Roland D50 Synthesiser (Part 2)
In the second and concluding part of our review, Simon Trask gives the D50's sound potential a more in-depth listening, and has a go at programming, LA-style.
Precisely one month after we compiled our first report on Roland's new synth, the review model has done still more to convince us of its worthiness. The details are even better than the first impressions.
IF YOU READ the first part of our D50 review in last month's MT, you'll be aware that Roland's latest synth offers a new angle on synthesis. Not only does it employ a new method of sound-creation - known as Linear Arithmetic synthesis - it also allows you to combine synthesised sounds with sampled ones. But unlike Korg's DSS1 (which at first glance is the obvious comparison point), the D50 doesn't involve itself in sampling. And while Korg's instrument uses samples as the sonic basis for synthesis, on the D50 the samples are attack segments of sounds which can be combined with synthesised sounds whose attack depends on the relevant envelope setting.
This is a sound principle (if you see what I mean), because the attack portion of a sound conveys a lot of information about what the instrument is - as the D50's 16-bit samples well illustrate.
The best way to understand this is to listen to a sound such as Jete Strings (internal patch 54) without and then with the samples tacked on the front end. Now, you may think that combining two different ways of (re)creating sounds in the way that the D50 does may not produce a very integrated result. But while this is true for some of the D50's factory sounds, they are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the sample/synth combinations which come with the instrument are well integrated, "whole" sounds. There again, there's no reason not to experiment with odd combinations.
As we said last month, the D50 has 100 samples onboard. That's a high number, even when they are only attack segments (ie. short, and therefore using relatively little memory). And bear in mind that unlike sampling instruments, the D50 stores its samples in internal memory at all times - you don't need to go through the laborious process of loading them in each time you switch the machine on. Still, it does seem a pity that there's no way of loading in further samples (from a ROM card library, for instance).
BUT WHAT ABOUT this new type of synthesis? When Yamaha introduced FM synthesis to the world, they also introduced a new programming system (and let's not go into that). But while Roland's LA synthesis may be new, that newness has to do with what goes on inside the instrument, and hence with the quality of its sounds. When it comes to the way in which LA synthesis is presented as a programming system, there's much that is familiar.
Essentially the D50 follows the time-honoured waveform, filter, amplifier format, with three LFOs for each tone that can be applied to those components. The WG (waveform generator) section allows you to select a square or sawtooth waveform, the former additionally having a pulse width setting. Filter and amplitude envelopes are both five-stage. The filter envelope allows you to vary the filter cutoff dynamically, while you can also bring in resonance (ie. frequency boost around the cutoff point).
The LFOs offer a choice of triangle, sawtooth, square or random waveforms as the modulation source. You can set mod rate and delay time together with sync on/off. Pulse width, cutoff frequency and level can each be modulated by any one of the three LFOs, while pitch can be modulated by LFO1. The depth of modulation can be set, and can also be controlled dynamically from the keyboard. This aspect of the D50 should not be under-estimated; it adds greatly to the flexibility of the instrument.
There are some points to bear in mind when it comes to using the samples. For a start, not all combinations of samples and synth sounds will be in tune - so you have to indulge in a spot of fine-tuning (an easy process on the D50) to remedy the situation.
What's more, the D50's sampled sounds aren't automatically multi-sampled across the keyboard. Now, while you probably won't miss a multi-sampled triangle, there's no doubt that other D50 samples do lend themselves to this process. Roland have provided samples of some instruments (for instance piano, flute and organ) at different pitches - which allows you to set up multi-samples for yourself. But how can you prevent a sample from spreading ail the way down the keyboard? And how can you cover up the fact that a low-pitched, one-shot sample becomes very "plinky", or perhaps even disappears, in the upper region of the keyboard?
Luckily, Roland have thought of this: you can set an amplitude bias point and bias range for each partial within a patch. Essentially, this allows you to "fade out" a partial at any point on the keyboard, either above or below the bias point, while the range an be anything from two or three notes to several octaves. This can be very useful for cross-fading one sound into another, and needn't be applied only to samples.
Many of the D50's string patches offer examples of this technique. Jete Strings has a very woody double-bass bowed attack in the lower range of the keyboard which gradually gives way to a violin scrape as you move up. This sounds odd in isolation, but is splendidly effective when combined with the synthesised string sounds.
An interesting aspect of the D50's angle on synthesis and sampling is the way a sampled attack can affect the way in which you hear the sustained (ie. synthesised) portion of a sound. A good example of this is the flute sound of the flute/piano duo (patch 23). This has a flute chiff sample on the front end which immediately tells you what the sound is. However, take this off and the sustained synth sound begins to sound more like a muted horn (or trumpet when you get up into the top keyboard octave). Interesting.
THE 64 FACTORY patches which come with the instrument are of a uniformly high standard, and certainly do a good job of showing the instrument off to its best advantage. I've only one thing to say to Roland's programmers: it was worth the effort.
