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ROLAND VS-2000CD

March 1, 2005
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FIG.1 The VS-2000CD from Roland is a portable 20-track studio that has many features most often found in a computer-based DAW. A logical user interface and a detailed display enhance workflow. Top-panel connections simplify rerouting audio signls. Also shown here is an external display, which requires the optional VS20-VGA expansion card.

Combining the power of a computer workstation with the convenience of a dedicated desktop recorder, Roland's VS-2000CD offers most of the VS-2400DVD's features at close to half the price. The VS-2000CD's powerful drum sequencer and multipart harmony processor are unique to the VS series. With optional support for a VGA display and mouse, two effects expansion slots, and support for third-party plug-ins, the VS-2000CD is an impressive multitrack studio with a small footprint and a reasonable price.

From the Top

Housed in an attractive silver and grey case, the VS-2000CD reveals its strengths at a glance. Almost everything you need is accessible using a well laid-out array of clearly labeled buttons, knobs, and switches (see Fig. 1).

Seventeen nonmotorized faders handle 14 mono and 2 stereo recorder tracks and the master level. A row of Track/Status buttons serves multiple purposes. In addition to the usual recorder chores (such as mute, solo, channel select, and arming tracks for recording), they call up locate points (16 per bank stored in six banks, or 96 per Project), and scenes (also 96 per Project). They also come into play when using the onboard drum machine and harmony functions. Although confusing at first glance, the buttons' multifunctionality makes a great deal of sense once you start to work.

Each of the eight analog inputs has XLR mic connectors with phantom power, ¼-inch TRS jacks, and dedicated trim pots. Input 8 also features an unbalanced ¼-inch jack for connecting an electric guitar or bass. Top-panel outputs include two ¼-inch TRS master outs, stereo aux and monitor outs on RCA jacks, and a single ¼-inch headphone jack with its own volume pot. On the rear panel, RCA coaxial connectors provide S/PDIF I/O alongside MIDI I/O, a footswitch jack, and a USB 2.0 port (see Fig. 2). Sadly, there is no word clock.

FIG. 2: The footswitch jack on the rear panel of the VS-2000CD allows remote punching and transport control. The VS20-VGA slot adds connections for a monitor, mouse, and keyboard.

Each input and recorder track features a dynamics processor and 4-band EQ (two bands shelving and two bands parametric). Four soft knobs afford hands-on control of the compressor's threshold, attack, release, and level (you use the cursors and data wheel to set the ratio). The same four knobs also wrangle EQ gain. Although the manual doesn't mention it, you can hold down the EQ button and use the knobs to sweep the frequency. The EQ and dynamics get the job done without coloring the sound.

In the Channel Edit screens, you can select among the 16 virtual tracks, link channels to stereo groups and assign groups, insert effects, select the aux or effects send that's controlled by the hardware Send knob, or select a Direct Path (see Fig. 3). A Direct Path is a legacy of the VS-2480; it allows you to quickly route an input or track to one of the hardware outputs — for example, to insert an external processor.

Basics First

Roland supplied me with an optional VS20-VGA card and an effects card loaded with plug-ins. Before I installed those, however, I wanted to try using the unit by itself. After powering up, two quick button presses summoned a screen in which I created my new Project (a folder containing all the audio files and settings for a song). The 40 GB internal drive comes formatted into three 11.5 GB partitions and one 6.7 GB partition; even at 24 bits, that allows almost 90 hours of total recording time. Because I planned to burn my song to CD, I chose 16-bit recording. (That wasn't necessary, though, because the VS-2000CD will convert on the fly when creating a disc image from a 24-bit Project.) The only sample rate that the VS-2000CD supports is 44.1 kHz.

FIG. 3: The comprehensive Channel View screen (shown here on an external display) shows all your settings at a glance.

I plugged a mic into channel 1 and my guitar into channel 8's high-impedance input. I inserted a vocal-channel-strip effect into the mic channel and one of Roland's excellent COSM mic-modeling effects into the guitar channel. Another button press and the display became a fully chromatic tuner that can be referenced to any input or recorder track.

Next I jumped to the EZ Routing screen to assign the guitar to track 2, checked input levels in the Home screen, armed the tracks, and hit Record. I wasn't satisfied with my first take, so I hit Undo. (Nearly a thousand levels of undo and one redo allow a lot of flexibility.) Another pass and I had my scratch tracks. I quickly added a second guitar and a bass part. All in all, it took about 15 minutes from turning on the machine to making my first recording. I handled all of my recording chores right from the top of the machine without having to scroll through pages.

I wish I could say I was as impressed with the 442-page manual. Several features are either inadequately described or downright confusing. The Turbo Start DVD helps, but it gives only a brief overview and also misses several critical features.

