Roland V-Synth XT

Professional Synthesizer/Sound Generator ($ 2,195 online)

I have to be honest. When I was handed the box with the Roland V-Synth XT and asked to check it out and see if it was something I could use and review, I was apprehensive. I know a little about sound synthesis and while I’ve used many of the old Roland, Moog, ARP, Sequential Circuits synths over the years, reviewing something that I only have a surface knowledge about is a challenging and touchy situation. There’s always 50 guys ready to write in to the editor about how “that reviewer doesn’t know shit” or “why don’t you get REAL ENGINEER guys to write reviews?”

Well, I know that I’m like 95% of the readers — I want to know if a product will be useful to me and worth learning more about. I’ll take a review as a starting point in my own research and investigation. So, that being said, in order to cover my butt I decided to enlist a good musician friend who knows a lot about synthesizers and has been making cool sounds with a variety of electronic instruments for years. I asked Marc Capelle, San Francisco composer and studio musician, if he would take the Roland V-Synth XT home and tweak around with it for a few days. He did. We did. Here it is.

What the hell is it?

Marc Capelle: To be basic, this is a sampling, sound-generating synthesizer that’s packed with so many features that it’s sort of mind boggling. It’s difficult to say exactly because I’m constantly discovering new things that it does. It’s a workstation, a synthesizer or a variety of synthesizers, a drum machine, it’s an analog processing unit, it’s a filterbank, a sequencer, an arpeggiator, it’s an amp and effects modeler, a vocoder — it’s a sound shaper for all aspects of electronic music creation.

Gimme a break down.

MC: Sure, first of all it’s pretty compact. A 4-rack space tiltable unit that weighs about nine pounds; with all the features it seems like it should be at least five or six more pounds. It has a full color touchscreen for navigating through the patches and programming that also is an X/Y effects controller; it has an XLR 1/4" combo mic pre/hi-z input on the front for sampling, vocoder action, or plugging a guitar in. It comes with the VC-1 and VC-2 cards pre-installed. They are the “V-Card” software that basically transforms the V-Synth into a Roland D-50 and into a VC-2 Vocal Designer. It has analog, optical and coaxial audio in and outs with main outs as balanced 1/4". It also has a USB connector for file transfer, MIDI communication, and audio streaming. You can back stuff up onto your laptop or use the CompactFlash or SmartCard slot provided. There are eight fully assignable knobs next to the touchscreen that are easy to assign with all sorts of parameter controls. It’s cool to be able to reach and tweak.

How easy was it getting started and loading patches and programs?

MC: The architecture is very apparent. It’s very addressable in a very user-friendly, point and shoot kind of way. It’s great because there are some very sophisticated synthesis and sequencing aspects to it that are made really clear. It’s easy to go through and take something that’s just a template and turn it into what you want with whatever sounds you want, whether you’re loading sounds from the internal memory bank and internal samples or from your own samples. So it’s great because the basics are very smartly programmed and it’s easy to pull from this sort of really flashy sort of demo workstation mode into something that’s much more personal.

Show me something.

MC: Sure, I’m going to grab some of my own wave sounds from my PowerBook that’s hooked up to the USB connection. This is very simple. I’m loading samples one at a time, which is a minor gripe I have — it would be cool if there were a batch load feature. I’ll store them here to one portion of the keyboard and then go in and load one of the great templates of surprisingly contemporary rhythms. Being able to do this quickly with this much control over each parameter lets me turn this into an outsider kind of thing, a Madlib kind of thing, much more experimental and out there. It’s clear that whoever designed this thing knew that this is what people want to do so they left a lot of breadcrumbs to follow.

[Marc finishes tweaking after a couple minutes and plays a beat that sounds like Public Enemy led by Donald Duck — very cool and ridiculous.]

MC: As you can see I was able to create a variety of cool sounds using a variety of my own waves or AIFFs and some excellent drums sounds that come with this thing — I mean we are talking about the same folks that brought us the 303 and the 808 and they haven’t failed us there. It’s neat to be able to do live time manipulation both on the face of the V-Synth itself using the time-trip pad and also with my controller. I was able to create grooves that went on for three or four minutes that had lots of structural variations and a lot of sophistication to them while working with a relatively short pattern. This is something that anybody who is doing electronic dance music, say, or ambient music or even sound design is going to have a great time with. The realtime filtering and realtime manipulation are more great aspects of this box.

I noticed you had a sampled guitar patch loaded. What’d you do with that?

MC: I had a project where I needed guitars. I had layers of real guitars recorded already but they didn’t have sufficient girth to them. So I loaded a patch called “Screaming Lead” from the V-Synth library. The unit has a lot of amp models that come as part of the structure and the routing to the effects. I did some amp modeling and used some portamento controls. I was able within a much quicker period of time than it would have taken to plug in a guitar, tune it, set up an amp or mic, etc., to get a very usable, valid sound very efficiently. It sounded great in the track with the other guitars — very real and fuzzy and fat with a lot of analog reality.

Tell me about the V-Cards. What’s the VC-1 thing you were talking about?

MC: The VC-1 is a dedicated voice card designed to emulate the classic D-50 synth from the late ’80s. It’s called the D-50, but they didn’t stop there because it is more than that. It does a lot more than the D-50 ever did, but you do get an authentic recreation — a complete revisit to some of the very nice sounds and features of that instrument. A lot of the sounds will immediately bring you back. Whoever programmed it knew exactly what they were doing and what they were harkening back to. Check this out: It’s the “Shamus Theme”. Doesn’t that capture Jan Hammer perfectly?

