Review: Keith McMillen Instruments BopPad

A smart fabric drum pad for sticks and fingers
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The Keith McMillen BopPad is like having four electronic drums in one Frisbee-sized MIDI controller.

The Keith McMillen BopPad is like having four electronic drums in one Frisbee-sized MIDI controller.

When James Brown said “give the drummer some,” on “Funky Drummer” in 1970, Clyde Stubblefield laid down what would become one of the most sampled drum beats in history. Perhaps it gained such popularity because the expressiveness of Stubblefield’s timing and velocity was so difficult to reproduce with sequencers and programmed beats.

For such percussion-driven music, the electronic genres have spent a long time not really giving the drummers any. However, more and more expressive electronic kits, trigger sensors for acoustic drums (e.g., Sunhouse Sensory Percussion), and things like Melodics’ e-drum kit interactive lessons for dance-music drums have provided new opportunities for electronic producers to give their beats a funkier feel by, finally, giving the drummers some.

Keith McMillen Instruments’ (KMI) BopPad further exemplifies this welcome drummer-centric momentum.

While the Sensory Percussion trigger can turn an acoustic drum into eight separate triggering zones with location-based MIDI parameter control, it’s a costly option with a lot of setup involved. The BopPad, by comparison, provides a 4-zone drum pad that responds and feels as much like an acoustic drum as you could ever expect from an affordable and highly portable pad controller. Yet, in addition to up to six notes per quadrant, each quadrant can also send MIDI for velocity sensitivity, pitch bend, continuous pressure, polyphonic aftertouch, and location CCs for radial sensitivity (moving from the center to the edge of the pad). Moreover, the Class Compliant BopPad is plug-and-play with computers (Mac, Windows, or Linux) and iOS/Android mobile devices.

A LOT ON THIS PLATE

Drummers will notice that the BopPad looks like a traditional practice pad, and it is a similar size, except much flatter—less than a half of an inch thick. Excluding the red, metal guard that protects the included USB cable when connected, the BopPad measures a little more than 10 inches in diameter, with a playing surface of just over 8 inches. It weighs a hair more than 21 ounces. That means you can pack the BopPad in a laptop bag, cymbal bag, or on top of a drum in a hard-shell case.

Although the playing surface feels like rubber, inside is the same Smart Fabric Sensor Technology that KMI has used and refined in its other controllers, with special electronic inks printed directly on the material to provide different dimensions of sensitivity. A layer of elastomer (elastic polymer) covers the Smart Fabric.

That resulting surface responds very fast and is very sensitive, picking up even light finger taps. KMI says the latency of the pad is less than 3ms, and in my tests with it connected to a MacBook Pro and an iPad, the BopPad played indistinguishably from an electronic pad with onboard sounds. You can play it as hard as you want with sticks, mallets, or other objects (as long as they’re not sharp), as well as with your hands and fingers, which can make it feel more natural to control the continuous pressure, the radial location sensitivity, or to trigger the different quadrants by dragging across the zones like a touchpad.

The Micro USB output is the only port, and the BopPad has no moving parts. In keeping with the legendary durability of KMI products, the BopPad is built to last a lifetime of performances.

When playing the BopPad with sticks, it should be on a steady, flat surface or secured in a stand. Some snare drum stands will be able to hold it more or less steady, but for the best fit, KMI sells the BopPad Mount ($29), an anodized aluminum frame with an 8mm thread that mounts to most cymbal stands. However, I found that, especially when playing it with hands and fingers, the Bop-Pad easily rests on my lap or on some other surface, such as the top of a suitcase or laptop bag.

PLUGGING IN THE DISC

Fig. 1. The BopPad Editor software sits here on top of KMI’s BopPad Template for Bitwig Studio.

Fig. 1. The BopPad Editor software sits here on top of KMI’s BopPad Template for Bitwig Studio.

