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Roland SPD-20 Drum Pad

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The problem with most electronic drums is that they sound like electronic drums. Not having to give up a huge volume of space to a traditional drum kit is an attractive prospect, but perhaps not as attractive as it might seem if the resulting percussion smells strongly of transistors.

The Roland SPD-20 drum pad does acoustic drums so convincingly that you’ll swear you can hear them falling over and crushing someone’s toes at the end of a session. Based on several decades of earlier electronic percussion devices, it offers hundreds of drum sounds, each of them indistinguishable from real percussion toys. It’s also programmable, should you find that hundreds just isn’t enough.

We bought an SPD-20 to handle the percussion for the ancientmusick.com compact disc Three – there’s probably a banner advertisement for ancientmusick.com somewhere at this site. It set up and got to work so quickly we were certain we’d missed something. While you can meddle with its workings to a remarkable degree if you want to, the SPD-20 can be used out of the box without even cracking its manual.

The SPD-20 consists of eight rubber drum pads. The sensors hiding beneath the pads are pressure sensitive, so hitting the pads harder produces louder noises. The rubber itself is a remarkable material – it feels very much like a real drum surface when it’s being played, but it can suffer weeks of pounding with barely a scratch.

Offering 99 pre-programmed eight-instrument drum kits, selectable through its control pads and a digital display, the SPD-20 can be a variety of traditional drum kits as well as a world of ethnic and exotic instruments. The jazz drums sound like jazz drums, the rock drums sound overpowering and the deep set will disturb nearby seismographs. You can also play voices, chimes, cymbals, various Indian and African drums and – if you’re mired in the past – a variety of drum sounds from electronic drum systems that do sound electronic.

In addition to its pad inputs, the SPD-20 can accept drum triggers from external sources. You can trigger selected drums with a foot switch – which will nuke your ankles in about fifteen minutes – and from several simulated acoustic controllers offered by Roland. A bass foot pedal and a high-hat controller, sold separately, are highly recommended. You can also control the SPD-20 through its MIDI interface.

While the default drum kits and patches of the SPD-20 are seriously impressive, you can customize its brains out if you want to. Building custom drum kits using the hundreds of available individual drum sounds in the pad is pretty effortless. Creating your own drum sounds involves a bit more head scratching at first.

One of the more worthwhile features of the SPD-20 is its master reset function, which will return it to its factory defaults if something goes horribly wrong.

The SPD-20 is easily the best small percussion system we looked at, and it just gets better once you start playing with it. It combines exemplary sound quality with a simple, easily mastered user interface. Its flexible trigger options makes it suitable as an entire percussion section, or as the nexus of a number of additional controllers.

Finally, at the end of the night, it fits into a briefcase – something most drummers would sell various body parts for.

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