Digital Sampling Keyboard
The competition is tough for Roland's upmarket sampler. Paul Wiffen discovers if 16 voices, a fine keyboard, and direct monitor connection are enough to put it at the top of the tree.
It's the only 16-voice sampler in its price bracket, it has a fine set of library disks, and a unique monitor connection for easy on-screen editing. How will Roland's upmarket sampler fare in a marketplace that's already overcrowded?
AS THE MARKET for sampling keyboards is split more and more ways, manufacturers are turning to various additional features to give their instruments an advantage over the competition. Additional memory, separate outputs, extended synthesiser sections - we've seen all these introduced on sampling keyboards in the last few months.
Like its recently announced competitors, the Roland S50 has its own fair share of notable features. To begin with, it's the only 16-voice sampler on the market (unless you include the expanded version of the Synclavier and the Fairlight Series III), yet costs roughly the same as the majority of available eight-voice machines. This fact alone may be enough for some people to make the S50 their choice of sampling keyboard, especially if they're used to playing a DX7.
The 16 voices can be used to mix two separate sounds per note, and still leave you with a generous eight-voice polyphony. This can be implemented in two different ways: either as Velocity Crossfade (allowing the authentic imitation of the dynamics within a sampled instrument) or Mix, where independent sounds can be combined (strings and brass, to quote a popular example).
Another feature which could decide keyboard players in favour of the S50 is its weighted velocity- and pressure-sensitive keyboard, which is a real joy to play. These days you can play any MIDI module from a wooden, weighted six- or seven-octave keyboard, but for the musician not on an unlimited budget (and most of us who haven't quite made megastar status yet), a good keyboard on the instrument itself represents additional value for hard-earned sterling.
But the major innovation on the S50 which holds enormous potential is the ability to visualise programming procedures simply by plugging the keyboard directly into a computer monitor. This can be a colour monitor if you have the eight-pin DIN RGB connecting cable. I didn't, so I simply plugged in a black and white (well, black and green) monitor.
Now, while a colour monitor would have made a few parameters which are colour-coded a bit clearer, there is sufficient contrast in the different shades of grey (or green in my case) to be able to distinguish what's going on.
Previously, a display like this was only possible on expensive systems like Fairlight, PPG, and Synclavier, or via the addition of a computer, MIDI interface and appropriate software, with all the hooking-up and time-delay problems that can cause. On the S50, you just connect the monitor directly to the sampler, and all programming can then be carried out on the S50 (instead of a QWERTY keyboard or mouse which may still be unfamiliar to musicians), but with the increased user-friendliness of a monitor display.
Many of the programming operations can be performed perfectly well on the S50 in isolation, though, using the Alpha dial to scroll through parameters, swiftly changing values and settings (apart from the Microscope feature on the MC500, this is the best use Roland have made of their Alpha dial). But there are some areas of sampling (eg. the digital manipulation of samples, as in looping and truncating) which are made a great deal easier by visual editing.
ON THE S50, this is divided into various areas called Modes, of which there are seven: Play (allowing different presets to be selected), Rec (sampling), Edit (for making samples into presets), Function (tuning, assignment, and so on), MIDI, Disk (loading and saving) and Aux (which in software version 1.00 has yet to be implemented). These are each selected by dedicated buttons, while individual parameters are accessed by the Page and Cursor buttons.
Since the S50's operating system is stored on the same disks as the sounds, you can't access any of these functions until you insert a disk into the drive, though a disk will load automatically if the S50 is switched on with it in the drive. Otherwise the display (and the monitor if connected) will prompt you to "Please Insert System Disk". All disks formatted for the S50 are in fact system disks, so you can use any of the five disks supplied with the machine.
The display and monitor immediately tell you which version of the system you are loading (only 1.00 is available at the moment), after which the S50 begins to load the sounds from disk automatically. Now, while this is fine for people who have no experience of disk-based instruments, it's a nuisance if you want to begin sampling immediately, as you're loading sound data which you'll only have to erase (a lengthy process) afterwards.
As the data is loaded the S50 counts down (in half-seconds) from 70 to zero, at which point it is ready to play. Load time is between 30 and 40 seconds, which is comparable with other 512K machines.
It has to be said that the first disk I loaded into the S50 was the best piano disk I've yet heard, and despite the fact that the machine doesn't implement positional crossfading, the changes in multisamples as you move across the keyboard seem conspicuous by their absence. And thanks to the S50's Velocity Crossfade function, the response to touch has been made very expressive as well. Knowing how many musicians are looking to samplers to provide a good piano sound first and foremost, this disk, in conjunction with the authentic feel of the keyboard, should sell a few S50s on its own.
"Many programming operations can be performed on the S50 itself, but digital manipulation of samples is made a lot easier by visual editing on a monitor."
