FIG. 1: ControlAid can map single MIDI commands from your controller to multiple commands on multiple channels. Here, a single MIDI note is mapped to a chord.
Drum-pad and pad-grid controllers are finding their way into studios and onto all kinds of keyboards and workstations. If you're only using those pads to tap out beats, you're leaving a lot of potential on the table, which is probably a very crowded table if you're in a cramped studio like mine. Here are a few ways to make your pad controllers more versatile.
You can set up the most common drum-pad arrangement, the 4x4 grid, to manage basic channel strip parameters for your DAW mixer. The mixer rows on my main MIDI controller get used up handling volume, pan and track-select buttons, so I set up my drum pad, Native Instruments Maschine, to operate several buttons for each DAW track. (Maschine is an excellent MIDI controller in addition to being a hybrid hardware/software workstation.) I use Maschine with Ableton Live 8, but similar concepts work with most pad devices and popular DAWs (see Step-by-Step Instructions below).
I first created a dedicated setting for my pad-mixer setup in Maschine's Controller Editor software. Then I entered MIDI Map mode in Live 8 and set each vertical column of pads to trigger, from the top down, the track's effects rack On/Off button, mute track, solo track and record enable.
Most pad controllers have multiple scenes, letting you program separate sets of MIDI assignments for the pads. Maschine has eight scenes called Pad Banks. That gives you a total of 32 columns of pads to assign to DAW tracks.
This setup, while rather simple, is an incredible improvement over using a mouse for the same mixer controls. If my particular arrangement isn't of interest, consider other on/off commands that you might use pad buttons for, such as track-select buttons, transport buttons, tap tempo, metronome toggle, loop launching and so on.
To go deeper into programming your drum pads, check out software such as the Bome MIDI Translator (Mac/Win, bome.com), which has a free classic version for PC, or the freeware controlAid (Mac, charlie-roberts.com). These apps convert, reroute and expand MIDI messages in many ways. They don't offer instant gratification, but the rewards are worth the work you put in.
ControlAid includes a 1->many (one-to-many) tab that converts a single incoming MIDI note-on or CC message to multiple output messages. You first select a MIDI device in controlAid's I/O tab, and then you add start notes with the plus sign button in the 1->many tab (see Fig. 1).
I wanted to make single drum pads play full chords, so I started with the root notes of chords I wanted to play and checked the nt/cc box to indicate that they're note-on rather than CC messages. In the End column, I added three notes for controlAid to output. In Fig. 1, note 24 (C2) is mapped to play a C major chord: notes 24, 28 (E2) and 31 (G2). You can, of course, set the end notes to whatever values you want, and there's no limit to the number of end notes so you can make the chords as complex as you like.
It is important to create a preset for your drum controller that lays out in a logical fashion the notes you're going to use with controlAid's one-to-many functions. I set up each 16-pad bank to represent an octave's worth of chords. The first and third columns of pads represented the major chords for the white keys A through G, and the second and fourth columns of pads represented the major chords for the black keys (the sharp notes). That leaves four pads unused in each bank, but with Maschine's eight pad banks, you still have enough pads to set up eight octaves' worth of major chords — a veritable keyboard cheater's paradise.
ControlAid is designed specifically for Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live, so you must take some additional steps to get it working with other DAWs. Those are detailed in controlAid's documentation. My drum-pads-to-chords setup is only one example of the many things you can do with controlAid or another MIDI helper application. There's no need for your pads to collect dust when you're not making beats.
Markkus Rovito is a drummer, bedroom music producer and writer/editor in San Francisco.
Step 1: Create a preset on your drum-pad controller or in its editor software to use for making pad columns control channel strips.
Step 2: Set up your DAW''s MIDI preferences for your controller. In Ableton Live 8''s MIDI Sync preferences, turn off the Track and Sync inputs and turn on Remote input.
Step 3: On each track, group your effects chains into an Effects rack.
Step 4: Map the Effects rack''s bypass buttons to the top pad in your drum-pad columns.
Step 5: If your pad controller has scene buttons, repeat this process for each available scene.