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A consumer’s guide to current drum pads

Posted on Thursday 24 August 2006

Back when I was writing the Djurdevdan remix for Stepmania, I tried creating a pair of MIDI-flipflops as a way to procrastinate and also to try to use them as drum triggers to help me write/program drum beats. The idea was to put two sensors in each one and wear them on my hands, and drum with my palms and fingertips like I normally do on a tabletop. It actually worked, but needless to say it did not have the accuracy, timing, velocity sensitivity, or pressure sensitivity that I needed. They’ve been stored away with my other half-baked ideas on a projects shelf. I should post more about them later.

I got the drum trigger idea from watching Carl Landa accompany a Skidmore dance class and make a sick one man band. He had a midi-triggered acoustic grand piano and a Roland Handsonic hooked up via MIDI to a Korg rack synth, a drum pedal on one foot, and a tambourine attached to the other. He also plays hammered dulcimer, Sitar, and this other cool amplified ceramic Indian drum I forgot the name of. But man, could he wail on the Handsonic. The Handsonic is designed as a replacement instrument for a hand drum, so it can recognize muffs, tones, slaps, mutes, and finger rolls amazingly well. It can send MIDI signals but also has its own ethnic music sound bank. Carl used it a lot to control not just hand drum triggers but cymbals, gongs, bells, and other percussion. It sounded amazing.

I was all set to go buy one until I found out that they cost an average of $900. That’s a little above my price range for a drum trigger. So I set off on a drum pad adventure for pads under $200.

The first thing I found was the Akai PD16, which came out several years ago.

Akai MPD16

I had a $100 Amazon gift certificate and Amazon was selling this for $99, so I almost bought it. It has good reviews — the pads are velocity and touch sensitive and are the same pads used in Akai’s industry standard MPC line of drum sequencers/samplers. It’s old, though–people were having MIDI timing delay issues with it and complained about its single fader, among other things. “Wait for the updated MPD24,” everyone was saying.

Next I found the Korg Padkontrol ($200) after seeing an ad in Remix magazine.

Korg Padkontrol

And then I found this video which made me wet my pants. You have to deal with their pop-up-windowy, we’ll-decide-that-real-player’s-the best-codec-for-you content server, but trust me, it’s worth it. Holy moly does the Korg Padkontrol blow the MPD16 and other current pads out of the water. The XY pad looks amazing, and the roll and flam buttons are unbelievable. Ok so I should be able to do flams by myself with two fingers, but the roll effect sounds better than I can produce live on a drum set, let alone live on a drum pad or even with drum programming.

The only thing about the Korg is, it looks a little gimmicky. Buttons that light up? Yeah that’s fun to play with and it will make people drool over your equipment if you play live, but they don’t seem to have any other function except to make you look like a raver. The XY pad? I could see how it could be useful, but I have a ribbon controller on my DJX (I guess that just makes it an X pad, lol) and I never use it except to show off. The XY seems like it would only be useful for the Korg’s predefined uses, such as the roll function. As for the roll function? “I never get tired of that” the guy says on the video. I think the roll function is probably enough to justify buying the Korg, but as much as I want to try it, I think I could use it once or twice in a song either while recording or in a live performance, and then I (and my audience) would get tired of it.
Still, the Korg has a good reputation for having good sensors, it comes with an impressive software and sample library, and it clearly kicks the most ass out of all current controllers. I almost bought this pad using part of my amazon gift certificate via the Musician’s Friend affiliate section of Amazon, but even though Muscian’s friend offers it, Amazon does not. Musician’s friend was doing something sneaky with the padkontrol–for a while it was saying Availability: Due [whatever today’s date is]” because it was backordered, never giving you a real availability date. Calling them on the phone made them give me a more honest date. I hoped Amazon would start carrying it once Musician’s Friend had it back in stock, as the phone representative claimed, but then I realized Amazon doesn’t carry lots of Korg products that Musician’s Friend does.
Next, I found the M-audio trigger finger ($200).

M-audio Trigger Finger

I respect M-audio–I have a pair of their BXX5a studio monitors, and they’re awesome. The trigger finger was created for the electronic computer musician–it has 4 assignable faders and 8 assignable knobs along with its pressure and velocity sensitive pads. Everyone’s selling it and using it, and they have an impressive video as well. The drum samples aren’t as good as the Korg video’s, but it shows other things you can do as well, such as triggering samples, loops, and video clips, and using the knobs to control effects.

