FIG. 1: The ZAP''s spartan interface includes 19 hard plastic triggers neatly arranged in five rows.
The original Zendrum (now called the Zendrum ZX) first appeared in 1994 in the hands of Manu Katche on the Australian leg of Peter Gabriel's “Secret World” tour. If not the first finger-oriented MIDI percussion controller to hit the market, the Zendrum was certainly one of the earliest. The Zendrum LT, designed for laptop use, came out six years later.
This year Zendrum introduced the ZAP (ZAP stands for Zendrum Articulating Programmer). Designed for use in the studio or onstage, the ZAP puts the Zendrum concept in a compact desktop package at a much lower price than the larger ZX and LT models. As with the rest of Zendrum's products, the ZAP is a highly expressive and unique controller designed to work with today's multisampled drum libraries.
All of the Zendrum controllers are based around an array of hard plastic cylinders, each of which triggers a MIDI note. The ZAP has 19 triggers arranged in five rows (see Fig. 1).
The programming interface is sparse: a cursor switch with an assignable button below it, and three 7-segment LED displays. The left and right arrows step you through the functions, while the plus and minus buttons increase and decrease values. The assignable button serves as either a momentary sustain switch or a kill switch depending on how it is set in software.
FIG. 2: The rear panel includes MIDI I/O, three trigger inputs, and a sustain pedal input.
Three external inputs let you add pedal triggers to your setup. The sustain input can also be used as a kill switch and for choking cymbal sounds.
Everything is mounted in a gorgeous hunk of wood with the Zendrum logo burned into it. Prismatic foil backs a second logo and the company name. The ZAP is available in a selection of exotic woods, and custom versions can also be ordered. Overall, this fine-looking instrument invites you to play.
Aside from its strong aesthetic, the mass of the ZAP's body isolates the triggers and eliminates false triggering. The controller has four leveling feet for desktop use, and it can be mounted on a snare drum stand using an optional mount ($25), which provides a viable way to use the ZAP in live performance.
The rear panel is equally sparse (see Fig. 2): MIDI In and Out connectors, three trigger inputs, a sustain pedal input, and an on/off rocker switch. I had to visit the Zendrum Web site because of the lack of specifications in the manual for the types of pedals that can be used for the trigger and sustain inputs.
KEEPIN' IN SIMPLE
According to company cofounder David Haney, the ZAP's operating system is simple so that the widest range of players can make use of the controller. Aside from a few utility functions, there are only five parameters in the ZAP: the note map of all the trigger pads, the MIDI Program Change number, the MIDI Velocity ceiling (the maximum value that will be sent), the noise-floor setting (a threshold that determines the minimum force required to generate a trigger), and the MIDI channel. A collection of these five things can be stored as a Set Up, of which there are 16 in the ZAP. Almost all the factory Set Ups are configured around musical scales. The ZAP offers eight Velocity curves, but only the most cursory descriptions of them are given in the manual; there are no graphic illustrations of the curve shapes.
But don't think the ZAP's simplicity means it lacks sophistication. Its Advanced Program Function (APF) allows each pad to be set to Velocity Layer, switching through four successive MIDI notes as notes move across the Velocity range. Used in combination with a multisampled drum sound, this feature adds to the degree of expressiveness available. Of course, those four notes could also play entirely different sounds for an effect that is more compositional than performance oriented.
The APF feature is well considered, and I cannot remember using any electronic controller with a more musical dynamic response. Even when using sounds that were Velocity sensitive but not multisampled, the ZAP's dynamic control was intuitive and smooth. I was very impressed with the Velocity responsiveness this controller provided.
Programming the ZAP is a fairly basic affair and reminiscent of programming Roland's original Octapad controller: scroll to a function represented by a cryptic 2-character abbreviation, hit a pad, and then scroll the values. There is no Save function of any kind; the current values are stored in a Set Up when you move to the next function. While this method provides an extremely fast way to work, it complicates recovering from accidental edits. Fortunately, the ZAP lets you dump and load its memory via MIDI SysEx messages, though I am not aware of any editors for this data.
FIG. 3: This shows the layout of a major-scale MIDI note map that I created in a couple of minutes. The map breaks the pad array into pairs of rows so that I can easily play pad pairs with the fingers of one or both hands.
IT'S IN THE FINGERS
I was thrilled by the ZAP's sheer beauty as soon as I pulled it from its box, as well as by its substantial feel. Even with the weight of a 7-pound block of wood, the ZAP sat comfortably on my lap and made me want to play it.
