FIG. 1: TheV-Synth is a DSP-based keyboard instrument that combinesanalog-synthesis modeling and VariPhrase sampling with numeroushands-on controllers.FEATURES4.0EASE OFUSE4.0QUALITY OFSOUNDS3.5VALUE3.5RATING PRODUCTS
FROM 1 TO 5FIG. 2: ThePC Card slot offers flexible storage; with an adapter, you can add avariety of flash RAM cards or even a tiny hard drive. The USB portprovides a MIDI interface or drag-and-drop file transfer to acomputer.FIG. 3: Thestereo waveform editor lacks crossfade looping, but automaticzero-crossing detection and bidirectional loop support help tocompensate.FIG. 4: Youcan record your own polyphonic arpeggiator patterns in this piano-rollwindow. Unfortunately, the notes aren't arranged from high tolow.
Themoment you turn it on, you get your first clue that the Roland V-Synthis different. For the next half-minute or so, a progress bar crawlsacross the big purple touchscreen, with the mysterious heading,“Processing….” Once those preparations are complete,the V-Synth springs to life, delivering unprecedented soniccontrol.
For the past few years, most breakthroughs in synthesis have debutedin software synthesizers. Drawing on the best of both worlds, theV-Synth combines the informative graphics and powerful wave-warpingabilities of software with some exceptional hardware design. Instead ofpoking at pixels with a mouse, you can sculpt sound with a variety ofexpressive hands-on controllers, including dual D Beam infrared sensorsand the new Time Trip pad.
At heart, the V-Synth is a sampler, but unlike a traditional one, itgives you independent control over pitch, duration, and formants (thecharacteristic frequencies in a sound). That kind of control lets youplay chords with a sampled vocal phrase and have all the syllables lineup, or twist a knob and accelerate a drum loop to twice its originaltempo without changing the pitch, or transform male voices into femaleones. Those sample-stretching features are an evolution of theVariPhrase technology Roland introduced in its pricey VP-9000 (reviewedin the May 2001 issue) — hence the V in V-Synth.
The V-Synth also features analog-synthesizer modeling and an updatedcollection of the Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM) effects firstseen on the VG-8 guitar processor. Consequently, you might assume (as Idid) that the V-Synth is simply another “greatest hits”collection with the Time Trip pad and a few new COSM effects slapped ontop. But not only have all those components been improved, they've beenthoughtfully integrated into a greater whole. The V-Synth has somerough edges, and it definitely isn't the keyboard for everyone.However, if you want to twist sounds into startling new textures, playleads that are never static, or bring out the inner life in samples andloops, it offers a lot to explore.
GOOD SCREEN FUN
The V-Synth's front panel is cleanly laid out, with performancecontrollers to the left and synthesis controls to the right of itslarge backlit touchscreen (see Fig. 1). The screen respondsquickly to your touch and provides plenty of information, includinggraphic envelopes. Some areas are too small to hit accurately with afingertip, but you can move to any field with the adjacent cursorbuttons and adjust values with the Increment and Decrement buttons orthe data wheel.
The front panel provides 20 rubber knobs for common parameters and 4wiggly sliders for envelope segments. The sliders control whateverenvelope is currently selected (pitch, formant, or filter resonance,for example) and not just the master volume envelope. When you move aknob or slider, the screen shows the new position but doesn't help youreturn to the original value. The knobs and sliders transmit SysExrather than MIDI Control Change (CC) messages. However, the slickModulation Matrix screen lets you map external CCs to adjust the sameparameters.
Above the knobs are three groups of Structure buttons that light upto show the active components in the current signal chain. I couldswitch components in and out as I played, with held notes retaining theolder settings. That let me start a drum loop with my left hand, thenturn on a COSM block and add a radically filtered version of the groove(in perfect sync, thanks to VariPhrase) with my right (see Web Clip1). Dedicated buttons let you switch the three effects processors(reverb, chorus/flanger, and multi-effects) on and off with one click.They sound good and have plenty of parameters.
PROS:Unique sound with extensive real-time control. Solid construction.Ergonomic layout. Expressive D Beam and Time Trip controllers.Drag-and-drop computer-file transfer. Automatic temposynchronization.
CONS:Significant aliasing on analog models. Zippering noise fromcontrollers. Underbaked, awkward layering and splitting. No crossfadelooping. Imported samples lose loop points. Editing knobs send onlySysEx.
At the far left of the panel is the novel Time Trip pad, a3.5-inch-square sensor that detects the position and movement of yourfinger, though unfortunately not variations in pressure. You canconfigure the pad to control as many as 16 parameters from a list of 77that affect the oscillators, COSM effects, main amplitude envelope, andeffects processors. Pressing the Hold button locks the currentparameter value. All 37 buttons that toggle features on and off lightup when you enable them, which makes it easy to see what's goingon.
