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electronic MUSICIAN

Roland Fantom

By David Bryce | July 1, 2002

Since pioneering the affordable keyboard workstation with the D20 in 1988, Roland has always maintained a strong presence in that market. The company's XP-series workstations, for example, were among the best-selling keyboards in the '90s.

As that decade drew to a close, greater numbers people started using their computers for sequencing, and the market seemed to indicate that interest in the keyboard workstation was declining. However, that trend seems to have reversed itself, and keyboard workstations are once again selling in healthy quantities.

Roland's Fantom is something of a stylistic departure from its other keyboard workstations and is targeted toward users who are not attracted to bells and whistles. Fantom's interface is simple in appearance and operation, yet it has lots of easily accessible features.

GHOSTWRITER

The first thing I do when I get a new piece of gear is see how deep I can get into it without using the manual. For the most part, I was able to get the Fantom to do what I wanted it to without using the owner's manual as anything but an occasional reference. That's a good thing. After a few days, I thumbed through the Quick Start guide to catch up on a few missing details.

The Fantom comes with four manuals. The first is a well-written and easily digestible Quick Start guide. It offers an excellent overview of the unit, guiding you through hardware setup, sounds, performance features, and a sequencing tutorial. In contrast, the owner's manual is dry and dense. The remaining manuals, a Sound/Parameters list and a Q&A/troubleshooting guide, both proved useful.

ALL THE MOD CONS

The Fantom's interface is approachable and intuitive. Anyone who has ever navigated PC menus should feel right at home behind the controls of this instrument: I found myself reflexively reaching for a mouse more than once.

Most of the Fantom's functionality is tied to its large 320-by-240 display, which is jam-packed with information. It's a bit like a miniature computer monitor, and many of the Fantom's functions are, in fact, menu driven: everything is laid out in menus, submenus, and grids. At first glance, I thought the display was a touch screen, but unfortunately, it's not.

Instead, you navigate the majority of the onscreen functions and features using the alpha wheel, increment (Inc) and decrement (Dec) buttons, and the four-way cursor arrows to the right of the display. A dedicated Menu button gives you well-organized access to all of the unit's editing functions, and an Exit button is provided so that you can always escape from the depths of the editing labyrinth. In addition, there are eight soft buttons under the display that give you instant access to your most frequently used programs (Favorites) when you're playing the keyboard and allow for extended menu selection and navigation in many of the other screens.

A Shift button provides some of the other controls with secondary functions. It is also used for on-the-fly program storage in the Favorites banks, as an arpeggiator latch, and as part of a rhythm-pattern generator. There is also a Jump button, which (among other functions) allows instant access to the editing screens for the real-time controllers (except for the pitch bend/mod paddle) and the arpeggiator/rhythm sections: simply hold it down and touch the control you want to edit.

The dedicated Mode button helps you access the Fantom's three modes: Patch, Multitimbre, and Performance. I found the implementation of the Mode button a bit awkward. I expected it to immediately switch between the three modes. Instead, it takes you to a menu where you use the navigation controls to select which mode you want. Then you must push one of the soft buttons under the screen to actually enter the new mode. That is too much effort for so simple a task.

Patch mode (see Fig. 1) is for playing and editing the instrument's individual programs. Fantom comes with 7 banks of 128 patches: five presets with 128 patches each, one General MIDI 2 (GM2) bank with 256 sounds, and one bank of 128 user patches. The factory user bank is made up of “best-of” patches from the preset banks. Multitimbre mode (see Fig. 2) is intended for sequencing and comes with 16 useful preset templates (Rock, Jazz, Hip-hop, Techno, Orchestral, and so on), and 16 user template slots. Performance mode (see Fig. 3) allows you to split and layer as many as 16 patches across the keyboard in any manner. There are 64 preset performances and 64 user slots.

The Performance and Multitimbre preset banks are duplicated in the user bank when the unit first ships. I think that is a good idea because it encourages users to dig in and create custom setups without fearing that they will overwrite something important.

On the left-hand side of the instrument are the performance and transport controls. The Fantom has four toggle switches, which illuminate when activated, and four real-time knobs. Their functions vary from program to program, but their current assignments are displayed on the screen in Patch mode in any case. The preset value of the knobs is displayed until one of them is turned, and then the value immediately reflects the knob's physical position.

I found what appears to be either a slight bug or an oversight in the operating system regarding the soft buttons. If one of them is set to toggle a parameter (such as Portamento on/off or Mono/Poly) and that function is already engaged as part of a Program, you would expect that pressing the switch would turn that parameter off. Not so: it takes two button presses to disengage the assigned parameter; the first press simply lights the button. (Roland is aware of the problem and is working to correct it.)

SPIRITED CONTROLS

The Fantom also includes tape-style transport controls for the sequencer; dedicated on/off buttons for the arpeggiator and rhythm pattern generator; a D-Beam controller; and the Roland combination pitch bend/mod paddle. I find that the paddle functions nicely as a pitch bender, but it is a weak mod controller because there is no way to leave it engaged.

