Roland Mother Keyboard System
A new prestige keyboard line-up that fuses traditional modular synthesis concepts with the latest interface technology. The complete system surveyed by Dan Goldstein.
Two controlling keyboards and three rack-mounting voice modules make up Roland's new top-of-the-line synth system. It looks to be the most comprehensive MIDI set-up currently available, but it's expensive. Dan Goldstein
Back in the days of analogue interfacing, Roland had two 'prestige' synth systems that served two separate markets: the Jupiter 8 self-contained polysynth for the musician on the road and the studio on a budget, and the complex (but infinitely expandable) System 700 modular network for larger studios and the likes of Tangerine Dream to take on tour round the world.
It's probably fair to say that Roland have realised the potential of MIDI - and put that potential into production reality - better than any other manufacturer. Just about every new piece of hardware they introduce has it, and in addition to designing instruments that use MIDI from scratch, the company have also introduced a number of products (eg. the MSQ700, OP8M, and SBX80 Sync Box) that allow musicians to use MIDI instruments in conjunction with older hardware.
So it came as no surprise when Roland UK unveiled a modular MIDI system aimed at filling the 'top-of-the-line' gap vacated by the analogue-equipped products. What was rather more surprising was the amount of time it took for the mother keyboard system to get into series production, since some of the hardware was displayed in prototype form over a year ago while production versions of the system are only now beginning to appear in dealers' showrooms.
As you will have gleaned from the introduction to this review, there are two keyboards from which the budding modular synthesist may choose - a 76-note plastic keyboard (the MKB300) and an 88-note version with wooden keys and full touch- and velocity-sensitivity (the MKB1000). The latter was used in assessing the relative merits of Roland's accompanying voice modules, since all three of these incorporate dynamic control in their specification.
Readers of all but the most recent generation can probably still recall a time when the wondrous circuitry inside a synthesiser could only be accessed via poorly-designed, non-dynamic keyboards - in effect, little more than a set of glorified electronic switches that allowed little room for expression on the part of the musician. Nowadays, with the arrival of instruments such as the Prophet T8, Yamaha DX7 et al, it seems that designers have recognised that synth players needn't be the poor relations of guitarists and drummers when it comes to injecting 'feel' into their musical output.
Roland's MKB1000 is another important step in the direction of giving keyboard players their due by placing as much emphasis on how the pitch of an electronic instrument is controlled as is placed on the design of the sound-generating hardware itself. Now, at an RRP of £1665 (that includes VAT, so be thankful for small mercies), every musician has a right to expect big things from the 1000, and in most respects it delivers: even from the brief time I had in its company, I can report that its action is really Very Good Indeed. There's something about encountering a really good keyboard that makes one concentrate more on how sounds are being manipulated rather than the sounds themselves, and more often than not (in my experience, anyway) this results in a sudden increase in creative flow. Even if you've never laid fingers on a piano in your life, you should find the 1000 a delight to use: I'd say its action was about two-thirds piano, one-third organ/synth, so there should at least be something about it that's reasonably familiar.
As befits a piece of hardware that incorporates no sound-generating circuitry of its own, the MKB1000 has the bare minimum of controls and switches. Storage space for 128 patches (arranged in eight banks of 16) is accessed by familiar Roland pushbuttons-with-LEDs, but what isn't immediately obvious is that these memory locations are capable of storing information relating to MIDI channel and mode, modulation data and keyboard split point. Two MIDI instruments can be controlled from the keyboard simultaneously, and these can be positioned either side of the split point (itself user-programmable to be at any point along the keyboard's length) or layered atop one another. If you only want to control one instrument in the context of a given patch, the 1000 gives you the option to do so, and the whole business of voice and channel assignment is quickly and simply controlled by means of pushbuttons and associated numeric LEDs on the instrument's front panel.
One notable omission (indeed the only serious one I can find) is some means of controlling the MIDI instruments' relative levels direct from the mother keyboard. This means having to reach over to the instruments themselves to set the levels, and seeing that one of the prime motivations behind the whole mother keyboard philosophy is that the system enables players to leave all their sound-generating equipment off-stage, I can only assume Roland's designers have made a rare unforced planning error.
Moving back to the goodies, the 1000 has a transpose slider control that allows you to increase or decrease the keyboard's overall pitch instantly in semitone steps, while the pitch-bend wheel can also be used to initiate modulation by a simple push of the wheel's control lever, a method whose merits appear to be the subject of some debate among keyboard players, though personally I rather like it.
