CD ROM player
Surrounded by sample disks? Swamped by sounds? Paul Ireson takes a look at Roland's new CD5 CD ROM player, the next step up in sound library management for S550 sampler owners, and a taste of things to come for everyone else.
We live in an age in which information is becoming ever more important, and access to that information is power. This is true on any number of levels, from the trivial to the deadly serious: you only need look at the lengths to which governments will go to restrict the flow of information to appreciate the fact, and it's also true on the more human(e) level of the world of music.
The word 'digital' is now a part of every musician's vocabulary: CD quality digital audio, digital sampling, digital audio tape... whether they think of it in this sense or not, today's musicians and studio users are swimming in a sea of data, and without the tools to adequately process and manage all of that data, they're missing out on a world of creative possibilities. It's the difference between information and knowledge.
The way in which this data most obviously manifests itself is in the proliferation of sample disks, both pre-recorded library disks and those filled with user samples. While 3.5" disks provide a permanent means of sample storage that at least avoids the necessity of re-sampling a sound every time you want to use it, they're really a very awkward medium for building up a large sample library on. Apart from the fact that loading times are relatively slow, a large library of samples will occupy a lot of disks, which are inevitably awkward to manage both in terms of keeping track of where samples are stored, and in the time it takes to find and load a sound from a given disk. Browsing through all the string or guitar samples on 100 disks can be a very tedious business. What sampler users need is an alternative to the ubiquitous onboard-drive-and-piles-of-floppies combination, that offers better access to all of their sounds. Recognising this fact, Roland have provided just such a device for users of the S550 rackmount sampler - the CD5 CD ROM player - which points the way forward to the next generation of data storage devices for the ever-expanding hordes of samplers.
So what's so good about CD ROM? Basically, it beats floppy disks hands down in the all-important respects of the amount of data that can be stored and the speed with which it can be accessed. Each optical disc that a CD ROM player takes can hold 600 Megabytes - enough data to fill 550 double-sided, double density 3.5" floppy disks, and the player can access that data in a fraction of the time that a floppy drive would take. This data density is such that Roland have placed the entire S550 sound library on to a single CD ROM disc, with room to spare!
If you're not familiar with CD ROM, you may be wondering whether the 'CD' has anything to do with audio compact discs. It does: CD ROM is based on the technology of CD audio, and as a result the discs look identical, the CD5 can play audio CDs as well as read data from CD ROM discs, and like CD audio CD ROM is a playback-only medium at present. This is the only point that CD ROM concedes to the floppy disk - you cannot store any of your own samples with CD ROM. However, as is now well established, most sampler users will be quite happy with this situation, because they use only pre-recorded sounds in any case.
The crucial difference between CD audio and CD ROM comes in the playback machine; whereas a CD audio player converts the data on disc into audio signals, a CD ROM player reads the data straight out, as data, via a suitable interface. Besides the advantage that CD ROM has over hard disks and floppies in terms of the amount of data that can be stored, it also scores over hard disk in that the optical discs are not an integral part of the drive, and can therefore be removed and swapped over as easily as they can in your audio CD player. However, CD ROM in its present form is a read-only medium, which will not allow any new data to be written to the discs. This means that you can't store any of your own samples on disc, though you do have easy access to whatever worlds of sound manufacturers choose to put on CD ROM disc for you.
Like a hard disk drive, a CD ROM player is nothing without the device for which it is storing data, which runs the necessary software to control the player. So it is with the CD5, which will currently work only in conjunction with Roland's S550 sampler - though the forthcoming S770 16-bit sampler and W30 workstation will both also be able to take advantage of the CD ROM drive.
The Roland CD5 is the first CD ROM player to be produced by a musical instrument company, aimed specifically at musicians and a particular make of sampler. Nevertheless, it's not the first CD ROM player to be offered to sampler users: a CD ROM drive from Optical Media has been available for a while, which allowed anyone with a Mac and Universal Sound Designer software access to several discs of sample files, which could then be transferred to any compatible sampler (eg. Emulator II, III, Emax). However, it never seemed to arouse much interest, probably for the simple reason that the Macintosh is too expensive to be a popular music computer in the UK. The CD5, on the other hand, only requires that you have a slightly modified S550, to which samples can be transferred direct.
A notable feature of the CD5 in particular, as opposed to CD ROM players in general, is that it comes with a free disc containing the entire S550 sound library; previously available only in the form of 165 floppy disks. A little back-of-the-envelope maths tells me that the price of these disks considerably exceeds that of the CD5, so you could regard the CD5 as coming free when you buy the S550 library in its new, cheaper form! This looks like an absolute steal to me. Any more discs that come out - and Roland and other companies will undoubtedly be producing further discs - will be a bonus.
Further CD ROM discs will probably cost in the region of £200, which may seem a lot of money but is actually dirt cheap when you compare it with the price of the same amount of data on floppies - a CD ROM disc could hold the amount of data that you might pay upwards of £5,000 for at £10 per 3.5" floppy disk.
