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electronic MUSICIAN

Roland HPD-15 HANDSONIC

By Larry the O | April 1, 2001

Although major manufacturers of MIDI equipment have graced musicianswith keyboard, guitar, wind, and drum controllers, there has been anotable shortage of products devoted to hand percussion. Until now.

Roland's HPD-15 HandSonic percussion controller and sound module isa self-contained electronic percussion instrument (see Fig. 1). Its15-part pad, dual ribbons, and D-Beam controllers provide extensivecontrol capabilities. The HandSonic contains more than 650 soundsranging from ethnic drums to instrumental loops. It also featuresonboard reverb and multi-effects, a 4-track pattern sequencer, and ahost of other goodies. It comes in a 16-by-16-inch package that is lessthan 4 inches thick and weighs about six and a half pounds.

The HandSonic looks like a silver rectangle overlapped by a 10-inchcircle that contains the 15-pad playing surface (see Fig. 2). It hasfour large pads (identified as A1, A2, A4, and A5) with a circularfifth pad (A3) in the middle and an arc of ten small pads across thetop (B1-5 on the left and C1-5 on the right). The A, B, and C groupsare referred to as “pad sets.”

PLAYING THE PADS

A different sound can be assigned to each of the HandSonic's 15pressure-sensitive rubber pads; the sound is triggered when the pad isstruck. The two largest pads, at the bottom of the unit, have twozones: center and edge, each of which has a different sound. The edgesound is not programmable; it can be played only if whatever isassigned to the pad includes an edge sound. I would have preferred theability to freely assign any sound to the edge zone.

The pads can be played with hands, fingers, or even mallets. Rolanddoesn't recommend playing with sticks because the trigger sheet underthe pads can be dented. If you want to play with sticks, you're betteroff with a pad that's designed for them.

I found fingers to be the most effective means of playing; when Iused my hands on any pads other than A1 and A5 I frequently triggeredmore than one pad in a single stroke. In some cases, this produced anice layering effect, but I received the best results when using myindex and middle fingers together. On pad sets B and C, the two-fingertechnique was the only way I could trigger pads one at a time. Once Imastered the two-finger technique, I could play fast flurries overseveral pads as easily as I could play broken syncopations on one ortwo pads.

Striking any pad produces immediate visual feedback. Above and tothe right of the playing surface, a graphic representation of the padsurface contains five LEDs, one for each A pad, that flash as thecorresponding pad is struck. Additional LEDs embedded in the rim flashas the B and C pads are struck. During performance, the LEDs mostlycontribute to the “gee-whiz” factor. They're more usefulduring editing because they indicate which pad is currentlyselected.

The Roll/Hold button, located just above the B pads, activates asustaining function. For short sounds, a percussive roll plays as longas this button is pressed; its speed is programmable. Rather than beingrolled, longer sounds are sustained for as long as the button ispressed.

Each pad is assigned a trigger mode and a velocity curve and isconfigured with four triggering and sensitivity parameters. There arethree pad trigger modes: Shot, Gate, and Trig. Shot plays a sound oncefrom start to finish. Gate plays a sound as long as you press on thepad, so it's useful only for sustained sounds. Trig plays a sound untilthe pad is struck a second time, so it is also useful only forsustaining sounds. There are ten velocity curves, including linear,exponential, logarithmic, spline (S-curve), and special-purposecurves.

The global Pad Sensitivity parameter offers two settings each forhands and fingers. There is a noticeable but not radical differencebetween the least setting (Hand1) and the most sensitive setting(Finger2), but the differences between these and the two settings inthe middle are too subtle to seem useful.

One of my favorite performance-oriented features is the ability totrigger pattern playback with the B and C pads.

OTHER DIMENSIONS

A Dimension Beam (D-Beam) infrared controller is in the top centerof the unit, just above the LCD. A ribbon controller is located oneither side of the pads. In addition to triggering sounds, the D-Beamand ribbons can be used as modulation controllers.

The ribbon controllers are oriented vertically. I generally preferribbons with horizontal orientation because that requires a morenatural wrist motion. With the HandSonic, however, I found that becauseI often stuck my finger out between beats to use one of the ribbons,their vertical orientation worked well.

Trigger modes and velocity curves are also assigned to the D-Beamand ribbons, but their trigger modes are different from the pads'trigger modes. Some settings trigger when you simply touch a ribbon orwhen your hand enters the D-Beam's proximity. Others trigger when youmove your hand along the controller.

