Roland W30 Workstation
Is Roland's new W30 just another sampling workstation? Paul Ireson checks it out and finds features that allow it to excel both as a stand-alone system and as the heart of a more extensive MIDI setup.
Progress, don't you just love it? A few minutes after setting up the W30 and starting to check out its features, I glanced around at the other equipment sharing the SOS review studio, and my eye fell on a Fairlight Series II. I looked back at the W30, then at the Fairlight, and I marvelled at just how much the cost of hi-tech music gear has plummeted. A few years ago, musicians and studios were quite happy to shell out horrendous amounts of money for the Fairlight: I'm not saying that the expense wasn't justified, for the Fairlight was (and is) a very powerful music production system. But for most users it was no more than a sampler with a few seconds worth of memory and an onboard sequencer. Now, a Series II is sharing a studio with a device that performs the same basic functions but for around 1/20th of what the Fairlight originally cost. Like I say, progress.
The W30 is described as a 'music workstation', an increasingly familiar tag for keyboards these days. To justify the title, it combines an eight-part multitimbral sampler with a sequencer to produce an instrument that performs as a music production system in its own right. However, in design the W30 looks beyond this role, and has features that enable it to become the heart of an expanding MIDI setup, rather than a system that is only useful in a stand-alone application. The choice of sampling rather than synthesis affords it maximum sonic flexibility, and the sequencer is most certainly more powerful than is necessary to control purely the W30's internal sounds.
The W30 is remarkably compact, given the power that it offers - I was expecting something a little bigger for some reason. It's about the same size as any other five-octave keyboard instrument, though a little more square in profile: more of a block than a thin wedge. The most immediate points of visual interest are the 3.5" disk drive on the left of the front panel, above the pitch bender/modulation lever, and a large LCD display in the centre. This display is the key to the W30's user interface: there are 62 different screens that can be viewed on the display, which between them cover all aspects of operating the W30. Moving between screens and executing functions is carried out in a menu-driven fashion. Five 'soft' buttons along the bottom of the display perform different functions in different screens, either calling up other screens, or executing functions. Within each screen, the values of any parameters can be changed using a combination of the cursor dial and either the incremental value dial or numeric keys. This all combines to produce an outstandingly friendly user interface, and one that makes all aspects of the W30's operation very easy to follow.
The keyboard has 61 keys, with velocity and aftertouch sensitivity. A Roland-style combined pitch bender and modulation lever is located to the left of the keyboard. The rear panel incorporates a variety of sockets for communicating with the outside world in both audio and data terms: eight individual polyphonic outputs (one of which can be used as a monophonic mix output), a headphones socket, a SCSI port, a single audio input for sampling, and MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets. There are also two jack sockets for connecting optional footpedals: one switch type (for sustain, sequencer start/stop or punch in/out) and one volume/expression type.
That's the hardware side of the W30, but all this is useless without a software component: the operating system, which comes in the form of a system disk. This is not copy-protected, and Roland advise that you make and use a backup copy, and keep the original out of harm's way. Although it's not quite as convenient to have an operating system on disk as it is in ROM, it has the single great advantage that it can be easily and cheaply upgraded to add extra facilities (such as operating a SCSI port, for example).
The internal architecture of the W30 is best considered as three parts: a sampler, a controlling keyboard, and a sequencer. The sampler section seems to be based on the S330 (smaller brother of the S550), but with the major change of the addition of pre-sampled Wave data stored in two ROM Wave banks: this forms the basis for a range of 'preset' sounds that can be loaded from the system disk. The idea of the ROM Wave data is that it contains sounds that you will want to use regularly, and therefore saves you having to sample them yourself and load them from disk all the time. Why this same argument doesn't justify the use of battery-backed (as opposed to volatile) RAM on this and other samplers is anybody's guess. ROM Wave data and user samples can both be used in Tones, which are in turn grouped together to form Patches - a Patch could be a multi-sampled piano, or an entire drum setup, for example. 16 Patches can be resident in the W30's memory at any time, and to allow multitimbral operation. Patches are assigned to eight parts (A to H). Given the eight-part structure of the sampler, you might expect an 8-track sequencer; in fact the W30 sequencer has 16 tracks. In terms of its editing facilities, it also surpasses expectations and is extremely powerful for a workstation sequencer.
The elements of W30 sounds are, in ascending order of organisation: Wave Banks, Tones, Patches and Parts. There are four Wave Banks, two consisting of non-rewritable ROM data (ROM Banks A and B), and the other two consisting of RAM (User Banks A and B). The data within the Wave Banks is raw sample data: Tones are the means by which sections of this sample data are selected, looped, filtered and tuned as required. 96 Tones are available in all: 64 of these can use only ROM Wave data, and the remaining 32 can use only data from User Banks A and B. Tones are grouped into Patches by assigning one or two Tones to each note over a keyboard range that can be up to nine octaves. If two Tones are assigned to the same notes, they can be mixed (ie. overlaid) or velocity mixed, or velocity crossfaded.
