Making the most of DDR arcade pads

Looking back to mid 2006, I bought a soft pad and learned a few tricks at home before falling for arcade’s a few months later. Arcade pads are extremely solid and more reliable for advanced play, plus they last much longer. The problem is, as sturdy as they seem, they still prone to damages over time. This answers why it’s important to run regular maintenance and apply mods to support gameplay performance.

This article aims to help arcade operators or new private owners with desire to improve dancing experience. This is not a month’s job, neither an all-nighter. You need to make a plan for the time, budget, and amount of energy you are willing to spend. If you get this right, it probably will only take a couple of weeks (considering you have a day job) and should cost you less than US$100 (hint: no broken sensors/ panels + no countersinking).

DDR arcade pads in active duty

How they function:

We want things to work and meet our expectations, the same principle applies to DDR machine. Let me ask you something: how many times you’ve been put to a difficult situation by a bad pad (aside from improper footing technique)? Trust me, I feel the pain since it’s very infrequent to find a cab with decent pads in Indonesia. Even if we do, they won’t last very long due to poor maintenance (simply ignorance) over the years.

It’s common for many players use an ample amount of bodyweight to simply hold a freeze arrow, as well as immense energy expenditure to cheat death random misses. I know one local player who still capable of making AAAs (PFCs) even on the most horrendously ill-fated pads in the country, unfortunately not all of us are variants like him (beware of pruning). Now what makes a pad a bad boy?

The diagram of a DDR pad, showing core components and feet contact (trigger) zones

As we see in the diagram, a DDR pad (e.g P1 or P2) comprised of 4 arrow panels (left, down, up, right) with four pressure-sensitive sensors installed underneath each of them. Although you may step anywhere on its surface and still trigger a response, it is best to hit close to where the sensors are (see: trigger zones). Pro players usually make use of both primary and secondary zones and we want to pay attention to this.

After prolonged use, L-bracket screws often get loose over time and may cause the them to fall off, consequently leaving the sensor disconnected to the panel above it. This will result in significant pressure drop leading to poor step detection thus ruining our gameplay. But worry not, an issue like this should be easy to spot by noticing sunken surface level when you step on a trigger zone. Just put the screws back in and you will be good to go.

DDR play method comparison: barefoot VS wearing shoes

Next thing we should be aware of is our playing method: barefoot VS wearing shoes, because they will influence our perception of pad sensitivity differently. You are free to choose which one you prefer more, but I recommend you to get a pair of DDR-compatible shoes (any brand or model will do, as long as they are lightweight and flexible enough to bend), this will keep your feet from getting hurt.

But remember, playing with shoes on will have a slight impact (negatively) on pad sensitivity compared to playing barefoot (which can trigger the sensor more easily; no restrain from shoe sole), in this case you might want to later adjust your mod carefully. Watch practical tips from Dr.D’s guide or Leishen’s guide to get a pair (and don’t forget to play it flat).

Opening and cleaning a DDR arcade pad

Disassemble and cleaning

After successfully securing a private cab, I finally had the chance to fully experiment on the pads to suit my needs. Before we start, there are tools and materials you need to collect prior to disassembling.

Primary tools/ substances required:

1. A P3 screwdriver to open main panel screws (for standard screws; if still intact)
2. A P2 screwdriver to open L-bracket screws
3. A hex key set if there are hex-shaped screws
4. A vaccuum cleaner with micro nozzle/ head + micro paint brush
5. Wet wipes + napkins (optionally: isopropyl alcohol)
6. WD-40 lubricant or equal to it

Optional tools/ substances that might come in handy:

1. Metal buff & polish + a piece of clean cloth >> to make your metal panels shinier
2. Cajuput oil/ gasoline >> for easier removal of old L-bracket foam tape glues (they are somewhat hard to peel)
3. Sand paper (with fine grit 320-400) >> to remove excessive rust from internal chamber
4. Spray paint >> to cover rusts (if any)
5. Acrylic/ glass polish >> to make your arrow panels shinier

There maybe other materials not listed here that you may need, especially when you plan to go all out (let’s say a full restoration job which include total disassemble & repaint; if you have the time). But if not, this guide is the one you need for now.

Disassembling core metal components

After removing every single arrow & metal panels, it will come as no surprise for you to see so much dusts accumulated inside for years (especially if you bought it directly from an arcade). We can start from turning on a vacuum cleaner to get rid of the big clumps, use small nozzle to reach narrow gaps. Still, it is impossible to vacuum every single dust this way, especially if total restoration is not the plan.

I suggest using wet wipes as a method to remove sticky dusts from each sensor, sensor holder, cable, rubber holder, inner cavity, and even pad I/O board as needed (you may need to wipe them at least twice before drying them up using napkin). This will save you a lot of time and still make them clean enough for future maintenance. FYI wet wipes has good fiber resistance when swiped against multiple surfaces and sticks better to micro dusts.

