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Create next-level beats: 6 reasons for pad controllers

Published 12:53 pm on Monday 24th July 2023 by Beat Magazine

1 Why a controller...

...and no plug-in? Sure, there’s an almost endless amount of tools to help you build smashing beats, but connecting your hands directly to the sound is just logical, consistent and brings the most of yourself into it. Ideal for signature beats. Give it a try and you‘ll see more exciting patterns come about than with the mouse.

2 Focus on the beats

Another advantage: when a kit is loaded, your focus shifts away from the screen and fully onto the beat. But enough talking, let‘s get to it: we use an ESI Xjam controller together with Kong in Reason, but you can just as well use our free Speedrum Beat, Ableton Drumrack, Battery or your favorite drum machine.

3 Synchronize

We set three things on the controller: the tempo should run in sync with the DAW, the REPEAT function delivers 16th notes, and we set SWING to 20% for more groove. That‘s it. Then we load a kit, start recording and activate loop and overdub so that we don‘t have to interrupt the flow but can keep recording.

4 Live shakers

Start with the kick for a rough basic framework and then we‘ll move on to the other drums: for us this will be a shaker, which we‘ll record together with the REPEAT button held down. Since the pads send velocity data, we hold the pad down but vary the pressure. This creates a great shaker motif that would have been a torture with the mouse.

5 Aftertouch trick

In general, many sounds sound much more interesting when played with a repeat function and varying velocity. Another trick: The Xjam offers aftertouch. We connect this with the feedback control of a tape delay, which is applied to the clap of our kit, which we use to control the delay feedback by pressing the pad.

6 Effects per knob

This is super handy for adding accents. Be sure to try this with parameters like pitch, filter and sample length to change the drums live! Speaking of which, let‘s connect the Xjam‘s six knobs to a compressor, distortion, and filter to affect beats live. Let your beats sound more authentic that way!

Related topic: The ESI Xjam controller reviewed

Simple pad controllers with direct MIDI output have become rare, often newer ones only have a USB port and are, therefore, difficult to integrate into a computerless setup. The new Xjam from ESI aims to fill this gap. Measuring approximately 20 x 13 x 2 cm, the controller is extremely compact and flat, which is equivalent to the size of an old iPad mini. The weight of under 400g also promotes mobility. But it will also be possible to find a permanent place for Xjam on a fully configured desktop, such as on a master keyboard.

Xjam offers 16 pads, 6 knobs and 6 buttons. Buttons and pads are backlit. The combination of plastic and metal makes a very robust impression, the controller rests stably on the desktop and the pads can be played very quietly – a big advantage if you only want to listen quietly and don‘t want to disturb others. One of the knobs on our review unit was a bit more sluggish than the others, though, which was a bit irritating when tweaking.

Since the Xjam is really very small and flat, the connections for MIDI output and footswitch input had to be made as mini-jacks. There is a USB-C port for connecting to a computer or mobile device. Knobs and pads can be assigned three times each, either via the corresponding editor or directly on the device on the go. The backlighting, which changes between yellow, red and green, indicates which mode you are currently in. Custom assignment can be saved in a scene; 48 scenes are available. The pads can not only send note values, but also MIDI-CC, Program Changes or Transport Commands (MMC).

The pads have a pleasantly hard touch, play very well and implement dynamics cleanly. The repeat function inspired by the Akai MPC‘s makes it easy to play snare fills, fast hi-hats and percussion elements, synchronized to the song tempo if desired. Using the editor, you can make further adjustments, such as adjusting the velocity curve to suit your own playing style, as well as setting triplets and swing for the repeat function.


Very compact, robustly manufactured and with pleasantly playable pads: Xjam is a successful controller with excellent features; in particular, the direct MIDI output is a plus point compared to the competition. The solid workmanship and the chic design and format also justify the price of 149 Euro.

Find the ESI Xjam at Thomann.

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