On booting the W30 with the system disk, the operating system is not all that is loaded: data for the 64 ROM Tones is loaded, and data for 16 Patches which use these Tones. Although these are 'preset' sounds in the sense that they are present when you boot the system, and are based on Wave data in ROM, they are not preset in any other sense - both the ROM Tones and the Patches can be deleted and replaced (the ROM Tones by any other Tones using ROM Wave data, and Patches by any other Patches). The system disk also contains a second set of 16 Patches using a different set of 64 ROM Tones.
My impressions of these semi-preset sounds are definitely mixed: if the idea is that these are sounds which you will use time and time again, to the extent that you want them stored in ROM, then they're only about halfway there. The best Patch of the lot is the Drums/Perc Patch, which features a good selection of powerful kicks, snares and toms, as we've come to expect on any Roland product with drum sounds, plus a few Latin sounds thrown in for good measure. This was the only preset Patch that I found myself using over and over again, often adding my own drum sounds to it. Of the remaining sounds (out of the 32 on the system disk) the best are the synth strings and pad-type sounds, which make good use of the W30's filter section. Otherwise, the choice of three very similar slap bass sounds seems to typify the other selections: unremarkable and ultimately not all that useful.
When it comes to rolling your own sounds, the W30 offers 32 Tones which between them use the two User Wave Banks for sample storage. Each of the banks has a total capacity of 7.2 seconds at 30kHz sampling, and 14.4 seconds at 15kHz sampling. A slight limitation on the length and number of samples is that the sample memory must be used in 0.4 second blocks (or 0.8 second at 15kHz).
Taking a sample is a pretty straightforward business - a single mic/line input is provided, with a single gain control next to it on the rear panel. The LCD display can be used as a VU meter when sampling, to enable you to set input levels correctly. The input signal can be monitored via the headphones socket or mix output. The positioning of the gain control is one of the few pieces of bad design on the W30 - it requires that you grope around the back of the machine to alter it, when a control that is used this much should be accessible from the front panel. Actually capturing the sound you want can be achieved through manual or auto triggering - auto trigger allows you to specify a threshold level above which the input signal must rise before sampling starts. If you want to ensure that the very start of a sound with a relatively slow attack is not accidentally cut off by this triggering method, a pre-delay parameter allows you to also sample the 10, 50 or 100 milliseconds before the trigger level is reached - neat, and I found myself using this feature almost all the time.
The sound quality of the W30 is, like the S550 and S330, very good. Not quite 16-bit quality - I used an Akai S1000 for a side-by-side comparison - but nonetheless clear and well defined. Storage and processing of sample data is 12-bit, but Roland employ a little jiggery-pokery at the A-to-D and D-to-A conversion stages to improve on 12-bit audio characteristics - I refer you to S550 reviews for more details. The W30 does seem fairly sensitive to overloading, to the extent that a sample that overloaded the input only at the very start sounded distinctly rough throughout, and featured several unexpected clicks. With correctly set levels, however, such problems were totally avoided.
Looping samples is a simple matter. The search for the perfect loop point is helped by a surprisingly good LCD waveform display, and the ability to hear your loop as you alter start and end points. An auto loop function is also included which, though incapable of finding good long loops in timbrally shifting sounds, will find perfect single cycle loops every time. Forward and alternating loops can be employed, and samples played forwards or backwards.
Those who prefer not to sample their own sounds will be glad to learn that the W30 can load sounds from S330 and S550 disks, which gives the user immediate access to a very large sound library. Another means by which the user has access to a vast range of sounds is via the W30's rear panel SCSI port. With an upgrade board to support the socket, and a new operating system, the W30 will be able to use SCSI hard disks, and CD ROM players (see SOS May '89 review of Roland CD5) as alternatives to its floppy disk drive.
Such media offer the big advantage of faster access to a far greater amount of data than floppies; and as they drop in price, we will doubtless see a sharp increase in the use of SCSI drives of various types in music.
The difference between a 'synthesizer' or a 'sampler' and a 'workstation' is basically that the latter has a sequencer on board. I'm tempted to add that the difference between most workstations and the W30 is that the latter has a damn good one! It is based on the MRC and Super MRC software used in Roland's popular MC500 and MC300 hardware sequencers, and as a result songs created on those machines can be read into the W30's sequencer.
The on-board sequencer has 16 tracks plus a dedicated tempo track (which is used to record tempo and time signature changes),an internal capacity of 15,000 notes and 20 songs, and a resolution of 96ppqn. The memory used by the sequencer is independent of that used by the sampler, so filling up the W30 with samples doesn't reduce the note capacity.
