Rhodes Model 660 & 760
Responding to the demand for accessible synthesisers, Roland's Rhodes division has come up with the first of a series of "playable" instruments. Simon Trask checks their performance.
As with the MK60 and MK80 electronic pianos, these new instruments from Roland's Rhodes division have been devised around a philosophy of performer-friendliness. Have the company got their priorities right?
WHAT DO YOU want from an electronic keyboard instrument these days? Maximised sonic flexibility coupled with in-depth programming facilities and a certain lack of operational simplicity, or a more-or-less predefined set of sounds coupled with minimal programming facilities and an emphasis on operational immediacy? You may say, of course, that you'd rather have the sonic flexibility and the operational immediacy, but in practice this seems to be a balance which manufacturers have found it hard, if not impossible, to achieve ever since the advent of the digital and the digitally-controlled synth led to an explosion of capabilities and an implosion of front-panel controls.
You could say this apparent dichotomy is just one more sign of the increasingly complex times in which we live. Ah, life seemed so straightforward and simple once - and so did musical instruments. There's not much you have to learn about an acoustic piano except how to play it. OK, it needs tuning every now and then, but you can get someone else to do that. Now there's something which modern electronic keyboard instruments have made simpler. Not only do you not have to worry about your synth or sampler staying in tune, but you can globally alter its tuning at the swish of a slider, while on some instruments you can select a completely new microtuning at the flick of a button.
MT readers who are, shall we say, more mature(d) will remember first-hand the classic Fender Rhodes electric piano, in many ways an ideal example of simplicity. Instant tuning wasn't one of its fortés, but it didn't ensnare you in operational and programming complexities either. When Roland set about recreating the fabled Rhodes sound digitally, and incorporating the result into an instrument modelled on the digital electronic piano format of recent years, they retained the Rhodes marque for the finished products - the MK60 and MK80 (the latter of which was reviewed in MT, November '89). As it turns out, this represents more than an acknowledgement of sonic ancestry.
The Fender Rhodes was very much a performer's instrument, in that there was nothing about it to divert you from playing it; everything about it was upfront and immediate, and to get the most out of it all you had to do was, er, perform on it. It could be said that in the days of the Fender Rhodes all musicians were first and foremost performers, whereas nowadays the definition of a musician has become necessarily far more diverse as a result of the way in which musical technology and the applications of that technology have developed.
Roland have perceived that, among the wide range of electronic musical instruments that they produce, there is a niche for instruments which are aimed at the musician who is first and foremost a performer. Consequently, the name Rhodes no longer signifies only an electr(on)ic piano but a separate instrument division within Roland which aims to establish its own identity with instruments which concentrate on filling this niche.
Cue the Model 660 and Model 760, both of which have been designed to complement the MK electronic pianos not only sonically but also in terms of operational accessibility and simplicity. Where the MKs concentrate on fulfilling a specific sonic role, the 660 and 760 concentrate on making readily available a wide range of sampled - more specifically ReSynthesised PCM - instrumental sounds. If RS-PCM rings a bell with you, so to speak, then you're probably a Roland U20 owner. In fact, the 660 and 760 are closely modelled on the U20 (reviewed MT, August '89), which is perhaps why they've been given the name Model. Or perhaps not.
ESSENTIALLY WHAT ROLAND (or should I say Rhodes?) have done is take the U20 and reorganise not only its front-panel presentation but the way in which you can combine and store its sounds. Along the way they've also made other changes, though it's arguable whether some of these are more appropriate to the nature of the 660 and 760, or just a consequence of marketing decisions. To begin with, the new instruments are one multitimbral Part down, with the U20's six Parts and a Rhythm Part becoming six Parts, any one or more of which can be a Rhythm Part.
Secondly, where the U20 has two stereo audio output pairs, one dry and one effected, the 660 and 760 have only an effected pair. Staying on the rear panel for a moment, while all three instruments have two slots for PCM sample cards, the 660 and 760 lose the U20's RAM data card slot for patch storage, while players who find a volume pedal useful in performance will be disappointed to learn that the new instruments also lose the U20's programmable control pedal input.
