Roland MV30 Studio M
Music Production System
Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it's a multitimbral synth module, it's a sequencer, it's an automated mixer... Simon Trask puzzles over Roland's Studio M.
Combining 16-track MIDI sequencing, an eight-part multitimbral sound source and an automated mixer, the MV30 enters workstation territory - minus a keyboard. Could this be the start of something?
WITH THE WORKSTATION concept fading in the synth world, Roland have chosen to opt for a different angle on the all-in-one box, and the MV30 Studio M is the result. For a start, it doesn't have a keyboard - and that's an important part of its attraction, because as a result it's readily transportable and you can use the keyboard of your choice with it. This could be a large controller keyboard in your studio and a dinky portable keyboard in your hotel bedroom (for those late night flashes of inspiration when touring). It's this kind of flexibility of use which Roland presumably have in mind - and they've further encouraged it by giving the MV30 the capability to read MIDI Files off Atari, IBM PC and Apple Mac disks, so you can port files between the dedicated unit and a wide range of computer-based sequencers. With a 16-track MIDI sequencer, a multitimbral sound source and an automated mixer also included in the MV30's compact frame, is it the ideal unit for both stage and studio?
MEASURING 15¼" x 12¼" x 2¾" (the fashionable sloping front panel) and weighing a little under 8lbs, the MV30 is reasonably compact and portable. It also looks very smart. Roland have got the sleek professional look down pat now, and the MV30 with its sober grey casing, smooth low-profile buttons and profusion of pinpoint LEDs is a fine example of this.
A metal stand (provided) slots securely into the unit's specially-moulded bottom panel, angling it further towards you so that it's at a very comfortable angle for operation and for viewing the LCD. Very thoughtful.
Roland haven't skimped on the MV30's front-panel features either. In addition to a 64 x 240-pixel backlit LCD (soft blue variety), the panel includes five function buttons and associated Shift and Exit buttons below the LCD, Up/Down/Left/Right cursor keys to move you around the screen parameters, a dial and a numeric keypad for entering parameter values, a volume slider, and a tape transport-style sequencer control panel including Song Select, Status, Locate and Mark buttons. Also provided are Mode select buttons (offering direct access to the various operational modes), eight track select buttons and eight faders for the Compu Mix section. Conveniently located on the front of the MV30 are a stereo headphones jack and the 3.5" DSDD disk drive for saving sequence and sound data. The MV30's System software is provided on disk, and has to be loaded each time you switch the unit on - which has the advantage that software updates can also be provided on disk (MT's review model had v1.0 software).
The rear panel reveals the power switch and power supply jack (for an external power supply which comes with the unit) together with a cable hook to anchor the power lead; an LCD contrast knob; two card slots to accommodate ROM sample cards; a footswitch input jack; a metronome output jack together with level adjust knob; tape sync in/out jacks; MIDI In, Out and Thru connectors; and an effected stereo audio output pair together with two dry output pairs. Like the MC50 sequencer, the MV30 utilises Roland's new Tape Sync II (intelligent FSK) which interleaves Song position information into the sync signal so that the unit can lock to tape at any position within the Song.
THE MV30'S EIGHT-PART multitimbral sound source is based on Roland's U20/U220 RS-PCM sample playback units, but significantly it adds the company's latest generation digital filter as introduced on their S770 sampler and D70 synth.
At the heart of the MV30's sound-generating capabilities is the Tone, which can be a sample or a waveform. The unit has 220 Tones held permanently in onboard memory, and can access others via its two card slots. As it can read U-series and D70 cards, it already has a reasonable library to draw on.
The 220 Tones of the internal memory are divided into three categories: Instrumental (108), Synthesiser Waveforms (84) and Rhythm sounds (28). Many of these will be familiar to anyone who owns or has played around with a U20 or U220. The instrumental sounds include acoustic and electric pianos, electric organs, acoustic guitars, slapped basses, choirs, strings, brass, saxes, flutes, shakuhachis, cymbalon and balaphon. Synth waveforms include the standards as well as various digital waveforms, noise, bells, harps, bass and strings, while the rhythm sounds are the typical Roland "drumkit section", providing basic kit and percussion sounds (including, inevitably, a few 808 samples) which are adequate without being stunningly original or versatile. On a bit of a down note, the MV30 provides only one Rhythm Timbre ("drumkit" assignment of sounds across the keyboard). However you can incorporate any of the MV30's Tones into the Rhythm Timbre, assign a Tone to each note within the range B1-D7, and give each note/Tone its own pitch transposition, separate up and down bend amounts (+12/-36 semitones), source/mute setting (where playing one sound can cut short another), panning and output assignment (so some sounds can be routed via the effected output and others via one or other of the dry outs). The bend amount parameters are particularly effective as a means of creating different-sounding kits - all the more so for being programmable per note/Tone and for being so readily controllable from your synth's bend wheel.
