Roland's latest guitar synthesiser is quickly earning a reputation as the most playable guitar synth yet built. Aaron Hallas turns from widdly-widdly merchant to MlDdly-widdly merchant.
Roland's latest guitar synthesiser offers multitimbral L/A synthesis and sophisticated MIDI control of your studio. It may also be the best MIDI guitar controller currently available.
ROLAND'S NEW GUITAR synthesiser system, the GR50, takes the form of a unit that combines an L/A synthesiser module and a guitar-to-MIDI converter in a 1U-high 19' rack unit. And to put it into perspective with the other guitar synth systems currently available, I think that the GR50, accompanied by the GK2 Synthesiser Driver, mounted on your favourite guitar, is a contender for the Ultimate Guitar Synth title.
The GR50's internal sounds can be triggered directly from a GK2-equipped guitar, any MIDI controller, or a sequencer. If you already have a GK1 or any of the Roland G-series guitar controllers, an optional BC13 converter will put you in the driver's seat of the GR50. The 128 preset Tones (more about these later) cover a wide variety of instruments and are, with a few exceptions, very good. There are enough drum and percussion sounds to cover just about any kit you can imagine, and there's room for an additional 64 user-programmable Tones. The GR50 can also make use of the D10/20/110 ROM card Sound Library for additional sounds and optional RAM cards for storing your own creations.
Two different sounds can be assigned to each string. These sounds can be played in Dual, Velocity Switch, Velocity Mix, or Velocity Crossfade modes, so up to 12 sounds can be triggered from the guitar. Sixty-four Patch memory locations and five Patch Chains are available. A Patch stores information about the internal sound assignment, control settings for external MIDI instruments, settings for the GR50's built-in digital reverb, volume, fine tune, mode, bend on/off, and stereo panning for each string. Patches can be recalled via the GR50's front panel, an optional FC1OO foot controller, or external MIDI program changes. If you are using the GR50 and the GK2 for live performances, 25 patches can be stored in each of the five Patch Chains and can be accessed in sequence using the up/down switches on the GK2.
It almost goes without saying that the GR50 is multitimbral - allowing you to assign different sounds to each string and hence play several parts or instruments at a time. It wasn't until I started using the system with a sequencer that I discovered its immense power and flexibility. While using it in this way, I had the sequencer playing rhythm instruments such as drums, bass and keys, while I played a solo instrument with the guitar/GK2. I was able to get a full sound - and that was before I hooked-up any other MIDI instruments.
I was a little disappointed that the GR50 doesn't have eight individual audio outputs (like the D110), but the stereo outputs it does have should be sufficient for most live performance work. In the studio the GR50 functions well both as a guitar controller and as an extra MIDI module. I still prefer using my DX7 for playing string pads and keyboard-type sounds such as piano and organ, but I found the GR50/GK2 to be better suited to playing solo lines and brass parts.
AS A MIDI sound module, the GR50 is little short of spectacular. I didn't have a chance to try it in a live performance situation, but I would love to find a permanent place in my rack for it. When playing the internal sounds, the GR50/GK2 is one of the fastest and most accurate systems I have used. When used as a controller for external MIDI instruments, it proved to be slightly faster than the earlier G-series controllers. It is not, however, immune to the problems inherent in pitch-to-MIDI conversion, such as slightly slower response on the low strings, occasional mistracking, and the inability to handle string damping well. Apparently, the GR50 bypasses the MIDI scheme for triggering the internal sounds to avoid these problems. In tuning mode I was unable to outplay the note display. In other words, it was fast enough to accurately show every note played.
Although the GR50 can be triggered from the GK1 or other G-series Guitar Controllers, Roland recommend the GK2 Synthesiser Driver be used. The GK2 allows you to control the GR50 and route the guitar's own audio output to a guitar amp by way of a jack on the back panel of the GR50. The GK2 can be permanently mounted on your guitar using screws or temporarily mounted with adhesive pads.
As mentioned earlier, a pair of buttons on the GK2 allows you to step through the Patches that are stored in the GR50's Patch Chains. If you don't need the Patch Chain function, these two buttons can be programmed independently to control sustain, modulation or octave up transposition. Adjustments to the string sensitivity and tuning are made on the GR50, so the only other controls on the GK2 are a volume control for the synth sounds and a switch for selecting the guitar, synthesiser or both. Additionally, an optional Roland FC1OO pedal and an EV5 pedal can be connected to the GR50. This would give you control over program changes, modulation, volume, and pitchbend in a more familiar pedalboard configuration.
