Roland Octapad SPD-30 as a mini-kit. A real drummer’s review

angle mainBy Jeffrey the Barak

Wait a minute, it’s 2016. Why would someone write a review of an SPD-30 now, when it came out in 2010? Good question. Firstly it’s still the newest model, and secondly, I just bought one, for the following reason.

I am now in a situation where having a big drum set around is not practical, and I needed to make a few compromises to get into a smaller footprint.

I sold my Yamaha electronic drum set, built around a DTX-700 module, despite being very impressed at how real that sounded when playing jazz, and emulating acoustic drums, rims, bells, bows and all. The silicone snare and three-zone ride cymbal were particularly wonderful using the default sounds in the module. As real as any VST actually, with a great dynamic range. But it’s gone and I won’t cry over it. Too darn big I say.

I should mention at this point that I have tried it before. I had a mini kit based around the older SPD-20 with the exact same FD-8 and KD-7 foot triggers, eight years ago. I was quite unproductive on that kit, but the newer SPD-30 has nicer pads and better onboard sounds. I also once had a similarly sized setup centered around a DrumKAT, (with a sound module added).

I had tried out the Roland SPD-30 Octapad in the local Guitar Center on three occasions over the last six years and walked away unimpressed, and I sat at one at NAMM for quite a while, and it still left a lot to be desired. But I was able to realize that this was partly due to the default settings. The SPD-30, once the manual has been studied, and it has been thoughtfully set up, can be a decent little set of drums.

Firstly, it is tiny. Even when you add the Roland FD-8 hat control pedal and a KD-7 reverse kick trigger and a kick pedal or the even smaller setup using the newer KT-10 kick trigger, plus a rubber floor mat in consideration of the neighbors, and a throne on which to sit, it takes up about as much floor footprint as two chairs. I would describe the rebound, or stick-feel, as being similar to that of the center of the head on a 14 inch snare drum. And remember this little tray takes the place of your drums, cymbals, most of the hardware, and the module.

Now most people who buy electronic drums today want them to be as enormous as acoustic drums, despite there being absolutely no function in such a design and layout, and so let’s just say, these drummers are not ready to go with a multipad, and let them walk laps around their sparkly fake shells, big mesh heads, rubber cymbals as big as brass cymbals, and giant knee-high kick triggers etc.


over no cablesCan the Octapad be the solution?

The first thing you have to do when deciding to use a Roland SDP-30 Octapad as a complete yet compact drum kit, is to not care at all if the band says it does not look cool.

The second thing you have to do when deciding to use a Roland SDP-30 Octapad as a complete yet compact drum kit, is ignore and overlook many of the features that you just paid good money for.

The entire, prominently featured, “Phrase-Loop” engine? Pretend it’s not there.

The massive sound library of things that are not in an acoustic drum kit? Just say, “Very nice, but no thank you”.

And now let’s see what we are left with.

Assuming you bought recently, or updated the original firmware to version 2, (which you must do), you have a very small selection of nice acoustic snare drums, kick drums, hats, rides, crashes and toms. There is enough to assemble and tweak at least two or three very nice sounding drum kits that you will not be embarrassed to gig with. You can put these onto kits 99, 98, 97 etc., or overwrite any of the more silly kits and rename them, and then add these new personalized kits to your favorites list for easy summoning.

Adjustments

One of the things I had to look at right away was adjusting the sensitivity. Perhaps due to the large number of cave-dwelling drummers who whack away at electronic pads with log-like sticks, like demolition workers with sledgehammers, the default sensitivity will simply miss the more intelligent parts of your brilliant, properly gripped, jazzy rolls and lightening fast rudiments. You have to teach the sensitivity settings not to ignore the good stuff that you spent your life practicing to play on your instrument of choice.

And then, since there are no rims, you have to program your pads so that your snare or snares get a rimshot as a second “layer” that you can summon with a harder hit. And then you may decide to sacrifice your third tom in favor of a second snare or a China cymbal. Or keep the kick as pedal trigger input only and free-up the bottom-left pad, usually assigned to kick drum, for something else. Or if you are left-handed, you can completely mirror your pad layout for comfort.

All of this adjustment and customization requires that you read the owner’s manual, and focus on the job at hand for anywhere between ten minutes and an hour. But it is time well spent, even for those of us who cannot usually pay attention to anything, because what you end up with is superior to what Roland shipped to you by default. The manual is your friend.

The end result is quite a usable mini-kit, with some compromise. You won’t get lots of variables on your hi-hat, no 1/4 open, no 3/4 open, no Yamaha-like pitch bend when pressing on closed pedal etc. In fact you can only choose between open/close, or open/half, or half/close, and stay with that until you adjust in the menu again.

But you could still MIDI out to record with your VST’s in your DAW instead of all the above.

