Roland SPD-6 Review

by William Reeves

November/December 2002

Editor's Note: ESP has moved to a bi-monthly format to better facilitate our vision for more detailed, in-depth articles on featured topics. Eric Scot Porter is in the process of renovating his studio, so the duty of his column for the past few months has been handled by William Reeves, who is usually found moderating the forum at This column is a review of Roland's new SPD-6 pad controller.

Roland SPD-6 Pad Controller

Picture of Roland SPD-6

The Roland SPD-6 Pad Controller is the little brother in the SPD series that dates back over 10 years to include the SPD-8, SPD-11 & SPD-20. When we say little brother, we mean LITTLE, as in objects in mirror are much closer than they appear. You will need to be quite the marksman to hit the pads on this thing with much consistancy. Believe me, this is important since the manual rightly suggests that you hit the center of each 3" x 3.25" pad. Doing otherwise can turn the SPD-6 into a random percussion generator when several sounds (well, up to 4 as we'll find out) play at once.

By the way, you may have noticed that this is the review of yet another ELECTRONIC product at, as though we don't know the difference. It's actually part of an elaborate scheme to turn all acoustic drummers into electronic drummers. We assume since you got here on a computer you aren't totally against technology, right?

As you may know, in our reviews, we like to detail not only what we find out about a product (like where it excels and falls short), we like to go a bit further and offer suggestions for things you (or the manufacturer) can do to overcome a product's shortcomings. Since some manufacturers don't like to hear there is something wrong with their product and may vary their advertising dollars based upon such reviewer mumblings, you rarely hear negative things about a product in most magazines. We like to buy the product straight off the shelf, test it out and report the results, warts and all. We'll even physically rip something apart if we have to in order to show you what we're talking about. We can so this since we don't have to give it back to the manufacturer when we're done. We just have to sell it to someone on eBay.

On paper, the SPD-6 features six rubber pads, hand and drum stick compatibility, 113 onboard percussion and instrument sounds, and MIDI output. The SPD-6's onboard sounds range from acoustic and electronic drums to hand percussion instruments, sound effects, and more. Its 16 onboard kits are selected with sound bank and number buttons. With the MIDI output, the SPD-6 can be connected to other MIDI capable sound sources for triggering samples, sounds and loops or connected to a sequencer for pattern recording. Of course, you will need another sound source for playback as the SPD-6 features no MIDI input. The SPD-6 also has two footswitch inputs (for creating a compact drum set), a convenient toggle switch for hand/drum sensitivity selection, and optional battery power using six AA batteries. The unit actually includes your first set of batteries. An AC adapter can be purchased for about $20.

Boss PSA-120 Adapter

Boss PSA-120 Adapter

The Boss PSA-120 Adapter is specially designed to provide perfect power to all Boss compact pedals. 9.6V DC 200mA, barrel connector, reverse polarity.

We purchased our SPD-6 from a Guitar Center shelf. When we got it home, we briefly read through the manual, plugged it in with our AC adapter (NOT INCLUDED, an extra $20.00) and started to play in 'sticks mode' with the unit on a tabletop. We immediately noticed that hitting the upper right pad made the upper left pad sound off as loudly as the one we intended to sound. Hmmm. Are we going to have to rip it apart already? No, we'll read the manual and find out how to adjust the sensitivity of the upper left pad. Well, maybe we won't. You see, there is no software provision for adjusting the sensitivity of individual pads. We could only adjust the sensitivity of ALL pads at once. We fiddled with these settings a bit without any luck in alleviating the problem. Off the table, onto a pillow. Same problem. How about in 'hands' mode (via the switch on the rear). Better, but still some sympathy triggering going on. We've been very careful to "accurately strike the center of the pad" to avoid a different pad from sounding (per the manual), but alas we get another one 90% of the time. I guess we will have to rip it apart...

SPD-6 screw locations SPD-6 open

Well, it isn't difficult to get the thing apart. A phillips screwdriver is all that is required. We were sure to remove the batteries and un-plug it first. (Did we mention it can run on batteries?) The interior is fairly simple. There is a small connector from the battery box in the bottom piece to the main board. (Indicated by the blue circles.) There are additional screws inside that lead to the main circuit board. (Indicated by red arrows.)

SPD-6 battery connector

One big piece of plastic with one big piece of rubber on top. There's your recipe for cross-talk. Piezoelectric transducers are placed in the center of each 'pad' and ribbon cabled to the main board within the unit. Warranty voided and all, we decided to replace the foam tape adhering the offending piezo with something a little less dense.

SPD-6 piezo array

While we had it apart we decided to to a complete teardown for posterity's sake. You might be wondering about our unit's warranty about now. Our warranty could be NONE more void. (Lame 'Spinal Tap' reference.) There are little ribbon cable connectors where each piezo row terminates. (Indicated by the now infamous blue circles.)

SPD-6 (ribbon cable connectors)

To get past this point you will need needlenose pliers to release the standoffs holding the circuit board down.

SPD-6 (circuit board standoffs)

Once you've done this you have easy access to the array of piezos. By now you probably understand our arrow and circle legend.

SPD-6 (bare piezo array)

Maybe when the circuit board fails because we've done this too many times we can just mount 1/4" jacks in the bottom and use it as a multipad controller with a TMC-6. This WOULD give us better control over the triggering parameters...

