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Roland Desk Top Media Press Conference

Article from Sound On Sound, November 1993

At Roland's recent press conference, president Ikutaru Kakehashi was guest of honour. Apart from launching new products, the purpose of the event was to reveal the future direction of one of hi-tech music's favourite companies. Julian Colbeck was our man on the spot.

Mr Ikutaru Kakehashi, President, Roland Corp. Japan.

'Polyphonic', 'Programmable', 'Digital', 'Workstation'... the roll-call of buzzwords down the decade gives you an instant potted history of hi-tech. Fashion? Yes of course. But — careful — these were not fads. Polyphony has become completely taken for granted. So too has programmability. Is anything not digital today? Almost anything can, and does, call itself a workstation. Historically, then, it seems very likely that 1993's buzzword, 'multimedia', genuinely does represent the way the industry is going, as opposed to being simply where some slick marketing team would have us believe we are going.


But the frightful question still remains — what the bloody hell is multimedia? Even if we loosely define it as the intertwining of sound and picture, who is using it, and why? These new philosophies, new applications, and indeed new products, were all part of an October Press Conference on what Roland call Desk Top Media Production, starring no less than Roland president Ikutaru Kakehashi, visiting the UK on a whistlestop multimedia European tour.

Roland started investigating the direct use of computers in music some eleven years ago, began Mr Kakehashi, with NEC, then, as now in Japan, very much the standard computer to adopt. Roland computer-based products and concepts, from Compu Music, to MPS, to MUSE, to MUSICOM, to MESA, have all tended to veer in a PC direction, as befitting an internationally marketable line of products. Throughout this period of computer gestation, though, Roland computer products and associated software have almost studiously avoided aligning themselves with the clear winning standard in Europe so far, namely Atari and the MIDI-sporting ST.

By way of explanation, Mr Kakehashi said that Atari had failed completely — in Japan. Nonetheless, how wise a decision this was, indeed continues to be, was a question raised frequently by the floor during the conference.

Although things continued to move along quite nicely, there was no glue, said Mr Kakehashi, to bind all manner of potentially related products in the various CAD/CAM, graphics, and MIDI environments together. And if it was simply a matter of data compression, he said, then MIDI was already way ahead of graphics. And so the catch-all of multimedia began to emerge.

Although Mr Kakehashi did not mention GM by name, yet, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that if multimedia as a concept is turning out to be the necessary sticky stuff, GM is the pot in which said stuff is delivered and sold. Interestingly, back in 1991 at the Winter NAMM show in California when GM was ratified, the thing most industry pundits were worried about was the effect this computer company led standard would have on musical instrument companies. At the time it may have been difficult to imagine exactly what people like Microsoft really stood to gain from standardising music reproduction systems, but now, with general multimedia craziness and phrases like Desk Top Music and Desk Top Media Production thick in the air, never mind there being an actual representative of WordPerfect on this Roland press conference panel, the relevance and potential of GM to the computer industry is becoming ever more apparent.

Roland's Desk Top Music concept has been around since the days of the CM32 modules, and is currently the banner under which the 1993-launched Starter Kit, comprising an SCC1 GS Sound Card bundled with Ballade and Band-in-a-Box software, available in both PC and Mac formats, is sold. DTM has in turn broadened into the multimedia concept of Desk Top Media Production, in which pure music is but one of a number of considerations. DTMP products would so now include sound modules like the SC7 and SC55Mk 2, SC155 and SC33, plus brand new pieces like the RAP-10 sound card plus digital audio recorder that we were to receive a demonstration of during the conference, along with software, computer-based keyboards, interfaces, and peripherals.

As to users and actual usage, Mr Kakehashi had to rely on a survey of DTMP users taken in Japan. The largest sliver of users comes in the 45 to 49-year old bracket, though more broadly 25-50-year olds account for the vast majority of sales. Under 20-year olds were thin on the ground and beyond the age of 50, users were practically non-existent, though Mr K did reveal that Roland received an entry for its Song/Synthesizer contest recently from an 80-year old.

The survey revealed that the thing most users required of DTMP was song data — good news, then, for all you MIDI File writers out there. There was also a clear demand for support material, which gave Mr Kakehashi the opportunity for a moment's grovelling at the state of the average Roland written manual (thick, and extremely difficult to understand — or was that a description of the bloke who writes them?), along with somewhat vague references to improvements being made in this respect shortly.

If you are reading this and thinking, yes, well, fine, but what does all this waffle really mean? Then that's pretty much the feeling I was left with, initially, too.

Roland has been involved in computer music products for many years now, so a new tag here or catch line there does not in itself mean a great deal. What is significant, though, is the increasing importance of this direction, as witnessed by the fact that the company president had taken it upon himself to deliver the message personally.

