Simon Trask investigates the latest and cheapest in an increasingly long line of L/A synths from Roland. But if L/A is the way for you, are you better off with a D5 or a D10?
Roland extend their line of Linear/Arithmetic synthesisers with a scaled-down version of the D10. But is it a worthwhile addition to the pack?
SINCE ROLAND UNLEASHED the D50 and its L/A synthesis system on an unsuspecting world, a steady stream of L/A-based instruments have ensured that the company gain maximum mileage out of their investment. And investment it is, as a substantial R&D budget is needed to fund the technical developments that are the lifeblood of any electronics-based company.
Carrying a new synthesis system into progressively cheaper items of equipment not only ensures that more and more musicians have access to the latest technology, it allows the company involved to maximise their financial return and invest in their future. But any company following this route needs to tread carefully. On the one hand, nobody likes to buy instrument xyz only to find a couple of months later that xyz Mk2 offers more features for less money. On the other hand, it's human nature to want more for less, and if xyz Mk2 comes out before you buy xyz, which one would you go for?
Following the D50 (reviewed MT, May & June '87), the MT32 (reviewed MT, October '87), the D110 (reviewed MT, September'88), the D10 and the D20 (reviewed MT, October'88) we have the latest Roland L/A synth: the D5. Just as the D10 is a scaled-down version of the D20 (no onboard disk drive and no sequencer apart from the Rhythm track), so the D5 is scaled down yet again, and consequently costs around £250 less than the D10. But in essential respects (its L/A synthesis and multitimbral capabilities), it is the same instrument as the D10 and D20. And although Roland have given the D5 a different set of Patches and Timbres to those on the D10/D20, overall they don't really offer anything new; in fact, it's a swings and roundabouts situation, with each synth offering sounds that owners of the other would like. A less desirable similarity between the D5 and the D10/D20 is the lack of individual audio outputs; so far, Roland have only seen fit to provide these on the D110 rack-mount expander.
For the rest of this review I'll concentrate on discussing the differences between the D10/D20 and the D5 - these are, after all, the new synth's raison d'etre. The most obvious differences are the D5's smaller casing; its modified front-panel layout, with, among other things, smaIler buttons and no data slider; the substitution of an extemal power supply; and the addition of dedicated buttons for selecting four Patch effects: Chord Play, Harmony, Chase and Arpeggio. What's this? New features? Incidentally, like all the other L/A instruments apart from the D50, the D5 is responsive to attack velocity but not to aftertouch (either from the keyboard or via MIDI), which strikes me as a pity.
The D5 also forgoes its more expensive relatives' onboard rhythm patterns and rhythm track, though not the "drum kit" of percussion samples which has been a staple of Roland's L/A instruments since the MT32 and much copied by other manufacturers.
Further investigation into the D5 reveals that it has only one MIDI transmit channel as opposed to the D10's upper/lower channels, and adds breath controller and expression pedal on/off to Performance and Multitimbral modes, and local on/off to Multitimbral mode (mere tinkering, Watson). Breath control can be set to control volume and modulation separately or together. Additionally, Partial Reserve (the function which reserves set numbers of partials for each Part in Multitimbral mode) has been made programmable from the D5's front-panel, whereas on the D10 and D20 it was inaccessible in this manner. Meanwhile, the continuing MIDI All Notes Off saga finds Roland doing away with All Notes Off transmission altogether (and about time too, some older and wiser MIDI users might say).
But perhaps the most significant difference between the D5 and its L/A companions becomes apparent when you start playing the new synth: there's no onboard digital reverb and delay. You may recall that Roland introduced programmable onboard digital effects with the D50 -again, an idea which subsequently caught on in a big way with other manufacturers. Forking out for a stand-alone unit to accomplish the same task could well set you back the difference in price between a D5 and a D10. The obvious advantage of a stand-alone unit is that it isn't limited to effecting the D5's sounds, but on the other hand you miss out on the sheer convenience of being able to program effects per Patch. There's a paradox here, in that the D5 is aimed at the budget musician/studio, yet it's precisely at this end of things that onboard effects can be most valuable.
