CD ROM Player
Expensive it maybe, but CD ROM storage is one way of making a sampler a much more powerful instrument. And if you're using a Roland S550, it may not be as expensive as you think, as Simon Trask discovers.
The massive storage capacity of a CD ROM disk makes it ideal for storing large amounts of sample data, Roland's CD5 unit is the latest sample CD ROM.
PROBABLY THE MOST data-intensive aspect of a modern hi-tech setup has to be that of samples. They eat into memory, they gobble up the humble 3.5" floppy disk. For instance, it takes two 3.5" floppies of sample data to fill up the memory of Roland's S550 rack-mount sampler. As you start to build up your sample library over time, so the disks start to pile up.
Instead of having those samples spread across countless 3.5" floppy disks, wouldn't it be so much more convenient to have them all on one 5" disk? Well, if your sampler happens to be a Roland S550, or if you're considering buying Roland's new W30 Workstation sampler/sequencer, you can - courtesy of the company's CD5 CD ROM player.
During the next few years, optical storage media such as CD ROM and WORM (write once/read many) disks will take over from the current magnetic storage media of floppy and hard disks. Why? Well, optical disks can store far greater amounts of data in far less space than their magnetic cousins. To put this in the context of the S550, the CD5 comes complete with one CD ROM disk the size of a compact disc which contains the equivalent of 165 (yes, 165) 3.5" floppy disks-worth of S50/S550 samples. I kid you not. These include the complete Roland Japan S50/ S550 sample library, plus a sample library compiled by Roland USA; in practice, 15-20 of the US disks duplicate the Japanese ones. At current prices, the Roland Japan sample library alone comes to £1,045; add in the US disks and you're talking about over £3000-worth of samples and you get them all for free. Looked at in this way, you could almost say that you're getting the CD5 for free.
Now imagine the physical storage space you'd need, not to mention the number of disk boxes, to accomodate 165 floppies. And imagine the sheer hassle of thumbing through so many floppies for that one shakuhachi sample you desperately needed three minutes ago - wouldn't it be so much easier to scroll through an ordered list of samples on a monitor screen?
Before you start getting too excited, let me emphasise one word: ROM (or, if you prefer, three words: Read Only Memory). Until read/write optical disk systems reach the mass market, hard disks remain the best means of bulk read/write storage. The purpose of the CD5 is to allow you to load in samples off library disks provided by Roland and by third-party developers. At the time of writing, only the one CD ROM disk which comes with the CD5 is available, but US company Optical Media are putting together a disk of their own samples (presumably drawing on their existing CD ROM library for E-mu's EIII and Emax samplers). According to Roland UK, this will be available sometime during May at a price of £299 including VAT. Roland won't just be leaving it up to third-party developers, though - the company are planning to produce more sample disks of their own.
But the CD5 isn't "just" a CD ROM player - you can also use it as a regular CD player. So whenever you're tired of making your own music you can listen to somebody else's - or sample it.
EXISTING S550 OWNERS can skip this section, because for anyone who's considering buying an S550 I'll sketch in some details on it (a full S550 review can be found in the June '88 issue of MT).
The S550 is a 12-bit, 16-voice monophonic sampler which provides you with up to 28.8 seconds of sample time at its maximum sample rate of 30kHz (you can also sample at 15kHz). The sample memory is divided into two Blocks and two Banks per Block, which means that the longest time you can sample for is 7.2 seconds. Fortunately, samples in all four Banks can be played at the same time.
Each Bank provides you with up to 32 Tone locations (a Tone being a combination of a sample - or Wave - and associated parameters such as loop points and envelopes). You can spread up to 32 Tones across the keyboard in each of 32 Patches, while up to eight Patches at a time can be assigned to an eight-part multitimbral configuration, each Patch within the configuration being assigned its own MIDI channel, audio output and volume level.
The rear panel of the S550 sports eight polyphonic individual audio outs and a mix output; MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets; a footswitch input for initiating sampling; a SCSI port labelled Hard Disk; and monochrome and RGB colour monitor outputs. The S550 manual tells you that a monitor is necessary for operating the sampler, and it isn't kidding. A monochrome monitor has the advantage of being inexpensive (you can pick one up for under £100), but the colour-coded screen areas revealed by a colour monitor bring greater clarity into your life.
The Ext Control socket on the front panel of the S550 allows you to use either a mouse or Roland's RC100 remote control unit as an alternative to the sampler's front-panel cursor buttons. The mouse moves a cursor around the parameter fields on each screen "page" rather than allowing you to point directly at each field; if you're schooled in the Mac/ST type of rodent operation, you'll probably find this cursor-based approach quite clumsy in comparison.
