ROLAND HandSonic HPD-15

By Erik Hawkins and Craig Segati

REMIX Magazine Mar 1, 2001

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 ivories can leave you feeling like Frankenstein's monster performing pirouettes. A full drum-controller kit can make composing percussion tracks simpler, but only if you're already a drummer. Unless you have experience playing traps, instruments such as the Roland V-drums just eat up space and take a hefty bite out of your wallet, too. But the new HandSonic HPD-15, also by Roland, may be just the alternative that hand and finger drummers are looking for.

The HandSonic HPD-15 is outfitted with 15 textured-rubber drum pads and several real-time controllers, including Roland's patented D-Beam and two 4.75-inch ribbon controllers. But this unit is much more than just a controller it's more like a complete percussion workstation. The HPD-15 contains more than 650 drum and instrument samples, a ton of sound-shaping parameters, a 4-track sequencer, and multi-effects. The unit even has jacks on the rear panel for plugging in hi-hat and kick pedals, turning the HandSonic HPD-15 into the most compact and complete drum kit we've ever encountered.


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

In addition to stereo ¼-inch output jacks, the HPD-15 includes a headphone jack controlled by its own volume knob for monitoring the unit's sounds. And for practicing in complete privacy, an included stereo-mix input allows you to connect a portable CD player and jam with your favorite tunes at any hour without disturbing the neighbors.


The HPD-15 provides 160 great factory presets that you can easily recall with plus and minus bank keys and patch up and down buttons. Alternatively, you can simply spin the large Patch/Value dial to scroll through all the presets sequentially. Individual patch names appear on the HandSonic's 16-character, 2-line LCD screen, 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, and Loops. The Latin, African, and Indian banks offer several excellent hand-drum instruments, such as conga, talking drum, and tabla (I spent hours jamming on these instruments alone). There are useful java and gamelan sounds in the Asian bank, and everything from vibraphone to timpani can be found in the Orchestra bank. The Drums bank provides complete kits, both acoustic and electronic, that are reminiscent of V-Drum patches. The Dance group breaks away from traditional trap sets, providing the beloved sounds of Roland's TR-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 for standard instruments, check out Others, which features bass, guitar, and flute patches. You can trigger looped and sequenced patterns from specific drum pads in the Loops group, whose styles include samba, dance, fusion, and more.


The HandSonic's main playing surface is a 10-inch circular pad arranged into three groups: A, B, and C. Each group is broken into five individual pads. The area played most often is group A, which is located in the center and features palm-size pads arranged as four quarters of a circle, except that the bottom two pads are slightly larger than the top two. The fifth pad in this group is round and sits directly in the center. Ten smaller pads form a semicircle around the top of group A. The five pads on the left make up group B, and the pads on the right constitute group C. These identically shaped pads are about the size of a typical drum machine pad and are arranged so that it is very comfortable and easy to play chromatic scales (a handy feature for pitched instruments).

The pads are velocity- and pressure-sensitive, and you can set independent values for these parameters on each pad. You can also set 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 the size of the edge-trigger area and its associated level change. These parameters make it easy to set up some amazingly expressive instruments. For example, as you play from the edge of a pad to its center, it will produce sonic changes similar to those of a real drum. You can also push down on one pad to alter the pitch of a sound you are playing on another pad, just as you would press down on the skin of a drumhead to create pitch changes. Impressive stuff.


Two ribbon controllers positioned within easy reach on either side of the drum pads let you control set parameters of the sounds assigned to the pads, or the controllers can trigger their own sounds independently. The functions are mutually exclusive. A backlit key labeled Sound, situated near each ribbon, remains illuminated when the ribbon triggers sounds, and when the light is off the ribbon affects parameter changes. For example, with Sound turned off, sliding your fingers along a ribbon lets you alter a drum's pitch. This is handy for simulating the effect of creating a pitch bend on a drumhead with your hands. With the Sound key engaged, the ribbon works great for playing sounds such as that of a guiro because you can use a finger to simulate the action of rubbing a stick across the instrument.

