Studio Diary #25: The Roland SPD-SX and Universal Audio Luna

MIDI drums and drum samples. Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re a fact of life for just about everyone who records music at home. And, just as most of us can’t accommodate the noise of a real drum kit in the house, most of us have nowhere to keep a digital drum kit either. We’re left with using much smaller percussion pads, or we compromise and use something we can sort-of play like Roland’s SPD-SX.

But how do you get them into Universal Audio’s LUNA DAW in the first place? When I googled, I couldn’t find any instructions anywhere on how to do this.

So I wrote my own.

What Am I Trying To Achieve?

I want to use my Roland SPD-SX percussion pad as a MIDI instrument in Universal Audio’s LUNA.

Ideally, I’d prefer to hook it up to Superior Drummer 3, but given LUNA’s limitations with third-party plugins, I’ll settle for the SPD-SX working with LUNA’s Shape virtual instrument.

Superior Drummer 3 can wait for another blog post.

Why Am I Doing This?

I’m going to need some percussion parts for the music I will record this year.

I hate, loathe and detest programming drums. Partly because I suck at it badly, and partly because I’d rather play the drum parts instead.

There’s a lot of rust to knock off, and (spoiler alert!) the SPD-SX is nothing like playing an actual kit. I haven’t gigged behind a kit since 1992, and I haven’t played drums at all since the summer of 2009. Even then, I was pretty rubbish at it.

But hey – we do this for fun, right? And the beauty of MIDI instruments is that I can loop and overdub parts to make up for it 🙂

What Am I Using?

I have a Roland SPD-SX percussion pad, purchased in the late summer of 2019. I’ve got the kick pedal trigger for it too. It’s hooked up over USB to my Intel MacBook Pro, running macOS Catalina not Big Sur. (That’ll prove important shortly).

On the MacBook Pro, I’m running Universal Audio’s LUNA v1.1.7, which just came out. (Yay – at last we have project templates. Look out for a post on those very soon!)

For testing / diagnostic purposes, I also have Apple’s MainStage on the computer. I’ve previously been able to get my SPD-SX working with MainStage. If you don’t have MainStage, go get it. It cost about £30 or so, and there’s plenty of great tutorial videos up on YouTube about using the Roland SPD-SX and MainStage together.

The basic idea is this: if I have a problem with LUNA, I can switch back to MainStage to make sure everything is working there. It’s a great way to work out whether the problem is with the SPD-SX or with LUNA.

What Did I Have To Do?

Once I understood that the SPD-SX isn’t a plug-and-play device, it was very straight-forward to get everything working.

  1. Go to the Roland website, download the driver for the SPD-SX, and install it. There is no driver for Big Sur on the website. I have no idea if that means no driver is needed, or if the SPD-SX isn’t compatible with Big Sur yet.
  2. Reboot your MacBook Pro.
  3. Open your LUNA project, and create yourself a new Instrument track. Select Shape for the track Instrument.
  4. Open Shape, and go into the Presets. You’ll find a range of drum kits there to try. I’m using the OWD Kit 1 atm.

At this point, grab your headphones, and you should be able to hear the virtual drum kit through them. Success!

(I say grab your headphones because I can barely hear the virtual drum kit out of my studio monitors over the noise of me whacking the SPD-SX with my drum sticks!)

Tuning The Virtual Instrument

Now, it’s just a matter of deciding which piece of the virtual drum kit you want to hear when you strike a particular pad on the SPD-SX. This is really easy to do. It’s just a matter of going into the SPD-SX’s onboard “Kit” menu, and deciding what you want each pad to trigger.

Here’s what I’m using at the moment:

PadMidi NoteTriggers
Kick drum (TRIG1)35Kick Drum
PAD746Open hi-hat
PAD941Floor Tom
PAD444Closed hi-hat
PAD545High Tom
PAD643Mid Tom

I’ve basically gone for:

  • snare in the middle
  • toms up, around to the right and down
  • hi-hat on the left-two pads
  • cymbals on the somewhat dodgy top triggers

It’s kinda the layout of an actual kit, just very cramped and condensed.

If you’ve got a better layout for me to learn, leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear how you get the most out of the SPD-SX.

Final Thoughts

I still haven’t decided whether or not the SPD-SX is the right choice for me. (That’s for another blog post, another time). But, at least I have it hooked up to LUNA, and I can actually play my own drum parts.

I just need a bit of practice first. Anyone know any great YouTube channels I can follow to help me learn to play the SPD-SX?

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