As a non-drummer and non-percussionist, while always being slightly in awe of producers and live performers whose work is enhanced by drum controllers, I've never found the technology all that appealing. I'm perfectly capable of sound designing, beat-building and sequencing percussive material via a controller keyboard or through judicious use of my chosen DAW's mouse. With that in mind, I've never considered that a dedicated percussion controller is an expense I could justify. Without question, the subject of this review, the Mandala Drum, is the exception that could yet bust my rule wide open. Yes, it's a percussion controller and yes, I'm still not a drummer, but this is the first surface of this type that I've actually felt I could "play" and, furthermore, one that could actually allow me to work with my computer in brand new ways.
Before we discover what all that might mean, let's have a look at what Mandala Drum is and what you get for your money. In the box, you'll find the drum itself, which features a round, pad-based playing surface framed within a nine-sided durable plastic shell with the Mandala logo towards one edge. Recessed in one side is the USB connector while elsewhere in the box you'll find a USB cable of generous length, two nuts to allow the drum to be screwed to a drum frame and a pair of drum sticks. Despite the inclusion of these, Mandala Drum is as happy to be played with your hands, if you prefer a more tactile approach to sound control.
This is a drum surface which relies on a symbiotic relationship with software to do its best work. This is provided in the form of the Virtual Brain software, which is supplied, alongside a generous sample collection of sounds, on a DVD. Once launched, the Virtual Brain provides a flexible interface for configuration of the pad. You can load entire kits, specify which samples will be triggered from different areas on the pad surface, decide how hit strength and position will translate to sample playback and more besides. Indeed, the Virtual Brain software also extends to comprehensive effects setup with "per sound" and global effects capabilities available simultaneously, giving you the option to add high-quality reverb and delay and more "out there" effects including distortions, bitcrushers and ring shifters. At present, the Virtual Brain isn't available as a VST, RTAS or AU plug-in (though this is planned for the future), so you either need to content yourself to run it in standalone mode or be ready to route it into your DAW via Rewire, which works nicely. Despite this, I do feel that the direct plug-in version will find many fans, widening Mandala's appeal to studio-based producers even more.
However, the main reason Mandala stands apart from the competition is due to its hugely flexible, configurable playing surface. Despite the drum appearing to offer a single playing area, with no delineation between sound sources, in reality the surface is made up of concentric circular areas (called Zones) which refer to Centre, Mid-In, Mid-Out, Edge, Rim and X-Stick, all of which can have individual sounds loaded to them before they can be modified with effects and specific parameter configurations. Each sound can respond to 128 layers of velocity data with velocity assignable to the parameters of your choice meaning, for instance, that rather than only being able to control the volume of sample playback, you can as easily use Mandala to trigger pitched sequences, progressively filtered sounds and so on.
As you can expand the library of available sounds with whichever audio samples you like, this open-ended system is hugely powerful. In fact, you can even scale velocity curves for each pad and assign envelopes per pad too, so the complexity of any set-up can be as simple or involved as you like. The X-Stick area allows you to trigger sounds via the Rim and then manipulate them by pressing on the main surface area, which I hope gives you some idea of just how performance-oriented this surface is capable of being. A Dashboard window allows you to configure each of the Zones individually so if you load a whole kit, it's then possible to swap sounds out, control their volume, pan, pitch, effects, tone control and shape individually, as well as decide how each will feed into global effects control.
However, Mandala goes way beyond velocity being its only assignable control. Every time you strike the surface, as well as "strength of hit," the position is scrutinized carefully, with this information also transmitted to the Virtual Brain software to create timbral control of your sounds. So, again, you could set the pad up to trigger higher pitches towards the middle and progressively lower ones as you play towards the edge, or assign this position data to other parameters you like.
Of course, as Mandala is a USB controller, it's perfectly capable of taking other plug-ins to task and it's hugely fun to try this out. In terms of tightness of integration, though, Mandala is particularly capable of forming a meaningful relationship with NI's Battery 3. Due to its ability to respond to Mandala's strike positions and velocity information, and assign that to specific cells within a kit, Battery 3 and Mandala make perfect dance partners. Whereas most other percussion controllers are interested only in an output message triggering a specific cell and providing its volume control, it's possible to set up Mandala and Battery together so that even the most subtle position/velocity changes trigger variations within a Battery cell or a completely different sample if you prefer. With a few tweaks to existing kits, Battery suddenly becomes a much more complex and sensitive instrument playable in a way that controller keyboards and most percussive controllers simply can't access.
Unlike the majority of percussion controllers on the market, Mandala deserves a wider audience than drummers alone. Firstly, its design, without obvious distinguishable "zones," means that you spend less time looking at it and more time exploring its musical possibilities, which can't be said of all of its rivals. Secondly, the Virtual Brain software actively encourages sound design of all kinds—you're as likely to use it to explore far-flung sonic reaches as you are the perfect regular drum or percussion patch. The wide range of sounds on offer, the opportunity to readily integrate your own samples, the excellent and extensive internal effects settings and, above all, sheer perform-ability of this instrument all combine to make it not just a great percussion surface, but a great sonic work-horse and all-purpose controller combined.