ROLAND HandSonic HPD-15

A hand percussion controller and so much more. If you've ever tried to create drum grooves from a keyboard, you know that banging out rhythms on plastic
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A hand percussion controller and so much more. If you've ever tried to create drum grooves from a keyboard, you know that banging out rhythms on plastic

A hand percussion controller and so much more.

If you've ever tried to create drum grooves from a keyboard, youknow that banging out rhythms on plastic ivories can leave youfeeling like Frankenstein's monster performing pirouettes. A fulldrum-controller kit can make composing percussion tracks simpler,but only if you're already a drummer. Unless you have experienceplaying traps, instruments such as the Roland V-drums just eat upspace and take a hefty bite out of your wallet, too. But the newHandSonic HPD-15, also by Roland, may be just the alternative thathand and finger drummers are looking for.

The HandSonic HPD-15 is outfitted with 15 textured-rubber drumpads and several real-time controllers, including Roland's patentedD-Beam and two 4.75-inch ribbon controllers. But this unit is muchmore than just a controller — it's more like a completepercussion workstation. The HPD-15 contains more than 650 drum andinstrument samples, a ton of sound-shaping parameters, a 4-tracksequencer, and multi-effects. The unit even has jacks on the rearpanel for plugging in hi-hat and kick pedals, turning the HandSonicHPD-15 into the most compact and complete drum kit we've everencountered.


The HPD-15 is a breeze to set up: take it out of the box, set iton a flat tabletop, and turn it on. Six rubber feet on the unit'sunderside stop it from sliding around on smooth surfaces, and awall-wart-style 9V adapter delivers power. If you prefer to mountthe HPD-15 on a stand, Roland offers the optional PDS-15 ($165), anextremely sturdy drum stand with three legs that you can adjust totilt the unit at different angles. The stand comes with a specialmounting bracket that screws into the bottom of the HPD-15 for easysetup. Weighing just less than 7 pounds, the HandSonic HPD-15 isexceptionally light, considering all of the features it packs.Working percussionists can carry around this equivalent of severaldrum kits and percussion setups in a backpack.

In addition to stereo ¼-inch output jacks, the HPD-15includes a headphone jack controlled by its own volume knob formonitoring the unit's sounds. And for practicing in completeprivacy, an included stereo-mix input allows you to connect aportable CD player and jam with your favorite tunes at any hourwithout disturbing the neighbors.


The HPD-15 provides 160 great factory presets that you caneasily recall with plus and minus bank keys and patch up and downbuttons. Alternatively, you can simply spin the large Patch/Valuedial to scroll through all the presets sequentially. Individualpatch names appear on the HandSonic's 16-character, 2-line LCDscreen, which is backlit for easy visibility even in darkness.

The HPD-15's presets are organized into ten banks: Latin,African, Indian, Asian, Orchestra, Drums, Dance, Sfx, Others, andLoops. The Latin, African, and Indian banks offer several excellenthand-drum instruments, such as conga, talking drum, and tabla (Ispent hours jamming on these instruments alone). There are usefuljava and gamelan sounds in the Asian bank, and everything fromvibraphone to timpani can be found in the Orchestra bank. The Drumsbank provides complete kits, both acoustic and electronic, that arereminiscent of V-Drum patches. The Dance group breaks away fromtraditional trap sets, providing the beloved sounds of Roland'sTR-606, TR-808, TR-909, CR-78, and other de rigueur drum machines.The Sfx bank has a little bit of everything, including ambient,industrial, and cartoon sound effects. If you're looking forstandard instruments, check out Others, which features bass,guitar, and flute patches. You can trigger looped and sequencedpatterns from specific drum pads in the Loops group, whose stylesinclude samba, dance, fusion, and more.


The HandSonic's main playing surface is a 10-inch circular padarranged into three groups: A, B, and C. Each group is broken intofive individual pads. The area played most often is group A, whichis located in the center and features palm-size pads arranged asfour quarters of a circle, except that the bottom two pads areslightly larger than the top two. The fifth pad in this group isround and sits directly in the center. Ten smaller pads form asemicircle around the top of group A. The five pads on the leftmake up group B, and the pads on the right constitute group C.These identically shaped pads are about the size of a typical drummachine pad and are arranged so that it is very comfortable andeasy to play chromatic scales (a handy feature for pitchedinstruments).

The pads are velocity- and pressure-sensitive, and you can setindependent values for these parameters on each pad. You can alsoset up a pad so its edges trigger a different tone than its center(such as a simple volume change or a completely different sample,depending on the sound assigned to the pad), as well as adjust thesize of the edge-trigger area and its associated level change.These parameters make it easy to set up some amazingly expressiveinstruments. For example, as you play from the edge of a pad to itscenter, it will produce sonic changes similar to those of a realdrum. You can also push down on one pad to alter the pitch of asound you are playing on another pad, just as you would press downon the skin of a drumhead to create pitch changes. Impressivestuff.


Two ribbon controllers positioned within easy reach on eitherside of the drum pads let you control set parameters of the soundsassigned to the pads, or the controllers can trigger their ownsounds independently. The functions are mutually exclusive. Abacklit key labeled Sound, situated near each ribbon, remainsilluminated when the ribbon triggers sounds, and when the light isoff the ribbon affects parameter changes. For example, with Soundturned off, sliding your fingers along a ribbon lets you alter adrum's pitch. This is handy for simulating the effect of creating apitch bend on a drumhead with your hands. With the Sound keyengaged, the ribbon works great for playing sounds such as that ofa guiro because you can use a finger to simulate the action ofrubbing a stick across the instrument.