"The S550/CD5 is not really a closed system - even if you rely on the samples provided, you'll want to combine them in ways other than those on the CD ROM disks."
MAKING THE CONNECTION between the S550 and CD5 is as simple as plugging one end of a lead into the S550's SCSI port and the other end into either one of the CD5's SCSI ports. The necessary lead is included with the CD5, so you don't have to worry about hunting one down yourself. However, if you want to chain a hard disk off the CD ROM player (this is the reason for the second port; up to four SCSI devices can be addressed independently from the S550) you'll obviously require another lead. Why might you want to use a hard disk? We'll come to that later.
The CD5 itself, with its light-grey colouring, sleek dimensions (14" x 13" x 2") and uncluttered facia should fit fairly unobtrusively into any setup. Good news for anyone thinking of taking the unit out on a gig is that it's built like a tank; this means it's quite heavy for its size, but fortunately it's still fairly portable. Less encouraging is the noise which emanates from within that rugged casing, apparently produced by a fan which runs continuously while the unit is on. However, it's not too obtrusive, and after a while you automatically screen it out.
The CD5's front panel sports only the power LED, a mini-jack phones socket and volume level knob, and the CD disk-drive slot with eject button and Busy LED. Tucked away on the rear panel you'll find the power on/off
switch, L/R phono audio outputs, two SCSI ports, DIP switches for setting such features as SCSI on/off, parity and ID, and a multi-pin port about which the manual says mysteriously "This connector is not used". Er, come again? Even Roland UK weren't able to enlighten me on this one, so for the moment let's just put it down to Japanese creative forward planning.
At this point it's worth describing how the disk-loading system works. The CD5 doesn't adopt the familiar CDplayer "tray" system, instead requiring you to place your CD or CD ROM disk face down into a container, or caddy", which is much like a larger version of a CD "jewel box" case. You then insert the caddy into the drive as you would a floppy disk, and like a 3.5" disk a metal shutter on the underside of the caddy is automatically slid open to give access to the disk's playing surface. To eject the caddy you either press the Eject button or select an onscreen Eject function using the mouse. But as long as you're using the one CD ROM disk you might as well leave it in the drive, as, apparently, no harm will come to either it or the drive.
OK SO YOU'VE got your CD5 and S550 hooked up, your monitor and mouse are plugged into the S550, and you're raring to go. First of all switch on the CD5, then after its Busy LED has gone off you can switch on the S550. The CD5 System disk must be in the sampler's disk drive on as without this you haven't got a system. You must leave the System disk in the drive, as the S550 frequently refers to it to load in a software routine - a fact of life with the S550 which can be irritating, especially when, as in one case, every option on a menu requires its own routine to be loaded whenever you select it.
As part of the auto initialisation process, messages appear on the monitor telling you the System software number and informing you whether or not the
SCSI connection to the CD5 is present and correct. The system then powers up on the Play screen, which gives you information on the S550's multitimbral configuration - or doesn't, in this case, as the sampler's memory is empty. To load in Tone and Patch data off the CD5, select Util on the Mode menu, then CD Load on the Menu menu. Within moments, a list of samples contained on the CD ROM disk appears on the monitor.
At this point, S550 owners will have to learn a few new bits of terminology. To start with, Sets I and II refer to exactly the same physical data on the CD ROM disk, but samples selected from the Set I list are automatically loaded into Bank one of the S550's memory, and samples from Set II into Bank two. Thus when you load a Set you're loading the equivalent of one floppy disk worth of Tone and associated Patch, Function and MIDI data. Using the two mouse buttons to scroll in either direction through the lists, you can quickly select any combination of "disks" to be loaded into the sampler - far, far easier than physically hunting through a pile of floppies.
There are two options for listing the CD ROM disk's contents: Area and Group. When Area is selected, each item in the list is equivalent to one floppies' worth of data; as I mentioned earlier, the CD ROM disk which comes with the CD5 contains 165 disks' worth of data, so there are 65 Areas in the list. To make life easier, select the Group option; Roland have listed families of sounds as consecutive Areas, and Group provides a single entry for each family (all the acoustic piano Areas, or disks, appear under the Group name of Piano, for example).
"You can also use the CD5 as a regular CD payer, so whenever you're tired of making your own music you can listen to someone elses - or sample it."
