A Mother's Touch
Roland A50 Mother Keyboard
Roland have left the business of making MIDI controller keyboards up to others for at least three years, but have now just released two new models. Paul Ireson gets carried away with Roland's latest mother keyboard, the A50.
Mother (or should that be master?) keyboards are rarely essential purchases, but they do make life an awful lot easier. In almost any situation, more keys and a better quality keyboard than that found on all but the most up-market synthesizers are welcome, and for anyone who uses a MIDI system live, the ability to control instruments on several MIDI channels and recall the correct patches on all slaved modules for particular songs is invaluable. In short, a mother keyboard makes controlling whatever MIDI setup you have easier - and whether it makes a big or small difference depends on the kind of setup you have and how you use it.
It's quite a while since Roland produced anything in this area: around three years ago they came out with the MKB1000 and MKB200 controller keyboards to accompany their first keyboardless synth expanders, but since then this product area has been left entirely to other manufacturers to fill. Until now, that is, for Roland have just unveiled their new mother keyboards, the A80 and A50. Mother keyboards always seem to come in pairs: one with a semi-weighted plastic keyboard, and the other with a longer, wooden keyboard with a heavier piano action. This is the case with the A50/A80 team. The A50 is the 76-note plastic keyed version, and the A80 is its wooden, 88-key big brother. Or should that be big mother? The French would never get so confused about the gender of an inanimate object.
It's the A50 that I have sitting in front of me now, and although the two models differ in the type of keyboard they offer, the internal electronics are identical. So, everything in this review applies equally to the A80, with the exception of the keyboard response.
Those identical electronics allow the keyboards to control a MIDI setup in a number of ways, each of 64 Patches storing a single configuration of the system. Up to four slave instruments can be simultaneously controlled from the keyboard, using splits and layers if necessary. A second keyboard can be hooked up to act as a supplement to that of the mother keyboard: when routed through the A50 it produces identical performance data, enabling a strap-on remote keyboard, for instance, to take advantage of the split and layer facilities that it does not itself possess. MIDI Controller data (Volume, Pan, Hold etc) can be generated in real time either via front panel sliders and switches, or optional footswitches. Program Change messages can be transmitted for each Patch, to recall the correct sounds for all slaved instruments, and there is a facility to store and recall System Exclusive data stored in Patches.
The A50 looks good - clean, simple lines in matt black; so if appearance counts in your choice of master keyboard (you've got the job backing Phil Collins, and just can't be seen with anything uncool...), it should fit the bill.
The front panel is notable mainly for a large LCD display. Contrast is adjustable via a small knob on the rear panel. The back of the A50 is well supplied with sockets which either expand the MIDI control potential of the basic keyboard, or distribute the MIDI data that carries all that controlling information. There are seven MIDI sockets in all: four Outs; one Thru; and two Ins. Up to six footswitches can be connected: two for controlling Patch shift, and four for generating MIDI Controller data. The power supply of the A50 is internal - very wise on a unit that is aimed in part at the gigging musician, who wants as few separate power supplies as possible kicking - or being kicked - around.
Whereas in the previous Roland mother keyboard pair, the cheaper of the two models only had a five octave keyboard, the A50's spans 76 keys - six and a half octaves. I personally find this extra length very useful, and well nigh essential for any keyboard that claims to be a comprehensive MIDI controller. For playing piano sounds — always an important reference point - five octaves really is not enough - far too restricting. But even for original synthesizer sounds that are not going to be played in a two-handed piano style, there are major benefits to having a longer keyboard. It makes it that much easier to try out and play sounds over a greater range, saving on a good deal of transposing up or down of keyboard or module that might otherwise be required. Whilst it's true that the transposing would not actually be that much trouble, a mother keyboard is about convenience and control, so the longer keyboard pays off all round. The keyboard of the A50 is a very good one: the right balance between an easy unweighted feel that suits synth sounds, and the resistance that befits a piano.
