Total Percussion Pad
On the trail of Roland's successful Octapads comes the SPD8 - a MIDI percussion controller with a neat line in onboard sounds. Simon Trask says beat it.
Roland's latest MIDI percussion controller can be used as a self-contained drum module or MIDI drum expander - yet it costs significantly less than its pads-only predecessor.
THERE'S NO DOUBT that Roland set the standard for MIDI percussion controllers when they released the Pad8 Octapad back in 1986 - a standard which they raised with the subsequent Pad80 Octapad II, essentially an enhanced version of its predecessor. These days it's become common practice for drummers to add an Octapad to an otherwise all-acoustic kit, while many non-drummers have discovered the delights of thwacking the Octapad's eight pads, when they would never dream of sitting behind a drum kit.
The SPD8 Total Percussion Pad follows in the tradition of the Pad8 and Pad80, offering eight pads and thwack-to-MIDI interfacing in one unit. But where its predecessors required a MIDI instrument to be connected before you could make a noise (unless you count the sound of stick hitting pad), the SPD8 can function as a self-contained performance instrument courtesy of 39 onboard drum and percussion sounds.
I say "performance instrument" because the SPD8 has no internal sequencing capability - in other words, it's not a drum machine with unusually large pads. However, in addition to being able to play the SPD8's internal sounds off its own pads you can trigger them via incoming MIDI notes - from a sequencer or a drum machine, perhaps. So does the Total Percussion Pad represent a wise move or a miscalculation on Roland's part?
WITH THE INCLUSION of drum sounds, you might expect the SPD8 to cost more than the Pad80. In fact, it costs significantly less - £399 to the Pad80's £540. But before you give yourself a headache trying to figure out how they've done it (or start penning letters which begin "Dear Roland, until today I was a satisfied Pad80 user..."), I should point out that some sacrifices have been made to keep the price of the SPD8 down. In physical layout it's essentially the same as its predecessors, with eight sizeable pads (4" x 4½") and a slender control panel - though now the panel is above rather than to the right of the pads. However, gone are the six external pad inputs of the Pad8 and Pad80, together with the latter's card slot for storing onboard patch data - though SysEx transfer of patch data is still possible with the SPD8 - while the Pad80's LED window has been replaced by a three-digit LCD (you can forget about naming patches).
Economies have also been made where the quality of the pads themselves is concerned. Where the Pad8 and Pad80 have eight physically-separate pads, the SPD8 utilises a single rubber pad surface which is divided by narrow raised rubber strips into eight pad areas. Fortunately this doesn't result in trigger "leakage" between the pod areas; if anything, a stray stick hit when you're playing near the edge of a pad is more likely to trigger an adjacent pad, due to the closeness of the pads. Maximum velocity response is only generated when you hit a pad centrally (immediately above its sensor); as you play further away from the centre, the sensor registers less force even if you play with the same force.
To get any response if you play the pads with your hands, you need to hit them firmly and centrally, and even then you get neither the dynamic range nor the volume from the sounds that you do when playing with sticks. When you do use sticks (and all you nondrummers will need to go out and buy some, because Roland don't include any with the SPD8), you get a reasonable amount of bounce off the pads, but - and admittedly I'm going on memory here - they don't have as good a feel or responsiveness as the pads on the SPD8's predecessors.
Turning to the rear panel of the SPD8, other changes are evident compared to its predecessors. Obviously now there are audio outs for the internal sounds (a L (Mono)/R (Stereo) pair but no individual outs, and a stereo headphone output on a 3.5mm jack rather than a quarter-inch jack), but the surprising inclusion is a stereo audio input (again a 3.5mm jack connection). The input signal is merged internally with your own playing, and the merged signal is then transmitted from the SPD8. Clearly the idea here is that you can plug in your Walkman and play along to whatever you've got on tape.
The SPD8 has MIDI In and Out sockets but loses the Thru of the Pad80. A less immediately apparent MIDI difference is the SPD8's omission of the Pad80's MIDI merge facility. If you're adding the SPD8 to a sequencer-based setup as a second controller to be used in conjunction with a keyboard, you have a choice between much lead-swapping, a MIDI selector box or - ideally - a MIDI merge box.
The Pad80's rear-panel Edit on/off switch has been replaced on the SPD8 by a dedicated front-panel Edit on/off button, while the SPD8 loses one footswitch input compared to its predecessor. Gone is the Pad80's mod/bend/aftertouch footpedal input (which facilitated more control over external MIDI sounds than pad hits by themselves) and patch shift down footswitch input. The SPD8 has a dedicated Patch Shift Up input, a footswitch input which allows you to select an alternative set of pad assignments for each patch when depressed, and a footswitch input which can be set per patch to one of two functions: triggering an internal and/or MIDI sound, or acting as a sustain pedal for MIDI sounds. It's worth pointing out here that the SPD8's provision of an alternative set of pad assignments which can be selected at the press of a footswitch (and programmed per patch), is in many ways a better option than the external pad inputs of the Pad8 and Pad80. It's more convenient, doesn't involve any extra expense, and gives you a maximum of 16 as opposed to 14 pads per patch (if you include the footswitch option, the SPD8 actually provides you with up to 17 trigger sources per patch).
