Boss DS330 Dr. Synth
GM/GS Synth Module
The Dr. Rhythm series served up Roland's highly-regarded drum machine technology in affordable form; now the Dr. Synth squeezes Sound Canvas sounds into a compact, value-for-money box. Derek Johnson makes an appointment.
Sometimes the biggest surprises arrive in the smallest of packages. Perhaps we should have been prepared, given that Roland technology has filtered through to the Boss division in the past (Dr. Rhythm drum machines of the last couple of years have made the R8/R5 range of drum sounds accessible to a wider range of musicians) but it was still quite a surprise when the latest Boss product turned out to be a synth. This time, the Roland technology repackaged by Boss comes from the Sound Canvas range of General MIDI/GS synth modules, but the Boss DS330 Dr. Synth manages a few new tricks of its own. The result is definitely worth some attention.
If you know recent Boss drum machines, the DS330 will look very familiar — it's exactly the same size and colour as the DR660. Not only is it a multi-timbral source of sounds (whose 16 parts can choose from 156 single voices plus eight drum sets), but the Dr. Synth also has a separate Single mode where it behaves as an editable, single-voice 'monotimbral' synth expander — this mode has the virtue of basic, but potentially rewarding, editing. The Dr. Synth proves to be 28-voice (rather than 28-note) polyphonic — since several sounds are made up of two voices, actual note polyphony will be a variable figure, with 14-note polyphony in the worst case when all parts are playing 2-voice sounds.
In spite of the superficial resemblance to a drum machine, the DS330's layout is quite different from your average beatbox. Starting from the top, we find a chunky volume knob and a large, informative liquid crystal display. This LCD is a dedicated device, with the top line indicating the current patch name, and the bottom showing the bank and patch number; a number of custom 'icons' also come into use, depending on what mode you are in.
Across the middle of the DS330 are the editing controls. The top line starts with a button called Fat (not as rude as it sounds) which is used to layer a sound with the same sound shifted, to simultaneously produce either an octave below, or an octave below and a further octave below that, or to add one of two types of detuning. As this involves layering voices, the total polyphony is reduced. The Fat button also doubles as a Part Mute switch in Multi mode.
Reverb and Chorus have dedicated buttons, operational in both Single and Multi modes, while the adjacent two buttons are for selecting Split or Dual (layer) modes in Single mode, or for selecting parts in Multi mode. These are followed by the Drums button, which, in either mode, allows you to select one of the eight drum kits. Last in this row is an anonymous button which plays a Middle C on the currently selected voice or part — a useful feature which allows the user to audition sounds quickly while editing, without a keyboard.
The next row starts with a button labelled Bwd (backward), which is used to scroll backwards through parameter pages; this is a thoughtful addition, since you won't have to go all the way round again if you accidentally just miss your desired parameter. Tone Edit has the next button and, as its name implies, you press this to access the editable parameters in Single mode; in Multi mode, you can only alter level and effects settings.
In Multi mode, each part can be given a pan position, level, a different MIDI channel, a transposition, and chorus and reverb 'send' levels. If you change the MIDI channel of a part, the CH icon flashes; the DS330 defaults to a MIDI channel number corresponding to the Multitimbral part (Part 1 starts out with MIDI channel 1, and so forth). Utility reveals a collection of global functions, such as a general transpose, master tuning, various SysEx storage parameters, a selector for Multi or Single Mode, and an LCD contrast control.
Exit returns you to the main Play mode, whether Multi or Single, from wherever you happen to be. The last editing buttons are two slightly chunkier Value/Variation buttons, which are used to change parameter values in one of the edit modes, or to select a patch variation where there is one — this is a Roland GS feature, with GS being sort of a superset of General MIDI.
The remaining 18 pads, at the bottom of the Dr. Synth, are used to select from the 16 banks of sounds and the individual patches within those banks. These are labelled (in blue) Piano, Chromatic Percussion, Organ, Guitar, Bass, Orchestra, Ensemble (string sections and choirs), Brass, Reed, Pipe (ie. flute), Synth Lead, Synth Pad, Synth FX, Ethnic, Percussive and SFX, and make patch selection very simple indeed. These buttons have a second set of labels, in grey, for all the world as if they were drum pads — kick, snare, open hi-hat, and so on. When a drum kit is selected in Single mode, the pads trigger up to 18 drum and special sounds. Additionally, the pads also send out program changes (and notes, when a drum kit is selected in Single mode) over MIDI.
