Roland D110 LA Expander
The Expanded Expander
Here it is - the professional version MT32 complete with separate voice outputs, built-in reverb and hardly any noise. Martin Russ looks at Roland’s new studio-oriented rackmount LA synthesizer.
When MIDI first appeared on musical instruments it was widely predicted that manufacturers would start to produce keyboardless expanders, and this has indeed happened. But the future is not so easily tamed and as far as I know, no-one foresaw another development - the expanded expander! As an example, the appearance of the Yamaha FB01 was followed about six months later by the TX81Z, a rack-mounted, much improved version of an FB01.
The release of the Roland D110 repeats this trend for the MT32 - the D110 is essentially a rack-mounting MT32 but with many additional features and enhancements. In both cases, the initial product was developed by the part of the company involved in areas other than hi-tech instruments, and the refined model was then released by the hi-tech division. So what would you do to an MT32 - and would it look like the D110? Let's find out!
The D110 is a multitimbral expander, using the popular Linear Arithmetic synthesis method to produce up to eight separate synthesized Parts, together with a separate Rhythm Part and a global reverb on the output to finish. Theoretically up to 32 instruments can sound at once, with dynamic allocation of voices freeing you from manual placement, although you can reserve partials if you want. The sounds themselves use an all-digital system which provides both conventional analogue synthesizer type sounds and PCM sampled segments of real sounds. The two elements are produced by bits of software called Partials, and these can be connected together in Structures along with some common parameters to form a Tone. Adding performance-oriented parameters produces a Timbre. The Reverb and Part assignments are stored as a Patch. The Rhythm Part seems more like a drum store than a synthesizer - you get 63 different percussion sounds to choose from!
What is immediately noticeable about the front panel is the headphones socket (the MT32 didn't have one) and, best of all, a real volume control. In this age of parameter access, it is refreshing to see a manufacturer who has learned that there really are some cases when a rotary control knob is best! Its markings are clear, although uncalibrated, but you can see the setting at a distance - and in a rack of equipment this can be very important.
The trend in front panel layout always seems to be biased towards right-handed people, and so the backlit LCD display is on the left-hand side of the panel, with the 16 control buttons on the right. The LCD uses dark characters on a light green background, and does not have the same clarity, brightness or range of viewing angles as the polarised green/yellow letters on black displays found on the Yamaha TX81Z, for example. I found that I was having difficulty reading it at certain angles.
The 16 rather small, positive-clicking buttons are divided into two rows, with eight of these logically assigned to up and down nudging of parameters or Parts as appropriate. Not so logical is the colour scheme of the buttons - they are all black! On a black front panel, with small lettering, this can be rather taxing on the user, especially on an expander like this with many modes of operation and associated button-pressing. I would have preferred two separate blocks of switches, perhaps with a red 'write/copy' switch, and a white or grey 'exit' switch.
The remaining space on the front panel is devoted to a memory card slot. This is the same type of card as used on the D50, and is a welcome addition since it makes loading and saving Timbres and Patches much easier than onto cassette. The only things you can't do with the memory cards involve the basic components of the LA sounds; so you can't change the PCM sampled sounds, for example.
Rear panels often tell you more about the instrument than the front. On the D110 there are two standard jack sockets for the Mixed Output, with the usual scheme of Left acting as a mono output unless a jack is also inserted into the Right socket. There are also six Multi Out jacks which can be assigned to the Parts if you want to add additional signal processing to the sounds, although Multi Outs 5 and 6 cannot be used when reverb is present in the Timbre.
The MT32 suffers from unwanted noise at its outputs as well as a grainy decay to the reverb, and the D110 attempts to improve on this. The noise floor is about 86dB down from the loudest output signal level (about 3 volts peak-to-peak) and the frequency response extends beyond 25kHz. With figures like that you would expect it to sound good, and the high frequencies do indeed seem to have a nice sparkle. The quantisation distortion on the reverb tail is still present, although it seems to be less obtrusive than on the MT32. To my ears there seemed to be some sort of gating system present, which helps mask the rather abrupt effects of limited precision as the sounds decay. Overall, the sound quality was significantly improved.
The other three sockets on the rear panel need no introduction - a MIDI In, Out and Thru.
Inside, there are two major PCBs - one contains the analogue components, while the other does all the digital control and processing. This separation of the two parts into two screened sections probably helps the signal-to-noise ratio figures. The analogue board is fitted with a standard 16-bit CD type DAC, and this is multiplexed to produce the separate output signals.
The digital board has a 12MHz Intel 8096 chip as the controlling microprocessor, and the D110's Operating System is stored in a 256 Kbit EPROM. The rest of the board is mostly surface-mounted custom Roland chips clocked at 16.384MHz, with ROMs for the PCM wavetables, and 74HC series logic mopping up any remaining functions. A large lithium battery in a socket (at last, an easy to change battery!) provides the standby power to the RAM. The design and quality of the PCBs is consistent with the usual very high standards of Roland equipment, as is the mechanical construction throughout. I pity the service department at Roland though - you need to remove 17 bolts to gain access to the interior!
Having tried to edit the D110 with an MT32 software editor (see 'MIDI' box), I investigated the front panel controls. As you might expect, these are really designed to allow easy and quick access to Patches and Parts, and so the editing functions tend to be buried at a deeper level. Unlike some selection buttons which keep cycling you around the available possibilities, the D110 uses the Up key to scroll you up through the options and the Down key to scroll down. This means that you have to make sure you go all the way up and down so as not to miss a parameter, but has the advantage that you do not go past and then be forced to cycle through again. My fingers got used to the layout very quickly, and the functionality is certainly good for accessing the basic features of the machine.