Near each ribbon are a Sound button and a Hold button, which lightup when you press them. When the Sound button is lit, the ribbontriggers the sound that's assigned to that ribbon. When the ribbon isacting as a controller, the Hold button causes the most recent value atthe moment you lift your finger to be retained. The Sound and Holdbuttons can both be lit to provide simultaneous functions. The D-Beam'sSound and Control buttons provide similar functions. The ribbons andD-Beam can alter a variety of modulating parameters.

The D-Beam is definitely fun, and it's a great visual element inlive performance. As with much else on the HandSonic, though, theplaying technique is fussy; it's extremely easy to accidentally triggera sound whenever a hand or even a sleeve inadvertently passes over it.Tweaking the sensitivity helps some, but you must always be respectfulof the D-Beam's “air space.”

For even more control functionality, an external trigger jack on therear panel accepts one or, when used with a Y-cable, two trigger inputs(see Fig. 3). Also on the rear panel are a footswitch jack that acceptstwo footswitches when used with a Y-cable, as well as an expressionpedal jack that accepts a hi-hat pedal. A comprehensive set ofsensitivity, triggering, and function parameters configure all of thoseexternal inputs to trigger sounds and control them, sometimessimultaneously.

ONBOARD SOUNDS

The HandSonic includes a healthy and well-organized selection ofsounds, specifically 600 pad instruments and 54 backing instruments.The pad instruments are grouped into nine categories: Latin, African,Indian, Asian, Orchestral Percussion, Drums, Dance, SFX, and Others. Inaddition, 99 preset patterns can be triggered from pad sets B and C.These patterns are mostly loops in various styles, with a smattering of“OneShot” and “Tap” sounds to round out thecollection. The backing instruments are primarily keyboards, idiophones(marimba, vibes, and so on), bass, guitar, and winds.

Pads or other controllers are assigned to trigger sounds. Thoseassignments, along with the associated sound parameters, onboardcontroller assignments, and rear-panel jack assignments, make up apatch. Roland has created 160 preset patches and provided locations inmemory for 80 user patches.

Many of the preset patches are quite good, with logical layouts andassignments. After playing with the HandSonic, composer and EMcontributor Peter Drescher gave two good examples:

“The pads of the main conga patch (Preset 01) are set upperfectly for playing [the HandSonic] like the real thing,”Drescher says. “The lower left pad (A1) toggles the‘mute’ sound on the lower right pad, so when you hit righthand down/left hand up, you get the open ‘boop’ sound, butright hand down/left hand down produces the muted ‘pock’sound.

“A bunch of other patches are amazingly good, too,particularly the tabla,” Drescher says. “Again, the layoutof the pads is perfect for the various strokes, or ‘bols.’When you hit the lower right pad (A5) in the middle, you get‘din,’ but if you hit the same pad along the edge, you getthe higher harmonic ‘tin’ — just like the real thing.[Roland] definitely had some real drummers' input on the design of thisthing.”

The Timpani preset features a great hand-damping effect, with thesuddenness of the damping controlled by pressure: pressing the padlightly dampens the sound gently, and pressing hard damps it abruptly.Getting the most out of this sort of programming requires practice, buta great deal of expressiveness is possible. Don't forget that thedifficulty of achieving this level of expression has always been theAchilles' heel of electronic instruments.

Although many presets are well laid out, a few are less impressive.For instance, pads A2, A3, and A4 in Preset 03 (Timbales) have timbalehand-hit sounds that are so much softer than the regular stick-hittimbale sounds on A1 and A5 that I simply didn't use them.

Patches are collected into the same groups as the pad instrumentsounds, with the addition of a tenth group called “Loops.”The Loops patches are interesting. Typically, pad sets B and C are setup to trigger patterns; I could strike one of those pads and then jamover the pattern on pad set A. Some of the preset patterns loop, andothers play once through. If you want to make a one-shot preset patternloop infinitely or change its length, you can copy it to a user patternand then edit it however you please.

The loops in a preset are often unrelated to each other in terms oftempo or feel, making it impossible to jam over one and then triggeranother and jam over it. Once a loop starts playing, you can changepatches to play instruments that are different from the sounds beingplayed by the loop.

On balance, the factory patches are excellent. If you simply want touse the HandSonic as a substitute for a variety of percussioninstruments, the factory patches should be sufficient.