For all panels and metal corner brackets (triangle-shaped), You can wash them with water, soap, and gently brush before wiping/ drying them up using clean microfiber cloth. Beneath every metal panels are metal supports made from (what’s looks like) galvanized-iron, and because they are prone to rust I can’t recommend you to use water against them, but wet wipes/ alcohol will still do.

I had to (costly) force my way just to remove ONE stripped screw

Sometimes you will encounter stripped screws (worn out/ damaged heads), making them very difficult or even impossible to remove. When it happens, lubricate their edges with WD-40 spray, leave them for a minute then try to unscrew them (you’ll need to use correct screwdriver size; if not, you may damage the head even further). In my case, I removed nearly all of them except one (I tried hammering and hand-drilling it to no avail).

If the mission still fail, no cease fire do not worry… there is one last option on the table: grind it with cutting wheel. But be very careful, you only have one chance to do it properly (it has very small surface), and be warned for hot sparks that will come from high-speed cutting. Make sure to properly install the wheel prior to grinding (it should be locked firm), we want no accident here. After a successful grind (as shown in the third picture above), place a medium/ big size flat-head screwdriver inside the new path before knocking it gently counter-clockwise. The screw should open in no time and you can put down your weapons.

Cleaning process for metal components

On the other hand, L-brackets will need foam tape replacement (their old ones might be tattered enough) before washing them the same way you did to metal panels. You can put some cajuput oil (or even better: gasoline) on it to weaken the glue-bond and use your nails to peel them from the edges. It took me a few hours and some injured fingers to remove 32 of them.

Turns out there were four sensors with broken wires + three missing metal corner brackets (I replaced them with imitation build)

Assessment

Afterwards, we need to gather all disassembled components and group them based on type in one place (easier to keep count prior to re-assemble). For the sensors, we need to test every one of them before putting back the L-brackets on top (do it either in game mode or foot panel check menu), make sure they are properly connected to the pad. You may want to swap their positions by placing the most sensitive unit closer to center metal panel on both for P1 & P2 pad (and put the bad ones further).

DDR pad foot lamp tech comparison | Left: CCFL (neon – on Gen 1 cabs) | Right: LED (on Gen 2 J-cab)

After that, we need to test all foot lamps (there are eight of them), whether they are based on CCFL-tech (used in Gen-1 Japanese/ Korean black cab; except some SOLO cabs) or LED-tech (used in Gen-2 Japanese red cab and above; except 2013 white cab). You can opt to replace them with 4W 12v LED lights or other compatible parts (FYI LEDs provides cleaner look and saves more electricity). Lastly, you might want to cover rusted surfaces (if any) inside the cavity with spray paint (don’t forget to cover other components with newspaper to exclude them from the paint job).

Pad condition tend to influence gameplay performance

Setting goals

In general, we yearn to improve how the pads should serve us: by responding well to our feet’s command. I aim to increase their sensitivity while try to avoid any misfire or getting stuck in the process. This way I can save a lot of energy by not having to stomp every time an arrow appear on screen, because all we need is a gentle step to trigger a response.

An side-view illustration of DDR pad’s surface level | Left: Unwanted condition | Right: Preferred condition

Overused arrow panels will likely have lower/ sunken surface level compared to metal panels as shown on illustration A, caused by years of stomping (remember, they are still rubbers inside). That is why we need to cheat a little by raising them up properly with filler materials (something like illustration B) so that the arrow panels are almost on the same level as the metal ones. Because panels with lower surface tend to draw more energy from each step aside from being less comfortable (imagine walking on uneven floor tiles), that’s why we want it flat.

Keep in mind that we also need to make it convenient for future maintenance, e.g.: cleaning, replacing parts, or making further adjustments.

Components were collected in one place, grouped per type, ready for re-assembly

Avengers: Re-assemble

This is where the (more) fun part start, I assume you already finished your cleaning job and preparation for re-assembly. This is what you dreamed of, do not hold the urge.

Successfully installed a PIU sensor to replace the dead one

Say, you have bad/ dead sensors in dire need of replacement, all you need to do is swap them with new ones. FYI there are two types of sensor: pressure-sensitive silicon switch and force sensitive resistor (FSR). At the moment, I have only had the experience with first type, so I can’t really say about the second one.

For silicon switch, there are some options:

1. Original Konami sensor (hard to obtain in my experience)
2. Third party sensor (you can get them from ddrpad.com or arcadespareparts.com)
3. ITG sensor
4. PIU sensor

I tried buying the first option via a local arcade machine distributor (contacted Konami, only to hear a “Nope, we will not sell it to your country”), and I was still pondering to take the second option. Then my distributor agent offered me to use PIU sensors instead, which I later installed one in my pad. In general, a PIU sensor offer better pressure-sensitivity (a bit lengthier than first option but will still fit in; also feels more tender) compared to DDR’s. But since I am still using the original sensor channel/ holder for my pads, I needed to intensify the pressure specifically in that area (simply putting more foam layers will do the trick).