There's more to MIDI control than just a few keys, however - Pitch Bend and Modulation are an important part of almost everyone's playing technique, presumably because they're the next most significant ways of introducing expression after keyboard dynamics. In fact, the A50 offers all three common types of Pitch Bend and Modulation control - the traditional wheels side-by-side, the Korg-type joystick, and the Roland-style bender/lever. It's very easy for players to develop a strong preference for one type or the other - you stick with what you know and like - so Roland have very sensibly included both the traditional and Roland-type controls on the A50. Both are active at the same time, so if you want to set a Modulation amount with the (unsprung) traditional wheel, and then control Pitch Bend with the Roland lever, you're free to do so.
The most important element in the A50's control structure is the Zone. Four Zones are available in each Patch, allocated to independent MIDI channels, and each can be assigned to any keyboard range - any combination of splits and layers that involves only four Zones is therefore possible. It was whilst programming these keyboard Zones that I first began to really appreciate the A50's highly informative LCD display. The page that allows the editing of keyboard Zones includes a graphic display of an 88-note keyboard, with a dark horizontal bar running across the keyboard to show which part of it controls the current Zone. Middle C and the upper and lower limits of the A50's 76-note keyboard are marked. This is obviously far easier to interpret than 'From' and 'To' note numbers. A further page, called View, allows an overview of how all four Zones are assigned across the keyboard.
Each Zone has more to it than just a keyboard range and MIDI channel. Other aspects of control that can be individually specified for each Zone are Velocity curve, Aftertouch curve, PG (Program Change) number, and MIDI Controller messages. The Velocity curve determines how the dynamics of playing the A50's keyboard translate into MIDI Velocity messages. Seven basic curves are available, ranging from linear to an S-shaped response, and three of the curves have negative response - the harder the keys are played, the lower the transmitted Velocity values.
Besides the basic curve, other parameters can further influence the transmitted Velocity values. For example, Scale applies a multiplying factor to the raw values, of between 50% and 200%. Offset adds a constant value to the output values, and Hold-off moves the start point of the dynamics curve so that the keys must be played harder before the curve starts to take effect. The A50's default Velocity curve and parameters suited me very well for normal playing, but a little tweaking allowed a much lighter touch to produce the full range of dynamics or reduce the range of Velocity values generated (to a range of a single, specific value if necessary) when a sound called for it.
Whilst this facility can simply be used to tailor dynamic response of the keyboard to individual playing styles, in conjunction with the layering of Zones it also allows effects such as velocity mixing and velocity switching of sounds to be produced. If two Zones are layered, one having a positive linear Velocity response curve and the other a negative linear response, the balance between the two sounds will change continuously as the keys are played harder.
A second keyboard can be incorporated into the system via one of the two MIDI Ins (MIDI In 2) at the rear of the A50. This accepts an Omni input (ie. all channels), and merges the incoming note data with that from the A50's keyboard before working out how the notes are going to be transmitted on different channels to produce splits and layers. The main point of this is that it is possible to use a remote, perhaps shoulder-slung, keyboard in parallel with the A50, the two keyboards producing identical performances. Another interesting possibility is also opened up: given that some sounds are better suited to being played by a weighted keyboard and others by a plastic synth-type keyboard, both types of keyboard can be used to provide identical control by use of the second MIDI In.
The data received at MIDI In 1 is merged with the data for all four Zones once all splits and layers have been worked out, and the merged data sent to the four MIDI Outs. The single MIDI Thru echoes the input of MIDI In 1.
When each Patch is selected, several MIDI messages are sent on the MIDI channel set for each Zone. Program Change is the most important of these, allowing the correct sound to be selected for each Zone's instruments. MIDI Volume and Modulation values are also sent, and Pitch Bend transmission enabled or disabled for each Zone. The Modulation value might seem like an odd message to send when selecting a new Patch, but if a particular sound is generally played with just a touch of Modulation applied, the facility to transmit a suitable value saves the player having to remember to tweak the Mod wheel when selecting the Patch.