Tonal instruments, such as Backing Instruments or pitched OrchestralPercussion, present additional technical challenges in performance. Theeasiest way to describe the problem is to say that playing a keyboardsound on the HandSonic is the evil twin of playing drum sounds on akeyboard. Learning to play complex figures and even chords using tonalinstruments on the HandSonic is possible. However, it's much lessawkward to play a MIDI controller that provides a technique that'scloser to the technique associated with the original instrument.

EVERYTHING CHANGES

The clear emphasis in the HandSonic is real-time performance, andthat emphasis is reflected in its controls. The simplest controlfunction is changing patches.

Three methods are available for manually selecting a patch. With anyof these methods, press the User and Preset buttons below the graphicarc to toggle between the two patch banks. Patches can also be calledwith MIDI program changes from an external device.

Here's the method I used the most: In the upper right corner of theHandSonic's front panel, a graphic arc is divided into ten“slices,” one for each of the ten patch groups. Each slicehas an LED that lights to indicate when its patch group is selected. Atthe top corners of this graphic are Group + and Group - buttons to stepthrough the slices. Inside the arc, at the bottom, are Patch Number +and - buttons. Simply select the group you want and then step to thedesired patch number.

The second method employs the Patch Sel button just above and to theright of the pad array. Holding the Patch Sel button and striking oneof the B or C pads selects one of the ten groups, and pads A2 and A4serve as the patch number increment and decrement buttons.

The third method for selecting patches requires you to use the dataentry dial, just to the left and above the Patch Sel button, to scrollthrough your choices.

The HandSonic lets you construct ten 32-step patch chains and thenrecall them with footswitches and group selection techniques. Thisprovides a way to easily step through a collection of patches in anyorder you wish.

EDITING TECHNIQUES

The current patch and all parameter edits are shown on theHandSonic's 2-line-by-16-character backlit LCD. The display's size isjust barely adequate for the task, forcing you to step through lots ofscreens to perform edits.

In addition to a variety of options for changing patches, theHandSonic offers numerous approaches to editing. In each method a pador controller is struck to select a parameter before its values can bechanged.

Pressing the Edit button puts the HandSonic into EZ Edit mode, thehighest editing level. EZ Edit lets you edit basic level, pan, andeffects parameters of pad sets or patches. The other editing schemeslet you edit individual pads or controllers. The Parameter buttonslocated below the LCD step through the available parameters, and thedata entry dial alters parameter values.

The second and fastest method of editing uses the three semisoftRealtime Modify (RTM) knobs. A select button steps through three layersof control definitions for the RTM knobs, each knob performing a singlefunction per layer. This three-by-three matrix proves to be a goodcompromise between dedicated and soft functionality. It lets youquickly access a small set of parameters with only three knobs, yet itprovides a fair degree of control depth.

An RTM knob becomes active as soon as it's moved, and the associatedparameter value jumps to the knob's current position rather thanstarting from its current value. That makes it hard to execute slightadjustments to current values.

For the lowest level of tweaking, pressing the Edit button twiceputs the HandSonic into full-on Edit mode. Again, the Parameter buttonsand dial are used to select and alter parameters.

Several shortcuts have been implemented for faster editing. Forexample, holding down one parameter button and pressing the other skipsto the first setting in the next group of parameters. Holding down asingle parameter button scrolls though the menu, but the rate ofscrolling remains constant no matter how long you hold the button.Consequently, I discovered that multiple button presses are the fastestand most reliable way to make edits. In contrast, the shortcut forjumping through values by large increments is quite useful.

TWISTING UP SOUNDS

Each sound has its own set of parameters, including level, pitchshift, pan, decay, color, and sweep. The pitch shift sounds good evenat the extremes, up to two octaves in either direction. Panningincludes modes that cause the sound to either alternate between leftand right or to appear in a random location in the stereo field eachtime it's triggered. Color is a lowpass filter with a nice, warmquality; it becomes resonant at its most negative values.

The HandSonic has a versatile but step-intensive modulation scheme.Each controller has several parameters that enable the transmission ofits control signals; correspondingly, each sound lets you enable itsreception of control signals (see Fig. 4).

Here's an example of setting up modulators: To control the pitch ofthe sound assigned to pad A5 with the right-hand ribbon, enter fullEdit mode, touch the right ribbon, scroll to the Pitch Tx parameter,and set it to On. Then touch the pad, scroll to Pitch Rx, and set thatto On. Finally, scroll to Pitch Rx range and set the pitch shiftrange.

