Roland Mother System
Roland's innovative MIDI set-up; Mother Keyboard, Planet-P piano voice module, Planet-S synth module, and the impressive Super Jupiter... an in-depth test.
Jim Betteridge considers whether Roland's Mother Keyboard and modules will give musicians new found freedom.
One of the magnificent effects of MIDI has been to allow the widespread separation of actual synthesis circuity — VCO's, VCF's, programming controls etc, from the performance circuitry — keyboard, mod wheels etc; ie the birth of the expander; the keyboardless synth. Most of the major synth manufacturers have either produced one or have one in the pipeline.
This has spelt liberation for some companies, for instance Oberheim have been able to produce arguably the most sophisticated analogue synth in the world, including velocity and pressure sensitivity, without having to spend, for them, impossibly large amounts of time and money developing an equally sophisticated keyboard to go with it. Thus anyone who owns a MIDI velocity and pressure sensitive instrument can command the Oberheim Expander's considerable analogue power via the simple magic of a DIN to DIN lead.
A severe limitation on man's design and operation of musical instruments is the fact that he only has two hands. With the fact of this limitation in mind, it can be seen that MIDI has another case to present: it is pointless, or at least inefficient, to be surrounded by innumerable keyboards when you can only play two at a time.
Possibly a more sensible approach to the situation lies in the use of a single 'mother' keyboard from which all instruments can be controlled. This could allow the musician continuity of keyboard feel and dramatically reduce the amount of hardware required actually on stage. The idea has already been fairly successfully implemented in the shape of the various 'over the shoulder' MIDI remote keyboard controllers — e.g. Yamaha's KX-1 and KX-5 and Korg's RK-100. These also offer the performer the added advantage of physical freedom to pose about with the band's guitarists in search of limelight.
Roland's MKB-1000 (Mother Keyboard-1000), on the other hand, cannot reasonably be considered as suitable for over the shoulder applications. To the nearest inch it measures 58"x23"x6" weighing a thought provoking 109lbs, and costing an overdraft provoking £1,665.00.
Roland's intention is that this one keyboard should be used to control all a performer's MIDI instruments, and hence it has been designed to match up to the most sophisticated instruments on the market.
The matt black finish of the MKB-1000 is simple but slickly appealing. It has an 88-note, weighted action wooden keyboard with both velocity and pressure sensitivity, and a playing feel equal to that of any other similar keyboard on the market. It has the facility to independently address either one or both of two selectable MIDI channels at a time. In practical terms, this means that either one or both of two instruments (or groups of instruments switched to 'listen' on the same channel) can be selected to be played simultaneously.
In the 'whole' mode, the complete keyboard can be used to address either one of the two channels. In the 'split' mode the keyboard is divided into two at a user-definable point such that the lefthand side addresses one channel, while the righthand addresses the other. It's more or less like having two synths on one keyboard. The third mode is 'dual', which is where the two channels are being addressed simultaneously over the complete width of the keyboard, with the two sets of sounds being layered on top of each other. Each channel can also be selected to play in either the mono or poly mode. This relates purely to standard key assign formating, ie whether the instrument acts like a mono or poly synth, and has nothing to do with MIDI modes. In fact the MKB works only in MIDI's poly mode, meaning that it is neither able to address all 16 channels at one time (omni mode), nor handle the greater complexities of the mono mode in which, for example, different voices of a single synth might be separately addressed. In practical terms, however, this is unlikely to result in any serious limitations.
The ability to send the MIDI information from each half of the split keyboard on a separate MIDI channel is very useful, making it genuinely possible to play two instruments at one time. At present this facility is, at least, very rare, and isn't included even on such hi-tech instruments as the Yamaha DX-1 and the SCI Prophet T8. This omission is rather surprising as it seems such an obviously useful tool. I am told that both the Emulator and Fairlight MIDI software packages, once completed, will be able to send a split over two channels, but as to whether each preset will contain all the other relevant information as stored by the MKB presets won't really be known until they finally hit the shops later this year.
I think it likely, especially with the MKB as a model, that any future MIDI package of any sophistication will include this facility, and where an equally high quality wooden keyboard is also included, these might spell real competition for the Roland. True, all those instruments mentioned cost a relative fortune as compared to the MKB, but by their own promotion Roland are aiming this product at the established professional who is more than likely to have one of these upmarket keyboards. We must wait and see if the promises of future MIDI packages are kept, and even if they are, it is unlikely that such instruments would be able to offer the MKB's operational clarity and simplicity which are such vital factors in live work.
That's the case for the established pro, and coming back down to a less financially blessed level, what struggling amateur or semi-pro would spend £1,665 on a controller when she/he could buy a badly needed poly synth, sequencer or drum machine for the same amount? Until you reach a fairly high position on the commercial ladder of success, the MKB will probably be seen by most people as a luxury item. Very desirable but not absolutely necessary.
Even considering the undeniably high quality of the product, the cost is high and so for those who aren't addicted to the feel of a weighted wooden action, there is always Mother's little brother (Uncle?) the MKB-300, offered at £990.00. Uncle differs from the MBK-1000 only in that its keyboard is of the standard spring-loaded plastic variety and has a slightly shorter register. All other facilities are the same.
If it's logical to make MIDI controller keyboards then MIDI synthesiser modules must also be an obvious inclusion in this Mother System concept.
Thus far Roland have produced three 'sound modules' all of which are very sensibly housed in standard 2U, 19" rack-mounting units, making it possible to cart what would once have been a stage-full of instruments around in a single, compact, rack/flightcase.
Basically a simple electronic piano, with four pairs of instrument voicings — piano, clavinet, harpsichord and electronic piano. All four voices are strong and include the magic ingredient of touch response. Two types of tremolo and chorus/flanging, are included, each with its own rate and depth control. Using system exclusive MIDI information, all possible combinations of these four variables can be selected via the 'bank' preset buttons on the MKB.
The basic circuitry is very much like that of the JX3P, but once again we have the all-important addition of touch sensitivity. As with the JX, programming is via the infamously tedious single incrementor method, unless you purchase the optional PG-200 at around £150.00, that provides the old fashioned 'one knob, one function method'.
The long-awaited Super Jupiter is a touch-sensitive eight-voice synthesiser module which combines the sound potential of the Jupiter with some special refinements of the Jupiter 6 — MIDI being just one of them. The module can be programmed parameter by parameter from its own edit controls, or can be used with the accessory MPG-80 programmer for user friendly real-time programming. There are 64 on-board memories and a further 128 are supplied in a slot-in cartridge.
Considering the absence of keyboards, and pressure sensitivity, the prices of the modules are far from low. You only have to buy the controller once though, and the extra degree of control it offers over the modules, using 'system exclusive' MIDI information, helps the system idea make better sense. However, it's highly unlikely that any company, including Roland, could ever produce a range of equipment to obviate the use of any other manufacturer's. Hence, anyone able to afford this system will probably also need a Kurzweil or a DX etc, and so the question of controller redundancy once again raises its wooden, weighted action head. Why pay all that for a facility that is, more or less, an inherent part of a synth I already have or want to own?
Conversely, if you already have a high specification MIDI keyboard, here's a way of getting extra-good quality synths for reasonable prices, and in compact form. No doubt the range will be continually expanded.
At some level the Mother System seems like a good idea, and it may be that the extra operational simplicity and certainty it offers turns out in practice to be vital, thereby justifying the extra cost. As with all new ideas, only time will finally judge its worth.
Thanks to Steve Hall for demoing the Mother on tape.
Gear in this article:
Review by Jim Betteridge
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