Program Changes, Song Selection and MIDI Stop and Start messages can all be sent live. Each of the four Zones can be muted or soloed in performance. This enables a single Zone to be removed from a layered arrangement of four, or played solo and the other three silenced. Each of the four MIDI outputs can also be soloed or muted, and the mute/solo arrangements of Zones and MIDI outputs are memorised for each Patch.
Each Zone can produce MIDI Controller data, as well as that produced from the keyboard and Pitch Bend/Modulation controls. Controller data is generated from three sets of sources: the four sliders and four switches on the front panel, and the four optional footswitches. Each of these sources can be assigned to any MIDI Continuous Controller. A built-in 'learn' function reads MIDI Control Change numbers sent to the MIDI In 2 port (from a sequencer, say) and assigns them to the performance controls automatically — a very convenient feature. The front panel switches can only produce on/off data (0 or 127), which makes them more appropriate to Controllers such as Sustain or Chorus rather than Pan or Volume. Both momentary contact (sustain pedal-type) or volume pedals can be employed with the four footswitch sockets, in any combination. Obviously, a momentary contact switch can only generate on/off data as with the front panel switches, so for any Controller which recognises continuous values, a volume pedal would be more suitable. A single momentary contact footswitch is supplied with the A50.
Obvious implementations of these control facilities are using the four sliders to control the MIDI Volume of the instrument assigned to each Zone, or connecting two pedals to provide Sustain and Chorus on/off. But why restrict yourself to the obvious? Try assigning one slider to control the volume of all four Zones, and the other three to control effects parameters in real time on a unit like the Quadraverb.
Although each Patch consists primarily of a configuration of the four Zones, as the principal means of organising the A50's MIDI control, other data is written into the Patches. An effects section can transmit Program Change messages to four further MIDI units, on MIDI channels other than those of the four Zones. As the name suggests, it is intended mainly for controlling effects units, though there are other applications. I used a Roland U110 with the A50, and because of the patch structure on that instrument, the effects section proved rather useful: the U110 has a control channel, which determines patch selection. Each of the U110 patches can be multitimbral, so it is necessary to provide a dedicated control channel for patch selection. This is not the same MIDI channel that any of the multitimbral parts are played on, or tones for each of the parts selected on, so I sometimes required the ability to specify a Program Change number on a channel other than those assigned to the keyboard Zones.
Patches can be given names up to 16 characters in length, allowing you to identify them with something less cryptic than a mere number. It is also possible to rename each MIDI channel, so that instead of the A50 describing each channel as 'Channel X' whenever it is shown on the display, a user-defined name of up to 10 characters can be substituted. So Channel 10 can become'Drums', Channel 16 can become 'U110', and Channel 15 'Quadraverb'. That's what I call user-friendly.
A particularly stage-oriented feature is the ability to arrange Patches into Chains. 32 Chains of up to 32 Patches can be created, and each given a name up to 16 characters in length. Two of the rear panel's footswitch sockets are dedicated to Patch/Chain shift, so Chains can be selected either via the front panel or with the footswitches, and then the links of the Chain stepped through by either method.
A very useful feature of the A50 is its ability to store up to 13,000 bytes of System Exclusive data. The data can be stored in any Patch, though Patches cannot be used for both System Exclusive storage and 'normal' use. If they are used for System Exclusive storage, they are restricted solely to storing and recalling System Exclusive data. The data stored could be patch data for an instrument, a very short sample, or individual patches for every expander in your setup.
The stored data is re-transmitted when the Patch is recalled, a procedure which takes several seconds and initially led me to believe that something was wrong with the A50. When scrolling through the Patches with the cursor buttons, I would come to the Patch just before one containing System Exclusive data. Another press of the cursor button should have brought me to that Patch, but in fact the display informed me that I was still on the current Patch. Another couple of nudges on the cursor button again produced no result - until a few seconds later when the A50 jumped three or four Patches ahead, in accordance with all the button-pushing I'd done when the unit appeared to be locked up. When the A50 was apparently not responding, it was in fact transmitting the System Exclusive data stored in the Patch I had just selected - although the display did not update itself to tell me that I'd selected the Patch until after all the data had been transmitted. It would perhaps be a little less confusing if the display would update immediately, displaying the new Patch number and a message saying something like 'Please wait, transmitting SysEx data...'.
