BY JAKE WOOD
It seems like almost every day technological breakthroughs are changing the playing field for musicians. One day it’s a hi-hat defibrillator, the next it’ll be a pair of 150,000-volt 5A light sabers. While that’s all good and fancy, it’s when an invention changes the way musicians express themselves that we have something truly special. Back in 2003, Roland ignored numerous requests for a kick drum Slurpee machine, and instead released the first-ever SPD-S sampling pad. Suddenly, tech savvy drummers had an efficient means of triggering samples, loops, and playback tracks.
Nine years later and still leading the charge on the imminent sampling-drummer-dominated future, Roland releases the SPD-SX, an instrument in a league of its own. Having listened greatly to user’s requests, Roland imbued its new sampling pad with almost everything a high-tech drummer needs, making gracious strides in the malnourished field of acoustic-electric hybrid drumming.
Rather than just spit out another typical lunch tray of drum pads, this unit is a powerful sampling machine, a juggernaut of simplicity and execution, and a tool for more than just drummers. With a versatility that has yet to be fully exploited, the SPD-SX is a double agent by design, effortlessly elbowing its way between a drummer’s floor toms or a DJ’s turntables.
Within minutes of unwrapping, most any tech savvy musician will be sampling snippets from his or her favorite mp3s, uploading the most extreme metal kick tones, and playing along to factory-installed dubstep wobble-bass loops. Although the manual is necessary for fine-tuning elements, overall its plug ’n’ play design will make that first date a breeze with minimal awkward silences.
Its uses are vast and versatile and simply deciding what manner to employ it can take some time and experimentation. It can be played as a stand-alone kit, a percussion accessory, a sampler that triggers supplemental tones and loops, or a MIDI controller that activates play-along tracks from a computer. Because it’s so much more than just a drum pad, DJs are starting to incorporate them as well.
Visually, the SPD-SX has come a long way from its predecessor. Featuring nine pads total (three of which are edge pads), it dons a sleek all-black finish with red lights that illuminate in relation to amplitude and duration of samples, which is particularly useful for dark stages. Don’t be alarmed if it calls you “Michael” either, as it may have been modeled after the Night Rider KITT dashboard.
Aside from just being a pretty face, those red lights are also incredibly handy on a stage with a lousy monitor situation, by notifying drummers when a sample has been activated, even when they might not be able to hear it.
Other pretty lights include a crystal blue backlit LCD menu with illumination and contrast controls. It is illustrated with icons of 8-bit beauty (focus groups showed that drummers respond better to pictures than words) and it’s incredibly easy to navigate thanks to four-way maneuverability and fairly intuitive categorization.
Right out of the box, the sampler comes with a surprisingly small amount of factory-loaded drum kits; only 16 preprogrammed kits, with the ability to store 100 more. More surprising is that the first six of the preloaded kits aren’t even drum samples, but rather bass-guitar loops, piano montunos, and vocal clips. While the absence of a gigantic drum library isn’t necessarily a bad thing (the mostly blank canvas only pushes users to create their own sample banks), it’s still a little unnerving for the traditional electronic drummer. Also included with the unit is a CD of extra samples featuring 20 additional kicks, 25 snares, and plenty more exciting non–drum set loops.
The single most critical element that distinguishes the SPD-SX from all other pad instruments is its ability to sample. Loading customized samples has never been easier thanks to the unit, and now with the new multipad sampling function, making samples is actually fun. That’s right. Fun. Stream an mp3 player into the SPD-SX, activate the multipad sampling mode, and begin hitting pads like they’re individual record buttons, chopping up samples to each pad instantly. Within seconds a single mp3 can be deconstructed into snippets and loops, with each sample assigned to a different pad. No finger tinkering necessary; this is all done with the sticks. It’s fast, fun, and ripe for creativity.
If, however, samples are already primped and sitting on a computer, there are two other ways to load them on to the SPD-SX. They can be transferred via a USB thumb drive, or they can be loaded via a USB cable connected to a computer while using the included sample managing software. Unfortunately, at the time of publication, Roland had yet to update its software and drivers to be compatible with OS X 10.7 (it is however, compatible with 10.6), so up-to-date Mac users will want to wait until Roland gets its drivers updated, as it can’t even be used as a MIDI controller with 10.7.
BELLS, WHISTLES, AND JIGABITS
This time around Roland piled on the extra features like they were toppings from the world’s greatest salad bar, and frankly, it’s quite filling. It started by installing two dual-zone external trigger inputs, which can be harnessed into four single-zone triggers or pads, then it added a pair of sub-outs, which is particularly excellent for routing a click to everywhere but the mains, and then installed a 2GB hard drive that allows up to 360 minutes of audio, a far cry from the outdated SPD-S and its six measly minutes of magic.
On a more creative note, the unit features two dedicated effects knobs for instant tweaking. These factory effects include a short looper, an EQ filter, and a delay. They are intended to be manipulated in real-time, on stage, as a performance element, thus bringing out the inner DJ in all of us and effectively blurring the line between drummers and DJs in a very exciting way. It’s about time we start taking our jobs back from the DJs.
If, however, all you want to do is trigger your übermetal kick drum sounds, then most of the new features will seem more extraneous than creatively inviting, as little has changed in the triggering department. Of course, using the SPD-SX just for triggering kicks would be like buying a grand piano just for the C# — while that note sounds great, what about all the other keys?
VERUCA SALT SYNDROME
Roland has done a great job giving drummers almost everything we could ask for. That said, drummers always want more, more, more. And while there’s very little missing from the SPD-SX, there are a few things that could make it ever more appetizing. To start, an XLR input for instant microphone sampling (mike sampling is still possible with a 1/4″ adapter) would be swell, as would a mount that ships with the unit, and a much overdue software update for Mac users.
The SPD-SX is just plain fun. Lots of fun. Even determining how to incorporate it into the live show is a creative mixture of technical and musical strategy. Chances are it will probably inspire new drumming ideas and performance styles, and that is invaluable in the progression of the arts. The sampling drummer is the new working drummer and there isn’t a better sampling instrument to have on stage than the SPD-SX.
List Price $799
Multipad sampling mode is a super fun and instant method for sampling a tune over various pads; USB connectivity to transfer samples via computer or have it act as a MIDI controller; two dedicated effects knobs bring out your inner DJ; expandable with four more pads/triggers — more is better, right?