In X-Y mode, each pad axis can transmit values from 0 to 127 or from-63 to 63. In Time Trip mode, dragging your finger in a circle scansforward or backward through a waveform, and pausing loops a shortsegment at the current position. With practice, I transformed a vocalsample from “Turn off” to “Honor, nonner,on-and-off” (see Web Clip 2). Trippy indeed! You cancontrol two additional parameters in Time Trip mode by sliding yourfinger from the edge of the pad to the center.
Other controllers include Roland's signature D Beam (a proximitysensor), two assignable knobs, and the standard Roland lever that bendspitch when you move it sideways and sends Modulation data when you pushit forward. Like the pad, any of those controllers (and any incomingMIDI CC) can be mapped to any of the 77 synthesis parameters. All butthe lever can transmit CCs as well; in fact, the D Beam can send fourunique CC streams per side. However, the pad has coarser resolutionthan the other controllers, producing significant stair-stepping— so much that I occasionally used it as a creative effect (seeWeb Clip 3). Unfortunately, the other controllers also sufferfrom zippering when pushed to extremes, which can make the soundrough.
The V-Synth's semiweighted keys are shorter than average, but have asnappy feel and a satisfying inertia. Aftertouch is controllablewithout being the least bit squishy. Octave and semitone transposebuttons are easily accessible. You can assign shortcuts for 64 patchesto the eight banks of Patch Palette buttons. You can also view 16 patchnames at once by touching the onscreen List button. The version 1.5upgrade of the operating system (see the sidebar “One PointV”) lets you search for sounds by category.
JACK IT UP
One of my pet peeves with keyboards is when the jacks are labeledonly on the back panel, forcing me to stand on my head to suss out theconnections. Happily, the V-Synth's jacks are identified on the toppanel as well. At the left side of the back panel is a PC Card slot forbackup storage (see Fig. 2). With a commonly available adapter(about $20), you can use several kinds of flash RAM cards. Next door isa USB socket; in Bulk Storage mode, the V-Synth shows up as an externalhard drive on your computer, making it drag-and-drop simple to back upsamples and patches or import new ones. In MIDI mode, the USB jackfunctions as a MIDI interface, but switching between modes was awkward,so I found it easier to use the standard MIDI jacks and an externalinterface. Optical and coaxial S/PDIF I/O are both provided. Theoptical jacks have a clever shutter so you don't have to fumble withthose tiny plastic plugs.
The rear panel also has jacks for a sustain pedal and two expressionpedals, which can transmit CCs. Stereo sampling inputs accept mic orline-level signals. Rounding out the back are the main and directstereo outputs. Strangely, to use the direct outs, you have to disablethe multi-effects processor, though the reverb and chorus processorsremain active.
A V-Synth Patch contains six components: two oscillator blocks, twoCOSM blocks, a modulation block that mixes the oscillator blocks, and atime-variant amplifier (TVA) block, which contains an ADSR envelope andLFO that control the final output level. Those blocks can be organizedinto one of three arrangements called Structures. Which Structure youselect determines whether the COSM effects are applied to one or bothoscillators. The sound can then be routed through the three effectsblocks.
Each oscillator block contains a single LFO that can control pitch,level, and, depending on the type of oscillator, either time andformant or pulse width and low-frequency emphasis. Those parametersalso have four dedicated ADSR envelopes. The LFOs generate eightwaveforms, which can sync to the internal tempo or MIDI Clock. Many ofthe COSM blocks include an LFO and one or more envelopes too, so youcan craft some extremely animated timbres.
You can split each Patch into 16 keyboard zones, though the processis poorly described in the manual and unintuitive. (You have to enterZone mode, set the keyboard split point, select the Zone you want toedit, then exit and either program the split sound from scratch orenter Patch Copy mode and copy components of a preexisting patch intothe new Zone.) All Zones in a Patch share the same effects andcontroller settings (and transmit on the same MIDI channel), whichmeans you can't pitch-bend or sustain just one side of a split; that isa major drawback.
The V-Synth is 16-part multitimbral, but layering isn't supporteddirectly. You can kludge together a global layer by entering Systemmode and setting as many as 15 additional parts to the same MIDIchannel. Like splits, they share the same controller settings as theprimary patch, and the only way to adjust the relative levels is byreprogramming the component Patches. (When playing multiple channels onthe V-Synth from a sequencer, you can adjust the levels of thedifferent multitimbral parts over MIDI, of course.)
