Roland D50 (Part 1)
Linear Arithmetic Synthesiser
Is this the synth to topple the DX7 from its throne? Will Linear/Arithmetic Synthesis become the programmer's new catchphrase? Will Simon Trask die of a broken heart? Find out in our exclusive review.
Few instruments cause as much stir in the MT office as this: a synth that sounds brilliant, looks relatively easy to program, and doesn't cost a fortune. Superlatives are not enough.
"THE ROLAND D50 is very different from any other synthesiser, past or present, and as such heralds the dawn of a new era in synthesis."
Yes, it's 1987 and the synthesiser is alive and well (as, so it seems, is the enthusiastic manual writer). The D50 is Roland's first all-digital polyphonic synth (and their first 16-note polyphonic synth), and the company have come up with a new name - and a new synthesis system - to delight us all with: Linear Arithmetic Synthesis, which is implemented on a new custom-designed chip known not surprisingly as the LA Chip.
In fact, so new is the D50 that we've decided to spread our review of it over two issues. We could say that this will give you more time to get to grips with the D50, but in fact, it's your Reviews Editor who needs more time, owing to the fact that MT's review model arrived on the doorstep just as the magazine was going to press. We couldn't pass up the opportunity to tell you about the D50 as soon as possible - but not at the expense of thoroughness. So this first part will concentrate on providing an overview of the instrument, while part 2 will look in more depth at just what the D50 can and can't do.
Before we start considering the delights of Linear Arithmetic Synthesis, consider the scene on a Wednesday afternoon in MT's offices. One of only five D50s in the country has just arrived courtesy of Securicor, and the staff are stirred into something resembling activity. In a matter of seconds, the D50 is up on the stand and plugged into a passing keyboard amp. Fingers are laid to rest on keys, and suddenly the office is filled with vibrant sounds which instantly mark the D50 out as something a bit special.
Now, the MT staff are as capable of child-like excitement and fascination as the next idiot musician, and the D50 is certainly doing its best to bring out the best in us. Could Roland's enthusiastic manual writer be right after all?
Well, put simply, the D50 retains all the richness of tone that you typically associate with Roland's upmarket analogue synths, and couples it with a "bite" and "sparkle" that is more generally associated with digital soundgenerating systems. And the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
BUT WHAT IS this Linear Arithmetic Synthesis, and do you need a PhD in Mathematics to understand it? Well, if you were designing the D50 you probably would, but fortunately, all you have to do is play it and program it.
The programming system which Roland have devised isn't the easiest to understand initially, but if you stay cool, most of it clicks into place without too much brain-ache. And in true Roland fashion, there's an add-on programmer which allows you to adjust all the D50's sound parameters using analogue sliders. The PG1000 (for so it is called) is the most sophisticated programmer that Roland have yet come up with, which seems reasonable enough for what is really the most sophisticated instrument they've yet come up with.
Essentially, the D50 achieves its results by providing PCM samples of the attack stage from a wide range of acoustic instruments, which can be combined with sounds created in the instrument's synth section. The idea behind this is that you get the realism and bite that comes from the attack of a real sound (always an important element in the definition of a sound) combined with the sonic flexibility of a synthesiser section.
The D50 has 100 PCM samples onboard. Forty-seven of these are one-shot and 29 are looped. The remaining 24 are combined and looped versions of the other samples, for some more unusual effects. Roland's attack samples include all manner of percussion instruments together with piano, harpsichord, organ, electric and acoustic guitar, electric and upright bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin and cello (often with several versions of each instrument type).
These PCM samples provide one type of sound source (the other being the synth section) for what is known as a Partial. Don't get these confused with harmonic partials; a D50 partial is really a complete sound in its own right.
Two partials together with various parameters that are collectively known as a Common block (because they apply to both partials - it's easy, really) make up what is known as a Tone, which constitutes a single voice on the D50. As each partial can be either a PCM sound or a synth sound, you can of course decide to combine two of the former or two of the latter. You can get some very effective sounds very quickly by combining different PCM samples (a violin scrape combined with a flute chiff gives a very convincing impression of the shower scene music from Psycho). Further flexibility is provided by the D50's ability to balance the volume of your chosen two partials.