If you want to be mightily impressed - and at the same time get an idea of the range of sounds the D50 makes available - try wandering into your local music shop and playing the following: Jazz Guitar Duo (13), Arco Strings (14), Digital Native Dance (21), Bass Marimba (22), Breathy Chiffer (31), Pipe Solo (36), Soundtrack (37), Cathedral Organ (38), Vibraphone (42), Glass Voices (51), Slap Bass and Brass (73) and Intruder FX (81).
"The processing plays its part in creating the overall character of the D50's sound, but don't assume the reverb and chorus are beefing up a weak-sounding instrument."
You'll hear bright and clear percussive sounds which owe a lot to the D50's samples, together with synthesised sounds which an be sparkling and bright or warm and full. And you'll hear samples and synthesised sounds working in fresh and inspiring harmony.
You'll want to keep the D50's factory sounds, so it's fortunate that Roland have stored them all on a ROM card which comes with the instrument.
The D50's onboard processing certainly plays its part in creating the overall character of its sound. But don't assume the reverb and chorus are being used to beef up a weak-sounding instrument. You can go through the factory patches removing reverb and chorus (which, like everything else on the D50, is a very speedy process once you're familiar with the instrument's organisation), and the sounds still stand up as being impressive.
Chorusing has, of course, long been an integral part of Roland's synths, and the new digitally-implemented version holds its own against previous analogue incarnations, being capable of introducing great movement and fullness to a sound.
As mentioned last month, the D50's reverb section limits you to specifying for each patch one of 32 "rooms" and the balance of dry and reverb signal; you don't get the multitude of variable parameters you might typically find on a dedicated reverb unit. In practice, though, the D50's reverb works remarkably well for a wide variety of the instrument's sounds.
Now, there are bound to be differing opinions on the usefulness of onboard reverb. But I reckon it's a perfectly valid addition to an instrument, and will be welcomed by many musicians.
Editing on the D50 is based around a series of displays (the synth has a 2X40-character backlit LED window, below which are five buttons variously used for display and parameter selection). These are organised on levels which correspond to the Patch/Tone/Partial organisation of the instrument, and on each level you can step sideways in either direction through the displays.
Once this organisation becomes familiar, it's possible to find your way around the instrument remarkably quickly. And the provision of an all-important "Exit" button ensures that you can always return to the play level with the greatest of ease - this is particularly reassuring when you first start using the D50.
Other useful functions to be found on dedicated front-panel buttons are Compare (which allows you to compare your editing attempts with the sound you started from), Undo (which recalls the initial value of the last parameter edited), and Copy (which allows you to copy parameters from one partial or one tone to any other within the current Patch).
AS MENTIONED LAST month, you can balance the volume of tones and of partials within a tone using the onboard joystick. A valuable feature, but the bad news is that making adjustments while playing notes introduces glitching (in the form of clicks) into the audio signal. And the same thing happens if you are adjusting the chorus or reverb balance while playing sounds. The subjective loudness of this glitching varies depending on the sound(s) being played, but though it never dominates proceedings, it is nonetheless an irritation which shouldn't exist. To be fair to Roland, however, the quality control people have apparently cleaned up the signal on the D50s which are actually hitting the shops - so with luck, the clicks will click no more.
Better news is that the D50 allows you to balance partials (ie. sounds) dynamically from the keyboard. As you might expect, the D50's keyboard is sensitive to both attack velocity and channel aftertouch.
"With 56 sliders controlling twice as many functions, you can make adjustments much more rapidly on the PG1000 than the D50's onboard editing system allows you to."
It's about time more people were introduced to the delights of release velocity and polyphonic aftertouch - and the D50's sounds would certainly respond very well to such features (release velocity on the strings would do just for starters). OK, I know that means lots more money and the D50 is well priced as it stands. But the machine won't respond to such information over MIDI either (in common with most other synths, it should be said), so there's no hope of purloining a more sophisticated keyboard to do full justice to your D50. Guess I'll just go on hoping.
The D50 allows you to set both velocity (+/-50) and aftertouch (+/-7) sensitivity for each partial within a patch. The minus values "reverse" the sensitivity, so that a hard strike or heavy pressure results in a quieter sound. This arrangement allows you to tailor sensitivity to your own playing, and to create switching and cross-fading effects. For instance, you could bring in a sampled double bass slap using a strong attack, while gentler playing would bring in a synthesised sound with a softer attack and a warmer sound.
Velocity and aftertouch can also be used to control such features as pitch-bend, filter cutoff and depth of LFO effect, while velocity can be used to alter attack time.
Further control is provided by the ability to mute individual partials when in Edit mode. This can be done very quickly using four of the front-panel patch selector buttons, and really is invaluable both for isolating particular aspects of a composite sound when editing, and for switching sound components in and out during performance.
The PG1000 programmer (which can be bought as an add-on to the D50) allows you to switch partials in and out at any time (ie. not just in Edit mode), which makes life a lot easier.
