Roland MK System
mother keyboard and baby modules
Modular synthesis is making a comeback, warble the experts, us included. But from which end of our anatomies do we speak?
If you think back to the original definition of modular — where every VCO, filter, LFO, etc was independent and linked only by flying leads — then most of what we say would be muffled if we sat down. What we really have here is the advent of divisional synthesis where the average polyphonic is divided into large chunks.
Thus the Roland MK system — a choice of two keyboards (the bits you hit), three sound modules (the bits that make the noises), and two programmers (the bits with the knobs that change the bits with the noises).
For those with more than an O level in milk monitoring, the keyboards are the wooden keyed, weighted, piano actioned MKB-1000 (88 keys and a tubular, chrome stand), and the plastic keyed, normally sprung, MKB-300 (75 keys, lighter on the bicep and the bank account).
The sound modules are the six-note poly, DCO-ed, 64 memoried, MKS-30, the 16-note poly, MKS-10 and the eight-note poly, VCO-ed, 64 memoried MKS-80. Not much time to draw breath between the commas this month.
The MKS-30 is the sound generating section of a JX3P PLUS dynamic sensitivity, so it's closer to the GR700 guitar synth in spec. The MKS-10 originally came from an HP-400 piano, but its voicings were tailored to match large sound systems rather than the two integral speakers in the HP. As for the MKS-80, well, its front panel gives it away — 'Super Jupiter' it says, and it is a revised version of the Jupiter 8 with extra patching facilities but still-important point this — still with voltage controlled oscillators rather than the digitally controlled ones of recent Roland keyboards. Some players insist they can tell the difference.
Finally, the programmer for the MKS-30 is the PG200, which we've met in a former life, and the Super Jupiter has a chunky, wedge-shaped box with a myriad of blue sliders on top that goes under the name of an MPG-80. Anything else? Oh yes, the KS-1000 stand for the MKB-1000 which is £150 and a bit Lowrey Organ for my tastes.
If the prices are shaking you, bear in mind that a Super Jupiter, plus programmer, plus the MKB-1000 is still cheaper than the full recommended retail of a Jupiter 8... all right, it's only £5 cheaper but you do get two more mains leads in the package.
Needless to say everything is MIDI compatible and all the sound modules plus the MPG-80 can be rack mounted. They've not been long in the country and for demonstration purposes, Roland's Alan Townsend has been stacking the modules atop the keyboard. Theoretically they should be at the back of the stage as the MKB-1000 has all the necessary switches to select any sound you want. So it seems a natural place to start.
The MKB-1000 can remember 128 patches in eight banks of 16, and can send out its information on two MIDI channels at once. Each module will already have been assigned its MIDI channel before the start of the show. So, for example, bank one, memory one on the MKB-1000 could call up patch 56 from the Super Jupiter on MIDI channel one. But it might also inform the MKS-30 on MIDI channel two that it wants patch 35. Extra buttons on the MKB then let you decide whether you want the 'upper' sound (Jupiter only), 'lower' sound (MKS-30 only), both overlayed (dual), or on either side of a break point.
See, the MKB does nothing to the synth sounds itself, it merely remembers in which order and combination you want them so you've a vast choice of doubling, contrast, piano with violins fading in, thick bass parts, organ in the left hand, brass in the right, etc.
Same goes for the MKS-10. Since all three modules already exist attached to keyboards of their own, we won't delve too deeply into their sound quality. Suffice to say they're powerful and versatile. On a personal note, I'd have to profess a bias against Roland piano sounds. To me they always sound dry, tonally flat and... well... artificial. Also the MKS-10 misses a good Fender Rhodes imitation.
But the split and layering facilities of the MKB-1000 shouldn't be reserved purely for the mega-blitz noises. Subtle combinations are just as vital such as an MKS-10 grand piano on the top half of the keyboard partnered by a Super Jupiter on the bottom for a slightly different and perhaps more realistic tone.
At this stage, halfway through a second chorus of chopsticks, several points occurred to yours truly, as follows. If you want to have all three modules on at once, that's easy, just switch them to the same MIDI channel. I also found it essential to have the volume sliders of each module close to hand for those final touches to the balance.