ROLAND HAVE PROVIDED seven Structures which determine whether each partial is a PCM sound source or a synthesiser sound source (this setting is one of the Common parameters). These structures are printed in graphic form on the D50's front panel - providing an invaluable amount of feedback when you're trying to Figure out what the hell's going on. Essentially you can have sample + sample, sample + synth and synth + synth. But you can also choose structures which bring in ring modulation (digitally implemented, of course).
The synthesiser section allows you to choose between sawtooth and square waveforms (the latter with adjustable pulse width). The synthesiser sound generator has three sections: WG (Waveform Generator), TVF (Time Variant Filter) and TVA (Time Variant Amplifier), while the PCM sound generator misses out the filter section. There are also three LFOs and a five-stage pitch envelope which can be applied to various parameters of each generator.
The "Time Variant" label is cleverspeak for envelope - filter and amplitude respectively. As with the pitch envelope, these are five-stage affairs, with level and time settings. The filter envelope allows you to select the filter cutoff point for a synthesiser sound dynamically - not that common a feature. And remember that these envelopes (which are adjustable in real-time) are digitally defined - which makes the D50's filtering a great improvement on the digital filtering found on, say, Roland's S10 sampler.
Carrying on up the hierarchy, two tones can be combined into a single Patch, of which there are 64 onboard the D50 (organised in Bank/Number format). A further 64 patches can be stored on one of Roland's new wafer-thin memory cards (like credit cards, but cheaper in the long run), giving instant access to 128 patches at any one time. The D50 comes with a ROM card which duplicates the factory set of internal patches (so you can overwrite the latter without fear of losing them), but you'll also be able to get RAM cards, and it seems likely Roland will be supporting the D50 with a sound library.
The way the two tones (specified as Upper and Lower) are placed on the keyboard is taken care of by the keyboard mode - essentially whole, split and dual. While whole mode obviously gives you 16-note polyphony and dual gives you eight-note, split can be either 8+8, 8+1 or 1+8. You can also set the instrument to whole solo and dual solo, while separate and separate solo modes take you into the weird and wonderful world of MIDI.
Dual mode actually allows you to layer up to four sounds (2x2 partials), while you can adjust the volume balance of the two tones in a patch - which means, in effect, that you can balance all four partials. Volume balancing is accomplished using an onboard joystick (which can also be used for coarse adjustment of all parameter values - inc/dec buttons take care of fine adjustments). This shouldn't be confused with the Prophet VS' joystick-based mixing of timbres.
INTEGRAL TO THE D50 are onboard programmable digital reverb, chorus and EQ. As Roland are keen to point out, all processing on the D50 takes place in the digital domain. The reverb is patch-programmable, while chorus and EQ may be programmed for each partial within a patch. The D50 has four output modes (again represented graphically on the synth's front panel) which determine whether the programmed reverb effect is applied to a mix of upper and lower tones, upper and lower tones individually, the upper tone only or the lower tone only. Output mode is programmable for each patch, as are the balance of "dry" and reverb signal, and the choice of reverb type - and that's about the extent of the control you have over reverb on the D50. There are 32 reverb types, providing rooms, halls, chapels, boxes, single delays and cross delays, gates, caves, gated reverb, reverse gate, slapback and twisted space(!).
Another patch-specific feature implemented in software on the D50 is Chase Play. This replays notes that you have just played to give a DDL-type effect according to level and time settings. If you're familiar with the Roland JX10 synth (reviewed E&MM June '86), you'll no doubt be familiar with Chase Play. It's a very effective feature, and a dedicated front-panel button allows it to be switched in and out with ease.
IF YOUR LOCAL music shop salesman starts talking about the LA sound, you'll know now that he's not referring to the latest American West Coast craze. But the D50 does have a sound- and ultimately it will sit next to other synths with other sounds. We racked it up with the DX7II, and a wonderful combination they made, too. As we said at the start, the D50 excels at lending sparkle (thanks to the PCM samples) to warm synth sounds that have plenty of movement.
From the factory programs, those with the greatest impact are "breathy" sounds, strings sounds, and special-effects voices with complex envelope settings. But the existing piano and brass sounds are not the D50's forte, and there's nothing to compare with the best acoustic guitar sound on the DX7II, for example.
But the D50 is an exceptionally impressive and intriguing machine which looks capable, perhaps more than any instrument since the original DX7, of bringing a new quality to sound synthesis. Next month, we'll go in the deep end.
Prices D50 £1445; PG1000 £320, both RRPs including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask