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Roland HandSonic HPD20

Hand Percussion Pad
Published September 2014
By Mark Gordon

Roland HandSonic HPD20 Hand Percussion Pad.

Roland bring their HandSonic percussion range bang up to date with the HPD20.

I have been fortunate over the past few years to review a wide range of electronic drum kits for Sound On Sound, from quite basic 'starter' kits right through to top-of-the-range offerings from industry heavyweights Roland and Yamaha, costing thousands of pounds. I can safely say, then, that the electronic drummer is exceptionally well catered for. But what of the drummer's more exotic cousin, the percussionist?

Pretty much all electronic kits I have played include a wide range of percussion sounds alongside the regular drum sounds. These work perfectly well if you need to add a conga part to a Latin groove or play the cowbell part in 'Alright Now'. There are also dedicated 'controllers' ideal for adding percussion sounds to your acoustic kit, such as the Roland SPDSX, Yamaha DTX Multi 12 and Alesis Percussion Pad, but these are all primarily suited to being played with sticks — and there is a huge range of percussion sounds that actually need to be played using the hands and fingers.

The Korg Wavedrum certainly comes to mind for this application and, having used one extensively, I can certainly vouch for it, but with a single drum head and limited editing capabilities it's not always easy to achieve a wide range of usable sounds. This is where the Roland HandSonic HPD20 comes in...

You Need Hands

Roland first introduced the HandSonic concept in the form of the all-singing, all-dancing HPD15, which featured 15 pads, an onboard sequencer, ribbon controllers, a host of knobs and buttons and a price tag to match! A few years later, the more affordable HPD10 arrived, featuring a new set of drum and percussion sounds and a more streamlined format.

The HPD10 and HPD15 have now been joined by the new HPD20, boasting 850 new drum, percussion and melodic sounds, three independent multi-effects processors and Roland's SuperNatural Sound Engine.

In keeping with modern standards in audio equipment, the HPD20 includes direct USB connectivity to your Mac or PC and (for me, as an HPD10 owner, most exciting of all) the ability to import WAV files.

Black Is Back

A sexier-looking offering than its predecessors, the HPD20 sports a sleek new black casing, with a circular, rubberised playing surface surrounded by a gunmetal-coloured hoop, held in place by 10 recessed hex bolts to give the impression of a drum head.

Above the playing surface, a large, centrally located blue LCD display is surrounded by a host of silver and black knobs and buttons, many with red backlighting, which gives the HPD20 a very professional look.

Discrete volume knobs for headphones and Main outputs are provided. Below this is a large Kit button that, when pressed, takes you directly to the main patch screen on the display. This is a nice 'return home' feature to get you back to familiar ground, and very handy in a live performance situation.

A further knob provides real-time control for the Pitch and Effect parameters, which are enabled via two dedicated backlit buttons. Backlit Roll and Quick Record buttons complete this area of the panel.

Above the LCD is the D-Beam, Roland's invisible infra-red beam of light that controls both sound and effects on the HPD20 through hand movements. Beneath the LCD, three soft buttons provide direct access to various parameters, depending on the currently displayed screen.

The HPD20's back panel features a pair of USB ports for a memory stick and connecting to a computer, and input for the external power supply, MIDI I/O sockets, and, all on quarter-inch jacks, a mix input, stereo output, headphone out, and sockets for footswitch, trigger in and hi-hat control. The right-hand side of the control surface area is concerned with data-entry and navigation: a Menu button and four cursor keys help you find your way around, and data entry is via large + /- keys, a knob and an Enter key. An Exit button works as a 'backspace', stepping back through previous menu screens. Finally, the small Shift button enables some secondary functions and handy 'quick access' features. I was pleased to see the power button on the control surface rather than on the rear of the unit: no scrabbling around at the back to turn it on and off!

Turning to the rear panel, stereo audio output is provided by two quarter-inch jacks, and a stereo headphone output that mirrors the main out signal sits alongside. A Mix In stereo input is on a quarter-inch jack rather than the usual mini-jack and lets you connect an external audio source that can be mixed with the sounds of the HPD20 for play-along practice.

Below the Main outs are the Trigger In and Hi-hat control sockets, where you can connect an external trigger input such as a drum pad or kick trigger and a pedal to control the opening and closing of hi-hat sounds. A separate footswitch socket lets you control certain parameters without having to use your hands.

