Roland HPD-15 HandSonic
ELECTRONIC HAND PERCUSSION INSTRUMENT
by John Krogh
Sample-playback hand percussion instrument with realtime performance controllers, built-in effects, and pattern sequencer.
Roland's latest groovebox is a virtual turntable with phrase sampling... just kidding. The HandSonic is actually an electronic hand percussion instrument with a bit of groove box engineering thrown in for good measure. Three of the knobs on the upper left can be used to tweak sounds in real time. There's also a built-in D-Beam controller -- a cool feature carried over from Roland's groove products. Right: Percussionist Brad Ranola diving into the HandSonic's preset patterns.
Programming realistic-sounding drum and percussion patterns using a MIDI keyboard is an art. In fact, the work that goes into creating convincing grooves with sampled drum sounds triggered from a keyboard is often time-consuming, and the results usually still scream "MIDI."
That's why when I got my first look at Roland's new HPD-15 HandSonic at Winter NAMM 2000, the gears in my mind started working overtime with thoughts of being able to program dynamic, real-sounding patterns and fills with the same ease and fluidity as slapping and tapping rhythms on my car's steering wheel (which drives my wife crazy -- she believes I was a drummer in a past life). I couldn't wait to get my hands on a HandSonic and start recording grooves into my MIDI sequencer. So when the HandSonic arrived at Keyboard, I nabbed it and headed into the studio.
Being primarily a keyboard player, I also wanted to get a real hand percussionist's take on the HandSonic . So I enlisted the help of Brad Ranola, who teaches hand percussion in San Jose, California, and among other things reviews percussion instruments for Drum! magazine. Brad's background is in orchestral, Afro-Cuban, and Brazilian percussion -- just what I was looking for in a second listener/reviewer. His comments are sprinkled throughout the review where appropriate.
Fig. 1: As you play any of the five center pads, the indicator lights behind the miniature pad display (upper left) light up. When pad-specific parameters such as sound assignment are being edited, the lights blink to indicate which pad instrument you're working on. All of the white buttons light up, too -- a must for use on poorly lit stages.
According to Roland's Steve Fisher, a member of the development team for the HandSonic , Roland's goal is "to give percussionists their 'electronic counterpart' to acoustic hand percussion instruments, just like the V-Drums gave drummers their electronic counterpart to the acoustic set." In addition, the HandSonic posseses a number of realtime performance features that makes it a unique controller. It's bound to be of interest to all musicians, not just percussionists.
The playing surface combines force sensing resistors (FSRs) and piezo pickups, allowing the instrument to respond not only to velocity (the way most drum triggering devices work), but also based on where a pad is struck, and whether one hand is resting on the surface -- a basic hand percussion technique for muting a drum's tone. You can also vary the timbre and duration of the sounds by pressing on the pads after striking them. This makes patches such as African talking drum more expressive.
There are 15 pads, divided into three groups of five. Each pad can be used to play a different instrument sound, or they can be assigned different articulations of the same instrument. The two ribbon controllers and D-Beam can also trigger sounds or modulate sounds played from the pads.
Three multifunction knobs let you tweak basic parameters (level, pan, pitch) as well as effects settings, LFO rate, and filter cutoff. With its silver exterior, knobs, and ribbon controllers, the HandSonic could be mistaken for one of Roland's groove boxes.
As you might expect, a generous helping of Western and ethnic or world drum/percussion sounds is included, along with a collection of percussive hits and effects, basses, pianos, synth textures, guitar, and brass. The non-percussion sounds are intended as instruments for backing tracks in the preset patterns, which, like the percussion sounds, span the globe.
The HandSonic has a built-in pattern sequencer that can be used to record your own grooves or edit any of the preset patterns. The sequencer also makes a perfect practice companion: Call up a conga patch and play along to a montuno. If you need a scratch pad for ideas, the sequencer will do, but it doesn't compare to a software or dedicated hardware sequencer. There's no event-level editing, and there's no swing or groove quantizing -- you can quantize parts only to straight subdivisions. Then again, groove quantization on a product of this nature might be blasphemous.
