Did the world need another digital percussion instrument?
It’s a fair question, because there didn’t seem to be a glaring, unmet need.
Yet Roland saw one.
And the HandSonic HPD digital hand percussion instrument was their answer to this unsatisfied need.
Other than the somewhat limited Korg Wavedrum, most of the digital percussion instruments available can only be played with sticks.
If you prefer a digital percussion instrument you play the good old way – with your hands and fingers – then you will agree Roland’s HandSonic HPD-20, is yet another winner by the brand.
There is a lot to love, and admittedly some things you may not dig, about the HandSonic HPD-20. These also include old features inherited from the earlier models, the HPD-10 and the HPD-15.
This review will explore those and more features that make the HandSonic HPD-20 such a supremely capable digital hand percussion instrument.
Who Needs The HandSonic HPD-20?
But as a pad controller, the HPD-20 is not your usual one trick pony.
A stage performer’s dream and equally at home in the studio, this is a digital percussion instrument that puts incredibly useful tools in front of a specialist percussion musician.
But, honestly, the instrument has such a depth of sound and adaptability that it seems criminal to keep it away from DJs, drummers, and EDM and other studio producers.
Every digital instrument faces the same conundrum of mimicking the feel and experience of playing its acoustic version as realistically as possible.
Here it is the challenge of executing the same acoustic techniques on a digital hand percussion instrument as naturally as you do with congas, cajons, djembes, and other acoustic percussion instruments.
The HPD-20 manages that through its circular playing surface whose feel is reinforced by a bolt-fastened rim as well as a velocity sensitive and tactile rubber pads.
The electronic control panel is made not to interfere with the playing surface and yet it is still within easy reach of the player. It is an intuitive setup.
But the HandSonic HPD-20 isn’t a new instrument. It is, in fact, an updated version of the pioneering Roland HandSonic HPD-15 and its successor, the HPD-10.
These two pretty much made the digital hand percussion category. Yet, as the HPD-10 itself did to the HPD-15, it was due an update.
Or was it?
Many reckon, rather than saying this is an upgrade on earlier models, the HPD-20 should be seen as an entirely new instrument.
Indeed, you could be an owner of the old HPD-10 or the HPD-15 and are sitting there asking yourself:
Is it Worth Upgrading to The HandSonic HPD-20?
Yes, both the two earlier models have many raving fans.
And there is a lot of substance to their glowing adoration for the instruments.
Still, there was a lot of room for improvement. Under the hood, the Roland product developers made sure to include more of everything.
They also addressed a few concerns from the earlier models:
If you used the HPD-15 to trigger MIDI on your computer you will know what a pain setting those MIDI note numbers was. That's another of the pains the HPD-20 takes away.
All else aside, as a digital musical instrument, it is fair to say the instrument would be judged first by the quality of its sound and the depth of the sound bank itself.
You are more than covered on that score:
A Dizzying 850 Sampled Sounds to Choose From
The old HPD-10 has far fewer sounds to choose from compared to the HPD-20, which comes with 850 stock sounds.
These sounds include everything from the usual percussion sounds, orchestral, electro, live acoustic samples, to some experimental sounds you have never heard before.
And to make the sound bank more navigable, the 850 onboard sounds are grouped into categories like Latin, Asian, Snare, Kick, Orchestral, and others.
The HPD-20’s sounds are powered by Roland’s all-conquering SuperNATURAL sound engine.
This revolutionary sound sampling technology makes light work of the often complex task of recreating acoustic sounds for use on digital instruments.
Sounds sampled using the SuperNATURAL technology are crisper, fuller, and more realistic.
The old challenges of extreme pitch, exceptionally long decay times, and broad dynamic ranges of some acoustic instruments are simply, things of the past, with the SuperNATURAL sound engine.
What if you want to import sounds from your computer?
