FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S APRIL 2018 ISSUE | BY NORMAN WEINBERG
Alternate Mode has long been one of the preeminent manufacturers of sophisticated MIDI percussion controllers. If you look down into the pit of just about any Broadway-style musical, you’re bound to see a MalletKAT, TrapKAT, or DrumKAT serving as the playing surface for not only the drum set, but also timpani, chimes, marimba, xylophone, djembe, and many other instruments and sound effects.
While the company’s MalletKAT is an electronic version of a vibraphone in terms of its user experience, the DrumKAT and TrapKAT are multi-pads that don’t try to imitate the physical layout of an acoustic drum set. Alternate Mode’s newest creation is the JamKAT, which takes the idea of a multi-pad to an entirely different level.
Though the JamKAT has its roots in the hand-drum-style electronic instruments like the Roland HandSonic or the Korg Wavedrum, it’s really an entirely new classification of device.
The JamKAT is a round, segmented control surface that’s playable by hand, with no internal sounds or programming. Its power, programmability, and creativity come from the DITI (Drum Intelligent Trigger Interface), an external unit that serves as Alternate Mode’s brain in this sophisticated setup. The JamKAT connects to the DITI, which outputs to a computer, laptop, tablet, or even phone, to process its sounds into audio.
There are some real advantages to this type of symbiotic relationship between hardware and software. The DITI can serve as the electronic brain not just for the JamKAT, but for the company’s HybriKIT too. In fact, the DITI can interface with just about any electronic drum pad or playing surface, allowing for unprecedented flexibility in trigger-to-MIDI interfaces. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s back up and return to the JamKAT itself.
Twelve playing surfaces are split into identical halves over 14″ of surface area. Its ergonomic design is revealed as it’s played. For example, when the hands move to a given area of the JamKAT, the thumbs and fingers sit nicely over several of the pads, and it only takes a few minutes of experimentation to get comfortable with how the hands can move around the instrument to access all the pads.
The JamKAT’s playing sensitivity is something that must be experienced to fully appreciate. I can easily say that it has the most responsive hand controllers I’ve ever played. It will read the slightest touch, and respond with high velocity levels without having to slam your hands into the pads. This degree of sensitivity makes it possible to use a wide variety of strokes: single fingers, multiple fingers, thumb, thumb with fingers, palm, split-hand technique, and so on. And, given the surface’s layout, it’s natural to use these techniques on one pad alone or multiple pads in combinations.
In fact, the JamKAT is so sensitive and responsive to touch that I can’t think of any other percussion controller that offers this much realism. If you were to pair the JamKAT and DITI with an outstanding sound source (such as Flying Hand Percussion by HandHeldSound), I would defy even the most critical listener to tell me that the resulting sound is not a recording of an acoustic instrument. Very subtle differences between the velocities result in very subtle differences in the tone and color of the instrument’s sound. The conga and the 22″ frame drum patches are so good that I found myself just getting lost in those sounds for long stretches of time.
When playing melodic patterns, such as the ones for Soniccouture’s Array Mbira or Native Instruments’ balafon, you can express yourself with a degree of sensitivity that is totally unique to hand percussion controllers. Of course, even though a patch might be named “Array Mbira,” it sounds just as amazing when playing the sounds of an acoustic guitar, vibraphone, or any number of other instruments.
Other electronic controllers imitate hand drums by having a round playing surface, and try to duplicate some common hand drum performance techniques. For example, striking near the edge might offer a rim tone or tak while playing near the center plays a bass tone or dum. When it’s connected to the DITI, you can program the JamKAT to respond in a similar manner, or you could do so much more!
As mentioned, the DITI serves as the JamKAT’s brain by acting as an advanced trigger-to-MIDI interface. Trigger-To-MIDI (TMI) interfaces have been around pretty much since the start of the MIDI revolution itself. The Simmons MTM unit, for example, was released in 1985 shortly after the introduction of MIDI itself. In subsequent years, Alesis, Roland, Yamaha, and others created TMI machines with various degrees of commercial and functional success. The DITI is without question the most advanced drum trigger system I’ve seen to date.
