ROLAND CDX-1 DiscLab - EMusician

ROLAND CDX-1 DiscLab

These days, manufacturers are trying all sorts of storage variations for their hardware-based digital recorders. Everything from hard disks to Zip disks
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These days, manufacturers are trying all sorts of storage variations for their hardware-based digital recorders. Everything from hard disks to Zip disks to Smart Media cards have popped up on the front of digital multitracks. Each medium has inherent conveniences — cheap price, stability, durability, availability and so on. But what if you want to share your latest mix with others? You can't just pop into a club or a friend's house expecting people to be able to play your tracks on Smart Media. Roland, understanding that the cheapest and most available storage medium is currently the CD-RW, has built the interesting CDX-1 DiscLab Multitrack Audio Workstation. The CDX-1 records audio to high-speed CD-RW discs for tracks, mixes, samples and stereo masters. It seems that Roland figures that if your project is going to eventually end up on a CD, you might as well do all your work on one, too.

COME UP TO THE LAB

At first glance, the CDX-1 looks pretty much like any hardware multitrack, with eight track faders and one record-level fader. Above each fader is a Track Status button that glows a different color depending on whether the track is record-enabled, muted or set for playback. Directly above the fader section are the Insert and Loop Effects, as well as Input selectors (Mic 1, Mic 2/Bass/Guitar, Line-level left and right, and S/PDIF) and gain controls for the analog inputs.

The transport controls are right up front where you need them, and next to them is the scrub knob for precise locations of edit points, as well as the Auto Punch controls for super-accurate fixes of any mistakes your fumbling fingers may have made. Above the CD tray on the front edge of the unit are the CD Eject button and the CD status lights, which remind you what type of CD is inserted. The CD player and record controls are located above the scrub wheel, controlling track bounce, mixdown settings and mastering tools. A well-laid-out backlit LCD rounds out the top panel (see Fig. 1). Although it is small, the LCD displays a good amount of information clearly. The operating system is icon-based with a minimum number of levels to work through to find the parameters you want to adjust.

On the back of the CDX-1 are its connections to the outside world (see Fig. 2). The CDX-1 provides two ¼-inch and XLR inputs (no phantom power), a dedicated hi-Z guitar/bass input, and left and right RCA line inputs for other instruments. Both optical and coaxial S/PDIF connections keep your tunes in the digital realm. The unit also includes standard MIDI I/O for synching external devices, and a footswitch is present for punch-ins. Master outs provide signal to the monitoring setup of your choice, and a headphone jack is provided for more intimate monitoring moments.

ALL IN ONE BOX

As mentioned previously, the CDX-1 DiscLab uses CDs as the storage medium. The manual states that the CDX-1 requires “high-speed” CD-RW discs; all others are rejected. But it never states what the exact write speed should be. I went with discs rated at 16× or better that had “high speed” written on the label, and they seemed to work fine.

In addition to the CD-RW, the DiscLab uses internal RAM to buffer track recording, sampling and mastering functions. It comes with 32MB stock, which is good for about five minutes of sampling time at the highest quality, but you can pop in a standard 128SIMM module for just over 40 minutes of sample time. Expanded memory allows you to take better advantage of the built-in mastering tools, as well as greatly increases sample time.

The sampling section is a cool addition that lets you sample directly from CDs, as well as import WAV files. However, other than available memory, there are some inherent limitations with the CDX-1, mainly in the area of polyphony. The DiscLab can play back eight mono or four stereo audio tracks or any combination of the two. The problem is that the sample voices cut into the available polyphony, potentially reducing your track count. One way around that is to take advantage of the internal sample-pad sequencer to record all your sample-pad hits. Once you get things the way you want, you can bounce the sample-pad track to an audio track to free up voices. The drag is that you have to plan your samples in advance, which cuts into your ability to just go wild and freestyle on the samples. The CDX-1 also has a memory-optimize function that deletes unused samples from RAM, freeing up space for more samples or a bit more memory overhead for other functions.

After all of your tracks are recorded, you can mix your song to the internal RAM (if your tune is of any length, you will really need the expanded RAM) and burn it to disc. You can apply preset mastering compression and EQ settings before disc-burning to give your jam a more professional sound.

BURNING TRACKS

Roland has made its mark with easy-to-use hardware multitracks, and the CDX-1 DiscLab is no exception. I was able to figure out most of the basic operations without cracking the manual. The icon-based operating system makes sense, and just about every CDX-1 function has a button, knob or fader on the front panel. No hardware level meters, however, are to be found on the CDX-1 — all track-level metering happens from the LCD.

