Roland's Octapad range has been with us in one form or another for an amazing 25 years. What does the latest addition to the family have to offer?
When Roland created the original Octapad Pad8 back in 1985, they gave the bands of the day a sleek, portable option for triggering MIDI elements during their live set or in the studio. Suddenly your Tears For Fears and your Scritti Polittis had something more dynamic than their haircuts on stage to draw the audience's attention. A second version, known as the Pad80 Octapad II, followed in 1989, with increased patch capability and the ability to store data on memory cards. When the SPD line came into existence not long afterwards, onboard sounds were added and the 'Octapad' moniker was dropped.
Now, after some three years of development, Roland have resurrected the Octapad name with the SPD30. Benefiting from Roland's V‑Drum pad technology and 30 onboard effects, the latest incarnation of the instrument is aimed squarely at musicians who want to combine live percussion performance with phrase looping, MIDI triggering and sound editing.
The resulting piece of kit doesn't look all that different from its 20th century progenitors. Resembling a tea tray from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the updated model has eight pads that are housed in a lightweight (3.8kg/8lbs) but durable moulded plastic frame. Each sturdy 4.5 x 3.5‑inch pad surface sits about a quarter of an inch above the surrounding plastic border, in order to minimise the chance of accidental strikes on the SPD30's chassis. Unlike similarly designed units, the pads are individual components, as opposed to one rubber slab that's scored horizontally and vertically to delineate the different zones. The idea here is to avoid any potential crosstalk that might occur when a stick lands too close to an adjacent pad. This strategy seems to have worked out quite well, because even a damn good whacking towards the edge of a pad didn't trigger any misfires. Pad sensitivity, by the way, can be adjusted if temperature changes during travel or inside a venue affect pad response.
Each pad has an accompanying LED indicator that can be set to function in four ways: Off, Type 1 (only the large buttons to switch between kits are lit); Type 2 (kit buttons lit, pad indicators will be lit when a pad is struck); and Type 3 (kit buttons and pad indicators are on continuously: very helpful on darkened stages).
At the back of the unit, all the expected jack sockets are recessed beneath the upper lip of the main panel. Here we find (from left to right) a USB memory slot, a USB B computer MIDI connection, a socket for the external PSU, a quarter‑inch headphone socket, a pair of quarter‑inch left/right outputs, a quarter‑inch input for mixing in external audio, five external trigger input jacks (for other pads, such as a kick-drum or hi-hat pedal), a footswitch socket, and MIDI In/Out connectors. Thus the SPD30 is well positioned to quickly integrate into most studio or live setups.
Right out of the box, the SPD30 comes with 50 preset kits that span a range of modern and traditional drum sounds, global percussion and unique sound effects and melodic patches. You'll undoubtedly spend your first hour alone with the SPD30 beating on the pads as you punch through one set of sounds after another.
What you'll find while exploring the SPD30 is an array of sounds with glamorous and exotic names such as 'Solar Eclipse' (Euro stabs and club hits) and 'Jungle Explorer' (think soundtrack bits for the Survivor television series). But there are also your standard meat‑and‑potatoes collections. A kit like 'Groovin' Drums' is your bog‑standard acoustic drum kit with a nice bit of compression thrown in. 'Lofi Breakbeater' is an interesting hybrid of 808 sounds and standard acoustic elements, while 'Fate' includes an intriguing set of percolating synth patches that wouldn't have been out of place in Gary Numan's set. There are plenty of ethnic sounds as well, representing percussion from Cuba, Africa and Brazil (the latter courtesy of the 'Escola De Samba' kit, which comes complete with a carnival whistle). Then there are kits like 'Shuffle Drum & Sliz' which uses a Slicer effect, along with a saw-wave patch, to show off how the SPD30 can be used to create sequenced synth riffs. Similarly, 'Astrobot' relies on heavy use of auto‑wah to create a spacey electro kit.
Since you can't import or record your own sounds with the SPD30, what's on board is quite important, not least because the presets will be the starting point for new custom kits. There are 670 native sounds, which Roland promise have been designed, recorded and vetted with extreme prejudice to high quality. Essentially, all the internal kits are user kits, so any editing you perform on an internal (factory) kit is automatically saved over the original kit.
Using an optional USB flash drive, you can save 99 individual kits via USB. You can then load in any of these kits (one at a time) to any of the 50 internal kit memories. You can also save 99 backups via USB. A single backup consists of all 50 kits currently in memory, all phrase loops (up to 50), and any other settings or edits you may have performed before saving the backup. Only one backup can be loaded at a time, and will overwrite the contents (kits, phrases and other parameters) currently residing in the machine. Kits, however, can have a 'protected' setting attached to them, to prevent any accidental tweaking.
Each sound on the SPD30 is referred to as an 'Inst', two of which can be assigned to each pad within a kit. When two Insts or sounds exist on one pad, they are thought of as layers, the sound played being dependent on how hard the pad is struck. Layers can be mixed or blended, depending on the amount of separation you need between them. A straightforward example of this would be a pad hosting a snare drum sound that, when struck hard enough, would trigger a rim-shot underneath. There are five very useful layer settings available: Off (where only Inst A will be triggered); Mix (both A and B are played together); Switch (either A or B is played depending on how hard the pad is struck); Fade (where B is added to the triggering of A after the threshold or 'layer point' has been crossed); and 'Xfade' (A decreases in volume after the layer point has been crossed).
