iPad Pro 12.9 long term review

In my previous review of the iPad Pro, I touched on a lot of the awkwardness surrounding the pricing, new peripherals, and overall experience of Apple’s latest tablet.  Now that I’ve had the iPad Pro 12.9 for almost a year, a long term review and some analysis of how I use it is certainly in order.

First of all, I use the iPad Pro every day.  It’s basically my tablet of choice at home, replacing what I used to use my iPad and iPad Mini’s for.  The interesting thing is that I use it entirely with the Smart Keyboard … essentially like a touch enabled laptop.  I find that for casual use (which it entirely is at home … if I need to do work, I go sit at my desk) I much prefer the iPad Pro to a regular laptop.  It’s simply quicker to pick up and use, doesn’t require lots of battery charging, and doesn’t roast my legs.  The screen is also big enough that split screen multitasking is reasonable for doing things like watching Twitch and web surfing at the same time.

I hardly use the Pencil at all, but I do find it useful in the rare cases where I need to sign and return documents.  Unfortunately, the process of doing that is a bit clunky, involving saving PDF’s off to iCloud, copying them and annotating them in PDF Expert, and returning them via e-mail, but at least I don’t have to yank out the printer.

The Smart Keyboard is an essential accessory for the iPad Pro, but it still doesn’t feel right.  To me, the keys themselves are perfectly typable, but I miss those function and escape keys a lot.  Yes, the massive folding contortions required to set up the iPad still feel suboptimal.  Oh, and keyboard backlighting is indeed an issue.  Overall, I wish Apple would find some industrial design willpower to build a kickstand into the iPad itself.  It might enable a much lighter and more straight forward cover design.

On the bright side, however, the keyboard being made completely of waterproof fabric makes it very easy to clean.  If there’s one thing I don’t like about any keyboard, it’s the crud that makes its way into the nooks and crannies of the keys that is impossible to properly clean out.  I honestly wouldn’t mind some variation of this fabric making it into a new Macbook, but the fashion implications of that might not meet Jony Ive’s sniff test.  At any rate, a Rev. 2 Smart Keyboard will be welcome when it comes.

Pricing on the new iPad Pro has dropped tremendously in the past few months, making it a not so great buy for early adopters.  I think what this signals is a lot of folks bought it on instinct and decided it just wasn’t for them.  It’s not uncommon to see a fully kitted iPad Pro with 128GB and LTE with keyboard and pencil on Craigslist for roughly what the base 32Gb model would cost new.  I suspected the sloughing of users would be the case, but I bought anyway … early adopting is fun.🙂  And besides, I really do use it enough that I felt I had gotten my money’s worth out of it.

iOS 9 and 10 look to be disappointing for the iPad.  As I’ve said before, the iPad is largely held back by its software … with multitasking implemented in what feels like a version 1 prototype rather than a polished solution.  To make things worse, many major apps still don’t run at the iPad’s native resolution after a whole year!

I believe many consumers thought that the iPad Pro signaled that iOS 10 was going to be a major step forward for iPad’s … as one couldn’t possibly release an entirely new iPad Pro and call it “Pro” without making sure the software justified it … could they?  Turns out they can do that.  New iPad improvements are nowhere in sight.

One of the most egregious bugs has to be the performance of Safari in iOS 9.  For nearly an entire year, the browser has had a bug that prevents it from rendering the page when you scroll on many websites until you stop scrolling completely.  It’s a huge bug in probably the most important use case for the iPad … good web browsing.  I really can’t stress how disappointing it is that nobody at Apple cared enough to fix this bug until iOS 10.  There’s no excuse for it.  None.

For errands and the occasional day trip, the iPad Pro is entirely unpleasant to carry around, being much too large in general.  The iPad Mini is still my goto tablet for day to day back and forth travel, since it fits in my jacket pocket and doesn’t need any babysitting or man purses to hold it.  But if I do know I’m going to be sitting down for a long while … perhaps waiting at someone’s house or letting the GF do some shopping while I sit at a cafe … the iPad Pro gets thrown in a bag once in a while.

Performance of the hardware itself has been impeccable.  4GB of RAM is so far above the other iOS devices that I know this tablet will be good for a few years to come, unlike the iPad Pro 9.7.  And I’ve never had a complaint about the speed of the A9X processor … everything is lightning quick.

One of the most important follow up’s is going to be about using the iPad Pro for work. I have enough to say about that that I’m going to save that for a separate post.