The rear panel (see Fig. 4) has a pair of balanced ¼-inch main outputs; a set of unbalanced ¼-inch auxiliary outputs; MIDI In, Out, and Thru; and inputs for one momentary footswitch and two continuous foot controllers, which are assignable. The Fantom also has two S/PDIF outputs — one is coaxial (RCA), the other optical (Toslink) — which is a nice touch. A contrast knob and a stereo ¼-inch headphone jack are also located on the rear panel.

BUILDING BLOCKS

The Fantom's 64-voice architecture is based on Roland's latest XV engine, which essentially employs the same four-layer-per-program ROMpler technology that the company has been using successfully for years. However, there are a few new twists: it has four times the ROM, 24-bit D/A converters and effects, and the ability to access the new, larger expansion boards.

In addition, it is now possible to use two waveforms in a single tone. The Fantom's wave ROM contains a selection of stereo samples, including piano, organ, brass, strings and drums. As you might suspect, using these robs polyphony, so building a four-tone patch with each tone using two waveforms requires eight voices per note. I found that the Fantom's layered piano and pad patches in particular suffered from fairly noticeable voice stealing compared to similar patches on other instruments I own (all of which have the same amount of polyphony or less).

Roland has made the Fantom expandable, but they have chosen to limit the unit's expansion capabilities to two of the newer SRX boards and just one of their numerous SR-JV ROM sets. The expansion boards are easily installed by even the most technophobic end-user.

Among the noteworthy features of the Fantom's architecture are real-time parameters that can be linked up using a modulation matrix. The easy-to-understand grid in Patch Edit mode allows you to assign as many as 4 sources to any combination of 33 different destinations. These can be toggled on and off on a per-tone basis. Moreover, commonly used parameters — Cutoff; Resonance; and Attack, Decay, and Release times — have already been mapped to dedicated Continuous Controller commands, making controlling them much more convenient. You can assign and control as many as four additional effect parameters in the same manner.

Another program parameter that caught my attention is called Analog Feel, which applies 1/f Modulation intended, according to the manual, to “simulate the instability characteristic of an analog synthesizer.” Basically, it makes the instrument's tuning drift using an LFO to change the pitch. The user can set the amount of Analog Feel between 0 and 127, but there's no way to control the LFO's speed. Nice idea, but to my ear it resembles sample and hold more closely than it does analog drift.

In its attempt to make the Fantom more user-friendly than other keyboard workstations, Roland didn't put a sampler in the instrument. At first that may seem to put the product at a disadvantage. But for a musician who wants a no-nonsense, easy-to-use compositional tool, the sampler might not be missed.

LISTEN UP

The basic sounds in Program mode are organized into banks of 128 patches. These can be called up in numerical order or viewed by category. I really miss having a numeric keypad somewhere on the synthesizer: selecting programs on the Fantom without one is somewhat frustrating because you're restricted to the data wheel and the Inc and Dec buttons (you can hold down the Shift button to increase the dial speed). Roland does give you instant access to any of the 64 sounds stored in eight banks of eight Favorites. That is helpful, but there's still no way to just immediately grab any program in the instrument.

The sounds in the Fantom, including one of the more interesting sets of electronic patches I've heard, are very impressive. It took me quite a while to get through them all because I kept getting inspired to cut tracks. There is a full range of leads, from sweet to searing; pads, both lush and evolving; fat synth brass; gorgeous strings; lots of great basses; and numerous complex and intriguing textures and effects guaranteed to provide a wealth of inspiration.

If the Fantom's sound set has a weakness, it's in some of the acoustic emulations. The piano's decay segment, for example, is a bit short. The way the samples are looped makes sustained notes sound a little unnatural, and the velocity crossover between the soft- and hard-strike samples is a bit choppy. I also found the electric guitars somewhat lacking. Of course, if these instruments are an important part of your music, you can add one of the SR-JV or SR-X expansion ROMs. The SRX-02 Concert Piano expansion board, for instance, features a 64 MB grand piano set.

In contrast to the electric guitars, I really like the Fantom's electric pianos, Clavinets, and acoustic guitars tremendously. The majority of the orchestral instruments were more than adequate, but they left me wondering how much of an improvement I'd get if I added an orchestral ROM.

Because Roland provides an easy way to globally defeat the effects, I was able to audition many of the sounds in their dry state. You're probably going to want to leave the effects on, because they are as integral to the sonic architecture of the instrument as the synthesis elements.

GENERAL EFFECTS

In addition to separate reverb and chorus/delay, the Fantom has 90 multi-effects (MFX) configurations that give you a huge variety of individual and combined effects to choose from. They include most of the effects you'd expect to find, as well as ring mod, mono and stereo formant filtering, lo-fi noise and compression, and, of course, the ubiquitous Roland Beat Slicer.

Effects combinations can be found in simple two-way combinations, such as Distortion/Delay or Overdrive/Flanger, and in more complex combinations identified by names like Keyboard Multi (ring mod, 3-band EQ, pitch shifter, phaser, and delay) or Stereo Overdrive (overdrive, amp simulator, and 2-band EQ). Roland has also woven its RSS 3-D imaging technology and its COSM modeling into the mix. Used mainly for guitar-amp simulations, COSM is also lots of fun on synth leads, electric-piano patches, and organ emulations.

