Roland MV30 Studio-M
The Studio In A Box?
A studio in a box? Martin Russ looks at Roland's latest entry in the ongoing competition to fit the most functionality in the smallest box...
The 'studio-in-a-box' idea has been around for quite some time, and in a sense it is a logical extension of the drum machine — just add some instrumental tuneable samples to a pattern-based sampling drum machine and you too can have a virtually instant backing band! Is that too cynical? I must confess to being a confirmed believer that putting your own separates together is better than any dedicated unit. But I may have met my match here: Roland have taken the basic idea of drum and instrument sounds coupled to a phrase-based sequencer, and added a disk drive, effects unit and mixer to create the MV30 Studio-M music production system, and it changed my opinions completely!
Almost everything about the Studio-M holds a surprise — the U220-type sound generation turns out to be rather more than that, and the 'mixer' is really a computer-controlled automated mixer which can control external MIDI instruments as well as the internal ones. You can use MIDI note messages to control the playback of recorded phrases by the sequencer in real time, and the built-in memory is expandable from the standard 512K/50,000 events to a 120,000 event workhorse.
If the hardware is good, then it is matched by the software — the confusion and complexity of U20/U220-style menus is replaced by an easy-to-use system which is often so obvious that you wonder why everything doesn't work like this.
The slate grey exterior of the Studio-M suggests some sort of sophisticated mixer, portastudio or synthesizer editor, with a few sliders, an alpha wheel, and large unmistakable cursor buttons. The top (working) surface is divided into clearly defined areas: The top left has the eight slider controls (each can control two channels via a small toggle button) and master volume controls for the mixer section.
The large blue backlit 8-row/40-character LCD display and associated function keys are common to all the other sections as well, but placing them directly above the sliders makes the link between the on-screen representations of sliders and their real-world alter-egos obvious. The sliders are not motorised, so you need to move the sliders to match their on-screen positions when editing. The same sliders are also used for panning and effects routing, although the mapping of pan position to a vertical slider takes some getting used to.
The tape recorder-style controls are at the front of the Studio-M, with the sequencer buttons and the automated/manual mix buttons. In common with the thinking behind the whole unit, these buttons are dedicated: one button/one function. More importantly, pressing a button once illuminates the associated LED and displays the relevant popup box, but pressing it again closes the popup box and returns you to the previous mode. If you prefer, the Exit button next to the function keys can also be used to close pop-up boxes, and in fact, this useful redundancy is also evident in the duplication of the shift keys — one near the LCD, the other near the wheel. Considering the user interface complexities of Roland products like the U220, having this number of buttons is definitely a luxury!
The keypad has both numeric, alphabetic and note value markings. Four LEDs (one red and three green) are used to indicate tempo, and a flashing red LED reminds you when you are stopped. Above the keypad is an operating mode pad — more dedicated buttons to provide control over functions like Play, Disk, Real-Time Edit and Timbre Edit. The cursor keys and increment/decrement buttons complete the layout — overall a neat and logical scheme which is easy to learn, although my fingers did not seem to like the positioning of the cursor keys. The buttons themselves are black, with a very shallow movement and a definite click which provides tactile and audible feedback.
The 3.5 inch DD disk drive is recessed into the front right of the casing. A single disk can store about 100,000 notes, up to 64 songs in total. The internal memory can hold a maximum of 20 songs. A demo disk is supplied with the unit, and contains the now obligatory collection of rock, pop, jazz and classically-themed demonstration pieces which very effectively illustrate the musical potential and sound quality of the unit. Watching the volume and pan sliders moving on the LCD during playback is as hypnotic as ever, and serves as a timely reminder of the importance of the art of mixing.
