Lately, I have been searching for ways to trigger loops and samples from behind my drum kit. After playing around with a less than ideal setup involving many cables and devices (see below), I decided to buy myself a Roland SPD-S sampling pad. Turned out to be a pretty good move !
About a year ago, I bought myself a Roland SPD-6 to start experimenting with loops. I connected it via MIDI to my Edirol UA-25 interface, which in turn was connected to my laptop. On the laptop, I used Ableton Live to trigger the loops. To stay in sync with the loops, I started one measure of cowbell hits on my Roland DR-770 rhythm box, sent it to one channel of my mini Behringer UB502 mixer, and connected the monitor mix of all other instruments (including the UA-25) to another channel, outputting the UB502's output to my headphones. Although this setup worked for rehearsals, it should be obvious by now that this wasn't very handy. Not only did this require a lot of connections and devices, it was also very hard to keep the tempo in sync. Syncing the tempo between the DR-770 and Ableton (with another MIDI cable) at least gave me a central point where i could manage my tempo, but because of the way the MIDI sync worked, it was hard to control just the rhythm box without interfering with the loops. The SPD-6 also gave me a bit of trouble, in that it was hard to program, and that it sometimes triggers if you hit its rim. On top of these major inconveniences, I was a bit reluctant to start gigging with my PowerBook, fearing that it probably wouldn't take long until some guy spilled beer all over it, and of course that things would start crashing mid-gig (I have faith in OS X, but not in Ableton and/or the UA-25 drivers). I considered buying a Roland SP-404 rhythm sampler as a replacement for the Laptop/Ableton/UA-25 combo. After some testing, this seemed like a very cool device indeed, but the on-screen display didn't seem enough (I like to see preset names on my display), it had a sequencer i didn't really need, and I still would be left with an extra device I had to drag around and connect. At just the extra 100 euros over the SP-404, I decided to buy an SPD-S.
After unpacking, the first thing I did was reset the memory. The few sounds I heard sounded pretty decent, but you don't buy a sampling pad to play someone else's samples ;) Importing my existing sample wave files through the CompactFlash interface of the SPD-S was a breeze. I imported them directly to CompactFlash memory, because the internal memory was full after importing the samples of 3 songs. I also had to experiment with the three resolution settings (long, standard, fine) to find out that long suffers from a good deal of quality loss, whereas standard is nearly as good as fine (at half the space requirements). The SPD-S gave me all the control I wanted to make performances using the samples. I could even pan all the samples/loops to the left and pan a metronome loop completely to the right, such that I could send one channel to my headphones and the other to the mixing table. So, no need for an external metronome anymore, nor entering the tempo manually (it's saved with the performance). On top of that, I could create a ‘panic’ pad, which turns off all the loops except the metronome, resulting in a perfect situation for live performance. If you try this at home, don't forget to turn the ambience off, or your metronome will leak through to your other channel.
The sampling process itself also seems decent. Using the ‘auto-record’ function (which starts recording based on input level) and the ability to synchronize the end of the recording by entering the tempo in advance, it gives a pretty handy interface to record loops. One thing I am missing though is the ability to enter the number of measures to record, to have full automatic stop. I'm also not able to stop recording with a foot switch (although you can do it for phrase recording). I don't really use the begin/end marking features (yet): for more complex sampling, I use software, and upload the loops afterwards.
In conclusion of this review, the SPD-S gives me all the features I need to trigger loops from behind my drums, perfect for on stage performance, and it brings them all in one device. With some pan trickery, I even obsoleted my external metronome (although I lost the ability to use stereo samples this way, but this doesn't seem like a problem on stage). Two thumbs up !