Super LA Synthesizer
The D50 was never going to be an easy act to follow, but a successor to the title of Roland's flagship has now arrived. Richard Lamont puts it to the test.
Describing a synthesizer as 'Super LA', as Roland have done with the new D70, raises one's expectations of the instrument in several ways. One might expect that it would be exceptional in some sense, either as a new development or as the pinnacle of the LA series so far, or more likely a little of both. One might expect that all of Roland's considerable expertise in professional and domestic musical devices would have led to a keyboard with all the excellent features of its ancestors, none of their perceived defects, and some extra frosting to make it truly the flagship of the company line. Well, it is damn good - but then for nearly £2000 I'd expect it to be!
The instrument with which the D70 can be most directly compared is the D50, Roland's former flagship, which is now looking a bit long in the tooth. All the subsequent LA synths have been more down-market, with the possible exception of the D20, and so this is the first opportunity to see what Roland's fertile R&D department can come up with to really improve Linear Arithmetic (LA) synthesis. The D70 has been on the cards for a while, so has the wait been worth it? Let's find out...
What comes out of the box is long (six and a bit octaves, 76 keys), sleek and black (except for the white keys, of course). It measures 43.5" x 12" x 4" and weighs about 26lbs. The front panel sports an impressive total of seven sliders, an alpha dial, the familiar Roland 'bender', and a large backlit LCD. On the rear panel you will find the power switch, a RAM card slot, a write protect switch, and an LCD contrast knob. There is also the inevitable proliferation of connectors: three MIDI sockets; three jacks, for Hold and Expression pedals and one with a definable function; two ROM PCM card slots; two jack sockets labelled Left and Right Direct; two jack sockets labelled Left/Mono and Right Mix; a headphones socket.
I was a little disappointed to find that the headphones socket was on the back rather than front panel, and that not all rear sockets are labelled on the back edge of the front panel. I was much happier with the all-important front panel, however. There really isn't any substitute for lots of information here, where it belongs, and this is where instruments have to some extent lost their way since the days of analogue knobs. The art of fiddling with knobs and levers in order to divine the inner workings of a machine died out with the advent of the DX7 and is only slowly making a comeback. Software editors are a great help, obviously, but the state of a synth should be accessible from the front panel as much as possible.
I am a confirmed meddler by nature, so naturally I plunged straight into using the D70 without consulting the instruction manual, and turned the beast on. Veeerrry flashy! While the D70 initialises, the words 'SUPER LA SYNTHESIZER' scroll up the LCD while the characters 'D70' gradually pulse into high definition. After the initialisation routine is over, the LCD displays the five Performances that you can select with the five soft keys located below the display. 'Performances' are the D70's multitimbral setups, which are composed of five Patches and a rhythm section. Patches are composed of up to four Tones. As you would expect, there is a full digital effects section to add spice to the sounds. The two sets of stereo outputs on the rear panel allow some Patches within a Performance to be output (via the Direct sockets) without passing through the effects section, whilst others can be processed and passed to the Mix sockets.
To get an idea of what the synth could do, I ran the demo routine. Frankly, I have to say that I have heard better - the D70 routine would have done justice to something costing half as much, but compared to the sonic joys I was getting out of the D70 only half an hour later, using a modest sequencer (Steinberg 12), it was pretty mediocre.
Reviewing a new synth is a difficult process. In my experience it takes six months to get to know a new machine properly, but reviewers are never allowed the luxury of that much time to form their opinions. Still, the excellent manual helped considerably with tackling any operational problems that arose.
The D70 is, of course, an LA synthesizer, and I'm not going to repeat earlier reviews of the 'D' series by going into the technique in depth. You won't be surprised to hear that it sounds like a million dollars, helped to no small degree by the effects section. I found a wonderful distorted electric guitar sound amongst the patches, plugged in my AZ1 remote keyboard, and I was Todd Rundgren!
What matters for me about a synthesizer is whether, in essence, it is a good musical instrument. Does it immediately urge you to want to make music with it? In the case of the D70, the answer was 'yes'! Most of the time I had the D70 was spent playing with it; writing this review came a distinct second. The synth offers a good range of sounds, and is so amenable to the creation of new ones that I had a creative explosion on the spot - top marks.
"Editing sounds on the D70 can be considered on two levels. The top level allows you to make rapid and fundamental changes in the sound through the Tone Palette. When you want to get serious about fine tuning the sound, then you need the full Edit mode."
The combination of synth+sample, as used in LA synthesis, is a familiar one in late '80s hi-tech music. The D50 combined it with reverb and chorus, and the rest is history. It also made editing sounds a vaguely comprehensible activity once more. (I have a DX7 and I'm not afraid to edit it... on a good day.)
