Roland S-10 Sampling Keyboard
'Is this the one we have all been waiting for?' asks Julian Colbeck. Slotting neatly into the vacant sub-£1000 price bracket, Roland's new keyboard is a fast and easy to use sampler with plenty of attractive qualities. But how does it fare against the competition? Read on to find out...
Is this the one we've been waiting for - a reasonably high quality, no-nonsense, reliable keyboard sampler for under a grand? Well, I'm going to stick my neck out on this one and say yes.
The Roland S-10 has limitations: obvious ones like the short (four octave) keyboard, and not so obvious ones such as adjustments to the filter cut-off point being aurally rather inaccessible. But on balance Roland have done well with what is, after all, only their first attempt at this type of instrument.
Roland's reputation is based largely on producing good quality, reliable instruments which sell at reasonable prices. The word reliable is the key word here. With the notable exception of the Akai S-900 sampler, it seems that all other models are proving less than stable at present. Many, I'm sure, have thus been waiting for one of the four (and invariably reliable) main Japanese companies to get into sampling mode before buying. Korg's DSS-1 is considerably more expensive, Casio's SK-1 and Yamaha's VSS-1 are highly unlikely to pose a threat at this level, and so it's fair to assume that Roland will have a pretty clear run for the time being.
As you probably know, Roland have had two sampling keyboards in the pipeline; the S-10, and the S-50 which looks to fall into a sort of Emax, Prophet 2000, Akai S-900 category. Good marketing therefore to first launch the version which is kind of in a field of one.
So, priced in the vacant sub-£1000 slot, the S-10 is a complete 8-voice polyphonic instrument with an integral 49 note velocity-sensitive keyboard, and built-in 2.8 inch Quick Disk drive (as on the Akai S612). Roland have opted for moody black as the instrument's sole colour, and have kept the controls small and scarce. However, I was pleased to note that they didn't opt solely for the 'ten digit keypad and screen and get on with it' approach that some keyboards delight in nowadays. I do take comfort in seeing the odd extra button on a control panel, even if they're only good for swatting in desperation when you get lost.
The S-10 has a relatively stingy maximum sample time of 4.4 seconds at a 30kHz sampling rate (extendable to double the time at half the bandwidth) but nonetheless is quite capable of being used for powerfully authentic piano sounds and the like, and is not, as I originally feared, simply best suited for nicking Tony Thompson's snare sound off CD!
The S-10's immediately available system for storing and recalling sounds is to the point and simple. Sounds are stored in four 32K banks (ABCD) each of which can hold a 1.1 second sample. Courtesy of dedicated panel switches, these banks can be linked in a variety of combinations (A with B, all four together etc). So, at one end of the spectrum you can have one multi-sampled sound which is truly playable across the entire keyboard (ideal for a piano), and at the other four separate samples which can be played in user-defined keyboard areas (bass drum at the bottom, snare in the middle, effects at the top, etc). You can assign either one or three key-split points anywhere across the four octaves.
If the system still seems fiddly at first (a multi-sampled piano requires the independent loading of both sides of two Quick Disks), it is worth remembering that it is flexible, and pretty quick, since each disk only takes a matter of a few seconds to load unlike, say, Akai's S-900 which clonks away for a full 40 seconds on a full disk.
Before we move on to user-sampling, some words about what Roland have to offer the casual/idle/nervous user who just wants to be able to play and manipulate a bunch of previously sampled sounds.
Along with the instrument you will get 6 pre-recorded disks. One pair of disks features a nicely gated bass drum and snare plus toms and hi-hat; another features a twangy bass guitar along with the ubiquitous Orchestra Hit, a trumpet, and some percussive effects; and the third, some eerie male and female voices plus some rather tinny-sounding strings.
On loading a pair of disks the S-10 will automatically position the sounds across the keyboard as previously stored, though you can re-position them if necessary. In other words, should the eerie male and female voices take your fancy and you'd like to have them playable over the entire keyboard, simply press A/B and there they'll be. You'll notice though that the male voices turn distinctly drunken (typical!) as they plumb lower than originally sampled, in much the same way as the females become more hysterical (and younger!) as they hurtle into the stratosphere. This, of course, is 'muchkinization' at work - an inherent problem on instruments that do not allow extensive multi-sampling.
In addition to these six disks, Roland will be producing their own sample library which will be made available to main Roland dealers from whom they can be purchased at, or near, the asking price of the disks themselves (around £2 a throw). So far I've heard two pianos - one classical, one hard rock 'n' roll, a harmonica - pretty good actually, plus brass and strings.
