Review: Turn Your Table into a MIDI Instrument with Pulse Controller

So, you've got a drum pattern in your head that you want to get into your DAW, but are lacking a drum pad / MIDI keyboard. Enter Pulse controller which Toby Pitman discovers is a little known gem.  

A little while ago a composer friend posted a link to a really cool looking device. That device was the Pulse Controller. It essentially allows you to turn any surface into a playable MIDI controller just by hitting it. 

Now the idea behind this isn’t new as piezo pickups have allowed drummers to trigger MIDI for years, but this requires specialist converters or drum ‘brains’ to do the job of converting the analog signal to MIDI.

Pulse Controller however takes this idea and radically simplifies it making it accessible to anybody with an audio input on their computer by way of some clever software. The reason I found this exciting is that, although I might not be able to play drums, I can rip it up on a table top!! So I ordered one...


What do you get?

Pulse Controller includes the piezo mic (I got the clip-on version, but there’s a suction cup one too), a 1/4” to 1/8” stereo jack converter which allows you to plug the pickup straight into your Mac audio input, and the software. 

pulse image


Just plug the pickup into your computer or your audio interface and attach the other end to your desk or any surface you like for that matter (the clip can accommodate a thickness of about 3 cm) and you’re good to go. 


The Software

The Pulse Control software is where the magic happens. It’s compatible with both Mac and PC. And after installing all you need to do is set up some parameters.

The first is the audio input settings. This is where you choose your input and adjust the gain and sensitivity. There’s a meter to see the incoming signal.

input settings


Set your audio driver and buffer size. Lower buffers will reduce latency. Then set an output for the MIDI signal. Selecting ‘from Pulse Controller 1’ is fine for internal MIDI stuff, but you can route this to external MIDI ports too.

output


Note Modes

You can choose from five modes that determine how the Pulse Controller will output MIDI. The first is Fixed Note. This simply plays the desired note that you set in the Note Number selector. You can also define how long you want the note to be by playing with the Note Duration parameters. You can also set your MIDI channel. Here’s an example triggering a snare.

Triggering a snare


The next one is Custom. Just input the notes you’d like on the keyboard and then use the Arpeggiator to cycle through them. You’ll find all the usual Arpeggiator modes. This allows you to play melodic content or randomize different articulations of a drum which is very interesting. In this mode you’re tied to one set of notes, although you can feed the software from a sequencer using the External Input mode.

different modes


Here’s how you set this up in Logic Pro. Just create an external MIDI instrument and set its Port to ‘to Pulse Controller 1’. In the Pulse Control software choose ‘to Pulse Controller 1’ as the MIDI input and set an arp mode. Any MIDI notes you play on that track are fed to the software.

Set up for Logic Pro X


 Here’s how that sounds.


(All the notes are triggered by me hitting my desk. It’s so fun!!)


Next up is Velocity Switch. With this you can redirect the MIDI to up to three different note numbers based on the velocity of the hit. Currently, the output velocity is fixed although I hope that may change in the future.

Velocity switch


Lastly, we have the Musical Scale mode. This allows you to choose from 21 scales with various playback variations and you get control over the Key and key range etc.

Musical Scale mode


You can also save presets for different setups which is handy.


Conclusion

Considering this is based on such a simple idea, Pulse controller has got to be the best thing I’ve bought in ages. For playing percussion samples, it’s a lot more natural than a keyboard. Even more expressive than playing drum pads on something like Maschine. The melodic side is really inspiring for creating new ideas especially the External Input. Sure there are limitations, but it’s such good fun you’ll forget about that pretty fast!

Pulse Controller is a great little product and is constantly plugged in now. The Clip version was $56 and worth every bit of it. Simply brilliant!!

Web: http://www.pulsecontroller.com


For the past 20 years Toby has worked as a professional guitarist, programmer and producer. Clients include Sir Paul McCartney, George Michael, Shirley Bassey, Yusuf Islam, Giles Martin as well as the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies. He has also worked extensively in TV, Advertising and Film. As well as composing himself he has also ... Read More

Discussion

BenB
Now THIS is an awesome product I'd love to have on the road with me. Even in the studio. As a life long table top drummer, this is killer! Thanks for such a great article!
Rounik
Thanks Toby for bringing Pulse Controller to my attention.

Looking for the "Buy Now" button already...

:)
Rexinator
Toby,
Thanks for the review on the Pulse controller. I picked up one and installed the software, but I'm a bit baffled by what's happening in Logic. I ran the Pulse device into a line input on my Apogee Ensemble interface and selected the proper input in the Pulse Controller MIDI/Audio Setup I'm pretty sure I did the setup correctly (just followed the instructions). The next step in the booklet is to go under MIDI Preferences and enable 'from Pulse Controller 1'. But of course there is no such option in Logic (that I can find). Do I need to set this up in the main Audio MIDI Setup? Or in the Environment? I tried creating an external MIDI track and selecting Pulse Controller 1. I got a live signal, and I could record some MIDI events on that track, but other audio tracks in my project were completely scuzzed out. I've never heard anything like that. I could restore normal audio by deleting the external MIDI track and powering down my Ensemble and then powering it back up. I'm hesitant to use the Pulse Controller until I figure out what the problem was. FYI, I had the buffer size in the controller set to 16 (I'm a fast drummer). Is that too low? Thanks in advance for any insights.
Rexinator
Toby,
After some trial and error, I realized the Pulse Controller is enabled simply by setting the Audio/MIDI Setup and Input Settings correctly. Sorry about the long comment above. However, I noticed a couple of other things that might merit attention. [Again, the device is connected to my Apogee Ensemble interface, and Logic 9 is my DAW.]
1) I noticed that, when the Buffer Size is set to the lowest value (16) or 32, any audio regions that are on other tracks sound very scuzzy during playback. This can can be corrected by turning off or closing the Pulse Controller application. It seems strange that this should occur, because the Audio settings in Logic still indicate a buffer size of 256 (for Logic). If I change the Buffer Setting in the Pulse Controller to 64 or higher, the scuzziness is minimal or absent. This behavior makes for a little difficulty in tapping out fast beats against an existing audio track
2) I also noticed that when I insert a piano instrument or other non-percussion instrument on the software track, it is impossible to play notes in quick succession. It appears that the program requires a Note Off signal before it can accept another note. I tried playing with the Fixed Note Duration, but the only thing that seemed to work was switching to the Choke option. The manual didn't say anything about this behavior, so I was wondering if the problem has more to do with the way MIDI events are handled by the software instrument (maybe something to do with the note duration in the Events list?).
I e-mailed the manufacturer about these questions. Thanks again.

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