Rhythm Track

The VS-2000CD features the same rhythm sequencer found in the Boss BR-1600 and BR-1180CD. Once engaged, the Rhythm Track mutes any recorded audio and takes over stereo track 17/18. All of the channel dynamics, EQ, and effects apply to the Rhythm Track, the same as any other tracks.

Using the Rhythm Track couldn't be easier: just select from a huge array of preset patterns (or create your own) and chain them into a song. Use the Track/Status buttons (or a MIDI keyboard or drum pads) to enter data. Select sounds from an array of drum kits, including Standard1, Heavy, Jazz, and 808. The sophisticated tempo mapping offers options for manual entry, tap tempo, and converting external sync tracks.

For tracking, I set up a simple kick/hat/snare click track. After I'd fleshed out my song, I went back and added variations for the intro, verses, bridge, and ride-out. The Rhythm Track's pattern editor supports both real-time and step-time recording, and it can record MIDI Velocity if you use an external controller. I applaud Roland for having such a useful feature as Rhythm Track.

Effects Generation

The two internal effects generators pack a fair amount of processing power. They supply a nice collection of patches optimized for specific tasks. Holding the Shift key along with one of the six FX buttons jumps directly to presets for reverb, chorus, vocal, guitar, COSM modeling, and the Mastering Tool Kit. The reverbs and choruses are quite serviceable, and the guitar multi-effects chains sounded quite good once I toned down some of the more extreme settings. Though no one will be fooled into thinking I used a vintage tube mic, I appreciated the quick tonal changes the COSM microphone modeling gave my vocals and acoustic guitar.

With only two internal effects processors, the two option slots come in handy. Each slot accommodates two additional effects, bringing the total to six when fully loaded. The VS8F-2 expansion card ($395) essentially duplicates the internal effects, whereas the VS8F-3 ($395) adds third-party plug-in capability. You can mix and match any combination of expansion cards.

The review unit featured a single VS8F-3 and a full complement of plug-ins from Antares, Universal Audio, McDSP, and TC Electronics. The card is bundled with Roland's suite of plug-in effects, which includes more powerful reverbs and vocal channel strips than the standard internal effects, and a greatly improved Mastering Tool Kit. I found the plug-ins to be uniformly excellent and useful for every stage of recording.

Living in Harmony

Roland's harmony processor creates two independent parts using the internal effects processors. Each VS8F-2 card provides two additional parts, for as many as six independent voices.

I've had enough experience with artificial harmony to know that good results require good source material. To give the processor a fair chance, I tracked my lead vocal with pitch correction. Using a keyboard, I played in my first harmony part, only to hear the harmony voices jump around randomly. It turned out the processor assigned every other note to a different part — a fact not adequately described in the manual. I had better luck using the Track/Status buttons and selecting Chord to instantly generate both parts at preset intervals. In either case, editing was more difficult than it needed to be: although notes are displayed graphically, you make changes in an edit list, which quickly grows tedious.

I eventually had a basic two-part harmony, which I promptly recorded to free up the internal effects. Despite my tweaking the formants, the harmony sounded artificial and required large amounts of chorusing and EQ. In spite of its faults, though, the harmony feature has potential. You can use it to quickly flesh out a demo, and in the proper context, it could be just what you need.

Editing and Mixing

I have never enjoyed editing on a portable desktop studio, and certainly wasn't looking forward to it on the VS-2000CD. I changed my mind, however, when I installed the optional VS20-VGA ($275). The board supports a VGA display, a PS/2 keyboard, and the included two-button mouse. It is easy to install. With a large monitor, suddenly I had access to pull-down menus, drag-and-drop editing, larger meters, and all the main display's features. It was like working with a computer-based DAW (see Fig. 4). All the buttons and knobs on the unit's surface continued to operate normally, effectively doubling the number of user-interface options.

Using a display and a mouse makes editing a snap. Toggle to a waveform view for pinpoint control, or use the preview function to scrub a snippet of audio. Standard audio-editing features such as cut, move, copy, insert, time compression and expansion, and normalizing are supported for both Regions and Phrases (Roland's term for a chunk of audio). A handy Take Manager that keeps track of every recorded pass (until you optimize the Project) makes comping tracks a breeze. My only quibbles are that the waveform view doesn't scroll during playback and the screen redraw rate is quite slow.

FIG. 4: With the VS20-VGA option installed, the Home screen on an external display reveals pull-down menus, transport controls, and other details you won''t see on the LCD.

Mixing on the VS-2000CD is a joy. Mix automation extends to most everything you'd need, except that the only way to make dynamic changes to effects parameters is through MIDI. Automation data is displayed graphically, and you can twist it into shape using the mouse.

Even without the VS20-VGA, you can accomplish all of the same tasks using the built-in display, the data wheel, and the cursor keys — but why would you want to? Given the huge difference it made, I can't imagine using the unit without the expansion board unless portability were critical.

