Synesthesia Mandala USB Drum review: Synesthesia Mandala USB Drum

Synesthesia Mandala USB Drum

Donald Bell

Donald Bell

Senior Editor / How To

Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.

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4 min read

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.


Synesthesia Mandala USB Drum

The Good

The Synesthesia Mandala USB drum system turns your computer into a professional-quality electronic drum rig, for an affordable price.

The Bad

Ugly software that's hard to install; no standard MIDI jack.

The Bottom Line

The Synesthesia Mandala USB drum system is a fun product that is both physically and technically solid. However, the software interface and installation issues need work.

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.

The Mandala Virtual Brain software is incredibly flexible, despite installation headaches and a somewhat rough design.

The second program included with the Mandala drum is geared toward drummers looking for a realistic virtual snare drum. The program, called The Beauty, uses 3,000 recorded samples (3GB worth) from the prized Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum to create a responsive and incredibly authentic-sounding virtual drum. Each of the 3,000 drum samples used in The Beauty represent a different zone of the same drum being struck, each with 20 increasing degrees of intensity. The result is a virtual drum that, when struck, will send your computer detailed information about the position and velocity of the strike, and produce a drum sample that accurately reflects a real drum being hit in the same way, with the same force. To further increase the realism of The Beauty, Synesthesia randomly incorporates multiple recording takes of the same drum hit, so that no two hits will sound identical when played right after one another.

While the features of the Synesthesia Mandala are an incredible value at this price, the product is not for everyone. Installing and using the software is a huge headache (on both Mac and PC), compounded by the always-daunting task of configuring your computer's audio card. If a team of CNET geeks can't get a basic digital audio application to successfully install on a computer, what hope is there for the groupie-laden rock stars of the world to figure it out?

After our prolonged installation issues were resolved by a call to Synesthesia's technical support, we found the included applications to be both useful and extraordinarily responsive when paired with the Mandala drum pad. While we can't complain about the features and sound quality of the included software, the user-interface of each application isn't much to look at when compared with popular drum sample programs such as Battery by Native Instruments. We should also warn you that the Mandala's audio quality and timing latency are directly tied to the performance of your computer and its audio card--your results may vary.

While software and computer performance are the Achilles heel of this system, it's hard to find any fault with Mandala's hardware. The Mandala drum pad could probably be run over by a truck and still keep on ticking. We do wish, however, that Synesthesia would include a standard MIDI output on the pad to complement the USB jack.


Synesthesia Mandala USB Drum

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 6