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Alesis PercPad

Alesis PercPad

Alesis have been in the electronic percussion game now for a long time. Where as originally they build new and cutting edge gear (the D4 rack mount was a life saver for so many drummers, and the HR16 was one of the first affordable and great sounding – for the time - drum machines), more recently, they have been looking at what other people have been doing, going off, having a think and then bringing out something smaller, much cheaper and just as powerful. The KontrolPad for instance is a modern take on the whole [ahem] eight (octa?) pad controller and some of their ekits have some really clever stuff in them.

When I first saw the PercPad, I wasn''t really blown away by it. Yes, it may be useful, but not to me, I thought. It only has a few sounds in it (less than I remember the original at NAMM having) and it seemed a bit lacking. It was the prototype, they weren''t sure how many sounds it would have etc etc.

That was before two things happened – one, I spent time with a rival product that promised percussion samples in a footpedal at a rather high price, and two, I actually got my hands on one.

The PercPad is a four pad percussion controller. It has a light plastic body with the four rubber pads on the top surface below the controls. The back panel has a trigger in (more of which later), stereo outputs, headphone out, MIDI out and an on/off switch. The controls on the top surface are Value up and down and Select up and down. It really couldn''t be simpler.

The 25 internal sound are Clap, Finger Snap, 2x Cowbells, muted and open Triangle, Tambourine,  Wind Chimes, Sleigh bells, Claves, Wood Block, Jawbone (Vibraslap), Studio and Live Shaker, Electro Tom Hex (Simmons), Timbale, Conga Slap, Conga Open, 3x Electronic Kicks, 3x Electronic Snares and an Electro Crack Hex (a Simmons-style cracky snare, like something Prince would use). Its a good simple palette, although I would have put more things like egg shakers and cajons, but that''s just me.

However, don''t think that you are limited to 25 sounds, because each one can be edited  - you can change the pitch up or down four stages (not semitones, its difficult to tell how much, but it gives a good range), you can adjust the amount of reverb as well as adjust the pan position and the level of each instrument. The sounds are good and usable if a little vanilla.

As it is such a simple device, you cant set up alternate groups, so your open triangle wont be cut off by your closed triangle sounds. That would be nice but not essential as you will see if you read on.

Changing the sounds is very easy. Hit the pad you want to change, press Select to pick the parameter you want to change (tune, reverb, assign sound, pan, sensitivity, level or MIDI note) and use the Value buttons to change the err... value. There is no Store button to push, its just that – nice and simple.

Where this might score low on many peoples needs is that there is only one memory i.e. you cant have a set of four cowbells set up for one song and then change to a set of Simmons toms for the next – there is one memory and that's it. If you have the time between songs, you can build a new set, but its not ideal. However, if that's a deal killer, please read on as it has something special up its sleeve.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a trigger in on the back. I'm guessing this has been designed for a bass drum pad so you can build a little kit out of it but it will of course work well with any pad with a piezo trigger output (i.e. most). Next to the trigger in is a little switch which allows you to use a standard foot switch to trigger a sound – great is you want a consistent volume or don't have a bass drum pad.

However, this got me thinking. Recently (well, a few months back) we reviewed a footpedal which triggered sampled percussion sounds when the pedal was pushed as is designed for percussionists to use in addition to their acoustic gear. By plugging a cheap foot switch into the PercPad, you can achieve much the same effect, with similar sounds, plus you get more editable sounds, plus four pads to hit, and MIDI. And it's much cheaper. Hmmmmm...

Then another thing struck me. Alesis say you can play the PercPad with your hands and I was curious as to how they could do this using 'conventional' triggering systems (ie piezo pickups) as there is usually an issue with cross triggering (ie when you hit a pad hard it accidentally triggers the pad(s) next to it). However, I'm not sure if Alesis are using FSR or Force Sensing Resistor material here (I seriously doubt it as it has only really appeared in high end products like the drumKat and Roland Handsonics) but the pad-to-pad rejection on the PerPad is very good indeed.

Assuming they aren't using FSR technology (and I did ring Alesis but I was still waiting for an answer as the deadline to get this up on the site approached) then there is some pretty good anti-crosstalk stuff going on here underneath the hood. Having played many times with the Alesis ControlPad, I can tell you the rejection is much better on the PercPad than that.

What makes me doubt the piezo trigger route is that you can play the pads right up to their very edge and get the same accuracy of triggering as you do in the centre and without triggering the pad next to it.

So, with this in mind, you can almost forget the internal PercPad sounds and use it as a small (28x27x6cm) MIDI pad to play VSTi sounds from a computer or from a drum module/drum machine etc. Because it wont cross trigger (or to be more accurate, it will, but I could onlt find two small areas on the chassis of the PercPad that actually triggered the pad sounds), it would be the perfect device for triggering loops. If you linked it to Ableton, it would be a perfect mini controller. The DrumKat has ten internal FSR pads and has a rock solid metal body and superb build quality but is much more expensive. You can 'almost' think of the PercPad as a cheap and cheerful, disposable (ecologist should frown at me here) 'just-under-half-a-Kat'.

It's worth bearing in mind that the PercPad will break if it is dropped from any significant height due to its plastic build. Also, it has a wall-wart power supply which isn't ideal for many situation, but you cant have it all. On the other hand, it mounts on a standard Roland/Yamaha/Kat mounting plate (or of course the one available separately from Alesis) and it cheap enough to be replaced should the bass player knock it over. If it is FSR technology (which as I've already mentioned, I doubt), then it needs to be kept dry as FSR film is quite sensitive to moisture.

Strangely (if it is FSR technology under the hood), the dynamic range is pretty limited and the threshold below which notes are ignored is pretty high, especially the external pad. However, in real life situations, that is not going to be a problem. The sensitivity control doesn't actually make the pads more sensitive, it rather raises the volume of the loudest hits, which when you are playing with hands, does work, but its a little different to most other devices (and another thing that makes me think it's FSR).

And then we come to the price. £79. Yep, really. For that, you really cant go wrong. Yes, it might not have a sequencer, a click, more pad inputs, auxiliary in etc etc, but if it does what you need it to (and I think I have covered everything in this review – there isn't that much to it) then it is a no-brainer really.


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