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ROLAND VM-3100PRO

5/1/2000

If you are thinking, "Just what the world needs: another digital mixer," maybe you are right-minus the sarcasm. Roland has a fine track record of delivering low-cost, high-quality products. That's exactly what the mixer market needs right now, and the VM-3100 series is a darned good start. Just slightly larger than the average hardcover book, Roland's VM-3100 provides analog and digital I/O, high-quality multi-effects processing, scene automation, and external MIDI device control, at a price comparable to those of many compact analog mixers.

For those of you who need still more, the VM-3100Pro version adds a second multi-effects processor, speaker-modeling algorithms (for use with Roland's DS-90 digital reference monitors), and a digital bus (R-BUS) for passing eight channels of audio to and from Lightpipe- or TDIF-compatible devices. I reviewed the VM-3100Pro with a DIF-AT expansion box, but for the purposes of this review I will refer to both units as VM-3100 when features are identical. Any detail specific to the VM-3100Pro will be properly noted.

GAZINTAS AND GAZOUTASThe VM-3100 processes signals internally at 24-bit resolution; the A/D converters on channels 1 through 8 are 24-bit, and those on channels 9 through 12 are 20-bit. Input channels 1 and 2 have balanced 1/4-inch TRS inputs, as well as XLR inputs that can be phantom powered; channels 3 through 8 have unbalanced 1 1/4 4-inch inputs. There are gain pots on channels 1 through 8 labeled simply "Line" and "Mic" at the extreme ends of the range. Channel 4 also provides a high-impedance guitar input. The guitar input and the XLR inputs on channels 1 and 2 override the standard input when engaged.

Input channels 9 through 12 are RCA phono connectors with no gain controls. They are intended for use with CD, cassette, and other line-level inputs. The VM-3100 provides two digital inputs, Digital In A (coaxial) and Digital In B (optical).

Two unbalanced 1 1/4 4-inch outputs function as Master outs, and a stereo headphone jack serves as the Monitor output. You don't get a dedicated monitoring output with its own level control, so either the Master outs or the headphone output will have to feed your speaker setup. The unit has eight additional outputs of various types. Aux Sends 1 and 2 are via unbalanced 1/4-inch connectors. A pair of RCA jacks labeled "Bus Out" is for connection to a recorder. Coaxial and optical stereo digital outs, which are simultaneously available, complete the outputs on the VM-3100. The VM-3100Pro also features an R-BUS connector (see Fig. 1) that attaches to the optional DIF-AT interface ($395), giving you another eight channels of I/O. (The interface also lets you integrate some of Roland's new mixing products and I/O expansion units.) Faders 1 through 8 also double as 13 through 20 when a DIF-AT is present.

I would have liked at least one additional TRS stereo output to serve as a dedicated monitor output (there's room for another connector next to the headphone output). Dedicating the Master outs to a monitoring setup forces you to use the RCA Bus outs for any analog connections to external recorders. Neither are there dedicated returns for the Aux Sends, which use up precious input channels upon return to the mixer.

Another limitation is that the sample rate of internal operation is fixed at 44.1 kHz, which means that the VM-3100 will not sync to digital tapes or recording devices set to 48 kHz. Although you can work around this limitation to some extent by using analog I/O, it does pose a compatibility problem for owners of original blackface ADATs and previously recorded digital MDM or DAT tapes recorded at 48 kHz who wish to remain in the digital domain for mixing (more on this later).

GET IN CONTROLAll of the VM-3100's mixer information, including level, pan, effect, and EQ settings, can be stored as scenes. Eight banks of four scenes allow up to 32 snapshots-plenty for most songs or for storing various routing setups. You can crossfade the scenes at various rates between 0.0 and 10.0 seconds, selectable in 0.1-second increments. However, the crossfade time is global and affects the transition time between all scenes, making it impossible to customize for individual crossfades.

As with most digital mixers, faders 1 through 8 on the VM-3100 serve as level controls for multiple banks of faders, including audio channels 1 through 8, audio channels 13 through 20 (VM-3100Pro only), MIDI channels 1 through 8, and MIDI channels 9 through 16. With the VM-3100, the location of a physical fader doesn't always accurately reflect the volume setting of the newly selected audio or MIDI channel. That's because the faders don't snap into place when different fader banks or scenes are recalled, as they do on some of the more expensive digital mixers.