 

Drum Roll Please

But there is still the big test to be done. Can it be set up to respond smoothly to a drum roll? Coming from the silicone pad and superb brain of a Yamaha DTX-700 I am now used to hearing what sounds very much like a real drum set in my headphones, and effortlessly throwing down both extremely quiet, and loud rolls as if there was an actual snare drum in front of me. To achieve this, an electronic drum has to produce many long sound samples per second.

Out of the box, as it comes, the Octapad cannot do this. So I have my next mission, which is to navigate the menus to look at settings and effects and see just how long the snare pad can ring, and see whether the Octapad has enough computing power to handle the data that a simple drum roll stuffs into it, and produce a sound for each and every stroke and let that sound play in it’s entirety despite all the newer inputs from the sticks.

This sounds complicated, but it is only what we expect from a real acoustic drum, so it is an important aspect of the instrument. Maybe not for rock or pop, but certainly for jazz and orchestral drumming where a good roll is one of our main voices.

By default, muffling is set to zero. So the original drum was sampled, or electronically modeled in Roland’s case, without muffling. Some of the snare notes play longer than others. The “Tight Snare”, for example, sounds quite real on a single hit, and it sounds for each stroke of a roll, and you don’t hear the sound being choked off, but still, the roll as a whole does not sound that smooth.

The setting called Threshold, can be reduced by two increments from the default to help with registering your softest hits, but I have to report, sadly, that when you listen through precise headphones that do not lie, the Octapad is not the greatest electronic drum device to produce a roll with. And for this reason, it’s usefulness for jazz drumming is compromised, at least when you use the onboard sounds, unless you really know how to play a perfect roll.

Your best hope is to play through the P.A. system in a lively room, and hope that the speakers and the room’s acoustics fill in the gaps. Then you might just get away with it. I tested my Octapad through my Yamaha DXR12 powered speaker and my drum roll sounded really good. I would gig with this Octapad and this speaker.

 

MIDI out to a VST

We already disregarded most of the SPD-30 Octapad’s onboard sounds, so let’s now go all the way and only use the triggers. handing control over to the computer and playing sounds from a virtual sound engine such as BFD, Superior Drummer, Addictive Drums, etc. This will always be a better way to record, and almost no drum modules can compare favorably to these software solutions, even if they cost twenty times as much. When they do sound as good, then they are themselves running VST’s like your computer can, except in a tougher box.

Doing away with all the onboard sounds turns the Octapad into a simple MIDI controller, like an Alternate Mode DrumKAT, or an legacy Alesis ControlPad that has not yet malfunctioned. And this raises the serious question, why do the manufacturers of 16-pad USB finger drumming interfaces, such as Akai, Native Instruments and Korg, not just make one that can be played with drumsticks and accept a kick and a hat controller?

The first test here is, will the Octapad and it’s peripheral pedals send the right MIDI notes out, so that we hear the sounds we expect in the computer from each individual pad or pedal. And secondly, will it respond to a soft and tight drum roll that triggers external samples?

For this test I used EZDrummer to keep things simple. But not so fast. Before I could get the Octapad to send any signal to my Mac I had to download and install Roland’s SPD Series Driver. Then the Mac began to receive MIDI messages from the Octapad.

Right away there was mapping chaos, and unexpected sounds came from the pads, so there is considerable work to be done assigning your desired MIDI notes to the pads and second layers of your choice in the kit MIDI screen of your Octapad. After you do all that, and I have yet to commit the time to this job, you should strongly consider doing a global backup of the SPD-30 onto a USB key, per the manual. Then if you somehow lose everything, you will not have to go through all this mapping again!

But as for the other test, Yes the snare drum sounds contained in EZDrummer do enable you to play a reasonably proficient drum roll on your Octapad. Better than you can get from the internal sounds. Why? I don’t know. The SPD-30’s internal sounds let you play a great tom roll and great ride cymbal roll. But that snare pad does not want you to play a nice smooth roll unless you send out to a VST.

 

Review Conclusion

I realize, as I read this, I have made this sound quite complicated with all this menu navigation, MIDI mapping, driver downloads, and sensitivity settings etc. But it really isn’t, as long as you can read the manual. It is quite a good manual and quite a simple interface once you start to change a few settings and become familiar and practiced with the screen, buttons and knobs.

For a tiny kit solution, as researched last month in the-vu (link at end), the SPD-30 Octapad is a worthy solution that is unlikely to let you down with malfunctions and breakages, and will get you stuffed into a tiny space on that club stage as if you had just sauntered in with a violin and a music stand. And if your home is a tiny house, or if you have to keep all your gear on a shelf in a cupboard that will barely hold a saxophone, this is the way to go.

And I may be beating a dead horse by repeating this, but you have eight pads taking up about as much area as a floor tom head, that can substitute for one of today’s crazy big eKits, and yet produce a comparable sound.