Other differences relate purely to changes in the software. Thus the SPD8 has 32 patches and one patch chain compared to the Pad80's 64 patches and eight patch chains, while the SPD8 forgoes the Pad80's ability to layer or velocity switch between up to three notes per pad. On the other hand, the SPD8 improves on one of the Pad80's shortcomings by reverting to the shorter minimum time and the finer timing resolution of the Pad8's MIDI Gate Time parameter - thus making it less likely that you'll need to edit the amplitude envelope of an external MIDI sound (a bass sound, for instance) specifically to fit the SPD8's performance requirements.
"The SPD8's alternative pad assignments are in many ways a better option than the external pad inputs found on the Pad8 and Pad80."
Optionally available for the SPD8 is the APC33 All-Purpose Clamp Set, which isn't as unfriendly as it sounds. In fact, it's a means of securing the SPD8 to the top of a drum stand, and requires only four screws to attach the stand holder to the underside of the unit.
THE SPD8'S PAD parameters are divided into Sound and MIDI categories which, of course, govern how the pads control internal and external sounds. Successive presses of dedicated Sound and MIDI buttons cycle through each set of parameters; these are listed in two columns on the control panel, with associated pinpoint LEDs for each parameter indicating the currently-selected parameter. Further useful feedback is provided by six numbered pad indicators on the control panel. These light up momentarily when the corresponding pads are hit in Play mode, but are most useful in Edit mode, where the indicator corresponding to the pad currently selected for editing blinks at you. You select a pad for editing by hitting it, so not surprisingly it's easy to end up editing the wrong sound when you're trying out a rhythm or a pitch sequence in Edit mode. By visually reminding you which pad is selected, the indicators can help you out here - a neat touch.
The buttons on the control panel are all rugged rubber affairs which require firm pressure to activate. In addition to the Edit, Sound and MIDI buttons there are buttons dedicated to Volume up/down, Value up/down, Patch/Level up/down (controlling patch selection in Play mode and individual pad level in Edit mode), Copy, All/Enter and Patch Chain functions. Copy allows you to copy Sound only, MIDI only, or both Sound and MIDI parameters from one patch to another, while the All/Enter button allows you to copy the value of a particular parameter on any one pad to all the other pads within the selected pad set (effectively, pads 1-8 or 9-16). This can be particularly useful where you want to set the same MIDI channel or the same velocity response curve for all the pads - you just select the parameter and set the required value for one pad, then press All/Enter.
The SPD8 adopts the Patch Chain function of the Pad80, though as mentioned earlier, with only one as opposed to eight chains. As on the Pad80, a chain can consist of up to 32 steps, with each step comprising one of the SPD8's 32 patches. Once you've created the required sequence of patches, you can use the Patch/Level up/down buttons and the Patch Shift Up footswitch to move through the chain in Play mode.
The SPD8's Sound parameters are instrument assign (off/1-117), pitch (±1 octave in semitone steps), decay (±30), velocity filter (1-10), pan (left 1-6/centre/right 1-6), velocity response curve (1-5) and individual pad level (1-20). Earlier I mentioned that there were 39 onboard drum and percussion sounds, so how come there are 117 possible instruments in the assign parameter? The first clue is that 3 x 39 = 117. The second clue comes with the inclusion of the velocity filter parameter. The SPD8 doesn't just give you its sounds straight, it gives you three versions of each sound - routed through a low-pass, a high-pass and a band-reject, filter respectively. As it turns out, the SPD8's use of filtering is a sort of halfway house between no filtering at all and the sort of sophistication available on Roland's D70 synth. Where the latter allows you to set your own filter cutoff point, resonance amount and envelope for each drum sound, the SPD8 merely controls the filter cutoff point in relation to the Velocity Filter setting for each pad and the force with which you hit the pad. The higher the Velocity Filter setting, the greater the effect of the filtering in response to lower-velocity pad hits; harder hits progressively shift the cutoff point out of audio range (so the low-pass filter's cutoff would move progressively upwards), returning the sound to its unfiltered state. Here the differing velocity responses of the inner and outer areas of each pad can give you an extra degree of flexibility in performance. In contrast, obviously the footswitch-triggered sound can only be played with a fixed filter cutoff, because it can only be triggered at one velocity.