Mastering and Storage

Once I had polished the mix, I used the Mastering Tool Kit's band-dependant compressor, EQ, and soft-clip limiter to add some punch and sizzle. Because effects resources are limited and that meant losing a reverb plug-in, I first went back and printed the effects and remixed my tracks — not the best solution, but workable. I later learned a better trick: record your Master Tracks (Roland's name for the stereo mix) dry, move them to any open pair of V tracks, and then remaster with effects.

I was delighted to discover that I could record several alternate Master Tracks for each Project, either on the 16 virtual tracks or lined up back-to-back for easy CD burning. Both TAO (track-at-once) and DAO (disc-at-once) recording are supported. To take advantage of DAO, though, you must first import Master Tracks from all of your songs into a single Project. Recording Master Tracks in CDR Rec mode stores a disc-image file with your Project, which is handy for burning multiple CDs. Although I always say you should have critical projects professionally mastered, Roland's innovative virtual Mastering Room is quite good.

Using the built-in CD-RW drive, you can also import and export audio data and back up or restore Project files. And with a few exceptions, you can easily move Projects between other VS models.

Using the VS-2000CD's USB 2.0 port to back up and restore data files and folders to and from a remote computer is easy, once you get past all of the warning screens. Roland's Wave Convert software for exchanging AIFF or WAV files with a computer worked flawlessly on my iMac. I do wish, however, that you could record direct to an external USB drive.

For the Record

After working with the VS-2000CD for a month, I'm very impressed. Even without the VGA expansion board, it is a superb desktop recorder. With an easy-to-use mixer, 20 recorder tracks, a rhythm sequencer, harmony processing, and well-implemented CD burning, the VS-2000CD should be ideal for a songwriter or a working band. I really like the ability to back up and restore data to my computer. The internal effects have enough flexibility for most situations, and the expansion slots are a real bonus. The VS8F-3 plug-in board is terrific: for the price of a single piece of rack gear, you can load up on great-sounding, flexible plug-ins.

On the downside, the quality of the harmony voices left much to be desired. I would like to have seen support for multiple sampling rates, even at the expense of fewer tracks. I also would have preferred a status light to let me know when phantom power was enabled. Auto-punch is poorly implemented: in spite of what the manual says, you cannot automate multiple passes while looping. Soloing and muting tracks require too many button pushes. Some operations — in particular changing plug-ins and using USB storage mode — take a long time to load.

But once I had installed the VGA expansion board and grabbed the mouse, all was forgiven. Editing, mixing, and mastering were as easy as anything I've done on a computer. For a relatively modest outlay, the VS-2000CD is a machine that can take a recording project from start to finish.


Mark Nelson lives in Southern Oregon's Applegate Valley, where he makes music on things made from wood with strings. You can find him on the Web at www.mark-o.com


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VS-2000CD SPECIFICATIONS

Channels (20) tracks (14 mono, 2 stereo, 1 stereo master); (2) aux send/return; (6) effects send/return; (8) Direct Paths
Track Record/Playback (8) tracks simultaneous recording; (320) virtual tracks; (18) tracks 16-bit playback; (12) tracks 24-bit playback
Sampling Rate 44.1 kHz
Analog Inputs (8) balanced ¼" TRS; (8) balanced XLR with phantom power (switchable in channel pairs); (1) unbalanced ¼" TS high-impedance
Analog Outputs (2) balanced ¼" TRS master; (2) unbalanced RCA monitor; (2) unbalanced RCA aux; (1) ¼" stereo headphones
Digital I/O coaxial S/PDIF
MIDI (1) In, (1) Out/Thru
Other Connectors (1) USB 2.0; (1) ¼" footswitch
Faders (17) nonmotorized
Dynamics compression, expansion on (10) inputs, (20) tracks
EQ 4-band (2 parametric, 2 shelving) on (10) inputs, (20) tracks
Effects (2) internal stereo multi-effects; (6) maximum using expansion slots
Hard-Disk Drive 40 GB
Optical Disc Drive CD-RW; 245 read, 45 write
Additional Features onboard drum machine; (1,000) markers per Project; (96) locate points per Project; expansion options
Dimensions 18.38" (W) 5 4.69" (H) 5 14.56" (D)
Weight 14.8 lbs.


PRODUCT SUMMARY

ROLAND
VS-2000CD

portable digital studio
$2,395

OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4

PROS: Easy to use. USB 2.0 port for archiving and transferring audio tracks. Built-in drum machine. Optional support for mouse, display, and drag-and-drop editing. Optional third-party plug-in support. Easy CD burning.

CONS: Effects parameters can't be automated. No word clock. Lackluster harmony processor. No support for multiple sample rates. Monitor and aux outs use RCA connectors.

MANUFACTURER

Roland Corporation U.S.
www.rolandus.com

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