One-week update: Getting deeper into the settings,  my user kits are sounding much better, but very synthetic. However, even Roland’s most expensive module sounds synthetic to me so this is bargain-priced synthetic. I had a hard time getting the hats to open and close when trying to MIDI out to the computer, but I only tested it with Garageband and with EZDrummer. Roland support said that Roland V-Drums work better with Steven Slate Drums or BFD. It has to be said that VST drums sound a hundred times better than most modules, including the Octapad, so I may buy BFD or SSD one day, to record with my Octapad. But it’s “good enough for pitwork”, to coin a cliche, and I would still use this little thing live with a P.A. And the whole kit, pedals throne stand etc fit into a 27 gallon tote.

 

Thinking of buying the same?

Feel free to ask me for a long-term test opinion in the comments below.

 

Mini-kit comparisons

The Roland Octapad SPD-30 compares favorably with the other available options for mini-kits.

  • It beats the Yamaha DTX-Multi12 because bizarrely, that has pads that do not offer sufficient rebound for drumsticks.
  • It beats the Roland SPD-SX sampling pad, just because that does not accommodate hi-hat control.
  • It beats the inexpensive Alesis SamplePad Pro because that has numerous reports of quality issues.
  • It beats the legacy models of Alesis pads, such as the Performance Pad, because they were hard, resonant, and prone to failure.
  • It beats all models new and old of the very sophisticated DrumKAT because that needs external sounds, and has an extremely unpleasant user interface that could drive some users quite mad.
  • It beats the previous Octapad, the SPD-20, because it has a nicer playing surface and better onboard drum sounds.

So it is far from being a perfect solution, but with limited choice, it may still be your best solution, if you want a tiny mini-kit and prefer the flat array format of triggers.

 

Jeffrey the Barak has played drums, on and off, since the 1960s, when a bass drum still had to be as big as a bass drum, etc.

Other reading:

NAMM 2016 – A quest for a compact multipad drum kit
http://www.the-vu.com/2016/01/namm-2016-compact-kit/

One-Piece Electronic Drums
http://www.the-vu.com/2012/03/one-piece-electronic-drums/

10 Comments

  1. Jeffrey, Thanks for the article it answers a lot of my questions,I am pretty much a beginning (again) drummer and was considering getting an acoustic kit, outfitting it with Aquarian Sound Pads an Zildjian Low volume symbols to make it quiet enough to play at home. I always did wonder why they “spread out” the e-drum kits to emulate an acoustic sized kit and figured it was probably due to muscle memory and familiarity. But since I am basically starting from scratch it seems to make sense to have a really compact kit like the Octapad. Thanks again for your article !

  2. Hey man! Love your post on this. I was looking all over the interwebs to find this. I have a roland SPD-SX and wanted to be able to trigger only some kick samples over the micked acoustic sound for live performance.Like how the TM-2 does it.

    How do I map “flex” samples on Addictive drums 2 to an external acoustic trigger to achieve this. Thankyou very much and loved this tutorial

  3. I don’t know. I have yet to explore the MIDI triggering aspect of this unit. Being lazy and settling for the internals through phones or speakers. But I have to tackle all of this mapping confusion eventually if this is going to be of any use in recording.

  4. Hi
    Great article – did you magage to find a good solution in regards to midi hi hats and vst plug in like bfd ?
    Struggling like mad to get the fd8 to work accordingly ?! Thank you for the inspiring article

  5. Have not tried again since. Just using it live with onboard sounds, and have not tried to trigger a VST with it. But one day I will.

  6. Hi! Brother I’m Raj. I’m using Spd-30. I want to use it as a Midi ControLLer with Spd-S. My needs are:
    1) On Spd-30’s Pads 1-4 ( internal sounds) and Pads 5-8 (Spd-S Sounds).
    2) AlternateLy on Spd-S.
    I tried but I’m abLe to pLay onLy one module’s internal sounds ( like either Spd-30 or Spd-S sounds on Spd-S and Spd-30). I U CouLd Get me bro. Can u please help in Setting up the pads.
    If not Spd-s than any Drum moduLe.
    Thanks in advanCe Brother.

  7. VERY interesting, I am also a jazz drummer and would love the idea of a one piece compact kit. My question is about the ride sounds, would the SPD-30 handle an external e-cymbal like the cy-13 with the three separate edge/bow/bell sounds? As a jazz drummer this is as important to me as snare rolls. Also, instead of using a snare stand, would it be possible to use the Roland mounting plate attached to a cymbal stand so I could use one stand only to hold both the the spd-30 and the cy-13? Thank you.

  8. No Christian Hervas. I found that despite my best efforts, the SPD-30 was almost completely useless for jazz drumming. In fact even my best ever e-kit, the Yamaha DTX7xx setup, was a bit limited. Even when using VST software, there is no faithful reproduction for ride cymbals, and snare drums. They are complex acoustic instruments when they are not damped to death, and there is not enough computing power to do them justice. The SPD-30, even when tweaked to be as sensitive as it can go, requires fairly hard stickwork to trigger, and most of the jazz drummer’s musicality is at a force well below this threshhold. Do not waste your time with the Octapad if you intend to play jazz music.

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