Roland S-50 Sampling Keyboard
Roland's top of the range sampler is the last of those announced at Frankfurt to reach the marketplace, but its 16-note polyphony, 512K memory, and built-in visual editing software could well give it an edge over existing £2000 samplers. Paul Wiffen takes up the case.
Roland's keyboard samplers are the last of those announced at Frankfurt to hit the market. Paul Wiffen discovers that in the case of the S-50, the waiting has not been in vain.
Back in the days of the synthesizer (remember them?), keyboards in the semi-pro/pro range all seemed to have different numbers of voices - Jupiter 4, Prophet 5, Poly Six, OB-8, and so on. But in the current crop of samplers there seems to bean alarming uniformity in the polyphony: 8 voice channels seems to be the order of the day, especially around the £2000 mark, which begin with Sequential's Prophet 2000, and continued with the Akai S900 and, most recently, the Korg DSS-1. Until the Roland S-50 came along that is!
The S-50 is the first sampler you can MIDI to a Yamaha DX7 and get a note-for-note match in polyphony, for the S-50 is the only sampler on the market (unless you can afford to include expanded Fairlight Series III and Synclavier systems) which can sound 16 different notes at the same time. Now normally I hold polyphony on synths to be of little account, indeed, I'm sure that the general drop in the quality of synth sounds we hear these days wouldn't have happened if we were still working with monophonic synths - you can't afford thin, weedy sounds if you can't hide them in 6,8 (or more) note chords. But the case for samplers is different. Many people consider one of the best (if not the best) use of a sampler to be the recreation of a piano sound (something the synth has never really achieved). And the piano is one of those instruments which cries out for maximum polyphony.
Similarly, most people prefer a weighted keyboard when playing a piano sound. Here again the Roland S-50 scores, with a 61-note keyboard of perfectly judged weight. It is not too heavy to play fast solo lines on (as several of the 'master keyboards' on the market are), but at the same time it has a solid enough action to make piano-type sounds feel right. This is an excellent compromise on a keyboard which necessarily has to be adaptable to playing a multitude of different sounds.
In view of the suitability of the polyphony and the keyboard then, it is no great surprise when you break open the box of 5 disks which come with the S-50 to find the first disk is labelled 'Piano'. But it is a nice surprise when you load it up to find an almost perfect piano sound - and on an affordable sampler to boot! The Sequential, Akai and Korg samplers have all suffered from this lack of a good factory piano sample and I am sure the inclusion of this disk in the price of the S-50 will be a major factor in the success of the instrument. Of course, when you think of the excellent sound quality of the Roland Digital Pianos (RD1000 and MKS-20), then it seems only natural that the Roland samplers will come well-equipped in the piano department.
The other 3.5-inch disks which come with the S-50 are not to be sneezed at either. The large 512K memory of the S-50 (entirely used to hold that great piano sound) allows Trumpet, Trombone, Picked and Slapped Bass, Marimba, Vibes and Glock, all to be stored on and loaded from one disk. On another, full Strings (Double Basses, Cellos, Violas and Violins) and Choir (Basses, Baritones, Tenors, Alto, Mezzo Sopranos and Sopranos) are available separately or together on different patches. Another disk offers 18 different Drum and Percussion sounds arranged in different kits which combine both acoustic and electronic sounds. And finally, for those who like the sampling cliches, the fifth disk features Orchestra Hit (...yawn), Smashing Glass, Gunshot and DoorSlam. Overall, the disks which come with the S-50 are of much higher quality than those given away with other manufacturers' machines. But what of the S-50 itself? What is it like to use, and how good is the sample fidelity?
This last feature is invaluable in sample editing, particularly when looping sounds, and rivals most Macintosh software add-ons for other samplers which can cost up to £2,500 for computer and software alone in addition to the price of your machine. All you need to spend with the S-50 is an extra £100 or so for a black and white monitor or £400 for colour (which not even mega-systems like the Fairlight and Synclavier can boast) and you have an invaluable editing facility.
"The S-50 is the first sampler you can MIDI to a Yamaha DX7 and get a note-for-note match in polyphony, for the S-50 is the only sampler on the market... which can sound 16 different notes at the same time."
As far as sample fidelity is concerned, readers of my previous series of articles on sampling [SOS Dec 85, Jan/Feb/March 86] will know that this relies on a combination of two factors: sample resolution and sample rate. The resolution of the S-50 is 12-bit linear, which is pretty much standard for samplers in this price bracket. There are very few audio signals which a 12-bit system cannot cope with and to improve on this you need to spend many times this sort of money to buy a 16-bit system.