Pressing the Edit key a couple of times quickly gets you into the complex world of LA synthesis, where you need to be able to cope with up to four different Partials at once. I missed the Partial Mute buttons from the D50, since you need to keep moving back and forth between Partial parameters and Common parameters to mute and unmute Partials on the D110. Editing sounds from the front panel is certainly possible, but you would need to have a clear idea of what you wanted to do, and have the time to achieve it. The charts which Roland include with the D110 are very useful here, since they show you where you are in the mode map, and enable you to move relatively quickly between the various editing modes.
A much better idea seems to be the PG10 Programmer. The latest addition to a long line of Roland external programmers, this unit is the easy way to programme the D110, or D10 and D20 synths. It should provide much easier access to the parameters without a large amount of button-pressing. A PG10 was not supplied with the review D110 and so my edits were the result of hard work! If you intend to make lots of changes to the available sounds (or create ones from scratch!) then I recommend either a software editor or the PG10, whereas for the normal housekeeping functions of assigning values to Parts, changing MIDI channels etc, the front panel buttons are fine.
Once you have edited your sounds or Patches, you will want to store them in either the internal memory, or perhaps on a memory card. You can store 64 Patches and Tones internally or on the M256D memory card (half this number on the M128D card). The only way you can store a Rhythm Setup is on a card - one per card. Unfortunately, despite their similarities, it is not possible to store sounds on a memory card which has been used to store sounds from the new D10 and D20 keyboard synths, although you can swap the same Timbres and Tones between the instruments using a card (or MIDI dump) since the sound data itself is compatible. This means that you will probably need a RAM card for each instrument instead of one for all - a pity.
I was recently rudely awakened to the fact that some instruments forget what you were doing when you switch them off. I had got used to things like the DX7, which remember exactly where you were and return you to it when you switch them back on, and so I succeeded in losing about half a day's work in a quick 'I'll come back to that later' flick of the power switch. I am glad to report that, unlike the MT32, the D110 does not suffer from amnesia and returns you to exactly the mess you were in when you last used it! This can be both very useful but also a problem if you are in the habit of turning things off to restore the start-up state. To prevent any problems you need... the manual.
Roland have always produced good equipment manuals, and the D110's is no exception - 124 A4 pages perfectly bound into a leather-effect cover. Nicely laid out, with only a few forays into Japanese plinting errors ('Timber' suggests the wrong sort of sound to me! But I know what they mean) and certainly no incomprehensible warning sentences. The layout is clear and the contents informative, with plenty of diagrams to try and explain the complexities of this rather extensive instrument.
The MT32 manual seemed to have decided that since there was no way of editing from the front panel, all you would need to do was access the preset sounds, and so it did not include any information about LA Synthesis - the Atari-based editor packages have to try and explain it to you. The D110 manual writers have obviously learned from this and there is a very good section about LA - even I picked up a hint or two! You also get some A4-sized reference cards - a bit too large for my taste, but useful nevertheless.
As I approach the end of a review I have this recurring nightmare that I will forget to mention some major aspect of the instrument - this time I have spotted the two omissions before it is too late:
Also included in the D110 is a digital reverb. This has eight modes offering various types of time delay-based effects and some control over them. It is astonishing how much the sound of an instrument can be improved by the right amount of reverb, and this is a nice bonus. I have already mentioned the slight distortion problems that arise as sounds decay, and the only other problem lies with the reverb being either permanently on or off - you get it on the stereo outputs and Multi Outputs 1 to 4. You can only use Multi Outputs 5 and 6 if you have the reverb switched off. Considering that the MT32 is rather more versatile in how you can assign the reverb, I found this disappointing.
Finally, we come to the thing which will undoubtedly form your introduction to the D110 - the ROM Play feature. When you ask your local Roland dealer to demo the D110 you will see him press the Enter and Edit keys together, then the Enter key again... This unleashes eight stunning (especially in stereo!) expositions of the capabilities of the D110, ranging from Folk to Classics, with Rock and Jazz thrown in as well - programmed by people like Eric Persing and Amin Bhatia. It's the perfect thing to play to people who ask you 'But what does all this stuff do?' when you show them your studio.
I fell in love with the D50, thought the MT32 was an amazing amount of synthesizer for the price, and now we have the superb D110. LA in its third incarnation is still impressive, and the improved sound quality, memory card storage, and onboard editing facilities certainly make the Roland D110 much more suited to professional studio use. The D110 looks about as good as a 1U high racked box is ever going to look and sounds wonderful! When someone solves the problem of putting vocals into a similar box, then you could probably get away with that plus a D110 and Pro-24 sequencer for a complete working demo package.
I really liked the D110 - rack-mounting units tend not to excite the same emotions in me as distinctively shaped wedges or keyboards, but this is undeniably a versatile means of producing high quality, complex, polytonal and polyrhythmic sounds without any problems. LA appeals on two fronts: it has the thick powerful tones of yesterday's analogue machines, tempered with the realistic sampled sounds of today - and it is a winning combination. My Yamaha FB01 sounds decidedly old and weak by comparison - any offers?
Price £586 inc VAT.
Contact Roland UK Ltd, (Contact Details).