Another mallet offering

Friday, 22 March 2019 9:15 am

Digital mallet instruments used to be a rarity, but as Norman Weinberg reports, there is now another option.

I’VE BEEN AT this for a pretty long while. My very first product review was the Yamaha D8 electronic drum kit back in 1989. During these 30 years, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen an electronic percussion product that has caused quite as much buzz in such a short period of time. It was just over a year ago, at the 2017 PASIC convention, that Pearl had a product demo of a new mallet controller: three octaves, adjustable playing range, USB connection into your computer or tablet, and a list price of under a grand. At the following Winter NAMM show, there was one of these malletSTATIONS in the Pearl booth, and I was able to play around on it for a few minutes. It worked: playing it felt better than I expected, and I was impressed right off the bat with the dynamic sensitivity. For those PASIC and NAMM shows, the malletSTATION was the answer to the perennial question: “What have you seen that blew your mind?”. As you might imagine, there were a lot of folks who wanted to buy one “right now”, but it would be late June before anyone could get their hands on one. They are now available and shipping.

The EM-1 is the result of a partnership between Pearl and Keith McMillen Instruments. KMI has a history of making unique controllers for electronic musicians that are both original and creative, as well as reasonably priced. Their other percussion instruments are the BopPad (for sticks) and the QuNeo (for finger drumming). With such a dynamic duo producing the new instrument, I was excited to get my hands and sticks on one for an extended period of time.


 The EM-1 sent for review shipped with a short (four page) Quick Start Guide and a USB cable. Since it’s powered by USB, it doesn’t need any sort of external power supply. It’s not too heavy at just above 16 lb. (7 kg), but due to its size, I set it up on a small table. And, with the single USB jack connected to my laptop, it was only a matter of opening my soundware program and starting to play. Since the EM-1 is USB class-compliant, it needs no drivers or special software. Once I opened Ableton and assigned a sound to the first track, I could play on the EM-1 without any issues.

How it plays

My experience of playing with the EM-1 was extremely positive. It didn’t take very long to become comfortable with the touch and physical feel of the pads. And Iwas very taken with how sensitive the dynamic range was right out of the box. Like many electronic percussion instruments, the dynamic range was easier tocontrol when I wasn’t pounding on the instrument. But if you’re a heavier player than I am, you can adjust the sensitivity along with the velocity curve to find your sweet spot. Depending on the sounds I was using, the EM-1 could create a very realistic tonal gradation between softer and louder playing. As with any MIDI controller, the realism you achieve is going to be very dependent on the realism of the software sounds. A poorly sampled and edited vibraphone that skimps on memory is not going to please the ear as well as a heavily multi-sampled patch, created with care and attention to even the smallestdetails. What I can say is if you’ve got some amazing sounds, the EM-1 cancontrol them well. The instrument responded well to the techniques of playing dead strokes, dampening notes or sending aftertouch messages.

A full review will appear in the May 2019 edition of digitalDrummer