The D-Beam controller located at the top and center of theHandSonic operates similarly to the ribbon controllers — iteven has an associated Sound key. With both functions on, you cantrigger a sound and change a drum's pitch simultaneously. A room'sambient light affects the D-Beam's performance, but you can adjustits sensitivity to compensate for different environments. Althoughthe controller's responsiveness didn't impress us even after weplayed with the sensitivity controls, it did perform nicely withcertain sounds, leading us to believe that responsiveness has moreto do with the sound selected. The D-Beam controls bell soundsparticularly well. By waving your hand rapidly over the light beam,you can create a convincing simulation of a ringing bell.Extroverted performers who like to make grandiose hand gestureswhile tweaking parameters and triggering sounds will particularlyenjoy playing with the D-Beam onstage.

A finger pad-size latching button marked Roll/Hold resides atthe top left of the drum pads, so you can easily reach it whileplaying the pads. You can also engage this feature by using a pedalplugged into the HandSonic's footswitch jack. This control's mostobvious use is for sustaining notes, but the handy drumroll featuremakes it easy to create natural-sounding drumrolls. You can seteach pad's sound to perform a drumroll to your specifications, withroll values ranging from 1 to 50 notes per second, or from halfnotes to 48th notes. The roll's tempo can lock to the HandSonic'sinternal sequencer tempo or to an external MIDI Clock. When youactivate the Roll/Hold button, pressing down on a pad triggers aroll. Pressing harder or softer on the pad crescendos anddecrescendos the roll, respectively. With a little practice, thisfeature is incredibly effective. Playing a succession of 32nd notesis tough to pull off without drumsticks, and the HandSonic's rollfeature lends a helping hand, so to speak.

A set of three knobs lets you modify nine different parametersin real time. Each knob controls three discrete parameters but hasonly one Parameter Select key. Consequently, you must scrollthrough the parameters in groups of three, which can beinconvenient during a performance. Having a discretefunction-select key for each knob would be a preferable alternativebut would take up more space on the front panel. The parametergroups include Volume, Fine Pitch Adjust, and Pan; Wet to DryEffects Mix, Gross Pitch Adjust, and Filter; and LFO Rate, LFOPitch, and LFO Filter or Depth. The Volume and the Fine and GrossPitch parameters change the sound on each pad individually, whereasall the other parameters have a global effect. You can makedramatic changes by tweaking the Gross Pitch Adjust and Filterparameters until you seriously morph the HPD-15's stock sounds. Thesubtler LFO effects add an air of realism by introducing slighttonal variations to the samples. Incidentally, the three knobs arealso key to creating your own patches because their settings getstored when you write a user preset.


The HandSonic's 4-track sequencer is rudimentary but gets thejob done. It offers 96 ppqn resolution and holds up to 99 userpatterns. (This number may be lower if you write complicatedpatterns with lots of events, because the device allocates a fixedamount of memory for all sequencer data.) If you don't want towrite your own grooves, you can choose from 99 factory patterns;some aren't half bad, though overall they seem rather stiff.

Roland calls the sequencer's four tracks Percussion 1 and 2 andMelody 1 and 2; however, you don't have to record drums on thePercussion tracks and melodies on the Melody tracks. The recordingmodes include overdub and replace functions. You can loop anypattern and record in either mode, just as on a traditional drummachine. Quantize is available for all the standard note values,but there are no swing functions (which may explain why the factorypatterns sound stiff); even a basic swing feature would go a longway toward improving the feel of patterns recorded with theHandSonic's sequencer. Once you've recorded a pattern, you can goback and make edits such as adding and subtracting parts andmeasures. The sequencer is not as well organized as thesound-editing parameters; it requires some effort and severalglances at the manual to get comfortable with.

One of the HandSonic's best tricks is its provision fortriggering a pattern from a drum pad. This is a great feature forlive shows because it gives you instant access to loops at the tapof a finger — no fooling around with a computer to set yourgrooves in motion. You can have up to ten patterns ready to go onany pad in groups B and C (group A doesn't allow patterntriggering). This feature even recognizes MIDI Beat Clock forsynchronizing the HandSonic's loops to an external sequencer.Pad-based pattern triggering really opens up a lot of creativepossibilities.


We could not possibly cover the depth and intricacies of theHandSonic in the space of this review. The unit's uniqueperformance-oriented features really make it stand out from thevarious other fine drum modules on the market. Its onboardmulti-effects, internal sample architecture, and patch-creationcapabilities also deserve a closer look. The excellentmulti-effects section offers a wide variety of processing options,including compression, equalization, distortion, filtering,flanging, and reverb. Of the more than 650 raw sounds you canchoose from to build your own kits, some are single-shot samplesand many are velocity-zoned multisamples. You also get 80 userslots for storing your own patches.

Like most nifty new high-tech instruments, the HandSonic comeswith a relatively hefty $1,295 price tag. But it's definitely thecoolest new instrument we've encountered recently. The HandSonic isextremely expressive for live performance, and after using it wehave difficulty imagining ever going back to programming drums witha keyboard. And because the HPD-15 doubles as a sound module andcontroller, it certainly offers a lot of features for themoney.

The HandSonic HPD-15 is a new breed of electronic instrument.You'll need as much practice with it as you would with atraditional instrument to master its subtleties fully; but like ahand drum, it's plenty of fun for anybody to bang on. That said,it's time we got back to practicing bongo rhythms before Rolandasks us to return the review unit.

Erik Hawkins is a producer/remixer working in LosAngeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit him for moreequipment chitchat.

Craig Seganti is a hardworking composer and songwriter,also in the City of Angels, with many TV and film credits to hisname.


ROLAND HandSonic HPD-15

PROS: An incredibly expressive, highly innovative,backpack-ready percussion controller and sound module with tons oftones.

CONS: Expensive. Sequencer has no swing functions.

Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4.5
Contact: tel. (323) 890-3700