KORG padKontrol

One of the coolest jobs I've had was alpha testing the classic Akai MPC3000 drum machine. Every morning I'd drive over the hills to designer Roger Linn's
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FIG. 1: Add some Kaoss to your beats with the padKontrol''s unique x-y touch pad. It transmits Control Changes or rapid note bursts for flam and roll effects. All of the buttons light up to confirm triggering, and the two large controller knobs turn smoothly.

One of the coolest jobs I've had was alpha testing the classic Akai MPC3000 drum machine. Every morning I'd drive over the hills to designer Roger Linn's house, pound out patterns on the prototype's pads, and try to make it crash. Back home at night, I'd make more music on my keyboard setup. But even though my sequencer had a quantization template named Linn, the drum parts were never as satisfying. There's just something about MIDI drum pads that gets you in the groove.

In 2002 Akai finally offered MPC-style pads in a standalone USB MIDI controller, the MPD16. But it was fairly expensive, lacked a display, and provided only a single slider for gestural control. Worse, the pads no longer transmitted Aftertouch.

Then last year M-Audio released the Trigger Finger, which added knobs, sliders, Aftertouch, and a basic LED display to the MPD16 concept — for $150 less (see reviews of both controllers at www.emusician.com). Akai recently countered with the MPD24, adding even more sliders and knobs. Korg has taken a different approach, producing what may be the most playable percussion controller of all: the padKontrol.

Up and Drumming

The padKontrol is about an inch deeper and 1.5 inches wider than this magazine (see Fig. 1). Its thin plastic case initially gave me pause, but its rubber feet kept it firmly anchored on my desk despite my enthusiastic pad pounding.

At the bottom left corner of the padKontrol is a 2 × 2.5-inch x-y touch pad. You can set either axis to transmit Pitch Bend, Aftertouch, or any MIDI Control Change message (CC 0 through 127). Press the adjacent Flam or Roll buttons, and the pad will transmit MIDI notes instead. In Roll mode, the axes control Note Velocity and speed; in Flam mode, they affect the timing and Velocity of the second hit. It's an ear-catching feature, and I'll share some performance tips in a moment.

Like the touch pad, the two big, smooth-turning knobs at the padKontrol's top right can transmit Pitch Bend, Aftertouch, or CCs. I would have liked more knobs, but it's easy to connect an external MIDI fader box to the padKontrol's merging MIDI input to create a composite control surface.

To the left, a detented rotary encoder lets you dial up data values quickly. If you hold down the Prog Change button while turning the encoder and then release it, the padKontrol will send a Program Change. With the straightforward editor-librarian software (Mac/Win), you can assign Program and Bank Change presets to as many as five pads (see Web Clip 1).

Pad-tastic

The bulk of the panel houses the 16 drum-trigger pads, which light up when you hit them. Unlike some other pads I've played, they respond beautifully all the way out to their corners and don't produce double triggers. You can assign each pad its own MIDI channel, virtual output port, and Velocity curve. The eight curve choices are linear; compressed linear (two types); slow- and fast-rise logarithmic; and 2-, 3-, and 4-level (see Web Clip 2). You can also set any pad to a fixed Velocity level. I chose compressed curves for sounds I wanted at a constant level, like kick drums. (The Trigger Finger has only global Velocity curves.)

A Fixed Velocity button temporarily sets all pads to a preset level without editing the individual settings — a handy feature. You can also emulate Akai's 16 Levels mode — assigning the same sound to each pad, but with a slightly higher Velocity value on each successive pad. That's helpful when step entering parts in a sequencer.

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FIG. 2: The padKontrol''s back panel offers a small antitheft cable slot, USB interfacing with two virtual output ports, MIDI In and Out, and a footswitch input. You can power it with USB or an optional DC adapter.

The pads can transmit Control Changes instead of notes — one value on key down and another on key up. That's not as expressive as the continuous Aftertouch that the Trigger Finger and MPD24 send, but as I'll explain, the x-y touch pad compensates for that.

The padKontrol also has a 17th pad in the form of the footswitch input on the back (see Fig. 2). Because footswitches are not Velocity sensitive, notes or CCs have a constant value. However, I loved how assigning the footswitch to a kick drum or CC 64 (sustain) freed my fingers for playing. You can set each pad to be a trigger or an on/off toggle. I wish that pads in their On state would remain lit to give you visual feedback when you're gating a loop.

Programming pad and knob assignments on the padKontrol is easy once you peruse the manual; the buttons flash in sequence to guide you. The instant-assign shortcut is brilliant: if you hold down a Knob Assign or X-Y Pad button and press one of the bottom eight pads, the padKontrol will map a common CC type to that knob or axis. The eight choices include Volume, Pan, Reverb Send, and Filter Cutoff and Resonance. You can store as many as 16 scenes of button, knob, and touch-pad assignments and then recall them by holding the Scene button and pressing the appropriate pad.