To sum things up, the iPad Pro 12.9 fills a pretty specific niche … one somewhere between a full blown laptop and the traditional definition of iPad.  I don’t personally think the iPad Pro 12.9 is worthwhile without the Smart Keyboard … it’s just an awkwardly large tablet at that point.  With it, however, it’s a much more pleasant to use version of a laptop and an iPad in one … as long as your needs are reasonably casual and basic.  It turns out that this is good enough for me to use it all the time.  So while the iPad Pro 12.9 wouldn’t be my first iPad purchase (that honor goes to the Mini 4), I definitely feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth so far.

 

 

 

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Stupid Apple tricks: #5 – The USB Ethernet adapter

Want to get gigabit wired speed from your MacBook?  You can use a third party adapter with a funky third party driver (which, if you do any sort of research, are apparently all completely unreliable).  Or you can use Apple 100mbit Fast Ethernet adapters.  That’s right.  1/10th the speed of gigabit.

But a USB 3.0 adapter?  Sorry, you can’t have that.  Want a gigabit connection on your MacBook Pro?  Better use the Thunderbolt Ethernet adapter.  That wouldn’t be so bad, normally … Except you need those Thunderbolt ports to connect your monitors!  Oh, and if you have a new MacBook 2015 and want a gigabit wired connection, you’re just completely out of luck.

By the way, Thunderbolt docks are egregiously expensive and notoriously unstable.  USB 3.0 accessories, on the other hand, are very inexpensive.  I’d gladly hang a USB 3.0 Ethernet adapter off a hub at my desk or bring one with me on the road.  If I were allowed to.

USB 3.0 has been around for nearly five years now and drivers on Windows have existed for nearly as long.  Is it really too much to ask for a USB 3.0 gigabit adapter for the Mac?

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Stupid Apple tricks: #4 – The Mac Pro

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the idea of the Mac Pro.  But the execution of it in 2016 is just ridiculous.

Pro implies a few things.  One, you’ll update it reasonably often, since professionals can easily justify the cost of high end hardware.   When you are a professional, failing to stay current can actually be more expensive than just shelling out for the best.  Two, the product itself must be extremely fast, flexible, and expandable.  Professionals, by definition, aren’t mainstream.  They need the best, regardless of how complicated or ugly it might be.  They spend enough time with the products doing their jobs to be able to tolerate a bit of the bleeding edge.

The current Mac Pro is sexy, but impractical.  How bad is it, exactly?  Well, it turns out there’s an entire cottage industry of people devoted to the old “classic” Mac Pro in the large PC like tower format that we all know and love.  They use it because that form factor can actually accept all kinds of cards and expansions … Especially video cards.  Whereas the Mac Pro was re-invented, re-introduced and then promptly abandoned.  It’s running on two and a half years since the 2013 Mac Pro was announced and there isn’t a new one in sight.  You just can’t treat professional customers like that.

Quite frankly, Apple seems to have a problem with the word “Pro” lately.  If you are going to call something Pro, then make sure you update it.  Here’s the suggestion: stop focusing on drip-feeding improvements to your professional customers.  Just give us the best products you can as soon as they are available, and consider expandability a core feature of any “Pro” product.

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The HP Z27q is now recognized by OS X

I wrote a previous blog post about the HP z27q detailing the hacks I had to use to get it work with my Macbook Pro.

Well, at some point with El Capitan 10.11.1 or 10.11.2, Apple added a profile for this monitor.  So it now works without any modifications to the OS.

The experience still isn’t completely seamless … you probably won’t get a boot screen logo when you start the machine, and if you unplug your laptop frequently, it’s easy for OS X to get confused.  But, in general, the HP Z27q is now the most cost effective 5K monitor on the market for OS X.

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Stupid Apple tricks – #3 – iTunes sync

I’ve owned an iPhone as my primary mobile phone starting with the iPhone 3GS.  In all that time, I believe the only time that iTunes WiFi sync ever worked reliably was the first time it was introduced in 2010.  Since then, it’s been a nightmare.

Sometimes the phone and iTunes machines can’t discover each other over WiFi.  This is presumably due to the utter clusterf*** that is Bonjour/ZeroConf discovery.

Let’s say you do get lucky enough to start syncing.  The sync itself can literally just hang at any point.  Sometimes you have to reboot the host machine and sometimes you have to reboot the phone, and then try again.  Sometimes you have to do both.

