-Edit and Edit.
Play mode, as you might imagine, is where you should be if you wish to simply play the drumKat; Pre-Edit moves you around the various editing pages - or 'Screens' as Kat refer to them - while Edit is where the actual programming and editing operations are carried out. In this mode, the pads cease to be referred to by their Play Mode numbers, but take on the name of the editing function they are used to perform:
Pad 1 = Screen Advance
Pad 2 = Cursor Advance
Pad 3 = Reverse
Pad 4 = Sound Advance
Pad 5 = Hear Sound
Pad 6 = Value Advance
Pad 7 = Save
Pad 8 = Default
Pad 9 = Duplicate
Pad 0 = Recall
The system works by selecting Pre-Edit Mode, and hitting one of the pads. At this point the screen tells you the number of the pad you've just hit and what screens - or editing functions - you then have access to. For example, Pad 1 (Screen Advance) is used to move through the Screens, Pad 2 (Cursor Advance) allows you to move the cursor around within the current screen, Pad 3 (Reverse) reverses the direction of movement through the other functions, while Pad 6 (Cursor Value) is used for increasing (or decreasing, after hitting the Reverse Pad) the value of parameter underlined by the cursor.
Most of the editing that takes place on a MIDI controller of this type has to do with determining the parameters associated with each of the pads. On the drumKat this takes place within the Kit Edit screen - selected by hitting Pad 2 in Pre-Edit mode. Here you can name the current kit you are working on, view the overall pad assignments and edit individual parameters including MIDI channel and note settings, velocity levels (minimum and maximum) and velocity curve.
There's a choice of fourteen of these available and they include gentle and steep gradients, linear and stepped curves (...if that isn't a contradiction in terms) and also reverse curves which produce less volume the harder a pad is hit. Some quite fascinating effects can be produced here, or alternatively, curves may be selected simply to suit your playing style. But quite often, you find yourself having to adapt your playing style to suit the selected curve - particularly where this involves nonlinear settings.
Also adjustable within Kit Edit is the Gate Time associated with each pad hit. On most drum machines and percussion expanders this isn't really necessary, but where you wish to trigger longer sounds - perhaps on a sampler or synth - you need to be able to produce a long enough trigger to ensure the sound does not cut off prematurely. On the drumKat, gate times from 25ms to 6.325 seconds are programmable and it is also possible to sustain a trigger simply by continuing to press down on a pad after hitting it.
All the above relates to programming simple one-sound-per-pad set-ups, but it is also possible to generate multiple triggers (in what is known as Complex mode) capable of sounding three different notes, either together or staggered over a predetermined period of time. All the programming parameters available for single notes may be applied to each of the notes making up a Multiple trigger, and you can direct individual notes to specific MIDI output ports to make routing easier.
Having set up a Complex trigger, it is a relatively easy matter to relate the triggering of each sound to the playing dynamics you bring to bear on the pads. In other words, you can produce different sounds the harder you hit the pads. Obviously this can be used for special effects, but perhaps more interesting would be the assignment of different sounds derived from the same instrument to simulate the change in timbre with increasing dynamics - as occurs in the natural, acoustic world.
"As a performance instrument the drumKat has been thought out in great detail and would serve as an excellent central control unit at the heart of any electronic percussion set up"
In a similar way, you can also use a multiple trigger to generate notes which rise in pitch relative to playing dynamics, or, alternatively, which increase in length. Clearly, the choice of velocity curve will have a significant effect on all these functions, and of course, changes in pitch, length and note assignment will be reversed, should a Reverse curve be selected.
To make programming easier, and hopefully less time-consuming, the drumKat is equipped with a number of copy and duplication features which allow you to transfer existing parameter set-ups to other pads and kits, etc. In addition there's a wide variety of utility functions to aid the setting up of pad, kit and MIDI parameters. Principle among these is a MIDI program change enable/disable function, the viewing angle adjustment I mentioned earlier and the provision of a Song Creation Screen where kit set-ups may be chained together in up to 16 steps of eight songs and stepped through using one of the foot switches.
Also here, you'll find a function for setting the overall threshold level for each of the ten pads to determine the point at which they trigger, and linked to this, is a Pad Interaction Suppression facility intended to overcome any problems you might encounter with one pad triggering another. It should be stressed that the pressure sensitive material underneath the pads makes this somewhat unlikely, but there are circumstances in which it could occur particularly in extremes of temperature and/or humidity.
Finally, there's a facility for writing into memory two of your own velocity curves (this is in addition to the fourteen already included) and this clearly will be of use in ensuring that you obtain a playable response from any external trigger devices. Coupled to it is a learn or 'Training' facility through which it is possible for the drumKat to recognise the shape of a trigger generated from external sources and also to respond to your anticipated minimum and maximum dynamic playing levels.
So that, in broad outline, is what the drumKat does. The question which remains to be answered is how well does it do it?
As a performance instrument the drumKat has clearly been thought out in great detail and would serve as an excellent central control unit at the heart of any electronic percussion set up. It has been designed to be easily programmed, and perhaps more importantly, to be re-programmed on the hoof - so to speak. With the display right in front of you and the ability to enter data using the pads (and footswitches) - making adjustments mid-set (or even mid-song) becomes possible. And that's something you can't say about all MIDI triggering units.
The programming system itself is relatively straightforward and once grasped, is easily remembered. Sadly, learning is made rather tedious by what I can only describe as an overly-helpful instruction manual. It's not that it's badly written or anything, it's just that the writer always insists on going back over what's just been learnt and what's just about to be learnt before actually giving you the information you require. Apart from anything else this has the effect of making the manual much longer than it need be, and making it impossible to turn straight to a particular page to find out how to accomplish a certain task. It's also, perhaps, why the drumKat arrives with its own video tutorial, which is in all ways superior to the manual, though not actually a replacement for it.
Of far greater concern, of course, is the question of how playable the drumKat is. Personally, I got on extremely well with it as an instrument - it's sensitive and yet you really can give it a good wallop and get an appropriate thwack out of the speakers. That said, as I mentioned earlier, I am in two minds about the layout of the playing area. The problem centres around the rather peculiar shape of each pad, arranged in a semi-circular pattern. When playing any percussion instrument one tends to form a mind's eye image of the size, shape and layout of the playing surfaces. Once formed, we rely on this image to ensure the accuracy of our strokes - particularly as we play the instrument in conditions where we cannot rely on our sight.
What concerns me about the drumKat is that the pad areas are rather small, and it's extremely difficult to form an accurate mental image of their perimeters. Obviously there's nothing to stop you looking at the pads until you get used to playing them, but with no real divisions between adjacent pads (the rubber is simply indented), even this is difficult - especially under stage lighting conditions. A layout like that of Roland's Octapad (two rows of four square pads) though considerably less imaginative, is actually much easier to hold in mind, and that can be crucial when attempting to place one's sticks in such a small area.
That aside, it would be difficult to fault the physical construction of the drumKat. It's extremely well built and certainly looks like the kind of instrument you'd want to get to know... and it's not often you can say that these days.
Operationally, I cannot conceive of any rhythmically useful function that could be provided by a MIDI controller that isn't included on the drumKat. As I said earlier, it is effectively two instruments in one, and with a full complement of external pads or drum bugs connected, you would have a set-up of potentially awesome flexibility. Even if you're only involved in the programming of drum machines, playing an instrument like the drumKat has a whole lot more to recommend it than pressing buttons or clicking mice. Anyone for whom rhythm plays a major part in their work should find this an instrument worth investigating.
Review by Nigel Lord
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