Wow. I’m still sick of that sound. But you’re right, I’m transported. . . .

MC: Or there are sounds that are perfectly reminiscent of Trevor Horn. Or the LFOs and horn stabs like Prince used. The architecture is great too because it allows things like the chase function, which means that when you strike a note you can assign another note to sound, as well. You can split the keyboard to have duophonic sounds that are duophonic in the sense that the attack is different. The chase function is rad! You can output the lower tone slightly later than the upper tone so you can create a scareo effect with maybe a part detuned slightly and set an eighth-note behind. Pretty cool. Also you can selectively split the keyboard and assign parameter controls like pitch bend to one of the sounds and not the other. That’s a great live tool.

Are there sounds that are immediately usable without a lot of tweaking?

MC: Well, yeah, despite the presence of a lot of chiffy sounds, there are many desirable sounds. Here’s a sound that is good. With the velocity curve and the depth of programming in this sound it is usable in so many ways. It’s thought out for players. This clav sound is totally acceptable. The velocity curves are sophisticated — much more than the original D-50. It seems like this thing creates its sounds in a few different ways. According to the literature, it has PCM oscillators with VariPhrase capability, powerful modulators and COSM processors with filters. There are two oscillators, two COSM blocks, a block to modulate one of the oscillators with the other, and an overall volume envelope called a “TVA”. So each of the oscillators can get its sound one of three ways: analog modeling, through the playback of samples, or by getting audio from one of the physical inputs on the box — the S/PDIF, USB, or the analog input.

Can you develop a sound from absolute scratch using the sound generating components in the box or do you start with a preset and use a subtractive or reductive synthesis to get where you’re going?

MC: Essentially you are starting with a patch. You could generate a new patch by using a PCM template that is designed off the patches that exist within this architecture. When you’re creating a form, a waveform, you’re essentially creating the inception of a sound and that’s where you are working from. The structure of those sounds allow the manipulation of panning, pulse width, reverb structure, envelope time, the pitch modulation, portamento, the splitting functions and balance of those splits. So it’s not as if it’s an endless amount of templates but it’s infinite obviously mathematically. It’s enough to create an endless amount of sounds.

Part of the romance for me and part of the respect that I give to Roland for this product is they’re moving forward but they’re not turning a blind eye to all these great methods of synthesis and all these great controllers and sounds that have been used (and maybe now classified as retro because of the things that have been done to them), but never fully explored. How can you turn your back on something with infinite possibilities? Plus it’s not like they give you one thing with infinite possibilities, they give you a variety of things with infinite possibilities. You’d just hope that with something this deep that they would put some wood on it somewhere.

Anything else?

MC: Well, the Vocoder, the arpeggiator, and the step modulation we didn’t get into yet. Let’s start with the Vocoder. The V-Synth comes with the VC-2 card preloaded, which is a vocal sound shaper. One thing I noticed while working with this is that your initial impression is that this is a very commercial instrument and then you get deeper into it and realize that people like Eno, or Shadow, or Madlib would find the things it does immediately attractive and not just the sound but a form of composition. The Vocoder vocal processor is an example. Within five minutes here I dialed in something that was intended to recreate the sound of a large chorus and the breath of a male singer. But through manipulating it with my Edirol controller and the touch pad while playing a flugel horn into a SM57 going into the mic input, the sound suddenly became a Jon Hassel or Miles Davis-like electronic piece. Obviously this instrument is not just for proper use but proper misuse as well.

And the arpeggiator feature is great for a variety of reasons. First off, it’s going to remind anybody who has worked with Jupiters or Junos or any Roland synth with the up down arpeggiation that it’s very simple and easy and it’s totally evocative of all that old stuff. So you have a simple arpeggiation process but beneath it you also have incredible sequencing ability. It’s that great kind of point and play elemental arpeggiation that is great fun and useful and that harkens back to a lot of classic sounds. The way it so easily integrates into any tempo map makes it really fun. It’s a lot like all the other aspects of this box — it emulates, reproduces, and improves on the past.

Anything that bugs you about it? Or anything you’d like to change or add?

MC: The main problem that I have with this is the saving function. It’s too complex. The process of saving your samples and custom patches should be simpler. I lost a few hours work the first day because I missed a step in the saving procedure. You have to be careful in tracing your footsteps. I hope the software will continually get better in this regard. Also the USB connection is a little iffy. One small bump and I lost everything that I was loading. Make sure you are certain of your cable.

I also found myself really wanting to step away from the touchscreen style programming after a while. I would love it if they could design an interface that would allow having a lot of the screens and controls appear on my computer and allow me to use my mouse and allow for an easier flow of data from stored libraries of samples and patches. It seems that this is where things are going anyway. The way music is created today it is only logical.

The lack of the ability to control program values extensively through MIDI and computer interface is a shortcoming. The MIDI control information is not explained well in the manual. Overall though, it has its shit pretty tight.

Closing words?

MC: My initial reaction to this thing was that I was using it more than I wanted to tell people. I was enjoying the simple arpeggiations, the totally wide breadth of reverbs and a lot of guilty pleasure sounds that I want to revisit but usually don’t get the chance to revisit. It’s really like, well, maybe you’re not a Corvette person but you find yourself in one going down the road really fast and it’s fun as hell. It wasn’t anything I was gonna tell my gearhead friends about right away. To further stretch the car analogy: It’s like a Mini with a Lamborghini engine in it. It has such a small footprint and such a humble interface and endless possibilities that it seems a lot bigger than it is. Also I can close my eyes and think I’m 20 years younger and doing this. It’s refreshing.