Over and above these features, each note/Tone is routed through the full sound-generation works including the filter, so you can get into some extreme editing of drum and percussion sounds with the filter cutoff and resonance.
The MV30 can hold one Timbre Bank in memory, and can save and load others to and from disk. A Bank contains 128 Timbres and the one Rhythm Timbre. A Timbre is a Tone plus parameter settings for the MV30's LFO, Pitch, TVF, TVA and Output sections. It's really the excellent digital filter which turns the MV30 into more than a sample playback unit. You get a choice of low-pass, band-pass or high-pass filter and can program filter cutoff and resonance together with a five-stage cutoff envelope and various dynamic modulation possibilities such as controlling the cutoff point from keyboard position, channel aftertouch and LFO and envelope time from keyboard position and velocity.
The digital effects provided on the MV30 are, as we've come to expect from Roland, limited but of good quality. Basically, you get eight reverb/delay types with programmable time, level and feedback, and five chorus/flanger types with programmable level, rate, depth and feedback. You can then select reverb processing only, or reverb with either pre or post chorus. Settings are programmable into five Effect patches for a Song.
THE MV30 COMES fitted with 512Kb of sequencer memory, providing approximately 50,000 Song data steps, but it's possible to upgrade to give a capacity of 120,000 data steps. If you're going to be getting into some extensive automated mixing (see below) then it's probably a good idea to do this.
The sequencer's 16 tracks are divided into eight internal (playing the internal sound source) and eight external (playing out via MIDI, but also able to play the MV30 Timbres assigned to tracks 1-8). Each internal track can play one Timbre at a time and can be assigned one MIDI channel together with output routing, pan, level and voice reserve number. External tracks, on the other hand, can store data on all 16 MIDI channels and record SysEx and Tune Request data. In addition to the 16 sequence tracks you can also create a Tempo track and a Mixer track per Song.
The MV30 can hold up to 20 Songs in memory, each of which can last for up to 9,998 bars - providing there's enough room in memory to store the data. An MV30 Song isn't a chain of patterns, though individual tracks (internal and external) can be set to either Standard (continuous) or Pattern. Each track can have Patterns programmed for it regardless of whether the track is set to Standard or Pattern - up to 999 Patterns per track! A Pattern can itself last for up to 999 bars, so you needn't necessarily confine yourself to short loops. Each Pattern can be assigned its own Timbre and time signature.
"The MV30 could function as the sequencing centre of your MIDI setup, but you can uproot it and take it out as a self-contained unit wherever you need to go."
Real-time recording of Standard tracks can start anywhere within the current length of the Song, and either end within the current length or set a new length. Various record modes are available, including normal, mix, key on, manual and auto punch in/out and loop (drum machine-style - so pattern-type recording needn't be limited to the Patterns). Other features allow you to insert patch changes at any position in a track (for Timbre and MIDI patch changes) and to erase selected types of data from any section of a track. Track editing allows you to merge and copy tracks, to copy or merge the data of a Pattern to any position in a Standard track, to post-quantise a track (key on, key off or gate time with an offset option for sliding quantised data forward or backward in 96ppqn steps - the MV30's maximum record resolution), to insert and delete bars, to extract a section of one track to another, to change velocity, gate time and MIDI channel data, to convert a Pattern track into a Standard track, and to thin out data in the Mixer track (highly useful). Phew. It's also possible to copy any part of a Standard track into a Pattern, so it's easy to extract the good bits from an extended keyboard "doodle". Additionally, both Standard tracks and Patterns can be transposed ±99 in semitone steps.
Roland's familiar Microscope (event-level) editing is available for Patterns, Standard tracks and both the Tempo and Mixer tracks. Step-time recording is also available, with the MV30's numeric keypad and MIDI input as possible sources. Keypad input means you can record into the MV30 without having any external input source to hand, though it's not the most enticing of prospects.
Finally, Chain Load mode allows you to create a Song list which the MV30 uses to automatically load Songs off disk, one at a time. A loaded Song can start immediately or be Started from the front panel or the footswitch. Very useful for automating the running order of a set.
THE REAL-TIME PHRASE sequencer (RPS) comes as a welcome surprise, as it wasn't mentioned in the preliminary spec. Basically, the RPS allows you to assign MV30 Patterns to MIDI notes and construct a piece of music "live" by triggering them from your MIDI keyboard. Roland can't really claim originality here (it's been possible to do this sort of thing for a long time using the Open mode in Dr T's KCS sequencer), but that doesn't make it any the less welcome.
