Simon Trask again, this time experiencing the simple delights of the budget Roland sampler. It's easy to use, but has the low cost brought too many compromises?
Roland's entry into the lower end of the sampling keyboard market offers high sound quality in an easy-to-use package, but have a handful of design omissions spoilt it?
LIFE WAS SO SIMPLE for musicians once. They could sit at their Ruckers harpsichord or their Broadwood piano, and be pretty damn sure that what they heard was all that they wanted or needed. But then the typical harpsichord or piano maker didn't know much about software - to say nothing of floppy disks.
Nowadays you can have a harpsichord, a piano and countless other instrumental sounds all emanating from a single instrument - and that's only part of the story.
Because while you can still sit down at an instrument and accept or reject it fairly quickly on the basis of what you hear (though maybe you were playing some poor sounds), there are many other factors to bear in mind when deciding which instrument is right for your purposes.
Take samplers, for instance. While some machines aim to get the most out of sampling's multi-timbral possibilities, and are therefore ideal for sequencing and recording work (Akai's S900, for instance), there are others that aspire to the same simplicity of organisation as the average synth. The cheaper of Roland's long-awaited pair of samplers, the eight-voice S10, falls into the latter category.
The S10 is yet another addition to the ranks of the 12-bit samplers, but sells at a price that currently undercuts any of the competition. So what exactly is on offer?
Well, the S10's 128K-word sample memory is divided equally between four samples (labelled A, B, C and D), each of which has a maximum duration of one second at the 30kHz default sample rate (you can also sample at 15kHz).
You can choose to map all four samples onto the keyboard, or a pair of samples, or each sample individually. To make life easy for you, the mapping possibilities have been organised into 11 structures, each with its own button on the instrument's front panel so they can be called up as easily as a synth patch.
Samples can be linked together for longer sample times; AB and CD each give you a two-second sample at 30kHz, while ABCD gives you four seconds (but only one sample, obviously). Split mappings are A/B, C/D, AB/CD and A/B/C/D (the latter mapping all four samples onto the keyboard), and you can set the splitpoint(s) anywhere on the keyboard. Now, this allows you not only to put as many as four different sounds on the keyboard, but also to multisample single instruments to get a more accurate representation (by minimising the distance each sample has to be transposed from its original pitch).
The acoustic piano, harpsichord, flute, pipe organ and acoustic guitar disks that are available for the S10 all adopt the latter approach, while three other factory disks - drum set, combination and strings & chorus - opt for the multiinstrument approach.
OF THE MULTI-INSTRUMENT collections, drum set gives you bass drum, snare drum, tom tom and hi-hat, while "combination" (a non-descript title if ever there was one) provides electric bass, trumpet, cymbal crash, and orchestral hit (OK, so it's clichéd - but it sure packs a punch). By and large these samples aren't the best demonstration of the S10's quality, but the third disk (strings & chorus) is much more effective.
In contrast, the five other disks we had access to are excellent, and display the sparkle and clarity that the S10 is capable of producing. Particularly impressive is the upper range of the piano, which so often proves difficult to capture but here sounds bright and clear.
The main criticisms to be levelled at the multisampled instruments are that the transition from one multisample to another is often noticeable (the acoustic guitar particularly so), and that the loops can tend to sound thin when you're sustaining a sound. The former is partly attributable to the fact that there's no positional cross-fading between samples, while the latter is down to the length of the loop in use - which is why the piano samples, with their relatively lengthy loops, are among the most successful. Still, you ain't gonna get the quality of Roland's RD1000 piano, whose SAS system is altogether more sophisticated than straightforward sampling.
Instead of the increasingly popular (and readily available) 3.5" disks, the S10 uses 2.8" Quick Disks. These store one sample per side, so two disks are needed to store four samples; library disks for the S10 duly come paired in special sleeves.
Although the S10 helps you through the loading process with helpful prompts and automatic loading when a disk is inserted (structure information is stored on each side of a disk to tell the S10 how many samples should be loaded), there's no denying that repeatedly changing disks just to load, say, a single multisampled piano sound is not what you want at a gig. More likely, you'll want to set the loading process in motion and then quickly turn your attention to your other keyboards. And no matter how adept you become at manoeuvring your disks, the very process is bound to add on precious seconds; typically it takes 40 seconds to load in four samples.