Another indication of the difference in approach between the 660/760 and the U20 is that, where the latter has two sliders which can be set to edit internal sound and effect parameters and/or transmit MIDI controller data, the new Rhodes instruments have a Brilliance slider instead. How many times have you been recording in the studio/playing live on stage/comatose in the pub and been asked to come up with a sound that's just a bit brighter or just a bit darker than the one you've selected? And how many times have you said "I wish my electronic keyboard instrument had a brilliance slider"? Well, with a 660 or a 760 in front of you, you've got it.
Where the 660 has a five-octave synth-style keyboard (like the U20), the 760 weighs in with a 76-note keyboard which has a more substantial (but not cumbersome) feel. Both keyboards are sensitive to attack and release velocity and to channel aftertouch, while the instruments can respond to polyphonic aftertouch via MIDI. Of the two Models and the U20, the 760 has the most generous backlit LCD window (2 x 40-character) while the 660 has the least (2 x 16-character compared to the U20's 2 x 24-character). As a result the 760 can make information more readily available to you (for instance, in one screen it can tell you the Tones assigned to all six Parts). The two Models also have a slightly different provision of front-panel buttons, in the 760's favour.
"The name Rhodes no longer signifies only an electric piano but a separate instrument division within Roland producing instruments for the performing musician."
The 660 and 760 have the same 128 internal Tones (resynthesised samples) as the U20. These consist of 127 Melodic Tones and one Drums Tone (No. 128) which in fact consists of 37 drum and percussion samples. Like the U20, the Models can access further Tones from Roland's growing library of PCM sample cards via their two rear-panel card slots. This library includes Pipe Organ and Harpsichord. Ethnic Sounds, Electric Grand Piano, Orchestral Strings, Orchestral Winds, Rock Drums and Sound Effects.
On the U20 you assign an internal or card Tone to a Timbre and give it associated pitch, vibrato and level parameter settings (the parameter values are part of the Timbre, not the Tone). On the 660 and 760, pitch, vibrato and level parameter values are associated directly with each internal Tone, and Timbres don't exist. When you edit the parameters associated with a particular Tone the new values are stored automatically in memory, so you don't have to remember to Write them.
As well as the 128 internal "Tone modify" memories, the 660 and 760 also have 128 such memories for each of the two PCM card slots. The cards which you can plug into these slots contain the Tones only, not the associated pitch, vibrato and level parameters, which means that, for instance, sound 24 on PCM card four plugged into card slot one will be given the same parameter settings as sound 24 on any other PCM card plugged into the same slot. Not an ideal situation, you might say, but with no RAM data card slot(s) to tie in Tone settings with card Tones, it's hard to see what else could have been done when pitch, vibrato and level settings are tied in directly with the Tones.
In fact there is a way of programming more than one set of values for the same internal Tone (or same card Tone number). The 660 and 760 both include User Patches, of which there are eight on the 660 and 24 (organised as three groups of eight) on the 760. Each of these User Patches allows you to assign an internal or card Tone to each of the six Parts, giving you a six-Part multitimbral configuration. Individual Parts within each User Patch can be assigned their own pitch, vibrato and level parameter settings, so that when you assign a Tone to a Part it will be affected by the settings for that Part.
For each Part within a User Patch you can also specify chorus on/off, reverb on/off, level and panning (one of 15 positions, or random). When you select the Drums Tone, you can set reverb on/off and panning for each note. One reverb and one chorus effect can be programmed for each User Patch, along with settings for Chase and Arpeggio key effects, key transpose, keyboard splitting and layering, hold mode (hold pedal on for Upper, Lower or neither sections on the keyboard), and a 16-character Patch name: these are collectively known as Performance parameters.
Once you've programmed a User Patch you have to store it in memory, which you do by holding down the Write button and selecting the relevant User Patch.
