Factors to consider when choosing a USB MIDI Drum Pad Controller
Drum Pad controllers give you the tactile feel of playing a hardware instrument, with the flexibility and almost unlimited expandibility gained by storing your sounds in computer software. Although it is possible to make beats using any MIDI device; many musicians will tap out their drums on a piano-type keyboard for example, but they’ll also likely tell you that this not entirely suitable. A Drum Pad controller, or a Drum Machine for that matter, has been specifically designed for the purpose of drumming, and will provide much more ideal results.
Beat-makers have many choices available to them when it comes to USB MIDI Drum Pad Controllers. So, to make an informed decision when choosing one, it’s beneficial to take a look at some of the long-established classic drum machines that these controllers, and their accompanying virtual drum machines, are based on.
A Mini History of Two Popular Types of Drum Machine
A lot of the digital drum devices out there are heavily influenced in design and layout, by two types of drum machines that have stood the test of time:
- the Roland TR-808, first released in 1982 – and the machines that followed it: the TR-606, TR-909 and TR-707;
- and the Akai MPC drum sample workstations, manufactured from 1988 onwards.
The Roland TR-808 drum machine
The TR-808 is often called the sound of Hip Hop, having featured on a large number of classic Hip Hop tracks. It has still being used in many types of modern popular music today.
These drum machines were initially commercial failures, released at a time when electronic music had not yet become mainstream. The TR-808 was only manufactured between 1980 and 1983, with 12,000 machines being made.
The 808 sounds: the bassdrum, snare, and high hats are very distinctive and easily recognisable, as is the somewhat gimmicky cowbell. The sounds are editable, although not very editable by today’s standards.
The decay control on the bassdrum can be adjusted to give it a long low booming sound, which is a firm favourite amongst producers of urban music. You can play the audio file below to hear all the instruments of the TR-808.
It was one of the first programmable drum machines. The onboard step sequencer of the TR-808, is relatively simple to program whilst being very capable.
Many modern software drum machines, including Logic Pro X’s Ultrabeat, Ableton Live’s Drum Rack, Audiorealism ADM, D16 Software’s “Nepheton” TR-808 clone, Arturia Spark, contain the 808 sounds, as well as having Roland TR-style step sequencers.
There was even a Theatrical Movie entirely about the TR-808 released in 2015.
How does a step sequencer work?
In the image of the TR-808 Step Sequencer section shown here, we can see the 16 red, orange yellow and white buttons that are positioned across the bottom of the machine. They represent 16 positions in a musical bar.
The INSTRUMENT-SELECT dial is used to choose a sound, then you press the step-buttons to instruct the sequencer in which of the 16 positions of the bar you want that particular sound to be played. The LEDs light up to show that the positions have been selected.
So, for example, if you have a bassdrum on positions 1, 5, 9, & 13, that would give you the common 4/4 beat found on a lot of House, Techno, EDM and Disco tracks.
Sequences can then be copied, variations and rolls added. Sections can be edited and removed as required, and linked together to create a song.
The video below is a quick demonstration of a TR-808 sequencer being programmed.
The Roland TR-909
The TR-909 was the first drum machine to feature MIDI. It has become known as the sound of House Music and Techno music, but like the TR-808 is used in many other types of music too. Around 10,000 TR-909s were produced between 1983 and 1985. It features a similar Step Sequencer to the Tr-808.
The TR-909 sounds are as follows:
Since these machines were no longer being made and producers were craving the sounds, most drum software and many hardware drum machines featured reproductions of the 808 and 909 instruments.
Roland have now seen the potential of re-manufacturing their popular iconic drum machines, and after 30 years or so, the TR drum machines are back! The Roland Aria TR-8 was released in 2014. It contains all the sounds of the original TR-808 and the TR-909, and more.
In 2016 Roland introduced a smaller version of the TR-909, called the Roland Boutique TR-09.
The Akai MPC
Akai took a different approach to Roland when producing the first MPC (Music Production Controller), the MPC 60.
Whereas the Roland machines’ sounds are relatively fixed, the MPC allows you to load in your own sounds. There was a disk drive on the front of the MPC 60, and Akai supplied different drum kits on floppy disk. The MPCs are essentially samplers with drum pads, so can be used with the supplied sounds or you can sample any drums that you think are interesting and use them in your own compositions.
The layout of the MPCs, is still used by Akai today, is 16 square playable pads arranged in a 4 by 4 grid format. To make a sequence on an Akai MPC, you press the record button on the device and play the square pads by hitting them with your fingers. You can immediately play back what you’ve recorded, or keep the Recording Mode engaged and add new sections of the beat as different layers. Full editing of sequences is available afterwards on the LED display.
Other factors to consider when choosing a USB MIDI Drum Controller:
- Potential durability
- Construction Materials
- Layout and Arrangement of controls
The Drum Pad Controller we recommend for most scenarios is the awesome Arturia Spark LE
You can read our review of it by clicking the link below:
An excellent alternative to Spark are the MPC-inspired Akai MPD Series 2 Controllers: