The Synesthesia Mandala ($349) is an advanced electronic drum used to play sounds through your computer. Not to be confused with those novelty desktop electronic drum sets made for bored executives, the Mandala is a serious piece of gear meant to withstand the rigors of a touring drummer. That said, aspiring drummers and Rock Band addicts might find the Mandala's relatively affordable price and advanced software too good to pass up. Mandala requires a robust computer with a decent sound card and loads of RAM. Technophobes and those with museum-worthy computers should stay clear.
When you open the box for the Synesthesia Mandala, you'll see a handful of software installation discs (both Mac and PC) and a stunning, purple and black drum pad shaped like a flat, circular, nine-sided polygon. At its widest point, the Mandala drum pad measures just over a foot, with a depth of 1.75 inches. On the back edge of the Mandala you'll find a USB jack and a secure polished chrome bracket for mounting the pad on a standard drum stand. With the exception of the bracket and the playing surface, the Mandala is constructed entirely with an extremely hard plastic that feels tough enough to use as battle shield. The playing surface of the Mandala is covered with a film of rubber that emulates (as much as possible) the feel of a snare drum head.
What makes the Synesthesia Mandala drum pad different is that, unlike many electronic drum pads that simply respond to how hard you hit (velocity), the Mandala can detect what area of the pad is being hit (strike placement). The two pieces of software included with the Mandala take advantage of the pad's strike placement sensitivity in different ways.
The main program used with the Mandala is called the Mandala Virtual Brain. It is arguably the most fun of the two programs. After connecting the Mandala hardware to your computer using the included 6-foot USB cable, the Virtual Brain software lets you assign different virtual instruments (piano, drum, synthesizer, etc.) to each of the different strike zones of the pad (seven zones in total). For instance, you could configure the Mandala to trigger a bass drum sound when struck in the middle of the pad, and a snare drum sound when hit near the edge. Dozens of preset configurations are included with the software, ranging from authentic tabla hand-drum emulations, to bizarre synthesizer drones, all of which can be customized to suit your taste or replaced by your own set of sounds.