Review by Larry the O
Electronic Musician Magazine
April 2001

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Each pad is assigned a trigger mode and a velocity curve and is configured with four triggering and sensitivity parameters. There are three pad trigger modes: Shot, Gate, and Trig. Shot plays a sound once from start to finish. Gate plays a sound as long as you press on the pad, so it's useful only for sustained sounds. Trig plays a sound until the pad is struck a second time, so it is also useful only for sustaining sounds. There are ten velocity curves, including linear, exponential, logarithmic, spline (S-curve), and special-purpose curves.

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

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


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

The ribbon controllers are oriented vertically. I generally prefer ribbons with horizontal orientation because that requires a more natural wrist motion. With the HandSonic, however, I found that because I 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-Beam and ribbons, but their trigger modes are different from the pads' trigger modes. Some settings trigger when you simply touch a ribbon or when your hand enters the D-Beam's proximity. Others trigger when you move your hand along the controller.

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

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

For even more control functionality, an external trigger jack on the rear 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 accepts two footswitches when used with a Y-cable, as well as an expression pedal jack that accepts a hi-hat pedal. A comprehensive set of sensitivity, triggering, and function parameters configure all of those external inputs to trigger sounds and control them, sometimes simultaneously.


The HandSonic includes a healthy and well-organized selection of sounds, 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. In addition, 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 the collection. 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. Those assignments, along with the associated sound parameters, onboard controller assignments, and rear-panel jack assignments, make up a patch. Roland has created 160 preset patches and provided locations in memory for 80 user patches.

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

“The pads of the main conga patch (Preset 01) are set up perfectly 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 right hand down/left hand up, you get the open ‘boop' sound, but right 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 layout of 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 get the higher harmonic ‘tin' — just like the real thing. [Roland] definitely had some real drummers' input on the design of this thing.”

The Timpani preset features a great hand-damping effect, with the suddenness of the damping controlled by pressure: pressing the pad lightly dampens the sound gently, and pressing hard damps it abruptly. Getting the most out of this sort of programming requires practice, but a great deal of expressiveness is possible. Don't forget that the difficulty of achieving this level of expression has always been the Achilles' 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 timbale hand-hit sounds that are so much softer than the regular stick-hit timbale sounds on A1 and A5 that I simply didn't use them.

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

The loops in a preset are often unrelated to each other in terms of tempo or feel, making it impossible to jam over one and then trigger another and jam over it. Once a loop starts playing, you can change patches to play instruments that are different from the sounds being played by the loop.

On balance, the factory patches are excellent. If you simply want to use the HandSonic as a substitute for a variety of percussion instruments, the factory patches should be sufficient.

Tonal instruments, such as Backing Instruments or pitched Orchestral Percussion, present additional technical challenges in performance. The easiest way to describe the problem is to say that playing a keyboard sound on the HandSonic is the evil twin of playing drum sounds on a keyboard. Learning to play complex figures and even chords using tonal instruments on the HandSonic is possible. However, it's much less awkward to play a MIDI controller that provides a technique that's closer to the technique associated with the original instrument.


The clear emphasis in the HandSonic is real-time performance, and that emphasis is reflected in its controls. The simplest control function is changing patches.

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

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

The second method employs the Patch Sel button just above and to the right of the pad array. Holding the Patch Sel button and striking one of the B or C pads selects one of the ten groups, and pads A2 and A4 serve as the patch number increment and decrement buttons.

The third method for selecting patches requires you to use the data entry dial, just to the left and above the Patch Sel button, to scroll through your choices.

The HandSonic lets you construct ten 32-step patch chains and then recall them with footswitches and group selection techniques. This provides a way to easily step through a collection of patches in any order you wish.


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

In addition to a variety of options for changing patches, the HandSonic offers numerous approaches to editing. In each method a pad or controller is struck to select a parameter before its values can be changed.

Pressing the Edit button puts the HandSonic into EZ Edit mode, the highest editing level. EZ Edit lets you edit basic level, pan, and effects parameters of pad sets or patches. The other editing schemes let you edit individual pads or controllers. The Parameter buttons located below the LCD step through the available parameters, and the data entry dial alters parameter values.

The second and fastest method of editing uses the three semisoft Realtime Modify (RTM) knobs. A select button steps through three layers of control definitions for the RTM knobs, each knob performing a single function per layer. This three-by-three matrix proves to be a good compromise between dedicated and soft functionality. It lets you quickly access a small set of parameters with only three knobs, yet it provides a fair degree of control depth.

