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Roland D50

Article from Making Music, August 1987

Rockschool's Alastair Gavin ganders at the vastly praised digital synth, and decides they're right.


To be honest, I didn't really want to like this synth. I harboured a secret desire to be the lone dissenter among the adoring masses, perhaps giving lectures up and down the country. Also, I have just bought a DX7II. Oh well, pass the regimental revolver.

The D-50 is Roland's all-digital answer to the DX7 and is remarkable in several ways. As well as being a completely programmable digital synth it contains 100 preset samples and a comprehensive set of digital effects including reverb, chorus and EQ. Also the programming section is set out in an analogue-type format (hence 'linear', as opposed to FM or additive synthesis) so when Quincy Jones says "brighten that sound, man, and fast", you confidently reach for the filter and there you are.

Stepping through the factory programs is rather like eating 64 avocado pears with loads of prawns on each. Each sound is more luscious than the last, with some real stunners thrown in. There are punchy basses, very realistic strings, organ, and brass, and an excellent flute. The only disappointment is the electric piano, which doesn't match the DX7's and sounds more like a Wurlitzer, although the acoustic pianos have each got a very useable range and have as realistic an attack as you'll hear in any synthesiser. It's the abstract sounds however which impress the most. My favourite is 'Soundtrack', which contains a built-in fifth interval (even C7 becomes a complex-sounding polychord) and swells suddenly then trails away to the outer reaches. If you love the textures of Art of Noise or Weather Report you'll be instantly transported and I have no doubt that we'll be hearing this synth soon on a wide range of recordings. After a while the incessant rich reverbs become a bit much, like the sixty-fourth avocado and prawns. Even some bass patches have reverb and you could do worse than to remove the effect on some patches to give a bit of clarity. Also don't forget that dropping-in on faster tracks recorded with reverb can be tricky.

In a nutshell, each patch consists of a pair of 'tones' (unless you're in 'whole mode' which doesn't mean the last stage of being born-again, but that only one 'tone' is used and you can play 16 rather than 8 notes at once), and each 'tone' is made up of two 'partials' which can be two samples or two synth settings, or one of each. Add it up and you effectively have four synths going at once. Each 'tone' has its own pitch envelope (hurray!), chorus, EQ and three assignable LFO's; and each 'partial' has its own waveform (or sample), filter and envelope — 'Time Variant Filter', and amplifier and envelope — TVA. You can choose one type of reverb to use per patch and this can be applied to either or both 'tones'. Similarly a form of digital delay known as 'Chase' can be memorised in a patch. You are given a choice of 32 reverbs, and although you cannot change any of the parameters within each setting I found the selection completely adequate. This includes a full range of modern gated and reverse effects, some more delay settings — great in stereo — and a beautiful one called 'Large Cave'.

The sample (PCM) section is split into 47 'one-shot' samples, those that form only the attack portion of your sound; 29 'looped' samples, ie sounding continuously when a key is held down; and 24 combinations of the above which are mainly rhythmic clusters of different samples playing octave sequences. The one-shot samples are clear and well recorded and as well as standard sample sounds like slap bass or marimba, there are some really striking ones such as 'Nylon' (acoustic guitar), 'Violins' (really good bow scrape) and 'Chink' (drainpipe á la "Knock Three Times.."). Also included are brass, percussion, woodwind, voice, and even electric guitar.

The loops aren't as immediately successful. Digital memory is expensive and so the loops are made up of very short cycles (waveform, not Raleigh), and consequently sound static and lifeless, except for a few abstract ones called 'Spectrum' which sounded good. The final, combined, section escapes me completely. They sound mostly like clever demos for the synth. (I may be missing something here so would be grateful for suggestions). If I was Roland I might reconsider this last section and most of the loops and use the available memory to expand the one-shot section and include just a couple of really choice loops like a good acoustic piano.

The digital synthesis section is quickly understandable, being couched in familiar analogue language, and is absolutely stuffed with editing possibilities. These include sawtooth or square waves, DX-type five stage envelopes with level and rate, and comprehensive level scaling for filter and amp (the relative rates and amounts of each depending on where you are on the keyboard). Once you've realised that you can layer up to four of these settings, the mind soon starts to boggle. Fortunately editing is easy, given a clear system of 'pages', and a nice wide display on top of Five buttons which change function according to their respective readout, much like the ESQ-1. You then change the value of your chosen parameter using the keypad or joystick.

A nice touch is an 'undo' button which simply reverses your last edit. If you buy the optional PG 1000 programmer things become almost a doddle as it has a slider for every function in either the 'tone', 'partial', or patch editing sections, and has its own display for added friendliness.


Without a doubt this synth comes with the most original and exciting sounds yet heard in a mass-produced model. It's tempting to view it as three separate pieces of equipment (synth, sampler, and reverb) and to find small faults in each, but what matters is the way they work together, and Roland's programmers have, as usual, done a great job in displaying the D-50's range. Also, fortunately, I'm relieved to find that the unique nature of this instrument doesn't mean throwing out your DX or old analogue synth as they will both beat the D-50 in their own area, and this product is more about creative mixing and matching. The price? Amazingly, less than the cost of two and a half thousand avocados (without prawns).



SOUND SOURCE digital synthesis, PCM samples
POLYPHONY 16, or 8 in dual or split mode
MEMORY 64 patches, 128 tones ROM or RAM memory cards
DISPLAY 80 character backlit LCD
EFFECTS digital reverb, chorus, EQ, delay
OPTIONS PG 1000 programmer £320 RAM memory card £95

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Previous Article in this issue

On The Throne

Next article in this issue

EMG Pickups

Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Aug 1987

News and Reviews

Gear in this article:

Synthesizer > Roland > D50

Gear Tags:

Digital Synth

Review by Alastair Gavin

Previous article in this issue:

> On The Throne

Next article in this issue:

> EMG Pickups

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