Paul White caught up with Bill Katoski at a recent trade fair, where they discussed the ideas and influences behind KAT's range of innovative percussion controllers.
The drumKat percussion controller, with its instantly recognisable 'Mickey Mouse'‑shaped playing surface, has won over many a professional percussion player, as well as numerous gigging drummers. It's also a familiar sight in studios, where it can be used as an infinitely more satisfactory interface than a synth keyboard for entering percussion parts. But what is it that makes the drumKat stand out from other percussion controllers?
As a drumKat owner myself, I can confirm that the drumKat is much more than just a pad‑to‑MIDI interface. The pads are pressure sensitive, making it possible to send controller information such as pitch bend by pushing on the pad, and each pad can be programmed in a variety of novel ways. For example, instead of 'one hit, one sound', you can opt to step through a series of sounds, either in order or randomly, complex velocity switching can be set up, or you can even run short arpeggios from the pads. As if that weren't enough, longer sequences, or Motifs, can be stored and triggered, and more complex arrangements can be set up so that, for example, hitting one pad transposes an arpeggio being played on another pad, while striking yet another pad resets it.
The drumKat isn't only useful as a percussion controller either; you can use it to drive any MIDI sound module, again using the pads to sequence through a series of notes or even play four‑note chords; once you've tried these melodic modes, you realise that using the drumKat instead of a keyboard once in a while can be quite inspirational. It was with some personal interest, therefore, that I asked Bill Katoski how he'd come up with the idea for this product, and what he was planning to do next.
"Our first product was the MalletKat. I used to work at Synare electronic drums in the late '70s, and one of the last products I worked on was a big mallet synth. When they went out of business, I bought the rights to the product and carried on working on it in my spare time. I sold four of them — and then MIDI happened, closely followed by the DX7 synth. That's when I realised that I didn't have to compete on building synths — I could use other people's sound sources and drive them via MIDI.
"Mario, who you met on the stand, and myself, plus my wife, Maria, started the company. Mario is a mallet player and principal percussion player at Radio City music hall, and he encouraged me to build the first MIDI MalletKat. He was also the person who really got us going on the sales front. He asked how many we'd sold in New York, and we admitted we hadn't sold any. So he said, 'let me have New York City'. He started selling them into Manny's and Sam Ash, and then he came back and asked for the rest of New York State. Two months later he had the whole country, then he asked what we were doing about the international enquiries that were coming in. Inevitably, he became sales manager.
At that time my wife and I were building these things in our basement, and Mario was selling them out of his. I still had another day job, but then we saw the potential of the drummer market out there. We saw Roland's Octapad, and at the time, there was no competition for it. I felt I could come up with something more interesting, and that would feel better to play, but at the same time I realised it wasn't going to get done in my spare time. So, I quit my job, took out all my savings, and spent the next year designing the drumKat, after which we found our own facility so we could all work in the same place.
"About six months earlier, Simmons came out with their PortaKit, so we had a look at it and made a couple of changes to match what they'd done. Actually the approach was very similar, and they even used FSR transducer technology, as we did, rather than the more common piezo pickups."
The FSR technology is one of the fundamental engineering points that makes your triggering more reliable and consistent. How did you come across it?
"I went to a NAMM show in 1986 to show the first prototype of the MalletKat before it was even finished, and at the time, I was using piezo film technology and it was impossible to get this to work properly without the pads interacting with each other. We'd already reserved space at the show, and I almost cancelled it, but my wife talked me out of it. So I went to the show with these hollow shells that didn't work, and — to my surprise — still got several orders. While we were there, we visited the Interlink booth, where they were showing their FSR film technology — and it was perfect for our application.
"FSR is a system of plastic sheeting with a series of interlinking resistive fingers deposited on the sheets. The harder you push, the better the electrical connection, so the processor we have inside the drumKat looks across these things and is able to read how hard you hit it. The other thing about this technology is that it can take the physical abuse of drumming, and because it is force sensitive rather than vibration sensitive, crosstalk between adjacent pads is eliminated. Also, whereas a piezo drum pad is most sensitive directly over the transducer, FSR has the same sensitivity right across the pad's surface."
So you had your pad technology, and you added a natural rubber playing surface, so I guess the next move was to decide what to put in the software.