In both cases those rack mounted lumps need to be next to you, so that partly spoils the 'keep-them-at-the-back-of-the-stage' theory. Pity that instructions to 'change MIDI channel' can't be pumped down the line, but I suppose you're asking something to turn itself off, which is a mite unfair.
What I did like was the swift and simple way in which MIDI channel changes can be made at the MKB end, how easy it is to swap voices and have another synth standing by at the punch of one button. You don't HAVE to use the MKB's patch system. When the keyboard is switched to program change, those eight banks of 16 memories become straightforward memory selectors, working their way through the MKS-30 or Super Jupiter voices from 1 to 64. (When they reach 65 the modules will either warn you or automatically swap to their sound cartridges. Didn't you know about them? No, you're right, I was saving that. Each has a plug-in RAM cartridge extending the memory by another 64 spaces for the 30 and 128 for the 80. They look similar to Yamaha's for the DX7, and fulfill a similar function.)
The keyboard can be split anywhere, and each of the 128 patch presets will remember a different split and configuration of voices. But it occurs to me that the Super Jupiter is also capable of building a split into its own memories. You could have the bottom three octaves of the MKB-1000 run from the MKS-30, the next two octaves with four notes of one Super Jupiter sound and the last two octaves with four notes of another Super Jupiter voice.
You don't have to have a programmer to get into the sound modules and work those sort of changes. Both MKS-30 and -80 function on the now familiar parameter system. The 30's closely matches the JX3P's with an edit map supplying a number for each knob. Across the front to the 30, under the LED display, are eight small push buttons that either call up the memories, or allow you to address a particular parameter. Once its chosen, a pair of up and down edit buttons let you alter the value, normally from 0 to 99.
The MKS-80 is more elaborate and perhaps slower, but does show what improvements have been made on the old Jupiter 8. Here the programming is fenced off into two parts — Tone is the sound itself with all the filter, envelope settings, etc; Patch is what you then do with it in terms of modulation and expression. Patch possibilities are wider than the old 8 offering control over key modes, split point, tone number, balance, octave shift, assign mode (mono, poly etc), detune, hold, glider, bender sensitivity, VCO-1 bend, VCO-2 bend, after touch sensitivity, after touch select (VCO or VCF), and LFO-2 rate.
Notice the after touch stuff, there. The MKB-1000 will be able to introduce extra effects if you push harder on the keyboard, but at present it only seems destined to work with the Super Jupiter module. On this early review model, the correct software hadn't been blown, so nobody knew exactly how much it could achieve.
The reason the Super Jupiter could be slower to programme is that instead of dialling up the parameters, you have to step through a list of 47 to reach the one you want. But, as a bonus, a brief description appears in the LCD window such as "XMOD Polarity Normal".
So, with the number crunching out of the way, how does all this lot work as a system?
As a keyboard the MKB-1000 reminded me how long it's been since I played a proper piano. The action has a loose, easy, resilient bounce to it, though initially the keys themselves seemed to have a soft furry contact at the far end of their travel, rather than a definite bite. That could be the familiar 'period of adjustment' and it doesn't take long before you realise how much easier it is to play fast runs when the keys are bouncing back up under your fingers and helping them on their way.
Much of the success of a system like this relies on how expressive and versatile the independent bits are. I found the Super Jupiter reacted to the dynamic sensitivity very well, and as mentioned in the Casio CT6000 review elsewhere this month, the keyboard had the ability to play normally, play softly and play more loudly when you attacked it. The MKS-80's dynamic sensitivity is adjustable via a slider on the front panel to make the best of your own personal technique. The MKS-30's is not. It's pre-set and that's a pity. I for one found that to get the full brightness out of certain brass settings I was treating the keys to a sledgehammer attack. True, you could reprogram the filter values to be brighter, sooner, but perhaps that's missing the point.
Judging the price of the MKB-1000 is harder since you're moving away from the massed produced, miniaturised, economy of the silicon chip into wood, craftsmanship and moving parts. Even so, £1665 snatched my breath considering there are complete touch sensitive digital synths around for less than that.
If you already have a MIDI keyboard it means you can now buy the vital bits of a JX3P for £875, an HP-400 for £990 and a Jupiter 8 for £1800. Rock against wastage, definitely.
Roland MK system
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Review by Paul Colbert
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