Pete Korpela

Around the World with the OCTAPAD SPD-30

Pete Korpela

Since moving to Los Angeles in 1997, Finland native Pete Korpela has built a solid reputation as a top percussionist in many different genres, from orchestral music to jazz, rock, and pop. A diverse résumé of touring and recording gigs includes Robbie Williams, The Lion King musical, Cirque du Soleil, Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Jesse Carmichael (Maroon 5), and Melody Gardot, among many others.

Pete was the touring percussionist for singer Josh Groban on his 2011 and 2013 world tours. The busy musician is also an active studio player in L.A., and his work can be heard in soundtracks for the award-winning video games Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, which have sold over 20 million copies worldwide.

Alongside his arsenal of acoustic percussion instruments, Pete’s OCTAPAD SPD-30 Digital Percussion Pad plays an essential role in all his recording and touring gigs. He loves its versatile selection of great sounds, as well as its dynamic, ultra-responsive playability. “As a working percussionist, it’s an absolute necessity to have the SPD-30 in my setup,” Pete relates. “I honestly could not do my job the way I’m doing it right now if I did not have this particular instrument.”

What inspires you as a musician?

Trying to find something new that has not been done before, or trying to find a way to do it so it sounds like me. Where people can say, “That has to be Pete, because nobody else plays like him. Nobody else would come up with such weird sounds or such weird combinations or rhythms.”

How would you define your playing style? What’s your signature?

What makes me sound like me? I guess it’s sensitivity to the song and the musicians around me. First of all, I always try to honor whatever the song is about, and what the sound world of the song is about. Then I always get a much bigger kick out of the fact that I get to make everybody else sound great—I can just lay a big fat groove underneath them, or inspire them to go to some other direction. I’ve always looked for rhythm combinations; I might play rhythms from one region on a completely different drum from another region, and just to mix it up to give it a different edge, a different angle.

What role does the OCTAPAD SPD-30 play in your percussion setup?

To me, the SPD-30 is almost an acoustic instrument, in the sense that it responds [to my playing]. The dynamic level and the options and the playability are beyond just being an electronic instrument that recreates sampled sounds. Although I’ve used electronic instruments many years, I finally feel like this is an acoustic extension to my other acoustic drums. And the sounds are so amazingly good. I have done recordings and I perform live [with the SPD-30], and people cannot tell the difference between the acoustic and the electronic instruments.

Pete Korpela

There are a huge variety of instruments, obviously, and not just drums, exotic hand drums, and sound effects; there’s a really, really great variety of mallet instruments and orchestra instruments. On tour with Josh Groban, I used some rare mallet instruments. There’s a thing that’s called slate marimba, which is made out of actual stone; there’s a sample [in the SPD-30] that pretty much matched one on one with the acoustic instrument that was used on the album. Traveling with an instrument like that would have been impossible, and now I get to play the part, and I still get to feel that I’m actually playing the marimba itself.

The acoustic nuances that I can get from the SPD-30 are so amazing, and the response is so precise—instead of just hitting the pads and getting a sampled response, I [feel] as if I’m playing the real acoustic instrument. To me, mixing my own acoustic instruments and the sounds that come from SPD-30, it’s getting the best of both worlds. I’m inspired as a musician to perform and use this SDP-30 as an actual instrument that we like to hold and play and touch and feel.

I was so blown away when I started really getting into it, how easy it is to use and how fast it is to use. I’ve done some orchestra dates, and different orchestras, depending on if you’re in the States or Europe, they tune at A440 or 442, 445, whatever. If I’m using a mallet instrument [on the SPD-30], I have to change the tuning, and it takes 30 seconds or so to tune all eight pads, and then I’m matching the orchestra. It’s all those little details that actually mean so much, that are so simple and fast to use. I honestly could not do my job the way I’m doing it right now if I did not have this particular instrument.

How do you blend electronic sounds with acoustic percussion? Are there specific sounds or textures that you find yourself using?

For the instruments that define me as a player for my particular sound, I try to use those acoustically. Let’s say conga drums, because every conga drummer has their own sound. Everybody’s hand is a little bit different—the way we play slaps, the way we play in-between notes, the ghost notes, that all adds to the groove in a very special, specific way. Although the samples here are incredibly clean and they sound so close —they are the closest to the acoustic sound that I have ever heard in an electronic sample—I personally would choose to use live conga drums if possible. But then, for example, cowbells and timbales [and other instruments], I have no problem using from the [SPD-30].

If I need to play a little hand drum [live on a big stage], it gets really difficult to get the sound out of it [with a microphone]. Getting it from the SPD-30 is a great way to mix my acoustic drums and electronics. Using instruments that have a couple of drums mixed together and lot of low end, or shaker sounds, those to me are great when you use the SPD-30. It’s very important because it’s all controlled, and the low end you can actually manage through the sound system, instead of having low-end bass drums that sometimes get out of control. Also, it’s really technically hard or physically [impossible] to get those drums. [The SPD-30] is a super-compact way of getting incredibly well produced sampled sounds and still feel like you’re actually playing the real instruments.

Do you think electronics are essential for the modern percussionist?

A percussionist is asked to do a lot these days—there are so many different instrument families that we get asked to play all the time, and it’s either financially or physically impossible to fulfill all those requests with real instruments, especially if we are playing live. [These] many different instruments would require a ton of microphones, a ton of actual physical gear, stands, everything, plus physically being able to jump from one instrument to another [to play them]. As a working percussionist, it’s an absolute necessity to have the SPD-30 in my setup.

One of the first times I talked with Josh Groban’s musical director, Tariqh Akoni, we were talking about my setup. And one of his comments was, “For the electronics, I’m assuming you’re using the SPD.” His approach is that the [SPD is] standard in the industry for percussion. Why would you use something else? To me right now, and to all the other performers, the Roland SPD series is the standard.

How do you use the OCTAPAD SPD-30 in the studio?

What I mainly get called for in the studio is to give a human feel to a specific track, and I bring a lot of acoustic instruments and I record those. And these days, I always have my SPD-30 there too, because I can get so much done with this instrument and nobody will know the difference. I’m still recording live drums with the live feel, and I just have, you know, four more truckloads of instruments in my arsenal, instead of trying to find a big enough studio that can handle some of the huge drums. A lot of times you need the big room to capture the sound, and you need very expensive microphones—expensive this, expensive that. Right now, all we have to do is plug the SPD-30 in, and I’m still giving it the human, real feel; I still get all the dynamics. To me it’s just an additional instrument that I get to use in the studio.