OSC AND RECEIVE
A V-Synth oscillator can use analog modeling, PCM waveforms, orexternal audio. Ironically, two of the simulated-analog waveforms aliaslike crazy in the upper octaves; most of the others also alias to aminor extent. Modulating the pitch more than a few semitones alsocreates some zippering noise, which is audible on pitch bends, forexample. You can smooth and fatten the sound with detuning, COSM,pulse-width modulation, and even a parameter called Fat, but theV-Synth's analog section left me a bit cold.
The real excitement is in PCM mode. Thanks to VariPhrase's real-timepitch-shifting and time-stretching, you don't have to worry aboutmultisampling; a single sample can stretch across the entire keyboard.(Indeed, it's not possible to create multisamples on the V-Synth,though several of the factory waveforms are multisampled.) In practice,shifting most sounds more than an octave up produces snarlingartifacts; downward shifts are more forgiving. You can also switchVariPhrase off for traditional sample playback.
The V-Synth has four playback modes. Retrigger mode starts thesample at the beginning with each new keypress. The magical Legato modestarts each new sample at the point where the current sample isplaying, which lets you harmonize each word in a vocal on the fly oremphasize individual drum hits in a loop by doubling them with a deeperversion. In Step mode, each keypress triggers the next slice in asample (during sample encoding, the V-Synth adds slice points tosamples anywhere it encounters a transient — at the start of adrum hit, for example). In Event mode, chromatic notes trigger adjacentslices. Those two modes are especially interesting in conjunction withthe arpeggiator, because they let you rearrange drum hits or syllablesin a phrase.
The V-Synth ships with 342 mono samples in memory (stereo samplesreduce the polyphony slightly); you can overwrite them and thenindividually restore them later. With the factory samples loaded, about18 MB of RAM remain, which will hold a maximum 214 seconds of customsamples. Samples encoded in VariPhrase format require additional data— the more complex the encoding, the larger the resultingfile.
Importing WAV and AIFF files from my computer was a snap, though Iwas disappointed that the V-Synth didn't import the loop points. I gotaround that by writing down the loop points before making the transfer,and then entering them into the V-Synth with the data wheel. Importedsamples are converted to 16-bit, 44.1 kHz resolution, and their namesare truncated to 12 characters.
Sampling (or resampling) on the V-Synth is wonderfullystraightforward. Eight presets for different tasks call up the optimumnumber of channels, input source, recording-trigger mode (manual, MIDISong Start, level, or MIDI note), input effect (compressor, limiter, ornoise reduction), and count-in. Editing goes quickly, thanks to a largewaveform display and onscreen buttons that zoom in and findzero-crossings (see Fig. 3). A handy calculator button detectsthe selected area's tempo, which is later encoded into the file forsync. You can also extract a region and save it to a new file. Otherediting commands include Cut, Copy, Paste, Insert (clipboard data orsilence), Truncate, stereo-to-mono, Reverse, Normalize, and Trim, whichapplies a fade of up to 2 ms (100 samples) to the beginning and endingof the waveform.
I wish longer fades were available and that the keyboard weren'tdisabled during editing; it would be easier to audition loop points byplaying different pitches. I was disappointed to find no crossfadelooping, but I was able to make smooth loops by setting the loop pointsto zero-crossings and specifying alternating (back-and-forth) looping.I also wish the V-Synth could play the segment of the sample after theloop when you release the note.
After editing, you encode the sample to VariPhrase format on ascreen resembling Propellerhead ReCycle. The V-Synth automaticallyfinds slice points; you can adjust them, delete them, and add more,previewing each slice with a button. V-Synth offers four encodingalgorithms; Lite creates the smallest files but the most artifacts. Theothers are optimized for solo lines, rhythmic samples, and ensemblesamples. Picking the “wrong” type can generate some wild,bubbly textures, but encoding adds data to the samples rather thanaltering the original recordings, so you can go back and try again.
Instead of ordinary filters, the V-Synth provides 16 mightywaveshaping tools such as amp simulators, guitar-body resonators, andfrequency shifters. I counted about 37 filter variations as well,including ganged bandpass and dynamic lowpass models. The new sidebandfilters can impart pitch to drums (or even to noise) so you can playchords and melodies. It's like a vocoder effect, but easier to set up.Although the filters all sounded good, sweeping them sometimes causedzippering.
I had a lot of fun with the V-Synth's arpeggiator, which allows youto record your own polyphonic phrases (see Fig. 4). Each phrasecan contain a maximum of 32 steps, with as many as 16 events (notes orControl Changes) per step. Mapping a CC to reverb depth or distortioncan make an individual note jump out. The Swing parameter lets youalter the rhythmic feel of a sampled loop.