The D-Beam controller located at the top and center of the HandSonic operates similarly to the ribbon controllers it even has an associated Sound key. With both functions on, you can trigger a sound and change a drum's pitch simultaneously. A room's ambient light affects the D-Beam's performance, but you can adjust its sensitivity to compensate for different environments. Although the controller's responsiveness didn't impress us even after we played with the sensitivity controls, it did perform nicely with certain sounds, leading us to believe that responsiveness has more to do with the sound selected. The D-Beam controls bell sounds particularly 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 gestures while tweaking parameters and triggering sounds will particularly enjoy playing with the D-Beam onstage.

A finger pad-size latching button marked Roll/Hold resides at the top left of the drum pads, so you can easily reach it while playing the pads. You can also engage this feature by using a pedal plugged into the HandSonic's footswitch jack. This control's most obvious use is for sustaining notes, but the handy drumroll feature makes it easy to create natural-sounding drumrolls. You can set each pad's sound to perform a drumroll to your specifications, with roll values ranging from 1 to 50 notes per second, or from half notes to 48th notes. The roll's tempo can lock to the HandSonic's internal sequencer tempo or to an external MIDI Clock. When you activate the Roll/Hold button, pressing down on a pad triggers a roll. Pressing harder or softer on the pad crescendos and decrescendos the roll, respectively. With a little practice, this feature is incredibly effective. Playing a succession of 32nd notes is tough to pull off without drumsticks, and the HandSonic's roll feature lends a helping hand, so to speak.

A set of three knobs lets you modify nine different parameters in real time. Each knob controls three discrete parameters but has only one Parameter Select key. Consequently, you must scroll through the parameters in groups of three, which can be inconvenient during a performance. Having a discrete function-select key for each knob would be a preferable alternative but would take up more space on the front panel. The parameter groups include Volume, Fine Pitch Adjust, and Pan; Wet to Dry Effects Mix, Gross Pitch Adjust, and Filter; and LFO Rate, LFO Pitch, and LFO Filter or Depth. The Volume and the Fine and Gross Pitch parameters change the sound on each pad individually, whereas all the other parameters have a global effect. You can make dramatic changes by tweaking the Gross Pitch Adjust and Filter parameters until you seriously morph the HPD-15's stock sounds. The subtler LFO effects add an air of realism by introducing slight tonal variations to the samples. Incidentally, the three knobs are also key to creating your own patches because their settings get stored when you write a user preset.


The HandSonic's 4-track sequencer is rudimentary but gets the job done. It offers 96 ppqn resolution and holds up to 99 user patterns. (This number may be lower if you write complicated patterns with lots of events, because the device allocates a fixed amount of memory for all sequencer data.) If you don't want to write 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, and Melody 1 and 2. The Percussion tracks let you record with any of the regular instrument patches (user or preset), while the Melody tracks are relegated to their own subset of pitched instruments (such as guitar, piano, and bass). The recording modes include overdub and replace. You can loop and record any pattern in either mode, like on a traditional drum machine. Quantize is available for all the standard note values, but there are no swing functions, which may explain why the factory patterns sound stiff. A basic swing feature would go a long way toward improving the HandSonic's sequencer. Once you have recorded a pattern, you can go back and edit measures (delete or insert), but you can't erase individual notes a real bummer when it comes to trying to extract one or two drum hits. The sequencer is not well organized and is limited compared with the rest of the features on this machine.

One of the HandSonic's best tricks is its provision for triggering a pattern from a drum pad. This is a great feature for live shows because it gives you instant access to loops at the tap of a finger no fooling around with a computer to set your grooves in motion. You can have up to ten patterns ready to go on any pad in groups B and C (group A doesn't allow pattern triggering). This feature even recognizes MIDI Beat Clock for synchronizing the HandSonic's loops to an external sequencer. Pad-based pattern triggering really opens up a lot of creative possibilities.


We could not possibly cover the depth and intricacies of the HandSonic in the space of this review. The unit's unique performance-oriented features really make it stand out from the various other fine drum modules on the market. Its onboard multi-effects, internal sample architecture, and patch-creation capabilities also deserve a closer look. The excellent multi-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 can choose from to build your own kits, some are single-shot samples and many are velocity-zoned multisamples. You also get 80 user slots for storing your own patches.

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

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

Erik Hawkins is a producer/remixer working in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit him at for more equipment chitchat.

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

ROLAND HandSonic HPD-15

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

CONS: Expensive. Sequencer has no swing functions.

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