VALHALA D50 Sound Cards
Under the spotlight in this month's Patchwork are the stablemates to the astounding Valhala M1 sound cards - those for Roland's D50. Gordon Reid asks "can they maintain the standard?".
D50 Sound Cards
Let's face it - the D50 is getting a bit long in the tooth now. The Mega-synth of yesteryear becomes the secondhand bargain of today. Nowadays you'll probably pay more for a well-looked-after Jupiter 8 than a secondhand D50, some of which now change hands for as little as £650. This means that the D50 has finally drifted down into the second division of synths - loved by many, but definitely dated and less valuable than, say, an M1 or a VFX. But it's in the nature of a classic synth to run and run, and if musicians are still getting new sounds out of their Prophet 5s, there must still be scope for a few surprises from the D50's 4-partial LA architecture. All it takes is a bit of imagination and a lot of programming talent. Simple.
When it comes to programming ability, there is no company currently making a better name for itself than the American firm, Valhala. Their highly respected range of International Gold ROM cards, already available for the M1(R), M3, T-series, and VFXs, has now been extended to include the Roland D5/10/110 & D20 synths, as well as the evergreen D50. So now the spotlight falls on International Gold cards D-501 and D-502 for the D50 which, at £40 for 64 professional patches, already have a head-start on most of their rivals.
When Roland specified the design of the D50 RAM/ROM cards they didn't cut corners. D50 cards are built to last - and Valhala's ROMs are no exception. Very sturdy construction, with protected terminals and the now obligatory plastic wallet, means that these ROMS should give years of trouble-free use. The only luxury missing is the small finger grip provided on Roland's (and some other manufacturers') ROMs which makes insertion and withdrawal of the card that little bit easier. Also missing was the expected patch listing, but since these were review cards (not the fully-packaged commercial goodies) we can hope that a list is included with the cards in the stores. But these are trivial niggles, not problems of life and death. The significant question is, "just how good are the sounds?'. Since D-501 is, in my opinion, the weaker of the two ROMs, that's where we'll start.
Unlike the SSU cards (recently reviewed), there's no clear focus to the sounds on D-501, and the card is clearly intended to provide a broad palette of sounds for general use. There are nice fat patches ('Ring Modulated Pad', 'Christmas Strings', 'Cosmic Hugeness', 'String System'), digital ones ('Clicknology', Totally Ethereal', 'Bright Synth Bells', 'I get Excited', 'Try an Arpeggio'), Organs, Voices ('Isotopic Choirs', 'Synthetic Choir'), Pads ('Chapel Breathing'), and your obvious weirdos ('In a Horror Film', 'Sssh - Freddie's Home'). There are also a range of useful piano-ish percussive sounds, the inevitable basses, and the usual tentative guitars. However, despite the high quality of all of these, only one patch stood out as totally innovative, the very aptly named 'House Kut'.
Although D-501 is the weaker of the two cards, that certainly doesn't make it a poor buy. It's just that D-502 is better, and if that makes the second offering a truly great card, so be it. A great deal of attention has been paid to the sounds on this ROM, with especially good use made of reverb and intelligent use of the stereo output modes. The main thrust of the card is the sustain/pad type of sound, with particular concentration on "spectrum"-type patches. To list a few favourites; try the M1-ish 'Advertising Chords', 'Spectrum Pad', 'SlapBack Heavenly', or 'Breathe In'. For classic digital textures choose from (amongst others) 'Sakamoto in my D50', 'Ooh-Pick-Pad', the excellent 'Digitasia' and 'Across The Void', and 'Religion' (which sounds exactly like you always imagined a Fairlight in your bedroom would). There are rich pads ('Atlantic City', the inspirational, warm and shimmery 'Time Travelling'), Analogue Timbres ('Hold & Develop', 'Certainly not Tiny'), delicate textures 'Big as Star-Trek' - which it certainly isn't)... The list, while not endless, is certainly impressive. Even if you're not into M1s, pads or analogues (what are you, a guitarist?), you'll still find something amongst the basses, guitars, acid synth patches, sub-TR808 drums, organs, brasses... OK. I admit it. I'm impressed.
Both cards, in common with other manufacturers' offerings for the D50, benefit enormously from a little judicious tweaking. That doesn't mean that Valhala have got it wrong, simply that you can't satisfy even one of the people all of the time. But, if the basic sounds are good, a bit of quick manipulation of the reverb and "common" parameters can work wonders. Never settle for just what you get. Be adventurous. My favourite from both ROMs? Try the brassy 'A Slow Seven' on D-502, but edit out the Upper partials to leave a marvellous solo brass patch.
Here's an interesting discovery: if you do go to audition these cards try to play them from a six or seven-octave master keyboard - you'll be pleasantly surprised. The extra range brings out additional textures, and makes using some of the sounds much more interesting. I wonder if Valhala intended this, or whether it's a quirk of the programming?
The ultimate question for any reader of a review is "should I be interested in these sounds?". If you've got a D50 or D550 (why else would you be reading this?) you've probably already gathered that you should. There are (inevitably) a few dogs among the 128 patches on offer, but there are also a number of absolute gems - the overall impression is one that firmly lives up to Valhala's excellent reputation for quality.
It's tempting to conclude with some trite phrase such as; "there's something here for everybody", but that's true for any collection of sounds provided that there are enough of them. A better message would be that there is a breadth to Valhala's sounds, a quality, that speaks of programmers who understand what makes a patch valuable to us 'umble musicians. And, at only £40 per 64-patch ROM you are, in effect, saving a tenner against the very usable PA Decoder collections (128 patches for £99), and a full £60 against the SSU 64-patch cards. On that basis - quality plus value - what more do you want?