The entire contents of the A50's memory can be dumped to a memory card, or to a sequencer in the form of System Exclusive data.
Editing on the A50 is made as easy as possible, by a combination of logical structure, the large display, and a few thoughtful touches. The LCD display is put to good use by employing a menu-driven editing structure: each page is easily read, and where appropriate includes a graphic display (eg. of Velocity curves). Each has a menu bar along the bottom to allow the selection of further pages, and selection is carried out via the five menu buttons located just below the display window.
Parameters on each page can be changed with the usual combination of cursor and value buttons, or alternatively with the four front panel sliders, which change function when edit mode is enabled. On each page, the sliders are assigned to one of the variable parameters. The assignment is fixed, so there's no need to mess about assigning a slider to a parameter before changing it. When specifying Zone ranges, the keyboard can be used to enter note values directly.
Although many MIDI devices allow their patches/effects to be named, the naming procedure can often be made somewhat laborious by the scarcity of front panel controls and the need to scroll through two sets of letters (upper and lower case) plus all the usual extra characters. On the A50, things are made somewhat easier by the use of all four sliders to enter characters. The first is used only to enter blank spaces, the second and third handle upper and lower case letters respectively, and the fourth enters all the remaining characters.
I was mildly surprised to find no Write option available when editing, to give me the choice of either replacing the original Patch with the new version I'd just created, or going back to scratch. The point of such a system is to allow you to return to an unedited version of the Patch should you make any changes that you regret. The reason for the A50's apparent lack of such a feature soon became clear however, with a little help from a glance at the manual. Rather than place the edited version of the Patch in a memory buffer and require you to specify that it is to replace the old version of the Patch, the system is reversed: as soon as you start to edit a Patch, the A50 copies the original Patch into a memory buffer, and all changes to the Patch are written straight into the 'real' memory, avoiding the need for a Write function to make changes permanent. However, it is still possible to recall the original Patch, with an Undo function that simply replaces the edited version of the Patch with that copied over before you actually made any changes.
One of the minor bugbears of the MIDI world is the variety of standards used to specify program/patch numbers: 0-127 in MIDI terms, almost anything when it comes to different synthesizer makes and models. Roland have recognised this in the Program selection aspect of the Zones. For each Program memorised, it is possible to specify what format of patch number this is described as on the LCD display. Nine different modes are available: A/B, Bank 1-8, Number 1-8; Int/Cart, Bank A-H, Number 1-8; Bank A/B, Number 1-16; Bank A/B, Number 1-32; Int/Cart, Number 1-32; Number 1-128; Number 00-99; Hexadecimal 00h-7Fh. The Program number is also displayed in the A50's internal format: A/B, Bank 1-8, Number 1-8 (A 11, etc).
Mother keyboards are by necessity fairly functional items, and don't have an awful lot of character - it's very hard to get attached to one in the way that it is a synthesizer whose sound you love. Nevertheless, the A50 has much that will win it a place in the heart of anyone who chooses it as their main controlling keyboard. The feel and length of the keyboard are right, the wide choice of Modulation and Pitch Bend controls should satisfy everyone, and there are excellent and plentiful facilities for realtime control over all aspects of a MIDI system. On top of this, editing of Patches and Chains is as easy as it could reasonably be, due in no small part to an unusually user-friendly LCD display.
All in all, the A50 does its job of managing the MIDI control of a keyboard-based setup very well indeed, and looks good enough to pose behind on stage or on Top Of The Pops. And that's really just about all you can ask of a mother keyboard.
£1395 inc VAT.
Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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