To connect the JamKAT to the DITI, simply plug in the cables. The JamKAT has a single HD15 cable that, at the end, fans out into seven TRS connectors. In addition to reading the JamKAT trigger signals, the DITI also supplies power to the FSR (Force Sensitive Resistor) surfaces. It can read up to 24 trigger signals from just about any type of pad from any manufacturer, including piezo triggers, membrane switch pads, FSR pads, MIDI CC pedals, bass drum and hi-hat pedals, and more.
To connect other pads or triggers to the DITI, simply plug them into the inputs and tell the DITI what they are. The DITI has a huge number of pad types pre-defined with optimum settings for that individual pad type, including gain structure, threshold settings, mask time settings, and even response curves. Individual adjustments can be saved, and you can even design your own pad settings from scratch.
There are 50 different “kits” available in the DITI. A single kit is defined as a complete collection of pads and pad types along with MIDI note numbers, channels, gate times, program change messages, etc. For example, one of your JamKAT kits could be defined to control a Roland TD-30K. Another kit could be all the settings for a Yamaha DTX900. Once you’ve defined you kits, you can select between 50 different presets for that
particular kit. As an example, the kit you name as “Yamaha900” can have up to 50 different presets; each of which selects the individual presets (also called “kits”) inside the Yamaha brain. Still another could contain all the necessary settings for the BFD3 plug-in by FXpansion, or the Hybrid Drums plug-in by 8Dio.
Marrying the DITI with software drum kits allows for a level of control and expression that simply is not available with traditional e-drum brains. The reason is simple: Producers of dedicated sample libraries have much more memory at their disposal. Previously, if you wanted a drum kit with a ton of smoothly edited velocity shifts along with subtle and refined round-robin capabilities, 128-note polyphony, and other niceties, software was the only way to go. But now, the JamKAT and DITI combination paired with professional-level drum plug-ins creates a mind-blowing playing experience.
With all this power, you’d think that the programming would be a nightmare, but Alternate Mode has done a lot of the basic programming for you in advance. And in addition to the pre-defined pad types (30 at the time of this article), new pad definitions will be available for download from Alternate Mode as they become available. Programming a kit can be just as easy, as many brains from Alesis, Roland, and Yamaha can also be downloaded into the DITI. And as the music community creates new configurations, those can be uploaded to the site for others to use too.
The JamKAT/DITI combination’s special talents lie in the ability to “play” in entirely new worlds of sound. Each of the 12 pads is capable of a number of special features that allow for performance of sophisticated patterns of multiple alternating notes (up to 32) or layers and chords (moving forward, reversing, freezing, unfreezing, etc.), velocity shifting, velocity cross fading, controlling duration and gating effects, on-the-fly transposition (the entire kit or only certain pads), morphing sounds via pressure-activated control change messages, pitch bending, pad linking (no limit), and so much more. And keep in mind that the sounds don’t have to be percussion related. You can use any or all of these features for basses, leads, pads, sound effects, or anything else. Or you can mix and match and play all the instruments at once.
With all these options, tricks, and playing possibilities, it’s a good idea to plan for some learning-curve time to get the most out of the instruments. In addition to being able to program anything from the DITI’s front panel, there is also a free PC program for programming on a computer. Several “performing worlds” come pre-programmed, with more available for download.
The JamKAT is best suited for musicians who wish to explore the world of textural drumming and improvisation. It may offer more power than anyone interested in a basic hand drum interface would ever need, but adds performance sensitivity and performance nuance more than anything currently available. Using the JamKAT to its fullest capability means exploring new worlds of percussion performance where the artist can control melody, harmony, texture, and tone qualities as well as rhythm.
The DITI is highly recommended for anyone looking for a full-featured TMI interface for their electronic kits. Older electronic drum kits, for example, get a new lease on life when the DITI is used in place of their own brain. And the creative power of a low-cost, entry-level electronic drum kit is vastly expanded when paired with the DITI.
Plus, you can use the DITI as the brain of a system with your own triggers, allowing you to design and build your own e-kit, or mix and match your favorite e-drum components, including acoustic drums with any type of trigger. In short, the DITI provides more flexibility than you ever imagined.