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Cactus MkII Electronic Drums

A revised version of ex-E&MM staffer Pete Kershaw's electronic percussion system: it uses a hybrid of analogue and digital technology. Review by Paul White.

A new, revised electronic drum kit from ex-E&MM contributor Pete Kershaw that mixes analogue and digital sounds.

Since Simmons started the ball rolling in the field of live electronic percussion, there have been several attempts by other manufacturers to break their monopoly, though by and large these have met with limited success.

This new kit from Cactus is a revised version of the model reviewed in E&MM March, and combines digitally-recorded sounds of real drums with analogue voices so that, in theory at any rate, the kit may be used to simulate acoustic drums or to create most of the popular synthesised drum sounds.

The kit comprises up to ten drum pads, complete with stands, a hi-hat pedal and the control module, the latter resembling a small mixing desk. All the pads connect to the control module by means of the XLR-to-jack leads supplied, and the hi-hat pedal also plugs in so that open and closed hi-hat sounds may be obtained by using conventional playing techniques.


As the photograph shows, all the drum pads are identical with the exception of the bass drum, which is somewhat larger than the others and has both supporting spurs and provision for fixing any conventional kickdrum pedal. The pads have been somewhat redesigned since the appearance of the MkI, the most noticeable difference being the bass drum, which no longer resembles a decorative jelly mould, the embossed cactus being no longer in evidence.

All the stands are of the type used with conventional acoustic drums, and once assembled, the whole structure is quite secure and should not move during normal playing. The cream-coloured plastic pads are light but quite rigid, and their rubber playing surfaces give a reasonable amount of 'feel' so that few drummers should have problems adapting.


Cactus MkII Master Console.

The master console is solidly constructed from steel sheet with wooden end-cheeks. Triggering is accomplished by connecting the pads to the jack sockets on the rear of the unit, but a socket labelled 'digital interface' enables the unit to be driven from a sequencer or computer.

Five of the modules (including the cymbals and the two synth modules) are optional plug-in units, and this means that different combinations may be fitted according to the purchaser's requirements. Each module is fed to the main stereo output, but separate outputs are also fitted so that a mixer may be used to treat each voice individually.

The panel is tastefully finished in dark grey with clear legending in white, the knobs having coloured caps to indicate their function. A stereo headphone output (with independent level control) allows for private practice, and there's also a knob labelled 'metronome level', though this does not function unless fed from an external source.


The system as provided for review included snare, bass, three toms, and two synth voicings, as well as ride, crash and hi-hat cymbals.

The snare drum is a digital sample, and a Mix control allows noise to be added: this mixture is passed through a filter with Frequency and Resonance controls. As with all the voicings, pitch, decay and pan are separately variable, each module having an individual volume, pan and sensitivity control, a red LED indicating triggering.

The voices are all touch-responsive, and with sensible adjustment of the controls, a variety of convincing snare drum sounds may be obtained, in addition to a selection of more synthetic tones.

"It's a bit weird at first, hitting a rubber-coated frisbee and getting a realistic, expensive-sounding cymbal coming back at you through the speakers."

The bass drum has only pitch and decay controls, while a slide switch gives a choice of two digitally-encoded sounds. Both are punchy and useful, though I would have preferred more click, the sounds being perhaps a mite too bassy. This is purely a matter of taste, of course, and if a mixer is being employed, a bit of EQ should help improve matters.

The three toms are identical, and like the bass drum have only decay and pitch controls. They are tunable over a sensibly wide range, but at very low pitches some clock noise is audible. These sounds are digitally encoded, and sound more authentic than most analogue simulations this author has encountered, and alternative samples may be available in the near future.

In the synth department, the voicings are the familiar blend of noise, pitch and stick click. The noise passes through a variable resonance filter, and both this and the pitch have variable positive or negative sweep controls which follow the decay time setting, all three sound sources being mixable. With a bit of careful manipulation by the user, the synth voices can sound just like Sss... you know who.

Too often, cymbal voices are the downfall of electronic drum kits, but in the case of the Cactus, they are digitally encoded and do in fact sound very impressive. The crash and ride cymbals have pitch and decay controls and may be adjusted to sound like just about anything from gongs to finger cymbals.

Similar controls are fitted to the hi-hat, with the addition of a filter incorporating frequency, sweep and resonance controls. The digitally-encoded sound may be mixed with noise, and separate decay controls for open and closed hi-hat are also fitted. In operation, the hi-hat pedal works in much the same way as its mechanical counterpart, a sound being produced when the pedal is depressed in the usual way. The pedal also opens and closes the hi-hats (or at least, the sound of the hi-hat), and with the appropriate settings, this too sounds very realistic. If, on the other hand, your penchant is for sounds that are a little out-of-the-ordinary, the Cactus is capable of providing a full complement of these also, providing you're willing to do some experimental knob-twiddling.


One or two minor criticisms aside, this kit performs very well, though in the cosmetics department, the Desert Drums may not appeal to the fashion-conscious drummer. Although the pads work well enough (apart from a little crosstalk between pads mounted on the same stand), they do not look inspiring when compared to some of their competitors. Likewise, the bass drum is a flimsy-looking plastic device which, although mechanically very tough, does not inspire very much in the way of confidence at first glance.

My only gripe about the electronics is the clock noise breakthrough on some of the tom sounds, but this is not particularly loud and would probably not be of much significance in a live situation.

I should perhaps point out that the review sample was one of the first production models Cactus have produced, so there's still time for them to remedy some of these little faults before the kit becomes generally available.

On the positive side, the digital drum sounds are good, the cymbals particularly so, due to some generously long samples. The synth modules are capable of producing all the right noises, while the hi-hat pedal also behaves well, though it's a bit weird at first, hitting a rubber-coated frisbee and getting a realistic, expensive-sounding cymbal coming back at you through the speakers.

There's no reason to suspect that the Cactus will not stand up to life on the road, so if you put your music before flashy appearances, give this kit a try.

The Cactus MkII Electronic Drum Kit carries an RRP of £799 (inc. VAT) for a basic five-piece kit, and further information can be obtained from Cactus Consultants, (Contact Details).

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Expanding MIDI

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The Creative Technology Institute

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Sep 1984

Gear in this article:

Drums (Electronic) > Cactus > Desert Drums

Review by Paul White

Previous article in this issue:

> Expanding MIDI

Next article in this issue:

> The Creative Technology Inst...

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