There are a variety of options for loading data into the S550 from the CD5. Load Chain loads in the currentlyselected Area in Set I, automatically followed by the currently-selected Area in Set II - a full S550 memory load. In contrast, Load Set I and Load Set II each load up half of the S550's memory. Load Block I and Load Block II each load Patch and Tone data but not associated Function and MIDI data; in this way you can load new sets of sounds into an existing multitimbral configuration. At this point I must say something about load times. Having been under the impression that data could be loaded many times faster from a CD ROM player via SCSI than from a floppy disk, I was disappointed to find that using the CD5 roughly halves the S550's floppy loading time; this means that a floppy disks' worth of data takes around 16 seconds to load. Apparently this same figure applies to hard-disk loading also. Maybe I'm just expecting too much.
When you're loading an Area or a Block, you're loading a combination of sounds which has been predetermined by Roland. If you want to make up your own combinations of sounds from different Areas or Blocks, you can load Patches and Tones individually. Obviously once you've made up your own multitimbral configuration you can't save it back onto the CD ROM disk; instead, you must save it to either floppy or hard disk. This is where the two SCSI ports on the CD5 come in, as they allow you to chain a hard disk off the CD ROM player so that you can address either the CD5 or the hard disk from the S550.
AS MENTIONED EARLIER, the CD5 doesn't only function as a CD ROM player. If you select CD Player in Util mode, a 'transport control" page appears on the monitor. If you have a CD ROM disk in the CD5's drive, it will be ejected automatically and a message telling you to insert an audio CD appears on the monitor; if you revert to CD ROM mode with a music CD in the drive, you'll get a similar response. Clever stuff. What it means is that you can't accidentally load the contents of your favourite Dire Straits album as sample data into the S550, or, more importantly, play your S50/S550 samples back as "music" over your speakers - in which case you really could be in dire straits, as you run the risk of speaker damage.
The CD Player page offers you a selection of onscreen "buttons" for controlling the CD5, plus displays of track and index numbers together with elapsed-time counters (from the start of track one and the start of the current track).
In addition to the familiar start, stop, fast forward and rewind, you get track select increment/decrement, CD eject and Cue-point set. When you select the latter, a display of the cue-point time appears, plus extra "buttons" which allow you to increment and decrement the cue point in 0.1-second intervals and select a "pre-cue" start time. The latter operation appears to be plagued by a software bug, as I was getting some very inconsistent onscreen responses; if there is a bug, it will be in the System disk software (which can be updated easily), not the CD5.
The purpose of the cue point, which can be selected either when the CD isn't playing or "on the fly" during play, is to indicate to the S550 where you want to start sampling from on the CD. Once you've set the appropriate cue point, select the Sample page and turn on the CD Cue Switch function; now when you start sampling, the CDS will automatically start playing from the cue point (or from the "pre-cue" start time if you selected one). It's a nicely integrated approach, though if you need to keep swapping between the Sample and CD Play pages, it can get a bit tedious.
IF THERE'S ONE word which sums up the advantages of owning a CD5, it would have to be: convenience. The CD ROM system combines the floppy disk's virtue of hardware independence with the hard disk's virtue of high storage capacity. There are definite advantages to having the entire Roland S50/S550 sample library on one small disk, but there are dangers also. Edwina Currie might agree that putting all your eggs in one basket is not always advisable, and so might you if you get to a gig or a recording session only to find that you've left your entire library of sounds at home stuffed down the back of the sofa. Still, if you're using the one disk you can leave it in the drive.
The CD5 may not appear all that cheap, but there again, when you realise what you're getting in terms of free samples, it might not seem that expensive after all. Of course, the value of the CD ROM disk depends on how many of its samples you might actually use. Personally, I was impressed by both the scope and the quality of the samples contained in Roland's sample library. If the idea of a large array and variety of instrumental sounds Western, African and Asian, plus a great (but by no means comprehensive) selection of sound effects appeals to you, you'll probably consider the CD5 very good value for money. The prospects for a growing library of CD ROM sample disks seem encouraging. A disk containing a comprehensive selection of sound effects would no doubt help the S550 to go down a storm with anyone working in video, radio and theatre production; and perhaps Roland could consider a "best of" disk compiled from samples submitted by S550 users worldwide.
However, it's not really possible to regard the S550/ CD5 pairing as a closed system. Even if you're happy to rely solely on the samples provided by Roland and thirdparty developers, the chances are that you'll want to combine those samples in ways other than those preset on the CD ROM disks. Ultimately, to get the most out of your S550/CD5, it makes sense to add on a hard disk. Once you've done that, you'll have yourself an extremely impressive system - but it doesn't come cheap.
Prices CD5, £1299; S550, £2300. Both prices include VAT.
Review by Simon Trask