It looks like a drum, but …
Sunday, 26 November 2017 12:01 pm
Born out of a Kickstarter, the BopPad is now a reality. Allan Leibowitz checked it out.
I first saw the BopPad at NAMM a couple of years ago. Then there was a Kickstarter campaign which reached its goal in three days and went on to exceed a stretch goal of $100,000.
Backers are already bashing away at the 28 cm (10”) pads, and digitalDrummer was among the first to try the final product.
What’s in the box
It’s a very stylish box that contains a BopPad trigger surface and a USB cable. In a separate box, you’ll get the low-profile BopPad mount which was funded in the stretch goal.
The pad is stylish and slim, but feels substantial, with a silicone finish that reinforces the impression of a quality product.
There’s an inbuilt cable protector cage that will stop you snapping off the USB jack if you drop the pad or yank the lead.
The pad slips effortlessly into the housing which can be attached to a cymbal stand or rack attachment.
Overall, despite its diminutive size, it looks like an instrument rather than a toy.
The pad design
The BopPad is a MIDI drum pad controller divided into four quadrants. There are no controls on the pad, but it comes set up with four default output notes, so that you can plug the pad into a computer and start playing.
But, as with most MIDI instruments, that’s just scraping the surface – a surface which, in this case, responds not only to velocity, but also to pressure and location.
So, to get the most out of the pad, you will need either the BopPad Editor software (available for desktop) or the online editor which does the same thing in real time.
Some general observations before we dig in. The “smart fabric” pad can be played with sticks, mallets or fingers and it is very responsive out of the box. It has an excellent dynamic range, from the lightest touch to heavy whacks. The response can be dialled in using the software (luckily, because there are no knobs, dials, buttons or sliders on the pad), with presets for various playing modes as well as the ability to alter the velocity curve and sensitivity. There is so much scope that it’s highly unlikely that any individual playing style cannot be accommodated.
What can’t be guaranteed, however, is the accuracy of your strikes, especially with – but that’s getting ahead a bit …
Besides the four quadrants, which are clearly demarcated with black lines, there is scope to allocate four CC values from the edge to the centre – but don’t expect to allocate four different MIDI notes and build your 16-piece kit on the instrument. More about that later.
Without any tweaking, I plugged the pad into my MacBook Pro and tried it with various VSTs and apps. This may seem like a futile exercise because the BopPad clearly needs programming – but no doubt there are some lazy plug-and-play drummers who will expect instant results without trying any tweaks.
GarageBand instantly recognised the MIDI messages for the pad, playing a floor tom and closed hi-hat in the top two quadrants and snare and kick in the bottom ones.
With Addictive Drums 2, I firstly had to select the GM MIDI preset and I got the same instruments, but was able to trigger variations in the hi-hat as I struck closer to the centre. The triggering changed from closed at the rim to semi-open in the middle – very useful if you need different articulations.
The GM MIDI didn’t work quite as well with BFD3, where it was not possible to differentiate between open and closed hi-hats using location. (This is not a reflection on the BopPad, but on the CC note settings in BFD.)
Superior Drummer 3’s default MIDI map allowed for the same tom, snare and kick triggering, with the hi-hat moving from closed to open the closer to the centre you strike. You can also get a closed hat articulation by pressing the surface as you strike. Nifty!
Using Kontakt and NI’s drum libraries (Studio Drummer and Abbey Road), the default MIDI mapping also produced the snare, kick, tom and hi-hat configuration. I’m not sure if it was my imagination, but the hi-hat seemed to open a tad as the strikes moved towards the centre. It worked equally well with plug-ins like Martin France Drums and RealiDrums. The BopPad is an absolute delight with FlyingHand Percussion and its richly sampled world music instruments.
The BopPad performed well in default settings with Apple’s LogicX and MainStage3 in OSX.
Connected to an iPad using a USB/Lightning adapter, the BopPad was virtually plug and play in default setting for GarageBand and a bunch of other drum apps. With the Alesis DM Touch app, the standard configuration produced an open hi-hat sound for hard hits and the closed articulation for anything else. The pad was an absolute delight with DrumJam, especially with some of the percussion instruments.
So, without lifting a programming finger, you can certainly use the BopPad with Mac and iOS applications.
Taking the plunge
BopPad comes with not one, but two editors – one that can be installed on your computer and a second online editor that can be used on the fly. They look virtually identical and both allow for real-time BopPad editing.
As you wade into the editing, it becomes clear that despite its drum-like form, the BopPad is designed by keyboard players for keyboard players. (I suspect I have made enough noise to ensure that e-drummers will not be totally overlooked in future firmware and hardware updates).
For now, you can’t simply edit the pad so that you assign different MIDI notes to the four CC regions within each quadrant allowing you to, for example, start with a cross-stick sound on the outer edge and move through a rimshot to an open head snare sound towards the centre. If you’re proficient with Ableton Live, you can probably do this, but using just the BodPad editor and your stock standard VSTs, it doesn’t work like that.
There are some workarounds, but I fear they are too intimidating for the average amateur drummer – and I know of some skilled professional percussionists who were stumped by the pad.
However, if you are willing to experiment and use the MIDI learn capabilities of your favourite VST plugin, you can succeed in getting a bunch of articulations onto each quadrant, and you can use either position, velocity or gestures like pressing on the pad while you strike to alter the sound.
As I tried to tweak the BopPad, it became evident that I couldn’t configure it as a full kit replacement – but then why would you want an entire kit on a 10” pad – and how many drummers could accurately hit a narrow ‘invisible' band to trigger, say, a ride bell?
The pad, in short, is not designed to emulate a whole bunch of drums and cymbals. But it can be configured to trigger a range of articulations for a few instruments. I can, for example, see it being set up as a cajon, with the various quadrants programmed to trigger various zones of the box, and velocity and position determining some of the nuances.
The BopPad is a great-look pad with a terrific feel. Its playing surface is responsive, with excellent dynamics and imperceptible latency. It handles rolls and flams with ease and you can trigger ghost notes effortlessly. And the polyphony means you’re not cutting off one note when you play another.
It is easy to set up and works with almost anything that produces noise on a computer.
The editing tools add even more versatility, allowing you to dial in the response for fingers, sticks, mallets or anything else with which you may be tempted to play. And there’s enormous potential for sound variation, using pressure, velocity and even position, with four large sections and six zones within each.
Just watch one of the melodic demonstrations, and you can see just how capable the BopPad is. But in the hands of drummers, there’s less scope to employ all the capability of the hardware and the software.
Much as I love the feel and design of this device, it is never going to function as a stand-alone instrument for me. It’s a killer tool in the hands of synth players and has big possibilities for tuned percussion. And, some percussionists will be able to set it up as a really expressive cajon or set of timbales or even a hang drum, but it’s a struggle to get all the articulations you’ll need from an acoustic drum kit on the four quadrants and their four zones.
To reach the next level for drummers, the pad probably needs to be bigger and certainly requires the ability to trigger different (and programmable) MIDI notes on each zone – as you can with a jamKAT or a Mandala.
At $199, the BopPad is very keenly priced for a versatile and expressive instrument and if you’re not expecting a drum-replacement tool, you’ll probably find that it adds to your sound palette and provides for lots of fun as you explore the possibilities.