Insts are managed from the Kit screen, which appears in the SPD30 display as soon as the unit is powered up. Striking a pad highlights one of the squares within the kit screen and helps bring some visual focus to whichever pad you're about to tweak. While we don't want to delve too deeply into the specific procedure for editing an Inst here, suffice it to say that once you've had a go at it once or twice, it becomes rather intuitive. Insts are also grouped by type within the Inst menu, to help speed up the mechanics of editing. Once you've got your sound sorted, individual pads and entire kits can be copied to new locations fairly easily. From this screen you can also assign and recall favourite kits. A useful bonus here is the Multi Edit screen, which allows you to tweak up 10 Inst parameters, such as tuning, muffling, tone colour, volume, pan, and effect send.
Another extremely welcome feature is the Kit Chain function, which, with the help of a separately purchased footswitch, lets performers move smoothly between up to eight user‑defined kit banks. Each one of those banks can contain a whopping 20 individual kits, which should be more than enough for an evening of gigging.
The SPD30 really takes flight when you begin to delve into pattern or 'phrase' looping. There's a whole raft of videos online, on both Roland's site and YouTube, that highlight this particular strength.
The basic premise is that you can record a pattern in real time and then play along with your freshly recorded pattern, and even add to it on the fly. Phrases can be built from not only one kit, but from up to three at a time.
As Roland clearly see phrase looping as an integral part of the SPD experience, it's as well that they've made it so simple to use. Basically you select a kit, define the length of your pattern, add some quantisation if you like, set your tempo, and then get on with the recording. Once you have the click track engaged (or not, it's up to you), your recording will begin the first time you strike a pad. You can bang out patterns on all available pads at once, but for those of us who are a bit rusty, pads can be recorded individually as well — just overdub at will, at any point during phrase-loop creation. I also appreciated the fact that the phrase-loop indicator blinks in time with the tempo like an old-school metronome — very useful. While you're getting comfy with all of this, Roland have provided a tutorial kit so that you can record and tweak as much as you like without worry.
One thing I wasn't able to test but saw used to great effect on a number of online videos was the SPD30 used in league with a footswitch pedal. This small addition allows a player to control several phrase‑loop functions without having to take their hands off their sticks. With a foot click, you can mute a pad sound, bypass an effect, or stop/start the recording or playback of a loop. Since the SPD30 can be used with a dual footswitch, the second pedal can be used to define the length of a phrase, and how many beats to a measure. Unfortunately, a footswitch is not included, but, truth be told, it almost seems like a must-have addition.
If the SPD30 wants for anything, it might be the sort of sampling that's found in Roland's SPDS unit. If the Octapad proves to be popular enough to warrant an update, it would be a rather tasty feature to see added to any future iterations of the device.
Still, the SPD30 is tremendously fun to use. The control and editing of the onboard effects while actually performing or creating loops is deep and powerful, but not so complex or fiddly that you're put off exploring. I have to say that I love the response and sensitivity of the pad surfaces themselves; with only the occasional tweak, they respond just as nicely to brushes and even finger taps as they do to regular drumstick use.
All told, if you've ever considered adding a drum pad to your setup, the SPD30 demands consideration by drummers and non‑drummers alike. It's a quick and easy way to add some variety and percussive flair to your music.
If you're looking for something that's somewhat comparable, but at a lower price point, the recently revitalised Korg Wavedrum might be a good place to start. Although it only has a single pad surface, it allows for more nuanced playing (hand muting, for instance). The Yamaha DTX Multi 12 may be a more apt substitute, as it includes multiple pads, and also allows the importing of both WAV and AIFF files to create custom kits.
There's a fair amount to explore when it comes to the 30 effects the SPD30 is apparently named for, although users of other Roland gear will feel quite at home at what they find here. There are three types of filters (Super Filter, Step Filter and Filter + Drive), a pair of reverbs (Reverb, Long Reverb), choruses (Chorus, Hexa Chorus), modulation options (Ring Modulator, Step Ringmod), delays (Stereo, Three‑tap Pan, Reverse) and a selection of phasers and flangers (Step Phaser/Flanger, Infinite). Once you throw in pitch‑shifting, compressors and distortion, your palette for extending the creative side of a drum kit is more than broad. As well as all this, there are also a variety of ambience, EQ and limiter effects, which are managed separately in the Ambience menu.
Managing and editing the effects is simple: you just navigate to the edit tab and use knob one to dial to the effects parameter that you would like to tweak. Knob three will adjust the amount of an effect parameter. You simply bang on the pads to demo the changes to the effects as you go. The third tab controls the send level of each individual pad. What's nice about this is that you can take control of the pad send level for each of the two Insts housed on your pad, which opens up even greater performance possibilities. Existing effect settings can also be easily copied from one pad to another at this point