I'd better point out now that although the S550 CD ROM library disc contains a very healthy 165 disks worth of samples - still only a quarter of the disc's capacity - it isn't actually 165 disks worth of different sounds. There is a certain amount of duplication of sounds, or at least a number of very similar patches, due to the fact that the American and Japanese sound libraries for the S550 have been included without modification, and many of the patches use the same basic samples. It's still an awful lot of sounds, and they come free with the player.
The CD5 itself is beige in colour, and seems to be styled to tie in with Roland's forthcoming computer products rather than their musical instruments. This may be a result of the fact that the unit is a re-badged product of A.N. Other manufacturer, rather than a conscious decision.
The front panel adopts a minimalist approach, and betrays the CD5's role as a data rather than audio player. At the right-hand side is a slot for the disc. Rather than using the slide-out tray found on most audio CD players, the CD5 requires you to place the CD ROM in a special plastic caddy (supplied) - a bit like a larger and more elaborate 3.5" floppy disk case - and then insert that into the CD5. Below the slot is the Eject button, which is generally disabled, as this part of the CD5's operation is also remote-controlled by the S550 sampler.
The other features of the front panel are the 'power on' and 'busy' LED indicators, a stereo headphone socket, and volume control. These are provided because the CD5 will play regular audio CDs, although the fact that the headphone socket is only a mini jack indicates that Roland don't expect you to do much headphone monitoring of the material.
Round the back of the machine are left and right audio outputs, and two SCSI (pronounced 'scuzzy' and meaning Small Computer Systems Interface) multi-pin ports for connection to an S550, other CD5s, or hard disk drives. The audio outputs are RCA phono connectors, and again indicate that audio is not the primary function of this unit. The point of their presence, and the fact that the CD5 can function as a conventional CD player at all, is simply to allow you to sample off audio CDs. Several companies (Prosonus, Akai, Emu Systems, Korg, etc) are now producing sample libraries on audio CD, which can be loaded into any sampler.
Before the CD5 will do anything useful, or indeed anything at all, it must be connected to a Roland S550 sampler. The physical connection is made via SCSI connectors, but requires a modification to the basic S550 to add the appropriate hardware; the HD5 IF interface board.
Via this SCSI port, any combination of up to four CD5s and suitable hard disk drives can be daisy-chained to the S550. The HD5 IF interface takes care of the hardware side of the S550/CD5 connection, and the software side is handled by a new Operating System for the S550. The floppy disk containing this new system comes with the CD5. It seems likely that both Roland's W30 workstation and the forthcoming S770 16-bit megasampler will also be able to use the CD5.
With the new operating system, the CD ROM functions are integrated into the normal working of the S550. So rather than searching for and loading a new Patch or Tone from a floppy disk, you simply select one from the CD ROM disc. As with all other aspects of operating the S550, the CD ROM operations are most easily controlled with the aid of a mouse and CRT display, though they can also be controlled from the regular S550 front panel buttons.
Starting the whole system up from scratch begins with turning on both the CD5 and the S550. The caddy containing the CD ROM disc is then inserted into the CD5, and a 12-13 second wait is recommended before inserting the new system disk into the S550. When the S550 reads this disk, besides loading the new operating system, it will load up whatever initial settings the user has specified: for example, whether a mouse, or RC100 remote controller, or the S550 front panel buttons are to be used to control the system.
To load sounds from CD ROM, the user must enter Utility mode, where the main menu has been provided with the following extra options to cope with driving the CD5: CD Load, CD Load P(atch), CD Load T(one) and CD Player. The three loading types on this main menu reflect the organisation of sounds on the disc: there are 165 Areas, each of which contains the sounds from one of Roland's sound library floppy disks. Each of these Areas in turn contains a number of Patches, which in turn consist of Tones. In order to make the process of searching through Areas easier, they are given Group numbers, corresponding to types of sound: Woodwind, Strings etc; so searching for an Area is best achieved by specifying the Group that you want, and then looking for the Area you want within this Group. This is undoubtedly a very welcome feature, and just the kind of thing that makes the CD5 a really useful device, rather than merely a way of storing a lot of samples. When you're in danger of being swallowed up by a sample library, more compact storage of those sounds is merely better; more compact storage and well organised cataloguing and access really is a quantum jump in convenience.
In order to load a whole Area at once, which will fill one of the internal Sound Blocks of the S550, the CD Load window must be opened to reach the correct commands. Before executing one of the several load commands, you must allocate an Area from the CD ROM to each of the two Blocks: the different load commands then specify what data is to be transferred from disc to the S550. Load Chain will load both Areas, filling both Blocks with Wave (sample) data, as well as all the Play, Function and MIDI parameters for those sounds. This whole process takes a mere 14 seconds. Other commands are CD Load Set I/II, which loads the entire Area to either Block I or II; CD Load Block I/II, which will load only the sample data, ignoring Play, Function and MIDI data; CD Load Func, which will load only the Play and Function data set for Block I; and CD Load MIDI, which will load only the MIDI data. Also on this menu is CD Eject, which ejects the CD caddy of course. The 'real' Eject button on the CD5 front panel is disabled, which prevents accidental ejection of the CD during data transfer.