Each of the D70's Patches uses four Tones - two Upper and two Lower - and basic parameters for each Tone are included in the Tone Palette, which provides a kind of quick editing facility. You have control over a Time Variant Filter (with variable Cutoff, Resonance, envelope Attack and Release), Level, Pan and Tuning (fine and coarse). A group of seven buttons at the left of the panel, under the legend 'Tone Palette', give access to these parameters when editing. All seven buttons have inset LEDs to indicate their status - only one at a time may be lit. Considering that the panel is all black with small black buttons and lettering, it's a blessing that most of the buttons have status indicators. I grow nostalgic for the days of brightly coloured buttons that were as big or bigger than the end of my finger. Remember the Juno 60? The Polysix?
Beneath the Tone Palette section are buttons for Solo, Portamento, Play, Edit and the PCM card. Pressing the Play and Edit buttons simultaneously triggers a 'panic' function, which transmits the following MIDI messages on all channels: Note Off for all notes; Pitch Bend centre; Channel Aftertouch 0; Modulation 0; Hold 1 to 0; Volume 127. To the left of the LCD window are the buttons for calling up edit pages. These are: Tone Display (two pages); MIDI Out (two pages); Effects/Control (three pages); Part (two pages). Below the LCD are seven keys labelled User, F1 to F5 (the soft keys), and Exit. To the right of the LCD are four cursor buttons, and two data increment/decrement buttons. In addition, there are eight Bank buttons and eight Patch Number buttons in two closely spaced rows, and above them a third row of eight buttons: Performance; Patch; Tone; A/B; Int/Card; Command; Write; Enter. Most of these are self-explanatory and so I'll return to the Tone Palette functions, as this is the most logical place to start when looking at the sound structure.
The Tone Palette legend stretches across to encompass four sliders on the front panel, and in Tone Display mode these control the values of the seven parameters I described earlier. Four sliders for seven parameters? The sliders operate as a set, at any time controlling the same parameter for the four Tones in a Patch. The LCD depicts an image of four little sliders with the name of the function selected at the top, and the current value for the parameter for each Tone is represented by a solid bar on each slider. The numerical value is also shown, above the slider. The current physical position of each slider is shown by a hollow bar on the display, and you can't 'engage' a parameter (eg. Pan, Cutoff) until you 'connect' the solid bar with the hollow one, effectively moving the slider to the position of the previously programmed value.
The four Tones are divided into two Upper Tones and two Lower Tones. There are three Key Modes which determine how they are organised: Layer, in which each Tone sounds across the whole keyboard; Split, in which the two Lower Tones will be played below a definable split point, and the two Upper tones above that point; Zone, in which each Tone can be assigned to a different keyboard area. Defining these Zones is simplicity itself. You simply press the Zone/Tone Select button below the slider for the Tone you are interested in, and then play the notes on the keyboard that define the high and low ends of the keyboard range you require. The D70 is geared to performance, and for me that is a great thing. Band members ask for a sound that goes - and I quote - "Ooeeooeewhoosshroar" and expect me to produce it on the spot! It's then that I hanker for my old Korg MS20, with its simple logic path and plentiful knobs and switches, but the D70 is certainly a step in the right direction.
"A further feature of the D70, and one which has presumably been prompted by the interest in old synths, is the Analogue function, which attempts to simulate the random drift of analogue oscillators."
Editing sounds on the D70 can be considered on two levels. The top level allows you to make rapid and fundamental changes in the sound through the Tone Palette. The Tone Palette controls only provided Attack and Release filter envelope parameters, remember? They're the most important parts of the envelope, of course, but when you want to get serious about fine tuning the sound, then you need the full Edit mode. In a sense, the top level is like the analogue editing of old, with relatively few crude parameters available - it's quick and intuitive, and doesn't present the user with labyrinthine complexity from the off. The lower level is like the digital parameter editing we have all come to know (and love?), with detailed access to all aspects of the sound.
Each Tone in a Patch is affected by five sets of Edit parameters: Tone Program; Tone Pitch; WF; TVA; LFO. Tone Program parameters deal with such things as the name of the Tone, and what Original Tone it is based on. Bear with me a moment while I explain this...
The D70's memory has two distinct areas for storing two sets of Tones. The Memory area contains 114 Original Tones, which are the basic sampled instrument and synth sounds, and the Temporary Area contains 128 Tones, which are modified forms of the Original Tones. It is the Tones that are actually used in Patches.
The Original Tones are stored in ROM and therefore cannot be altered, but more Original Tones can be loaded from PCM ROM cards which slot into the rear panel. Every time a Patch is selected, the D70 looks into its Memory Area and pulls out the Original Tones, as specified by the Patch, and adjusts them as required. They then become Tones in a Patch, which is housed in the Temporary Area. Tones are stored separately from Original Tones and you can access them individually. So there are 114 Original Tones but 128 Tones. Clear? No? It's hard to explain but the following example should help.
