Cakewalk by Roland V-Studio 20 (Mac/Win) Review

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Fig. 1: The hardware component of the V-Studio 20 features audio interface and control-surface capabilities.

Since Roland acquired a major stake in Cakewalk, the two companies have developed products together using Roland''s hardware experience and Cakewalk''s software savvy. The combination of the two has resulted in products such as the V-Studio 700, a comprehensive hardware/software recording system. The V-Studio 20 is less ambitious but is still an intriguing product. It combines a USB audio interface that has some control surface functionality and Roland''s VS-20 Editor software, which lets you access the unit''s BOSS COSM modeling effects for guitar, bass, and vocals. Cakewalk''s Guitar Tracks, a guitar-oriented recording software (Win), is also included.

The V-Studio 20''s hardware component (see Fig. 1) is a plastic-housed unit that has dimensions of 11.8 x 5.7 x 2.2 (WxDxH) inches. On its face it has eight small faders, each with a corresponding Track Select button. It also has transport controls. Each fader''s throw is less than 2 inches, but they have a decent feel—not too stiff and not too loose. The plastic construction makes the VS-20 lightweight and therefore easily portable, although likely not as durable as a metal-housed unit.

On the left side-panel, the VS-20 has a USB port, RCA output jacks, a Foot Switch input (for remote control of record and playback with an optional footswitch), an expresion pedal input, and a ¼-inch headphone jack. The right side-panel has an XLR mic input (phantom power is switched on and off in the VS-20 Editor software), a pair of ¼-inch line inputs, and a ¼-inch hi-Z guitar/bass input. A pair of mics in a stereo configuration is built into the unit, with one mic on either side of the back part of the front panel.

Other front-panel features include an Output Level knob that controls the headphone and main outs, an input control, and switches to activate the various inputs, turn on and off the COSM modeling, and change COSM patches. The DAW output controls the sound of tracks playing from your DAW, while the Direct Monitor knob controls the level of input source that you''re hearing.

Installation of the required software was quick and painless. For Mac and Windows (XP/Vista/7), install a driver and the VS-20 Editor. On the Windows side, you can also install Guitar Tracks. The only copy protection is for Guitar Tracks: You get 30 days to register the product with a serial number. On the Mac, the interface functions will work with any Core Audio software once the driver has been installed. The control surface is premapped to work with Guitar Tracks on the Windows side. On the Mac, the Cakewalk site offers a download of a plug-in that configures the V-Studio 20''s control-surface features to work with Apple Logic and GarageBand. Those control features will also work with any other DAW that supports the Mackie Control protocol, although you''ll have to manually configure it.

After installing the driver and control-surface plug-in on my Mac, I tested the V-Studio 20 in Logic 9. When I opened a session and tried out the VS-20''s faders, they controlled my onscreen faders right off the bat. As there are only eight faders, you can switch them to control successive banks of eight (referred to as Track Groups). There are LED status lights on the V-Studio 20 for groups 1 through 4, and Logic''s onscreen mixer also shows a red line under the group that''s active. The track-group incrementing appears to be unlimited. I set up a blank session with more than 70 tracks and was able to easily jump around between them.

As an audio interface, you can set the VS-20 to record from any of its inputs (XLR, onboard stereo mic pair, stereo line, or guitar/bass), but only through one at a time. There is one exception: By selecting the SIMUL input setting in the Editor, the guitar and XLR inputs are enabled simultaneously. If you''re using the COSM effects, they will only be applied to audio from the XLR input when in SIMUL mode.

I recorded acoustic instruments and vocal tracks through the V-Studio 20''s mic pre, and found it to be relatively transparent (see Web Clip 1) and commensurate in sound quality with other audio interfaces in this price range. If you have an external pre that you want to use with the V-Studio 20, you can connect it through one of the line inputs. The unit''s built-in stereo mic pair sounds decent (see Web Clip 2) and is useful to quickly capture ideas without the need to set up an external mic.

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Fig. 2: The VS-20 Editor software is made to look like a BOSS multi-effects guitar pedal.

The VS-20 Editor software looks like a BOSS multi-effects pedal (see Fig. 2), replete with virtual footswitches for turning on and off the various effects. The upper-left-hand corner is the Preamp section, which offers amp models when in Preamp mode and a vocal harmony processor and pitch corrector when in Vocal mode.