The Ability to Import WAV Files Expands Your Sound Bank Even Further
You have plenty of scope to build truly custom kits. What with 200 user-configurable kits, including 100 that are pre-filled with ready to play kits featuring different types of percussion and other synth and electronic sounds.
It can thus be argued the average person isn’t going to go through the HPD-20’s supersized sound bank.
But, just in case you do, or you prefer your own compositions, you can also import your own WAV files. That allows you to build your own custom kits.
To be exact, there are 500 user memory locations where individual WAV files can be loaded..
The sounds on the HPD-20 are clearly a treat for the sonic senses. What of our visual sensibilities?
Out With the White, in With the Black
Aesthetes will love that the HPD-20 spots a new, stylish black color.
You likely have your own feelings about which color should be considered cool and stylish, but in this case black instantly looks a cosmetic upgrade on the rather stifling white.
There is just something about the white color that makes digital instruments look more like toys than serious digital instruments.
The new black color goes well with the HPD-20’s subtly refreshed shape.
That the HPD-20 is an upgrade on the HPD-10 is clear. Roland have, as you would expect, pushed the boundary and gone on to produce a very competent digital instrument.
But if you have played the HPD-10 before, you will cringe at some of the features they chose to kill on the HPD-20 upgrade.
One that immediately comes to mind are the buttons directly above the playing surface that made it easier to switch between kits.
But while some may get hung up on that, the HPD-20 has a much improved menu, including Quick Edit as well as a handy back/exit button, which all get you to the features you want in as few steps as possible.
By the way, how cool is the separate volume control for the phones? The lack of it on earlier models was a constant irritant for many.
What Other Cool Features Does The HandSonic HPD-20 Offer?
Some of the changes on the HPD-20 may appear just cosmetic and, to some people, even insignificant.
Yet there are many that are downright functional. The power button, for example has been moved from the rear to the control panel.
Where you had to stretch or turn the instrument just to access the power switch you can now turn the instrument on and off without much effort.
Talking of the control panel:
Lesser Knobs and Sliders Deliver a Cleaner User Interface
The HPD-20’s LCD screen is positioned bang in the center of the control panel, with knobs and buttons for volume, kit selection, dedicated, real-time pitch and effect controls, as well as Roll and Quick Record buttons all sitting on its left.
On the right of the LCD screen you will find all the buttons for navigation and data entry. The menu button has four navigation arrows sitting directly beneath it.
Under the navigation keys are the +/- data entry keys that feature red back lights, which provide a nice contrast to the black background, especially at night.
The exit button also serves as the back key, giving you an easy way to navigate to previous menu screens. A shift button is also provided for quick access to secondary features and other key menu items.
Completing the control panel is the power switch that is located towards the upper right corner.
Yes, the power switch is right there in front of you, and not at the back.
The D-Beam Remains One Of The HandSonic Series’ Coolest Features
Well, by saying the power switch completes the control panel, I didn’t forget to mention the D-Beam. I just feel it deserves a special mention.
This feature deserves praise from every techno head, even if only for the ingenuity behind it..
The D-Beam, which sits right at the top of the control panel, triggers different sounds by simply waving your hand over it.
It even has a cymbal splash sound to recreate the experience of hitting real cymbal drum pads while you play.
The D-Beam aside is great. But the menu opens up some other powerful sound editing features that you can use to tweak existing presets as well as to customize and layer your own compositions.
If the factory sounds aren’t as rich as you would like there are three independent multi-effects processors, each with 25 different effects, to really spice things up.
And on to the rear panel. What’s behind there anyway?
Ample Room to Import Sounds and Trigger More Pad Controllers and Expand Your Set
We mentioned earlier that the HPD-20 allows for the importation of WAV files. The instrument makes that possible through the USB slots on the extreme left of the rear panel.
Simply copy your files from the computer and onto a USB flash drive. You can then plug the memory stick into the HPD-20 and proceed to copy the individual files and assign them to your preferred pads.