Going down a level, it is also possible to load single Patches from within Areas, with the options available through the CD Load P window. The Patches can be loaded either as parameter data only, or as parameter data and associated Tone data. When loading several Patches from different Areas, it is all too easy to load up different Tones with the same number in their intended Patches. If the S550 simply loaded these up 'blind', it would presumably overwrite the old Tone with the new Tone of the same number, and some of your Patches would therefore end up containing the wrong samples. However, the new operating system takes care of this problem, by re-numbering Tones in the event of any conflicting numbers, and changing the Patch parameters to accommodate the re-numbering. 10 out of 10 for good thinking. Going down a further level of organisation, you can also load single Tones from the CD5.
With the number of sounds available on disc, and the near-instant access afforded by the CD5 (around 0.5 seconds to find anything on the disc), you stop thinking in terms of a 'sound library' that you search through for the next sound you require: it's more like having all of the sounds in memory, and just selecting which ones you're going to use. This is a major difference, and one that will be appreciated by anyone who spends much time using samplers. Disk swapping and searching for the right snare on the right floppy becomes very time-consuming when you have to do it over and over again, and so it's easy for corners of a floppy-based sound library to become forgotten and ignored when they can't be reached all that easily. That analogy may sound a little corny but I think it's valid: the easier it is for users to browse through all of their sounds, the less they'll be content to use the same 'tried and trusted' samples. And in a commercial environment like a studio or film dubbing suite, time really is money, and so anything that speeds up access to the available sounds is more than a mere convenience. The sheer number of sounds that CD ROM can make available will also be of enormous value to many users. Studios, session musicians, and people in jingle and other audio-visual work benefit from having as many different sounds as possible at their disposal, and a medium which handles data in 600Mb chunks will be irresistible.
The S550/CD5 combination becomes even more powerful when a hard disk is added: although 20MB or so is nothing compared to the amount of data on a single CD ROM disc, with the hard disk in tow you can roll your own Areas, ready to be loaded to the S550's Sound Blocks in a fraction of the time it would take from a floppy disk, and without any searching for the right disk. The hard disk also allows the user to specify two Areas to be auto-loaded into the S550 on power-up.
Besides functioning as a CD ROM player, the CD5 can also be used as a conventional compact disc audio player. Selecting the CD Player window presents the user with on-screen representations of the usual Start/Stop, Pause, Rewind, Fast Forward and Skip buttons, plus Eject and an extra button whose function is not at first obvious. This control is linked to the whole raison d'etre of the CD5's ability to play audio, which is to allow direct sampling off standard audio CDs.
Although the CD5 excels as a data storage and retrieval device, its audio capabilities aren't quite so impressive: in modern day CD audio terms, this is a dinosaur. The DACs are straight 16-bit, with no oversampling whatsoever, and are thus equivalent to the first generation CD players. Also, only regular phono audio outputs are provided, where digital outputs (now standard on good CD players) would be welcome. Clearly nobody is going to buy this machine purely as a CD player (especially as an S550 is required just to get it to play!).
However, it does have a very useful feature which makes sampling off CD as easy as possible. The mystery button I mentioned earlier accesses Cue Point controls, which can be used to mark a point on the audio CD at which you want to take a sample: having marked the cue point, you can listen to it over and over to ensure that the cue point is perfect; if it isn't, you can nudge the point backwards or forwards by 0.1 second increments at a time. When you're happy with the cue point, selecting Auto from the Command menu does the rest, and samples from the selected point.
Any serious users of samplers rapidly find themselves surrounded by mountains of floppy disks. That's how it's been up until now; a situation born out of users' demands for large sound libraries, and the limited storage capacity of existing floppy disks. The CD5 changes things dramatically for the S550 user, placing a huge library of sounds literally at your fingertips, with near-instant access to the whole lot. As it stands, the CD5 with the S550 library CD is already the cheapest way to obtain the whole S550 sound library, so even before further CD ROM discs appear, it's a cost-effective buy.
As more discs come on to the market, the CD5 should begin to look indespensible for professional users of the S550: its ease of access to hundreds of megabytes of data will be appreciated by anyone who needs a big library. Once those people working in studios and the audio-visual field take a good hard look at the CD5, I feel sure they won't take much persuading that they need one.
With a large sample library, you either need time and patience or a device like the CD5 to organise it adequately, and for anyone who can't afford the time and trouble, the CD5 will look like a godsend. For the rest of us, it's a taste of things to come.
£1299 inc VAT.
Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).