Photos: Mark Ewing
While the growth of computer-based music-making has seen an almost bewildering proliferation of keyboard-based MIDI control devices, there are still relatively few aimed at the specialist task of triggering drum sounds and programming rhythm tracks. In fact, even with the arrival of Korg's Pad Kontrol you don't actually require all the fingers of one hand to count them! Like the other main contenders in this area, namely M-Audio's Trigger Finger and Akai's MPD16, the Pad Kontrol is designed to be enable you to trigger sounds using your fingertips (as opposed to controllers like Roland's SPD20, which are intended to be played with sticks).
A quick shufti reveals the Pad Kontrol to be equipped with 16 trigger pads, two assignable knobs and buttons, and an X-Y controller, plus enough intelligence to store up to 16 sets of user-programmable MIDI assignments or Scenes (man) as they are known in lingua korga. While it is primarily designed to interface with computer-borne software instruments through its USB connection, the Pad Kontrol will also communicate directly via MIDI with any other hardware devices. And while its main role is supposed to be for real-time programming of drum sounds, its designers have given it many features that mean it can be employed for much more than simple one-shot sample-triggering duties. For example, it can be used to control the transport functions of a sequencer, or as a way of remotely switching between different programs and patches on another device.
Korg have consistently produced some of the best-looking hi-tech instruments around, and the Pad Kontrol is no exception. With its smart white and silver colour scheme — surely the colours that will be associated with the early years of the 21st century, thanks to the all-conquering iPod — this is an appealing and very sleek-looking package. It easily passed my wife's 'Cor! What's that you've got now?' test (to which all review items in our house are subjected as soon as they are liberated from their packaging). On closer inspection, I have to say that the unit does feel a little bit plasticky, especially the rather lightweight data knobs, though there's no reason to assume it won't bear up under normal use. In that respect, normal use is obviously intended to be on a tabletop or other flat surface, as there's no way to attach a clamp for standmounting.
The first job is to use the supplied cable to attach the Pad Kontrol to an available USB port on your computer. For Windows XP users this procedure also requires the installation of the supplied driver from the CD-ROM. While the Pad Kontrol would normally be powered over its USB connection, there's also an input for an optional 9VDC adaptor if this proves a problem in any way — for example, if there are too many devices on the buss already. Naturally, you'll also need the adaptor if you are using the Pad Kontrol as a stand-alone controller to trigger other MIDI devices, or if you are bypassing the USB connection and attaching the Pad Kontrol to a computer using its five-pin MIDI In and/or MIDI Out sockets. Incidentally, the presence of these sockets means the Pad Kontrol can function as a USB MIDI interface — a useful extension to its role if, like me, you never seem to have enough free MIDI ports.
Ergonomically, the Pad Kontrol follows what seems to have become the established convention for this type of controller with its 16 pads arranged in a four-by-four matrix. The pads are velocity sensitive and offer a range of eight different dynamic curves to suit different 'finger-drumming' styles. For more predictable results, each pad can also be set to send specific fixed velocities. As well as being used to trigger sounds, the pads multi-task as program and parameter selection buttons when you're programming the Pad Kontrol itself. Oh, and because they are backlit with red LEDs they can also provide part of the entertainment too. I'm not just talking about the way they light up every time you hit them; it's the fact that they can be set to blink in various different patterns when a pad is struck. You can also set them up so they will start to blink randomly whenever you leave the unit idle for a minute or two. It's rather cool in a kind of '1970s sci-fi movie computer set' kind of way, and it certainly impressed visitors to my studio. But the pads don't just look good; they also have a very firm comfortable feel, and a great response which is even over their entire surface, including the very edges. They're definitely a cut above the usual squidginess you get with a lot of pads on drum machines.
Along with its trigger pads, the Pad Kontrol also offers a couple of programmable buttons and a brace of controller knobs — all very useful for controlling parameters on the target device. There's also an input for a footpedal which can be used either for control and switching duties, or as an extra trigger, in a rough approximation to a bass-drum pedal. It's worth emphasising that the programmability of the pads and other controllers goes far beyond what you'd expect for a triggering device of this type. Along with being able to assign individual note numbers, velocity values and MIDI channels to each pad, you can also assign control change numbers, change the switch type between momentary and toggle, and set release values. Put this together and it means you can use the device to control operations on software synths and computer sequencers.
The other main difference between the Pad Kontrol and its rivals is the presence of that X-Y controller pad (see overleaf). This type of controller is one of Korg's particular specialities — we've seen it incorporated to particular good effect on their Kaoss range of effects units. Resembling a control surface version of a joystick, the pad gives you finger-tip control of any two continuous MIDI controllers in real time, one assigned along the horizontal axis and one along the vertical — so as you move your fingertip around the pad, you get a proportional mix of two continuous controller values. A typical use with a synth patch might be to control filter cutoff and resonance, but by programming two continuous controllers that aren't normally related — like reverb depth and pitch bend — you can achieve some more interesting effects.