"Roland has been involved in computer music products for many years now, so a new tag here or catch line there does not in itself mean a great deal. What is significant, though, is the increasing importance of this direction."


In the lively question and answer session that followed Mr Kakehashi's speech, the first of many questions on the subject was why Roland was still ignoring the ST format. Again Mr Kakehashi reminded us that Atari had failed miserably in Japan, and that PC was the logical format to work with, since not only was it substantial in size already, but still growing — even, or perhaps especially, amongst musicians. The floor, including myself, was not entirely happy with this answer because surely if DTMP is to penetrate the music market it has to start off by addressing the needs of musicians now. And like it or not, the vast majority of European musicians still work on ST. Clearly PC is the chosen weapon of business, though, and equally clearly one of multimedia's prime applications is for business presentations.

The presence of Simon Parks from WordPerfect on the panel, along with several members of the computer press on the floor is an indication of how seriously Roland is now taking the computer side of its business. We can also expect Roland computer packages like the DTMP Starter Kit to be sold in high street computer stores before too long. Add to this the obvious potential of not only standardised sound systems but of spatial processors like Roland's RSS to the games and virtual reality producers, and you start wondering whether Roland will soon have the time, never mind the inclination, to attend to the needs of regular ole musicians anymore.


Roland was very quick and keen to point out that the new developments should not be interpreted as an abandonment of traditional — if that's what we can now call ourselves — hi-tech musicians, but more as an industry wake-up call concerning the many new possibilities on the horizon. But in a way, traditional hi-tech has had its day. Keyboards and hi-tech have been disproportionately 'soft' over the past couple of years and manufacturers have no option but to search out new avenues if they are to survive. If people's interests today lie more in mucking about with GM MIDI Files than with sound programming and learning about chords, then companies like Roland would be crazy not to satisfy the demand with new types of products.

Musical instrument companies are not alone in needing to generate sales of new equipment in order to survive. And I have long been wondering how a company like Roland must feel in the wake of the current obsession with older, analogue gear — a lot of it Roland's. Mr Kakehashi was asked why Roland were not re-issuing a product like the TB303 when demand was clearly not being satisfied by the occasional unit flopping onto the second hand market.

Basically the cost of re-tooling, of finding and then buying the components, would be prohibitive, said Mr Kakehashi. Knowing the man, I also sensed he was not altogether unhappy about the situation as it is. Something along the lines of... The TB303 was produced. It did what it did. Root them out if you like but I'm interested in what's happening now. Roland UK chief Brian Nunney also told quite a funny story about how phantom demands spring up. You know — one person calls round 30 stores for a product. All then contact the manufacturer, who is left with the impression that half the world wants it!

Or is this missing the point? I happen to agree that, much as a re-issue sounds like a great idea the reality would probably end up a disappointment because of the cost, or snobbery as in 'original' versus 're-issue' models. It's a pound to a penny people would say that the new ones didn't sound nearly as good the originals. But perhaps the point is not so much the feasibility of re-issuing a particular instrument so much as finding out why musicians are simply not being turned on by their modern, and infinitely more powerful counterparts in general. Is it sound? Or physical capabilities? Or looks, even?

Mr Kakehashi demonstrates the P55 Piano module to SOS contributor Julian Colbeck (far right) and the UKMA's Vic Lennard

In sound terms, it has long puzzled and perturbed me why so many modem synths sound transparent by comparison to older 'analogue' synths. Why, I asked Mr Kakehashi, does my Juno-60 stand out in a track, seem to have substance, in a way that 01s, and JDs, and SYs just don't? Part of the answer lies in polyphony, says Mr Kakehashi. Ten years ago, synths in the Juno class were perfectly saleable as 6-voice or perhaps 8-voice instruments. Nowadays, 16-voice is looked upon as an absolute minimum. There is then a trade-off between the power needed to generate that polyphony and the power behind the sound itself. One suggested answer that many players have of course devised for themselves already, is to stack up instruments/sounds to reproduce the same level of thickness you'd have available on a 6-voice instrument. Of course this needs care, or you'll end up with one of those all things to all aspects of sound 'kitchen sink' patches, that are completely wonderful, but completely useless.

I also put to Mr Kakehashi that synth design in general had become too bland; again, trying to be all things to all people. Was there not room for instruments or modules that performed specific tasks? Encouragingly, Mr Kakehashi thought that yes, there was.

And indeed earlier in the afternoon we had been shown the first look at a new dedicated piano module, the P55, the first Roland piano module since the much mourned P330 which was released back in 1989 (see box for details).