Reference was made in last month's Trade Show report to the MKB1000's high standard of aesthetic design and finish, but while there can be no doubting the sturdiness of the mother keyboard's construction (it does weigh nearly 50kg, after all), I still have a feeling the instrument's elegance might not last longer than one extended British tour, for instance. Roland's magnificent chrome-plated stand is extra, too, which is a nuisance.
Simplest of Roland's three sound-generating modules is the MKS10 (or 'Planet P'), a straightforward electronic piano box that incorporates eight different voices onboard and a further eight that are only accessible via MIDI on the mother keyboard. The tones available on the module are two Pianos, two Clavis, two Harpsichords and two Electric Pianos, but only a couple of these are particularly striking without recourse to the MKS10's built-in chorus/flanger and tremolo units. The latter has a choice of sine and square waveshapes, and both incorporate rotary pots for control of rate and depth, though again, neither of these parameters is controllable from the mother keyboard, so unless you intend playing with standard settings throughout a live set, say, you're going to have to reach across to the Planet P module itself to change anything.
The extreme right of the MKS10's front panel contains sliders for overall volume and brilliance (quite effective, that one), while at the opposite end of the module you'll find the MIDI Channel selector (complete with numeric LED readout) and a further green LED that illuminates whenever the Planet P is transmitting or receiving a MIDI message. This feature is common to the other two voice modules, and could well be of value if you hit trouble getting any sort of output from your set-up but don't know where to start in tracking down the source of the problem. If the MIDI message light doesn't come on when you play a note, it's your MIDI connections that are at fault.
It goes without saying that the MKS10 responds fully to key velocity information from the mother keyboard, and if your technical skill is up to it, the Planet P - and especially its Electric Piano voices - can be an impressive source of percussive voices that are delicate without lacking the ability to cut through other instruments in a mix.
The less expensive (and correspondingly less complex) of Roland's two MIDI synth modules is the MKS30 (otherwise known as 'Planet S'), whose configuration is internally similar to that of the popular JX3P self-contained polysynth and the GR700 guitar synthesiser, ie. a six-voice polysynth with two DCOs per voice. However, the Planet S scores in having 64 internal patch memories (with a further 64 memory spaces available on the 16 RAM cartridge, the slot for which is located to the left of the module's front panel) and in incorporating full keyboard dynamics, controllable by MIDI velocity information.
Like the JX3P and GR700, the MKS30 adopts digital parameter selection and control (using eight push buttons and corresponding numeric LED displays) but the now-familiar PG200 Programmer can be connected via a six-pin DIN socket on the front panel for those who prefer to control things by conventional rotary pots and switches. Indeed, the lack of any graphic representation or parameter listing on the module itself (to be fair to Roland, there's nowhere they could have put such a listing except on the top of the MKS30's metal casing, where other rack-mounting hardware would most likely have obscured it) makes use of the PG200 almost obligatory for all but the most determined of programmers.
"At an RRP of £1665, every musician has a right to expect big things from the MKB1000, and in most respects it delivers."
In common with the MKS10, Planet S has sliders for volume and brilliance, controls for MIDI Channel assignment, a master tune pot and a headphone socket, while an additional pushbutton switches in the keyboard dynamics. Frankly, I'm not sure why Roland have given users the option to switch the dynamics out at all, unless it's to demonstrate just how much more effective the module sounds when connected to a velocity-sensitive keyboard. And contrary to popular belief, you don't need to be a virtuoso player to get the best out of a dynamic keyboard, particularly if you've got two different MIDI instruments available at the touch of a finger.
If you've gone anywhere near a decent music shop at some time in the past year or so, you 'll be aware that the JX3P's oscillator and filter circuitry is capable of providing a pretty wide range of both 'synthetic' and pseudo-acoustic voices, and in addition to the dynamics already mentioned, the MKS system introduces the additional possibility of combining a piano sound with, say, a string tone from the Planet S. Which, given a certain degree of playing and programming sensitivity, can be an effective combination indeed.
Undoubtedly the star of Roland's nouveau MIDI lineup is the MKS80 - or 'Super Jupiter' - module, an eight-voice polyphonic synth with two VCOs per voice, eight VCFs and eight VCAs. Now, just in case you think you've seen something akin to that specification before, I should point out that this module's internal circuitry bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the Jupiter 8, Roland's previous flagship poly alluded to earlier, though Roland insist that substantial modifications have been made to the design in general and the filtering in particular. Another discrepancy is that the Super Jupiter adopts some of the programming functions of the newer JP6 polysynth so that, for example, patch information can be stored in two different sorts of memory space - Tone Memories, which contain data relating only to the generation, filtering and envelope of a sound, and Patch Presets, which contain combinations of tone memories (not the tone colours themselves) and performance control and effect data. The MKS80 is capable of storing up to 64 tone memories and 64 patch presets internally, while a further 128 of each can be stored (in two banks, A and B) on external RAM cartridge M64C, available at extra cost.