The RPS allows you to create a list of 20 notes (playing the relevant notes from your keyboard is the quickest way), and to assign one MV30 Pattern to each note. As each track (1-16) can have its own collection of Patterns, you need to specify both the track and the Pattern. The advantage of this is that Patterns from different tracks can each play their own Timbre or external sound. With Patterns from the same internal track it's a slightly different situation. Remember that each Pattern can be assigned its own Timbre. If you don't play Patterns from the same track together, each will automatically assume its assigned Timbre. However, if you trigger a second Pattern before the first has finished playing, the first Pattern assumes the Timbre of the second. What this means in practice is that you can't play more than eight Timbres at once in RPS mode - which is quite reasonable when you consider the MV30 is eight-part multitimbral. Anyway, you can always turn this to your advantage as a means of spontaneously switching to a new sound partway through a Pattern. There doesn't appear to be any limit to how many of your 20 Patterns you can have playing at the same time apart from your sanity, innate musical good sense and the available polyphony (remember, Patterns from tracks 9-16 can play external sounds).
Each of the 20 RPS notes can be set to play its Pattern as a one-shot, a loop (until note off), a quick one-shot or a quick loop. The latter two are so called because they begin playing straight away from the first recorded event in the Pattern - which needn't necessarily be on the first beat.
The RPS also allows you to set a Stop By note. Whenever you play this note, all active Patterns within the RPS are abruptly cut short - a very valuable feature, especially if you accidentally trigger a long one-shot pattern.
Patterns triggered within the RPS are automatically played at the current tempo. If an MV30 Song is playing, the Patterns will follow the Tempo track. However, this won't hide poor timing on your part - if you want a Pattern to play on the beat, you have to trigger it on the beat.
Being able to trigger Patterns live while a Song is playing means that you can have a pre-recorded rhythm track playing while you trigger other things on top of it. Equally it means you can do without a prerecorded rhythm track and, instead, construct your rhythm track live by triggering the rhythm Patterns within the RPS. Or you could have a pre-recorded rhythm track to fall back on and mute it if you feel like going for the live option instead. RPS-triggered Patterns can also be useful for dropping in percussion breaks over a basic pre-recorded rhythm track of bass, snare and hi-hats - or you could have the percussion in the pre-recorded track and the bass drum and snare parts in the RPS Patterns. As you might gather, I've been having some fun here.
Patterns need by no means be limited to rhythms, however, and can include basslines, melodies, chord sequences, horn riffs, ambient effects... whatever you want. And consider this: as Patterns from tracks 9-16 can be used to play external sounds, you could RPS-trigger Patterns which themselves trigger breaks and/or vocal samples on your sampler. But what's so great about the RPS is not only that you can spontaneously combine a wide variety of musical parts, but that you can experiment with changing their rhythmic placement against one another.
As noted earlier, Patterns have to be recorded in isolation. While this may be OK for rhythm patterns, once you start to get into a diversity of uses for the Patterns you might find it difficult holding everything in your head. The best way around this that I found was to create a number of blank Patterns across the 16 tracks, assign an assortment to the 20 notes in the RPS, and then flip between the Pattern Record and RPS screens so that I could record a Pattern and quickly try it out in context. This process is also useful as a quick means of trying out Pattern combinations which you can later "immortalise" in an MV30 Song (remember, one Pattern can be the length of an entire Song if need be).
The RPS responds to notes received on the specified Control Channel. If this is the same as the receive channel of an Internal track, then notes which don't have Patterns assigned to them will play the Timbre for that track. RPS Patterns can be triggered from the Play, RPS, Chain Load and Compu Mixer pages. Although you can trigger them while an MV30 Song is playing, there doesn't appear to be any way of recording your RPS performances (the trigger notes) into the onboard sequencer, nor of using notes recorded into any track of the sequencer to trigger RPS Patterns on playback. Of course, recording an RPS performance into an external sequencer is no problem, but that's not really the point.
"What's great about the RPS is not only that you can spontaneously combine a variety of musical parts, but that you can experiment with their rhythmic placement against one another."
Perhaps this shortcoming could be rectified in a software update. However, it shouldn't take away from what is a very positive aspect of the MV30.
COMPU MIXER: NOW there's a name to conjure up memories of a time when anyone who used synths, sequencers and drum machines was known as an electro-musician, compu-musician or even micro-musician. On a historical note, Roland were dabbling in automated mixing as far back as 1981 with the Roland Studio System CPE800 Compu Editor and associated VCA800 Voltage Controlled Amp, which provided SMPTE-referenced fade and mute automation for up to 15 audio channels - at a cost of several thousand pounds.
The Compu Mixer section on the MV30 allows you to record level, pan and output-assignment data for the eight internal tracks and MIDI volume and pan data for the eight external tracks into a dedicated Mixer track, using the eight front-panel faders located below the LCD window. You can also use the Compu Mix section to sequence Effect Patch changes (by holding down the Shift button and pressing the F1-F5 buttons at the relevant positions during mix recording).