In fact, making life easier is what the PG1000 is all about. With 56 sliders controlling twice as many functions (two functions are selectable per slider), you can make adjustments to parameters much more rapidly than the D50 onboard editing system (though itself an easy arrangement) allows you to. But if you can make impressive changes to a sound more quickly this way, then you can also make a complete balls-up of editing more quickly too. No matter how elegant the packaging, there's just no substitute for having a clear understanding of what you're doing when you're moving all those sliders. The same goes for Manual mode on the PG, which transmits all current slider settings to the D50. Be warned.
The D50 eases itself into Exotic Tunings Territory with the inclusion of a "key follow" feature which can be applied to filter cutoff and to pitch. It's the latter application which results in some distinctly unusual sounds. Minus values reverse the pitch scaling of the keyboard; - it simply reverses the normal semi-tonal scaling so that the highest pitch is at the bottom end of the keyboard.
But it's the fractional scalings which hold the most interest: along with eighth- and quarter-tones, such fractions as 7/8, 5/8 and 3/8 (representing how many octaves change over 12 keys) produce some intriguing tunings which can be put to good use either singly or in combination for special effects, and for exotic sounds such as gamelan bells.
THE REAR PANEL of the D50 reveals the usual MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets together with left (or mono) and right stereo outputs, a headphone output and four foot controller inputs. Two of the latter have dedicated functions (volume and sustain respectively), while the other two are programmable both for their effect on the D50's sounds, and for their MIDI controller function. Internally, the programmable footswitch can be set to step upwards through patches (within the current bank), turn portamento on and off, or turn Chase mode on and off; alternatively, its internal effect can be turned off altogether.
The programmable footpedal can be set to control the aftertouch effect, the modulation effect, or the volume balance between upper and lower tones; and like the footswitch, its internal effect can be switched off. It's worth noting, though, that these settings operate globally (ie. for the instrument as a whole) rather than for individual patches.
The D50's MIDI implementation allows you to set reception and transmission on or off for each of eight MIDI message types: aftertouch, bender, modulation, volume, hold, portamento, program change and System Exclusive. Each of the assignable foot controllers can be set to any MIDI controller function from 0-95 that is within their own type (ie. switch or continuous).
"The D50's samples lend a greater feeling of accuracy and precision to synth sounds, while the synth side expands and enhances the vocabulary of sampling."
Roland have included MIDI Mode 4 (Mono mode) reception on the D50. As with other Roland synths, this seems to have been implemented primarily with MIDI guitar players in mind. Voices are allocated monophonically across eight MIDI channels (OK, I know there aren't many eight-string guitars around) with each voice independently controllable by pitch-bend. But you can't allocate a different sound to each channel, since the D50's "texture" is defined by the current key mode (whole, split, or dual).
More unusually, Roland have allowed you to set a MIDI transmission channel for each D50 patch - the idea being, presumably, that during performance you can layer different instruments for each patch simply by switching to the channel the relevant instrument is set to.
Another useful feature is Separate mode, which I alluded to last month. Essentially, this allows upper and lower tones to be played from separate MIDI channels - allowing independent control (from a sequencer, say) of each D50 tone across its full range. In this mode, the D50's keyboard can only play the upper tone - though if you want to use the D50 as a master keyboard while having it play back from a sequencer, you can set the synth to "Local Off' mode from the front panel.
THERE'S NO QUESTION that the D50 will very quickly carve out a niche for itself among modern hi-tech keyboards. It's an original instrument with a sound all its own - retaining all the warmth and fullness of Roland's best analogue synths, but adding a brightness and sparkle which comes partly from the sampled sounds, but also from the new LA synthesis system.
It's also a very accessible instrument. For a start, the ease with which you can combine sounds (synthesised and sampled) means that you can create new sound textures without necessarily having to indulge in too much programming - and there are plenty of combinations in there.
Ultimately, though, to get the most out of the instrument you have to get down to programming. Fortunately, the D50's familiar programming system and sensible layout mean that you're unlikely to find this too unpleasant or frustrating a task.
The sampled aspect of the D50 shouldn't lead you to expect everything you would expect from a sampler when it comes to accurately reproducing acoustic (or any other) sounds. The D50 is a synthesiser first and foremost, and don't let anyone dupe you into thinking otherwise.
On the one hand, the D50's samples act as a means of lending a greater feeling of accuracy and precision to synth sounds, while on the other, the synth side acts as a means of expanding and enhancing the current vocabulary of sampling.
But, and this is a crucial point, you don't have to combine synthesised and sampled sounds. Part of the flexibility of this instrument is that you can use sampled sounds by themselves, synthesised sounds by themselves, or a combination of the two.
Play rapid or staccato notes, and chances are the sample is all you'll hear anyway. Then again, the D50 is capable of producing some big synthesised sounds, and if you start layering four synth partials, those sounds get mighty impressive.
And while we're at it, let's not forget the onboard digital reverb and chorusing, which make a significant (and wholely welcome) contribution to the character of the machine.
Whichever way you look at it, the D50 is one hell of a good instrument, and one that has already booked itself a place in the synthesiser's hall of fame, long before most musicians have even set eyes on one.
Price D50 £1445, PG1000 £320; both RRPs including VAT
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