Oh and syncing via the wire is a little more reliable, but not much.  I still experience my fair share of hangs there too, but at least when I plug the phone in, it always tries to back up.

In summary, I’ve waited years for this feature to work and I assume by now it will never work properly.  My dream is simply to look at my iTunes server and see that the most recent backup was today instead of a month ago … oops, guess it hasn’t been working … AGAIN!  Because if anyone at Apple actually used this feature, they would figure out in a jiffy that it is completely unreliable and will, without fail, refuse to work if you don’t keep rebooting your devices and software constantly.

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Stupid Apple tricks: #2 – The Thunderbolt monitor

Do the folks at Apple hate monitors?  Because everyone *I* know that doesn’t work on a laptop exclusively needs one.  And the current Thunderbolt monitor seems to be going for the highest priced piece of obsolete technology award.

When it was introduced on July 20, 2011, a huge jump at the time it was not.  Instead, it was simply a revision of the LED cinema display that came before it a year ago.  In all honesty, the panel specs have been around many years now and the industry has moved forward dramatically.  Ironically, this is in great part due to Apple themselves pushing Retina quality displays across all of their products … EXCEPT THEIR STANDALONE MONITORS!

On the other hand, many third party monitors today are Retina quality, and they look beautiful.  I’m running on a 5K display right now … the HP z27q.  It has 4 times the pixels in the same display area as the Thunderbolt monitor.  Oh sure, it’s a little weird to set up, but it’s also the monitor I stare at for 8 hours a day.  Worth it.  Even a 4k monitor is running about 400 dollars now compared to a new Thunderbolt monitor at 999.  That kind of pricing is just madness.

I bought a Thunderbolt monitor once, back in 2012 or so.  I probably won’t ever make that mistake again.  USB 2.0 ports and a proprietary Thunderbolt connector means you’ll never ever be able to use it as a TV or with another computer of any kind.

We’ve speculated a lot about the reasons why the Thunderbolt monitor is still out there.  Are they waiting for Thunderbolt 3 so that they can do 5K over a single cable?  Is working on the monitor team a dead end career path at Apple?  Is Apple just deciding to get rid of their own monitor lines altogether?  Who knows.

Release the monitor.  Support dual Displayport 1.2 connections to it just like you do with third-party monitors today.  When Thunderbolt 3 is ready (actually, it’s ready now, but was for some reason skipped in your latest generation of hardware) then release a breakout adapter so everything works over a single cable except at the very end of the chain.

We have to buy monitors for our desks, Apple.  That’s not going away.  Making us buy the Thunderbolt monitor from 2011 is just madness.

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Stupid Apple tricks: #1 – not reconnecting to WiFi

Even though we all love our Apple products, sometimes it’s just maddening that we put up with weird issues day in and day out that nobody at Apple seems to care about.  It’s almost as if nobody there uses their own stuff sometimes.  Well, it may be a bit optimistic to change that, but this blog is as good a place as any to vent about the problems I keep working around on a regular basis.

The first entry in this series is about WiFi on the MacBook.  For some reason, MacBook’s of all flavors will simply randomly decide to not connect to a WiFi network that it is authorized to connect to.  As someone who serves as tech support for his parents, having the WiFi decide not to connect for no reason is absolutely maddening.  This is a computer that literally never leaves the house, so it doesn’t even suffer the difficulty of having to switch networks.

The worst that might happen is that the internet goes out or a power outage occurs.  The access point and internet come back online, but MacBook doesn’t reconnect to the WiFi unless manually forced to.

Ridiculous.  I get a call sometimes when this happens, and it really just shouldn’t happen at all.  Period.

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A little keyboard trick for the iPad

So, in my last blog post, I mentioned how I wanted to be able to type on the TOP of the screen due to that being where my hands can most easily reach when I’m sitting in bed with the iPad propped up against my legs.  Turns out you can actually undock the keyboard by pressing and holding on the dismiss keyboard button.   It’s not a completely seamless experience … You can’t dock the keyboard to the top of the screen and reflow the apps to the bottom.  And, of course, if you float the keyboard, it’s not uncommon for the onscreen keyboard to block out a lot of the content you want to view.  With that said, the usability of the onscreen keyboard is a great deal improved with this feature.  Color me happy for once.

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The iPad Pro review

First impressions.  For someone that’s only seen iPad sized tablets for the past 5 years, seeing the iPad Pro in person for the first time is invariably giggle inducing.  The size just seems ridiculous and unnecessary at first glance … Like a stretch limo or 100″ flat screen TV.  Eventually, you get used to it, but more on that later.

