Can Polyend’s MIDI-powered mechanical drummer replace the real thing?
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to review an incredibly varied range of electronic percussion products for Sound On Sound. These have ranged from high-end electronic drum kits by Roland and Yamaha through to more esoteric offerings such as the Nord Drum and Korg Wavedrum. Fundamentally, these have all been products to hit, tap and slap in an attempt to produce electronically generated sounds. The Perc Pro, from brand new Polish company Polyend, takes everything I have previously used in terms of electronic percussion and flips it on its head.
In simple terms, the Perc Pro is a set of mechanical beaters that can be controlled via MIDI, the idea being to allow you to play real drums, percussion instruments (or any other inanimate object that takes your fancy) from a DAW, drum machine or MIDI controller. As a human drummer, this concept is perhaps not one I should be totally comfortable with, but actually there’s a lot more to the Perc Pro system than a robot drummer...
The basic Perc Pro system comprises three ‘PercBALL’ beaters along with their connecting cables, three heavy-duty universal clamps (to mount each beater on a stand) and a controller unit capable of playing up to three beaters. A USB cable and IEC mains lead are also supplied.
What initially struck me when removing the items from their custom foam packaging was their solid feel. Every element feels extremely well made, particularly the beaters. They have a considerable weight to them and are beautifully finished in a matte-black powder coating.
Each beater comprises an eight-inch aluminium rod with a three-inch-diameter aluminium ball on the end, something like a large metal lollipop. On the underside of the ball is a hole around 1cm across, through which a wooden beater can be seen. At rest, the beater sits perfectly flush with the ball but when the system is in action this small wooden gismo pops in and out to strike the surface of the drum, or whatever is being ‘played’. I should note that while the review system was supplied with wooden beaters, Polyend also offer them in silicon and aluminium. You can specify which for each beater when ordering on their web site.
The ball also houses the electronics and motor that control the beater, and this is where the comforting weight comes from: you do feel as though you’re handling a serious and professional piece of equipment. The trailing cables from each beater terminate in a five-pin XLR-style connector and have a very nice braided-type finish.
The three supplied mounting clamps feel very solid and offer a good range of adjustment options, and certainly enough to get the beaters into pretty much any position.
The controller unit (finished, again, in matte black) is reminiscent of a large guitar looper pedal, with three chrome momentary footswitches across its shallow-angled front face. Towards the back of the unit are three pairs of mini-jacks to allow connection to CV/Gate sources. These sit either side of three extremely bright LEDs that flash when the beaters are selected via the footswitches.
At the rear of the unit are the three five-pin XLR sockets for connecting the beaters; MIDI in, out and thru ports; and USB and IEC mains sockets.
The system is very simple to set up — so much so that there doesn’t appear to be a manual included, other than two sentences, under the heading ‘Super Quick Guide’, printed on the back of the warranty booklet! For a little more detail, a number of video ‘tutorials’ can be accessed via the Polyend web site, but other than confirming that I’d not actually missed anything, they didn’t really tell me much more.
Each beater connects via its trailing cable to a socket on the rear of the controller unit. The controller unit can then connect via MIDI or directly via USB to your Mac or PC and requires no drivers, so simply plug in and you’re ready to go. The Perc Pro appeared as a device in my Mac Audio/MIDI setup and I just had to name it. When you boot up your DAW, 16 channels of Perc Pro will appear as potential output destinations on a MIDI track.
For my initial tests, I decided on a single beater playing a snare drum. I mounted the clamp on a spare cymbal stand, but a mic stand would do the job just as well, the only issue being that the weight of the beater could topple something too lightweight. The clamps allow for an almost infinite range of movement, both vertically and horizontally, so positioning is not a problem at all.
The next step is for the controller unit to learn which MIDI note and channel will be used to trigger each beater. Simply press and hold for two seconds the footswitch that corresponds to the beater you want to control. As the LED flashes, send a MIDI note by either pressing a key on your MIDI controller or from your DAW. The Perc Pro has now learned which note and channel will control that beater. If you’re using a setup with more than one beater, repeat the process for each one.
With the controller having learned the MIDI note, you can now literally play the snare drum from your MIDI keyboard. As you play a note, the beater hits the drum in real time. I recorded a simple quarter-note pattern into my DAW from my MIDI keyboard and cycled this around. As the sequencer triggered the Perc Pro beater, I could raise and lower the clamp to give me what I felt was the optimum position for a good-sounding hit on the drum.
I duplicated the MIDI track and assigned its output to a cowbell sample to hear how accurately the MIDI and audio played together. From a listening perspective, the timing was pretty good, with no obvious difference between the MIDI sample and the real audio.
I was keen to check out how well the Perc Pro handled velocity, so I created another MIDI track, this time with a significant increase and decrease in the MIDI note velocities over three or four bars.