Before you do anything, you have to insert a CD-RW and let the unit prepare itself for recording. This is the point at which you notice that disc-writing functions take longer on the CDX-1 than on hard-disk-based recorders. It's not that big of a deal, but writing tracks to the CD and finding locate points have a bit of delay involved. Once you have the CD prepped and ready to go, recording tracks is as easy as selecting an input source, record-enabling a track (or tracks, as you can record two tracks simultaneously), setting your signal levels, hitting Record and repeating as needed. There are three audio-quality settings for recording. The lower-quality modes produce, well, lower-quality audio. I can't think of many reasons to use them unless you have long tracks and don't have the cash to upgrade the internal memory. The highest-quality setting — 24-bit, 44.1kHz — sounds great, and, to my ears, is indistinguishable from any other digital recorder in the CDX-1's class.

The two effects processors in the CDX-1 are called Insert Effects and Loop Effects. The Insert Effects are mainly for use on input signals while recording. They include all sorts of ways to tweak your sounds (flangers, lo-fi effects, filters and vinyl emulations) — enough to keep you busy in a track-mangling frenzy for hours. Also included are Roland's Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM) physical-modeling guitar and vocal effects. The COSM guitar effects realistically emulate just about any kind of guitar sound you could want — everything from country twang to gnarly metal. The COSM vocal effects are wicked, as well, and include everything from simple compression to psycho vocoder emulations. The Loop Effects operate on each individual track as well as on the sample pads. The effects mostly consist of reverb, chorus and delay settings and don't have a lot of adjustable parameters. Each audio track has a virtual send knob in the LCD for mixing in the Loop Effects and a master effects return knob on the front panel. The delays and chorus sound fine, but the reverb can get a bit fuzzy-sounding if you use it too much, which makes mixing difficult. Use it sparingly.

As mentioned, the CDX-1 has eight sample-playback pads for triggering samples. The samples can be loops or hits, and the loops can be set to play as long as the pad is held down or to loop until you hit the pad a second time. The internal sampler can import WAV files from loop CDs or rip straight from an audio CD. You can also sample from the analog or digital inputs. You can edit the samples by ear with the scrub knob and trim the start and end points to taste. The main drag with the sampler is that it steals voices from the audio tracks. Each stereo-sample sequence takes out two audio channels, so when you have a sample sequence playing, you can't hear audio tracks 1 and 2. Each subsequent sample sequence overrides another two tracks of audio. The sample sequences can be bounced to an audio track, but that only partially fixes the problem, as they eat up another stereo pair of audio tracks. I tried bouncing the stereo-sample audio track to a mono one, which helped with the available track count.

MIXDOWN AND MASTER

Once you record all of your tracks, it's time to mix and master. The DiscLab provides 2-band EQ for each track, for tonal adjustment. It's basic, but the bands are well-chosen and useful for minor tweaks. Although the faders are not automated, you can automate pan adjustments. Once you get your levels and fader moves down, you can listen to your mix. At this point, the CDX-1 plays back your mix from internal memory, and you can apply the mastering effects. The 21 mastering effects combine multiband compression with various EQ settings, and the only editing options are the ability to turn on and off the various EQ and compression stages of the preset. The mastering presets are named for their supposed application — LiveMix, RockBand, DanceMix and so forth. The basic idea is that you play back your mix and apply the various presets until you find one that works for you. I found that the designated presets didn't always give the best results for their respective genres: RockBand worked better for my dance track than the various DanceMix settings. They won't be putting the Record Plant out of business anytime soon, but the mastering effects are a wonderful addition and can give really nice results.

Once you find a mastering setting, you're good to burn your CD. Keep in mind that once you start burning a CD, all your internal memory is zapped and you lose its contents. Be sure you back up your sample-pad memory before you burn a master. Then, just pop in a CD-RW; press CD Burning, and after a few minutes, you have a CD master hot off the press. There is one more step if you wish to play your CD master in a conventional CD player: You have to “finalize” your master. This is no sweat; just go to the Utility menu, select the Disc icon, then select the Final icon, and after a few minutes of grinding in the CD drive, your finished CD is ready.

FINALIZED THOUGHTS

The CDX-1 DiscLab is a unique take on the digital multitrack workstation and does the trick quite nicely. The ability to record to inexpensive and widely available CD-RW media is a big plus, no matter how you slice it. Because the machine does multiduty as multitrack, sampler and CD player/recorder, it goes a long way to justify its price. The only downside is the limited polyphony — it has to be kept in mind constantly when using the DiscLab, which can cut into the creative process if you happen to be on a roll. The addition of COSM guitar-amp and vocal modeling are very sweet features eliminating the need for additional gear.

The DiscLab's ease of use and portability make it a great unit for beginners, whereas its excellent sound quality and mastering features appeal to more sophisticated users looking for a good all-in-one recorder. The CDX-1 DiscLab is definitely worth checking out.

Product Summary

ROLAND
CDX-1 DiscLab
$1,495

Pros: Records to inexpensive CD-RW. Easy to use. Great sound quality. Phrase sampler included. Great effects. Can complete projects from tracking to mastering final CD.

Cons: Polyphony limitations frustrating. Longer wait times for disc access and write.

Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4

Contact: tel. (323) 890-3700 • Web www.rolandus.com