Roland U110 Sample Player
Do you like sampled instrument sounds, but hate all of that tedious disk loading, looping and general messing about? Then you'll love Roland's new U110 sample player. Paul Ireson takes it for a spin.
Do you like sampled instrument sounds, but hate all of that tedious disk loading, looping and general messing about? Then you'll love Roland's new U110 sample player. Paul Ireson takes it for a spin.
There's something inevitable about the U110 - it's the kind of unit that just had to happen, a result of the convergence of ideas in the musical instrument field. Why do I say this? Consider the following...
Point One: There is an oft repeated tale about the Prophet 5, the first programmable polysynth, which says that over 80% of the units returned for servicing by their owners had their factory presets intact. Whether or not this particular story is true, it certainly seems that many musicians just want good preset sounds from a synth, and don't have the time or inclination to do any programming of their own.
Point Two: Most sampler owners bought their machines almost exclusively to obtain good acoustic/instrumental sounds. They use library disks and, after a few disappointing attempts at sampling their own sounds, stick to them.
Bearing these two points in mind, what kind of unit do you suppose would sell in bucketloads, if only someone would manufacture it? How about an expander that contains only preset sampled sounds (stored in ROM, to cut out loading time), ready looped and multi-sampled, and set up to present the user with instantly playable samples of most of the 'standard' instrumental sounds? By an amazing coincidence, this is a fairly rough description of the Roland U110 that I have racked up before me - we might also add that it is 6-part multitimbral, and has built-in digital effects and digital drum sounds.
You can tell very little about most contemporary hi-tech products by simply looking at them, and the U110 is no exception to this rule - another masterpiece of matt black 19" rackmount modernist minimalism. A power switch, six small pushbuttons, and a volume pot are the only front panel features that you can actually fiddle with. There is also a stereo headphones socket, four PCM card slots, and an LCD display. The rear panel tells us a little more about the U110: apart from the three MIDI sockets which were expected anyway, six Multi Output sockets indicate that the U110 is 6-part multitimbral, and Left and Right Mix Outputs suggest that a stereo mix of the six parts can also be obtained.
Moving inside the unit, to where the important stuff starts, we find that the U110 is a replay-only sample module. No user sampling facilities are provided; rather, the sounds are stored as DC-PCM samples in internal ROM (Read-Only Memory). 99 preset Tones are provided - not really all that many when you aren't provided with any editing facilities for them, but the U110's sound range can be greatly expanded through the four front panel card slots. Each slot can accept any of Roland's U110 library cards, seven of which are currently available. It would be logical to assume that more cards will be made available before very long.
The Tones are not just 'simple' samples, but are usually a combination of several samples, ready looped and multi-sampled to present the user with an authentic, playable instrument sound. This, in fact, is what many sampler owners buy their machines for, to have decent piano, brass and string sounds etc. What the U110 does is to hand all of the sounds to you on a plate, cutting out all the tedious disk loading, sample looping and trimming, and so on. The price to be paid for this, of course, is a near-total lack of sound editing facilities (if they're not there, you won't be able to use them to screw up the sounds), and the restriction of your sonic horizons to those defined by Roland's U110 sound library.
Tones form the raw material for Patches - a Patch consists of between one and six Parts, each of which is a performance arrangement of a Tone. The U110 is 31-note polyphonic, and the output of each Part can be sent to any of the six Multi Outputs, or to the stereo Mix Outputs. A digital effects section offers chorus and tremolo, which certainly makes a change from the great washes of reverb that many recent products have offered. Each Patch contains its own effects and output settings, and 64 Patches can be stored in the internal memory.
The value of a unit like the U110 rests very heavily on how good the preset sampled Tones are, because you're stuck with all of them. Although each Tone can be tweaked slightly when it is used in a Patch, and its 'performance' characteristics (such as Velocity and Aftertouch response) altered within a Patch, the basic Tones remain immutable.
The 99 preset Tones cover what might generally be considered a fair range of 'standard' instrument sounds, although there are a few odd choices and omissions. In all, there are 10 acoustic pianos, 5 electric pianos, 3 vibraphones, 4 bells, 1 marimba, 5 acoustic guitars, 4 electric guitars, 12 slap basses, 2 fingered basses, 1 acoustic bass, 3 synth basses, 4 choirs, 4 strings, 13 (!) electric organs, 19 assorted sax and brass sounds, 2 flutes, 2 shakuhachis and the Drums set. [Wot! No partridge in a pear tree? - Ed.]
