Roland's MT32 LA synth expander proved so popular with pro musicians, the company had trouble explaining that it was aimed at the domestic market. Now Thomas Clement test-drives the professionals' LA expander.
If Roland's MT32 whetted your appetite for an LA synth expander, the D110 could be what you ve been waiting for.
A LOT CAN happen in four years. Sitting in my rack is an "old" Roland MKS30 Planet S. The 2U-high Planet sports 64 internal and 64 cartridge RAM memories and friendly analogue parameters. Its sounds can be huge, but the Planet is unfortunately limited to six voices and only one timbre at a time. The price in 1984 was £749.
Directly above the Planet is Roland's new D110, a single rack-space module with 192 sounds onboard and another 192 sounds available via memory cards. The D110 utilises Roland's Linear Arithmetic synthesis; the sounds may not be as fat as some of the Planet's soup-thick timbres, but they aren't digital-thin, either. They have a warmth all of their own. Up to 32 notes can be played at the same time, and eight different timbres can be sequenced at once via MIDI. Not limited to keyboard lines, the D110 also has 63 percussion sounds built in. In addition, there is onboard signal processing like reverb and delay, and I can add outboard effects to individual sounds via the D110's six separate audio outputs. In other words, in 1U there is enough power to roll out music that four years ago would have taken several Planets, a drum machine, and digital effects to create. The 1988 list price? £599
THE D110 HAS four Timbre groups: A, B, I and R. Both A and B are preset with 64 Timbres each. The programmable I group has another 64 Timbres. The final group, R, stores the 63 percussion Timbres. A Timbre, by the way, is a Roland Tone that's had performance parameters like pitch-bend tacked onto it (the D110 responds to mod and pitch wheels, but not to aftertouch).
The D110 is similar to other members of the LA family, especially the MT32, the D110's slightly older, less sophisticated sibling. About 90% of the presets are from the MT32, but they're much improved on the D110 - cleaner, louder and often tweaked for the better.
The MT32 and D110 aren't exactly the same inside (a few Timbres sounded better on the MT32 - 'Fantasia' and the trombones, for example), but they're fairly close. The major difference is that the D110 has new and better PCM samples (and more of them). I used the American company Beaverton Digital's Editor/Librarian (currently unavailable over here) to transfer MT32 Timbres to the D110. Some made the crossing intact, while others changed, often with pleasing results. The D110 doesn't understand a full bank dump from an MT32 (some of the Timbres don't port over).
The D110's percussion section is another step up from the MT32. The sounds are meatier and, with four bass drums, six snares, four tom sets, plenty of cymbals, and lots of latin percussion, they're perfect for most sequencing needs. Any Rhythm Part can be programmed to include percussion and LA tones. If you have a computer, a sequencer and a D110, owning a drum machine could quickly become redundant.
The D110 scores big with its multitimbral power. It can store 64 setups called Patches. Each Patch contains up to eight Timbre Parts. You can place these Parts anywhere in the 15 stereo pan positions, assign key range and MIDI channel for each Part, or turn MIDI off for each Part. There's also a Partial Reserve feature which can give a Part "Partial priority" to help avoid note stealing during sequences. Finally, the Patches can be given up to ten-character names. Overall, this is the easiest to use multitimbral system I've seen.
An LA synth wouldn't be true to the D50 line if it didn't have onboard stereo effects. The D110's processing represents a big improvement over the MT32's, but isn't nearly as sophisticated as the D50's (no chorusing or EQ). Amongst the reverbs are small and medium rooms, medium and large halls, plate, delays 1-3 and reverb Off. Effects can be sculpted by altering the level and time. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), the reverb covers a Patch globally, not the individual Parts.
While Roland must be commended for building multiple audio outs into the D110, their use is limited. Assigning Parts to various outs isn't done in the Patch section; it's done when a Timbre is programmed. Therefore, whenever you use a Timbre in a Patch, it always has the same output assignment unless you reprogram the Timbre. Perhaps this is why the D110 won't let you use any of its internal effects for a Timbre sent to a direct output. And kiss outputs 5 and 6 goodbye if your Patch is using any internal effects; processing has to be shut off completely before all six outputs can be used.
PROGRAMMING THE D110 isn't impossible, but it isn't easy either. It lacks a few niceties found on the D50: one LFO instead of three, and fewer effects.
The D110 uses a system of editing Pages which are first launched by pressing the Edit button (actually, there isn't a whole lot that can be done without pressing the Edit button). Remembering which Pages to step through and how to step through them takes some getting used to - which brings us to the D110's user interface.
"Multitimbrality: Overall, the D110 has the easiest to use multitimbral system I've seen."
The D110 has one of the most baffling interfaces I've seen (and there's some stiff competition). First, there's the front panel: two rows of eight black buttons so close together that it's easy to press the wrong button a few times before realising it, and get thrust deep into some unwanted editing or full dump function. I'd say there's room on the panel to spread things out a little more. It took me a while to figure out which series of buttons to push to sample all the Tones. Eventually, I came up with the magic combination: Timbre, Edit, Group, Bank, and Value (it seems so simple now).
If I was going to spend more time playing than guessing, I'd have to forget my "damn the documentation" musician's pride and crack the manual.
But - the plot thickens here too, as the reading ain't easy. In the first three pages I meet the following terms: Partial, Common, Structure, Part, Tone, Patch and Timbre (and a cast of others). Roland's lexicon is unnecessarily inflated and the definitions (when given) are foggy. The illustrations aren't much help, either. Under the description of the eight modes, I'm shown a diagram of 13 modes (there really are only 8). And there's about 100 pages of this stuff. The manual finally begins to make sense at page 36 with the discussion of editing.
Naturally, Roland are peddling yet another in a long line of hardware programmers - the PG10. In fairness, knobs and switches for easy programming do cost money, and the philosophy of leaving them off the base unit to relieve owners who don't bother to program (all too many) of the financial burden is commendable. However, those of us who do feel slightly stung.
BUT THE D110 has more problems than just a poor manual. My D110's display window occasionally shows gibberish, a combination of English, strange designs, and Japanese. This, coupled with the fact that some Patches that I've saved don't stay saved, but mutate when I move to another Patch (a glitch I've been able to repeat), probably means that Roland didn't work all the bugs out before the D110 went to market.
When I called Roland about some of these problems, I encountered a temporary dead-end. It's not that the tech people don't want to help, it's just that the person I talked to hadn't received a D110 by the time I had been able to buy mine off the shelf. Not very reassuring.
Later, Roland informed me that many of my problems had to do with slaving the D110 from an Ensoniq EPS. Apparently, the D110 has a very small MIDI buffer, which is easily overflown by the glut of polyphonic aftertouch information the EPS sends out. Roland are going to reset my machine and feel that will cure most (if not all) of my problems; meanwhile, I'm going to set up the EPS to just transmit normal channel aftertouch.
THIS D110 SOUNDS fabulous (just listen to the eight built-in ROM demos). It's a flexible all-rounder and a powerful tool.
Time is music, though, and learning the D110 wastes a lot of it. But whenever I became frustrated with the interface, I just stopped, played those beautiful Timbres, and tried again. The D110 is aspirin for the ears. It's too bad it can also be an occasional headache.
Price £599 including VAT
More from Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Thomas Clement