The strings/choir disk is fine, and the excellent brass/bass/tuned percussion sounds make maximum use of that disk's memory. The wide variety of acoustic, electronic and gated drums are arranged in various useful combinations (this disk is marred only by the crash cymbal, which has been starved of memory and bandwidth). And for those who like the sampling clichés of orch-hit, gunshot and smashing glass, the Effects disk will probably be welcome.
But let's get back to what the S50 can actually do - all this concentration on factory disks is very unhealthy.
For the spec hunters, the S50 uses 12-bit sample resolution and can sample at two rates - 30kHz and 15kHz (though no great loss, the originally announced 7.5kHz sample rate seems to have been dropped). This allows maximum sample times of 14.4 seconds and 28.8 seconds respectively.
In practice, the results I obtained with the 30kHz rate proved to be acceptable in 95% of cases, and I'd like to think that you'd rarely have cause to complain about the S50's fidelity (the brightness of the factory disks attests to this). And the generous 14.4 seconds of sample time at this rate, if used properly, is more than enough to capture something of the range and character of any instrument.
The sampling process itself is quite straightforward once you've cleared enough memory to allow the flexibility of assignment to show through (you can simply "resample" any of the sounds loaded off disk, but you're then stuck with the sample lengths used on those sounds).
But to clear the memory using Tone Delete is rather time-consuming: a faster way to free memory is to load a blank formatted disk (which you will need to save good results to anyway), though the S50 still spends 35 seconds filling the sample memory with nothing.
Once the memory is clear, going into Rec mode allows you to set the bank (A or B) and the tone number (1 to 8 in each bank) where you plan to put your sample. Then, pressing Enter prepares the S50 to receive a sample (erasing the sound in that particular tone number if you haven't cleared memory).
You can now set your sample rate, sample length (up to the full 7.2 seconds in each of the two banks at 30kHz), and threshold. The display on the S50 has a neat way of showing the level of the incoming signal, the upper line giving an LCD-type indication with the threshold and distortion level markers below it. On the monitor the extra space available is used to enlarge the display, but it's basically the same left- to-right representation. An alternative display, called W.Scope, is available on the monitor and shows the waveform of the incoming signal.
The level of this signal can be altered in two ways. On the back panel, next to the sample input, is a pot which allows you to vary between the extremes of Line and Mic levels. Then just above the standard Roland bender/modulation switch is a slider marked Rec Level, for finer adjustments once you've got your basic input level right. And if you don't get a perfect result first time, there's a Resample option to allow an immediate retry.
The S50 can hold 16 different multi-samples, eight in each bank, and this allows the two banks to be paired against each other for the three keyboard modes which use two timbres per note.
By sampling one bank with gentle notes and the other with harder playing, you can use your playing technique to velocity switch and crossfade between them when the time is right. Or you can sample completely different instruments into each bank and use them separately in some presets, and then double up on other presets to double up or crossfade between them in Velocity Mix mode.
"By sampling one bank with gentle notes and the other with harder playing, can use your playing technique to switch and crossfade between them."
Velocity Mix mode is worth looking at a bit more closely, as a level Curve parameter allows you to select different response curves. Setting this parameter to O for both would give a straight mix, and all sorts of different responses can be set to suit your playing and the particular application best.
THE EDIT MODE has three separate pages, and each of these represents a different level of editing. We'll start from the back, seeing as that's the way Roland have approached things in the S50 manual.
The third page allows digital editing of individual sample waveforms. Its first two functions are fairly standard: Tone Delete and Tone Copy (though the latter allows you to reverse samples - a slightly unusual way of doing it).
But two more exciting functions come next: Wave Mix and Digital Filter. The first of these allows you to mix two samples together to a third tone number (so you can keep both original samples as well as the resulting waveform), and you can set proportionate levels for both waveforms being mixed.
Digital filtering allows you to treat any sample with a highpass or lowpass filter and, as with the last digital process, the result is saved to a separate tone location so you can compare results. The lowpass filter is particularly good for pinpointing unwanted noise in the signal (whether from quantisation, aliasing or clock) and suppressing it.
Now don't go thinking that aliasing, quantisation or clock noise is any worse on the S50 than other 12-bit samplers; you're just getting an extra weapon to help reduce their effects. What's more, the resonance on the digital filter helps accentuate higher frequencies which may have become attenuated in the sample.
There are a few other digital functions I'd like to see implemented soon, though, such as splicing (with a time parameter) and individual sample value editing, as these are especially useful when you can actually see your samples on screen. But it's possible that such features will be added in future software updates; the four free parameters on this third page certainly hint at more to come.
The second page of Edit Mode covers the parameters affecting each sample. Although you're able to truncate a sample immediately after exiting Rec mode, if you want to do so later, Edit mode allows both the start and end to be truncated. The waveform is not displayed on the monitor here, but the manual does point out a means of doing this via a loop set (which gives you a loop window very similar to that recently implemented on Digidesign's Sound Designer).