THE 660 AND 760 score highly in the way they bring so many functions to "surface level" through dedicated front-panel buttons. For instance, there are various categories of Tone on the Models, as there are on the U20, but on the Rhodes instruments these categories are made immediately accessible on the front panel. If you want an acoustic piano sound then you press the Acoustic Piano button in the Tone Select section; if you want a slap bass sound then you press the Slap Bass button. You can then step through the maximum of 12 sounds per button using the Variation ± buttons. This system falls down a bit when it comes to card Tones, as you have to press the Card1 or Card2 button and then use the Variation buttons to step through up to 128 Tones: there again, if you select a card Tone for a Part within a User Patch, it's available immediately you select that Patch.
Other front-panel buttons allow you to switch reverb/delay and chorus effects and Harmony, Chase and Arpeggio key mode effects in/out, transpose the keyboard pitch and select the keyboard texture. A number of these buttons have pinpoint LEDs, so you can readily see when they're switched in.
If you want to edit any of the 660/760's parameters, hold down the Edit button and press the relevant function button (Chase, Reverb or Tone, say), then use the Parameter buttons and the Value buttons and slider to select and edit the parameters. To return to Play mode you just press the Edit button again.
"If you want an acoustic piano sound, you press the Acoustic Piano button in the Tone Select section; if you want a slap bass sound, you press the Slap Bass button... "
There are differences between the 660 and 760 when it comes to keyboard textures and MIDI performance. You can set MIDI transmit on the 660 to either a specific MIDI channel (1-16) or to Part, in which case it transmits on the MIDI channel(s) of the Part(s) assigned to the keyboard. The 660 and 760 both have Upper and Lower sections, and allow you to select Split or Layer arrangements of these sections (with programmable splitpoint). But where the 660 allows you to assign any one Part to each section, the 760 allows you to assign up to all six Parts. It also allows you to set a MIDI transmit/receive channel for each section which is independent of the Part receive channel settings. These are all programmable per User Patch.
You can then set MIDI receive mode to Part, Upper/Lower or Both. The Both setting means that the 760 can receive on up to eight MIDI channels, which doesn't mean that you can play up to eight different sounds at once. What it does allow you to do is sequence Parts individually as well as in their Keyboard combination. So for instance you could have a split keyboard texture with acoustic bass in the Lower section and acoustic piano layered with strings in the Upper Section, but also sequence the piano and strings Parts individually on their own MIDI channels. In contrast the 660 can receive on a maximum of six MIDI channels, with each Part receiving on its globally assigned MIDI channel.
The one thing you can't do with the 760's keyboard textures is alter the combination of Tones in the Upper or Lower sections via MIDI patch changes, because all the Tones within each section are receiving on one MIDI channel; so the number of combinations selectable via MIDI (as opposed to from the front panel) is limited to the number of User Patches.
To select Parts for each section on the 760, hold down the Upper or Lower button and then press the relevant Part buttons; pinpoint LEDs for each Part button light when they're active, giving you ready indication of what Parts are assigned to each section. When in Play mode you can also use the Parameter buttons to step to a screen display which tells you which Tone is assigned to which Part, and whether each Part is active for Upper, Lower or both sections.
Other MIDI parameters on the 660 and 760 allow you to set a Control channel (for transmission and reception of User Patch changes; Tone changes are received on the Part and Upper/Lower MIDI channels), local on/off, and patch change, aftertouch, volume and SysEx transmit/receive on/off (individually). For anyone who might conceivably be using more than one 660/760 in a MIDI system, each instrument can be given its own Unit number (17-32) for SysEx transmit/receive purposes. Incoming MIDI breath-control messages can be assigned to affect volume, modulation (vibrato depth) and aftertouch individually or in any combination.
