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Alesis Performance Pad

The Alesis Performance Pad

A while back we looked at some new Alesis electronic percussion products, the ControlPad and the Trigger IO and you can see the review here. The ControlPad is a pad controller with eight built in pads, two trigger in sockets, two pedal ins, USB and MIDI and twenty memories. It’s a simple pad to MIDI interface, and although it’s not seriously professional (the plastic construction and a rather weird hi hat assigning issue prevent really serious use) it’s a great bit of kit for the money, and I have got to come clean and say I was so impressed with it that I bought one to use as a quick and easy trigger interface for my home set up.

At the time I hinted about another version of the Pad that had built in sounds, and here I am, back again, with that product – the Alesis Performance Pad. Aesthetically, the two products look really similar, sharing an identical chassis but the Performance pad is totally black with more buttons above the pads.

What Alesis have done here is simple but very clever. They have married the ControlPad with what must be the most popular drum machine of all times, the SR16, so what we have here are eight pads and two footswitch inputs triggering the 233 sounds from the SR16 in any user assignable way you might want. If you want eight snares, you can, or eight different tunings of the same snare sound, you can too. However, most owners will set up the pads resembling a drum kit set up and the basic set ups do just that, so you can open the box, switch on, and immediately get on with playing some patterns with a pad set up which resembles a kit set up. However, Alesis haven’t just included the sound, but they have also included the programmable drum machine patterns too, so you can record patterns (up to 128 beats long) with the pads and save them for future use. Perfect for the drummer who want a drum machine but finds button punching less than inspiring – you can now play your patterns directly in. There are 50 preset patterns, 50 user patterns and these can be used to create 100 user songs (or strings of patterns), but each pattern also has a ‘A’ and ‘B’ variation and each variation has an assigned ‘Fill’ pattern so you actually have 200 user patterns accessible at any time.

Alesis Performance Pad rear view

Building a kit is simple – you press the drum kit button and using the page up and down buttons, find the page that shows the voice name. Then, using the increment and decrement buttons, you select a new voice. Voices can be made louder or quieter, panned and tuned (+3 and –4 semitones) on other pages and you save the kit into one of the 50 kit locations.

Recording is simple too – set the length of the pattern, the tempo and the quantise (if required), go to Compose mode, hit Play and away you go. Mistakes can be easily corrected by erasing the whole instrument (pressing Erase and the pad concerned while the pattern isn’t playing), or an individual hit (holding Erase and pressing the pad concerned just as the offending note goes by while the pattern is playing). If you have ever messed around with an SR16 or indeed an HR16, this will all be second nature to you. You can then build up different patterns and then rebuild them into songs for playback.

The two footswitch inputs provide very simple bass drum and hi hat triggering. You wont get a nice dynamic bass drum pad response – you simply plug in a footswitch and every time you press it you get a fixed volume trigger. The same with the hi hat switch, which can trigger a foot closed hihat sound when pushed but can also switch a pad from triggering an open hi hat sound to a closed hi hat sound, mimicking a simple hi hat (this is better than the ControlPad which doesn’t even have this much control). While we’re on the pads, it’s worth mentioning that the sounds are triggered at eight different dynamics, but ‘when using the Performance Pad as a drum sound expander and triggering sounds via MIDI, they respond to all 127 MIDI volume levels’ (according to the reference manual). It’s a pity then that there is no MIDI in on the Performance Pad so you cant use it as an expander, or trigger sounds over MIDI, so we’re stuck with eight levels but to be honest, you probably aren’t going to notice these as the dynamics of the sounds are very good, thanks to Alesis’ ‘Dynamic Articulation’ which smoothly changes the sounds over the dynamic range.

The Alesis SR16 - where the sounds are borrowed from

It’s probably a good time to cover the sounds. The SR16 was originally released in 1990, so the sounds were probably recorded in the late ‘80’s. As these are the same sounds (identical, despite name changes in the Performance Pad manual), it means we are getting rather dated sound. However, as everything that is old is new again, Alesis have luckily released this at just the right time, and a fair few of the sounds are current again. However, I’m not knocking the sounds as overall, they are clean, well recorded and varied but just have a little too much reverb on some of them. There is a lack of nice, simple, clean acoustic drums, in the style of BFD or Addictive Drums, but for most users this wont be a problem. Anyway, as there is a MIDI out, we can connect it to another sound source/computer/sampler and trigger what ever we want. There does appear to be a slight oversight here as Alesis have seen fit to remove the ability to change the MIDI note of the pads and footswitches so you are stuck with the preset assignment. This may be a problem when you try and get the Performance Pad to talk to your computer or another drum machine. This seems a little odd as you can change the MIDI notes on the SR16 (I have a reference one sitting next to me as I write this), but not on the Performance Pad. Oh well.

While we’re on the subject of connections, as well as the MIDI out, the back edge has the two footswitch inputs, main left and right outputs on quarter inch jacks, a quarter inch headphone output, master volume knob and importantly, a stereo mini jack input so you can connect an iPod, CD player etc for practice. This is a very smart move and opens up the Performance Pad as a practice instrument.

Where the Performance Pad scores highly is the triggering. Initially I was a little dismayed to find that there were no parameters for adjusting the response of the pads. I know from my ControlPad that the pad response needed a little tweaking to get the best results for my playing. However, the Performance Pad was excellent, straight out of the box, with a good dynamic range and a complete lack of miss triggering. It’s not as sensitive as most electronic kits but as a ‘Hit-And-Trigger’ box, it’s impressive considering its price. From a performance point of view, there is very little to detract from the Performance Pad. The only thing I can see being a slight problem is the fact that its only 16 note polyphonic so note intensive patterns can start to note-steal.

The Performance Pad from above

So, who will the Performance Pad appeal to? Well, lots of people I think from drummers who want to add a few processed sounds onto their acoustic kit, to drummers who want a small, portable practice set up in a single box (the Performance Pad mounts on a Yamaha/Roland brain holder and easily mounts off a single stand). Songwriters will like the instant appeal of hitting the pads and getting exactly the right patterns in their drum machine, and loads of musicians (drummers and non drummers alike) will love the appeal of having the Performance Pad on stage and hitting it, Kraftwerk style. DJ’s (whether you class them as musicians or not is up to you) will love having the Performance Pad next to their gear so they can bash along with their tracks, percussionist style.

Despite any criticisms, Alesis are on to a winner here, and any criticisms evaporate when you consider the price. When I bought my ControlPad, I thought that was cheap, but a quick Google has shown that the Performance Pad is going for the same price, so for around £150, you get an all in one box which can be used live, in the studio, in the bedroom, in the practice room and anywhere else you can think of. How Alesis do it for the money I’m not quite sure – if you buy an SR16 and a ControlPad (which amounts to the same thing) you will pay a chunk of money more than the Performance Pad – but it’s an impressive product. It’s not perfect, but for the money, who cares – it’s an excellent way into simple electronics for many drummers.

John Williams
June 2008


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