The S-50 has two sample rates available: 30kHz and 15kHz. These result in audio bandwidths of around 13kHz and 7.5kHz and maximum sample times of 14.4 seconds and 28.8 seconds respectively. If you inspect the factory disks from most sampler manufacturers, you will find that even if their machines are capable of sampling at higher rates, most of their factory sounds are made at around 30kHz sample rate. This is because a 13kHz bandwidth is good enough to produce a pretty faithful sample of most instruments without wasting too much memory. When I sampled music from a CD into the S-50, it was a touch lower quality than either the Prophet 2000 or Akai S900 (at 42kHz sample rate), but this is because of the extra demands of such a full signal. When sampling the sounds of single instruments the Roland machine gave very good results.
In fact, the operating system for the S-50 is contained on the sound disks themselves, so changing the software is as simple as putting in a new disk and copying the system onto your old disks (there is already a command to let you do this on the S-50). In other words, omissions from this current operating system - such as the lack of a sample rate around 42kHz for those occasional awkward sounds that need more bandwidth - may well be added in software updates. But the sounds that really need such a sample rate are few and far between. The only sample from all those on the factory disks which suffers for the lack of it is the Crash Cymbal.
Loading the operating system takes just a couple of seconds from when you put a disk in, and then the S-50 automatically begins to load the sounds on that disk. This takes 35 seconds or so for a full disk (slightly above par for 512K of 12-bit data), but unfortunately this is not lessened for disks which are not full. This holds true when loading a blank formatted disk (useful for clearing the memory if you want to start sampling from scratch) which still takes 35 seconds to load nothing into all the on-board memory!
Once the data is loaded, you can switch between the 8 available patches using the buttons below the display, as the S-50 is then automatically in Play mode.
"...it is no great surprise when you break open the box of 5 disks... to find the first disk is labelled 'Piano'. But it is a nice surprise when you load it up to find an almost perfect piano sound..."
In the other modes, these buttons select the various operations possible. These can only be viewed one at a time on the machine itself (par for the course on all keyboard samplers) but via the monitor you can see all the options available on a page, plus all the parameters and values relating to the current option. This means that you know exactly what is going on all the time. In addition, the colour monitor highlights the currently selected operation and parameter in different colours, so a quick glance tells you what value will be changed if you move the S-50's rotary alpha-dial or what operation will be selected if you hit 'Enter'.
The keyboard earns its title of 'sampling' when in Record mode, which allows you to view the incoming signal's level (or whole waveform) if you have the monitor (see Screen 1), set your sampling parameters - rate, time, trigger threshold etc, and then begin sampling manually or automatically. However, before you begin sampling, unless you want to be stuck with the sample times and rates of whatever was loaded in when you first booted up, you have to go to 'Tone Delete' on the third page of Edit mode to clear the memory. Unfortunately, with the present software, this can only be done by deleting each of the 16 samples individually, and as this takes over 2 seconds each at the moment, you may find it slightly faster to load a blank disk. What is really needed is a 'Delete All' command (like the 'Kill Memory' command on the Emulator II) or perhaps the ability to load just the operating system off disk (without loading a whole set of sounds) when you turn the machine on. Let's hope the first software update gives you one of these options.
Setting of record level and trigger threshold is simple thanks to excellent VU-type readouts both in the S-50's display and on the monitor. And if your sample isn't successful for any reason then there is a convenient 'Re-sample' option which allows you to go straight back and re-sample your sound without needing to set up all the parameters again.
The memory of the S-50 is organised in two blocks of 256K (like the expanded Prophet 2000) so you cannot make a continuous sample using the full memory of the machine (the Akai S900 is a much better bet if you want to sample long sections of music), but this still gives you 7.2 seconds (at 30kHz sample rate) in each memory half. This can then be divided any way you like between the 8 sample locations ('Tones' as Roland call them) available for each half. This allows you to spread up to 16 multi-samples across the keyboard (which is how Roland have achieved their excellent piano disk) or, using the two banks layered, to position two samples on the same key. This is useful, as we shall see in awhile, for velocity switches and crossfades as well as for layering two sounds.
Edit mode has three levels (or pages). The highest of these allows you to digitally manipulate individual samples - copying, mixing, or filtering them. The filter is interesting, as it is the first time to my knowledge that digital filtering has been available on a keyboard at this price. Filtering is actually done in software and, when you have set your filter type (high or low pass), cut-off and resonance, the sample data is actually processed to simulate the changed frequency response and this filtered sample is loaded into another location for comparison. Unfortunately, this means it can't be done in real-time, ruling out any envelope or velocity control of filter cut-off, but this method saves on the cost of analogue filters (which is probably why a 16-voice sampler hasn't been produced before now). I was disappointed to see there was no splicing facility available in this editing section, but I expect this to come with a future software update.