On the plus side, having one sample per side of disk does make life fairly uncomplicated. And you can get the S10 to divulge which sample is on each side of a disk, which bank it is destined for, and which structure it is part of (just in case you've forgotten to put these details on the disk label). You can also override bank and structure settings and load any single sample into any bank, which allows you to set up new sample combinations with ease.
"Mapping possibilities are organised into 11 structures, each with its own button so it can be called up as easily as a synth patch."
When you power-up the S10, you can either start sampling from scratch or load in samples from disk. Assuming that at some stage you're likely to venture into DIY sampling, let's look at how you go about this on the S10.
Fortunately, it's very straightforward. You simply select the structure you want, set the trigger level (this is shown as a bar line in the S10's backlit LCD), and the key on which you want the sample to be replayed (this can be changed at any time later). Then stand back and do whatever you feel you have to do (shout, scream) into the nearest microphone.
The recording trigger can be set to auto or manual. If auto, the S10 will begin recording when the trigger threshold is exceeded; manual, in contrast, means sampling will only begin when you press the appropriate button on the front panel, or depress the sustain footswitch.
ONCE YOU'VE MANAGED to capture a good sample, you can modify the sound in various ways, which fall into two categories: those that alter the actual data (known as Wave Modifications, you'll be stunned to know), and those that don't (known as Wave Parameters). Editing is accomplished using that now ever-present Roland device, the Alpha dial.
In many cases, the first thing you'll want to do after sampling is go in search of the ideal loop. The S10 has three sample looping modes: one shot (which actually means no loop), manual and auto. The S10 auto-loops single and linked samples if the last sample is longer than 0.8 seconds (a two-bank sample has to be longer than 1.8 seconds), finding only a single loop (or not, as the case may be) rather than presenting you with a number of options as, for instance, Korg's DSS1 does. While auto-looping is a handy feature, you'll often find yourself launching into manual mode (ie. doing it yourself). Usefully, the auto-loop addresses (specified as loop end and loop length) are preserved, so you can return to them if your own initial efforts prove disastrous. And you can swap between manual and auto loops simply by changing the loop mode parameter.
The S10 allows you to listen to your sample while changing the loop length and loop end, so you can adjust your samples rapidly while using those valuable accoutrements known as ears. Which is all very well, but ultimately rather random - ideally this speed needs to be combined with the visual feedback that a computer display can offer (though currently there's no editing software for the S10; the upmarket S50, as you'll see elsewhere this issue, comes complete with its own software and a monitor connection). Still, smooth looping is achievable in many cases - the library disks are good examples of this.
Other parameters include loop and sample tuning, scanning mode (forwards, backwards and alternating), sample start point, a five-stage volume envelope, dynamic sensitivity, auto-bend, and envelope velocity-sensitivity (which allows you to control the attack rate through velocity strength). All these parameters can be copied singly or in bulk from one bank to another.
Modifications to the actual sample data include level adjust, digital filtering, sample reverse, mix and combine. You can also copy and swap individual samples around within the S10's sample memory.
Digital filtering seems like it should be impressive, but disappointingly, you can't make adjustments in real time. You choose from four filters (two each of lowpass and highpass, with a choice of mild and sharp cutoff) and set the cutoff frequency (from 100Hz- 10kHz) and resonance.
You're then faced with a wait which can be upwards of two minutes, during which time you can stare glumly at an arrow moving across the display while the sampler works out what the new data should be. And as it's the sample data itself which is altered, you're well advised to save your sample to disk beforehand, until you find the setting that gives you the result you want.
It's all a little laborious, but can yield good results if you're prepared to be patient - though another problem that can occur is that the loop you've painstakingly constructed to perfection suddenly isn't as smooth as it was.
There's no filter envelope, and keyboard velocity can't be used to open or close a filter either.
The S10's keyboard is the source of two disappointments: first it's only four octaves long, and second it's sensitive to attack velocity, but not to aftertouch (and aftertouch can't be applied to samples via MIDI, either).