Trigger Finger Possibility Overlay

Any of these pads should be able to trigger samples or note on values, but the Trigger Finger seems to have drivers and an interface that is well supported with other programs. Software is important, or your hardware will be useless. The Korg Padkontrol says that you can control secondary synth effects by pressing down on the pads, but let’s face it–how intuitive would it be to latch and modify a continuous controller using a velocity sensitive button? The Korg does have two knobs, and I will admit that I have not used any of this equipment before, but I just don’t see how you could accurately control a mixer fader or panner using a button that at some point has to go back up. The assignable faders and knobs on the trigger finger are a nice advantage.

The problem is, I hear, that the trigger finger’s actual triggers are sub par. According to comments on youtube, comparisons on forums, and other blogs, the trigger finger has square pads attached to round sensors underneath, so even though they’re velocity and pressure sensitive, you have to hit the triggers fairly solidly in the middle of the pads for it to register. The corners of the pads don’t always trigger. Even the drum sounds in the video don’t sound as smooth or natural as the Korg padkontrol’s demo video does.

This was a deal breaker for me–I’d rather have the faderless padkontrol than a semi-responsive drum trigger.

Let me take a break from $200 drum pads to mention one other product I was considering — the Novation Remote Zero SL. ($300)
Novation Remote Zero SL

I already have a MIDI keyboard, so their other midi controllers didn’t interest me, but this one did. The reason you would buy these products is to streamline your music creation process. The faster you can get your ideas out, the more you can experiment and be productive. The more interactive it is, the more musical you can be. Half of this is going to be the hardware interface, and half of it is going to be software. Novation has been very innovative in putting the control back in your hands, making improvements in the hardware and software, with LEDs on its equipment that changes when you change instruments in Reason or DP, and auto-map software to auto-assign your faders and knobs on the fly. Having that much control over Reason does tempt me, and the additional drum triggers almost have me sold. The only things that didn’t sell me on the novation are the price, the layout of the triggers, and the smaller size of the triggers. The triggers also seem to be an added feature to the design, like an afterthought, not the featured purpose of the equipment. I would be interested in peoples’ review of the Novation drum triggers though, the product is very new and has a lot of potential.

Wow, was I wrong about this thing. Please read my post about how disappointing the MPD24 actually is so far.

Finally, we come to the product of choice, the one “everyone’s been waiting for.” The Akai MPD24 ($200).

Akai MPD24 It’s new. It’s improved. It’s the ‘cadillac of drum driggers’ as a Sweetwater sales guy called it. It has MPC highly velocity and pressure sensitive pads. It has 8 assignable 360° knobs and 6 assignable faders. It has a LED that displays a lot of information. It has 4 banks to quickly switch between while using the pads. And it has transport control, which is a nice feature none of the other pads have.

I bought one from Sweetwater, and expected it on the weekend. And then I got the call. “You actually bought a listing, not a product, the MPD24 isn’t actually shipping yet. Akai estimates October 16th but they’ve already delayed once, so we can’t guarantee it.” What??

If you google Akai MPD24, you get ad listings from Platinum Records, Sweetwater, AudioMidi, and Sam Ash, all selling it for $199. Some of them don’t even say they don’t have it! They’re competing so much to sell you this product that they don’t even admit they don’t have it yet. Sweetwater has no mention that it’s a listing only and Audio Midi didn’t either, until I complained to them via livechat. What a racket!

And yet, I’m still holding out for the MPD24, and I’ll buy it from Sweetwater. The sales guy that called me from Sweetwater was actually really knowledgeable, telling me that the MPD24 was worth the wait, that all of the units were MIDI capable as well as USB (“Midi ports are cheap, they generally put them on everything unless the item is so small that they wouldn’t fit”), that Roland makes a cheaper Handsonic HPD 10, that he agreed with me that the Novation’s drum triggers were an added feature and not worth it, that the trigger finger’s sensors weren’t great, and that the Korg padkontrol is king right now and that they can’t keep them in stock. Sweetwater evidentally started off as a recording studio in Indiana and all of their salespeople have studio experience and are very knowledgeable. So even though they have some unethical advertising, I’m still going to buy through them.

So here I am, truly becoming a capitalist consumer. I’m reviewing products without having tested any of them, and am “pre-buying” a nonexistant list item that hasn’t shipped yet based on hype and speculation. Actually though, I have seen some promising videos of the mpd24 on youtube and the word is if the MPD24 is anything like the MPD16, it’s worth the wait. I try not to consume anything that won’t help me produce later, so I’m just going to have to sit down and cross my legs and wait for this damn thing to come out.

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