As an drummer who makes electronic music, I’ve owned my share of midi drum controllers. Here’s a quick breakdown of my opinions on those:
The Octapad II (or Pad-80), was barely a step up from the first Octapad. It was just a midi controller with no build in sounds, and the pads were like hitting plywood covered with linoleum because it was a piece of plywood covered with linoleum. The hard clack of those pads made integrating them with acoustic drums a little harder (on the wrists). I did have problems with mis-triggering, because it was a single piece of plywood with piezo mics attached, so it was bound to happen.
The SPD-20, was probably the best drum pad I had owned. The pads had some bounce to them, much better than anything else out thre. The sounds in it were usable for the time this was made, not great acoustic sounds, but if you wanted electronic sounds, many R8 and other Roland drum machine sounds were on board. In terms of features it didn’t have much, but it was more playable than previous models. I did however have problems with mis-triggering, it just seemed to be the nature of the beast. I believe it was a piece of plywood covered this time in a layer of rubber.
Yamaha DTX Multi 12. I could do a whole review of this thing. As a sampler it sounded great, and having 12 pads in a compact unit gave it advantages over the SPD-20. For instance you had a whole octave if needed. The built in drum sounds were garbage, but it did have some solid vibes, bells and non-drum (motif) sounds. It’s a sampler, you put in your own favorite drum sounds. If you wanted, you could layer them and make them a bit more realistic – which I didn’t have the patience to bother with, I used it for classic drum machine sounds, and only added a bit of random and other dynamic programming. It did have good features for a sampler aimed at drummers. I loved this unit except for one crucial thing, the pads were way too spongy. It was terrible to play. I tried really hard to get used to it, but it was like playing on pillows. I couldn’t play fast or hard on this thing. If you are an acoustic drummer who needs to trigger the occasional sample, this would totally be the thing to buy. You can load up a USB key with samples and import them into the machine, and I’ve always preferred Yamaha samplers compared to the over rated Akai stuff. But if you are using this to get some drum fills and other beats into your DAW, test it first. I thought I could deal with it, but I was wrong.
I also owned a Drum Kat, which was great in the days before software. You could program that to do anything, and the pads were pressure sensitive, which meant you could do all kinds of melodic stuff that Roland pads can’t. However the pads on it didn’t feel great to play, and the interface was outright mind boggling. IF you needed to set something up before a show, you would have to crack the manual and use two foot pedals to program it. The whole concept of hitting the pads for every function was just a bad idea. A screen with numerical buttons would have been a massive improvement there.
So, enter the Roland SPD-30, their newest Octapad. I checked this out in a store (while I was still using the DTX 12), and it did not impress me at all. I had expected by now that Roland would be trying to compete with software and might throw in some of their best acoustic recreations, but no, the acoustic sounds in this thing are just terrible. The electronic sounds are fine – but you don’t get enough of them. The 909/808 stuff is certainly usable, although there are better emulations out there from non-Roland sources. When it comes to sounds, Roland has totally lost the plot. I have used some expensive Roland drum brains and been just underwhelmed. Yet I’ve kept my old TD-6 because at that point Roland didn’t know what to do and just included all the old drum machine sounds they could think of – R8, DR660, Tr707, etc. I couldn’t believe that the TD-12 which is a really expensive unit has only 500 or so sounds, while the TD-6 has over a thousand – not that they are all great, but still the TD-6 has more of the sounds I want from Roland.
IF I were Roland (and I’m sure they will read this), why the hell not just put every drum sound from all the old Roland drum machines into one unit? It’s not like memory is expensive. Every R-8 card, all the DR series sounds, all the TD kit modules and perhaps re-sample an 808 and 909. Let people arrange these into their favorite kits and you’ve got something.
Anyway back to the SPD-30. It does have some good percussion sounds, so that must be the market they are going for. The SPD-20 also had some good world sounds, and some of those made it to the SPD-30, although there are some newer and better ones too. The electronic sounds are good, and the effects are really good compared to other Roland units, and certainly usable for drums. But where this unit really shines is the pads themselves. The rubber has the best feel of any pad I’ve played, and I prefer it to the mesh pads of the V-drums. Also, if you tweak the settings properly, they will not mis-trigger. What this has meant for me is that I did bother to add a mesh snare, hi-hat, and kick pad to use this like a full kit. Unlike any previous pads I’ve owned, I am able to play this pad with the other pads set up so that there is no cross-talk or mis-triggering at all, and it feels fine. I have always used my other Ocatpads as an addition to an acoustic or electronic kit, but would never be able to play the pads as a stripped down kit, (which Roland always advertises.) Well with the SPD-30 you can do that, and that means I can play drum tracks in my apartment straight into my DAW, instead of going elsewhere to play a full V-kit. I don’t care about the sounds so much, as I use software for that, and don’t believe Roland could ever compete with software – UNLESS THEY RELEASED ALL THEIR CLASSIC DRUM MACHINE SOUNDS OUT AS A PLUG-IN!
Why not? Hunh Roland – you don’t sell those machines anymore, why let those Eproms rot away?
In terms of features, the screen and buttons on the SPD-30 make it a breeze to use, far better than any previous drum pad I’ve owned. However the looper they push in their videos/adverts I found too clumsy to use. It just wasn’t well thought out, and you have to hit too many buttons to do things, so it’s not something you could seamlessly use live – unless you were just adding bits and pieces. It also has a phrase sequencer, which again is just a tagged on thing which I have not found a use for, nor been able to use easily. If it could import songs in midi format that would be more useful to me. I really wanted the looper to be a solid live tool as I’m very much into looping technology, but I didn’t find this user friendly at all.
So that’s it, the SPD-30 is the best drum pad out there for playability, and that’s the most important thing to me because I can use software for the sounds. Even a crap laptop would handle sound duties if you were using this live. Being able to actually play the SPD-30 with additional pads like a full kit is very liberating.