Onboard digital effects consist of chorusing and a modest selection of reverbs and delays, which fall into the quality category of, well, adequate for most purposes. You can set chorus rate, depth and level (in comparison the U20 offers a bit extra, with a feedback control and several chorus types including flanging), while for reverb/delay you can select one of rooms 1-3, halls 1-2, gated reverb, or delays 1-2 (the second delay automatically pans its reflected sounds left and right), together with reverb/delay time and level (both 0-100) and delay feedback amount (0-100) parameters. There are no combined reverb and delay effects, but Chase can be used to create delay-type effects.
LIKE THE U20, the 660 and 760 are 30-voice polyphonic, with the actual polyphony depending on the Tone type - and, of course, how much Tone layering you do in the Upper and Lower keyboard sections. Single and velocity-switch Tone types clearly require only one voice per note, while velocity-mix, dual and detune require two voices (and a quick spot of number-crunching will tell you that a two-voice Tone brings the polyphony down to a still reasonable 15 voices). A ready reference for the Tone type of, and the number of voices required by, each of the 128 internal Tones is provided by Tone List towards the back of the manual (from which you can glean that 54 Tones require two voices per note, so 74 require one).
The Models' 128 internal Tones are divided into 16 instrumental categories: Acoustic Piano, Electric Piano, Acoustic Guitar (seemingly steel-strung rather than nylon), Electric Guitar (muted, unmuted and distorted), Strings, Choir, Brass, Trumpet/Trombone, Electric Organ, Mallets (including vibes and marimba), D-sounds, Synth Wave, Slap Bass, Bass (one acoustic, two fretless, two fingered, two picked and eight synth), Winds (five saxes, flute, two shakuhachis and breath), and Drums. All the Tones are distinguished by a great clarity and presence.
While these are all sampled sounds (multisampled where necessary), and for the most part concentrate on reproducing "real instruments" both acoustic and electric, Roland have taken care to include samples of synthesised sounds too. The most obvious examples of this occur in the D-Sounds category, which consists of sounds sampled, presumably, off the D50 (so you'll find the likes of Native Dance', 'Fantasia', 'Bell Pad', 'Synth Harp' and 'Calliope'), and the Synth Wave category (three pulses and two sawtooths). But you'll also find a few examples of synthesised strings, brass and voices alongside the acoustic variety.
"You could have acoustic bass in the Lower section and acoustic piano layered with strings in the Upper, and also sequence the piano and strings Parts individually."
The underlying idea of such categories as Acoustic and Electric Pianos, Electric Organs, Basses and Slap Basses is to provide a healthy number of variations on the basic sound, so that instead of having to tinker around with edit parameters, you can flip through the Tones from the front panel and find the one that's nearest to what you want (the brilliance slider can also help you out here). And in practice it works very well.
The Tone edit parameters are concerned with overall control of a Tone rather than with sound creation. You can alter the coarse (semitone) and fine pitch of a Tone, the pitchbend range of the bend/mod lever, the maximum depth of effect on the Tone's pitch from aftertouch (-36, -24, -12...+12), the rate, depth, mod lever sensitivity and aftertouch sensitivity for vibrato, and an overall level setting together with velocity and aftertouch sensitivity (from -10...+10, allowing you to velocity crossfade any combination of Tones) and ADSR ± settings which allow you to alter the amplitude envelope of a Tone relative to its existing envelope.
Editing of the Drums Tone is limited to reverb on/off and pan setting for each of the 37 drum and percussion samples. The Rhythm section facilities of the 660 and 760 are less sophisticated than those of the U20. For one thing, where you can program four Rhythm Setups on the U20 which can draw on any combination of internal and card Tones (not just the actual Drums Tones), the 660 and 760 restrict you to one internal, one card1 and one card2 pre-programmed setup (all held in the Models' internal memory), each of which only draws on Drums Tones. Also, a large number of parameters which can be programmed for each note/Tone in a U20 Rhythm Setup (see U20 review) have been dropped altogether on the 660 and 760. What that leaves you with is a standard but workable range of bass and snare drums, cymbals and toms, though you can expand this collection with the Latin & FX Percussion PCM card.