Like the Planet S module, the Super Jupiter uses digital parameter selection and control, and while it scores over the lesser synth in having a reasonably comprehensive 16-character liquid crystal display that shows you which parameter you've selected and what you're doing with it (as well as additional information pertaining to patch number and MIDI status), the fact that it's a considerably more complex piece of hardware doesn't really make the budding programmer's job any easier, which is why a 'conventional' programming module, the MPG80, is available as an optional extra. This splits 'tone memory' and 'patch preset' functions logically into colour-coded areas, and simply pressing the 'manual' button on each section brings the programmer's editing facilities into play.
It should be pointed out at this point that although the MPG80's controls are essentially similar in composition to those found on the Jupiter 6 and 8, their layout is somewhat different, so players used to either of the self-contained synthesisers will probably need a fair amount of 'breaking-in' time before programming becomes the rapid and enjoyable activity it should be.
The Super Jupiter system does in fact contain a number of novel features that should be of interest to the majority of musicians, and these include a convenient (and extremely quick) Auto Tune option that tunes all the VCOs in to the same pitch at the touch of a button, variable dynamics (operated by a slider on the MKS80's front panel), and an After Touch facility (transmittable via MIDI) capable of controlling either VCO modulation depth or VCF cutoff frequency.
I won't bore you with an exhaustive run-down on the Super Jupiter's sonic capabilities, since on the evidence of the factory voices alone, I'd say that all the standard analogue synth sounds (plus a good many more besides) can be reproduced with excellent clarity and power. Instead, I can only marvel at how the MKS80's designers have managed to cram so much into a standard 2U-high rack-mounting case, since both the JP6 and 8 are considerably bulkier both outside and in. Soon they'll be able to get a Microcomposer on a digital watch...
The first thing to mention is that whatever your views on MIDI, the merits of Roland's synthesiser circuitry or the concept of modular systems in general, you can't but acknowledge the competence with which the mother keyboard system's design has been executed. The argument over the potential usefulness of dynamic keyboards in synthesis is probably one that will never be resolved fully, but I for one was singularly impressed by the way the MKB1000's action livened up both my own playing and the output of the rack-mounting modules. The absence of some form of remote level control is a serious failing, however, since it means having to store whatever MIDI instrument is being controlled somewhere adjacent to the keyboard itself on stage, which would seem to negate much of the raison d'être of the modular concept.
Another major grouse concerns Roland's current pricing policy, since by any standards both the controlling keyboards and the synth modules are expensive for what they comprise. Roland UK are at great pains to point out that, for example, the combination of MKB1000 mother keyboard, MKS80 synth module and MPG80 programmer can now be bought for less than the Jupiter 8 cost when it came out, but that fails to take into account the technological advances that have been made since that time and the downward cost spiral those advances brought with them.
Now, it's possible that purchasing one of the mother keyboards could be an investment when you consider that it should prove capable of shielding the musician from the worst ravages of planned obsolescence, but that theory presumes (a) that MIDI will be around for a considerable while to come and (b) that modular synths won't go out of fashion again in 12 months time.
The other possibility is that major studios and session players (whom Roland see as being the system's most likely prospective purchasers) will opt to use one of the mother keyboards in conjunction with sound-generating modules from other manufacturers, since although there's no denying the competence of both the Planet S and Super Jupiter units (the Planet P's merits are a little more debatable, or at least, they are at a price of £990), Roland's lamentable lack of new synth hardware will not have gone unnoticed by professional performers, who depend on having the latest in sound-generating technology for their survival.
On the credit side, Roland have at least given users the option - albeit at a not insignificant extra cost - of programming their synth modules in a convenient and user-friendly way, while the keyboard split and channel assignment modes offered by the mother keyboards allow an almost limitless number of controlling permutations.
On balance, there's a lot more that's praiseworthy about this set-up than there is to fault, and the only reason I'm being so critical is that, as the flagship system of one of the world's leading synthesiser companies, the mother keyboard system is going to be examined very closely by anyone considering investing in either one part of it or the whole shooting match. Whether or not you can justify spending this sort of money on a system of this nature is something only you and your bank manager can decide.
Me, I give it ten out of ten for concept, nine for sonic capability, eight for ease of use and six for value for money.
RRPs are as follows: MKB1000 - £1665; MKB300 - £990; MKS10 - £990; MKS30 - £875; MKS80 - £1800; MPG80 - £395. All prices include VAT.
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Review by Dan Goldstein
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