Synesthesia Mandala 2.0 ($349) is a drum synthesizer with a MIDI trigger-pad-style controller that connects to your computer's USB port. The included Virtual Brain software gives you control of Mandala's extensive sound library, which contains a wide range of samples, effects, and presets. Bonus software called the Beauty, which includes 3,000 recorded samples of a vintage Ludwig Black Beauty, turns Mandala into a realistic-sounding virtual classic snare drum. Together, the libraries comprise 4 GB of content.
ON THE OUTSIDE
The polygonal drum pad has nine sides and a flat, rubber-covered striking surface. The base of its durable purple-and-black plastic casing is embossed with a stylized swirl pattern. A bracket for attaching the pad to a stand protrudes at an angle from one edge, but you can also mount it on a snare stand or set it on a tabletop. I found that the bracket made the pad a bit wobbly when placed on a flat surface, but putting a bit of padding under the unit solved the problem. The sole connection to the pad is a USB port. The unit comes with a 6-foot USB cable and a pair of sticks.
To install Mandala, you need at least 1 GB of RAM and a DVD drive. You also need a certain degree of technical know-how. The software runs on Mac OS X, Windows XP, and Vista. Synesthesia recently upgraded the software for the Virtual Brain and the Beauty, which took care of some problems I initially experienced getting audio to play and establishing smooth operation between the pad and the computer. The upgrade made setup more efficient and convenient.
ABOUT THE PADS
You can set up each drum pad with as many as seven zones, and it is possible to use five pads with the Virtual Brain. Each zone has its own sample (snare drum, xylophone, piano, and so on) and effects options. I found the lack of visual demarcation between zones on the pad frustrating, especially with higher zone counts. It was tricky to be accurate with stick hits across zones, but the number of the zone being struck is indicated in the pad graphic on the computer screen, and you can improve your accuracy with a little practice.
Hotkeys provide easy access to nearly 100 factory presets, and you can have more than 150 user-defined setups. You get two banks of effects (reverb, distortion, ring modulation, delay, and the like) to shape your sounds.
Parameters such as volume, pan, pitch, attack, hold, decay, and effects send are fully adjustable, as are all effects settings. The Virtual Brain provides three ways to modulate sound parameters: strike position (0-127), strike velocity (0-127), and LFO. The LFO rate is adjusted in the master window.
With the Beauty, Mandala mimics the natural sonic response of a snare drum. That's due to the unit's unprecedented sensitivity to strike placement and velocity. It sends very specific information to the software, which distinguishes up to 127 levels of intensity and 128 concentric zones. Multiple samples of each type of hit let you play with realistic variety; it's almost like playing a real Black Beauty.
DRUM ROLL, PLEASE
I brought the unit to the studio of Steve Orlando, fellow drummer and engineer, to try the drum pad (without the Virtual Brain software) as a controller for other applications. We put it through its paces with Digidesign Pro Tools' Strike and Hybrid, and it worked well as a trigger source in those applications. We did have to sort out the note values, and it did not have polyphonic capability. Several Mandala pads would rock for real drumming, but one is enough to augment an existing drum setup as well as for programming and triggering sounds and patches.
Mandala 2.0 offers a lot of power for the price. You get a ton of samples and a cool pad that you can divvy up into different zones for a variety of sounds, effects, and triggering options. You can add your own samples, and the Beauty software gives you a realistic snare drum. This is an extremely flexible creative tool that can add a whole new chapter to your musical endeavors.
Value (1 through 5): 4