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electronic MUSICIAN

ROLAND V-SYNTH XT

By JASON SCOTT ALEXANDER | September 1, 2005

NO ONE-TRICK PONY >The brand-new Roland V-Synth XT houses various synthesis types, sampling, VariPhrase technology, COSM effect modeling, real-time remixing controls and loads more in a compact rackmount unit.

Roland has a long history of technological innovation behind its name and, along with it, a blazing trail of trademarks that the industry has become accustomed to spieling without even realizing it. When Roland released the V-Synth keyboard back in 2003, it appeared as the poster child for the company's latest batch of breakthroughs. In particular, it showcased Roland's VariPhrase technology as first introduced in the VP-9000 processor; the latest Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM) effects, the first of which were originally seen in the VG-8 guitar effects box; innovative D Beam infrared sensor and Time Trip pad control technologies; and the V-Synth's own Elastic Audio Synthesis engine, including Roland's latest incarnation of sampling and analog-modeling technologies.

Although the V-Synth's individual ingredients were intriguing, the ultimate recipe was perhaps a bit too eclectic for many people's palates at the time, attracting a vibrant but niche-size following of fans. Now, two years later, the V-Synth XT sets out to make a point that, just perhaps, many overlooked its vast potential.

THE FAMILY V

When it first rolled out and reviewers posted their takes, the original V-Synth was a tricky little monkey to pin down and define. Many critics — including yours truly — pointed a skeptical finger at the unit's apparent identity crisis. On one hand, the V-Synth was an unconventional-sounding virtual-analog and pulse-code-modulation synthesizer; on the other, it stole the show as an übersampler at heart with an uncanny alternative to the pitch and time constraints of traditional multisampling. Getting its V from VariPhrase, the V-Synth was the first hardware synth that allowed you to fluidly stretch, speed up, slow down, reverse, chop and otherwise tweak audio samples in real time without changing their pitch and vice versa. Not a workstation and, conversely, not a specific-duty-focused synthesizer, per se, the V-Synth and its highly experimental, surreal factory preset banks and high price point had all the underpinnings of a product that wouldn't get its fair shake at retail.

The brand-new V-Synth XT represents growth on an extraordinary proof of concept and reinforces Roland's understanding that performing artists and studio producers, alike, still believe that dedicated hardware offers more than just a single advantage to software. As you'll see in this review, along with an attractive new tote-worthy design, several extremely cool new features and exclusive enhancements, as well as a slightly lower street price than the still-available keyboard version, the V-Synth XT is clearly focused on the correct demographic. And even though smaller, rackable gear is often called the little sibling to its keyboard counterpart, the V-Synth XT is no baby!

XTRA SPECIAL

Literally ready to rack and roll, the unit kicks off all things new with a rackmountable design that can be mounted flush or tilted and locked at an angle that best suits your work or available rackspace. Weighing in at just less than 10 pounds, the unit has a solid feel without being so heavy that you can't easily wing it under your arm to a gig. Loaded with the latest version 2 V-Synth operating system (examined later), the XT trumps the keyboard by including some enviable exclusives. In addition to its user sampling, Elastic Audio manipulation and analog synth modeling, the XT comes preinstalled with Roland's VC-1 (D-50 Emulator) and VC-2 (Vocal Designer) cards — a combined $450 value. Although the XT can function under only a single V-Card at a time, at the touch of a button, you can easily switch among V-Synth, D-50 and Vocal Designer.

Also new on the V-Synth XT is USB audio streaming, enabling it to act as a rudimentary audio interface to your computer for additional sound-design and external-processing possibilities. You can also use the onboard USB to perform drag-and-drop sample and patch file transfers or act as a MIDI interface. The USB drivers and a bare-bones librarian program come on CD for Windows and Macintosh (including Tiger), updatable at www.rolandus.com.

Aesthetically speaking, the V-Synth XT is a lesson in beautiful simplicity and ergonomic design. Centered on its clean-line front panel is a bright graphic 320×240-pixel backlit color LCD with touch screen, improving on the original's monochrome display. Just to the left and close to all touch-screen activities is a numeric keypad. There, you'll find the V-Card button for Live Switching, the Preview button for auditioning patches, numerical keys 0 through 9 and Bank± buttons. The keypad also functions as a Patch Palette, allowing you to select your favorite patches quickly. Adjacent is an LCD Contrast knob. To the right of the LCD is a bank of eight soft knobs for controlling onscreen parameters in real time. Below these is a PC Card slot that can accommodate Microdrive, SmartMedia or CompactFlash memory with an appropriate PCMCIA card adapter. Farther down are navigation controls, a couple of buttons for accessing various mode and control screens and a Value knob that you can press to execute an enter command when dialing up values.