In the effects department you get basic reverb/delay and one multi-effect per patch. I was surprised by the wide variety of multi-effects, which include ring modulation, dynamics processing, step flanging, arpeggio (pitch shifting), distortion/overdrive, more sophisticated reverbs and multitap delays, and a number of lo-fi algorithms. What's more, the effects are programmable. Whether you're into lush, evocative ambience or modern dance/electronic textures, the HandSonic's effects can deliver.
On the rear panel you'll find headphone and line-level left and right outs, plus inputs for a trigger source, expression pedal, and momentary footswitch, as well as MIDI in and out/thru ports. The mix input lets you connect the outputs of a CD player or other audio source to play along with -- a nice touch.
Fig. 2: The HandSonic's back panel. You can connect an optional hi-hat pedal to the expression pedal input for playing hi-hat or other sounds. An optional kick drum pedal or acoustic drum trigger output can be connected to the trigger input, as well as any of Roland's single or dual trigger pads. (Since using drum sticks with the HandSonic isn't recommended, this is useful in case you need to articulate or perform with sticks). You can practice along to music from a CD or other stereo source plugged into the Mix In. There's no independent level control, though; you'll have to set the volume of the Mix In signal at the source.
The HandSonic is four-part multitimbral: two parts for percussion patches and two reserved for backing track instruments (guitar, keys, sitar, or whatever). There's no sound expandibility option, but it's hard to think of sounds I'd like to add to the HandSonic's already broad palette. Click on the audio links above to hear several examples of the HandSonic's sounds and patterns.
The sounds are grouped into ten categories: Latin, African, Indian, Asian, Orchestral, Drums, Dance, SFX, Others, and Loops -- the last being where backing track instruments reside.
For nearly every instrument there's much more than one sample of a single hit; you get a variety of tones and articulations ranging from subtle to extreme. To create the illusion of playing an acoustic instrument, a number of variations of certain instruments such as conga, bongo, and surdo are included that will respond differently depending on how a pad is struck. For example, instrument "L09 Conga Hi/H" will respond to positional data from a pad, resulting in a muted, open, or slapped tone based on where and how hard the pad is hit. "L11 Conga Hi," though, doesn't respond to positional data and will only produce an open or slapped tone.
While I appreciated having Asian and orchestral percussion for cinematic projects, I was more excited by the rich offerings in the Latin, African, and Indian sound groups. Pot drum patches are full of body and resonance; the same goes for tabla. There aren't a lot of traditional drum kit sounds, but what's there is punchier and more believable than the stock sounds in a JV-series module or keyboard. The HandSonic also includes a vanilla-flavored cross section of snares with brushes and sticks, kick, toms, open and closed hi-hats, and cymbals. Oddly enough, there's no GM kit in the bunch. This might not be a big deal for most percussionists; however, during the review I worked on one TV commercial that required me to program Latin-fusion and swing drum patterns. Having a couple of GM kits, or at least GM-mapped sounds, would have been nice for use with my library of Twiddly Bits MIDI files.
After diving into a number of Latin, African, and orchestral sounds, Brad had this to say: "The individual instrument sounds seem like they're in the same space, the ambience is nice, and the variations of sounds you can get from a single instrument are there. For instance, the cascada, which is the shell of a timbale, is really nice." He only took exception to a handful of mallet instruments, such as marimba and xylophone: "They just don't have as much air or body as I'd like."
In the dance/electronic bank you'll find the usual suspects: 808 and 909 samples, plus an assortment of scratches and DJ-type sound effects. Some of the kicks are capable of teeth-rattling sonics. Dance isn't the HandSonic's main focus, though. Even so, I found that taking sampled acoustic instruments and running them through effects or assigning the roll function (more on this below) and one or two realtime controllers resulted in ultra-usable and interesting modern electronic sounds.
Digging into the SFX group was probably the most fun I had during the sound auditioning stage of the review. Hearing patches like the Star Wars-inspired "04 NoiseSonic" and grungy lo-fi "10 ChaosSoniq" threw me into a creative space, and got me excited to see just how deep I could go with programming my own sounds. Patches in this group take more advantage of the built-in effects than patches in other groups. This probably makes sense, since the primary target buyer for this instrument is percussionists, not synth-geeks like us who go nuts over wacky sounds.