The 30-page manual is dry but clear. It lists basic operations in the table of contents and in step-by-step form, but I would have liked more interfacing detail and performance tips. Because the padKontrol has many hidden features, reading the entire manual is well worth your while. I also recommend watching the video demo on Korg's Web site.

USB interfacing worked flawlessly. The padKontrol was ready to go as soon as I plugged it into my Mac. On my PC, I first had to install a driver. The padKontrol presents the computer with three input ports: two directly from the padKontrol and one from its MIDI In. You can also address the unit's MIDI Out from your computer, which lets you control external MIDI instruments from your sequencing software. When USB is not connected, the padKontrol addresses its MIDI Out jack directly.

X-Y Action

One of my favorite features on the Akai MPC-series is Note Repeat, which retriggers the current pad's sound at increasingly higher Velocities as you press down; it's a great way to produce rolls. So I was initially disappointed that the padKontrol's trigger pads don't produce Aftertouch. I soon realized that punching the padKontrol's Roll button and sliding my finger up the x-y touch pad produced the same crescendoing roll effect. Add the x-axis (roll speed), and the creative possibilities explode. Because you can jump to the middle of the range, the x-y pad is also easier to control than a pressure pad.

I discovered several performance techniques while becoming acquainted with the x-y pad (see Web Clip 3). First of all, the realism of a roll depends on the path you trace and the sound; longer decays and Velocity cross-switching help. With the x-axis set to Pitch Bend, you can press a finger on the touch pad and wiggle it sideways for vibrato. I also found that setting the axes to control filter cutoff and resonance and then drumming your fingers on the touch pad creates sample-and-hold effects.

Normally, the touch pad sends two CCs at once, which will confuse the MIDI Learn mode in most music programs. To transmit a single CC, you can run your finger along the very edge of the touch pad. To transmit one varying CC value in addition to the middle value of the other, just move two fingers along parallel edges of the touch pad. And if you play melodic parts on the trigger pads, the physical relationships will suggest new directions.

The Hits Keep Coming

The padKontrol currently comes with a terrific promotional software bundle called Creative Kontrol Pack, vol. 2, on DVD-ROM. Not only does the disc give you entry-level versions of Propellerhead Reason, Ableton Live, and IK Multimedia SampleTank 2, but you also get Korg MDE-X (a great-sounding multi-effects plug-in) and UVI Korg Edition, a virtual instrument from Ultimate Sound Bank with tons of useful, Velocity-switched drum kits.

The Creative Kontrol Pack bundle inspired me to add an extra point for value, but Korg wasn't sure how long the promotion would last. The basic package comes with only the editor-librarian, MIDI drivers, and a drum plug-in from Toontracks called dfh Superior Korg Edition. The plug-in's user interface is not very intuitive, however, and this version can't legally be used for commercial music.

If you're looking to create more expressive MIDI drum parts, today's controller choices are better than ever (see Web Clip 4). The Korg padKontrol stands out for its responsive triggers, versatile x-y touch pad, and enhancements that range from programmability to inputs to software. A couple of more knobs as well as octave-transpose controls (as on the Trigger Finger) would have been helpful, but they probably would require a price increase. At present, though, the padKontrol is the one to beat.

David Battino (www.batmosphere.com) is the coauthor of The Art of Digital Music (Backbeat Books, 2005) and the editor of the O'Reilly Digital Audio site (http://digitalmedia.oreilly.com).

PADKONTROL SPECIFICATIONS

Pads (16) Velocity-sensitive, illuminated, 1.06" × 1.06" Data I/O (1) MIDI In, (1) MIDI Out, (1) USB 1.1 with (2) virtual ports Memory (16) user scenes, (30) included scene templates Controllers (2) knobs; (1) x-y touch pad with Roll, Flam, and Hold buttons; (1) assignable ¼" TS footswitch input Display 7-segment, 3-digit LED Dimensions 12.36" (W) × 2.17" (H) × 9.21" (D) Weight 2.1 lbs.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

KORG
padKontrol

USB MIDI percussion controller $299

FEATURES4EASE OF USE3DOCUMENTATION3VALUE4

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Responsive, light-up pads. X-y touch pad with roll and flam control. Generous software bundle. MIDI and footswitch inputs. Assignable Velocity curve for each pad.

CONS: Pads don't stay lit in toggle mode. Lightweight housing. No octave-shift buttons.

MANUFACTURER

Korg
www.korg.com