Rock 'n' Roll and D-5
Could this be the ideal keyboard for computer musicians? John Renwick finds out
The D-50 has become an essential element in many pro studio - Now there's a version within everyone's reach. John Renwick checks it out
What happens when you buy a Roland D-110, and hit it? It doesn't make a sound. It hasn't got a keyboard. So it's all very well recommending this excellent multi-timbral LA synth module, but, if you're going to get any music out of it, you really need to have a keyboard as well. If the amount of choice involved in buying a MIDI keyboard has baffled you, Roland has now solved the problem by introducing the D-5 - basically, a D-110 with a keyboard, and sold at exactly the same price.
Of course, you lose something on the deal as well, but on the whole it looks as if the D-5 is the ideal first purchase for the micro musician, after your computer, of course.
In case you're not familiar with the D-110 module on which the D-5 is based, we'll recap briefly. Roland's flagship keyboard, the D-50, uses a revolutionary form of sound synthesis called Linear Arithmetic - LA for short. Rather than trying to synthesise complex sounds from simple building blocks - such as the sine waves used in Yamaha's FM synthesis - Roland's innovation lay in storing bits of sampled sounds in the synthesiser's ROM. Up to four of these 128 digital sampled partials, known as "timbres", are combined with synthesised sustain sounds created using a relatively conventional synthesiser section featuring analog-style TVF (Time Variant Filter) and TVA (Time Variant Amplifier) and modulation. Combined in one of 13 "structures" (a bit like Yamaha FM "algorithms").
The LA's waveforms allow you to create a vast range of breathtakingly realistic or unreal sounds ("tones"). The principle has been imitated by Kawai with their K-1 family of synths and modules, and Korg with the M-1, and doubtless there are more variations to come.
As you'd expect, Roland's response to the success of the D-50 has been to produce several cheaper versions; the D-550 module, the MT-32 home keyboard module, the D-10 multi-timbral keyboard, the D-20 keyboard which has a built-in sequencer and disk drive, and the E-10 and E-20 which have added auto-accompaniment features for home use.
The D-5 combines elements of several of these, but has one huge omission. All the other LA instruments have a built-in digital reverb unit. The D-5 doesn't. That's what you lost in gaining the keyboard. Does it make all that much difference? Well, a lot of the immediate impact of LA synthesis sounds sprung from the remarkable sense of "completeness" which the reverb unit gave to the sounds. In the recording process, you could just slap down D-50 sounds without any effects processing.
The D-5 has to get by entirely on the merits of the LA sounds themselves, and fortunately they're good enough to make your ears prick up even without reverb (though it wouldn't do any harm to budget for a small reverb unit...) The D-5 is a smart black wedge-shaped unit with a five-octave velocity sensitive keyboard. It isn't aftertouch-sensitive, but there is a combined pitch-bend/modulation controller on the left-hand side of the keyboard.
Around the back are the sockets for MIDI IN/OUT/THRU, 9V power supply socket, Left and Right audio outputs, headphones, footpedal sustain, and the memory storage card - so the D-5 isn't short of professional standard connectors. The front panel is remarkably simple. On the left is the volume slider; next to this, the Mode and Key Transpose buttons. Below the 32-character editing LCD are the performance effects buttons, and to the right the program select/editing buttons and a row of function buttons. That's all there is to it, but the multi-page editing functions can get pretty complex - every button seems to have at least four different functions. The D-5 operates in three modes (not counting ROM Play which runs through a sequence of impressive demo tunes, rather like the U-110).
The basic mode is Performance; here you can select any of the 128 preset Patches. These are arranged in two banks (A and B) each of 8x8 sounds. You can also store 128 patches (combinations of two Tones, Upper and Lower) on a RAM or ROM card. D-10/20/110 cards are compatible. The basic sounds are excellent; grouped roughly into acoustic, string, plucked, electronic, and other categories, they cover the whole range of LA sounds. Particular favourites are the ethereal Peaceful Choir, the grandiose Hyper Ensemble, the synthi Sweep Horns and the charming bell/voice combination Sweet Memories.
In Performance mode, you can either use a single Upper tone; use two, Upper and Lower, with a definable split point; or combine two across the whole length of the keyboard in Dual mode. To add to the wonderfulness of the basic sounds, there are four new Performance Effects which have been adopted from the E10/20 home keyboards. These are activated with the buttons below the LCD, and can be incorporated into a program. Chord Play allows you to create single-finger chords. Hold down a series of notes below the programmable split point, and play one above the split point. You'll hear a chord the root note of which is the highest key you play. Play a different note, and the chord [follows] accurately. (This good way of faking difficult accompaniment parts; another is to use the Key Transpose function to return the keyboard so that a part written in a difficult key can be played in an easy one!)
The Harmony function works similarly, except that it adds an inverted chord, based on the keys played below the split point, to any melody note you play.
The Chase function is a sort of "MIDI echo"; it repeats any note played, with a gradual decrease in volume. You can also program a pitch offset, so that the note rises or falls as it dies away.
Lastly, there's an Arpeggiator (a feature you rarely find on modern synths). Hold down any series of keys and the the D-5 will play them sequentially, either Up, Down, Up/ Down or Randomly.
The parameters for the Performance Effects, such as speed, number of repeats, and so on, can be programmed for each patch, but you can also alter the time value while you play using the Value Up/Down keys. The effects don't just control the D-5's voices; if you're using it as a master keyboard controlling another synth module or sampler, you can apply them there too.
The D-5's second playing mode is Manual Drum. Here you have access to the sampled percussion sounds which make the D-5 the ideal companion for a computer sequencer. The 64 sounds range from acoustic to treated rock drums, Latin percussion, cymbals, African drums and electronic toms. These can be played from the keyboard, or of course from a sequencer. Unlike the D-10/20, the D-5 has no built-in drum machine on which you can arrange drum patterns, but you can create and store 64 rhythm set-ups, featuring your choice of key assignments, stereo panning and volume levels for each key.
The synth sounds and rhythm sounds really come together in Multi-Timbral mode. The big problem with the D-50 was that though it sounds marvellous, it can only produce one sound at a time. The D-110, D-10, D-20, MT-32, and now the D-5 are multi-timbral; capable of producing up to eight simultaneous sounds, which you can control from different MIDI channels from your sequencer. Though all the sounds have to end up coming out of the Left and Right audio outputs, this means you can create a pretty convincing composition with just the one instrument - and think what you could do with a spot of tape multi-tracking too.
In Multi-Timbral Mode, the D-5 has, again, 128 programmable memories. Each memory can use up to eight "parts", totalling either eight or sixteen voices, depending on how many partials are used up by each voice (confused yet?) Each Part has programmable transposition and tuning, MIDI channel and modulation control response, while the patch has programmable keyboard MIDI channel (or Local off if you don't want to play the keyboard), MIDI continuous controller response and so on.
The rhythm section is usually assigned to MIDI channel 10 for some unknown reason. For an idea of how great the D-5 can sound under multi-timbral sequencer control, check out the fabulous demo sequences in the ROM Play section. Yes, you could spend more money and get something like a D-20; but its sequencer, drum machine and disk drive would be redundant if you already have a computer which can perform sequencing, patch editing and data storage more efficiently.
With its satisfying keyboard, great programmable sounds, drum section and flexible multi-timbral operation, at the moment the D-5 looks like the best off-the-peg solution to setting up a computer-controlled MIDI studio.
Product: Roland D-5 Multi-Timbral LA Synthesizer
Supplier: Roland UK, (Contact Details)
Review by Chris Jenkins writing as John Renwick
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