Physical usage

Attempting to use it as a normal iPad by holding it up creates first a feeling of experimentation, and then realization.  At first, the heft is deceptively light for its size.  In use in portrait, the tablet is unusually top heavy and your hands struggle to simply hold onto the tablet as your thumbs manipulate the keyboard.  In landscape, reaching the center keys is a near impossibility.  The tablet seems to be best used supported by something … Either a flat table, a cover, or while lying on a couch or in bed.  Holding it up by your arms and hands alone doesn’t feel good for long.

In the lap sitting in bed, it gets a little confusing to use. I find it works pretty well in landscape mode with split screen enabled.  Oddly, I find myself wishing that the keyboard in landscape would be on the top of the screen instead of the bottom, since the top is where my hands can comfortably reach out from my body to type, whereas trying to type from the bottom results in contortions of the wrists around your own body. This is less of a problem on a flat table where the iPad can be placed further in front of you.

One thing Apple gets right here that other companies don’t is the aspect ratio.  4:3 for iPad’s is simply the correct aspect ratio for nearly all tablets … Providing the right balance and trade off of informational depth vs width.  It’s puzzling that no other company has bothered to understand why this is.

Software

Mulitasking can be sort of nice when it works, but is laid low by the complete lack of software packages that actually support split screen right now.  Furthermore, the actual implementation just doesn’t feel good.  Activating it consists of the following.

  • Sliding over once from the right hand side
  • getting the arrow that seems to say “did you really mean to do this?’
  • Sliding again over the exact arrow deliberately
  • Attempt to pick the app you want from a linear, unsearchable list (it’s obvious that UI model will completely fail to scale in a few months)
  • Then tap the splitter bar to indicate that you really want to be in split screen mode instead of slide over mode.

And you still can’t switch sides, adjust the precise layout of both apps on the screen, or easily swap in other apps as needed.

Despite the above, the iPad Pro, by sheer virtue of physical screen area, manages to make multitasking somewhat palatable.  On the iPad Air 2, it’s only somewhat workable, and on the iPad mini it is nearly pointless since content in split screen is basically unreadable.

Using the native software is an exercise in incompleteness.  Unlike the original iPad, where Jobs outlined the rethinking of every native piece of software to suit the larger form factor of the iPad, the software on the iPad Pro is largely unchanged from its iPad equivalent.  Some software, such as messages and mail, leave large columns of empty space on the screen in landscape mode.

Improvements

And yet there are some niceties here. The typing experience in landscape mode on the touch screen is surprisingly decent. I can type rather accurately and quickly … Something I did not quite expect.

The iPad Pro’s size is a bit of a boon for the older crowd.  In fact, I was able to justify an iPad Pro purchase for my 70 year old mother based on just two factors.  One, she uses her iPad Air 2 for hours each day.  And two, her vision isn’t great right now, so the size of the iPad Pro makes the viewing experience a lot better for her.  She simply runs the iPad Pro in zoomed mode and the entire experience is simply that of a blown up iPad Air … Bigger text, bigger icons … Bigger everything!  She’ll still keep the Air 2 since the cellular connectivity and size make it better for traveling, but the iPad Pro is going to be a major part of her daily routine at home from now on.

The sound of the iPad Pro is markedly and immediately better at first listen than any other iPad.  While the speakers still point in the wrong direction, at least they are quite powerful and now produce a full stereo soundstage.  One gets the feeling this was simply done because they couldn’t really do anything else with the extra space … After all, 1.5 lbs is already quite heavy for a tablet, so the extra space couldn’t be used for more battery life.

Finally, the iPad Pro has an all new A9X processor.  Oddly, they’ve moved back to dual core, but the generational leap in performance was still quite significant.  No one likes a step backwards, but they’ve still managed to deliver the fastest iPad ever. In practice, the 4GB of RAM and extra speed are n’t particularly noticeable now, but it’s clear the iPad keeps up while multitasking two apps for the moment, and should be future proof for some time.

Accessories

The pencil.  While clearly not for everyone, the pencil is an example of classic Apple innovation.  It works, it works intuitively well, and it brings something to the table that other products haven’t yet.  Our company artist was able to pick up the pencil and start sketching immediately.  Almost no need on his end was needed to feel out the pencil and the iPad to get going.  That’s remarkable.  I can’t personally appreciate the impact of this, being about as far from an artist as you can get, but it’s clear that, while this is a niche, it’s going to be a very highly impacted niche.

