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Roland U110 Sound Module

Article from Phaze 1, February 1989

LOOKING TO INCORPORATE sampled sounds into your music but unwilling to create your own samples? Put off by the disk loading times of "ordinary" samplers? Fancy the idea of a collection of preset sampled sounds which includes acoustic and electric pianos, vibraphones, bells, ensemble strings, choirs, acoustic and electric guitars, organs, saxes and various types of bass? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, Roland may have an answer for you, in the shape of their U110 PCM Sound Module. If the answer is no, go make the tea.

The U110 (originally unveiled as the T110, incidentally) doesn't have any sampling capacity of its own. Nor does it have any RAM memory for samples, which in turn means you can't load in samples via MIDI or from disk. In fact, the U110 doesn't even have a disk drive.

Let me explain. The U110 has 99 samples (called Tones) stored within its slender 19" rackmounting frame. It can take further samples off Roland PCM ROM cards, and you can plug up to four of these cards at a time into slots on the front panel. There's no waiting involved. All you do is select a card sample and it's instantly available on the keyboard, just as if you'd selected a patch on a synth. Once you've selected a sample, there's not too much you can do with it except play it.

So you get the general idea. No tedious disk-loading, samples instantly available at switch-on, no struggling to find decent loop points - in short, all the benefits of sampled sounds without the hassle normally associated with making and using them.

Apparently, the U110's sounds are derived from Roland's S50 sample library, which means (from a technical point of view) 12-bit sample resolution and a sample rate of 30kHz or 15kHz. This also means, in practice, that the sounds are not altogether free of noise, but this is rarely obtrusive.

Normally, 99 samples of this kind of quality would take up vast amounts of memory, and make the instrument prohibitively expensive. But Roland have been clever here, "compacting" the samples in order to make them fit - this involves things like shortening loops, for instance.

The 99 internal Tones are divided into Piano, Vibraphone, Bell, Marimba, Guitar, Bass, Choir, Strings, Organ, Wind and Drum groups. As another means of saving on sample memory, there aren't actually 99 different samples - within most groups, single-sample Tones have also been doubled and detuned to provide further Tones.

The acoustic pianos are especially good, though they tend to thin out on sustained notes - a consequence of looping compromises. You get mellow and bright versions, and a great honky-tonk piano, while the electric pianos include bright, hard-edged and warm, chorused versions. The vibes and marimbas are chunky but not particularly warm, while the bells are thin-sounding rather than deep and resonant.

The basses consist of slapped, fingered, picked, fretless, synth and acoustic varieties. I particularly like the warm, rounded acoustic bass and the slurred fretless, while the plentiful slapped variations are snappy and funky.

In the brass section, the soft trumpet captures the characteristic attack very convincingly, while the saxes are fairly realistic (again, the attack is good) if a bit limited in variety and character.

The skinbashers' section is taken care of by 37 drum and percussion samples, which have been mapped across a five-octave note range (so you can play them all from a keyboard so long as it's long enough) and collectively assigned to Tone number 99. These are standard fare: several bass and snare drums; low, middle and high toms; crash, ride and china cymbals; open and closed hi-hats; handclaps, cowbell and cabasas. In general they've been kept as short as possible (the cymbals are looped for length), which means they don't always "breathe" as they should. But they're gritty and punchy, and make for a good, modern-sounding rhythm section.

Personally I could have done with a few less slapped bass and organ samples. But all in all, I'd say Roland have come up with a healthy range of basic, familiar sounds.

With luck, the PCM cards will expand on the internal sounds by being more adventurous, rather than just providing more variations on familiar themes. Since no cards were available for review, we'll have to wait and see on that one.

The U110 places no limitation on the combination of internal and card samples, and you can use up to six samples off any one card. Puzzlingly, you can actually select Tones from as many as 31 different cards, even though you can only plug in four cards at a time.

But the U110 doesn't just play sounds back. Through a comprehensive array of "voice assignment" options, it provides formidable unit for multitrack sequencing in the studio.

To begin with, it's 31-voice polyphonic, so even though you may only have ten fingers, you can add another 21 notes on a pre-recorded sequence - assuming you have a MIDI sequencing system, of course. Additionally, the U110 is "multi-timbral", which means you can assign different sounds to different MIDI "channels" - again, a useful feature for sequencing.

Finally, there are six audio outputs on the machine's back panel, so you can treat six samples to different effects, EQ, or whatever when you're putting music down on tape - although the whole business of output assignment can get a bit tiresome, and the "Made in Japan" isn't much help.

The U110 is convenient to use, offers a respectable (and expandable) range of sounds, and has a range of output assignment options that make it a good bet in any hi-tech recording situation.

It's essentially a "preset" instrument, but the ability to combine sounds, detune them against one another, alter their attack and release times, and put them through digital chorus and tremolo effects promises at least some degree of flexibility. The PCM cards should go some way towards alleviating any "preset blues" you might suffer from - by giving you more presets to play with.

Not really an innovator, but a well-designed, tight-sounding instrument that packs a hard punch into a very small box.

ROLAND U110 PCM SOUND MODULE £599; PCM ROM CARDS £45. All prices include VAT.

INFO: Roland UK, (Contact Details)

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Previous Article in this issue

Casio CPS Pianos

Next article in this issue

Dynacord DC60 Amplifier

Publisher: Phaze 1 - Phaze 1 Publishing

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Phaze 1 - Feb 1989


Gear in this article:

Synthesizer Module > Roland > U110

Gear Tags:

Digital Synth

Review by Simon Trask

Previous article in this issue:

> Casio CPS Pianos

Next article in this issue:

> Dynacord DC60 Amplifier

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