Roland’s venerable SPD range just keeps getting better...
Roland certainly have an illustrious history in electronic percussion. Many of their products have achieved iconic status and, like the original Octapad percussion controller, released in 1985, have set the design template for many more over the subsequent decades.
November 2020 saw the introduction of their Octapad SPD‑20 Pro, a new twist on the SPD‑20. The latter was first introduced in 1998 and (fun fact) became one of the most successful percussion products on the Indian market, due to its exceptional range of classic drum and world percussion sounds. But with technology moving so fast, and hi‑tech products being superseded by the ‘next big thing’ almost daily, is there still a place for a product that was conceived 22 years ago?
In the unlikely event that you’re unaware of the SDP‑20, it could be described as a self‑contained portable electronic drum kit. Usually played with sticks, it can also be a great way of adding a huge range of drum and percussion sounds to an acoustic kit. The new Pro incarnation has an almost identical physical form to the original unit, with the majority of its surface occupied by the eight cushioned rubber pads used to trigger the 900 internal instruments. With such a long history in electronic drums, I would imagine Roland use the same rubber formulation as the pads found on their older kits, which gives them a firm feel and a nice rebound. The pads sit a good centimetre proud of the body of the unit and are spaced around 5mm apart, which reduces the likelihood of accidentally striking the casing or an adjacent pad.
Above the pads, and spanning the entire width of the SPD‑20 Pro, is the control panel. The simple numerical LED display of the original SPD‑20 is retained, but is augmented by a small backlit LCD, alongside a KIT button that instantly returns you to the main kit screen and two large + and – buttons for data entry and scrolling through presets. All three buttons are brightly illuminated, making them easily visible on a dimly lit stage.
The right‑hand section of the control panel includes dedicated buttons for Instrument selection, Layer Type, Level, Pitch, Multi FX and Ambience, with additional parameters accessed using the left/right navigation buttons below the LCD display. There are also dedicated buttons accessing System functions, Pad features and global Kit settings such as Copy and Exchange.
The rear of the SPD‑20 Pro sees small but significant changes from the original unit. The phones socket, volume control, Main Left/Right outputs and Mix Input sockets remain, as do the MIDI In, Out and footswitch socket. The last can be used to control a number of different features, from stepping through kit presets to turning individual effects processors on and off. The original SPD‑20 featured three external trigger inputs, plus an additional socket that could be configured as either a fourth trigger input or a hi‑hat control input, by way of a small switch. The SPD‑20 Pro dispenses with this dual functionality and now features a dedicated jack for each function. The final addition is a USB socket which, disappointingly, is limited to backing up kits and settings rather than offering any direct connectivity to a computer.
The SPD‑20 Pro ships with 100 preset kits and 100 blank user memory locations, but any of the preset kits can be overwritten. The factory presets cover a huge range of styles and genres, and show off the capabilities of the SDP20 Pro extremely well. There are kits suited to Dance and Electro, acoustic kits, Cajons, orchestral percussion and tuned percussion. The original sound set of 700 instruments has been expanded to over 900, with new sounds in every category, ranging from kicks, snares, cymbals and toms originally developed for the TD27 V‑Drums sound module through to melodic instruments and sound effects.
In addition to the obvious drums and percussion sounds, the SDP20 Pro features bass samples, brass stabs, organ chords and vocal hits and phrases which, in combination with the pitch parameter, can be used to make very melodic creations. The main focus of the new instruments is on world percussion, with around 150 exceptional examples of Latin, Indian, African and Middle Eastern instruments, including exotic offerings such as the Kanjira frame drum, the Ghatam (one of the most ancient percussion instruments of India) and the Morsing, an instrument similar to the Jew’s harp. The instruments often feature several playing technique variations (open/rim/muted, and so on) enabling you to create impressively authentic rhythms across a number of pads.
The SPD‑20 Pro makes it very easy to create your own user kits, but its in‑depth editing capabilities and on‑board effects make this a much more exciting prospect than simply assembling a collection of eight percussion sounds.