With its USB cable plugged into a computer, the BopPad works with any MIDI-compatible software, and you’ll have to program a setup in the downloadable BopPad Editor to dive into routing the Velocity, Pressure, Radius, and other settings. On its website, KMI includes basic templates for using the BopPad with Ableton Live, Bitwig Studio, and Apple Logic X/Mainstage 3 and GarageBand. These templates include tracks with instruments loaded and named after the BopPad’s four factory settings: Universal, Unison (where the pad is a single zone instead of quadrants), Sticks, and Hands (see Figure 1).

To connect the BopPad with a mobile device, KMI recommends using an Apple Camera Connection Kit adapter for iOS and a USB OTG cable for Android. I tested it with an iPad, and when connected, the BopPad drew very little power off the iPad battery to run. Apps from synths to sequencers recognized the device right away and without issue. The only problem is that, if you want to edit your BopPad settings to use it with iOS, you’ll have to do it from the BopPad Editor on a computer first. While KMI does provide a Web Editor, it requires a browser that supports Web MIDI, such as the desktop versions of Chrome and Opera. As yet, no iOS browser apps support Web MIDI. However, Chrome for Android should be able to run the Web Editor.

If you want to control MIDI hardware with the BopPad without doing it through a computer, you’ll need extra hardware like the KMI MIDI Expander ($59). It sends power to the BopPad and provides 5-pin MIDI I/O ports, but you can’t use the BopPad with both the MIDI Expander and computer or tablet at the same time.

EDITOR SOFTWARE

The BopPad Editor software unlocks the BopPad’s expressive potential; you’ll want to use the Editor in order to do more with the controller than simple 4-zone note triggering. The BopPad hardware holds four presets at a time, which you can access from the Editor by sending the BopPad Program Change Messages numbered 0-3 from connected hardware or software. You can create, store, import, and export unlimited presets with the Editor.

Each BopPad quadrant can send up to six notes, six “modlines” (control data), and has its own settings for MIDI channel, sensitivity, strike density (playing style), and other parameters. The Editor’s Keyboard makes it easy to visually assign notes to quadrants, and you can also draw and save four custom Curves to apply to modline data. The Editor and Web Editor are functionally the same and also update the BobPad’s firmware.

FLAT-OUT FUNKY

Anyone—not just experienced drummers—can benefit from BopPad’s four zones to program beats; trigger loops, arpeggios, and synth pads; or simply to send control data to any destination. The ability to use it just as well with sticks or hands really makes it convenient, as well as creatively flexible.

Drummers specifically should appreciate its playability and responsiveness, as well as the creative possibilities of assigning control data to the radial location of hits and the continuous pressure applied to the pad. The BopPad gives drummers a compact alternative for programming and recording beats using their existing rhythmic skills and styles to their fullest, rather than forcing them into a paradigm that may not be as comfortable, such as finger pads for a MIDI keyboard.

I enjoy using the BopPad for its great feel and ability to play fast buzz-rolls with sticks, but I really appreciated its high sensitivity, four zones and polyphony for hand and finger drumming. Finally, all my years of developing finger dexterity by tapping on tables and walls can amount to something other than annoying anyone within earshot: The BopPad senses finger rolls and thumb tapping, all on different quadrants, triggering any sound I want during a performance, in the studio, or just for fun and practice.

That’s already several unique traits. When you consider that this controller works just as well for expanding an acoustic drum set into an electro-hybrid kit as it does for being your mobile MIDI setup that slides into a back pack, BopPad becomes another one of KMI’s irresistible instruments.

Markkus Rovito is an electronic musician, drummer, and DJ in San Francisco, California.

STRENGTHS

Four zones can send up to 6 notes and 5 control data steams on their own MIDI channel. Fast, accurate response and feel with sticks or hands. Velocity, pressure, and radius sensitivity. Lightweight. Extremely rugged.

LIMITATIONS

Requires extra hardware to control MIDI modules. Some learning curve to programming its control data modlines. Web Editor doesn’t work from iOS browsers. The four zones can feel a bit small when incorporated into a larger drum kit.

$199
keithmcmillen.com