"Every time we buy something, six months later it's out of date, so we decided at the outset that this product was going to be user‑upgradeable. As you go on, you find better ways of doing things, and if there's some way of making that available to the people who supported us in the early days, I feel we owe it to them to do that. Even the earliest drumKats can be brought up to date, and that includes adding the latest rubber playing surfaces, as well as software and minor hardware changes."
Where did the ideas come from for some of the amazingly complex things you can program these pads to do?
"Some of the performance modes are generated internally, within the company, but there's a whole variety of outside people, including Greg Irwin, who bring us ideas. Some of his ideas have been brilliant and include many of the Motif ideas, such as the Slice modes.
"I'm not a drummer, which may seem a bit bizarre, but everyone else in the company is. Mario is a fabulous musician, whereas I have no preconceptions about what electronic drums should or should not be able to do, so I might think of things that a drummer wouldn't. Sometimes I'll try something and the other people in the company will tell me that it's stupid, and when I'm done, they might be right, but there are also times when they have to agree that it turned out to be a great idea. We also have to be able to be honest about our products, so if we try something that doesn't work out, we have to be able to acknowledge that and try something else."
But the drumKat has gone far beyond being a drum pad interface; some of the programming modes that let you set up chords or arpeggios are great when used with regular synth sounds.
"The drumKat didn't start out to be all these things, but as you grow, you start to think about what else you can do with what you have. For example, FSR has other advantages, in that you can generate a Note On as long as you press down on the pad. Also, you need to strive to be different from the competition, because when people like Roland and Yamaha are chasing you, their footsteps are very loud. We had to try to find niches where our product would do something that theirs wouldn't, otherwise we wouldn't still be here today.
"The melodic modes came about because of feedback from our users, and once we found out what they were doing, we tried to think of ways to make it easier and more flexible for them. When we first launched the drumKat, we sent out hundreds of questionnaires to see what the owners thought of the product, and I wasn't too sure about doing that because I thought we were going to get back hate mail. After all, satisfied customers don't bother to write back, do they?
"I was very pleasantly surprised because we only got back two letters that had any negative comments, and the rest were so gloriously positive that when times got tough, we'd take them out and read them again! One comment was that the first couple of weeks of the learning curve were kind of tough, after which the product was easy to use, so we decided to make those first couple of weeks easier by doing a tutorial video.
"Drummers are very different to keyboard players, in that keyboard players don't seem to align themselves to any single company by just playing Yamaha or just playing Roland or whatever. Drummers, on the other hand, tend to play a specific brand of drum kit, and knowing that, we've tried very hard to keep their loyalty. We know that if we don't betray their trust, they're more likely to continue to buy our products."
Because all the editing is done using the pads themselves as data entry and cursor buttons, it can sometimes take a while to set up a program, especially if you're using some of the more complex performance modes. Has anyone developed any editing software for computer?
"Mark of the Unicorn are just finishing a very nice editor which works from within their Unisyn package, and that makes the drumKat very easy to get into. We have no plans to do anything like that on our own — we're very happy for third‑party companies to offer this kind of product."
How much further can you take the drumKat with the limitation that everything you do, you also have to be able to do to existing models?
"There can be another reasonably significant upgrade to the machine that will require the processor to be changed, but we use the same circuit board, and there's also an unused memory socket on that board that we can take advantage of. We want to do some real upgrades to the Motif generator, because there's a lot of power there that we haven't been able to properly tap, so the kind of thing we intend to offer some time in '95 is more than double the number of kits, and probably five or six times as much Motif memory. For those unfamiliar with the idea of the Motif generator, Motifs are short repeating sequences or patterns that have been programmed in advance and that can be triggered from one of the pads."
The drumKat has not been superseded, but anyone going to the show must have noticed your TrapKat, which is physically much larger and has a greater number of playing surfaces. What can you tell us about this, and how it sits in the marketplace alongside the drumKat?
"About a year and half ago, we had several products we were working on at the same time, and we didn't really know what was going to be the next major thing until the TrapKat started taking shape. It is, in effect, a much bigger drumKat with 24 FSR trigger surfaces, and it was inspired to some extent by seeing Bill Bruford playing at a Yes reunion concert where he had a wall of Simmons pads set up behind him.