In their considerable wisdom, Korg have given the X-Y pad a couple of dedicated 'drummy' features in that you can use it to control the timings of flams and rolls. Depending on how you set it up, moving your finger from left to right increases the speed of a drum roll, or the distance between 'flammed' notes, while moving it up and down changes either the volume of the roll, or the second note in the flam. It doesn't seem such a big deal when you try and describe it in words, but when you start to play around with the effect, you realise just how brilliant it can be. For example, this makes it easy to create realistic-sounding drum and percussion rolls with very precise control of swells in volume and the 'microtiming' of the roll. Basically, if you want to recreate those dramatic drum rolls that you always get as the hero is led to the gallows, then the Pad Kontrol provides you with the perfect execution (ouch!). This feature of the Pad Kontrol also enables you to easily add those little grace notes that real drummers put in as they play — thereby making it a doddle to create very human-sounding performances.
User controls: 16 velocity-sensitive, backlit trigger pads, one X-Y pad, two assignable knobs, two switches.
User memory: 16 user scene memories.
Dimensions: 55 x 314 x 234mm (HWD).
System requirements: Windows XP, Mac OS 10.2 or later.
Editing the Pad Kontrol is pretty simple and straightforward thanks mainly to the generous helping of function buttons, and despite the limitations of the three-digit LED display which does its best to inform you what's going on. This shows what message or value is being sent whenever you strike a pad or move a controller. As I said earlier, you can store up to 16 User Scenes in the Pad Kontrol's internal memory. In addition, the CD-ROM that accompanies the Pad Kontrol comes with 30 preset Scenes designed for use with popular programs. Among this list you'll find setups for various GM kits, drums from Korg's own OASYS and Triton synths, and kits from software such as Native Instruments' Battery, Ableton's Live, Apple's Garage Band, Propellerheads' Reason, Steinberg's Groove Agent and FXpansion's BFD. One of the Scenes is also designed to work out of the box with the accompanying special version of Toontrack's DFH (for more on this, see the box above).
However, while you can do all the editing via the buttons on the front panel, this seems a bit of a long-winded way to go about things given that the Pad Kontrol's accompanying software includes a rather excellent — and very free of charge — editor and librarian program. This provides you with a neat visual representation of the Pad Kontrol's surface, allowing you to click on the various pads and assigning values through the corresponding pop-up windows. Once a Scene is assembled, another click of the mouse squirts it down the USB connection into the Pad Kontrol's memory. Or conversely, if you've done your programming directly via the Pad Kontrol, a click of a button sends the information back up the wire to be stored in the computer.
With the Pad Kontrol, Korg have done some out of the beatbox thinking and come up with a device with lots of creative potential. Naturally, your excitement about this product (or lack of it) will depend on how important real-time drum programming is to your musical modus operandi. If that's your bag, then I can state uncategorically that the Pad Kontrol is the best of the bunch — although admittedly, it's not a very big bunch! At the same time, though, Korg have given the Pad Kontrol a range of features which means it is going to be useful for general control of other MIDI devices too.
I do have one moan, and it's the same as I had about M-Audio's Trigger Finger — you can't program more than one MIDI note per pad, thereby allowing you to layer and crossfade sounds. But the flam and roll functions help to make up for this omission. And on a visual note, the Pad Kontrol looks pretty cool too, especially with all those pretty lights. I wouldn't quite go as far as Korg's web site, which claims that the 'great feel of the trigger pads and the Illumination mode work together synergistically to catapult your performance to a higher intensity level than ever before', but if this sentence is the result of some copywriter's enthusiasm for the product, then that enthusiasm, at least, is entirely justified!
DFH — Drums Fine & Handy?
Although it has no sounds built in, the Pad Kontrol doesn't come to the party empty-handed. Along with the editor/librarian program on the accompanying CD-ROM, you'll find a special 'Korgified' version of Toontracks' well-respected DFH virtual drums software. It was my first encounter with this particular package, and I was mightily impressed. Toontracks' intent is apparently to give you the sound of drums as they are really played, and they seem to have achieved this, offering all the nuances and countless variations of tone that you get even from a single drum. You can also play around with the virtual miking of your kit, even determining the extent to which the sound of a drum will bleed into the mics on the rest of the kit!
While the version of the program available with the Pad Kontrol gives you only a fraction of what you get with the full version, it still adds up to a generous 260MB of drum multisamples, which in turn translates into a complete kit of bass, snare, toms and cymbals. Not only is this enough to give you a sense of just how good the program is, it also spectacularly showcases the Pad Kontrol's flam and roll functions. And of course, if you like what you hear, an included coupon gives you a discount off the full version.