An RTM knob becomes active as soon as it's moved, and the associated parameter value jumps to the knob's current position rather than starting from its current value. That makes it hard to execute slight adjustments to current values.

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

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


Each sound has its own set of parameters, including level, pitch shift, pan, decay, color, and sweep. The pitch shift sounds good even at the extremes, up to two octaves in either direction. Panning includes modes that cause the sound to either alternate between left and right or to appear in a random location in the stereo field each time it's triggered. Color is a lowpass filter with a nice, warm quality; 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 of its control signals; correspondingly, each sound lets you enable its reception of control signals (see Fig. 4).

Here's an example of setting up modulators: To control the pitch of the sound assigned to pad A5 with the right-hand ribbon, enter full Edit 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 that to On. Finally, scroll to Pitch Rx range and set the pitch shift range.

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

A less confusing and menu-intensive solution should have been possible, but the small display makes that difficult. Also useful would be the ability to transmit more than one control parameter per pad or controller — level and filter cutoff, for example, so the sound would get brighter as it gets louder. Still, the system remains powerful enough to allow control of parameters such as reverb send level and sequence tempo.

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


The HandSonic features dedicated reverb and multi-effects processors, and there is a fair degree of crossover between them. For instance, the reverb processor has room, stage, plate, hall, and two delay algorithms, and the multi-effects processor has two reverbs and seven delays among its 28 algorithms. However, there are no duplicates between the two processors' algorithms.

In addition to the reverb and delays, the multi-effects include compression, 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 reverb is nicely dense and somewhat colored, though not offensively so, but it has too much noise and graininess in the decay. The flanging, phasing, and chorusing effects generally have a pleasing quality. The distortion, like most digital distortion, is harsh and unpleasant unless 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 that two processors are included. Each effect has specific parameters that are available for modulation by the LFO or controllers.

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


The HandSonic's 4-track pattern sequencer lets you build patterns as long as 99 bars on two percussion tracks and two melody tracks. Only pad instruments are available for the percussion tracks, and only backing instruments are available for the melody tracks. Both user and preset patches are present.

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

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

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


Speaking of MIDI, all the pads and controllers make the HandSonic very attractive as a MIDI controller. Although it's well suited to controlling external instruments, it has a few limitations. For instance, I'd like to be able to assign the edge zone of the largest pads to transmit a different MIDI note number on a different MIDI channel than the center zone.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The user manual contains excellent diagrams, lists each user-programmable parameter, provides complete documentation of the MIDI implementation, and has a reasonable index; these strengths are all worth acknowledging. Unfortunately, the user manual also suffers occasionally from awkward and unclear wording, which is apparently the result of a poor final edit. After so many years of providing documentation for music technology products, Roland has little excuse for sentences that don't make sense.


The HandSonic is really a gas to play. It feels great: the pads are easy on the hands and the rim around the pads is rounded so you don't bruise yourself. The sounds respond to the pads in a very expressive manner. 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 instrument a lot of range. With only a few exceptions (I could lose the thunder sound forever and never miss it), the quality of the sounds is high.

As a performance instrument, the HandSonic offers a lot of easily accessible flexibility. Playing the HandSonic requires that you develop and practice some technical finesse, but it's nothing too difficult to master.

With all of the included extras, such as the sequencer, effects, and Mix In jack, HandSonic is well suited for a variety of gigs. It could serve for DJ performances, as an adjunct to a drum kit or a synthesizer rig, or simply as a substitute for carrying lots of acoustic percussion instruments, just to name a few possible uses.

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

Larry the O is a musician, producer, and engineer who currently performs 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


64 voices

Sound Engine

sample playback

ROM/RAM Patches


ROM/RAM Patterns


Patch Chain

10 chains, 32 steps per chain

Onboard Sounds

600 drum and percussion instruments; 54 backing instruments


4-track; up to 999 measures

Effects Processors

(1) reverb; (1) multi-effects

Audio Outputs

(2) ¼” unbalanced L/R; (1) ¼” stereo headphone

Audio Inputs

(1) ¼” TRS stereo

Additional Ports

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


backlit LCD; 16 character × 2 line


15.88” (W) × 3.88” (H) × 15.88” (D)


6.63 lbs.


HPD-15 HandSonic percussion controller/sound module










PROS: Large collection of controllers. Extensive, well-organized variety of high-quality sounds. Good patch programming. Many performance-oriented features.

CONS: Rather fussy playing and editing technique. D-Beam false triggers easily. No external sync capabilities. Wall wart power supply. LCD is too small. Unrealized potential as a more powerful MIDI controller.

Roland Corporation U.S.
Roland Corporation U.S.
tel. (323) 890-3700