Recording is track rather than pattern based, as on a tape recorder. The tape recorder feel is enhanced by the provision of transport controls: Record, Start/Stop, and two sets of Fast Forward and Rewind buttons (one steps through the song one measure at a time, the other leaps straight to the start or end). There's no need to pre-define a section to be recorded - if a new 'take' extends beyond the bounds of what has previously been recorded on other tracks, new measures are automatically created as you go along. The default recording mode, Normal, is most akin to using a tape recorder: recording starts from the current point in a track as soon as the Start/Stop button is pressed, and any existing data on the track is overwritten by the new performance data. Recording continues until you press Start/Stop again. Other recording modes allow you to pre-define specific points for punch-in or punch-out, or both, or loop a section of the song while you record on the current track. This loop mode is unique in allowing you to overdub new data on old.
Several sets of parameters determine how and what type of data is recorded on the sequencer tracks. The Keyboard parameters determine what MIDI channel the W30's keyboard transmits on, and it is the keyboard's performance data that is recorded in the sequencer. The sequencer can also record data via its MIDI In, if you prefer to use an alternative controller such as a MIDI guitar, another keyboard, or whatever. From the pop-up window in which the keyboard parameters are set, it is also possible to transmit Program Change messages which can be recorded into the sequencer to change sounds internally or externally. The Record parameters allow the user to specify what kind of data will be recorded and what will be filtered out to save memory space, from a choice of Polyphonic and Channel Aftertouch, Pitch Bend, MIDI Controllers and System Exclusive. The sequencer can quantise data as it is recorded, and there is an option to offset all quantised notes — that is, place them 1/8, 1/4 or 1/2 note before or after the beat on which they were actually played; great for rhythmic experimentation. How each track's data is dealt with on playback is determined by the Track parameters - tracks can be individually muted, and the data sent to either or both of the W30's internal sound sections or to the MIDI Out.
The editing facilities on the W30's sequencer are most definitely those of a professional composing tool, not a musical notepad. Tracks can be merged, sections copied, measures deleted, blank measures inserted, notes or other data extracted and moved to another track, data erased, and notes quantised. Where appropriate you can also set what type of data you want to operate on, so you could choose to erase only notes in the range C1 to D2 in measure 15 of the current track. If this kind of wholesale editing still isn't precise enough for you, there's Micro Edit, which allows you to scroll through every MIDI event on a track with the value dial, and erase, change and create events until you're satisfied.
Good though the W30's sampler section is, it was the sequencer that impressed me most. With 16 tracks, comprehensive editing facilities and flexibility in recording modes, it makes the recording and fine tuning of complex music an easy matter, and is certainly more powerful than is necessary just to use the W30's internal sound facilities. This is good, because if you intend the W30 to become the heart of your creative process, it has the necessary facilities to control a growing MIDI set-up. The sequencer is also integrated with the operation of the W30 in a very simple way, but one that brings the composing and sound creation elements of using the W30 together very well - the sequencer can be operated whilst sounds are being edited; all the transport controls apart from Record are active in all but a few screens, so that as you change sound parameters you can hear their effect in the context of a song.
Songs created on the sequencer can be saved to disk, with or without the sounds that they use. W30 disks can be formatted to accommodate either sound and song or just song data. In the former case, a single set of sound data (User Wave Banks A and B, Tone and Patch parameters, plus all Part settings) can be stored along with a maximum of 7,000 notes of song data, which can be used in 64 songs. A song disk can also hold 64 songs, but shared amongst the total note capacity of 100,000 notes, Although sample data is not stored with each song, data for the Part settings is, which seems a reasonable compromise between saving disk space and keeping sound data together with the song for which it is intended. When loading a song from a sound and song disk, you can choose whether to load just the song data or the sound data as well.
All things considered, the W30 is a very well thought out realisation of the workstation concept - an instrument that offers the composer a means of realising complex compositions with as few limitations as possible. To this end, the choice of sampling over synthesis as the sonic heart of the W30 is entirely justified. As a stand-alone unit, the W30's ease of use and flexibility are outstanding, though I do have reservations about the inclusion of all the ROM Wave data. Every user will find at least some of it redundant, so why not offer more RAM in place of the ROM?
However, what is most exciting about the W30 is that its design looks beyond the stand-alone role that it performs so well: in all important respects it is an 'open-ended' machine. The operating system (on disk) can be easily upgraded if need be, the sequencer is fully professional, and the SCSI port opens up whole new worlds of sampled sound on CD ROM and hard disk. Yet again, Roland's unerring talent for giving musicians what they want and need has turned up another winner.
£1599 inc VAT.
Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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