Pressing the Instrument button shows which sound is assigned to the currently selected pad and, using the left/right arrow keys and +/‑ buttons, you can scroll through the 16 Instrument categories: Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Tom‑Tom, Hi‑Hat, Cymbal, Latin Percussion, Indian Percussion, African/Middle Eastern/Australian/Percussion, Japanese/Korean/Chinese/Southeast Asian Percussion, Orchestral Percussion, Melodic Instruments, Analog Percussion, Dance Sounds, Artificial Sound Effects, Natural Sound Effects/Human Voice and Ambience & Reverse Sounds. Within each category you can then select the instrument you want to assign to the pad.
It’s possible to assign two instruments to each pad (or external trigger) and layer them in a number of different ways. This can help you create some deeply interesting sounds, but we’ll come on to that later. For now, with a single instrument assigned to a pad, you can adjust level and pitch using the dedicated buttons. The pitch range is huge (+/‑ two octaves) and can be adjusted in either coarse (semitone) or fine (cent) steps, which is particularly useful for creating kits of tuned percussion but can also be used to great effect in radically altering an instrument’s tone. The PedalBend parameter can be set to specify by how much the external Hi‑Hat control pedal will bend the selected instrument in real time — great for talking drum effects or Timpani bends.
The ‘Other’ button reveals even more editing features, including a Decay parameter that acts as a damping function, along with a three‑band EQ that can be applied to each pad layer. A very comprehensive compressor features threshold, ratio, attack, release and four soft and hard knee options. The Pad Mute Group parameter enables you to select pads that will mute when other pads within the group are struck, and Pad Link offers a neat way of grouping pads so that they play together when one of the pads within the group is hit.
Finally, within ‘Other’ you can use the Send parameters to specify how much of the instrument to route to the three separate multi‑effects processors and the independent Ambience effect. This offers a great deal of flexibility when creating kits as each instrument can be sent to a different effect in varying amounts, in addition to adding ambience to the kit. As you would expect from Roland, the multi‑effects include everything from reverbs and delays to distortion and modulation effects, and all have their own sets of fully editable parameters, which allows for a lot of creativity.
As I mentioned earlier, you can assign two instruments — a ‘Main’ sound and a ‘Sub’ sound — to a single pad. These two sounds will then play together in a number of different ways, depending on how the layering is configured. Pressing the Type button (beneath the Layer legend) brings up the option to select between Off, Mix, Fade1, Fade2, Switch and Xfade. Mix allows for both Instruments to be heard simultaneously when the pad is struck, whereas the Fade1, Fade2, Switch and XFade options vary the point at which the Sub sound is heard, depending on how hard the pad is struck. The Fade Point parameter on the next page allows you to set the level at which the Sub Instrument is introduced, and whether the two sounds play simultaneously. It’s then very simple to switch between the two using the Main/Sub button and edit them independently.
Now, when I say ‘edit them independently’, I mean just that. The layered instruments can be pitched differently, have different EQ applied to them, and even be sent to different effects processors. For example, you could layer a snare drum and hand clap and have the clap play with the snare only when you hit the pad hard. You could then EQ all the high end out of the snare, pitch it down an octave and send it to a multitap delay, while EQ’ing the handclap completely differently and sending it to a flanger... and then send both instruments (in different amounts) to the Ambience effect. That’s a lot of possibilities, especially when you bear in mind that you’ve got 900+ instruments to chose from! It’s worth pointing out that in the Kit Common settings you can also apply EQ and compression to the whole kit, as well as setting a tempo for any tempo‑related multi‑effects.
So far we’ve only focused on what the SP20 Pro can do with no ‘added extras’ — but the ability to add four external triggers plus a hi‑hat controller and footswitch opens up even greater possibilities. In the System settings you can specify one of 47 different trigger types that pretty much cover every pad, cymbal or drum trigger Roland have ever made. Although not every manufacturer’s pad is guaranteed to work, I was able to successfully connect Alesis and Yamaha pads, with fantastic results, including a Yamaha cymbal pad that choked and muted when grabbed. There’s a huge number of adjustable trigger parameters, so the chances are you’ll be able to get any pad to work to some degree. It’s worth noting that if you connect a dual‑zone pad with both head rim triggers, you can assign two instruments layered together to both the head and the rim, giving you four sounds per pad. There is even provision for the high‑end Roland VH10/11 floating hi‑hats that mount on a regular stand.
