FIG. 1: In addition to the knobs and sliders (left) and the great big color LCD (middle), the Fantom-G has a bank of 16 backlit pads that can trigger drum sounds or whole phrases.
Only the largest manufacturers have the muscle to build a modern workstation keyboard. These keyboards are designed to let you do everything, including multitrack audio recording, without going near a computer. Roland's latest entries, the Fantom-G series, are workstations on steroids. The huge color LCD caught my eye first, but backing it up are a massive patch library, sampling, a feature-rich front panel, and much more.
Three models are available, which differ only in the number of keys: the G6 (61 keys, $2,999), which is the one that I tested; the G7 (76 keys, $3,749); and the G8 (88 keys, $4,299). The G8 features Roland's PHA II “Ivory Feel” keyboard, which supposedly reproduces the surface feel of ivory acoustic piano keys.
A review that discussed every detail of this massive machine would fill the entire magazine. I'll hit the high spots, and you can read details about the built-in sequencer online (see the online bonus material at emusician.com).
Knobs and Sliders and Buttons, Oh My!
The Fantom's physical package is luxurious. The 8.5-inch color LCD (see Fig. 1) is not touch sensitive, but a mouse can be plugged into a rear-panel jack. I had no trouble navigating the graphical user interface without a mouse, which is fortunate because my keyboard rack is not equipped with a mouse pad platform.
To the left of the LCD is a bank of eight sliders and four knobs. These do various things depending on which of the Fantom's three main modes you're in. In Studio and Live modes, the sliders normally are mixer faders, and in Single mode, they're assigned to useful voice parameters, such as filter cutoff and attack time. You can create your own slider-assignment templates.
The 16 pads on the right side have numerous uses, including arpeggiator control, triggering percussion and MIDI phrases, and 10-key data entry. The pads have to be smacked firmly; when using them for data entry, I found that I could press lightly and feel a pad's sensor connect, but no data was entered.
In the upper left corner is Roland's D Beam infrared sensing controller. The D Beam can be used to transmit Control Change data to the synth, play a theremin-like monophonic Solo Synth, or trigger a sample when you wave your hand over it. Live performers will appreciate the D Beam, but I found the Solo Synth hard to control. Its sound can be tweaked heavily, but in general the tone is not analog enough to appeal to me. It sounds digital both because of aliasing and because the motion sensing is noticeably stepped, not smooth.
Around back are some noteworthy luxury features. In addition to stereo line-level audio inputs for recording, the Fantom has a combo XLR/guitar input with a level knob and phantom power. The three USB jacks let you connect a mouse, connect to your computer, and plug in a storage device all at once. The storage jack is also used for updating the OS; just download the OS to your computer, copy it to a USB flash drive, and load it into the unit from the drive. You can't load a new OS into the synth directly from a computer.
I like the sound of the Fantom-G a lot, and with twice the waveform capacity of Roland's previous flagship workstation, all of the types of sounds I use are well represented, from synth basses, leads, and pads to snappy drum kits. So many of the sounds are of high quality that I'm not going to bother listing favorites. In Single mode, finding patches in the preset library of more than 1,650 items is easy thanks to the category-based list. You can add considerably more sounds by plugging in up to two Roland ARX expansion boards.
The Fantom-G sounds feature Roland's SuperNatural modeling technology, which is designed to enable subtle, organic tonal changes and playing nuances. The voicing parameters are deep, but longtime Roland users will find few surprises. Each Patch comprises four Tones, and each Tone has its own filter, envelope generators, a pair of LFOs, and so on. The voice architecture uses Roland's familiar scheme for pairing Tones in Structures, allowing dual filtering, ring modulation, and so forth.
A step generator is available as an LFO “waveform.” This can be used for stepped filter patterns or to gate the oscillator tone, thereby producing rhythm patterns. Pattern length is constrained to 16, 32, or 64 steps.
None of the Hammond organ Patches have authentic Hammond percussion (an attack transient) because the Fantom's Mono/Poly switch is at the Patch level rather than being at the level of single Tones within the Patch. Some other workstations produce this type of sound more effectively.
The 512 Live mode presets include some beautiful layered tones, gig splits, 8-way menus for quick selection of various leads, and so on. The selection is a grab bag, because no category list is provided. The LFO-based step generator is used to create analog-style drum patterns in some of the Live mode layers. The beats sound very old school and primitive, and the Fantom's arpeggiator is too basic to play drum patterns, nor can it run separate arpeggiations on several channels at once. For full-on drum grooves, you'll need to switch to Studio mode (the sequencer) and record your own.
keyboard workstation$2,999FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 AUDIO QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5
The effects setup provides dedicated chorus and reverb and a mastering multiband compressor (all of them global), a separate multi-effect for each of the 16 Patches in Studio mode, one or two more multi-effects, and an input effect. More than 75 algorithms are available, along with 22 signal-routing options. Specific parts and effects can be routed to hardware output jacks 3 and 4, for instance.