If you're using Control Tx, you have to choose one destinationparameter to control from a list of available choices in thecontroller's edit parameters and then turn on Control Rx in thedestination's edit parameters. If you want to use a pad or controllerto modulate a sound and the sound happens to be triggered by the samepad or controller, you must also enable the Rx Self parameter.

A less confusing and menu-intensive solution should have beenpossible, but the small display makes that difficult. Also useful wouldbe the ability to transmit more than one control parameter per pad orcontroller — level and filter cutoff, for example, so the soundwould get brighter as it gets louder. Still, the system remainspowerful enough to allow control of parameters such as reverb sendlevel and sequence tempo.

A single LFO with nine waveforms can modulate pitch, filter cutoff,volume, and multi-effects. Other controllers can be assigned tomodulate the LFO modulation depth on those parameters. Unfortunately,the LFO doesn't sync to the sequencer or external sources.

AFTER EFFECTS

The HandSonic features dedicated reverb and multi-effectsprocessors, and there is a fair degree of crossover between them. Forinstance, the reverb processor has room, stage, plate, hall, and twodelay algorithms, and the multi-effects processor has two reverbs andseven delays among its 28 algorithms. However, there are no duplicatesbetween the two processors' algorithms.

In addition to the reverb and delays, the multi-effects includecompression, distortion, chorus, flanging and phasing, ring modulation,Lo-Fi, an enhancer, and several kinds of EQ and filtering.

The effects' quality ranges from acceptable to very good. The reverbis nicely dense and somewhat colored, though not offensively so, but ithas too much noise and graininess in the decay. The flanging, phasing,and chorusing effects generally have a pleasing quality. Thedistortion, like most digital distortion, is harsh and unpleasantunless the high end is rolled off significantly.

There are three strong pluses for the HandSonic's onboard effects:the variety, the real-time modulation possibilities, and the fact thattwo processors are included. Each effect has specific parameters thatare available for modulation by the LFO or controllers.

For noncritical applications, such as most club gigs, theHandSonic's effects are fine. For studio recording or concertperformances, you'll want to employ higher-quality external reverb.

SEQUENCING PATTERN

The HandSonic's 4-track pattern sequencer lets you build patterns aslong as 99 bars on two percussion tracks and two melody tracks. Onlypad instruments are available for the percussion tracks, and onlybacking instruments are available for the melody tracks. Both user andpreset patches are present.

Loop recording is supported. You can also overdub on successivepasses until you hit the 64-voice limit. There are 99 preset patternsin several styles and memory locations for 99 user patterns. The presetpatterns work well for practicing and other purposes.

Editing sequences, like editing patch parameters, requires a lot ofstepping through the menus, which is difficult during a real-timeperformance. Real-time sequence editing is possible once you learn howto do it, especially if some sequence parameters (tempo, length, soundassignments for the tracks, and so forth) are defined in advance.

Although the interface is a little awkward, I was impressed with howdense and how long a sequence I could construct with just four tracks.Sequences can also be dumped into and loaded from external sequencersthrough MIDI.

I/O OPTIONS

Speaking of MIDI, all the pads and controllers make the HandSonicvery attractive as a MIDI controller. Although it's well suited tocontrolling external instruments, it has a few limitations. Forinstance, I'd like to be able to assign the edge zone of the largestpads to transmit a different MIDI note number on a different MIDIchannel than the center zone.

Transmitting Note On and Note Off is no problem; each pad orcontroller (including controllers from the rear panel jacks) can beassigned a MIDI note and gate time, but all note data is sent on asingle MIDI channel. However, each track of the sequencer can send andreceive on any single MIDI channel.

The D-Beam and ribbons can send Control Change messages, but thecontroller numbers are fixed (CC 81-83), and there are no range orminimum and maximum value settings. The expression pedal jack sendsmessages on CC 4. You can also send Polyphonic Aftertouch from thecontrollers or the pads.

The HandSonic has only two MIDI jacks: In and Out/Thru. Out/Thru isa misnomer, as is the SoftThru on/off setting that switches itsfunction. The most accurate description would be Out/Merge. WithSoftThru set to off, only HandSonic output is sent; setting SoftThru toon merges messages entering the MIDI In port with messages generated bythe HandSonic.

The HandSonic's audio outputs are a stereo pair of unbalanced¼-inch phone jacks as well as a ¼-inch stereo headphone jack.Also present is a stereo ¼-inch phone input labeled Mix In; thisjack lets you combine a signal from another sound source, such as a CDplayer, with the HandSonic's sounds.