However, the more budget‑conscious of us can connect an appropriate footswitch to the Hi‑Hat control input, which controls the opening and closing of a hi‑hat sound assigned to any of the pads, and also triggers ‘chick’ and ‘splash’ sounds. This offers the possibility of using the SPD‑20 Pro as the ‘brain’ for an electronic kit made up entirely of external triggers, as well as using the pads on the unit itself alongside.
The SPD‑20 concept has certainly stood the test of time, and the additional sounds and features of the ‘Pro’ upgrade have really given it a new lease of life.
The LCD makes navigation and editing a breeze — I think I would’ve been poring over the manual trying to decipher cryptic messages on the basic lone LED display of the original model. The addition of the USB socket made me expect some kind of MIDI and audio integration with a computer, as there is with almost every new drum module currently available, but I wonder if the older internal architecture prevents this.
The underlying Roland Percussion Pad concept may have been around longer than my kids, but the new SPD‑20 Pro is still a highly relevant and great‑sounding instrument.
As a long‑time user of the Roland SPD‑SX sampling pad, I wasn’t sure if I’d be happy with a unit that didn’t offer the ability to import my own sounds. Although not always cited as a major feature, many current drum modules and percussion controllers do offer this ability in addition to the on‑board sounds. There are a few instances where sampling is the only option, if you need to import and trigger backing vocals or (like me) specific sounds and loops for a covers gig, but for every other situation the SPD‑20 Pro offers more than enough choice. It’s fair to say that the majority of new sounds fall into the World percussion category, but there are certainly enough other sounds to satisfy drummers and percussionists working in any genre — and, with the comprehensive editing features and flexibility of the effects the SPD‑20 Pro offers, probably way beyond any genre!
The underlying Roland Percussion Pad concept may have been around longer than my kids, but the new SPD‑20 Pro is still a highly relevant and great‑sounding instrument. If you don’t need to trigger your own samples but need a huge arsenal of drum and percussion sounds to augment your setup, the SPD‑20 Pro is ideal.
1985: PAD‑8 Octapad
The original Octapad percussion pad that kickstarted the ‘PAD’ range. This eight‑pad trigger unit allowed users to assign MIDI notes to the pads and trigger sounds from any MIDI‑equipped sampler, synthesizer or drum machine.
1988: PAD‑80 Octapad II
The second generation of the Octapad, with 64 patch locations, three‑note per‑pad layering and patch‑chaining functions.
1990: SPD‑8 Percussion Pad
MIDI controller with built‑in sounds. No longer was the Octapad just a trigger unit. The internal sound engine made it more like a mobile V‑Drums kit.
1993: SPD‑11 Total Percussion Pad
Updated percussion pad with more sounds and built‑in effects processor.
1998: SPD‑20 Total Percussion Pad
Percussion pad with 700 sounds, 99 patches, effects and 14‑voice polyphony.
2003: SPD‑S Sampling Pad
Percussion pad with stereo audio inputs for sampling at 16‑bit/44.1kHz, external trigger inputs and 6MB of non‑volatile memory.
2006: HPD‑10 Handsonic
The little brother of the HPD‑20, this was a hand percussion instrument with 400 instruments and 64 percussion kits.
2010: SPD‑30 Octapad
Latest evolution of the percussion pad with large LCD screen, three‑track real‑time sequencer and 670 sounds.
Following the hugely successful SPD‑S, the SPD‑SX upped the memory by a factor of 125 and added many new features, including USB storage and 2GB of internal memory, for three and a half hours of stereo sampling at 16‑bit/44.1kHz.
2013: HPD‑20 Handsonic
Latest evolution of the successful hand percussion instrument. Thirteen pads with positional awareness and new sound set featuring SuperNatural technology, along with USB and WAV import support.
2018: SPD‑SX SE
Special Edition Sampling Pad with 16MB memory upgrade and striking new red colour.
Revised and modernised SPD‑20 with technical improvements and refinements to bring it up to date without taking away any of the appeal of the original.
- Huge palette of excellent sounds.
- Easy‑to‑use interface.
- Powerful multi‑effects.
- Flexible and in‑depth layering.
- Timeless practical design.
- No USB‑to‑computer support.
- No user sample import.
The SPD‑20 Pro is an inspiring and powerful device that offers almost everything you would need in a percussion pad.