Say I have a monster brass patch which uses four Tones: Saw 2; Saw 1; Brass 1; Sax 1. Say I want the sound to be sharper, and decide that Sax 1 is too mellow. I select Tone 4 (actually Tone Upper 4), enter Edit Mode and select Tone Edit. This tells me that Tone 4 is based on the Original Tone called 'Sax 1'. I alter the Original Tone number, and hey presto a new Original Tone (Sax Wave or Calliope or whatever) is forming the basis of my Tone, and all the envelope settings and effects remain exactly the same as they were for the Sax 1 Original Tone. This new Tone would have to be written into memory - probably in place of the old Sax 1 Tone - before it would be a part of this Patch. However, it is important to remember that this would affect all other patches that also used Sax 1. For the most part, the Original Tones in the D70 are pretty good, with the acoustic samples outshining the synthesized ones.
The Tone Pitch section gives you control over coarse and fine tuning, Pitch Keyboard Follow for stretch tuning and the like - the D70 is normally well tempered - plus a Pitch Envelope and its keyboard scaling. I'm not a fan of fractional scalings, but it is interesting to hear the effect that a difference of 1% in the Pitch Follow makes to a piano sound.
The simple Attack/Release Pitch Envelope can bend the pitch by 48 semitones up or down. The maximum times for each envelope stage are seven seconds for the Attack and more than 80 seconds for the Release. The D70's LCD doesn't provide a graphic representation of this envelope, although it does for both the TVF and TVA envelopes...
"You can make some quite drastic changes to the basic sound of Original Tones with Differential Loop Modulation, which in some respects recalls wavetable synthesis."
In the TVF and TVA windows, whenever either envelope is altered or even accessed with the cursor, the envelopes for both the TVF and TVA are displayed graphically together. In the TVF window, the TVF envelope is shown as a solid line and the TVA as a dotted one, and vice versa in the TVA window. This proves to be a major boon when programming.
The envelopes employ five stages: Attack; two Decays; Sustain; Release. The maximum Release time is monumental, and the release section is absolutely silent even when coupled with the built-in effects. The TVF filter section can be used in three configurations: high pass; low pass; band pass. You can also select 'bypass', which simply switches out the filter section altogether. In each configuration you can set a Cutoff frequency and a Resonance level. The TVF Cutoff frequency can respond to key velocity and keyboard tracking. All three Decay rates can be modulated by keyboard tracking, and Attack and Decay 1 times can be modulated by note velocity. Release time can be modulated by release velocity. The TVF envelope can be applied in either a positive or a negative sense. The TVA envelope is identical to the TVF envelope, and can be similarly modulated.
The LFO modulation section lets you choose one of five waveforms: Triangle; Sine; Square; Saw; Random. The wave can be offset, which will, for example, change an up ramp to a down ramp. The LFO can modulate the TVF and TVA, as well as pitch. Delay Time and Rise Time parameters allow you to control just how fast and how smoothly the LFO modulation is introduced, and cover a good range.
You can make some quite drastic changes to the basic sound of Original Tones with a technique called Differential Loop Modulation (DLM), a new development on Roland's part. In some respects it recalls wavetable synthesis, in that you specify a Start time and a Length for a Tone, and the looped section of the sound is moved as a note plays, to create some intriguing effects. Roland supply some examples to use with the Original Tones, but to my ears they were all digitally noisy and reminiscent of ring modulated sounds - not that this is a bad thing on occasion. The DLM sounds were very different from what could be easily created with the Original Tones and the TVF, versatile though it is.
That's it for the Tones, so let's move on and see how they fit together to form Patches.
Four Tones comprise a Patch. The Patch Edit section has two pages of parameters which affect, on one page, all the Tones and on the other page, the Upper two Tones and the Lower two Tones independently. The first page is called Patch Common, and defines such things as overall volume and velocity response (not only velocity sensitivity for volume purposes, but also which of four velocity response curves is selected). You can also set Key Mode and Split Point here.
The Upper/Lower program page contains parameters for the Lower and Upper groups of Tones. Here you decide how the two Tones should mix with velocity and volume - whether they should both sound all the time, or whether there should be a velocity switch or crossfade between them. For both the Upper two and Lower two Tones you can choose a Poly or Monophonic (last note priority) playing mode. In Solo (ie. mono) mode, either Legato (single triggering) or Normal (multiple triggering) can be employed. Portamento is available on either or both sets of Tones, with independent times and modes. The two modes are Auto (where portamento only operates when one key is pressed before the previous key is released) and Normal, where all notes glide. The maximum glide time is around eight or nine seconds.