Besides the USB memory stick slot, there is also another port beside it for connecting the HPD-20 directly to your PC or Mac. This enables you to use the HPD-20 as an audio or MIDI interface and to record the instrument directly into your DAW software.
If you prefer connecting directly to your mixer during live shows, there are MIDI IN and OUT ports also provided.
Also on the rear panel:
Trigger inputs for the Roland Pad and Hi Hat controller help to expand your percussion setup.
Mixing in these additional instruments eliminates the need to rig additional e-drum sets, which makes for a compact percussion kit ideal for small venues and studio sessions.
Now, it is about time we discussed the playing surface itself. All the other features aren’t worth much if the pads are hard and unresponsive:
Responsive and Softer Pads Ensure Maximum Comfort and Expressive Playing
If you are familiar with the HPD-10, the first thing you will notice is the increased number of pads.
The designers seem to have settled on the middle ground with the 13 pads on the HPD-20, which is two less than the rather unwieldy HPD-15 and three more than the slightly more compact HPD-10.
At the bottom are two larger pads, with a small, circular one in the center and two more directly above. The remaining eight are finger pads that wrap around the upper edges of the top half of the playing surface.
The playing surface itself is nice and comfortable to play, but it's the technology under it that sets the controller apart..
The pads are velocity sensitive and allow for some fancy tricks for those who like to express themself.
For example, gently pressing on one pad while you play on another will bend the pitch of the note you are playing.
Depending on the instrument preset you have selected, hitting the larger, bottom pads close to the edges will produce a sharper percussion sound just as you would get with the real thing.
It gets better:
You can also assign two instruments to each pad, with the choice to either layer and play them together or switch as desired.
All 13 pads are individually assignable. This means you can truly customize the instrument by having your favorite instrument presets exactly where you want them.
The Misses and Flaws - Where The HPD-20 Could be Better
The HPD is a fabulously inspiring digital instrument. To be honest, it has very few obvious flaws.
But it is still not perfect.
The Quick Record feature, for one, is quite convenient. But, as the instrument only uses RAM for onboard storage, your recorded compositions disappear as soon as you power off the instrument.
You should thus immediately backup your kits and compositions to USB memory, otherwise you will lose them permanently on switching off.
Maybe that's stretching it, but it would have been great if you could edit and loop the Quick Record pieces.
And while the enlarged sound bank is great, that it bears no resemblance to the older models has inadvertently alienated old users.
Many will miss the Thunder, Ghatam, Bell Tree, Glass Crash, Afro Flam, and other sounds from the HPD-15..
A patch with all the old sounds it canned shouldn't be too much to ask from Roland.
Also, making any changes to the factory sounds permanent hasn't improved the instrument. Roland should just have added the ability to save any edit, if one so wishes.
That Roland provides a downloadable file to reset the instrument to its factory defaults is not quite the saving grace it’s intended to be.
What is the Verdict?
The HandSonic HPD-20 is not cheap. So, is it worth the investment?
You will probably find things you will not be so crazy about on the HPD-20. And that's OK.
But I encourage you to give this digital hand percussion pad a try.
While you do that, give the controller a fair shake. It is a complex instrument that will require a time investment to really learn all you can do with it.
Yes, it is easy to proclaim it the best digital hand percussion instrument on the market because there aren't many digital hand percussion controller choices available.
But this is a powerful, fabulously competent instrument into which a lot of effort was invested.
The instrument takes you on a round-the-world musical trip, with ethnic percussion sounds from Asia, Africa, South America, back to the experImental beats of North America, and others from many other places in between.
Remarkable as that is, all that seems the least of all its features.
The HPD-20 will give you a sound that's as closest to the real thing as you will get, with the added convenience of a compact and adaptable digital instrument.
Alternatives? Sadly there aren't many. The Korg Wavedrum isn't an exact substitute, but it's worth a look in.
So the verdict is YES, get yourself the Roland HandSonic HPD-20 right away and go have some fun.