The VM-3100 offers two modes of operation for matching a physical fader's location to a specific channel's internal setting: Jump or Null. In Jump mode, the internal level automatically changes to match the current fader setting whenever you move the fader. Null mode doesn't change the internal level until the fader reaches the position that corresponds to the volume currently set in the mixer. A graphic representation shows the physical fader's location. Once it reaches the internal level setting, the graphic fader's shape changes to indicate that the Null point has been crossed and that actual volume changes are being made. Unfortunately, the VM-3100 doesn't offer a numeric display of the level setting, so you have to perform fader restoration graphically.

The level faders can also serve as MIDI controllers, and MMC (MIDI Machine Control) Start and Stop buttons allow sequencer transport control. When the unit is properly connected to a MIDI sequencer, real-time changes to the faders (both audio and MIDI) can be recorded and played back through MIDI Time Code. Only volume and panning changes can be made in real time, however; all other parameters (such as EQ, effects, and so on) must be changed by using different scenes.

A handy feature is EZ Routing, an extra set of 32 snapshots that stores the I/O routing and levels for different basic working setups. For example, an EZ Routing preset can contain the level, pan, and EQ settings for your MIDI rig, with stereo RCA inputs 9 through 12 accommodating additional MIDI modules. Another preset could be used specifically for the Guitar input on channel 4, and yet another could store your initial mix template.

The EZ Routing patches remain separate from the scene memories, and reconfiguring for different working environments is a snap. Used in conjunction with a good-quality patch bay, EZ Routing minimizes the routing inconveniences caused by the VM-3100's limited I/O.

Finally, you can save all of the VM-3100's contents to a MIDI sequencer. This enables you to store and recall some elaborate mixes of audio and MIDI.

THE EQUALIZEREach channel, except the Master, has a 3-band parametric EQ. The high and low bands are fixed shelving filters, while the mid band is a peaking type with a variable bandwidth. All bands can be boosted or cut by 12 dB.

If you wish to equalize the Master outs, Bus outs, or Aux Sends, you'll have to patch in an analog EQ, as no internal EQs are dedicated to these outputs and there are no insert points. I would have liked at least a single internal stereo EQ dedicated to the Master outs or, better yet, one that could be assigned to either the Master outs, Bus outs, or Aux Sends. The same goes for the internal effects modules: there are no EQs for the returns. They aren't critical but would have been a nice touch.

Nonetheless, the EQ in the VM-3100 sounds very good, and it is similar to that found in Roland's venerable VS-series recorders. Although not surgically precise, the internal EQs do an excellent job with corrective equalization and creative filtering. Digital EQ gets better every year, and the company has not skimped on the quality of this mixer's EQ, or its effects.

A library holds 16 preset EQ curves, as well as slots for an additional 16 settings that you can name. The library patches can be edited, copied, and deleted. If the channel EQs don't provide enough filtering, you can turn to the more elaborate equalizers in the multi-effects processors.

FEELING THE EFFECTSRoland has really improved its multi-effects processors in the last few years, and the VM-3100's designers held back nothing. In fact, they pulled many of the mixer's algorithms directly from Roland's latest line of effects boxes. The VM-3100 contains a single stereo effects processor; the VM-3100Pro comes with a second processor that includes some of Roland's COSM-based modeling effects for amplifiers and speakers.

The effects sections of the VM-3100 and VM-3100Pro are quite different and mark an important distinction between the two versions. The single effects processor in the standard model allows you to store edited effects only in scene memories, not in user locations. The Pro version, on the other hand, has a Module page where you can turn certain effects on and off, and a Parameters page where you can edit effects. For the additional $300 that the VM-3100Pro costs, you get not only a second effects processor but the ability to edit both internal processors.

The VM-3100Pro's multitude of effects, as well as the parameters available for most of them, is overwhelming. The only problem with the effects processors is that there aren't enough! The reverbs, delays, and choruses are excellent all around, and the COSM-based speaker modeling and guitar-based effects are very well done. The combination of guitar input, multi-effects, and amp simulation provides a very capable guitar rig for direct recording. You don't need anything else except a guitar, a cord, and a performer. I own a Boss GT-5 guitar multi-effects processor, and the VM-3100's effects compare with it admirably in both capabilities and sonic quality.