The V-Synth XT provides a variety of input paths for sampling and external audio processing. To the front panel's far left reside the most frequently accessed connections: a USB connector with an associated activity LED and a Neutrik ¼-inch/XLR microphone combo jack with Input level knob. A ¼-inch headphone jack and master Volume knob complete the front. Around back, you'll find the standard fare: stereo ¼-inch balanced outs; stereo ¼-inch direct outs; stereo ¼-inch inputs; coaxial and optical S/PDIF inputs and outputs; and MIDI In, Out and Thru. These rear jacks are angled in such a way that cables and plugs won't eat up space above the rack when installed.

You can sample directly into the synth via its audio inputs, import samples through USB (WAV and AIFF formats) or feed it live audio for processing in real time, making the V-Synth XT a unique-sounding and powerful effects rack. The front-panel input has a Hi-Z switch to accept high-impedance devices such as guitar or bass, and the XLR connection has phantom power, enabling the XT to be a full-blown vocoder or harmony machine in Vocal Designer mode.

I am disappointed that the orange-backlit voice Structure buttons from the V-Synth are missing in the rack version. Providing a clear indication of the oscillator and COSM effects routing, particularly live, they are an indispensable means by which you can try out alternate structures nondestructively, at the press of a button, while continuing to play with one hand. Now, making quick structure tweaks live is a two-handed Shift-click affair on the LCD. About the only other thing from the keyboard V-Synth that you lose on the rackmount are the dual D Beam controls, though the V-Synth XT is fully responsive to D Beam and all other controllers from the original V-Synth. What about the cool Time Trip pad, you ask? It has not been forgotten, just creatively accommodated as a special mode on the touch display.

HANDS ON

Here's a crash course on V-Synth voice structure for the uninitiated: There are essentially six elements that make up a sound; these include two oscillators, a modulation section, two COSM blocks (filters and more) and a time-variant amplifier. Being a variable-oscillator synth, you can choose analog-modeling, PCM or external input as your type for each oscillator. Modulation of the two oscillators can be of the mix, ring, FM, sync and env-ring variety — the latter uses the envelope of oscillator 2 to control the volume of oscillator 1. COSM effects are 16 strong and range from time-variant and sideband filters to waveshapers, overdrive/distortion, amp and speaker simulation, resonators, dynamics and bit reducers; there's even a dedicated TB-303 filter type. Each COSM effect loads with its own set of parameter tabs, including dedicated LFO in most cases. The time-variant amplifier offers both ADSR envelope and LFO control, and the oscillators themselves (depending on type) typically each have four ADSR envelopes and a dedicated LFO with eight selectable wave shapes.

As I alluded to earlier, each structure element can be turned on or off and arranged into one of three available structure types. The most conventional structure sees both oscillators combined and fed through both COSM blocks in series. You can also structure the oscillators with the COSM blocks asymmetrically or pair them in parallel — handy when morphing between two discrete sounds. From there, a sound can pass through the V-Synth XT's multi-effects (41 types to choose from), chorus (eight) and reverb (10).

Okay, so where does the much-talked-about VariPhrase come into all of this, you ask? Essentially the world's coolest remix sampler in disguise, the XT's PCM-mode oscillators are deceivingly powerful and the heart of the unit's sampler mode. Setting them apart is a series of switches at the bottom of the PCM oscillator page. The Vari switch determines whether a sample will be produced using VariPhrase. When it's on, the selected sample undergoes real-time pitch shifting and time stretching, skirting around the detrimental effects that traditional samplers impose when they're played higher or lower than the sample's root. (VariPhrase can be switched off, separately for each PCM oscillator, to achieve traditional sample playback.) This partially explains Roland's decision not to implement multisampling on the V-Synth XT.

One of the coolest advantages of VariPhrase is that the playback location and acceleration of a sample can be changed in real time without affecting pitch. Using the Time Trip pad, you can control directional playback of a sample by circling the pad with your fingertip and control its pitch by playing the keyboard; with the oscillator Beat Keep switched on, your samples can chase back to the beat location prior to your Time Trip movements. The pad can also be assigned an x-y vector-style mode. You can assign the pad to control upward of eight parameters per oscillator, choosing from a list of 78 possible destinations, and you can even map Time Trip and x-y control atop each other. Another wicked offshoot VariPhrase technology is the V-Synth XT's unique Legato playback mode. Unlike traditional samplers that overlap samples played in staggered (think “row, row, row your boat”), the V-Synth plays the sample notes in time, no matter when you start them. This allows you to bring in harmonies after the first note is played or effortlessly change a melody line on the fly.

The maximum polyphony of the V-Synth XT is 24 notes, but your mileage can be lower depending on the oscillator and COSM effect types you use. Multitimbral operation is supported to 16 parts, though I never once wanted to use it for more than two. There's plenty of storage allocation to go around in the unit, as well. The largest unit of memory is called a Project, which contains a max of 512 patches, 999 waves and various system settings and is stored on a 50MB memory card installed internally. Only one Project can be held internally at a time, but you can store others to PC Cards or to computer with USB. When you turn the instrument on, all 224 factory samples — that's 30 MB — get shuffled over to a temporary RAM area. The larger the Project, the longer it takes to boot. From the factory, you only have enough RAM for about 115 seconds of stereo user samples. Clear out the factory waves, and you can bump this figure to 280 seconds or 560 seconds in mono. Factory waves can be restored at the touch of a button from a copy-protected Preset Memory.