THE U20, 660 and 760 all have keyboard effects which can be switched in/out from the front panel. Arpeggio is common to all three instruments, but the U20's Chord Play 1 & 2 have been replaced by Harmony and Chase. Where Chord Play allows you to program a chord of up to eight notes for each note within the octave (reproduced over all octaves), giving you a sophisticated form of one-finger chord accompaniment, Harmony uses the chord you play in the Lower section of the keyboard (which doesn't itself sound) to harmonise the melody you play in the Upper section, with each melody note as the top note of the chord. So if you play a C major seventh chord in the Lower section and the note G in the Upper, the G will be harmonised as G major seven. Change the chord and the harmonisation will change: change the melody note only, for instance from G to F, and the harmonisation will change in parallel (G major seven to F major seven).
Arpeggio has programmable direction (up, down, up & down, or random), rate (0-100), aftertouch sensitivity (-5...+5) and style (staccato, portamento or legato). Aftertouch can be used to alter the arpeggiation speed (slower or faster depending on the ± setting), which I suppose will prove essential to someone somewhere. When the keyboard is Split, arpeggiation only functions in the Lower section, which seems a bit of daft limitation to me. If you have the hold pedal enabled for the Lower section, you can latch the arpeggio (or the chord in the case of Harmony).
Chase produces an echo effect by triggering the instruments' voices. You can set chase mode (single, repeat or alternate), chase rate (0-100), chase shift (-12...+12 semitone steps) and chase level attenuation (0-100). Chase differs from echo in the audio domain in that pitch can change in fixed intervals (a tone would give a whole-tone scale, for instance), and the repeat notes can alternate between Upper and Lower sounds. You can also adjust the chase rate in real time using the Value slider and buttons. When the keyboard is Split, Chase is only active for notes in the Upper section.
The Chase and Arpeggio effects must each be assigned to one of the six Parts. Notes generated by all three key effects are transmitted via MIDI, but you can't trigger these effects from incoming MIDI notes (so you can't include them as part of a sequence), and nor can the arpeggio or chase rate be synced to incoming MIDI clocks. The U20 isn't any better in this respect, nor are earlier Roland instruments with the same or similar performance features. Surely it's not asking too much to be able to trigger a Part from notes received on a selectable MIDI channel, or to sync the effects to incoming MIDI clocks where applicable (particularly as the Groove feature on Roland's new R8M drum module is, out of necessity, syncable to incoming MIDI clocks). The arpeggio function on Cheetah's Master Series 7P controller keyboard is syncable to incoming MIDI clocks, a fact which makes it a much more effective feature.
ON INITIAL ACQUAINTANCE, the similarities between the U20 and the 660/760 are more striking than the differences, a fact which might give Roland/Rhodes some identity problems in the shops. Having had what some might consider the luxury of spending more time with the new instruments and being able also to investigate more thoroughly the differences between them and the U20, I've modified my initially sceptical viewpoint.
The 660 and 760 are like a second attempt at the "preset sampler" ethos underlying the U20, and their presentation of that ethos strikes me as being entirely more appropriate and effective. Roland have also done well to hive the 660 and 760 off into the Rhodes division, where they sit more comfortably with the Rhodes philosophy of performer-friendliness through accessibility. Most keyboard players love Roland best for their synths, in which respect the forthcoming D70 looks very promising.
If you want a healthy number and variety of high-quality sampled instrumental sounds which you can combine and above all play with the minimum of fuss, I'd recommend you investigate the 660 and 760. In the main body of this review you'll find a lot of detail on the differences between the U20 and the Models (as well as between the two Models themselves), so I'll just say that on balance I'd go for one of the Rhodes instruments rather than the U20, while of the two Models I'd consider the 760 worth spending the extra couple of hundred quid for.
Prices Model 660, £999; Model 760 £1199. Both prices include VAT.
Review by Simon Trask
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