Sound Enhanced Articles

Percussive Notes June 2009

Getting the Most from your malletKAT

by Kurt Gartner

Since the 1980s, the malletKAT has been an integral component of many professional percussionists’ “go-to” gear lists. Compact, durable, and highly programmable, the instrument has long shown its versatility in musical situations demanding many sounds, quick setup changes, and consummate expressive flexibility in a percussion-specific keyboard controller. Under the Alternate Mode banner and following countless software upgrades, this instrument has proven to be a KAT of more than nine lives. Nevertheless, many malletKAT owners may not have gotten beyond using the instrument as a simple “MIDI-vibe,” “MIDI-bass,” or “MIDI-pan.” Regardless of your comfort level with the myriad of the instrument’s features, the following article may raise your level of awareness and pique your interest in getting more from your malletKAT.
The Basics: What’s Under the Hood
To describe the malletKAT as a MIDI controller would be true, but incomplete. Actually, the keyboard is associated with two independent controllers. Each controller has individual parameters such as sounds, dynamic response, and octave range. Players can activate the sounds of a controller by stepping on a footswitch. Alternately, users can layer (Layer) (Layer2) (Layer3) (Layer4) the controllers to sound simultaneously or customize the controllers’ layout by splitting (Split) (Split2) (Split3) (Split4) or overlapping their active ranges. There’s a third Reassignment Layer (Reassign) (Reassign2) (Reassign3). This powerful tool allows each note on the keyboard to be assigned to any note of any octave on any of the 16 MIDI channels. This function allows users to customize assignments of malletKAT notes to indefinite-pitch percussion sounds, or to create personalized scales with definite-pitch sounds. In other words, a user may create unique “kinetic maps” to arrange the relationship between pads struck and resulting MIDI messages sent out of the malletKAT. Any of the 14 reassignment configurations may be stored in any of the 128 user-defined setups (called “kits”). 
Each user kit includes a complete configuration of the sounds and functions of Controllers 1 and 2, as well as the Reassignment Layer. In addition to the user kits, the malletKAT includes 128 default “factory kits,” which are conveniently pre-programmed for General MIDI. For further versatility, the malletKAT can store up to 16 “chains,” or non-contiguous arrangements (call-ups) of factory and/or user kits.
In addition to the vast functionality of the pads (that allow access of editing functions as well as notes), there are multiple user-programmable footswitch inputs, including two foot-controller inputs and three momentary inputs (as well as a breath controller input). Through the programming and use of these footswitches, users may add vibrato, bend pitches, alter sustain and gate times, blend sounds, apply filter control, shift octaves, sustain chords, or simply change sounds.
If you’re ready to dig deeper, there are additional options. Users can configure a controller’s X,Y sensing function, in which multiple parameters are affected by the relative note positions and velocity (dynamics) being played. Furthermore, the malletKAT may be used as an alternate MIDI controller to control notes instead of playing them. In latch mode, the “black keys” may be assigned to continuous controller numbers while the “white keys” can send discreet values to these controllers. Pads may even be assigned to send program changes instead of notes, or to toggle notes on and off. These functions make the malletKAT a formidable controller in tandem with programs for MIDI Light Control or loop sequencers.
In Training
After years of personal training to become an expressive musician, one should expect an instrument to be a conduit of dynamic range. Several functions of the malletKAT facilitate this uninhibited expression. The pads may be “trained” to suit the individual touch of any player. The instrument learns from how hard and soft a musician plays the pads, then applies 256 discreet velocity levels across the 128 levels of velocity (dynamics) recognized by MIDI. Users may choose from multiple velocity curves, which translate the velocity of a note (how hard one strikes a pad) into a relative output volume. In a typical curve, a harder hit yields a louder sound, but many other curves are available.
The malletKAT is also trainable in its ability to produce mallet dampening (Dampen1) (Dampen2) (Dampen3) (like the vibraphone technique) and dead strokes (like the marimba technique). Players can gain further realism through mono modes (Mono) (Mono2) and the Auto Gate functions. When playing single-voice lead lines, mono modes prevent “pedal bleed,” producing a single, legato line. Auto gate functions can automatically vary note length based upon the speed of the passage being played—a powerful function, indeed. The malletKAT makes another move toward a natural sound with its roll mode (RollMode) (RollMode2), allowing each roll stroke tone to complete its individual decay—avoiding the dreaded “machine gun” effect in which each new attack seems to clip the decay of the prior tone. 
Advanced Features
Depending upon your level experience with the malletKAT, you may consider many of the above functions to be advanced features. Still, there are further functions to consider: 
  • Velocity switching (VelocitySwitch) (VelocitySwitch2). Users may switch sounds automatically by striking the pads harder. When reaching a pre-determined velocity level, the keyboard switches from one controller to the other.
  • Velocity Gate. Harder strokes yield progressively different gate (note length) times.
  • Hang mode (Hang) (Hang2) (Hang3) (Hang4) (Hang5) (Hang6) (Hang7). The sustain-two footswitch allows a note or chord to be sustained while an independent line is played on the other controller.
  • Virtual pitch and mod wheel (VirtualPitchWheel) (VirtualPitchWheel2). Users may program the third footswitch to turn the entire keyboard into a virtual pitch or mod wheel, allowing “on-the-fly” inflection of melodic lines.
  • Auto melody/chord mode. The malletKAT switches sounds as it senses that a chord or melody line is being played.
  • Alternate note. Each stroke alternates between two independent sounds.
  • Synth control. The malletKAT acts as a MIDI command center for synthesizers and sound modules, sending three bank change (MSB, LSB), program change, and volume change commands per kit. It also sends out “controller values” allowing users to preset reverb, chorus, and delay automatically. Also stored in one of the 128 user kits are velocity ranges, octave range, gate times, and channel assignments.
  • Real time control mode. Also called “DJ Surface Control,” this feature turns a malletKAT into a virtual surface controller for use with programs like Reason and Live. In this mode, the malletKAT’s black keys represent the knobs and buttons on a synthesizer. The white keys move the knobs left (low notes) to right (high notes). Users may play sounds through the other controller over the real-time effects generated by real-time control mode.
  • Warp mode (Warp) (Warp2) (Warp3). Users may create MIDI echo effects with variable repeats, feedback, and transposition.
The makers of the malletKAT have really done their homework, and continue to do so with the seemingly endless upgrades of functionality. As malletKAT users, it’s incumbent upon us to do our homework to get the most out of this powerful instrument. The time spent “training” on this instrument will yield a great benefit, as our musical versatility increases.
Dr. Kurt Gartner is Professor of Percussion at Kansas State University, where he recently completed a term as Special Assistant to the Provost. Previously, Gartner served as Associate Professor of Bands at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. In 2001, he completed his Doctor of Arts degree at the University of Northern Colorado (Greeley), where he studied percussion and jazz performance and pedagogy. In addition to serving as the Assistant Director of the UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival, Kurt received the Graduate Dean’s Citation for Outstanding Dissertation for his research of the late percussion legend Tito Puente. He serves PAS as Music Technology Editor for Percussive Notes.

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