OS CLOSE-UP

Although the V-Synth version 2 operating system that comes loaded in the XT has been available for the original V-Synth for some time, it's worth examining its many benefits. Most noticeable are the completely new playable sound banks, with a whopping 512 patch presets replacing the twisted and otherworldly atmospheres that tended to label the original V-Synth as a one-trick pony in stores. It also brings new analog-modeled oscillators from the classic JP-8000 into the lineup. Now, it has things like the massive-sounding SuperSaw oscillator, which essentially generates seven sawtooth waveforms in unison for a wall of sound; the Polyphonic Feedback oscillator for screaming leads; and the cross-modulation X-Mod oscillator for creating clangorous, distorted timbres.

If you were to construct a sound from scratch on the V-Synth, normally, you'd initialize the patch and choose your oscillator, filter, envelope and so on. In version 2, you have something called Sound Shaper, which contains templates of common sounds by category. For example, choosing the PolySynth category, you can call up templates for dreamy phased pads, trancey megasaws, detuned German-style techno stacks and so forth. In fact, Roland has done a lot to make working with the V-Synth XT fast and intuitive, including the sampling templates that preconfigure a sample input chain for you. Depending on whether you're sampling from the mic, line, USB or S/PDIF or resampling, it will organize your routing with or without compression and limiting, assign a trigger mode and so on. There's even a cool metronome that you can turn on or off for sampling in live riffs. Also new is Rhythm Mode, with which you can construct your rhythm sets from different oscillator types, each with individual key control of level, panning, multi-effects sends, chorus and reverb sends. Conceivably, you could have an analog-modeled kick, a PCM snare and a sampled break loop all in the same kit.

Undoubtedly, though, the coolest new feature in version 2 is the 4-track Multi Step Modulator, with which you can control as many as four parameters across a 16-step sequence, changing the grid to any note duration you like. You can enter modulation values for each step by either turning corresponding soft knobs or using the cool hand-draw facility; a smooth mode is also available. It's a snap to completely animate a typical-sounding sample, riff, vocal run or beat into new and very groovy territories. Also keep in mind that you can combine this effect with the V-Synth's powerful polyphonic 32-step arpeggiator, all the while editing parameters while holding or playing notes — insanely cool.

LOVELY LITTLE NUMBER

I couldn't wrap up this review without giving special mention to the V-Cards installed. The D-50 card takes you back to 1987, perfectly emulating LA (Linear Arithmetic) synthesis with full programmability via touch screen and soft knobs, including all original waveforms and 28 brand-new ones. There are six write-protected preset banks with 64 patches each: Bank 1 is the original D-50 bank, containing favorites like Fantasia, Digital Native Dance, Living Calliope, Intruder FX and more; Bank 2 is new and crosses over to modern material, even paying tribute to Roland's JV series a bit with the odd 1080 program. Programs such as Daft Lead, Hard Whoover, Space Harp, Dance Choir and Musique Concrete show that the D-50 sound has come a long way. Banks 3 through 6 contain all 256 programs as found on the PN-D50-01-04 cards originally sold for the D-50 and D-550; these are mostly orchestral, organ and general keyboard material. There are also eight internal user banks — the first six contain overwriteable copies of the presets — and the VC-1 card accepts SysEx dumps, so you can even load in your dusty old D-50 saves.

The Vocal Designer is essentially a high-resolution vocoder and vocal-synthesis engine. Although Roland boasts its ability to authentically mimic small and large choirs, I wasn't impressed or convinced by the results. That's not to say, though, that generating massive choruslike pads from your own voice that can be perfectly pitch-tracked to your keyboard playing isn't amusing and useful in some situations. But I didn't find it nearly as fun or practical as the more robotic and funk-style models.

Overall, though, I do wholeheartedly agree with Roland's claim that the V-Synth XT represents a form and function breakthrough. True, modern musicians have been spoiled by software, but could a laptop PC or PowerBook get you the same results? Not likely. No other instrument offers as many intricately balanced features or elaborate hardware-based modulation routings and achieves the same effortless flow and synchronicity between virtual-analog synthesis, real-time sample manipulation and live audio processing. In fact, the V-Synth XT is about as close to a dream live-remixing tool as I could ever ask for.

ROLAND

V-SYNTH XT > $2,499

Pros: Expressive multisynthesis and real-time sample-manipulation tools. Latest COSM effects. Powerful performance features and controls. D-50 and Vocal Designer cards built in. Adjustable rackmounting. Solid construction. Excellent connectivity, including USB 2.0. Fun to use. Intuitive and inspirational.

Cons: Long boot times. Can't play in multiple V-Card modes simultaneously. Expensive.

Contact: www.rolandus.com

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