Roland’s HandSonic, also known as the HPD-15, has been on the market for a little over five years. Designed to link percussionists that use a hand drumming playing technique to the world of electronic percussion, it remains a unique percussion controller to this day.
In case you’re not familiar with the HandSonic, here’s a brief overview of some of the specifications: 15 pressure sensitive pads arranged in a circular fashion, 160 factory patches and 80 user patches, 600 instrument sounds (primarily percussion), 64-voice polyphony, built-in 4-track sequencer, two ribbon controllers, and a “D-Beam” controller. To give the player even more control, the HPD-15 has inputs for a kick trigger, hi-hat controller, expression pedal, and footswitch.
We interviewed three HandSonic experts to get their take on the instrument and offer up a few suggestions for your reading and performing pleasure. Mike Snyder has been working with the HandSonic for many years as a Roland product specialist. He’s recorded several CDs and played for both film and TV productions. Tommy Snider (no relation to Mike) currently lives in Paris and has been involved in Roland’s drum and percussion R&D for more than 20 years. His experience on the HandSonic goes back to before it was an actual product. Brad Dutz is familiar to readers of DRUM! for his educational columns, but he’s also a genuine HandSonic guru. In addition to his ten solo CDs, Dutz’s credits include playing with some of the biggest names in the industry.
Live & In The Studio. It seems that the HandSonic is equally at home in the live performance venue or the studio. Most of Snyder’s experience is in the studio but he adds “the times I have used the HandSonic in a live setting, mainly as an addition to a drum set, it’s caused a noticeable ’stir’ in the audience. People have just never seen anything like it.” When taking the HPD -15into the studio, Snider has a few suggestions. “Any generalized EQ setting really doesn’t work when recording the HandSonic, or using it live, for that matter. It really depends on what type of sounds the player is using. In general the HPD is rich in the low-end.”
He offers a great tip for getting that perfect live sound. “Whenever possible, I record something quickly in real time into the sequencer, then start the playback, and go into the room or hall to hear what it sounds like through the P.A. Then I can adjust the general EQ, and if needed, I’ll adjust the kit levels, and/or individual sound levels.”
All three of our specialists agree that — live or in the studio — the internal sounds of the HPD are so good that they don’t need to MIDI the machine into another sound generator or computer. In fact, Dutz hasn’t MIDI’d the HPD to anything. Snider told us that he uses “only internal sounds. With all the editing on board, you can tune any instrument to whatever musical environment you’re working in.” Snyder comments on both the sounds and the touch. “The internal sounds, for the most part, are very acoustic-like. Now, if I were a keyboard player and not a drummer, I’d be using the HandSonic to program all my drum and percussion parts, regardless of the sound source. Its great sensitivity makes it perfect for the subtle touch of a keyboardist.”
When you first get your hands on the HPD-15, it’s a wonderful feeling to call up a conga patch, play a basic pattern, and hear the instrument respond in a highly natural manner. But playing the HandSonic in an unnatural manner can also be a lot of fun. The five larger central pads along with the ten smaller pads offer multiple triggering possibilities — layering and contrapuntal performance — that just aren’t available with any other percussion controller. Our boys agree that each performer has to approach the instrument on its own terms and in their own way.
“This is where the challenge of creating your own playing technique comes in,” Snider says. “That’s also part of the fun too.” Using this technique, “one player can sound like two or three percussionists who play perfectly together. And even if they play bad, they’re still together.” He continues that even though the HPD is designed as a hand drum, “it’s a completely different instrument with different dynamics and hand positions. Of course, hand techniques, stamina, finger control, and independence all contribute to a more dynamic and creative performance.”
Snider offers up an example of his performance technique with Preset 01/13, Pandeiro. He explains, “With the right hand, the fourth finger moves between the last four small pads — cowbells and other instruments — and the forefinger always plays on the upper large right pad, and the right-hand thumb on the lower large right pad. The left hand is playing with the thumb on the large lower left pad and the other fingers on the upper large left pad.”
Dutz tends to play the instrument “with both hands — left on the lower left pad and right hand on the lower right pad — with the middle three fingers, just as I would when playing a frame drum between the legs. This can lead to many rapid tablaesque grooves. Generally, I use the larger pads more often, especially for quick switches.” He offers an especially useful application by adding, “I took two hand-clap samples and raised one pitch and lowered the other, and made different decays with different reverbs. Then I created a patch with one of the sounds on the lower left pad and one on the lower right pad. I played them at the same time, even with a slight flam, and got a very large realistic sound of several people clapping together.”
“Playing two or more sounds together opens up a new dimension of sound,” Snyder says. “I can do things that I can’t do in the acoustic world, like claves, triangle, and cowbell together at the same time.” He agrees that playing the HPD requires “a lot of finger techniques. Seems that all that drumming on the tabletop and the back of the steering wheel is now paying off. The pads are incredibly sensitive. You can play right at the edge of the pad, right next to another pad and there is no false triggering or crosstalk.”
Since the pad layout of the HPD is not the typical black/white pattern of a keyboard, performing melodic passages can be confusing. Snyder doesn’t use the HandSonic for much more than playing very simple melodic parts. “That being said, I’ve seen people take the melodic side of the HPD-15 to the edge,” he adds. “Tommy Snider knocks my socks off with what he does melodically. He uses a whole new finger/hand technique.” However, Snider modestly states, “When I use it melodically, I basically create my instrument for the song, and assign and tune sounds in a way that lets me play it easily. Sometimes melodic sounds are only on the outside ten pads; sometimes to all the pads.” Dutz states that he uses the melodic features of the HPD for “pitched gongs, balaphone, and gyilli,” yet confesses, “layouts are still random on my melodic patches.”