You can see from Screen 1 that there is most definitely a rise and fall in the velocity of the recorded drum hits, which indeed follows the MIDI velocities. From an audible perspective, however, I’d have to say that the range of velocities the Perc Pro produced was not as marked as I would have hoped. The MIDI note velocities ranged from 1-127, and although the Perc Pro tracked this accurately, I didn’t hear as much of a variation in the physical hits as I did with the MIDI sample.
So far, my experiments with the Perc Pro had been very functional, to gauge how accurate it is and how well it responds to different input sources, but I see it being used far more as a creative tool than as any kind of drum (or drummer) replacement tool.
There are almost infinite ways in which the Perc Pro can be used, but a couple of ways in which it can be controlled: via a DAW or sequencer, or from a direct connection to a MIDI controller such as a drum pad. I experimented with both, but let’s start by looking at how the Perc Pro works with a drum pad.
It was certainly a novel experience to hit a drum pad and hear (and see) a snare drum being struck remotely. I wouldn’t really expect this exact setup to have a great deal of utility in a studio — you could simply trigger samples from a set of drum pads, or use any of the internal sounds many of them offer, or of course, hit the drum directly — but from a live perspective the Perc Pro would certainly add a visual impact. A drum pad could be used to control beaters striking other percussion instruments: bongos, congas, or even tuned percussion, such as a marimba.
Using the Perc Pro with a DAW or hardware MIDI sequencer is perhaps a more typical (if the Perc Pro could ever be described as typical!) way in which you might integrate the Polyend hardware into a studio or live scenario.
Here you would be able to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of the Perc Pro hardware. Rhythms that were potentially unplayable by a human suddenly become achievable. Blast beats, hypnotic electronic and drum & bass type rhythms are particularly effective, as they rely less on dynamic finesse and more on speed, accuracy and unfaltering repetition.
I arranged the three Perc Pro beaters around a simple kick, snare and hi-hat setup. As I mentioned, the clamps make positioning the beaters very easy, but with the extra stands mounted around a kit, plus the Perc Pro beaters themselves, things can feel a little cluttered and somewhat Heath Robinson!
I programmed some MIDI drum parts on my DAW and played them back at varying speeds on my drum kit. The results were surprisingly good but, as you might expect, quite rigid/limited in terms of velocity and feel. The bass drum was perhaps the most disappointing. As the drum head is naturally vertical rather than horizontal, the force of the beater hitting the drum would move the beater away slightly and some impact would be lost. I’m sure some additional strategically placed stands and gaffa tape would resolve this. However, what probably can’t be resolved is the fact that a bass drum is usually hit with a large felt beater, not a one-inch piece of wood resembling a drum stick. Some judicious EQ and the addition of a SubKick plug-in helped, but in a way that defeats the object of getting a real kit sound.
I also tried mounting two Perc Pro beaters on a pair of bongos, with a third beater striking a tambourine mounted on a stand. With this setup, I was able to program some interesting percussion parts and play drums along to them, which I think is possibly the way that I, as a drummer, might use the Perc Pro system.
The idea of a robot drummer — which is what this is, in essence — is not something I had really encountered before, and it took me a while to really grasp the concept and where it could fit in the musical world. The first thing I had to do was to stop thinking like a drummer and assuming that this was some kind of alternative or replacement. It can certainly play drums, but a direct replacement for a drummer it is not.
Although unable to offer the dynamics or diversity of stroke a real drummer can offer, what the Perc Pro can do is add a metronomic beat that is great to play against, creating an interesting fusion of styles and patterns. Its ability to play faster than any human suits it to creating exciting blast beats and frenzied percussion parts that would otherwise be impossible to play.
The Perc Pro is an interesting and unique product, and I can certainly see how it could add a very creative element to any electronic music setup. However, that would come at a cost. The basic three-beater system retails at £1049$1299 which, taking into consideration the build quality and R&D that has gone into Perc Pro’s creation, isn’t unreasonable, but I’m just not sure it’s a price I’d be prepared to pay for something that has quite limited applications. In theory, you can recreate pretty much everything the Perc Pro can do with existing technology at the fraction of the cost. So where will the Perc Pro find a home?
Big-name artists such as Aphex Twin, Daedelus, Dan Deacon and Orri P ll D rason (drummer with Sigur Rós) are already fans, so perhaps we really need to be thinking less D-R-U-M and more E-D-M. This is a creative tool that opens up ideas in the studio and creates experiences in live performance. The inclusion of CV/Gate control perhaps further emphasises the specialised nature of the system.
From a technical and build quality point of view, this stands up as a very professional product. I enjoyed experimenting and playing with it very much, and it certainly brought out some interesting ideas that otherwise might never have seen the light of day, but it’s certainly a niche product. There’s a different feel and sound generated by using the Perc Pro system to create beats, but for the vast majority of people I think it would be considered an expensive luxury.