A stereo headphone socket is conveniently located on the front left of the casing, and the volume was quite adequate for studio use with 600 ohm headphones. The rear panel has a socket for the separate mains power supply adaptor, a cable hook, and a power switch. Above the socket and switch are the two ROM card slots. The top row of audio connectors comprise the master and direct out (with no effects processing) jack sockets — six in total. Below these are another row of controls and sockets: the LCD contrast control; a foot-switch jack socket that allows you to start and stop the sequencer; metronome output jack and level control, allowing external metronome monitoring. Two phono sockets provide input and output for the Tape Sync II signals, which use time information encoded in the FSK audio signal to provide sync facilities based around the elapsed time from the start of the song, enabling synchronisation to tape to be achieved from any position in the song. You can also use MIDI Song Position Pointers for MIDI sync, with the Studio-M as master or slave. MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets provide inputs for syncing, recording events, control of the internal sound sources, and outputs for controlling external MIDI devices.
The addition of a Time Varying Filter (TVF) to RS-PCM (Re-Synthesised Pulse Code Modulation) produces a high quality sound generation system which combines the sampled sounds of the U-series with the LA sounds of the D-series. The timbres possible, which can resemble an MT32/D110, a U220, and something like a D70 all at the same time, are wide and versatile, especially with the extra editing capabilities offered by the filtering.
Despite the large LCD display, the timbre editing tends to concentrate on presenting the parameters in numeric rather than graphic form, which requires you to have a clear concept of envelope parameters to produce good results. The RS-PCM technique produces concatenated and looped attack, decay, sustain and release sections, and so allows you to edit the relative times of these parts — which means that whereas all the TVF envelopes are conventional 0-128 time parameters, the TVA (volume) envelope is only shown as +/-7 relative to the original envelope of the sound. This can make the task of matching the filtering to the amplitude envelope of the sound quite difficult, but turns up some interesting variations in the process, and may turn out to be an unexpected bonus!
The sound production architecture follows very much an analogue format. The RS-PCM sample produces the raw pitched sound, which could be anything from a complete instrument sound to a simple spectrum or waveshape, or a drum sound. This basic sound is then filtered to produce the final timbre, enveloped to shape the volume, and passed through an optional chorus and reverb effects section. Previous RS-PCM instruments have concentrated on getting the initial sample right, and so single and detuned versions are often available — the Fretless 2 bass tone is one of my favourite sounds, almost without any editing. More complex samples consist of two different samples mixed together, and the velocity switch and velocity mix sounds are designed for producing timbres which have a distinct variation with playing velocity — slap bass, for example.
The filtering which follows has low, band, and high-pass modes with resonance, which means that you can make quite severe changes to the basic spectrum of the sound. The high-pass and band-pass filters are especially useful for thinning out sounds, either to avoid muddying the bass frequencies, or to remove the fundamental and obtain unusual hybrid sounds which have elements of both real and synthetic instrument timbres. The filter and volume envelopes are rather limited 6-stage ADDSR types, with no provision for looping.
The pan position parameter offers 15 static positions across the stereo image, but there is also a very useful Random position which changes for each note played — this can be handy for backing chords or pads where you want a more diffuse stereo image, without having to use lots of reverb. The effects section allows you to store five settings per timbre bank/song, with separately assignable chorus and reverb settings for each track. This means that the restriction of only having one effect at once is tempered by the ability to individually choose whether a track is chorused, or chorused and reverbed, etc.
There are five DDL-type 'chorus' effects, ranging from a smooth deep chorus to metallic flanging, and even a setting which has no modulation at all, and so produces ADT-type short echoes. The reverb section offers six basic types of reverb effect: three rooms and two halls, with a gated reverb as well. There is also an echo and panned echo where alternate repeats are panned to the left and right. You can change between the five effects patches whilst a song is playing, and these changes can be recorded into the song.
The eighth sequencer track is reserved for the Rhythm part, which is optimised for playing different sounds one note at a time. Despite this, some very unusual and entertaining fun can be had by using pitch bend from an external keyboard, since this can be set to alter all the drum sounds globally! The basic architecture used for producing the rhythm sounds is the same as for the instrument sounds, and in fact you can use the same samples, waveshapes and rhythm samples as the sound source. Individual sounds can be assigned to MIDI note numbers, pan position, and through the effects section.
