INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian MARCH 9, 2011 - by David McNamee
HEY, WHAT'S THAT SOUND: KAOSS PAD
An easy-to-use gizmo that has captured the imagination of everyone from Jonny Greenwood to Brian Eno.
What is it? A Korg-made effects unit developed initially with DJs in mind, but which with some clever marketing and the most brilliantly intuitive interface has become an incredibly sexy, must-have bit of kit for everyone from avant-garde producers to stadium guitar heroes. Originally launched in 1999, a brand new generation of the pad - the Kaoss Pad Quad - is out this month.
Who uses it? The first time the Kaoss Pad came to the general public's attention was via Radiohead's Kid A, as part of the tantalising new arsenal of toys that began replacing Jonny Greenwood's trademark guitar explosions around the turn of the millennium. Brian Eno, perhaps predictably, was also an ardent early supporter, and he even got his old mate Bryan Ferry into the world of Kaoss. Beatboxer Beardyman has almost become an unofficial spokesman for the Kaoss Pad, while the Kaoss rock star is undoubtedly Muse leader Matt Bellamy, who has a controller for his KP built into his futuristic signature Manson guitars.
How does it work? The technology of the X/Y controller touchpad that modulates the effects and filters programmed into the Kaoss Pad isn't new or revolutionary, but it's so simply and elegantly implemented in this design that anyone can pick one up and in a matter of seconds get the hang of it. You simply swirl your finger around the pad until you find the sound you want, and then you can either freeze the setting or modulate it further by stroking and prodding the pad as you please. The various models of Kaoss Pad each have a subtly different purpose. The Kaoss Pad 3 can manipulate samples and loops as well as applying a range of effects, the Mini KP is a budget-price, but powerful Kaoss Pad, with a hundred effects (flange, distortion, delay - you name it), and the Kaoss Pad Entrancer can process audio and video.
Though mostly used to sample, loop, pitch-bend or otherwise manipulate music that has already been mixed down - such as in a DJ set - the KP is also pretty handy in live performances. It can act as a vocoder, or as effects for keyboards, guitar or any other sound source.
Why is it classic? It's just so easy - and most importantly - fun to use. Eno described Kaoss Pads as "a way of taking sounds into the domain of muscular control... you can really start playing with sound itself, with its physical character. It's immediately obvious what you do, and it takes you into a completely different place, because when working with computers you normally don't use your muscles in that way. You're focused on your head, and the three million years of evolution that resulted in incredible muscular skill doesn't get a look in."
What's the best ever Kaoss Pad song? Radiohead's Everything In Its Right Place - the glitching, stuttering collage of Thom Yorkes is Jonny Greenwood feeding the singer's vocal through the Kaoss Pad.
FIVE FACTS AND THINGS
* The new Kaoss Pad Quad gives you hands-on control of the effects applied; you can manually mix and match four pods of five effects for a total of one thousand two hundred and ninety-five combinations. I've created a demonstration track of how these different combinations can work by adding live effects to a button-bashing improv on my Roland 303 - streaming here.
* The Quad is divided into four core groups of effects: looper, modulation, filter and delay. With the looper controls you can sample and rearrange snatches of vocals or beats, or add pseudo-vinyl scratch effects.
* The Quad also automatically syncs BPM to the music pouring through it, which means that the effects and filters you add never sound clashing or discordant.
* The Kaoss Pad proved so popular as an effects unit that Korg used the same design and technology to power an X/Y controller synth - the Kaossilator.
* The Kaossilator had barely been released before someone tried recording an entire album using only this small, inexpensive, keyboard-less synth. Gary Kibler's The Yellow Album is a pretty impressive display of what you can do with a hundred preset sounds, one X/Y pad and a couple of nimble fingers.