A true multi-pad

Friday, 22 March 2019 9:05 am

Is it a drum pad, a keyboard or a video controller? As Allan Leibowitz reports, the Sensel Morph is all of those – and more.

INCREASINGLY, DRUMMERS ARE using things other than “drums” to make music, and electronics have further freed percussionists to explore different media.

There’s a new solution tapping into this divergence, the Sensel Morph.

What’s in the box

The Sensel Morph consists of an iPad-sized base surface which, when connected to a computer or tablet, effectively acts like a giant touchpad.

That, in itself, is nothing new. Where the Sensel really steps up is with its overlays – a collection of special mats that sit on top of the touchpad and transform the Morph into a MIDI controller, drum set, piano, typing keyboard and more.

In action

I tested the Morph system with a bunch of overlays, but obviously spent most time testing the drum controller. This rubber overlay has seven drum “pads”, six of them dual zone.

There are also some control buttons on the top assigned to actions like record, play and stop as well as back/forward and loop.

The Morph can be connected either via USB or via Bluetooth (if the USB is not plugged in).

I tried the Morph with OSX and iOS, and found pairing to be straight-forward with both.

There is a free Sensel app (OSX and Windows) that can be used to configure the device, editing MIDI notes and changing the functions of the embedded control buttons.

Any edits can be saved to the Morph and will then apply wherever it is used.

Using the drum overlay with apps like GarageBand and LogicX was simple, and it was possible to start playing using the default MIDI map and settings. The dual-zone snare pad triggers head and rim sounds, the hi-hat pad plays open and closed hats and the ride pad can play bow and edge sounds. The dynamic range, played with fingers, was impressive and while I have seen video demos using sticks, I would find it hard to hit the tiny targets with anything other than my digits.

I suspect the Morph will get more use with tablets and phones than with computers, so I gave it quite a workout with my iPad Pro.

Connecting via Bluetooth was quick and easy, provided you remember to unpair from its previous connection.

The Morph was plug and play with GarageBand, which uses a GM MIDI map. The dynamic range, especially of the snares, was particularly impressive.

I also tried the device with DM1 which required some MIDI remapping, but once that was done, it performed perfectly.

The Morph was an absolute delight with Pete Lockett’s DrumJam, especially with some of the richly sampled hand percussion instruments like the cajon and hang drum, which felt amazingly expressive.

I also tested the Morph with an app released after our last iPad drumming update – X Drummer. I was part of the beta-test of this app from Positive Grid before its launch and am now running the full production version.

Keeping in mind that X Drummer has been developed for guitarists rather than drummers, I note strong similarities to GarageBand’s artificial intelligence drummer. The X Drummer version listens to a track and learns the rhythm, matching it to a groove and drum sound – with varying degrees of success. Musicians using this as a “drummer in a box” can modify the automatic drum track with drop-in fills and bridges, for example.

My focus, of course, was on the sounds and the triggering and the Morph gave me an opportunity to revisit X Drummer.

The app features a five-piece kit with four cymbals – hi-hat, ride and two crashes. It comes with a “standard kit” and five specialty kits (80s Rock, Modern FX, Jazz, Progressive Metal and Indie Rock) which are available as in-app purchases for around $6 each. And each of those comes in a few variants – dry, fat and punchy - alongside the stock version.

The snare has two sounds – head and rim; the hi-hat has open and closed sounds, while the ride has bow and bell sounds. Since the Morph has fewer “pads” than the X Drummer kit, I didn’t test the crashes with the device, but was able to trigger them by tapping the screen and they were rich and full, with a decent decay.

Each kit piece has a menu with which you can swap instruments (eg, you can use a jazz snare with a rock kit). In addition, you can change the head (coated, clear, double and vintage, for example), choose from a few dampening options, adjust the pitch quite dramatically, and change the attack and volume. These features are unique among iPad drumming apps and certainly allow you to fine-tune the drum and cymbal sounds.

The sounds are good, but there seems to be a paucity of samples, particularly at the top end, and it’s pretty easy to get machinegunning if you’re hitting fairly hard. On the other hand, using the Morph, ghost notes were easily played.

For those more into aesthetics, it’s also possible to edit the appearance of the virtual kit in the app, with several wrap/finish options to choose from as well as some choices of chrome finishes for the hardware.

Anyone interested in X Drummer can grab it at the AppStore for $19.99.

Bottom line

Back to the Sensel Morph, which is a super-sensitive trigger surface that works almost effortlessly with most drum apps when combined with the drum overlay.

It’s easily connected to a computer or iOS device and even works wirelessly with Bluetooth.

Easy as it is to use out of the box, a free companion desktop program allows for further tweaking, allowing you to edit the MIDI map and change a range of parameters to ensure the device works with any drumming app.

The compact size is a blessing in terms of portability (it’s the same size as an iPad), but the flip side is that the striking surface is pretty small – less than half a square inch in the case of some of the rim divisions. Another limitation is the number of ‘drum pads’ on the overlay, as there are not enough for an ‘average’ kit with a couple of crashes. While you may see videos of people playing the Morph with sticks, I don’t think it’s a realistic expectation for most players, given the tiny targets.

How could I see this being used? If you need to build some MIDI drum tracks on a long flight, you could whip out the Morph and tap away almost silently. I don’t see this being used for performance or practice, but rather for quick and quiet composition or drum track creation, for which it’s well suited.

It’s well designed, easy to use and fun to play, but the $250 price tag means it’s not quite an impulse buy. Sensel has added a few free samples and MIDI packs as a sweetener, and there seems to be some promise of more developer tools in the pipeline. Additional overlays cost $35 each – and if you play other instruments, it may be a worthwhile investment. For me, the typing keyboard was a no-brainer (part of this was crafted using that tool), and it works extremely well.

 So, it’s a good idea executed extremely well, but for a very specific niche market – or niche markets. And if that’s your demographic and skill set, you’ll probably love the Sensel Morph.