The Smart Keyboard is an odd product.  I want to like it.  I can put up with so so keys.  What I can’t put up with is the lack of function keys.  At home, having the keyboard cover on is completely pointless.  There is nothing I would bother unfolding and setting up the keyboard for that wouldn’t be easier on a regular laptop or computer.  Don’t get me wrong here … There’s some innovation with that keyboard fabric and overall thinness of the cover.  But it still feels like a product that didn’t quite hit the mark.  Sorry Apple, but Microsoft’s type cover seems like a better product.

If there’s one good thing about the keyboard, it’s that releasing it as a real product finally forced Apple to fix the junky keyboard support in previous versions of iOS.  For example, you could never send a message with the keyboard just by pressing enter.  Now you can.

On to the rest of the accessories … Accessory pricing from Apple has always been a bit unpleasant.  But this year they’ve managed to reach unheard of heights.  The silicone case for the iPad Pro costs 79 dollars.  The front cover is 59.  To get full protection, you’ll need to shell out 140 dollars for the pleasure.  Something about it doesn’t feel right … Almost as if Apple has started to cross the line from premium pricing for premium products over into something not so nice and exploitative.  Let’s hope that trend doesn’t continue.

Summary

I’m not entirely convinced by this new iPad.  In a sentence, the hardware is way ahead of the software.

Can it replace your laptop?  Absolutely not, unless all you do is web surf, watch online video, and write emails.  That might be some of you, but it isn’t me.  I could never develop on this.  Opening zip files or downloading anything would be an exercise in frustration.  And why shouldn’t I be able to have multiple apps open?  Split screen is a somewhat poor emulation of the real thing.

Despite that, I’ve decided to hang onto it a bit longer due to Apple’s generous holiday return policy.  Sometimes these devices take time.   The hardware needs to exist first for the ecosystem to move forward.

On a positive note, I am seeing some merit in the tablet for home use.  I think I slightly prefer it over the iPad Air in that respect.  On the go, however, I simply cannot carry just this device when I travel, and that’s a goal that I have had in mind since the first tablets.  Barring that, the LTE iPad Mini is still the trustiest of travel tablet companions for me.
Would I recommend someone else buy one?  Not without some very specific need for it right now.  In my mother’s case, it was a combination of eyesight and frequent usage at home.  But in most other scenarios, the price jump to the Pro from the iPad Air 2 is huge, and the accessories are priced on the high side of reasonable on top of that!  And that’s even before you get to the unwieldy form factor.  The Air 2 is simply a much better all around tablet, the hardware has aged very well so far, and it has lots of great deals going on it since it is now a year old.

The appeal of the iPad Pro is going to depend on how quickly developers take on the new features of the iPad Pro into their apps.  Until then, purchasing one will depend on how long you can live with the unrealized potential in the device.

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Rock Band 4 – Xbox one drum kit teardown, MIDI mod and general problems

This is a quick and dirty writeup discussing the Rock Band 4 drum kit on Xbox One and how to mod it for use with an MIDI capable e-drum kit.  The TLDR is that it mostly works, but I can’t compensate for the deficiencies in the RB4 kit’s firmware, so, until Harmonix releases a fix, you’ll be stuck with the lag and possible dropped notes inherent to the current firmware.

As a note, old controllers apparently work just fine on the PS4 since they have a more open standard for allowing peripheral connections.  However, my entire Rock Band catalog is on Xbox One, so that’s a no go.


Overview

The basic schematic for this is:

Drum brain -> MIDI trigger (powered by USB) -> Level shifters -> RB4 Drum Kit

Drum brain

You need to remap all MIDI notes on your drum kit so that any single pad triggers the the same MIDI note regardless of whether it is hit on the head/rim/edge.  You should also take care of crosstalk and any other relevant settings on the brain as well.  The MIDI out should connect to the MIDI trigger input.

MIDI trigger

Previously in Rock Band 1, I used a board from Highly Liquid called the MSA-P to trigger output signals from MIDI notes.  Highly Liquid now has a more advanced and USB programmable version called the MIDIWidget.  I ordered it with the terminal blocks pre-soldered and some MIDI ports to attach later.

The MIDI Widget should be powered via a micro USB cable.