Unlike the U20 (see SOS August 1989), the Studio-M avoids all the complications of Patches, Tones and Timbres. Instead you have a Timbre Bank which defines the instrumentation for a song, and that is all there is to it! The bank is made up of 128 individual sounds — you choose the sounds you want to play in the song from these 128. There is no 'store' button — you just choose the sounds you want, and perhaps edit them to your own taste. The resulting Timbre Bank can be saved to disk (eight per disk) for use with other songs.
Just about the only time you need to consider things like MIDI channels, note messages and controllers is if you intend to make very detailed edits (especially to external MIDI instruments) or use the Studio-M as a simple expander for another keyboard. The really serious MIDI hacker can even edit System Exclusive messages complete with a special function to work out checksums! For other less technical uses, it is very easy to forget the technology and think that you are working with some sort of high-powered tape recorder. The ability to reload a complete song, with effects settings and sounds, in a few seconds compares very favourably with my current unwieldy system of Sys Ex dumps, MIDI files and other miscellaneous computer files, with analogue tape or DAT copies of the music as the ultimate backup.
How you use a sequencer depends on your style of music. I often use patterns to build up a collection of one, two or four bar sequences, and then string these together — rather like using a drum machine to play instrument sounds instead of drum sounds. Conversely, for music which is not so strongly bar based, or which has longer evolutions, recording a 'performance' on a track makes more sense. Similarly, both step and real time recording have their uses — step time for fiddly or difficult passages, real time for larger structures which would get lost in the minute precision of step time. The Studio-M provides all of these facilities,and also enables you to convert between patterns and tracks, so you can take advantage of the best of both worlds.
Real time entry to the sequencer is via an external MIDI keyboard, with automatic channelising, so you don't need to worry about setting the transmit channel correctly. Step time can be either via MIDI, or via the MV30 keypad. All the usual punch-in/out, quantising, copying, inserting, deleting and other track and pattern modifying operations can be performed, and the ability to name patterns and add rehearsal marks can be very useful. Special editing functions like controller thinning and velocity changes can be carried out as well, and the Microscope button allows detailed fine tuning at the individual event level.
The ability to load and save songs in MIDI file format means that you can use graphical editing and score production software on a computer, and transfer information easily between the Studio-M and the computer. For live use the transfer from computer to Studio-M could be very useful, since the robustness of hardware sequencers offers advantages over less road-worthy computers — and don't forget that transferring from computer to some hardware sequencers can mean playing the song back and re-recording it in real-time (or slower if the tracks are very busy).
The manual plays an important part in using the Studio-M, not because it has the usual detailed descriptions of the use of the individual controls and operations, but because there are a great many 'how to do...' sections. These are short sections of a page or less, which explain how to achieve a specific change or effect: making minor adjustments to timbres: using external tracks to double up internal ones; checking the time signature or tempo. These and many other handy procedures are outlined, saving on tedious searching through indexes.
A minor niggle came up after I had been using the Studio-M for a while — I could not find any way of incrementing values except via the wheel and the numeric keypad (and Enter key). I would have preferred to be able to use yes/no increment/decrement buttons. However, because the Studio-M loads its operating system from disk when you power it up, changes to the way that it works are just a software update away. At this very moment, a Roland programmer may be working on turning the Insert and Delete buttons into yes/no increment/decrement buttons.
The boundaries between the tape recorder, drum machine, sequencer and synthesizer really blur together in the Studio-M. The software provides a virtually seamless music production environment without introducing unnecessary technicalities. The filtering turns the sample playback of the U-series instruments into something much more like a real synthesizer — and would make the MV30 a good expander on its own.
MIDI always seems to offer the promise of your own personal orchestra, but in many cases the 'players' are a little difficult to keep track of and bring together for a performance! The Studio-M takes the technology behind MIDI and puts it underneath a layer of software, producing a music production workstation which works in much the way that ideal computer-based MIDI systems are supposed to work.
The Studio-M surprised me. I started out thinking that it might make a good expander to play about with, but ended up almost becoming a convert to hassle-free music production! If you are wondering how to proceed after purchasing a first keyboard, then the Studio-M could help provide most of the rest of your home studio. If you are considering buying a computer-based sequencer and an expander for audio-visual use, then the Studio-M may be exactly what you want in one package.
£1499 Inc VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Martin Russ
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