The Fantom-G ships with 32 MB of memory, which provides about 3 minutes of stereo sampling time. Memory can be expanded by installing up to 512 MB of DIMM. The same memory will be used for recording audio tracks into the sequencer, so most musicians will want to budget for extra memory. Cool feature: the Fantom's audio recorder is always operating in the background, so if you play a cool lick on the keyboard, you can listen to or even save the audio as a new sample.
In addition to the usual set of sample-editing functions, the Fantom can do real-time, granular-based time-stretching of samples. If you've recorded a vocal phrase, for instance, the Fantom can transpose it up or down by a few half steps without changing its speed and without drastically affecting the timbre. Transposing by more than two or three half steps with this feature tends to produce gargling artifacts, which are mildly amusing for a minute or two. There is no Undo command for data-altering sample edits, but if you get in the habit of saving your samples to long-term memory, you can restore the most recent saved version.
Editing Software and USB
FIG. 2: Choose a mode and an edit page on the left, and then make detailed edits in the Fantom-G''s computer editor software.
The Fantom-G ships with a USB driver and an editor program (see Fig. 2) that can be used either standalone or as a VST or AU sequencer plug-in. This enables you to work within your familiar DAW and use the power of the Fantom-G's sound engine rather than taxing the host computer's CPU. The workstation also includes a 2-in, 2-out USB interface. This lets you record to the computer using the mic/guitar input and Fantom effects. Performers can also use the USB interface to stream audio from the computer to the Fantom-G, apply effects, and route the audio to alternate outputs.
Unfortunately, the manual doesn't explain how to use the Fantom-G as a plug-in; the Windows installer doesn't put a .dll file in the Steinberg VST plug-ins folder, which many installers can detect automatically; and the Fantom installer won't ask you where to put such a file. I also was disappointed that the edited voices within the editor can't be saved as part of the DAW project.
I found that if I switched on the Fantom when it was connected via USB to my PC, my Syncrosoft dongle (also USB) would disappear from the system, leaving me unable to launch any of my Steinberg or Arturia software. I alerted Roland to the problem, and the company was unable to reproduce it. In fairness, I tested with an older PC, and its OS includes old drivers that might have caused some of the problems. Furthermore, EM's editors have heard reports of similar issues with Syncrosoft dongles that did not involve Roland equipment. So I can't prove that the Fantom was at fault; I can only report what I experienced.
I've always liked Roland's sample-playback synths, going clear back to the JD-800. The Fantom-G is a proud successor to that line and has both the wonderful Roland sound and a stunning user interface. In Live mode, you can build an 8-way split/layer and use the pads to trigger full sequences, drum patterns, or samples as performance Live Sets. This is a powerful way to provide one-finger accompaniment, but to be honest, I prefer the approach taken by some other pro-oriented keyboards, such as the Yamaha Motif XS, which can play realistic sampled drumbeats and guitar strums using its factory arpeggiator patterns. With that said, if you're looking for a gigging keyboard, I'd recommend the Fantom-G without hesitation.
The Fantom-G is a very good standalone workstation for those who want to do their studio projects without using a computer, and the multitrack sequencer's mic/guitar input is an excellent feature. As with many Roland workstations, effects can be automated by assigning any controller to an effects parameter and recording it to a MIDI track as continuous controller data. But I wish the Fantom-G had audio-track level automation as well, especially given that it boasts 24 audio tracks.
My feelings about using the Fantom-G with a computer are more mixed. The Fantom's USB connection is a good feature, and if it works as intended, it makes the instrument into a useful computer peripheral and more. However, as noted, I had problems using it with my Windows PC.
There's much more to the Fantom story. If you're curious, find a Roland dealer and check it out for yourself.
Jim Aikin writes about music technology, teaches classical cello, and writes fantasy stories and computer-based interactive fiction. Visit him online atmusicwords.net.
PROS: Stunning user interface. Trigger pads for percussion. User sampling. Built-in multitrack audio/MIDI sequencer. Rich sound palette. Accepts Roland ARX-series expansion boards.
CONS: Serious audio recording requires memory upgrade. Sequencer lacks audio-track automation. No undo for sample edits.
Roland Corporation U.S.