The terminal outputs of the MIDI Widget will feed into the level shifters.  In addition, the 5V out from the MIDI Widget will power the level shifters and can optionally be used to power the RB4 kit with the help of a 3.3V voltage regulator.

MIDIWidget ($60) + Terminals ($20) + MIDI ports ($7) = $87.

A diagram showing how the MIDI in and outputs should be wired.

A example diagram showing how the MIDI in and outputs should be wired.

The actual MIDIWidget in practice.

The actual MIDIWidget in practice.

As far as configuring MIDIwidget, see below.  It’s important to set the Logic to Note On: Fixed Duration as a nearly instantaneous MIDI signal is confusing for the drum kit.  I set the output duration to 25ms for all outputs, but it’s possible a different duration might be appropriate. Also notice that the first output is inverted due to it being the kick pedal, which needs to pull down to ground from 3.3V to be triggered (see more on that down below).

The settings for my drum kit. Notice I set the output duration to 25ms. Also notice that the first output is inverted due to it being the kick pedal (see more on that down below)

The settings for my drum kit in the MIDIwidget configurator.

Level shifters

The RB4 circuit board runs primarily at 3.3V.  The output signals from the MIDIWidget are 5V.  While we might be able to get away with that, for correctness, let’s use some voltage translators.  I purchased some generic ones off Amazon since I wanted them right away, but if I had a few more days I’d probably order this 8-channel Bi-directional Logic Level Converter from Adafruit.

Cost = $8.00

The level shifters on a breadboard. Note the 5V feeds one side, and 3.3V on the other side should come from the controller. Also, both grounds should be connected together.

The level shifters on a breadboard … outputs from the MIDIWidget are connected in this picture, but the level shifted outputs to the RB4 controller board are not. Note the 5V from the MIDIWidget feeds one side of the board, and 3.3V on the other side should come from the controller or from a 5 to 3.3V regulator (there’s one in this picture but I haven’t wired it up yet). Both grounds should be connected together.

Rock Band 4 drum kit

From the level shifters, you’ll need to connect to the eight signal pads I’ve identified on the main RB4 drum kit controller board, as well as 3.3V and ground.  This will require tearing down the kit, which I outline below.

Other equipment

Screwdrivers (preferably some that are reasonably lengthy since some of the screw holes are deep.

Soldering station and solder

A spool of 22 gauge wire and wire strippers.

Some breadboards to help prototype everything.

Hot knife – to remove the controller portion of the kit.  I used the Weller WSB25 – Amazon link.


RB4 drum kit teardown

You can pull hard on the drum pads to remove them. Rubber stoppers may or may not come out along with the pad.

You can pull hard on the drum pads to remove them. Rubber stoppers may or may not come out along with the pad.

Here's what's under the drum pad. It's just a piezoelectric sensor that connects to a jumper in the kit.

Here’s what’s under the drum pad. It’s just a piezoelectric sensor that connects to a jumper in the kit.

On the rear of the kit as well as in the controller portion, there will be several screws to remove. Some holes will have strange looking things that look like screws, but the heads are shallow and won't fit anything you have anyway. Ignore them, they aren't actually screws.

On the rear of the kit as well as in the controller portion, there will be several screws to remove. Some holes will have strange looking things that look like screws, but the heads are shallow and won’t fit anything you have. Ignore them, they aren’t actually screws.

Under the pads there are foam blocks. Under the foam blocks, there are additional screws you will need to remove to separate the controller from the kit. One screw under the inner area of each block and one under the outer portion of the top and bottom block.

Under the pads there are foam blocks. Under the foam blocks, there are additional screws you will need to remove to separate the controller from the kit. One screw under the inner area of each block and one under the outer portion of the top and bottom block.

The controller has been separated from the rest of the kit. Unfortunately, the front of the controller is also a huge portion of the actual kit, so we'll need to cut it out by hand to make it more manageable.

The controller has been separated from the rest of the kit. Unfortunately, the front of the controller is also a huge portion of the actual kit, so we’ll need to cut the controller portion out by hand to make it more manageable.

Used a hot knife from Weller to cut away the controller front. Be very careful not to slice any wires you might need in the process!

Used a hot knife from Weller to cut away the controller front. Be very careful not to slice any wires you might need in the process!

Drum pads

The primary drum pads on the RB4 kit (red/yellow/blue/green) appear to have piezoelectric sensors that are connected to jumpers on the main board.  The signal from the pads is amplified (presumably to a peak of 3.3V) and then passed on.