New for the HPD20 is a USB port for connection to a computer and USB Memory port for saving and loading HPD20 settings and loading your own WAV files. Rounding out the connections are MIDI In/Out sockets and the power adaptor socket.

Performance

The playing surface of the HPD20 is a very tactile rubber composition that feels a bit nicer to play than previous incarnations of the HandSonic and isn't at all fatiguing on the hands.

The playing surface is divided into 13 segments or 'pads' of differing sizes; two large 'quarters' at the bottom and two smaller quarters above surround a circular centre pad about 5cm in diameter. Laid out around the top half are eight small pads ideally suited to playing with the fingers. As you might expect, the whole layout of the playing surface lends itself extremely well to hand-drum techniques, but that's only half the story: the HPD20 has a few nifty tricks up its sleeve when it comes to playing and performance.

Each pad can be assigned to a different sound — in fact, two sounds can be layered on each pad, with two further sounds assignable to the trigger input and D-Beam. As with most modern electronic percussion instruments, the sound will change according to how hard the pad is struck. With two sounds layered, it's possible to set a velocity crossfade to further enhance your performance. Taking a leaf from the book of Roland's high-end electronic kits, the two larger pads also have positional sensing, so that the sound changes according to where the pad is struck. This is fantastic for playing conga or frame drums, where you can achieve a rim sound by literally playing the rim! In addition, each pad can control the muting and pitch of other pads, so pressing one pad while striking another can mute or raise the pitch of the first pad.

To put this into a performance context, consider playing a conga sound. Hitting a real conga, you'd expect a fairly open sound with a degree of decay and that's exactly what you'd get with the HPD20. On a real conga, a typical playing technique is to place one hand on the drum head while hitting the drum with your other hand to achieve a mute sound. With the pad control options on the HPD20, suddenly this sort of performance is achievable with electronic percussion. Add to this pressing down on a pad to bend up the pitch of a tabla or using the D-Beam to control the 'squeeze' of a talking drum and it's possible to achieve amazing levels of realism with very natural playing techniques.

Sounds & Patches

As I mentioned, the HPD20 comes equipped with 850 drum and percussion sounds from around the world, along with melodic tones, loops and electronic noises organised into 100 factory patches or 'kits', with a further 100 empty user kits for your own creations.

Preset 001, the Cajon, is a great example of the uniqueness of the HPD20. The two smaller quarter pads offer the deep bass of the cajon body, with the two larger pads catering for the 'snare' sound. As you move toward the edge of the pad, the sound naturally changes to the more percussive crack you would get from hitting the top corners of a real cajon.

The remaining small pads offer Edge and Side strikes that are so realistic you feel you could almost tell the type and age of the wood! A handy splash cymbal is provided via the D-Beam, which gives the impression of reaching for a real cymbal as you play.

The sensitivity of the pads in a kit is adjustable from zero to seven or, in HPD20 parlance, from 'hand' to 'finger'. In addition, each pad has individual settings for sensitivity, threshold and response curve, which allows very expressive playing.

The HPD20 measures 31 by 40 cm and the pad itself is approximately 25cm across. The Djembe, Conga, Bongo and Frame Drum presets are just as impressive and articulate, the Tabla is a particular favourite for me, and employs all the performance tricks the HPD20 has to offer.

Traditional (and not so traditional) drum kits feature quite prominently in the HPD20's list of presets. Classic 808 and 909 sounds make an appearance alongside regular acoustic kits, brush kits and a number of electro and dance kits. Each kit has its key elements of kick, snare, hi-hat and toms laid out logically and (in most cases) consistently across the pads, with cymbals, percussion and other sounds typically assigned to the finger pads and D-Beam.

A number of pitched presets, such as the Marimba, Steel Drum and Lithophone, are provided, and I had great fun playing the hang drum preset, as it's an instrument I've always wanted to try.

Superb ethnic flavours are conjured up with kits such as 'African Song', 'Asian Perc', 'China', 'Samul Nori' and 'Island Dance'. Each one combines a number of sympathetic and co-ordinated percussion instruments to create a distinct flavour.

As you move through the higher numbers of the factory presets, more esoteric kits make an appearance: you should get a clue as to their character from names such as 'Beepy Beats', 'Wah Stepping' and 'Experimental', which include interesting loops and quite radical filter and delay effects. Speaking of which...