"So the initial idea was to make something large that the drummer could play vertically, but when it came down to discussing what the product was really about, and how big we could practically make it, the current TrapKat was the end result. It's like a one‑piece drum kit, and part of the idea came from our PoleKat, which is a kind of rim‑shaped sensor you hit with the shoulder of your stick. We added those around the perimeter of the TrapKat.
"The other thing we did was make the playing surface even more comfortable to play on by making the rubber 50% thicker than on the drumKat. There are fewer performance modes than in the drumKat 3.5, but there's still a lot more in it than was originally envisaged. 'Feature Creep' is always a problem in our company — you start off with a design and the features keep creeping into it, because it's hard to control yourself when you know you can do something. With this product, we've tried to hide most of them under a special footswitch to keep the initial approach simple, but the way things are heading, people are bound to ask, 'Will this thing ever do what a drumKat does'? Undoubtedly we'll end up with a TrapKat Pro which has all the drumKat features — probably some time in '95. If you look under one of the black labels on the back, there's a whole line of jack holes — we've made sure there's plenty of scope for hardware upgrades."
For all the technological advances made in drum machines, do you still find most drummers like to use real cymbals, even when they're happy with the sampled drum sounds?
"In the past, certainly, but now with CD‑ROMs, cymbal sounds are getting better. We have produced our own sample CD‑ROM to go with the TrapKat, and I think that one thing that's kept people out of electronic drums for a long time is that electronic drums didn't feel right, they didn't respond in the right way and they didn't sound right. Drummers also seem to be more conservative than most other musicians.
"With our pad technology, the surfaces feel right and respond nicely, but until very recently, the sounds still weren't right. Sound modules are made by keyboard manufacturers who don't understand what a drummer wants. They'd build these things with monophonic drum sounds, but with drums, when you hit a snare drum and then hit it again, you want the first sample to continue playing, otherwise you get the 'machine‑gun' effect. For years we kept praying that somebody would build a sound source that did things right, but every time somebody came close, it would either have terrible sounds or would fall short in some other way. But now, with CD‑ROMs and samplers, you can really get the best of both worlds.
"The trouble with drum machines is that the manufacturers compete on the number of sounds they can cram into one box — 200 sounds, 300 sounds — they'd be going to Africa and China to get more sounds to put in there. But drummers don't necessarily want 1000 sounds; they'd rather have just 10 good drum kits that sound like acoustic drums. The way to do that might still be to have 1000 samples, but not of a whole bunch of different drums. Instead, sample the same drum soft, sample it medium soft, sample it medium hard, sample it hard, find a smooth way to put those samples together and now it sounds like a real acoustic kit. What usually happens is that they sample one drum and then play that sample back loud or soft, which isn't the same thing at all."
And, of course, the cymbals especially will sound better if you can trigger a selection of samples rather than just keep re‑triggering the same one.
"Right, and now that memory isn't such a limitation, you can sample the cymbals longer rather than either looping or using an artificial decay contour to save memory. Now we have cymbals that last around 10 seconds and sound beautiful."
Where do you see the future of drum machines going? Do you think there would be a benefit in someone building a CD‑ROM‑based drum sample player that was designed specifically with the requirements of drummers in mind?
"One new product we have that helps capture the nuances of playing is the ProPad; it has 24 zones on one pad, so you can have different samples triggered depending on whereabouts you hit the pad. On an acoustic drum, you get a different sound if you hit the pad in a different place. This is obviously a more expensive solution than simple pads, and it means you also have to be able to handle a lot of samples, but again it's something I think we'll see more of in the future.
"There's a huge market out there for when electronic drums finally get it right. With electronic drums, you can practice at home without driving the rest of the family nuts, you can play quieter if you want to, and you can switch from one drum kit to another in a millisecond. At the moment, it's a different instrument — you can get close, but it's not an accurate substitute for acoustic drums.
"A dedicated CD‑ROM‑based drum sound module of the type you've just outlined has to be the sort of thing we're looking towards in the future. We've always waited for somebody else to build the right thing, and we've always been disappointed, and it may be that in the future, we'll have to team up with somebody to make the right sort of box, because the keyboard companies on their own just don't want to make the effort that's needed to do something that drummers really want.