In game, the four drum pads can also be triggered by pressing the front buttons of the controller.  Unfortunately, while it was easy to access the controller button solder points on the RB1 drum kit, there is no obvious way to do this on the RB4 kit.

Initially, I thought I was going to have to do something funky to simulate the piezo sensors (which are in the millivolt range).  However, after further examination, I realized that Mad Catz left some bare test pads next to each drum pad jumper that expose the point right after signal amplification and before it reaches the signal processor for the kit.  So we can simply pull up each test pad to 3.3V to trigger the respective drum.  Note: I am not going for any sort of velocity sensitivity in this mod.

Annotated image showing where to trigger the drum pads

Annotated image of the rear of the controller board showing where to trigger the drum pads

Cymbals and kick pedal

The cymbals for the RB4 kit attach to the back of the kit.  There is a small circuit board here that attaches to the main board via a ribbon cable.  It appears that the piezo amplification is happening on the peripheral board and simply comes back to the main board via the ribbon cable.

Triggering the cymbals works just like the drum pads.  We simply need to pull up each cymbal connection point to 3.3V.

The kick pedal works differently from the other pads.  Like the cymbals, it also has a small helper board at the peripheral input point that does the signal amplification.  However, at the main board, instead of poking the connection point with a 3.3V signal, the kick pedal is activated by pulling the kick pedal’s 3.3V line to ground.  To account for this, the MIDIWidget output for the kick pedal needs to be inverted.

rb4_drum_kit_front_annotated

Annotated image of the front of the controller board showing cymbal and kick connection points

3.3V and ground

As noted above, the 3.3V line is important.  I take ground from the negative terminal of the battery, and I take 3.3V from one of the solder points for the cymbal ribbon cable.  Note that the positive terminal from the battery is unregulated power, usually in the 2.4V range.  So you don’t want to use that.  You should also connect the grounds from both the controlelr and the MIDIwidget together.

It should be possible to completely self power the controller via the MIDI Widget by feeding the 5V out to a 3.3V voltage regulator, and then connecting that over to the positive battery terminal.  Obviously, you must remove the batteries if you do that.  Update: I did end up doing this and it works perfectly.

The whole shebang. It will look nicer if/when I wire the chips up on a protoboard and use some breakout boards so I can run a DB-15 cable between the individual parts.

The whole shebang. It will look nicer if/when I wire the chips up on a protoboard and use some breakout boards so I can run a DB-15 cable between the individual parts.


General comments and conclusion

I was rather pleased that I got this all to work, but then I realized the Rock Band 4 drum kit itself has actual serious problems.  In particular, it’s adding 100ms of latency and possibly dropping fast notes on the drum pads and kick pedal.  Context: regular e-drum kits have about 3 to 4 ms of latency.

How do I know the lag is this bad?  It’s honestly so bad that simple observation is all you need.  Also, in comparison, pressing the front face buttons has almost no latency at all.  If you calibrate with the buttons via the pads, the difference is quantifiable and I’ve run it several times to confirm the difference.

We know that the Xbox One team worked specifically to reduce latency in the wireless controller, so the latency coming from the RB4 drum kit is unnecessary.  There’s nothing special about the game that requires it.

Sadly, I can find no easy way to trigger the front buttons as a substitute for the drum pad sensors, short of soldering over the button pads.  At any rate, there is no obvious equivalent instant button for the cymbals/kick.

Is the latency coming from the Rock Band software itself?  Probably some, since the community hasn’t been able to calibrate A/V lag below 100ms.  But considering the buttons vs drum pad hits show a large difference in latency, it can’t be the only factor.

So what are my outs on this?  It’s possible there’s more that can be done with the surface mounted controller in the middle of the circuit board that would possibly allow zero lag triggering (ala the face buttons), but the solder points for that are so tiny that manually soldering to them is nearly impossible.  It’s probably easier to hope/wait for a fix.  The other option is to buy an old RB2 or RB3 controller along with a legacy adapter and mod that.

Whoever programmed the chip that is processing the incoming signal from the drum pads has made a horrendous mistake.  If this lag is not fixable via a firmware update, the controller is basically junk.

Having spent quite a bit of money and time on this hobby, I’m extremely disappointed in Harmonix for releasing defective hardware.  With this mod, I can play along with the game right now and it is enjoyable, but it is not as pleasant as Rock Band 3 was.  All I can do now is wait and hope a fix is forthcoming.

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