Most synths include a few special-effect sounds in the last bank toshow off their prowess. On the V-Synth, it seems like the majority ofthe 287 factory Patches are sound effects. Many have an abrasive,“digital” quality to my ears. However, quite a few of themturned heads when I played them at jam sessions.
The COSM-powered TopOfTheWrld is the most searing synth guitar I'veever heard, and like all the factory patches, it makes extensive use ofthe V-Synth's controllers. VoixBulgares sounded like singers, not akeyboard part. And the spacious pads and talkative Clavinets fit rightin. You can also find scores of free new patches at www.v-synth.com, manywith MP3 demos and programming notes.
The V-Synth is one case in which a greatest-hits collectionsurpasses the originals. Computer users have grown accustomed to someof its features in computer programs such as Acid, Live, and Kontakt,but the V-Synth puts them into a hands-on instrument with keys. Itssturdy construction and clear, efficient layout reinforce the feelingof quality.
The primitive split and layer facilities are a drag, and for akeyboard with so many controllers, it's disappointing that the V-Synthtransmits on only one MIDI channel at a time. Its sound can be harshdue to aliasing and zipper noise. Pitch shifting produces noticeableartifacts, so I hope Roland implements user multisampling. However,many of the most popular synthesizers have endured because of theirsonic quirks.
The V-Synth lets you rip open samples and explore the exotictextures within. Being able to play chords with sampled phrases andhave them stay in perfect sync is a revelation. It costs more than theaverage keyboard synthesizer, but the V-Synth is an instrument withextraordinary depth and personality.
SoundEngineanalog-synthesismodeling; VariPhrase PCM; user sampling with independent time, pitch,and formant controlAudioInputs(2) unbalanced¼" TS analog (switchable mic/line); (1) stereo optical S/PDIF; (1)stereo coaxial S/PDIF; internal resamplingAudioOutputsL/R main: (2)unbalanced ¼" analog; L/R direct (bypasses effects): (2)unbalanced ¼" analog; (1) stereo optical S/PDIF; (1) stereocoaxial S/PDIF; (1) ¼" stereo headphoneKeyboard(61) notes;Velocity, Channel AftertouchPolyphony(24) notes(program dependent)MultitimbralParts16SamplingFormatanalog inputs:16-bit, 44.1 kHz (24-bit, 96 kHz converters); digital inputs: 16-bit,44.1/48/96 kHzAudio FileImport/ExportWAV and AIFF(loop points ignored)PedalInputs(2) ¼"control; (1) ¼" sustainMemory(512) RAM Patchlocations; (999) RAM Wave locations; 50 MB sample RAM (32 MBpreloaded)Oscillators(2) with analogsuboscillator; types are PCM, external input, and modeled analog (saw,LA saw, square, LA square, triangle, sine, ramp, Juno, HQ saw, HQsquare, noise)OscillatorCross-Modulationring, FM,envelope ring, syncFilters/Waveshapers(2) COSMprocessors with (16) typesEnvelopes(1) global levelADSR; (1) pitch, (1) Fat, (1) pulse width, (1) time, (1) formant, and(1) level per oscLFOs(1) peroscillator; (1) per COSM block; (1) per TVA; tempo sync (doublewhole-note to 32nd-note resolution); 8 waveformsEffectsmulti-effects(41 types), chorus (8 types), reverb (10 types)Arpeggiator(8) types; (32)steps; (16) events per step incl. CCs; programmable; adjustable gateand swing; 20-250 bpm or external syncControllers(2) knobs; (2) DBeam sensors; Time Trip Pad (x-y/rotational/radial); pitch/modleverMIDIIn, Out,ThruStorage/InterfacingPC Card;USBDisplay320 ×240-pixel, backlit LCDDimensions41.6" (W) ×4.4" (H) × 15.7" (D)Weight28.9lb.
ONE POINT V
The free OS 1.5 update (a 17 MB download) brings 12 new features tothe V-Synth. You can assign Patches to 1 of 16 categories, which makesit far easier to browse through them. The update provides 18 additionalPCM waveforms (mostly vocal percussion, handy for adding catchyattacks). The analog section gains two new waveforms (the thicker LAsquare and saw) and a suboscillator. A TB-303 filter model beefs up theCOSM section.
Installing the update was easy, but because I had inadvertentlydeleted some factory samples before updating, I had to do someconvoluted file manipulations to get my custom Patches to point to theright samples. It's unlikely that Roland will be able to change thefile system, but perhaps the company could release some companionsoftware that will do a better job of maintaining the links betweenpatches and waves.
David Battinois hard at work on Crank It Up to 1,a book about digital music production based on interviews withgroundbreaking artists, producers, and programmers. More atwww.crankitupto1.com.