"I was disappointed to see that there was no MIDI Mode 4 implementation on the S-50, which allows different samples to be sequenced on different MIDI channels. Maybe this will be the subject of a future software update."
The next level of Edit mode on the S-50 allows you to change the parameters of each sample, including: truncating the start and end, looping, tuning, vibrato, envelope and dynamics. Of particular note here is the 'Loop Set' function which, in conjunction with the TV monitor (see Screen 2), provides a 'loop window' where you can visually match up the start and end points of the sample loop. This feature is worth the cost of the monitor alone in terms of time and aggravation saved! Another great feature here is 'Loop Tune', which allows any slight difference in the pitching of the loop to be adjusted for. Many's the time in the past where I've found a glitch-free loop which would be wonderful if only it wasn't ten cents higher than the starting pitch of the sample. With 'Loop Tune' this is no longer a problem.
The S-50 also allows you to determine the way that dynamics affect the sample's envelope (an 8 rate, 8 level type which makes that on the DX7 look inflexible). There are even 6 different level curves which vary between linear and exponential to change the way your playing affects the volume of the sample.
The lowest level (page) of Edit mode covers patch creation, and allows you to position your samples on the keyboard, change their range, level and tuning. Again, the monitor helps you with this by giving you a map of the whole keyboard on-screen and showing you exactly where samples are placed (see Screen 3). You can then decide on the Keyboard mode you want to use. There are four different modes - two 16-voice (normal and velocity switch) and two 8-voice modes (velocity crossfade and velocity mix). This last mode can be used to layer two different sounds together by turning the velocity effect off, whilst the others (except for normal which assigns one voice per key) are used to move between 'soft' and 'hard' samples either suddenly (velocity switch) or smoothly (velocity crossfade), depending on how hard the key is struck.
The other touch-sensitive parameter which the Roland S-50 sampler can generate - aftertouch (or pressure sensitivity as it is often called) - is assigned in the Function mode, and this can be set to control either volume or modulation (vibrato). Other functions available in this mode are Master Tune, Controller/Bend Range and Trigger Play. The latter allows you to specify up to 8 keys which will be triggered when an audio signal arrives at the sample input, or a footswitch is pressed. This is excellent for replacing drum sounds off tape or bringing in extra effects while you are playing.
The remaining modes are Aux, MIDI, and Disk. Aux mode doesn't have any operations yet but presumably we can expect goodies to be added in future software updates. Hopefully this will soon include assignment of the four individual audio outputs the S-50 features, which for the time being cannot be assigned. MIDI mode allows the various MIDI commands to be enabled/disabled, and also the assignment of the eight Patch numbers to any of the 128 MIDI Program Change commands (different for send and receive if required). I was disappointed to see that there was no MIDI Mode 4 implementation on the S-50, which allows different samples to be sequenced on different MIDI channels. Maybe this too will be the subject of a future software update.
"By the inclusion of the monitor software Roland has driven the price of user-friendly programming right down, while managing to incorporate features like 16-voice polyphony and the Loop Set display which are only available elsewhere for at least double the price."
Finally, Disk mode permits the saving and loading of System, MIDI data, Function assignments and everything, plus formatting and backup routines. Most importantly, single samples can be loaded individually so you can make up composite disks with a mixture of different sounds on them, without the need for re-sampling.
Overall, the Roland S-50 has a lot going for it. By the inclusion of the monitor software Roland has driven the price of user-friendly programming right down, while managing to incorporate features like 16-voice polyphony and the Loop Set display which are only available elsewhere for at least double the price.
The high quality of the factory sounds and ability to update the operating system software bode well for Roland's commitment to support this machine, and most of the omissions noted in this review will probably be added in the first few software updates. In fact, the only hardware limitation seems to be a lack of envelope or velocity control of filtering, which will probably only be missed by a boring old fart like me:
99% of sampling enthusiasts never seem to bother with filtering anyway!
The velocity and pressure sensitivity make for a supremely expressive instrument and this - coupled with the extended polyphony, generous 512K memory, visual display capacity and future expandability of the S-50-seem set to make it stand out in the current plethora of samplers in this price range.
The S-50 has a MRP of £2175 inc VAT.