Afterburner Notes

Notes on my experience with RedOctane's Afterburner DDR pad

Summary

Overall, I'm quite happy with RedOctane's Afterburner pad. It looks like it'll be working for quite a while, it's (mostly) easy to repair, and it's enjoyable to use (although quite different from a soft pad). However, RedOctane's customer service was very slow and unresponsive, and dealing with them could have been quite frustrating if they weren't local.

Details

Experience with Red Octane

The short, short, form: nice guys, but if you're not local, prepare to be very patient.

In summary, their response to web forms or email was very quick; in person they were quite friendly and efficient; they often never answered the phone (and never returned voice mail); turn around on exchanges was extremely slow, and quality control appeared to be minimal.

Since I'm local to Red Octane, I was able to pick up my order the day I placed it [1]. That evening, I found out that the controller unit was broken (obviously damaged, and completely non-functional), and requested an RMA. I received an email response the next day, and a mailed packing label the following day (free shipping, but I dropped it by in person anyway). In theory, I could have walked off with an exchange unit, but I dropped by after they had locked down inventory [2]. Still, they said the replacement would ship out the next day.

A week later, they weren't answering the phone, or returning voice mail. They did quickly respond to an email asking about the status of the exchange with "will be shipped in 5-7 days" (although I suspect it was a form email). The next day they still weren't answering the phone, so I dropped by early enough that inventory wouldn't have been locked down, and picked up a replacement unit.


[1] I called to let them know I'd be by later in the day, so they could have the unit waiting for me (i.e., not locked up). No problem getting through on the phone.

[2] I'd said in the web return form I could come by in person, but that had apparently been ignored, and no one had mentioned it'd be possible to do an instant exchange if I called ahead, so I hadn't even tried.


Experience with the Afterburner

My previous experience was solely with soft pads, and it took a little bit to get used to the recessed arrows (and to wearing shoes rather than socks). Once I got used to it, though, it worked just fine. The buttons were all responsive, and the pad hardly moved at all on my minimal carpet. It's very convenient to store, as I can place it on its side, rather than having to keep it flat. The start/select buttons are annoying to use, as the controller is fairly fragile plastic, so I'm not comfortable with using my shoe to hit the buttons, and always have to lean over to press them (the cable connecting the controller to the pad is very short, so the controller has to be on the ground).

One thing about getting used to the pad - it's definitely an ongoing process. It took several days before I could handle hard songs, and weeks before I stopped missing arrows when I put my weight near, but not on, an arrow (generally on the up arrow, I would land on the edge of the raised center with my arch, and not manage to hit the arrow with my toes).

Construction of pad

After verifying that the pad worked, the first thing I did was to take it apart. The front comes apart very easily (36 bolts (not wood screws, so it doesn't hurt anything to take it apart)). The back, however, is completely covered in non-slip rubber, and impossible to take apart. Likewise, the bolts that hold together the outer frame have been drilled out, and are impossible to remove.

It's always funny to hear this referred to as a metal pad, as it's primarily wood. The base is one solid piece of what appears to be 1/2" wood. The raised sections are made with blocks of wood placed on top of the base, covered in sheet metal. The arrows are 1/8" polycarbonate on top of a thin foam layer (which has been glued in place).

Initially, the arrows were covered by a sheet of plastic, but polycarbonate breaths, creating bubbles in the plastic, and I removed it. Likewise, the sheet metal raised areas were covered in plastic which slowly came off from use, and I eventually just removed it all. All the plastic peels right off, if you take it slowly and carefully.

The arrow switches have two parts - on the bottom, in a pocket inside the foam layer, is a board with two interlocking lines of copper (which don't touch), one connected to ground and the other to the current source. The bottom of the arrow has a rectangle of copper foil, which forms a bridge between the source and ground lines when it comes into contact with both. The foil appears to be pretty fragile, and it's been developing creases with use. The bottom board has three wires soldered to it (one red wire, two connected black wires) that come up from below the wood base (so it's not possible to get to most of the wiring).

The X and O switches are on raised sections, beneath sheet metal, but are otherwise slightly reduced copies of the arrow switches. They require a bit more of a deliberate step to activate than the arrows.

Modding of pad

One problem I had with putting the pad back together was deciding how tight the bolts were supposed to be. I eventually went with fairly tight, and this led to a problem - it caused the edge of the metal corners to come into contact with the arrow which resulted in the polycarbonate being scraped off during use. Attempting to put the bolts in less tightly caused them to come loose very quickly. Next, I tried putting various spacers between the metal corner and the arrow.

Eventually, I settled on 1/2" rubber washers (the first I ran across, so there may be a better size, but 1" was too large), placed between the metal corner and the arrow, with the bolts very tight. This mostly keeps the bolts from working lose, and causes the center of the arrow to bow up slightly, so it's possible it's more responsive. You can generally find rubber washers in the plumbing section of hardware stores.

Pad wear and tear

One thing to watch for is bolts working loose. Another, to my surprise, is buildup of gunk on the stepping surfaces. I originally noticed this when my shoes started squeaking while playing, and it eventually got to the point where the arrows were tacky, and my shoes would stick slightly to them. At that point, it was obvious what was going on, and simply going over all the stepping surfaces with a damp cloth was sufficient to clean everything. This might be less of a problem for others - I generally play for about an hour a day as a form of exercise, and leave a fair bit of sweat on the pad.

Dirt turns out to be another problem, and a good reason not to use outside shoes on the pad. Over time, grit carried in on the bottom of my shoes accumulated in cracks and crevices in the pad and started abrading the polycarbonate, which left the arrows covered in a fine (and slippery) dust. Cleaning the dirt out required taking the pad as apart as I could and vacuuming, in addition to wiping all the surfaces clean.

Two of the polycarbonate arrows developed a stress fracture. This turned out to be caused by hitting a raised point on the underside of the arrow, where wires are soldered to the circuitboard, and too much solder was used, creating a raised area. This did turn into a long term problem (the fracture spread), but was mostly fixed by removing the excess solder (the fracture still spread, but much more slowly, and I suspect an undamaged arrow would not become damaged).


Dave Flowers / flowers@hagsc.org