128 new General MIDI sounds for the price of a return flight to New York - just plug in and go with the unit that kills all known GMs. Ian Waugh goes a bundle.
New to the world of computers and music and strapped for cash? This latest module from Roland might be the best news you've had all week...
Contrary to the predictions of those who thought it would never catch on, General MIDI has been with us for a couple of years now and shows no sign of diminishing in popularity. Indeed, its development appears to have produced two main types of user - those who aren't interested in programming synths who simply want a good set of instrument-based sounds with which to work, and those who buy off-the-shelf MIDI song files and want to play them with as little fuss and bother as possible.
Of course, neither category need necessarily exclude the other - except that within the second group of users are a growing number who aren't, perhaps, musicians in the strictest sense of the word, but who have a computer and see the addition of a sound module as a logical extension to their system. Business users, too, can use GM sounds in multimedia presentations - and everyone can use them for fun. There are even PC sound cards such as the Gravis Ultrasound (see review in this issue) which include a GM mode.
Of the major musical instrument companies that have released GM modules and synthesisers over the past couple of years Roland is certainly the most prolific. Indeed, the Sound Canvas was the first GM-compatible module to be released - although it incorporated Roland's GS standard which is actually a superset of GM (for a fuller explanation see the General MIDI article in MT May '93).
There was some concern over having a double standard even before the format itself had become established and there is still a little confusion over GM requirements, although in practice users seem to experience few major problems.
The reason for mentioning all this is to put Roland's latest sound module - the SC-7 - in perspective. Unlike their other GM/GS instruments, the SC-7 is a true GM module rather than GS, and it bears the GM logo on the front to prove it. Actually, it also has a touch of GS in it, too, but we'll get to that in a moment.
The GM spec lists 128 instruments divided into 16 categories. Whereas all other Roland GM/GS instruments1 include variations on these sounds, the SC-7 only has the basic 128. However, it uses the same sound generation system as the other Sound Canvas instruments so you still have Sound Canvas quality. And some of the sounds are actually quite excellent. Incidentally, virtually all MIDI file producers now map to the GM standard. Although some do make use of the extended features of GS, for most GM/GS users the basic range of GM sounds is quite adequate.
The SC-7 is a small module, smaller than a half-rack unit, with rubber pads on its base and side so you can lie it flat or stand it on its end - beside a computer, for example. On the front it has a volume control, a headphone socket and an audio input. On the back there's another audio input with a level control, power connections (an external transformer is supplied), stereo phono outs, a serial connector to plug into a computer and a MIDI In socket.
A couple of interesting points here. The audio ins let you run a CD player, cassette deck or output from a computer (a sound card, say) through the unit. This is particularly useful for users without a mixer who may only have a hi-fi system or a pair of monitor speakers which they use with their computer.
Also, the serial connector lets you plug the SC-7 directly into a Mac or a PC (a special cable is required), so saving the cost of an additional MIDI interface. However, as the unit only has a MIDI In and no Out, it can't quite deputise as a complete MIDI interface - although data it transmits can be sent to a computer through the serial interface and you might ask, where else you would ever want to send it? Of course, if you're not using the computer interface, you lose the Out capability.
The only other restriction - and it's just a slight one - is that you can only select one input source at a time. You can't use the MIDI In socket, for example, to play the SC-7 from a keyboard and the computer input at the same time. If you want a musical instrument which plugs into a computer and which has a MIDI Out socket you'll have to look at one of Roland's more upmarket modules or something like the GMX-1 - which is cheaper but its sounds aren't quite as good - or Yamaha's TG-100 which is more expensive. You pays your money...
One of the main areas of confusion in GM is the question of polyphony. A GM instrument should have a minimum of 24 voices. Most people take that to mean that the instrument should be able to play 24 notes at the same time. Some manufacturers, including Roland, regard a voice as a tone source and allow some sounds to use two tones. If every sound in a piece uses sounds made up from two tones, the polyphony would be halved. In the case of the SC-7, its 28 voices would yield only 14-note polyphony.
In practice, however, it would be rare indeed if your selection of sounds all happened to use two voices. Even if they did, running out of notes would necessitate sections of music using more than 14 notes. Even a piece which uses all 16 MIDI channels will rarely have them all playing at once. Classical music is the obvious exception here - so just go easy with the Wagner and Berlioz arrangements!
If you do have a note-heavy piece and you think you may lose some notes, you can reserve voices for the music parts - although this requires the use of System Exclusive messages. In the manual there are no examples of how to use these in a sequencer, however; you are simply referred to the section which lists the SysEx messages. Not for the faint-hearted and certainly not for the newcomer.
But for the most part, the manual is excellent and quite comprehensive given that the SC-7 is a straightforward GM preset instrument.
As I mentioned earlier, the SC-7 has some GS features; most notably, reverb and chorus. The reverb in particular is extremely useful for beefing up the sounds and adding atmosphere. If you don't have any outboard FX units, don't underestimate the usefulness of reverb, particularly in a unit like this.
Clearly, the strength of GM lies in those 128 sounds and the SC-7 is sure to sell on price alone - particularly as part of one of the very attractive 'bundles' (see boxout) which Roland are currently offering. Personally, I'd be very happy with the SC-7 for the majority of my GM work and I'm sure you would be too - particularly if you're a newcomer to computers and music.
Price: SC-7 £273 RRP
More from: Roland (UK) Ltd (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Waugh
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