Kudos to the musicians who programmed the preset patterns! On the whole, these are top-notch, with barely a clunker in the bunch. I'll admit, I wouldn't know a good Baion from a bad one, but I know what works for me on a gut level, and these patterns feel good. As with the internal sounds, the scope of genres and musical applications covered by the presets is wide.
Most patterns use at least one backing instrument such as bass or electric piano to give them more of a finished, full sound. To my ears, the Asian and Indian patterns, with their gamelans and sitar drones, seemed to benefit most from backing instruments. I was less impressed by some of the generic Western patterns such as "P79 House" and "P70 Funk." If I never hear another plucky '80s electric guitar skank patch....
So how do you get rid of those unwanted timbres, you ask? There are two ways to eliminate instrument parts in a pattern: (A) turn its volume down to zero, or (B) copy the preset pattern to a user location, then erase the unwanted part. This last method is what I used to remove the cheesy Rhodes piano from "P67 ElecFusion" -- a poor knock-off of Chick Corea and the Elektrik Band. Both methods seem like workarounds to me. Ideally, there would be a way to simply disable/enable a part.
After I'd had my go at the patterns, I asked Brad to comment on their authenticity. Wearing two hats, one as a player and another as an instructor, he was impressed. "From an educational and an inspirational standpoint there are some really great-sounding, accurate patterns. For example, the "P14 Descarga 1" pattern is a Cuban rhythm you might hear in a Latin jazz jam session. Roland has nailed it -- that's a descarga!"
And in case you're wondering, there's no shortage of odd-metered patterns. There are even patterns that are designed to be triggered one step at a time, perfect for rubato performances. These were a lot of fun to play around with, and I could easily see how they might provide just the creative spark needed to kick off a new song.
A lot of control is provided for making each pad respond to your playing exactly the way you'd like. For velocity response alone the HandSonic offers a slew of choices, including linear, two types of exponential, four types of logarithmic, and fixed values 116 (great for consistent levels regardless of how hard you hit). In addition, each pad can have its own sensitivity type -- finger or hand -- letting you tailor the responsiveness further. In the Global editing section, pads can be assigned an overall sensitivity level. I can't think of a single keyboard that offers this degree of customization for key response.
There are two edit levels when it comes to programming percussion patches . In EZ Edit mode you're given access to basic patch parameters, including overall level, pan, multi-effects on/off, reverb send, pad set, and more. As I mentioned earlier, the pads are divided into three groups of five. Each group can be assigned a pad set, which is a collection of five related sounds -- for instance, five different pitches and articulations of an agogo, or a selection of Chinese percussion and melodic instruments.
Pad sets are a great idea, because you can use them to quickly set up patches comprising different combinations of sounds (Asian, orchestral, and cartoon FX, for example) without having to assign each pad its own sound. With pad sets, the individual instrument assignments are done for you. The only shortcoming is that there are no user memory locations for creating your own pad sets. It is possible to change the instrumentation of a pad set and save it to a patch. In this case, whatever set you originally selected gets a number sign (#) added to the name, but you won't be able to simply call up your new pad set for use with another patch. The only convenient way to get a custom pad set into a patch is to copy it over from a patch that has the desired set.
If you like poking around in menus to craft your sounds, the HandSonic is easy to navigate. But its patches can also be modified in real time using the three multifunctioned buttons on the upper left of the instrument. If you want to tweak just the sound assigned to one pad and not the entire group of sounds, you can do so by holding down Select and hitting the pad you want to control. The Select indicator light will blink to let you know "I'm only active for one pad." This is one small example of the kind of useful feedback the HandSonic provides. Here's another: When you're editing at the pad instrument level, the lights above the ten small pads and the lights behind the miniature pad display (see Figure 1) on the upper right will blink to indicate which pad instrument you're editing.
You won't find a typical synthesis engine. No envelopes or filters are available at the tone generator level. However, you do get a lowpass filter that can be swept with the third realtime performance knob, and an LFO with a choice of nine waveforms. The LFO can be assigned to control pitch, filter, amplitude, a variety of effects parameters, and more. I was able to cook up some wicked synth-type sounds by combining ring modulation and LFO with a trapezoid waveform to control effect depth. Playing run-of-the-mill drum tones through this effect setup while twisting a few knobs was addicting. For most multi-effects, several parameters are available for modulation. Here's where having an instrument equipped with D-Beam, knobs, and ribbon controllers can open up a world of sound design possibilities. I think I'll have to fire up my sampler before I let the HandSonic go.
