U got the Look
Roland's U-110 is proving to be one of the most popular expanders this year. Darrin Williamson finds out why
Sampling has come down considerably over the last year but is still out of the reach of most people - has Roland the solution?
In a way, I suppose, we're to blame. Magazines like Micro Music, carrying features on how sampling will change your life. Manufacturers will also tell you how owning a sampler will mean never buying another sound source ever again.
So you spend £2,000 on a decent sampler, discover that looping that stonking preset off your friend's rack unit isn't as easy as it looks and hey presto, the answer to your prayers has been relegated to piano and drum. Hardly pushing back the barriers of sonic delight.
So what many people need is not a fully-fledged sampler but merely a sample player with a healthy batch of presets. Roland spotted this but, of course, being the clever guys they are, went one better and made it a multi-timbral, MIDI-equipped sound module for half the price of a sampler with a similar specification.
The U-110 is a 1U high rack unit finished in black brushed steel. The front panel is equipped with a headphone socket, a master volume control, backlit display, six multifunction buttons labelled PART/JUMP, EDIT/EXIT, Cursor < or > and INC, DEC/ENTER, four PCM card slots, MIDI message LED and of course your on/off switch.
On the rear panel are the MIDI IN, OUT and THRU ports, six individual audio outputs plus two stereo mix outputs for those without such complex mixing facilities.
Before we look at how flexible the operational modes are we'll take a look at just how good the sounds are, after all if the sounds aren't up to much on an expander it doesn't matter how flexible the unit is.
Fortunately the sounds are excellent (otherwise this would be a short review). No less than 99 tones in total covering a wide range of basic instruments. Having said that, it's worth pointing out that your 99 sounds include long and short release versions of the same sound along with detuned and pitch shifted variations. So really there's only a quarter of the sounds mentioned although there are 37 sounds in the drum patch, so don't feel too hard done by.
The sounds range from excellent acoustic piano sounds, some vibraphone, marimba and bell sounds (not really my cup of tea but accurate nonetheless), acoustic and electric guitars (good for rhythm work), a broad range of bass sounds, rich choir and string ensembles, electric organs, brass, flutes, saxes, shakuhachi (always popular at gigs that one!) and of course your drum-set which, as you can see from the chart contains a goodly selection of drums including six different snares.
The only gripe here is that the drums are mapped across a five octave keyboard. Nothing wrong with that except the first drum sound appears on note B2 whereas most keyboards I know of begin on C2. So to access this sound (bass drum #1) you must either have a six or seven octaves, or, with the aid of your sequencer, use C2 and transpose that note down one semitone after recording.
The unit itself will play six different timbres on separate MIDI channels. The first two of these can have the additional advantage of digital chorus or vibrato although to achieve this as a stereo effect both parts would need to be the same tone. Each of the parts can be assigned to one of the six individual outputs on the back of the unit.
This is particularly useful if you have a mixing desk and wish to process each sound separately (adding effects, equalisation, etc). However if you wish to keep things down to two channels of sound you can assign where in the stereo mix each part will appear, and all without having to delve into the domain of System Exclusive.
If you do like tweaking parameters in hexadecimal you can organise bulk data dumps and individual patches from the front panel or remotely from a generic patch librarian. As is customary with products such as this, all MIDI exclusive messages are listed and described in some detail at the back of the manual.
Here's where the little slots on the front panel come into play. If you get bored with the internal sounds you can expand your range with ROM cards. So far seven are in the range although none were available for test. The cards that appear to be most useful are the latin/FX percussion and the electric guitar.
The U-110 fills a tremendous gap in the market. It will no doubt sell in the same quantities that the trusty MT-32 did back in '87.
In short if any of you would like to send me an early Christmas present...
Review by Darrin Williamson
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