Roland W30 Music Workstation
In an exclusive preview of Roland's forthcoming W30 workstation, Bob O'Donnell checks out Roland's idea of the facilities a MIDI workstation should offer.
WHAT CONSTITUTES A workstation? While opinions differ on the answer to this one, what is generally agreed is that it should include some sort of sound generating unit, a controller (generally a keyboard), a sequencer, drum voices and effects. All these components must be included in and be accessible from a single box, and there ought to be a fair amount of interaction between them.
Roland's W30 Music Workstation fills all these requirements with the exception of effects - there simply won't be any. It offers all the features and functions of the company's 12-bit S330 sampler, most of the features of their new Super-MRC software for the MC500 family of sequencers, and a velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive keyboard. On top of all this, it incorporates a huge backlit LCD capable of displaying graphics (including waveform displays) and a great deal of parameter information at once. Unlike the S330 and other Roland samplers, no external monitor is necessary.
The W30 functions in a similar way to a software-based sampler. Its operating system is stored on disk and all its operations are performed using the display, two alpha dials, a numeric keypad and the software definable buttons beneath the display. At last count, the W30 had over 60 different screens of information, divided between its three modes of operation: Performance, Sequence and Sound. Performance mode includes some keyboard controller functions, Sequence Mode offers a fully-specified 16-track sequencer - complete with extensive editing options - and Sound Mode includes all the sample editing and digital processing functions found on other Roland samplers.
In terms of sound generating circuitry, Roland's approach to the workstation is that it should be based around a sampler because "it's easier to make a sampler sound like a synthesiser than the other way around". While this seems to be a reasonable way to look at it, there could be a few problems with this philosophy - at least with its implementation on the W30. Like the S330, the W30 includes 512K of RAM which, at the maximum 30kHz sampling rate, gives around 14.4 seconds of 12-bit sample time. The W30 also comes with 1Meg of unalterable samples stored in ROM. These ROM samples, which include drum sounds, several different bass samples and other general-purpose sounds, are accessible at the same time as the samples stored in RAM. However, the potential problem I see with this scheme is the same one that any sampler with limited memory faces - the ability to play numerous sounds at once.
The W30 has a generous 16 notes of polyphony, capable of being divided between eight multitimbral parts (and eight individual polyphonic outputs). However, if you have a sample disk that uses up most (or all) of the 16 available preset locations - the total limit for ROM and RAM sounds - then you may not be able to hear all musical parts at once. A limit of 16 presets is small and may compel you to commit certain musical parts to tape. Unfortunately, the W30's otherwise very impressive sequencer does not have a sync-to-tape function, so you'll have to resort to an external sync box, like JL Cooper's PPS1, for example. If you use the internal sounds and add only a few samples of your own, then of course you won't run into this problem; but it's a limitation you ought to be aware of all the same.
In terms of compatibility with existing instruments, Roland get very high marks. The W30 reads and plays back S50, S550 and S330 sample disks, as well as sequence disks created with the SYS503 and 553 sequencing programs for the S50 and S550, and sequences created with MRC or Super-MRC software for the MC500 family of hardware sequencers. As a result, there will already be a huge base of sounds for the W30 when it is released and owners of current Roland gear will be able to make a transition easily to the W30 without losing any of their work. The W30 also has an optional SCSI port for connecting to the company's HD8O 8OMeg hard drive as well as the new CD5 CD-ROM player. With either of these options in tow, you'll have almost instant access to hundreds of sound banks.
At present I'm not convinced that the W30 has everything I personally would want to see in a "Workstation", but it certainly does appear to be a great combination keyboard sampler and sequencer.
I think Roland might have put themselves in a bit of a spot by giving the W30 the fashionable workstation tag, but even if it turns out to be less than the perfect workstation, this doesn't mean it won't be a great instrument.
Prices £1599; £135 extra for SCSI option
Review by Bob O'Donnell
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