The odd choices consist almost entirely - and certainly most notably - of the 13 electric organs. Thirteen really does seem a little excessive to me, especially when no pipe organs are offered as alternatives. Perhaps I'm missing something here, but I'd happily swap 10 of these for almost any other sounds you care to think of. As far as omissions go, why is there no nylon guitar (all the acoustic guitar Tones are metal strung)? I mention this sound in particular because I remember the D20's nylon guitar sound as being especially good, and I presume there is some similarity between the PCM samples in the U110 and the sampled partials in Roland's 'D' series of synths/expanders. Mind you, any criticism of the U110 for sounds it has missed out must be fairly muted, as the whole point of providing four ROM card slots on the front panel is to allow the user maximum sound expansion potential, at least within the limits set by Roland's U110 sound library (see panel).
The maximum polyphony of the U110 is a very generous 31 notes - yes, 31; it's not a typesetting error - though this varies according to what sort of Tones are being played, as some use two voices. Single and Velocity Switch Tones use only one voice; Dual, Detune and Velocity Mix Tones all require two voices.
Single Tones are the simplest - just a single sampled sound on any key. Velocity Switch Tones play one of two samples on any key, depending on how hard the note is played: one sample is played at velocities of 1-100, the other at velocities of 101-127. Dual mixes two samples, often to achieve octave stacked sounds, and Detune thickens up a sound by doubling a sample with a detuned version of itself. Good though the Detune Tones usually are, the onboard effects section means that it is often possible to get away with using a single Tone processed with a little chorus to produce a similar doubling, but without using up more voices. Consequently, I feel that many of the Detune Tones could perhaps have been replaced by some more varied examples of the instruments represented here. Velocity Mix fades between two samples as Velocity values increase, rather than abruptly switching between them.
Velocity Switch is used to good effect in Tones such as 'E. Guitar 1', where low Velocity notes trigger the muted guitar sounds, and harder strikes produce an un-muted sound. Velocity Mix is used in many of the acoustic piano Tones, to accurately reproduce the timbral changes of piano notes with increasing Velocity.
Multi-sampling is used on many of the Tones to increase the realistic playback range of a sound. The acoustic pianos, for example, have great depth and bite at the bottom of the keyboard, yet retain a distinctive identity at the top. The pianos occupy a generous span of C—2 to C7; most other sounds are available from C0 to C7, while some have a more limited range of C0 to C5. Besides the multi-sampled Tones, some Tones assign several different samples across the keyboard in different ways. Most of the electric basses, for example, split the keyboard to produce a normal bass sound in the bottom section, and bass harmonics in the upper part. Neat! The Drums, which count as a single Tone incidentally, assign 37 drum sounds to different keys.
To describe all 99 Tones would be at best tedious, at worst pointless, as my idea of a good marimba sound may not be the same as yours, so I'll go through them fairly briefly. Generally, the U110 Tones sound beautifully authentic - I won't say 'acoustic' because I don't suppose electric organs, guitars and basses can really be considered acoustic instruments. This is, of course, the whole point of the U110. Where variations of sounds are provided, these tend to be single, detuned and octave stacked versions, or short and long release in the case of the string and choir sounds.
The all-important pianos are both good and varied, from concert grands to detuned honky-tonk types. However, once I began listening to the electric piano sounds, I began to notice the slightly annoying background noise present on all samples. This was most obvious as a 'tail' of hiss lasting for a moment or two after each sound faded out. The noise level remains constant as note volumes vary with Velocity, so the best signal-to-noise ratio for all Tones is obtained at maximum Velocity levels (for more on this, see Martin Russ's hints; p32 SOS December 88). On most Tones the noise is not too intrusive, though it's certainly noticeable; those on which it tends to be more of an annoyance are the electric pianos, bells, and fretless and fingered bass sounds. I also noticed that a few of these (the fretless bass in particular) included a nasty digital buzzing sound, which got worse as notes increased in Velocity.
The choir sounds were a particular favourite of mine - wonderfully realistic and atmospheric, especially with a dash of chorus.