While the number of editable parameters in Single mode is not large, they are actually very useful in a creative way. Besides being able to alter the effects settings, the filter cutoff frequency and resonance are variable, and there is even a basic envelope generator (attack, decay, and release) which adjusts the time variation of the cutoff frequency. Additionally, there are vibrato rate, depth and delay parameters for each sound.
The on-board DSP offers reverb/delay and chorus, with three rooms, two halls, a plate, a delay, and a pan delay. While the Dr. Synth lacks the fine control of dedicated processors, reverb time, delay feedback and level can be altered within a range of 0-127. Similarly, the chorus effect has delay, rate, depth, feedback and level parameters, again within the range 0-127; flanging effects are possible when the feedback is set very high. Even without precise control, these are very useful effects.
Not only can Single mode patches be edited, but two patches can be layered or split, with a user-definable split point. Layered sounds can only have their volume balanced against the main sound, and both layers and splits share their effects with the main sound. Once a sound is altered, it stays that way: you don't have to store it, and the DS330 retains its memory when it's turned off. This goes for all functions on the instrument.
In Multi Mode, the unit behaves like the General MIDI section of a Roland Sound Canvas, which means 128 high-quality sounds and 16-part multi-timbrality. Some voices have one or more 'variations' — more relevant to Roland's own GS standard — so the grand total is 156 sounds. Any voice is assignable to a part, and each part can have any MIDI channel; drums are factory set to channel/part 10, but can be reassigned to another channel. Likewise, any voice can be assigned to part 10.
Even without a manual, the DS330 is both simple and intuitive to use, which is just as well since the review unit arrived before the manual. It's a credit to Roland/Boss that the lack of a manual was hardly noticed, and that the manual didn't actually tell me anything I hadn't discovered when it did arrive. In fact, even a techno-shy acquaintance had the machine sussed in no time, with no help from yours truly. This simple operating system is a definite high point of the DS330. The down side is that you can't change the basic waveforms of the patches, or even name edited patches — learn to live with it. Also, edited sounds can't be used in Multi mode, since Multi mode is dedicated to GM/GS. You could always multitrack your favourite Single sounds — if you use tape, that is.
Since the filter controls mean that a new patch can sound drastically different to the original upon which it is based, the lack of choice on the waveform front is not such a major problem. But, as I said at the beginning, the DS330 is really two synths in one — a GM/GS module with preset patches and a basic, but programmable, non-multitimbral synth.
Sound wise, the Dr. Synth is great: in amongst the familiar new age type textures left over from the D-series synths ('Halo Pad', 'Ice Rain', 'Soundtrack', and so on) are a lot of very usable sounds. Let-downs are perhaps the acoustic pianos, which are a bit weedy, and the electric guitar patches, which are seldom usable on budget equipment. Individual and grouped strings and brass are really good, woodwinds are useful — oboe and clarinet have a good feel — and even if the 'texture' voices are familiar, they still sound good. For me, the drum kits have an edge over those found on non-Roland synths and modules, but that could be prejudice on my part — I've used a lot of Roland beatboxes and percussion samples in my time.
Before I finish, I should mention that patches do not get cut off in mid-note when a new patch is chosen, and that GM sequences I'd recorded using a Sound Canvas sounded perfect using the DS330's Multi mode. A few percussion sounds weren't quite right, but nor were they absolutely wrong. Being a user of alternative MIDI controllers, I found the Single mode to be a particularly rewarding source of sounds when soloing with my MIDI horn (stop that sniggering at the back). Fattened, layered, 2-partial sounds don't really compromise on polyphony if you're only playing single notes, and some really big, interesting sounds are easily attainable; of course, you could set most of the parts in Multi mode to the same MIDI channel and play a really big stacked sound.
Whether you agree with the thinking behind lowest common denominator concepts like General MIDI, if the result is affordable, useful, friendly and fun items like the Dr. Synth, then I wouldn't complain too much. I think the DS330 will be one very popular little box of tricks — in fact, it has a cult-ish fascination already. Add a cheap keyboard and a DR660 drum machine, and you could create instant, happening tracks; if Boss ever make a Dr. Sequencer, life would somehow seem complete. Modern synths don't come much cheaper or easier to use than this. Worth 10 minutes of anybody's time — just about long enough to have a listen and get your wallet out.
DS330 Dr Synth £339 inc VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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