Keep in mind that a PIU sensor uses a different plug/ connector from DDR’s, so either you obtain JST, YLP-02V 4.5mm connectors (DDR’s default) or you may simply buy equivalent connectors that support 2-wires (I bought mine here, you’ll need to buy in pair: female + male plug). Afterwards, cut the pad’s & sensor’s original wire plugs and replace them with the one you bought (consider to get a crimping tool if you have a hard time with it). I later chose the second option to replace the rest of my broken sensors.

In total I used four types of foam tape + a marking tape

I have experimented with several types of foam tape including magic tape, each of them possesses distinctive property (thickness and stiffness). For more convenience in installation, I recommend you to get 24mm variant of all tapes because it will fit the L-bracket’s width perfectly (no need to cut the excess). My method is a personalized version of Dr.D’s guide to DDR pad modification.

List of tapes used in my experiment:

1. Magic tape
2. 3M Scotch mounting tape
3. 3M PE foam tape
4. 3M VHB tape (the red one)
5. Generic marking tape

Tape usage per layer in general for L-brackets (1 = bottom position; 4 = top position):

Layer 1 = Magic tape (much easier for later removal rather than permanent/ glued tapes)
Layer 2 & 3 = 3M Scotch mounting tape (I prefer harder tapes as possible; last longer + better response time)
Layer 4 etc = Marking tape (replacing layer 3’s top coating)

Tape usage per layer in general for rubber holders (yellow hard rubbers placed at every corner):

Layer 1 = Magic tape
Layer 2 & 3 = 3M VHB tape
Layer 4 = 3M PE foam tape

You may try different combination of layering depending on each sensor’s condition, for example a very sensitive sensor won’t need thick layers (you may reduce 1 layer of 3M scotch tape) as much as insensitive ones, then you can add marking tape layer(s) to make further adjustments as needed. You’ll want the panels to be very sensitive (or just enough for you) without them sticking up (turned on all the time) or getting unintentional/ random triggers when playing. Remember, you don’t need full size cut of L-bracket’s length to make micro-adjustments with marking tape (sometimes half or one third of it would suffice).

Also, be careful when layering the rubber holders as we don’t want to make them too high or too low, just make their height about the same level as the L-brackets (or very slightly lower; definitely not higher as they tend to inflict insensitiveness on secondary trigger zone when you step on it). Feel free to experiment on them as you feel most comfortable (FYI I spent an average of 2-3 hours per panel; sometimes more).

Foam modding a DDR arcade pads

This is what my pad looked like after applying foam-modification, as you see I covered each L-bracket’s top layer with marking tape (because 3M’s cover layer will gradually peel off over times). In my experience, foam layers grants sound dampening property when you stomp on the panel, making your neighbors’ honeymoon less miserable happier.

I replaced all panel screws with a pack of M6 countersink 12mm type at first (pics from ddrpad.com)

Next thing we better do is to replace all pad screws with new ones, preferably made from stainless steel (stronger; rust-free) rather than galvanized-iron. Whenever possible get extra-thin low profile screws (so you don’t need further countersinking), if not then a pack of M6 countersink 10-12mm screws will make a good friend (way better if you have time for countersink job; if not it’s still better to have them rather than default bulbous screws).

For easier and faster tighten/ release job, I strongly suggest to get a Phillips head screw compared to hex one. It is best to not overtighten the screws because they have the potential to create unintentional extra pressure to the sensor (may cause them to stuck; especially when you excessively raised the L-brackets).

Legacy model of DDR pad is working exceptionally well (superior to factory default due to proper modification & maintenance)

Testing & Iteration

After all job’s done, you will need to perform quality check. I recommend you to test them via game mode compared to foot panel check menu (much more convenient because we can see foot lamps turned on when we trigger each sensor). We want balance here, avoid overly sensitive panel as they tend to cause problems (misfires or getting stuck). Use your body weight to stress-test every corners by holding a ‘freeze arrow’ for a while and see if they are not stuck or having delayed release at all after you remove your feet (even millisecond stuck/ delay can cause huge problem in gameplay). Re-adjust foam layers as you see fit to alleviate sensitivity problems when they occur.

Result

It may not become the best pads on Earth, but it’s definitely yours to enjoy. Perhaps the next thing you will need is to improve foot technique or getting more mix to run on the cab to compliment the already-awesome pads!

Future upgrades

Your pads won’t stay young forever, regular exercise means regular maintenance too. You may need to replace some foam tapes (or simply add more layers) every few months to retain equal performance level. If an arrow panel becomes curved, you may want to rotate them by 180 degrees to save money (if not, it won’t hurt to buy a new one).

Only if you have the will, consider to repaint the bars if you see sign of rust, perhaps giving a good polish on both metal & arrow panels too. You can use any brand of metal polish & some glass polish to get rid of minor scratches and make them shinier.

Thank you for reading, I hope you find this story useful.

One thought on “Making the most of DDR arcade pads

  1. Couldn’t imagine myself fixing those unresponsive pads, but great job! Having those machine all by yourself. Could make you save so much money from now on 👍👍

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: