Valhala International Gold Cards D131 & D132 for the Roland D110
If you're a Roland D110 user and you're looking for fresh inspiration from your synth, you could try Valhala's D110 voice cards. Gordon Reid practices his card tricks.
At heart, I'm really a fat person. Give me a MemoryMoog, an OB8, or an MKS80 and I'm happy. Why, then, do I often end up with a bunch of Roland D5/10/20/110 sounds on my recordings? The sad truth is that, no matter how much I love fat sounds, there's a limited harmonic spectrum available through them, and if I stick too much sound into a tune, I get a'norrible noise out. Hence the baby Rolands. Simple souls, with thin (some say pure), unobtrusive characters, they're sometimes perfect for those delicate fills and pads.
It follows, therefore, that this and my experience of Valhala's Gold Cards for both the M1 and the D50 (some of the voices on which gave a new meaning to the word "fat" as applied to digital synths) left me intrigued by the prospect of Valhala's heavyweight programming applied to a D110.
Valhala cards have a sturdy, quality feel to them. Equally satisfying, they work with nary a glitch. Totally unsatisfying is the patch listing that comes with them. The sounds are listed under three headings - Tones, Multitimbral, and Performance. If you own a D110 (why else would you be reading this?) you'll know that its voices are built from Partials, Tones, Timbres, Parts, and Patches. Since Valhala's idea of a Tone is Roland's idea of a Timbre, and since the D110 has one of the most unpleasant voice structures in the universe, it took some time to work out what was what. As it turns out, Valhala's terminology is lifted from Roland's D20 workstation which, while based on the same sound generator as the D110, is not fully patch-compatible with it. Since the D131 and D132 cards are for use with the D110 only, it's a cock-up.
Tones are the building blocks of the D110, and it is to these that we first turn. D131 is the synthier of the two cards, and its Tones concentrate on synth and acoustic basses, analogue style (aceeed) percussion, D50-ish pads, sound effects, and some surprisingly warm analogue-y pads. D132 is more acoustic, with over 30 drum tones, basses, guitars, and wind instruments, but only a nod in the direction of strings and pads. Many of these are of high quality, and it is here that Valhala's programmers have had the greatest success.
The next stage up in the Roland hierarchy is the Part, of which there are 128 per card. Unfortunately, many of these are a bit of a cop-out since about half of them draw on the internal Tones (banks a and b) of the D110. While this may be necessary to create a balanced set of Parts from which to build the Patches (the highest level of D110 structure), it seems a shame to leave the Valhala Tones relatively unexplored, and offer as substitutes variations on the Roland presets.
Equally unfortunately, the Performances (Patches) are rather disappointing. Given the number of interesting Tones on the cards, add given Valhala's emphasis on two-part voices rather than multitimbral band-in-a-box configurations, I expected a more imaginative set of patches than the cards provide. Having said that, polyphony always seems to become a problem when I program an LA module, and perhaps Valhala have reached an acceptable compromise between sonic richness and polyphonic flexibility. Nevertheless, to create the richer voices, Valhala have frequently used four-partial tones and, unlike the Roland presets, assigned two parts per patch to the same MIDI channel - making eight partials per voice. To put it another way, to get the results they wanted they had to reduce the synth to four-note polyphony. My advice to owners of these cards is to use the Valhala Tones but experiment with creating your own Patches. It's not that much work, and the results will be worth it.
Ultimately then, both cards are somewhat disappointing - although it's hard to blame Valhala entirely for this. The D110 is a workhorse, not a thoroughbred, and it produces workmanlike sounds no matter how adept the programming. All the voices must be created from the onboard partials, and certain classes of sound have never been the D110's strong point. These classes include solo and ensemble strings, solo brass, pianos, and human voices. Valhala's programmers are clearly restricted by the performance of the synth itself, and there is a limit to the quality of voice that can be obtained by even the most accomplished amongst them.
So, unlike their offerings for the D50 and the M1, Valhala's D110 sounds do not break new ground. Don't misunderstand me - the Valhala cards are as good as any (and indeed, some of the Tones and Multitimbral offerings are very good) but, unlike other International Gold cards (which often stand head and shoulders above the opposition) D131 and D132 merely offer you a wider choice in your selection of D-series ROM cards. On the more positive side, programming the D110 is a well known pain in the art, and very few users have the patience to decipher its manual or the stubbornness to delve deep into its operating system. Therefore, the availability of a wide selection of well-programmed voices is probably more important for owners of this synth than for, say, users of a D50.
To conclude, not even a Valhala card will make your D110 sound like a D50. But these cards are as good as any I've heard, and cheaper than many, so offering good value for. money. I'd say that they deserve to be another (if somewhat minor) Valhala success story.
Price £45 each including VAT
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Thanks to Chris Simpson at Rofand UK for the loan of the D110 for this review.
Feature by Gordon Reid
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