This audio input is great for playing over recorded material ormixing in the output of another player's instrument for jamming. TheMix In jack is probably useful for a host of other applications,especially for DJs.

MINOR CONCERNS

Apparently, Roland never considered that you might want to play withthe HandSonic sitting on your lap. Its flat bottom makes it awkward toplay the way you would play most hand drums. The HandSonic is designedto sit on a tabletop or a stand, like a typical drum padcontroller.

The HandSonic brings with it an old nemesis, the dreaded wall wart.The wall wart is a particularly unfortunate choice. Roland was one ofthe first companies to purvey the greatly preferable “lump in theline” approach; why wasn't this type of power supply used for theHandSonic? Wall warts offer poor functionality for the user, especiallywhen the cable is as short as the HandSonic's power cable. Plan to usean extension cord with the HandSonic onstage. The only alternative isto have a power strip within arm's length.

Perhaps as a slight penance for the wall wart, Roland has provided asmall lock that prevents the power cable from being inadvertentlypulled out. This is a nice gesture, but it's more likely that the wallwart will get pulled out of the extension cord.

The user manual contains excellent diagrams, lists eachuser-programmable parameter, provides complete documentation of theMIDI implementation, and has a reasonable index; these strengths areall worth acknowledging. Unfortunately, the user manual also suffersoccasionally from awkward and unclear wording, which is apparently theresult of a poor final edit. After so many years of providingdocumentation for music technology products, Roland has little excusefor sentences that don't make sense.

IS THIS COOL OR WHAT?

The HandSonic is really a gas to play. It feels great: the pads areeasy on the hands and the rim around the pads is rounded so you don'tbruise yourself. The sounds respond to the pads in a very expressivemanner. I love all of the alternate control sources: ribbons, D-Beam,and all the rear-panel jacks.

The breadth of the sound set is impressive and gives the instrumenta lot of range. With only a few exceptions (I could lose the thundersound forever and never miss it), the quality of the sounds ishigh.

As a performance instrument, the HandSonic offers a lot of easilyaccessible flexibility. Playing the HandSonic requires that you developand practice some technical finesse, but it's nothing too difficult tomaster.

With all of the included extras, such as the sequencer, effects, andMix In jack, HandSonic is well suited for a variety of gigs. It couldserve for DJ performances, as an adjunct to a drum kit or a synthesizerrig, or simply as a substitute for carrying lots of acoustic percussioninstruments, just to name a few possible uses.

The HandSonic's high degree of utility and functionality, combinedwith a truly awesome fun factor, makes it a wonderful and uniqueaddition to anyone's musical collection.


Larry the O is a musician, producer, and engineer who currentlyperforms on MIDI mallets with Action Palace.

HPD-15 HandSonic Specifications

Playing Surface

10” rubber pad divided into 15 parts

Real-time Controllers

(2) ribbon controllers; D-Beam; (3) multifunction knobs;
(1) ¼” footpedal input

Polyphony

64 voices

Sound Engine

sample playback

ROM/RAM Patches

160/80

ROM/RAM Patterns

99/99

Patch Chain

10 chains, 32 steps per chain

Onboard Sounds

600 drum and percussion instruments; 54 backing instruments

Sequencer

4-track; up to 999 measures

Effects Processors

(1) reverb; (1) multi-effects

Audio Outputs

(2) ¼” unbalanced L/R; (1) ¼” stereoheadphone

Audio Inputs

(1) ¼” TRS stereo

Additional Ports

MIDI In, Out/Thru; (1) ¼” footswitch jack; (1)¼” trigger input

Display

backlit LCD; 16 character × 2 line

Dimensions

15.88” (W) × 3.88” (H) × 15.88” (D)

Weight

6.63 lbs.

 

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Roland
HPD-15 HandSonic percussion controller/sound module
$1,295

FEATURES

4.0

EASE OF USE

4.0

SOUND QUALITY

4.0

VALUE

4.5

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Large collection of controllers. Extensive, well-organizedvariety of high-quality sounds. Good patch programming. Manyperformance-oriented features.

CONS: Rather fussy playing and editing technique. D-Beam falsetriggers easily. No external sync capabilities. Wall wart. LCD is toosmall. Unrealized potential as a more powerful MIDI controller.

Manufacturer
Roland Corporation U.S.
Roland Corporation U.S.
tel. (323) 890-3700
Web www.rolandus.com

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