SPD-6 (piezo close-up)

After getting it all back together we found that we had eliminated the problem and if anything the pad was not quite sensitive enough. Now we had a less pronounced problem with the lower left and lower right pads doing the same thing. We felt a little like the guy with the hammer waiting to see which hole the gopher pops out of next. Leaving well enough alone we flipped the switch to 'hands' and found the problem to be minimized. If the inside view has your mind spinning at the possibility of mounting some jacks in the back of the unit to trigger it with external pads, realize there is very little control over sensitivity adjustment on the SPD-6. A better option for your $250 might be Roland's TMC-6 Trigger to MIDI Converter. This unit is adjustable and designed for such a purpose. The SPD-6 is best left as an add-on to an acoustic kit or an easy way to pack a percussion section around.

How does it sound? Pretty good, actually. Where they dropped the ball is in the SPD-6's polyphony. Polyphony is the maximum number of sounds that can exist at once. The SPD-6 can only play 4. Your mind is spinning again, isn't it? 'I only have 2 hands, there are only 6 pads, 4 sounds should do it.' You might think so, but what happens when you hit a cymbal that should sustain for a bit, move to a tom and miss the exact center of the snare? Your cymbal just choked itself because you didn't have a laser guidance system on your drumstick and produced 3 faint sounds at once, making the previously, deliberately struck cymbal drop out. Another scenario? Hook up a couple of external footswitches and use the SPD-6 as a stand-alone drum kit (per Roland's manual) and you have 2 hands + 2 feet battling for 4 notes of polyphony. This is a non-issue if you use it as an external controller for an existing electronic drum kit. We did this. Of course, we ran into additional issues when we utilized this capability.

Some have complained about the SPD-6 only having a MIDI out. With the polyphony at 4, be thankful for this. Trying to squeeze another MIDI device through 4 notes of polyphony would not be good. When you utilize the included MIDI out with a unit such as a Roland TD-8, interesting things happen. The SPD-6 allows you to switch between 16 different kits set up with different note numbers on the pads. When you change kits (or power up the unit) there is a program change sent. This will change the kit on your TD-8. Unless you only want to use the SPD-6 chosen kits on your TD-8 you will either need to disable the receipt of program change messages on the TD-8 (simple) or disable the sending of them from the SPD-6 (more difficult). Also, even WITH the optional AC adapter, the SPD-6 shuts itself off after 10 minutes. Knowing this 'feature' and disabling it within the SPD-6 is important to avoid the following scenario. You hook your SPD-6 up to your existing TD-8 and set your kit to something. You play a couple of songs and decide the next one could use some congas. You look over to find that your SPD-6 has turned itself off. You push the power button, it comes on and sends a program change to your TD-8. You've now kicked off a nice ballad with the 'screaming lady' sound on the wrong kit. (Unless you lucked out and were starting 'Love Hurts' you have some explaining to do to your guitarist. Try to use small words.) You can spend all day editing what notes are sent by the SPD-6 in each kit, change velocity curves, trigger threshold, the function of external footswitches, etc. We would have traded all of these features for decent control over the sensitivity of the individual pads. Without this, adjustments are of the 'mechanical' variety, if you know what I mean.

In our opinion, the SPD-6 is great if you want a compact, portable collection of percussion sounds to add to your acoustic kit. It's even better as a hand percussion controller or for adding playing surfaces to an existing electronic drum kit. We wouldn't recommend it as a stand-alone electronic drum kit with only 4 notes of polyphony at it's disposal. While we like to think that we have a gift for pulling the defective item off the shelf every time, a search of the internet reveals we aren't the only ones having problems finding the center of each pad. You may have to live with a little cross-talk if you don't want to void your warranty or duke it out with Roland's support and service with a problem they told you about in the manual. Perhaps laser guided drumsticks aren't too far off and you can tough it out until then.

Oh yeah, we were going to find a way to improve it or save you some money, weren't we? Well, we think we improved it a bunch by ripping it apart and 'adjusting' the foam tape on the upper left piezo. We're also fairly certain that you won't want to pay the Roland price to mount the thing on your kit.

Pintech Universal Electronic Drum Module Mount

Pintech Universal Electronic Drum Module Mount

Save BIG when you buy today!

If you are adding to an existing electronic kit, we've found that Pintech's mount does the job nicely with the addition of longer replacement screws and some nylon spacers. Even with the necessary hardware store venture, you still come out ahead. Of course, according to the manual, this might void your warranty too. You should also make sure you "do not strike the pads extremely strong" per the manual and Howard Stern may not come in if you place it near your radio either. Wow, is that all it takes?

Pintech mount (with spacers)

Nylon spacer

Perhaps the best ( and most overkill) way to mount it (and get a great electronic drum monitor in the process) is with Roland's new PM-1 Monitor. This happens to include a way to mount your SPD-6 and monitor your electronic drums in a sleek package. Yeah, it's a little expensive for a mount, but if that's what you need to justify buying yourself a new monitor we're happy to help.

The Good

Relatively low price... Compact and lightweight... Also runs on batteries

The Bad

Minimal sensitivity adjustment... Maximum polyphony of 4... AC Adapter $20 extra

The Ugly

Having to rip something apart to get it to work right, rather than just for the usual entertainment purposes

Items you will NEED to add:

Cheap way to mount it (Pintech Mount)
AC Adapter (Boss PSA Series)

Items you may WANT to add:

Expensive way to mount it (Roland Mount)
Really expensive way to mount it (Roland Stand)
Really, really expensive way to mount it (Roland PM-1)

Roland APC-33 Drum Pad Clamp

Roland APC-33 Drum Pad Clamp

Clamp with a 4" x 5" plate for all SPD- and TD-Series modules lets you mount your module on a stand or drum rack.

LOGIZTIX™ is not responsible for any and all injuries or other claims that may arise from your use or attempted use of these instructions. Certain skills are a prerequisite for following these plans successfully. The use of manufacturers and/or other companies' names does NOT constitute an endorsement... All trademarks are property of their respective owners.

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