LET'S MAKE TRACKS

Another of the Fantom's standout features is its onboard sequencer. The large display gives you an environment that resembles a PC version of Roland's MRC software. Almost every task that you need is easily accessible.

The majority of the sequencer's mixing functions are available in the main screen of Multitimbre mode, which gives a list of 16 parts, each with its own settings for Channel, Solo, Mute, Patch Selection, Output Assignment, Chorus, and Reverb. Choose a track to work on, select your Program, hit record, and off you go. Want a scratch rhythm track, or maybe some drum loops to build dance tracks around? Just toggle a track to Rhythm status, select a drum kit, engage the rhythm-pattern generator, and start pressing keys to get perfectly placed loops. You can even play sampled drums in real-time as you're laying the loops down. Synchronization happens transparently: the rhythm patterns, arpeggios, LFOs, and time-based effects automatically lock to the sequencer's tempo.

Although the sequencer does give you a generous 120,000 notes of memory, everything must be archived to the floppy drive: anything that's not backed up is lost when the machine is turned off. The Fantom uses the floppy drive as its memory repository: all songs are accessed from it, and only one song can be active in the Fantom's memory at a time. Thankfully, the software lets you play songs immediately from diskette, either individually (Quick Play) or in groups (Chain Play), without having to load them into the internal memory.

MOVIN' AND GROOVIN'

The Fantom's arpeggiator provides 88 preprogrammed arpeggio patterns, which Roland calls styles, to choose from. Each arpeggio style includes variations, and there are ten motifs that control the order in which the notes are arpeggiated. You can also edit the arpeggios' accent rate, shuffle amount, and resolution. Those powerful features should help make up for the fact that you can't program your own arpeggio patterns from scratch, adjust the gate time of the notes, or trigger arpeggios while the chord just played is still sounding.

The Fantom's rhythm-pattern generator is a series of specialized arpeggios that works on any of the drum kits. A different pattern is mapped to each key within a single octave. When used with the drum and rhythm programs, the rhythm-pattern generator provides a nice assortment of instantly accessible beats and phrases. Try using it in a Performance setup with other drum sounds and a few synth patches to get your creative juices flowing.

UNMASKED

Roland's Fantom is a powerful and flexible workstation with a great-feeling keyboard, a comprehensive feature set, and a screaming collection of patches. Although I was a bit disappointed by a few of the acoustic samples, overall the Fantom sounds great, and you can easily augment its sound set with expansion boards.

Roland seems to have created Fantom for musicians who want something they can use with ease and program without feeling intimidated. The instrument is aimed perhaps at more ambitious GM customers who want something they can grow into. This concept can be as appealing to professionals as it is to hobbyists: as a seasoned synth user, I was relieved to play something this intuitive for a change. Sometimes it's nice to just be able to plug and play and get great results.


David Bryce is a keyboardist, composer, and voice-over artist living in the Los Angeles area. He also claims to make killer lasagna.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Roland
Fantom
keyboard workstation
$2,295

FEATURES 4.0
EASE OF USE 4.5
DOCUMENTATION 4.0
VALUE 4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Sensible interface. Big display. Great-feeling keyboard. Optical and coaxial S/PDIF outputs.

CONS: Limited expansion capability. No alphanumeric keypad. Stereo layers can reduce polyphony. No sampler.

Manufacturer

Roland Corp. U.S.
tel. (323) 890-3700
Web www.rolandus.com

Fantom Specifications

Analog Outputs (2) balanced ¼" TRS; (2) unbalanced ¼" TS; (1) ¼" stereo headphone
Digital Outputs S/PDIF coaxial and optical (24-bit, 44.1 kHz)
Additional Inputs (1) sustain pedal, (2) footpedal controllers
MIDI Ports (1) In, (1) Out, (1) Thru
Sound Engine sample playback; subtractive synthesis
Keyboard 76-key semiweighted; transmits Velocity, Channel Pressure
Polyphony 64 notes
Multitimbral Parts 16
Voice Memory ROM: 256 GM and 9 GM drum kits; 640 Patches and 16 Kits
RAM: 128 user and 16 user drum kits
Performance Memory ROM: 64 preset; RAM: 64 user
Multitimbral Memory ROM: 16 preset; RAM: 16 user
Waveform ROM 64 MB (1,083 waveforms)
Waveform Expansion SR-JV series (1 slot); SRX series (2 slots)
Effects Chorus (2 types), Reverb (4 types)
Multi-Effects 90 types
Arpeggiator 88 preset styles
Preset Rhythms 50 styles for each of the 12 patterns
Sequencer 16 tracks, 120,000 notes, 480 ppq resolution, SMF and MRC-Pro song import, one song in memory at a time
Real-Time Controllers pitch/mod paddle; (4) assignable knobs; (4) assignable sliders; D-Beam
External Media 3.5" floppy drive
Display 320 × 240 pixel backlit LCD
Dimensions 49.94" (W) × 4.56" (H) × 15.75" (D)
Weight 32.69 lb.

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