The preamp section sports virtual knobs for gain, bass, middle treble, presence, and level. There are 12 different amp-model types (presumably, each with a matching cabinet model, although those aren''t specified). You get JC-120, Full Range, Clean Twin, Tweed Crunch, VO Drive, Big Lead, MS Vintage, MS Modern (MS presumably is a Marshall), R-Fier (Mesa/Boogie), Ultra Metal, and Bass Amp.

Below the preamp are four virtual effects switches: Comp/FX lets you choose a compressor, a limiter, an auto-wah or a pedal wah (which can be controlled with an expression pedal plugged into the VS-20), and several other effects including a nifty Radio Voice algorithm for vocals. The second switch controls the OD/DS section, which gives you everything from a gain boost to overdrive to metal distortion, as well as bass overdrive. The Modulation section lets you choose from eight different effects, including Chorus, Flanger, Tremolo, and Uni-V. The final virtual footswitch turns on and off a variety of delay types. Reverb is controlled from a single knob, with both room and hall varieties available.

I found that the COSM-modeled amp and effects sounds yielded good but unspectacular results, and were best for overdriven and crunchy sounds (see Web Clip 3). Clean and extremely distorted tones were less realistic to my ears. Overall, the COSM guitar sounds in the V-Studio 20 were not as rich or detailed as what you get in the contemporary generation of amp/effects-modeling plug-ins on the market.

When you switch the preamp section to the Vocal tab, you get a harmony processor that has adjustable parameters for Key, Interval, and Gender. The latter changes the timbre but not the pitch of your voice, and can give it a different sound at subtle settings or more of a devilish or chipmunk-like sound at extreme low or high settings, respectively. You have level and pan controls for both the direct and harmonized vocals.

If you set the vocal section to Pitch Correct, you can dial in a range of pitch correction from subtle to robotic. This section gets a little noisy when you turn the Pitch-Correct level up to high settings, but overall it works pretty well.

Whether you use the guitar or vocal processing, the COSM effects are added before the V-Studio outputs to your DAW, which means that the effects get printed onto your track. This method has some advantages and drawbacks when compared to recording with a modeling plug-in inserted onto your playback channel. One big advantage is that you can monitor directly with effects without latency. In the same way that it would be if you were miking an amp, the sound you''re hearing is the sound being recorded. The flip side is that you''re committing to that sound, whereas with a plug-in you can change it later if you wish.

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Fig. 3: The VS-20 Editor''s Settings window offers several different routing options, the phantom power switch, and other preference settings.

If you''d prefer to re-amp an existing track, there is a re-amping option available among the routing choices in the Settings window of the editor (see Fig. 3). Basically, it routes the output of your DAW through the COSM section. The problem is that you can''t apply it on a track-by-track basis, so you can''t, say, add some distortion to a guitar track and hear it in context because that distortion will be on all of the tracks coming out of your DAW. So you''d have to solo the track you want to re-amp, add the effects, then, if you want to keep everything in the box, send the effected version of the track to an aux track, bus it to another track, and record it.

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Fig. 4: The included Guitar Tracks software (Win) is premapped to work with the VS-20''s control-surface features.

The included Guitar Tracks software for Windows (see Fig. 4) seems to be aimed at novice recordists. It''s a spin-off of Cakewalk SONAR, but with a much more limited feature set. (Although, surprisingly, it has a video track.) If you have a fully featured DAW already, I doubt you''d opt for Guitar Tracks.

That said, you can record, edit, and mix audio in it, and on the MIDI side it has a Roland TTS-1 GM/GM2 instrument built in. However, it has no other MIDI instruments, although you can access other DirectX and VST instruments that reside in your system. It also comes with a collection of audio loops and MIDI backing tracks.

Overall, the V-Studio 20 is an appealing product, especially if you''re a guitar player. It''s quite versatile and cost effective, and handles the duties of multiple devices in one. For me, it doesn''t have enough inputs or a good enough mic preamp to use as my main studio interface. However, it would work well as an interface for a portable laptop songwriting rig, as an auxiliary unit for tracking through the COSM models, or for its controller features. Cakewalk and Roland have shown here, as with other products, that their collaboration is a fruitful one.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the V-Studio 20 product page.