"You won't be surprised to hear that the D70 sounds like a million dollars, helped to no small degree by the effects section."
Finally, each Tone can be fine tuned with further modifications to the Level, Pitch, Fine Tune, Cutoff, Resonance, Attack/Release, Output Destination and Pan. Output Destination specifies whether a Tone is output via the Direct jacks without any effects treatment, or via the effects section and the Mix jacks. These are all relative to the Tone settings in memory, so each Patch that uses a particular Tone can modify that Tone to provide greater sonic diversity.
The D70's multitimbral Performances consist of arrangements of five Patches. A sixth Patch, which creates a dedicated rhythm section, also forms part of each Performance. Six-part multitimbrality seems a little mean by current standards, but when you consider that each Part (Patch) contains four Tones in definable Zones, then the D70 could be said to be 24-part multitimbral. For each Part (Roland call them Synthe Parts, as opposed to the Rhythm Part) you can set the following: a relative level; MIDI receive channel; priority; effects parameters; output destination; program change response; volume by MIDI.
The Priority function determines which of the D70's Parts gets the notes when polyphony is tight. Although the D70 is 30-note polyphonic, it's surprising how fast that gets eaten up by Patches that employ four Tones, and Tones with long Release times. The priority is not set in terms of numbers of voices per Patch - it's either On or Off - so the D70 gets to control which of the Patches sound. Personally, I prefer to be able to specify voice numbers per Patch myself.
The effects configuration is set globally for a Performance, which will override individual Patch settings. A further feature of the D70, and one which has presumably been prompted by the interest in old synths, is the Analogue function, which attempts to simulate the random drift of analogue oscillators. No, I'm not kidding. Think of it as another Pitch detune that can be thrown in and you won't go far wrong.
The D70 offers rather more than the regular complement of performance controllers. To the left of the keyboard are three sliders: a Volume slider, a Brightness slider, and a user-definable slider. You also have a Hold pedal and a variable pedal. These last two can be set to control almost any parameter (Filter Depth, Pitch Shift, Portamento Time, etc) and correspond to MIDI Controllers 5 and 6. The D70 transmits channel aftertouch, and can respond to polyphonic aftertouch, although it can't generate it itself.
The MIDI Palette forms part of the Performance parameters, and it was this that really sold me on the D70, along with the generous keyboard. It really is tremendously comprehensive, with performance controllers definable for each channel, multiple Program Change transmission, etc etc. I can't go into this in any depth really, it would take another review to cover it all. Rest assured that the D70 would make an excellent master keyboard.
So, the organisation of the D70 looks like this: 114 Original Tones are used to create 128 Tones. Up to four of these Tones can be used to make up one of the 128 Patches. Any five Patches can form the Synthe Parts of a Performance, together with the Rhythm Part. Lastly, the User Set consists of 10 Groups of five Performances, and is intended primarily for live use - you can immediately select any of five Performances with the soft keys below the LCD. Another 45 are but a touch away. You can also store Patches and Performances on RAM cards. The PCM card slots mean that the D70 is sonically 'open-ended' - you can add more Original Tones — which is a major improvement over the D50. It can use most of the U110 sound cards, so there is already a reasonable library to choose from.
Despite the improvements, the overall character of the D70 doesn't sound that different to a D50. The sounds are big and fat, and for the most part wonderful. The Rhythm section is very versatile, with a range of 28 percussive samples in the internal Original Tone library which can be mapped to any note of the keyboard, and modified by tuning, a filter section, and amplifier envelope. Each drum sound can be panned and have its output destination set independently. Overall, the range of sounds that can be created just using the internal sounds is simply amazing.
I have to say that I fell in love with the D70 while it was, all too briefly, in my possession. The performance facilities are so comprehensive that, taking account of the MIDI control features, it would be just perfect for live work. This seems to be what the D70 is designed for, and for the most part it will do the job very well indeed. There are some small but very welcome bonuses, like being able to give names to the MIDI output channels so that a record can be kept of what is being played, and being able to specify transmission of different Controller information to that being used by the keyboard. This all helps to make a live performance an easier business, which is becoming increasingly difficult as other musicians want more and more versatility from the hapless keyboard player, and grow less and less patient about getting it. I prefer to keep my mind on my playing, not on pushing fistfuls of buttons.
It's a shame that the D70 lacks a full complement of separate outputs to take advantage of the multitimbrality, but the instrument scores in its easy, multi-level editing, and in being an open-ended successor to the D50. Other major plus points are the first class MIDI spec and the generous provision of controllers.
Is it worth £1800? A U20 and a TG55 will set you back £250 less than a D70, and still leave change to buy an Alesis MIDIverb if you shop around. It all depends on your priorities. As for me... well, a D70 is next on my shopping list.
£1799 inc VAT.
Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Richard Lamont
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