In Full Effect

Three independent editable multi-effects processors, a global ambience setting and a global EQ are offered by the HPD20. The multi-effects include the usual delay, reverb, modulation and distortion effects and can be configured differently for every kit. Each pad can then be assigned to any one of the effects, with the A & B instruments within in a layer assignable to a different effect. There is no option to adjust the send level to the effect, but you can adjust the overall effect level. This will then reduce the effect for all the pads currently assigned to it, but I can only see this lack of send level being an issue with something like reverb, and that is catered for by the Ambience settings.

Ambience is totally independent from the multi-effects engines and offers a choice of acoustic spaces in which to place your kit, from booth through to expo hall. Each pad then has a send parameter so you can apply as little or as much ambience as you need to the individual instruments. The Effect section is completed by a three-band parametric EQ applied to the kit as a whole.

The effects party doesn't end there, as the HPD20 also allows real-time control over one of the multi-effects processors and the pitch parameter, if you enable one or both of the Pitch and Effect buttons and turn the value knob. You can specify which of the three multi-effects processors is controlled by the value knob and also which pads will have their pitch affected. The LCD displays the real-time values as soon as the pitch or effect buttons are pressed, to give instant visual feedback of exactly what is being controlled. As far as I can tell, the parameter offered for real-time control is pre-defined according to the effect in use (delay feedback, reverb time and so on), and in most cases the chosen parameter is certainly the most relevant and effective one.

I found the urban and more modern kits made most use of the Pitch and Effect real-time modifiers, but of course they can be applied to any kit.

Time For A Quickie

The HPD20 is a pretty inspirational piece of kit and chances are that after playing around with it for a while you're going to hit upon a killer rhythm that's perfect for the track you're working on. But hold on, your DAW isn't booted up, and if you stop playing and set everything up, you'll forget what you had. Luckily, the HPD20 has a Quick Record function that will record your performance at the touch of a button, and provide a metronome click if you need one.

Capacity is around 30,000 notes, which should be more than enough to get an idea down! Any real-time pitch and effect changes you make while recording are also captured. As it's stored in RAM, the recording will disappear as soon as the unit is powered off, but the HPD20 has a trick up its sleeve. Any recording can be easily saved as a WAV file to a USB stick for later import into your DAW.

While we're on the subject of things that are quick, the second of the three soft buttons below the LCD accesses the Quick Edit features directly from the main Kit display, giving instant access to Volume, Tuning and Muffling parameters on the currently selected pad. Like almost all the edit windows, a small graphical representation of the HPD20 pad layout on the left of the screen highlights the currently selected pad, and the soft buttons and +/- keys or value knob allow you to quickly adjust parameters. This is a great way to tweak a kit and can easily be done in performance.

Digging Deeper

Of course, editing just the volume, tuning and muffling of an instrument may well not be enough. You'll probably want to edit kits to a much deeper level or create your own kits from scratch. Fortunately, the HPD20 offers a wealth of editing options.

Pressing the Menu button brings up six graphical menu options: Inst, Kit, FX, User Inst, Tools and Sys. Whether you're creating a kit or editing an existing preset, selecting Inst presents a display showing what sound is assigned to the currently selected pad. A small graphical representation of the Pad layout on screen lets you know exactly which pad you're working on. The 850 available factory sounds are sorted into groups (Latin, African, Asian, Kick, Snare, Orchestral, and so on), to make finding what you're looking for a little easier.

As I mentioned earlier, any pad can have two instruments assigned to it, in the form of layers which can either sound together or switch depending on velocity. This facility, in combination with the incredible instrument variations available, produces realistic and articulate kits.

Each instrument can then have its volume, tuning, sweep, muffling, colour, pan, Amb Send and MFX assignment edited. Volume and tuning are fairly self explanatory, although it's worth pointing out that the tuning range of the instruments is huge — up or down 2400 cents in increments of 10 cents (100 cents being a semitone). As you can imagine, very detailed tunings can be created. The Sweep parameter enables you to sweep the pitch of an instrument up or down, giving a slight bend to the sound, while the Muffling parameter, also available via Quick Edit, reduces the resonance or decay of an instrument, literally like muffling a drum with gaffer-tape. The Colour parameter adds brightness or, with a negative value, dulls the instrument tone. Amb Send sets the amount of the instrument sound that is sent to the Ambience processor, and MFX selects which of the multi-effects — MFX 1, 2 or 3 — is assigned to that instrument.

A Big Hand

I've been the proud owner of a HandSonic HPD10 for a year or two now. I use it live and in the studio and have found it to be an exceptional, invaluable and unique device. However, for me, the HPD20 is a significant step up in terms of both feature set and performance. The SuperNatural sounds are truly impressive, and their level of realism, plus the integration of percussionist-friendly acoustic playing techniques, really sets the HPD20 apart from other 'percussion controllers'.

Playing drum patterns with your hands and fingers, regardless of whether you are a drummer or not, is infinitely preferable to bashing out rhythms on a set of plastic keyboard keys, and if space is limited, the HPD20 is a viable alternative to a full electronic kit, particularly with the addition of a kick-drum pad and hi-hat controller pedal. It provides all the percussion sounds I could ever dream of (and some I hadn't dreamt of!) in an incredible-sounding and very playable format. The range of instruments and kits (and the additional scope offered by WAV import), along with real-time performance features such as the D-Beam and Pitch & Effects control, also mean that it could easily slot into more contemporary performance scenarios.

The WAV import facility really excited me and I wasn't disappointed with it in use. The ability to incorporate your own sounds, such as a vocal phrase or drum loop, into a kit works extremely well, is easy to manage and expands the appeal of the HPD20 enormously.

To sum up, it's very hard to fault the HPD20, as it has so many different facets and is so well executed. It's not cheap, but then neither is travelling the globe and amassing that many percussion instruments!  

Attention To Detail

Some truly amazing instruments are included in the HPD20, from the well-known conga and timbale to the esoteric Japanese nagado taiko and beyond. Many of the instruments include multiple variations: for example, you don't just get 'Bongo' as an instrument; you get the choice of — deep breath — Bongo Hi, Bongo H Inner, Bongo H Edge, Bongo H Slap, Bongo H/Heel, Bongo H/Toe, Bongo Low and Bongo L slap. Oh, and all of these are in both left- and right-hand versions!

USB Computer Support

If you're going to be using the HPD20 with your DAW, you'll be delighted with its USB socket for direct connection to your Mac or PC. This connection works for both audio and MIDI, presenting you with a stereo audio output from the HPD directly into your computer or a MIDI output that includes all the real-time performance data. However, now that there's USB connectivity, a basic editing program, like the one available for Roland's SPDSX sample pad, would have been a nice addition for quickly mapping out kits and managing instruments.

Wave Hello: WAV File Import

Having 850 of some of the world's most colourful percussion sounds literally at your fingertips should be enough for even the most demanding user, and if this were all the HPD20 had to offer, I would still be singing its praises. However, there's more: the ability to import WAV files.

Up to 500 user WAV files can be imported, or, at least, there are 500 user memory locations to load into. There is actually a finite amount of user memory available, but fortunately it amounts to 12 minutes in mono (16-bit, 44.1kHz) or six minutes in stereo.

WAV import is via USB memory stick. After formatting a USB stick in the HPD20, I plugged it into my Mac, where it happily mounted the desktop and I was able to drag and drop a number of WAV files to it.

Popping the stick back into the HPD20's USB slot and navigating to the User Inst menu page, I was then able to import the WAV files into the HPD20. It would seem that this has to be done one by one, as there is no bulk import option, but, fortunately, copying is pretty fast.

Once loaded into one of the 500 User Instrument locations, your WAV file is ready to be assigned to a pad in a kit. All of the HPD20's edit parameters work in exactly the same way on user WAV files as they do on the factory instruments.

As far as management is concerned, the List menu option lets you see all of the imported files and preview, name or delete them. In the list view, it's also possible to enable a loop feature on any of the user instruments, which simply loops the WAV file and is great for introducing rhythmic patterns into kits. It's worth noting here that the HPD20 has no actual sample-editing facilities, so you need to edit the imported WAV file on your computer to work as a loop.

SuperNatural Sounds

SuperNatural technology has been appearing in Roland products for a while now. It was initially introduced in certain digital pianos, and then synths, and is designed to increase the realism of digitally emulated traditional instruments.

Still based on PCM samples at its heart, the SuperNatural engine controls how each sample reacts to performance dynamics and nuances in technique, such as where on the drum head a strike actually lands. Unlike techniques such as velocity switching, SuperNatural sounds respond more smoothly to changes in playing style without 'stepping' between samples. The aim is to ensure that both the sound and the way the instrument responds to your playing are as, er, natural as possible. I can certainly vouch for its effectiveness in the HPD20.

Published September 2014