I have in front of me the BopPad from Keith McMillen Instruments. Their “smart fabric” technology has been productized in many ways such as touch interfaces for mixing, and the BopPad puts this technology into a form intended for drummers.
The BopPad is a thin, round drum pad with a playing surface roughly the size of a small tom tom on a drum kit. It’s only connection is a USB port which provides power from a connected computer. As a result, setup couldn’t be much simpler: just find an empty USB port and plug it in with the supplied USB cable. In most cases, no further installation is necessary as the BopPad is a USB class-compliant MIDI device. Just open your DAW of choice and you’ll find the BopPad waiting as an available MIDI input for you to use.
The build of the BopPad is solid—with no moving parts of any kind, this is to be expected. The design of the device is subdued with only a few unique touches, primarily from the red “USB cable protector” that sticks out of the top side of the pad. Not only does this help ensure that you don’t strike the USB cable with a stick and break it off, but it also offers some orientation for the device to ensure you have it facing the correct direction.
The BopPad comes in a nice box and is ready to be played on a table top thanks to a large, rubber surface underneath providing good contact and stability with the table’s surface. Being a drummer, it would be my desire to integrate this into my drum kit, but the BopPad doesn’t come with any kind of mounting features to support this use-case. Instead, a cymbal mount must be purchased from Keith McMillen Instruments, but I did not have this mount for this review so I cannot comment on its stability. Obviously, having the mount be an additional add-on increases the cost of the device for me, but I can understand why it is an add-on as integrating a mounting system into the BopPad itself would have increased its thickness and weight. The current super-thin, throw-into-any-bag shape of the BopPad is probably appealing to more people than those who would want to mount it into a kit.
The BopPad can be played with drumsticks or fingers (there are sensitivity adjustments via the WebEditor that can optimize performance for your particular playing style) and can sense both velocity (the strength at which you strike the surface) and continuous pressure (pressing on the surface with varying strength). Additionally, it also detects how far strikes are from the center of the pad—a radius measurement. This functionality can enable the BopPad to provide expression in a manner that is familiar to any acoustic drummer, since the location where you strike a drum on its head can have a profound impact on the timbre of the sound. Hitting a drum right in the middle often produces a deeper, yet “dead” (minimal decay) sound, while striking out towards the edge often produces and brighter, thinner sound that tends to “ring” (longer decay).
The idea of measuring a strike’s distance from the center of the pad isn’t new. You’ll find other electronic drum pads on the market that use this technology, like the Roland HandSonic pads. However, in most cases, these drum pads are married to an internal sound generation engine which automatically uses the radius information to create the proper timbres when playing. In the case of the BopPad, however, it will be up to you, the user, to figure out how to re-create this same behavior with your own software or hardware. The BopPad will provide all the data you need—note on, velocity, and radius value—to do the job, but you’ll still need to manually assign these messages to the correct parameters in your software. Depending on what software you have, its capabilities, and you own technical skill, your mileage will vary.
As with other drum pads meant to be played with the hands, the BopPad additionally segregates its playing surface into 4 quadrants, each which can output unique MIDI data so that you can essentially have 4 playing surfaces instead of just one. If mapped correctly, one could play kick, snare, hi-hat, and a cymbal entirely from a single BopPad. And if your software can’t respond correctly to the radius information transmitted from the BopPad, the pad can be configured to simply output different MIDI Notes depending on how far from the center you strike. You could, for example, have closed hi-hat towards the center of the drum with open hi-hat at the edge, or a ride cymbal at the center with the bell at the edge. Configured correctly, and you can play lots of different sounds accurately.
If you’re reading this review hoping to answer the question “Should I get the BopPad?”, then I have to admit that I can’t give a straight answer on that since the recommendation would be based highly upon your own needs. For example: If you’re looking to immediately add an array of instantly-playable and expressive percussion sounds played through a realistic drumming surface, then the BopPad isn’t for you—you’re actually looking for one of the self-contained solutions mentioned earlier, like a Roland HandSonic or Korg WaveDrum. However, if you’re curious about controlling synthesizers or other non-percussion sounds from a standard drumming surface, then this could be the answer for you.
For example, if you’re a drummer and wanted to integrate some kind of staccato synthesizer sound where you are a human arpeggiator of sorts, then the BopPad will really shine since you can trigger all the notes with precise timing while modulating the sound based on the position of the strikes. And since the BopPad is just transmitting standard MIDI messages, you could use it for other things, too, such as starting or stopping a sequencer to play along with, striking the head a few times to set the tap tempo, triggering lights, or whatever else you can technically manage to achieve. Your imagination is the only limit, but inventiveness is required.
You might have to be careful when using the BopPad in this way, especially if you have it integrated into a drum kit, because the playing surface of each quadrant can actually be rather small, especially if having to try to strike it with precision using a drum stick at an arm’s length away. For a 4-pad use-case, the BopPad would actually be better designed as a square device so that the playing area for each quadrant can be maximized. As it currently is, each quadrant is smaller because one corner has been cut off and replaced with a curve. If this does prove to be problematic, it is possible to configure the pad to be a single quadrant.
So if you have a use-case for the BopPad in mind and aren’t swayed at the prospect of doing some MIDI mapping and configuration to get the best results, then it’s definitely worth adding one to your arsenal. This appears to be a product that is robust and will stand the test of time and rigors of the road.