As with the four strings Tones, all are variations of the same sound, offering single and dual, and short and long release versions. The basic string sound is a good compromise - warm and rich, authentic, but without too much attack.
The brass Tones are all very usable - the trumpets have a good 'blurt' at the start of each note, and the combination sounds are all powerful and - sorry to say it again - realistic.
The saxophone Tones are not too great when playing sustained notes, but for short, punchy notes sound fine (though the detuned sax sounds a little odd).
The U110's drum set is based on the standard Roland configuration, as found on the D10/20/110, but with several sounds omitted - there are only 37 sounds as opposed to 63 on the aforementioned units. Those that have been missed out are mainly the Latin percussion voices, leaving 4 bass drums, 6 snares, 4 sets of toms, a rimshot, handclaps, 2 crash cymbals, 3 ride and 2 China cymbals, a cup, a cowbell, and a cabasa to play with.
Tones are never heard in their 'naked' form, they are always played as part of a Patch. 64 Patches can be stored in the U110's internal memory. Each Patch is an arrangement of six Parts, assigned to the six Multi Outputs and the digital effects section in a variety of ways, and each Part can employ any of the 99 Tones. The level, velocity, and pressure sensitivity of each Part can be specified, and a certain amount of tailoring of a Tone carried out when it is placed in the context of a Part; envelope attack and decay parameters allow fairly primitive envelope shaping, for example. Each Part can be transposed up or down by up to one octave (interesting on the Drums), and the amount of detuning applied to Detune Tones varied. Also by way of pitch variation, the Pitch Bend Range can be set from 0-12 semitones, and pitch bend can also be introduced through Polyphonic Aftertouch. The depth of this Aftertouch pitch bend is variable from -2 to +1 octave, though not in semitone steps across the whole range. Between -5 and +5 semitones, the depth of pitch bend can be specified in single semitone increments, but beyond this range, the only available values are -24, -12, -7, +7 and +12 semitones.
LFO modulation can be applied independently to each Part. Both Auto and Manual modulation is possible - Auto modulation fades in after a short, programmable time delay, whilst Manual modulation is introduced with the mod wheel of a connected MIDI keyboard. Modulation Depth and Rise Time can also be specified for both types, as can the sensitivity of each Part's LFO modulation to both Channel and Polyphonic Aftertouch.
The U110 distributes sounds to its various audio outputs as follows. Each Part can be assigned to any of the six Voice Groups, and each of these Groups can be allotted to one of the six Multi Outputs (Voice Group 1 goes to Output 1, and so on), though if no jack is inserted into the output socket for any of the Voice Groups, the audio signal for that group is automatically routed to the stereo Mix Outputs. The Voice Groups each have fixed positions in the stereo picture, meaning that the stereo position of a Part can only be altered by re-assigning it to a different Voice Group.
The assignment of the U110's 31 possible voices between however many Voice Groups are in use is not dynamic. 50 output modes are available in all, providing 50 possible ways to divide up 31 voices between six Voice Groups (or rather, one way to divide 31 between 1, 9 ways of dividing 31 between 3, etc). The polyphony of Parts is therefore limited indirectly, by fixing the polyphony of each Voice Group, though the assignment of voices between Parts within a Voice Group is dynamic. Still with me? Output modes 1 - 20 do not allow the digital effects section of the U110 to be used. Output modes 21 - 50 treat Voice Groups 1 and 2 as a single Group, but allow them to be processed by the stereo effects section.
Although the obvious use of the U110's six Parts is to provide multitimbral facilities, one or two of the preset Patches in the unit highlight some more interesting variations on this theme. 'Wide Piano', for example, exploits the stereo allocation of the six Voice Groups to produce a splendid stereo piano effect, with the notes panning from left to right as you move higher up the keyboard. The effect is achieved by using the same piano Tone in each of the six Parts, with all parts assigned to the same MIDI channel but different key ranges, and each Part assigned to a different Voice Group so that the Part playing the lowest notes on the keyboard is panned hard left, the part playing the highest notes is panned hard right, and so on. Simple, but effective.
The digital effects section offers stereo chorus and tremolo effects — but no reverb. Both effects can be used simultaneously, and the speed and depth for both specified independently. The speed range on the chorus effect seems to vary from 0.5 to 2Hz, the tremolo from 2 to 8Hz. There's not really much to say about a tremolo effect, as long as it works, and this one does. The chorus is quiet in operation and a very welcome feature on the U110, recalling the (halcyon?) days when all Roland synths sported built-in chorus devices. Although not as universally useful as a reverb effect, almost everyone who buys a U110 will have at least one digital reverb anyhow, and chorus is a very useful treatment for many instrumental sounds, particularly strings.
The goal of the U110 is to present you with playable preset instruments, and on the whole it achieves this very well. Techniques such as Velocity Switching are used on several Tones to allow better imitation of the playing techniques or characteristic changes in sound of specific instruments. I've already mentioned the 'E. Guitar' Tone that allows you to play both muted and un-muted sounds. The idea of allowing you to reproduce 'real' playing styles is taken further on many of the bass Tones by splitting the keyboard and placing harmonics on the upper keys. It'll be interesting to see if this results in bass harmonics appearing on more records in future - odds on I'd say.
One aspect of the U110's operation that is less than satisfactory is the audio output routing. In order for any sound to be heard from a Part, it must first be assigned to a Voice Group, and that Voice Group must be active in the current Output Mode. It gets a little tedious flipping from page to page on the LCD display just to check that the Output you're assigning a Part to actually has sufficient polyphony to play whatever music you intend to use it for.
While we're considering polyphony, although 31-voice polyphony appears to be more than generous, the semi-fixed voice allocation used by the U110 means that it is still possible to run out of voices fairly easily. I describe the allocation as 'semi-fixed', because although the U110 dynamically allocates voices between Parts assigned to the same Voice Group, it does not dynamically allocate between Voice Groups. So, if you have each Part assigned to a different Voice Group, which is how the unit will often be used, the allocation is completely fixed. The 'Wide Piano' Patch that I enthused about earlier is one where the voice allocation causes problems. The piano Tone used in each Part requires two voices, and therefore two of the Parts are 3-note polyphonic, the other four are 2-note polyphonic. As each Part spans at least one octave on the keyboard, there are one octave areas that are only 2-note polyphonic! The result is that a lot of piano notes are cut off in mid-decay, and many chords will not sound fully.
The semi-fixed voice allocation would be a little easier to live with if it were possible to specify the maximum polyphony for each Voice Group - though this would not have helped in the case of the stereo piano Patch. I suppose there's a good reason for the voice allocation method of the U110, but I certainly can't think what it could be!
The more inquisitive amongst you may be wondering whether MIDI Program Change commands call up Patches on the U110 or Tones within Patches. They can, in fact, do either; a Program Change received on the same MIDI channel of any Part will select a new Tone for that Part. Patch changes can be executed by sending the U110 a Program Change message on its Control Channel, which is dedicated to controlling the U110's Patch changes. Whereas different Patches can use any MIDI channels for their Parts, the Control Channel is set as a global parameter for all Patches.
Still on the subject of Program Changes ('PG's), the U110 can store six internal 'maps' of how received PG messages select internal Tone numbers. So if you want to call up Tone 21 with PG 01 rather than PG 21, you can do just that. Each Patch can use any of the six maps, the map that it uses being specified as a Patch parameter. This feature could be particularly useful if you have a piece of music in which the Tone assigned to any Part is changed several times during the course of the piece, and the same Tone is used several times. If you decide you'd rather use another Tone in place of the current one, it could be quicker to change the U110's PG map than to go through the music on your sequencer changing all of the relevant PG messages. Incidentally, changing Patches will cut off notes in mid-voice, except where the same Tones are assigned to the same Voice Group in both the old and new Patches.
I have a natural resistance to any unit that provides only preset sounds. One of the things that attracted me to synthesizers and electronic music in the first place was the potential for original sound creation, and the U110 is therefore not the kind of thing that's top of my hi-tech Christmas shopping list. Nevertheless, there is a real demand amongst today's musicians for a box that will produce 'real' instrument sounds with the minimum of trouble. The U110 in its basic form offers a fair selection of such sounds on-board, and allows sound expansion with absolutely no loading time - on the whole, a good 'no mess, no fuss, just juice' unit. It's not going to alter my feelings about preset sounds, but then the U110 is aimed at a particular gap in the market - and it fits.
£599 inc VAT. Library cards £45 each.
Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!