The Compu Mix display screen includes eight faders which move to reflect physical front-panel fader movements or data being played back from the Mixer track during Song play and record. Which takes precedence depends on the mixer mode. There are two Compu Mix modes: Compu and Manual. Compu mode allows fader movements to be recorded and Mixer track data to be played back. The onscreen faders move on playback, but not the physical faders, which aren't motorised. To record fader movements, you first have to move the physical over the onscreen position, which it then "picks up" and moves.
In Manual mode, the MV30 reads the positions of the front-panel faders and ignores data recorded in the Mixer track. If you select Manual on any display page other than Compu Mix, the faders are automatically set to control the levels of tracks 1-8.
While in Compu mode, the track buttons above each fader can be used to determine whether each track will record new mix data or play back existing data, with the pinpoint LED for each button indicating which is selected (red for record, yellow for play). You can drop each track in and out of fader record mode at any time while recording into the Mixer track, and start and stop recording anywhere in the Song.
On the Play and Track Record displays, the track buttons function as track mute on/off controls. However, while the initial mute status of each track is stored as part of a Song, to record track mutes during a Song it seems you have to rely on rapid fader movements or on inserting INT Lvl events with a value of zero into the Mixer track in Track Microscope mode (you can edit and insert fader data with the same degree of accuracy as you can note, controller and tempo data).
WHICHEVER WAY YOU look at it, it makes sound commercial sense for a manufacturer to provide sequence data compatibility within their own range of equipment. Thus Roland have ensured that the MV30 is able to load from disk and convert sequence data from their W30 sampler, all their MC-series MIDI sequencers (including the recently-reviewed MC50) and their S50, S550 and S330 rack-mount samplers (SYS-series software). Not only this, but Songs recorded on the MV30 can be saved to disk in W30 and Super-MRC (MC500MkII/MC50) format.
Roland have also given the MV30 the ability to load and save sequence, tempo and mixer level and pan data in Standard MIDI File format. Mixer data for the MV30's internal tracks is recorded in a format unique to the unit, and so there wouldn't be any point in transferring it via MIDI Files. However, Roland have thoughtfully provided a Track Edit function which converts level and pan data into the relevant MIDI controllers (seven and ten), which can of course be read by another sequencer. Equally, volume and pan data contained in a MIDI File from another sequencer can be converted by the MV30 into its own mix data format.
The MV30 can read from and write to disks formatted on an Atari ST, IBM PC or Apple Mac (the latter in IBM PC format only), thus realising what was always potentially one of the most exciting applications of MIDI Files, namely transferring sequences between computer-based and dedicated MIDI sequencers. The ability to save sequences in MIDI File format has become de rigeur in the world of computer-based sequencers, so the MV30 has access to an extremely large number of sequencing packages.
The MIDI Files software in the MV30 is essentially the same as Roland's MRM500 software for the MC sequencers. As you'll find the latter reviewed elsewhere in the issue, I won't dwell on it here. Instead I'll just comment that it's been well thought out and sensibly implemented by Roland, and observe that not everything can be transferred from one sequencer to another via MIDI Files. At the end of the day there can only be a certain level of compatibility, because, even if they agree on the fundamentals, different sequencers exist because they're different, because their designers have different ideas about how sequences should be constructed and about what features should be included on a sequencer. However, within these constraints, MIDI Files have a valuable role to play in facilitating the circulation of MIDI data around different sequencers and related software - such as algorithmic composers - so that you can take advantage of their individual strengths.
THE MV30 IS straightforward and accessible in use, yet it's powerful and flexible in application - from the individual sequencer, sound source and mixer components to the application of the unit as a whole. The MV30 could function as the sequencing centre of your MIDI setup, but equally because it's not just a sequencer you can uproot it and take it out as a self-contained unit wherever you need to go. Here the unit's compactness and portability really score for it.
Personally I wouldn't be satisfied with just the MV30's own sounds for finished tracks (and, incidentally, it's a shame Differential Loop Modulation didn't make it across from the D70 along with the TVF), but the eight external sequencer tracks make it easy to incorporate other sound sources into the MV30 sequencing environment. The unit's MIDI Files capability is another important feature, allowing transfer of sequences between it and a wide range of computer-based sequencers. You could also use the MV30 as a multitimbral expander to be played from an external sequencer, with the additional benefit of automated mixing of the unit's sounds. If you use it this way, you can also sequence Real-time Phrase Sequencer performances. The RPS is an aspect of the MV30 which is well worth investigating for its implementation of what must be the way forward for sequencing: live manipulation of sequences (made sequenceable in itself, please, Roland).
Price £1499 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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