So can the aforementioned Patch effects be of use here? Within each Patch in Performance mode you can program settings for all four effects - Chord Play, Harmony, Chase Play and Arpeggio - though only one effect at a time can be active (the choice is programmable per Patch, but you can select a different effect at any time while playing. merely by pressing the relevant button - red pinpoint LEDs tell you which one is active).
All four of these effects have appeared on Roland synths in the past; Chase Play, for instance, was first introduced on the JX10, and subsequently implemented on the D50. In fact, of the four, Chase Play is the closest you'll get to substitute for the "missing" reverb and delay. What this does is replay the note(s) you've just played, using effect rate, chase shift and chase level parameter values to determine the exact nature of the effect. Unlike an audio signal processor, which regenerates notes in the audio domain, Chase Play uses the D5's internal voices. Rate allows you to achieve a variety of effects from a tacky pseudo-reverb to a slow DDL, while shift adds or subtracts a constant pitch interval for each repeat (so you can have say, a rising or falling semitone scale), and level effectively determines the number of repeats.
Chord Play and Harmony both function by interpreting chords you play below the splitpoint (even if you're not using split mode) in relation to notes you play above it. Chord Play takes the note(s) you play in the upper section as root notes for playing the chord type you finger in the lower section, while Harmony plays the actual chord that you finger in the lower section, apparently using the upper note(s) to determine the chord inversion. Chords are triggered whenever you play note(s) in the upper section, which can be quite good for certain effects but a bit limiting for more general applications.
"All four of the D5's effects have appeared on Roland synths in the past; Chase Play, for instance, was first introduced on the JX10."
Arpeggio allows you to set the rate and the direction (up, down, up and down, or random) of the notes you hold down on the keyboard (in Split mode, only in the lower section of the keyboard, for some reason). However, you can't synchronise the arpeggio rate to an incoming MIDI clock.
In fact, none of these effects are active for notes received over MIDI, which means you can't incorporate them in a sequence. Also, depending on the Patch and the mode that you're using, you can find yourself running out of polyphony pretty quickly, so that you get an additional effect of notes being snatched.
Make of these effects what you will, then, but I find them a bit of a mixed bag. Personally I'd keep Chase Play but be quite happy to ditch the others.
The good news is that the D5 can read sounds off the existing "D" series ROM cards via the cartridge port tucked away on its rear panel. But nowadays, of course, ROM and RAM cards are no longer the only external means of accessing and storing sounds. Patch-editing software has become a part of everyday life for many computer-owning musicians, as it offers considerable advantages in terms of ease of programming and reduced storage costs.
There are a number of generic editor/librarians on the market for Roland's post-D50 L/A instruments, but will they work with the D5? Well, in the case of Steinberg's Synthworks generic D editor (reviewed MT, April '89), transferring individual sounds and individual parameter edits proved no problem, but bulk dumps were out of the question. This suggests that software companies will have to tweak their software a bit before it can be considered fully compatible with the D5 (quite apart from the fact that routines to edit the extra keyboard features will need to be added).
IT SEEMS TO me that there are two conclusions to be drawn in a review of the D5. One concerns the instrument in itself, the other concerns its position in relation to the D10. As far as the first conclusion goes. the D5 has the same strengths and weaknesses as the D10 and D20 when comes to sounds, multitimbral capability, and front-panel editing. So if you've already been attracted to these instruments, it's really down to the second conclusion to decide whether a D5 or a D10 is your best bet in the long run.
Is it better to go for the D5 or to save up some more pennies and go for the D10 with its onboard digital reverb and delay, and additional ROM and RAM rhythm pattern memories and Rhythm track? Personally I don't consider the four Patch effects to be any great temptation in the D5's direction, while, until the software companies update their generic D Editors, the incomplete compatibility has to be a factor working against the D5. Why? Well, once you've tried out a program like Steinberg's Synthworks editor for the ST, you realise the major advantages of using such a program for editing sounds and Multi setups.
Finally, you need to consider whether you'd rather have the D10's onboard digital effects, or use the money you save through buying a D5 to purchase a general-purpose effects processor. The ball's in your court, guys and gals.
Price £599 including VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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