"Why, I asked Mr Kakehashi, does my Juno-60 stand out in a track, seem to have substance, in a way that 01s, and JDs, and SYs just don't? Part of the answer lies in polyphony, says Mr Kakehashi."

Also revealed in this mini product launch was the S760, a 24-voice, 16-bit sampler in a 1U format, capable of loading all Roland and Akai sample and program data (except Akai S3000 Series) via SCSI yet still complete with a disk drive, and optional digital I/O. In other words, a fully pro unit. The S760 also features an ultra high resolution LCD (160 x 64 dot) which, it is claimed, will happily and accurately provide waveform displays, etc. For those now hooked on Roland's external CRT hook-ups, the OP-760 digital I/O expansion kit also gives you full CRT/mouse access. Standard memory is 2MB, upgradable to 32MB using SIMMs. In fact a fully loaded S760 is going to be bundled at £1999. Even the standard unit comes with a free Roland CD ROM.

What this does for the S750 is, of course, nobble it. However, shortly before you toss yourself and your S750 in the river, take note of the Turbo kit for S750/S770 — presented as a joint venture between Roland, Syco Systems in London and the S-Series User Group — which comprises a new CPU and timing crystal kit plus new system software that speeds up S-series operations by some 30% and costs £149 inc VAT and installation.


If the main surprise was the S760, the main course was still the ATW10, a sound card with digital audio recording facilities plus special Audio Toolworks software package for PC.

Unfortunately Roland has got itself into an awful mess here in respect of product names. You might have seen literature on something called a TA-10/AT, or even a TAP-10. Well, forget 'em. This is now to be known as the RAP-10, which is the sound card pure and simple of the ATW-10 package. The ATW-10 package comprises the RAP-10, plus Audio Toolworks software. Gottit?

Mind you, during the demonstration of the system I couldn't help but notice that the screen was headed Roland Audio Toolworks. No! finally, they've done it: Roland RAT. Pointing this out to sundry Roland personnel has, to date, not gone down brilliantly though, so perhaps we'd better move on.

For just £399 — plus, of course, the cost of your PC and hard disk — what you get is a sound card pre-loaded with 128 GS sounds playable at 26-voice polyphony, along with delay and chorus, in 16-part multi-timbrality. In addition you have stereo, or two tracks of mono, recording at 44.1 sample rate (or indeed lower at 22.05 or 11.025). Music generated by the internal presets can be mixed in with recorded data (itself processed using the internal effects), and all of this can come under the single direct control of the Audio Toolworks software, which can carry out a number of duties, from organising the playback of Standard MIDI Files to the fairly sophisticated editing of sample waveform data. In true Windows fashion you can co-ordinate MIDI and digital audio data in single blocks of 'Wammy' (Waveform And MIDI) files.

After the Roland demonstration of the ATW-10's impressively streamlined yet powerful capabilities (complete with cut and paste correcting of a deliberate mistake in calling the product the TAW-10) came the acid test of using the system in the preparation of a multimedia presentation comprising voice-overs, music from CD, MIDI Files, graphics and video clips etc.

WordPerfect's Simon Parks fair whizzed around the package for his party piece of creating a presentation 'in three minutes,' but it would have been more impressive for him to have taken, say, five minutes, and accomplished all both he and the product obviously could do, properly. As it was, you were left with a half-finished product whose creation had been too garbled to appreciate.

What you could appreciate, though, is the enormous power of having audio, MIDI, and CD-ROM (control, that is, you don't get a CD-ROM for this price!) under one roof. And Audio Toolworks seems very direct and clear-cut.


If the temptation is still to view GM and the irrepressible march of the MIDI File as a threat to musicianhood, some heart can be taken in the announcement of the Roland Sound Challenge — a GM/GS MIDI File writing competition with prizes worth £2000. Categories comprise best original piece of music and best arrangement of a well known piece. Back in the early 1980s Roland launched a similar competition in the Synth/Tape contest which, from distinctly humble beginnings, went on to become an internally acclaimed annual event. In no small way did Roland's Synth/Tape contest contribute to the acceptance of 'synthesizer music' in general, and obviously Roland hope that this latest Sound Challenge (even if the name seems somewhat at odds with what it is) will do much the same for GS/GM and multimedia in general.


The P55 looks much like a Sound Canvas, but comes with 32 user modifiable piano sounds based on 4Mb of sample waveform culled from various Roland pianos and synths, including:

Rhodes pianos
Roland C50 harpsichord
Sounds acquired from more recent products like the JV80.

The price will be just £469, which compares very favourably to the MKS20, say, which cost £1200 back in 1986.

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Break Points

Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

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Sound On Sound - Nov 1993

Show Report by Julian Colbeck

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> 4-Top

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> Break Points

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