MIDI Keyboard Controller
A mother of invention?
Big on octaves, heavy on keys, the new A-30 from Roland makes light work of accessing all those Sound Canvas voices...
After a few years out in the MIDI wilderness, master keyboards have now become an essential part of the well-equipped studio. In terms of economy, space-saving or efficiency, it no longer makes sense to have a Wakemanesque stack of boards when one well-specified instrument could handle your entire MIDI setup. But Roland's latest effort along these lines, the A-30, has another task too - to sell us the concept of their GS format.
If you have encountered GS through the Roland JV30 or SC55 Sound Canvas, you'll no doubt be familiar with the basic concept. While MIDI makes instruments from different manufacturers compatible, GS makes them interchangeable. The sound types, drum sets and architecture of GS instruments follow strict guidelines, so that, given a sequence or drum pattern in GS format, you can depend on an appropriate set of voices being available on your GS sound source.
So far, GS has been aimed largely at the amateur market; this may change with the advent of the A-30. A spectacular 6½ octave (76 key B-D) instrument, the A-30 is nonetheless light in weight (around 8kg), so it's ideal for stage or studio. The case is dark grey, with a pleasingly rounded design. The keyboard itself is safely recessed into the case, the front edge of which provides some support for the wrists. It's also weighted, and transmits note-on velocity and channel aftertouch. Though the plastic keys are still a little clicky, it's certainly a step up in quality from the average budget synth keyboard; I can't see anyone finding it unpleasant to use.
Power can be supplied by six 1½V batteries, or the external 9V power supply. There's an on/off switch on the back, but (sadly) no cable retainer next to the power socket. The rear panel also plays host to MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, and a 1/4-inch jack socket for a sustain pedal.
On the left-hand side of the keyboard is the familiar expression lever combining pitch-bender and modulation - similar to the design of the D5 - and above the main panel you'll find sockets for a music stand. You remember music?
The interesting bits, of course, are on the main panel, where there's a single data entry slider and two rows of patch/program buttons, all of which have a reassuringly positive click.
The A-30 operates in two basic modes; Patch and Free Panel. In Patch mode, you can select any of the 32 programmable memories, using the 16 numeric buttons and the shift key. In Free Panel mode, the numeric and function buttons are used to access and edit control parameters. The 16 numeric buttons select the 16 GS sound groups, which are helpfully labelled on the keyboard - Piano, Percussion, Organ, Guitar and so on. Two more buttons, CC00 and CC32, are used to select variant sounds within GS sound groups. Experimenting with the default settings in the 32 patch memories quickly demonstrates the potential of the A-30 - and of GS - since you automatically step through the GS sound sets as you select different A-30 patches.
Like Roland's D5, the A-30 can be played in three ways; single, split or layer. Two buttons, Upper and Lower, select the current mode. If you activate either the Lower or Upper sections, the MIDI channel and parameters for that section control the whole keyboard. Two parameters can be programmed to define split and layered patches; lower limit of the Upper section, and upper limit of the Lower section. Activate both sections together, and depending on how these parameters are set, you will get either split or layered sounds.
Split points are set by pressing and holding the Upper and Lower buttons, then playing a key. The two sections can be set to overlap so that one sound gradually merges into another as you play up and down the keyboard. A different MIDI channel can be set for each section by pressing the Edit Upper or Lower buttons (at which point an Edit LED lights), then the MIDI/Param button, then a numerical key - 1-16. This method is also used to access functions such as Pitch Bend/Modulation On and Off, Sustain On/Off, and Data Dump.
The A-30 is a far more capable machine than its relatively sparse exterior suggests. To access many of its facilities you have to assign a MIDI controller value to the Data Entry slider by pressing the Data Entry Assign button on the far right, selecting a value with the numerical buttons (1-16) and pressing Enter.
This allows you to control features such as stereo panning, reverb depth and volume for your sound source. Two unconventional controllers, 128 and 129, are used to choose a velocity curve for the keyboard (light, medium or heavy), and to set a tempo for external sequencers or drum machines. All these parameters can be stored in any of 32 patch memories, which should be enough for even a fairly extended live set; if you need more, you can always save patches to a MIDI data filing system and load them in moments. If you wish, you can retrieve the factory default settings for the 32 patch memories. Other front-panel functions include pitch-shift buttons, one octave up or down, and a transposer which allows you to shift the whole MIDI output into another key. There are also Chorus and Reverb On/Off buttons, which are obviously only of use with suitably-equipped sound modules.
Incidentally, if you use Roland's GS-compatible RA-90 Realtime Arranger, you will also appreciate the A-30's ability to start, stop and control the tempo of sequences from external instruments.
Two questions will probably determine the market success of the A-30. Firstly, will GS be a hit? Secondly, does the machine have enough appeal for musicians who do not use GS? Personally, if I used GS instruments exclusively, I would leap at the A-30 with open arms. It has obvious limitations (the single data slider and footswitch socket, for instance), but these are unlikely to bother anyone who is attracted by the 'easy-play' features of GS.
However, the A-30 is not such an immediate draw to the non-user of GS - largely because it's so closely tailored to the demands of GS that it doesn't conform to the internal architecture of other instruments. But you really need to give it a go; you may find it hard to return to a clicky synth keyboard after experiencing the A-30's meaty, weighted 6½ octaves.
Price: £499 inc. VAT
More From: Roland UK Ltd (Contact Details)
Review by Chris Jenkins
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