It didn't take long for me to get going, either — the very benefit Haney was looking for with his simple design approach. I used the ZAP in both tonal and percussive contexts in a variety of environments: with software instruments in MOTU Digital Performer, Apple Logic Pro, and Propellerhead Reason; and with two hardware sound modules, a Yamaha MU-50 and an E-mu Proteus 2000. It worked easily in every situation, though there was substantial latency in the response when playing Digital Performer's Nanosampler. The fact that this was the only case where latency was an issue makes me certain it was a configuration problem of some sort in DP, not the fault of the ZAP.
My first attempts to play the ZAP involved trying the scales in the factory Set Ups, but the logic in the scale layouts escaped me. No matter; I quickly and easily created a note map that fit where my fingers wanted to fall (see Fig. 3) and immediately began playing rhythmic melody phrases consisting largely of permutations of a few notes, à la Steve Reich, Philip Glass, or Peter Gabriel. It was fun.
Clearly, playing the ZAP is all about finger technique. Those who have already developed finger control, such as tabla drum players, keyboardists, guitarists, and wind players, will likely be able to get musical results quickly from the ZAP and find a comfortable style on it. Those accustomed to drum machines will also take to this controller easily.
According to Haney, hard plastic was chosen for the triggers because it responds much more quickly than rubber and other softer materials. Similarly, the ZAP uses piezoelectric elements instead of fancier trigger materials like FSRs (force-sensing resistors) because, Haney says, piezo elements have a faster response.
I have never enjoyed playing on hard plastic, and the ZAP's plastic pads bothered me, too. Apparently, there are many people who have no problem with these pads, but I got the feeling that regular playing could cause some discomfort in my fingers. Haney counters this by asserting that not much force is required to get a maximum Velocity value out of the ZAP, and that developing a lighter touch is the way to get the best out of the controller.
STRAIGHT UP AND DOWN
The simplicity behind the ZAP's design is effective, but there is a fine line between simple and simplistic, and the ZAP sometimes comes quite close to it. For instance, the trigger pads can produce either a trigger (that is, a MIDI note of zero duration) or notes that keep sustaining. For drum modules, the trigger-only approach can work; for some longer 1-shot sounds, infinite sustain can work. There are many sounds that are best played by a note of fixed duration, though. Haney is aware of this need and is strongly considering implementing note durations. But with only two or three more new parameters, the risk of having no Save function starts to become too great to ignore.
Additionally, the 3-character display could easily cease to be viable. I've never liked stepping through lists of highly abbreviated parameter names, and the ZAP gets away with it only because of the small parameter set.
What it comes down to is the old power-versus-ease-of-use trade-off, and the more ZAPs that Zendrum sells, the more demand there will be to add features. For myself, I'd love the ability for each trigger pad to transmit over a different MIDI channel, and to have some form of continuous controller. Set Up naming would be very nice, and having more than 16 Set Ups could be useful, too, though I suspect most users actually use only a few and change presets in their sound modules a lot.
If Zendrum doesn't add features, users will have to find work-arounds, such as using facilities in a DAW, to get the greater control they may need. At that point, it's no longer simple for them anyway, so why not put the control in the controller, which is the logical place for it? It's a tightrope Zendrum is walking, but at the moment, the company has things in balance.
HAND, HAND, FINGERS, THUMB
There are many ways to play the ZAP. It need not be with the fingers only; you can also use the heel of the hand or a flat palm. I played it like a conga, triggering a few sounds at a time, which was very enjoyable. Triggering sound effects is another obvious application, and I can see the ZAP serving as a very efficient audio postproduction tool.
Overall, the Zendrum ZAP is a controller that is unusual not only in its configuration, but also in the degree of expressiveness it offers. Although the ZAP's simplicity can be a double-edged sword, it certainly succeeds in the ease-of-use department, and there's a lot to be said for that. The ZAP is likely to be an instrument you will use regularly for many years, because it's fun, useful, and — unusual in this day and age — built to last that long.
Larry the O has been spending a good bit of time as Vibrafolk, a singing folk vibraphonist.
MIDI percussion controller $999 (MSRP)
PROS: Distinctive finger controller. Beautiful design. Outstanding Velocity response. Easy to set up and use. Well built.
CONS: Hard plastic pads could cause irritation. No multichannel capability. Limited display. Some documentation issues.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5DOCUMENTATION 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5