Although the S-10's disk loading time is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, the very fact that you only have access to a maximum of four sounds at any one time must make one question the validity of the instrument in live performance (an area of keyboard life in which all samplers are, to an extent, suspect which is why disk-based samplers are unlikely to really threaten the popularity of genuine synthesizers on stage). But this is by the by.
Although Roland have made user-sampling fairly painless to achieve on the S-10, there is inevitably a certain amount of command and procedure learning to be done, both before and after a raw sample can be taken. So what did I sample? Well, me going 'Aaaah' (God is that the true timbre of my voice?), me playing acoustic guitar, the dog, various snatches off CD - you know, the usual stuff. And, in fact, I even felt brave enough to demonstrate the wretched thing on radio the other day - without too much embarrassment. Aside from the fact that, at first, it took me ages to figure out why nothing was happening (I had the Record Level slider on zero - well it is placed somewhat unobtrusively amongst the left-hand performance controls), the basic procedure for sampling a sound is straightforward.
You choose a bank (ABC or D), you select a starting pitch point, you select a sample rate (30kHz is standard though 15kHz can be used for longer, less accurate samples), you choose manual or automatic triggering, you adjust your input level, you press 'Start'. Then you wait. For quite some time, in fact, while the S-10 automatically searches (or rather 'serch'es as the backlit screen spells it) for the ideal looping point. And it's pretty damn good too; where likely, almost totally glitch-free.
Sometimes though you won't want a sound to be looped, in which case you simply press the relevant bank number and the sound becomes playable automatically.
Tailoring your sample into the exact shape you want is also pretty painless. Roland offer two batches of sound manipulators under the headings 'Wave Parameter' and 'Wave Modify'. In 'Wave Parameter' (accessed in toto by pushbutton then individually by forward and reverse keys) you will find the tools for trimming samples (beginning/end), looping them forwards/backwards/alternately, re-tuning them and fine tuning them, as well as controls governing vibrato, the pitch/modulation bender, keyboard sensitivity, key follow, and an Alpha Juno-type wodge of envelope generator parameters. There are 8 envelope generators in all - one per voice.
Adjustments are made using the alpha dial, and if it's simple trimming of sample start or end points you want then most users certainly won't get lost here. The backlit 16 digit LCD screen displays both the total number of bytes in the sample and the percentage of sample that you're keeping. Better still, of course, you can just listen to how you're doing!
The key follow is an interesting and surprisingly useful feature to have around. Normally, ie. when On, the notes on the keyboard change pitch as per usual in semitone steps. Switch key follow Off, and you'll simply hear the original pitch of each sample wherever you play. If you're using the S-10 as a neat user-sampled drum machine, you'll be surprised at how much this facility comes into its own when you start getting carried away. Drum samples also benefit enormously from the S-1O's velocity-sensitive keyboard which allows the sample sounds to be dynamically played. The sensitivity is also adjustable.
'Wave Modify' is something a little different. Under this heading comes a range of permanent editing parameters for your basic sound sample - modifications that are irrevocable, so best to store your unadulterated sound on disk beforehand as Roland wisely warn. Here you can delete certain unwanted portions of a sample, mix samples in bank A with bank B etc, and gain access to the low and high pass filters. Placing the filters in amongst this batch of controls is a little unkind I feel, since such adjustment is often a temporary requirement in practice. Here you must know what you're doing and then live with it. From experience. I'd suggest that this as a somewhat optimistic approach.
But then there are the performance parameters. These are all pretty straightforward, comprising the arpeggiator, pitch bend, velocity mixing and switching, detuning, delay, and trigger play. The arpeggiator is always a handy item. You no think? Shame on you. Quite apart from the application here of so being able to 'play' ridiculously fast sampled bass drum rolls (okay, so that's a bit dumb), there are many times when a neat piece of random arp is just the thing to get your creative juices flowing. For some reason though, the arpeggiator boosts the volume considerably, which can be a bit alarming, and it has no hold feature except when using a footpedal.
Velocity mixing, the delay, and detuning, all have one thing in common: they sentence you to immediate four note polyphony. Hmm, well occasionally that is a fair price to pay — for detuning maybe, where the same sound can be doubled at a slightly altered pitch - but I'm not sure that the flashness of velocity mixing and the, after all, only very embryonic system of delay that's on offer really justify the loss.
But I shouldn't harp on minor criticisms. And they are minor criticisms when you judge the instrument as a whole. The best thing I can say about the S-10 is that it offers good quality user-sampling without the headaches. Although it can (and obviously will) be used live, there are restrictions of memory and disk space, but in the studio speed is not a matter of split second timing. Where the S-10 is quick though, is in basic sound sampling and basic adjustment. And that, frankly, is money in the bank.
The S-10 retails for £999 inc VAT