ROLAND RELEASED THE first L/A (Linear Arithmetic) synthesiser over two years ago with the flagship D50. Since then, L/A synthesis has gone through a number of incarnations, ranging from the MT32 to the D550, D10, D20, D110 and most recently the D5 and GR50 Guitar Synthesiser. With every new development there seems to come a new set of terms. If you're not already familiar with L/A, a brief resumé is in order.
L/A Synthesis is a component system using two different types of voices, or Partials. Members of the first type are called PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) Partials. These are 16-bit samples of acoustic instruments. Some are looped while others are just the attack portion of the sound. Some special effects are included in this category along with 64 different drum and percussion Partials.
"The GR50, accompanied by the GK2 Synthesiser Driver mounted on your favourite guitar, is a contender for the Ultimate Guitar Synth title."
The second type are called Synthesiser Partials. These are digital waveforms that include parameters for pitch, amplifier and filter envelopes, as well as LFO and waveform type. Partials are the building blocks used in creating Tones.
A Tone is comprised of up to four Partials (two in a D50) and includes all the parameters for fine-tuning the Partials. The number of Partials being used in a Tone determines the polyphony of the system. In other words, if four Partials are being used per Tone, then the maximum number of simultaneous notes would be eight. Partials always come in pairs called Structures. These are similar to the algorithms found in Yamaha's FM synthesisers. Structures combine the partials in various ways. Two Structures can be combined per Tone. A Partial mute function allows you to turn off Partials that are not needed so unwanted ones are not using up some of the available notes (eating away at your available polyphony).
Timbres form the next level of the system. A Timbre is simply a Tone combined with several additional parameters that affect all four of the Partials (the whole Tone). These parameters include Key-Shift, Fine Tune, Output Assign, Bender Range, Assign mode and Reverb status (on/off). A Part is a Timbre that is further modified by several additional parameters such as Output Level, Panning, Key Range and MIDI Channel.
Once you get the hang of these levels, you are ready to create a Patch. This is where the parameters for the built-in reverb are set (reverb type, level and time). The reverb only affects Timbres that have their reverb turned on. This is where the GR50 differs from D-series instruments. Whereas D-series instruments can have eight different Parts and a Rhythm Setup per Patch, the GR50 can have only two Parts and a Rhythm Setup per Patch. Since the GR50 is designed for use with guitar controllers, it doesn't have the Key Range parameter, but it does allow you to assign two Timbres to each string. A lot of button-pushing is required to get to the Tone level, and having this many levels can be rather confusing and somewhat frustrating to deal with at times. However, the flexibility offered by the system can open up new areas of creativity to anyone willing to take the time to master it.
THERE ARE FOUR levels of programming available on the GR50. The first is Tone level where you can slice, dice, mix, blend, whip and combine up to four of the basic sounds. These basic sounds are called Partials and come in two flavours. They are either 16-bit PCM samples (which include acoustic instruments, drum and percussion sounds, and sound effects), or they are synthesiser waveforms. Creating a Tone involves combining Partials, adjusting envelopes, amplifiers, filters and LFOs, selecting waveforms, and so on. All famailiar ground to anyone conversant with Roland's L/A synthesis.
The next level involves setting the Bender range, Keyshift (transposition), Assign mode and Fine Tune to create a Timbre. You can store up to 128 Timbres for use at the Part level. To create a Part, you modify a Timbre by setting the Output Level, Panning and MIDI channel. This may seem like a lot to go through, but the fact is that you will probably be programming at the Patch level a lot more often than at the first three levels.
The Patch level is where it all comes together. A Patch is created by combining two Parts, then selecting the reverb type, setting the reverb level and time, and giving the Patch a name. If you are content to use the factory preset Tones, then you may never have to do more than program Parts and Patches. However, if you want to experiment with creating your own sounds, then you'll find all the power and flexibility of L/A synthesis you can handle at the other levels.
AFTER WORKING WITH the GR50/GK2, I must say that, from a performance standpoint, this is definitely a winning combination. Not only does it sound great by itself, it works well enough with other MIDI gear to be used as a master controller. If you're a guitarist in search of a capable guitar synthesiser, check out the GR50/GK2 package. You shouldn't be disappointed.
Prices GR50, £825. GK2, £115, BC13, £69, FC100 MK II. £220; PG10, £248. All prices include VAT and apply from 23rd July.
Review by Aaron Hallas
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