Getting to know the HandSonic was a surprisingly friendly experience. The instrument gives you a bunch of visual and aural feedback as you move around. Here's an example. When you go into EZ Edit mode, you'll hear a short blip and the EZ Edit button will start blinking to let you know you've entered one level of editing. (As you scroll through values, you hear a series of different beeps and blips -- useful for the seeing-impared. You can disable the edit sounds if you like.) The EZ Edit level is where you'd make changes to a pad set; to select a pad set, simply play one of the pads in the set you want to edit.
To my delight, all of the HandSonic's controllers -- even the D-Beam -- transmit MIDI data, which made it easy for me to coax a previously unexplored level of expression out of my JV-1080. Suddently its stock performances became fun to play! If you own a synth or module that doesn't afford you the hands-on tweakability you'd like, the HandSonic can help. The only drag is that its LFO can't be synced to MIDI clock.
During the review, I had to compose music for two commercials, providing the perfect opportunity to try my hand at programming drum parts with the HandSonic . After futzing around with a few pad sensitivity settings, I was happy with the responsiveness and fired up my sequencer. Initially I had a slight problem keeping good time -- I just wasn't used to programming drums with anything other than a keyboard. But after a while, I got "into the zone" and started knocking out fills and patterns. For one project I needed vintage-sounding jazz drums. I wasn't entirely pleased with what the HandSonic had to offer sonically, so I recorded the parts with the HandSonic and triggered samples from Sonic Reality's Interactive Drum Kit in my Akai S6000. Because the instrument sounds in the HandSonic are capable of producing a variety of tones depending on how you play, and because the IDK samples are only velocity-switched, I ended up remapping certain note events (such as snare hits that on the HandSonic had an extra bit of rim) to comparable IDK samples. In the end, I was extremely happy with the results, and it didn't take nearly as long as it would have if I had used a MIDI keyboard.
Not being a percussionist myself, I was curious to know how playable Brad would find the HandSonic . "To me it's similar to the experience of playing the V-Drums," he explained. "As a percussionist, you're going to have to approach this as an electronic instrument. Because it's a trigger device, no matter how sophisticated it is, I have to be more deliberate about how I play it so I'm not accidentally getting open tones when I want to mute, for example.
"But I like that you can use your hands or fingers -- it's your choice," he added. "So if you're not great at playing some instruments, it doesn't matter because you can use a playing style that you're comfortable with and it'll sound great. Conga players, for instance, can use the whole hand as an implement. But someone who plays tabla might be more comfortable using fingers."
His only concern was whether the plastic shell would withstand the everyday use and abuse playing it on gigs. However, he thought the pads themselves were solid: "They feel good to play, and the surface seems tough, but not too hard. You can lean into it to get different tones. Like on the talking drum patch ('P02 01 TalkingDrm') the middle pad is the bass tone with no tension, but because of the pressure sensitivity, you can press one of the surrounding pads while playing the center and it will affect the pitch in a natural way."
The HandSonic is an impressive instrument and equally impressive technical accomplishment. It's fair to say Roland has raised the bar for playability in an electronic percussion instrument. The responsiveness of the pads and instrument sounds is extremely programmable. For keyboard players who want a better, more intuitive way to play their grooves into a MIDI sequencer than just using a keyboard, the HandSonic is likely to be it. The lack of expandibility in the sound department is a gripe, and the absence of user pad sets is a minor inconvenience. The built-in sequencer is bare-bones but functional. However, the effects section is beefy -- sonic possibilities abound. It's a shame that you can't sync the LFO to MIDI.
The HandSonic has a lot of ethnic percussion sounds you're not going to find in too many synths, and as an alternate controller it's a gas to play. What more can I say? Oh, yeah. It's definitely a Key Buy winner!
At times, especially during drum-programming sessions, technical editor JOHN KROGH wishes his limbs were more independent. But alas, his feet can't keep up with his hands.