The MIDI transmit note range is fixed at notes 36-84 (that's two octaves either side of Middle C), while receive range is 24-103 (an extra 11/2 octaves above, one below). Which means you need to play the S10 from another keyboard to make the most of its sample range.
"Particularly impressive is the upper range of the piano, which so often proves difficult to capture but here sounds bright and clear."
In addition to splitting samples, you can layer them (using single or split structures) in dual mode. This reduces the S10 to four-note polyphony - which raises an interesting comparison with the Ensoniq Mirage, since the latter has two oscillators per voice, allowing you to layer samples without losing polyphonic capability.
Performance flexibility is the order of the day on the S10, though, with two ways of balancing layered sounds dynamically while playing: velocity mix and velocity switch. Both depend on how hard you strike the keys. The former mixes in the second sound, while the latter switches between the two sounds (switching retains eight-voice polyphony, because you are only playing one sample per note). In both cases, either of the two sounds can be selected as the "strong" or "weak" one. And you can set the velocity level above which the mix or switch occurs, which means you can tailor the effect to your keyboard touch. As well as being able to play with different instrument sounds, you could record a soft note and a hard note and switch between them accordingly.
ROLAND HAVE ALSO given the S10 the ability to detune samples, using any of the structures. When selected, this effect applies equally to all samples on the keyboard - fine for multisampling, but maybe not what you want when you've got several different sounds on the keyboard. Like dual mode, detuning reduces the S10 to four-note polyphony, as two samples (in this case the same sample, if you see what I mean) are used for each note.
The S10's detuning ability (which has programmable range) allows you to apply some very powerful chorusing effects to your samples. For extra flexibility, the amount of detune can be determined by how hard you strike the keys, or can be set to a fixed amount.
And Roland haven't stopped there with onboard effects. They've also included a single-repeat delay, implemented in software (down to four-note polyphony again), with programmable time up to around two seconds, level and key offset. The latter allows you to transpose the repeat up or down an octave in semitone steps, which is most useful when used without a delay (eg. for parallel fifth and octave effects).
Although the parameters governing these effects are programmable, their selection isn't - and you have to remember various sequences of button-pushing to call them up. Why Roland couldn't have provided three or four dedicated buttons is beyond me; the minimal extra cost involved would have been easily offset by the benefits in performance flexibility.
In contrast, the S10's onboard arpeggiator has a button all to itself, making it all the easier to switch the effect in and out in real time. There's no pretence of a recording role with this arpeggiator; you simply hold down the relevant notes, and they are arpeggiated according to the various parameters selected. You can set rate (slowest speed is around two seconds per note); mode (up, down, up/down, random); range (one, two or three octaves); repeat (1 - 16 repeats of each note before the next note in the arpeggio); and decay (which allows you to program a fade-out effect).
The arpeggio can also be set to internal or external sync; in the latter case, an external trigger signal fed into the S10's input jack triggers the next note in the arpeggio. It's also possible to select a sequence of four notes which will automatically be played whenever a trigger pulse is received on the input jack (from a drum pad, for instance).
Detune, delay and double can each be used together with the arpeggiator (but not with each other). The notes resulting from the delay and arpeggiation effects aren't communicated over MIDI, however, so they can't be doubled on other instruments.
The S10's MIDI facilities don't allow too much room for sophisticated applications. In addition to setting a single MIDI channel (1-16), you can turn transmission and reception on/off individually for pitch-bend, sustain. modulation, program changes, active sensing, system exclusive, bend range and master tune. There's no Mono Mode, but with only four samples onboard, it might be of limited use anyhow.
OVERALL THE S10 is not the instrument to go for if you're looking for a sophisticated multitimbral sampler to use in a sequencing and recording environment; Akai's S900 and Sequential's Prophet 2000/2 still perform the honours there, though both are significantly more expensive than the Roland, the Prophet especially so.
But what the S10 loses in voicing flexibility it gains user-friendliness. It's one of the simplest keyboard samplers to use, and at this price level, that's bound to be important to users, many of whom may be involving themselves in DIY sampling for the first time.
Sampling quality is high, and the S10 is more o performance instrument than many of its competitors. you stand a better than average chance of getting those sounds to work for you.
It's a professional instrument that many semi-professional can afford, and just about any amateur can use.
Price £1099 including VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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