As with the EQ library, you can store effects as patches for later recall. In addition to 99 presets, you get 99 user slots for storing edited patches (VM-3100Pro only).

The mixer also has two dedicated compressors that can be assigned to any channel except the Master. I didn't find them particularly inspiring, but they were functional. Because only two compressors are available, it's a good idea to use outboard compressors as well while recording. On the other hand, you'll find additional compressors and limiters in the effects section.

PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERSThe DIF-AT option (VM-3100Pro only) allows the transfer of eight tracks of digital audio between the VM-3100Pro and Alesis ADAT-compatible or Tascam DA-series devices. The DIF-AT interface contains sync and audio I/O connectors for both ADAT and Tascam devices in a single box, eliminating the need for different format interfaces. Since synchronization is provided for both formats, you can control the transports of both devices by using the VM-3100Pro's transport controls.

A 25-pin RMDB II cable connects the VM-3100Pro to the DIF-AT. (The company stresses that only cable manufactured by Roland should be used, to prevent damage to the equipment.) Toslink (optical) connectors on the DIF-AT are for ADAT audio I/O, and a TDIF-1 port transfers tracks to and from a DA-series recorder.

The VM-3100Pro's major drawback is its fixed 44.1 kHz sampling rate. This means that any MDM tapes formatted at 48 kHz (ADAT or Tascam) will not play back at the proper speed when connected to a VM-3100Pro through the DIF-AT. With most current ADAT and DA-series recorders, you can eliminate the problem simply by formatting future tapes to 44.1 kHz and maintaining this sample rate. If you've used 44.1 kHz for past projects, everything will work fine. The problem surfaces only with older tapes already formatted and recorded at 48 kHz, and with all recordings made with older blackface ADATs, which operate only at 48 kHz.

In these instances, Roland recommends connecting the recorders to the VM-3100Pro via analog connections. This will surely work, but it misses the point of using a digital mixer. Here's a work-around for blackface ADAT users: either make new recordings to the ADAT while synched to the VM-3100Pro (which will slow down the transport to 44.1 kHz), or pitch the blackface ADAT down 147 cents when recording independently of the DIF-AT/ VM-3100Pro setup. This will effectively change the sample rate from 48 to 44.1 kHz. The ABS time readout will then be slower than real time, but the VM-3100Pro's time-code readout will be correct.

Sampling rates aside, the DIF-AT worked right out of the box. I successfully established digital I/O and sync connections between the VM-3100Pro and my blackface ADAT. I didn't get the chance to test a DA-88, but I haven't heard any reports of problems with either data transfers or synchronization. If you have an ADAT-compatible or DA-series recorder or sound card and are interested in the VM-3100, remember that you must purchase the Pro version.

SLOW FADEThe VM-3100 offers a lot of features for the hobbyist, semipro, or professional with a small MIDI rig or recording setup. The quality of the preamps, A/D/A converters, EQ, and effects is excellent on both models, and the two effects processors on the VM-3100Pro allow for an extraordinary variety of editable parameters. The fact that you can store mixes to scene memories and manually switch them adds to the VM-3100's usefulness. And don't forget that the unit includes a whole guitar rig to boot.

Is the VM-3100 the right mixer for you? That depends on your specific needs. It has a lot of great features but is missing a few things that are important in certain studio environments. I wish it had a dedicated monitoring section, EQ, and compression for the Master and Bus outs, and individually definable crossfades between scenes. Also, the small number of analog inputs may make the mixer unsuitable for MIDI setups that contain a lot of synthesizers and modules. However, you can expand the VM-3100's analog input capacity by using the optional ADA-7000 breakout box ($1,245), which adds eight XLR and 1 1/4 4-inch TRS balanced inputs. You could also use an outboard patch bay.

Limitations notwithstanding, when it comes to sonic quality the VM-3100 is a real winner. And if you have an ADAT or DA-series recorder or sound card, the DIF-AT option is a must for providing eight more channels of I/O. Just remember that if you go for the DIF-AT, you'll need the fully featured VM-3100Pro mixer.

Producer/songwriter Rob Shirak (formerly Shrock) has elected to change his last name back to its traditional spelling. This has made his parents very happy, but his wife-undergoing a temporary identity crisis-is going by her maiden name until further notice.

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