The loop window is a marvellous way of finding the best loop points, as it puts the waveform section at the end of the loop hard up against that at the beginning, so you can see exactly how they match up - no need to rely on zero crossings. Not only can you look for equal values at the loop point, you can also check that the general pattern of the waveform is compatible before and after the loop point. And digital readouts give you the sample numbers of sample start, end and loop point.
But the looping facilities of the S50 don't end there. On many sampling keyboards, it's possible to end up with a loop that's fine in most respects, but which changes in pitch from the rest of the sample by an eighth of a tone or some other slight amount. Now Roland have become the first manufacturers to give you the ability to tune your loop by up to a semitone up or down, so you should arrive at acceptable loops much more quickly: you only have to find one which is harmonically appropriate, since slight pitch problems can be corrected.
If the instrument sampled was sharp or flat, then the whole pitch of the sample can be altered, and the key on which the sample is placed can be moved around the whole MIDI range (0-127 or CO to C9), ie. greater than the five octaves of the S50's keyboard. This means you can put samples outside your playing range to be triggered from an external MIDI device (a drum machine or sequencer, for example) or to give a full range when played from a six- or seven-octave master keyboard.
"Knowing how many musicians are looking to samplers to provide a good piano sound first and foremost, the Roland disk should sell a few S50s on its own."
Other parameters which you can use include Vibrato (with delay if required), and Enveloping (which is achieved by setting eight rates and eight levels - any of which can be the sustain and end portions of the envelope). This is certainly a complex envelope, but it seems a little excessive for sampling, which picks up so many of the dynamics from the sound being sampled anyway. Still, I guess you could use it to liven up samples which have been looped early on. Velocity and Keyboard Follow can also be used to control the envelope's effect.
And so to the first page of Edit mode. This deals with combining the individual samples into the multi-samples which form the presets or Patches, of which the S50 and its associated disks can hold eight.
Within the Patch you can set the key modes we looked at earlier, plus aftertouch effect and velocity switch threshold. And with the monitor again coming into its own, you can verify and change tone assignments to the keyboard. The split information and original keys are shown one by one in the S50's LCD, but the monitor allows you to view all the assignments at once, and change each with reference to a full keyboard display. Something else you can normally only do with an external computer...
The S50's MIDI mode allows various parameters like bender, LFO mod, sustain, volume and aftertouch to be enabled or disabled over MIDI, as well as selecting MIDI channel and turning Omni Mode on/off. The program.-change section is particularly flexible, as the S50 can send and receive all 128 program-change numbers and relate them to its own eight patches.
I was disappointed to see that Mono Mode hasn't yet been implemented on the S50, but maybe this is also pending a later version of the machine's software.
Disk mode is very flexible, allowing loading and saving of all data, samples only, function data only, or MIDI data only. It also includes Backup and Format commands to allow you full use of disks, as well as cataloguing functions so you don't have to load a disk to find out what's on it.
Function mode covers master tuning, the controller and aftertouch assignments, and a handy Trigger feature which enables the audio input to trigger up to eight keys on the keyboard with associated samples, and allows the S50 to replace drum sounds off tape triggers, or for the sample playback to be started by footswitches.
AS YOU WILL have gathered from the tone of this review, I like the S50 very much. There are always a few criticisms, and one of mine is the difficulty I had trying to discover instructions on how to assign the four separate outputs the S50 boasts. I eventually uncovered a diagram which showed the four individual outputs marked with an asterisk, and the key to the diagram said the asterisk meant "These are provided for other software which are coming up in the future" (don't you just love these Japanese manuals?). Strangely enough, though, the strings on the factory disk come from outputs A and B in the "Stereo" preset. No doubt the software update enabling this function will be forthcoming from Roland.
Other complaints not already aired are fairly minimal. Like the Akai S900, the S50 has only static filtering (ie. no filter enveloping), and while the monitor connection allows more accurate editing than was previously possible on a keyboard sampler without using a computer, I can't help but feel there's still a lot of unexplored potential in that area.
But it's a good sign that Roland have included a parameter which allows you to copy new system updates onto all disks - this should ensure that the S50 keeps pace with all new developments.
Generally, the two user manuals (one for operating without a monitor, one with) cover most things adequately, and Japanese typesetting errors like "Saustin" and "Smapling" lead more to welcome amusement than painful misunderstanding.
All in all, the S50's 16-voice polyphony, fine dynamic keyboard, ease and flexibility of programming (especially when coupled with the monitor), and excellent factory disks make it a sampler to be reckoned with.
And if Roland continue to support the expansion of its operating system, the S50 could become an altogether more sophisticated instrument than it is now. Look out, world.
Price £2200 including VAT
Review by Paul Wiffen
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