Given that filter cutoff adjustment on the SPD8 isn't tailored to individual sounds, the degree of effect at maximum Velocity Filter setting can vary greatly, from hardly any at all to virtually filtering the sound out of existence. Similarly, in some cases the character of the sound changes very little while in other cases it changes significantly. Overall, however, filtering is a worthwhile addition to the SPD8.
The SPD8's MIDI parameters are MIDI channel (off/1-16), note number (0-127), gate time (0.1-4.0 seconds in 0.1 increments), velocity curve (1-6), velocity sensitivity (1-16) and patch change (off/1-128). This is essentially the same array of MIDI parameters as are to be found on the Pad80, with the omission of the latter's note layer/switch and MIDI pan amount parameters.
The SPD8, of course, allows you to disable MIDI transmission and/or internal sounds for individual pads, so that you can trigger an internal sound only, a MIDI sound only or both internal and MIDI sounds off of each pad. You can also choose to trigger no sound at all, an option which is useful if you want to play two pads to help you create a rhythm from one of the pads.
"The SPD8 doesn't just give you its sounds straight, it gives three versions of each sound - through low-pass, high-pass and band-reject filters."
You may have noticed that the SPD8 has six MIDI velocity curves but only five internal curves. This is because it has a flat-response curve for MIDI transmission but not for internal performance; the MIDI velocity sensitivity parameter determines which of 16 predetermined velocity values will be used (7-127). Once the selected value has been recorded into a sequencer, it will play back the internal SPD8 sounds at this constant velocity - so why not include a flat-response curve for the internal sounds in the first place?
The internal sounds and their MIDI transmit notes assigned to the pads within each patch also form the "drumkit" for MIDI reception purposes - receiving on a single, user-programmable MIDI channel. This has the advantage that rhythm patterns recorded into a sequencer can automatically be played back on the SPD8 as long as the same patch is selected via MIDI or from the front panel. The disadvantage is that if you want to play back a sequenced rhythm part on the SPD8 you can't select a different patch to play - say, a bassline on an external MIDI instrument from the SPD8's pads. It might have made more sense to include a parameter which allowed onboard and incoming MIDI selection of patches to be made independently - so that, for instance, while patch 16 was being used to play a sequenced rhythm part, patch 27 could be used to play a bassline. But maybe the SPD8 would simply have been incapable of handling so many pad settings at once.
I also can't help feeling that a local on/off facility wouldn't have gone amiss, as you can run into situations when using a sequencer where you're triggering internal sounds and MIDI notes off the SPD8's pads and having the sounds played via MIDI as well.
On a more positive note, internal and MIDI sounds play for their assigned duration regardless of SPD8 patch changes, so you need have no fear of notes being cut short. This also means you could, for instance, use the sustain footswitch function to hold a low orchestral strings note on an external MIDI module through different SPD8 pad assignments.
The SPD8 has nine-voice polyphony available for playing its internal sounds. Just as no more than one sound can be played per pad, so no more than one sound can be triggered from the same incoming MIDI note number. Where two or more sounds are assigned to the same note number, the sound assigned to the lowest-numbered pad is triggered. There is a way of triggering two sounds from one pad (one triggered internally only, the other out and then back in via MIDI), but it's too convoluted to explain here.
The SPD8's sounds, as you might expect, are derived from the R-series drum machines, which means clean, penetrating 16-bit sounds. These are: dry, room and TR808 kicks (the latter booming with its maximum three-second delay); dry, room and TR808 snares; side stick; room, dry, electronic and TR808 toms; closed and open hi-hats; crash and ride cymbals and ride cymbal bell; vibraphone; marimba; glockenspiel; xylophone; kalimba (very techno/metallic); steel drum; timpani; mute high, open high and open low congas; cowbell, timbale; agogo; claves; bongo, shaker; cuica; triangle, surdo; TR808 clap; TR808 cowbell; record scratch; and glass crash. Bearing in mind that you can create three versions of each of these using the filtering, and that pitch and delay parameters allow for even more variety, the SPD8 provides you with a fair amount of flexibility in the sound department.
ANY ACOUSTIC DRUMMER who hasn't yet invested in an Octapad may well find the SPD8's self-contained nature makes it a friendly entry into the world of MIDI, keeping the option to add on other MIDI instruments open. Clearly this is one reason why Roland have added the SPD8 to the existing Octapads. But the SPD8 also offers MIDI-inclined non-drummers the opportunity to buy a well-specified MIDI drum expander and a MIDI percussion controller in one, at a very reasonable price.
Previous reviews: Pad8 Octapad: E&MM February 1986: Pad 80 Octapad II: MT September 1988
Price £399 including VAT
More from Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!