Roland VP-9000

When the Roland Corporation unveiled the VP-9000 at the winter 2000 NAMM convention, I was impressed. This unassuming black box performed magic tricks
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When the Roland Corporation unveiled the VP-9000 at the winter2000 NAMM convention, I was impressed. This unassuming black boxperformed magic tricks I'd never seen and stretched sound as if itwere elastic. Everyone who saw that demonstration agreed that theVP-9000 was difficult to describe; you just had to experience itfor yourself. I couldn't wait to get my hands on one.

The VP-9000 is the first device that incorporates Roland'sVariPhrase technology, which combines the functionality of a phrasesampler, a loop remixer, and a vocal processor. Among its manytricks, VariPhrase processing lets you remove the pitch informationfrom a musical phrase, then replace the original melody by playinga MIDI instrument while retaining the original phrase's nuances ofrhythm and articulation.

That technology can even correct a sample's formant structure sothat when you transpose it across a wide range of pitches, itsounds perfectly natural. In many cases, this capability greatlyreduces the need for multisampling. Normally, shifting a sample'spitch also transposes its formant structure; this doesn't happenwhen you change pitches with the original acoustic instrument.

In addition to altering formants, the VP-9000 can change thepitch, length, and groove of sampled sounds and phrases in realtime, either with MIDI controller messages or the front panel'sknobs. Pitch can be shifted without affecting tempo and vice versa.The VP-9000 can take several loops recorded at different tempos andin different keys and play them back at one tempo in one key. Inaddition, it can automatically split a loop into any number ofseparate segments. The VP-9000 can even bend gender, turning avoice from female to male or male to female.

Those capabilities are the stuff of dreams for dance musicproducers, remixers, and sound designers, who often employ severalcomputer programs to achieve what the VP-9000 can do alone. Insteadof using one program to shift pitch and change tempo, another tosplit audio loops into segments, and yet another to reorganizeedited loops, you can use the VP-9000 to execute all thoseoperations in less time and without the effort of shuttling datafrom one program to another.

IN PLAIN VIEW

At the heart of the VP-9000's VariPhrase control capabilitiesare three front-panel knobs labeled Pitch, Time, and Formant/Groove(see Fig. 1). The biggest advantage of real-time controlsis that you instantly hear when you've stretched things too far.MIDI controllers such as a mod wheel, a pitch bender, or any MIDIControl Change message can be assigned to perform the samefunctions as the control knobs. You can even set up one knob tocontrol pitch, time, and formant simultaneously.

As you turn the Pitch knob, the selected sample changes pitch asmuch as an octave up and down without affecting the playback rate.The Time knob alters the tempo, from half to twice the originalrate, while retaining the original pitch. The Formant/Groove knobdefaults to adjusting the formants in a monophonic sample. At theknob's extremes, the effect can be described as changing vocalcharacteristics from a duck's voice to a giant's voice. To set theknob to control Groove, press the Groove button and turn on thesoft switch that appears in the LCD. Turning the knob to the rightthen introduces swing, and turning it to the left introduceslag.

Below the LCD, six function buttons change their identitiesaccording to what's shown on the display. To their left, sixdedicated buttons access the various modes: Performance, Sample,Sampling, Utility, System, and Disk. Sample mode lets you specifysample parameters such as name, original pitch, Velocity settings,playback mode, and so on; Sampling mode initiates the samplingprocess and lets you edit your samples. It might be less confusingif these two buttons had names that were distinctive enough to beeasily differentiated.

Instead of pressing the Volume knob as you do with other Rolandinstruments, you press the VP-9000's Preview button to auditionsounds. You can set this button to Gate, Trigger, or Drum mode.Gate mode plays the selected sample as long as the button is helddown. Trigger mode toggles the sample on and off with each press ofthe button. If Loop mode is turned on, the sample repeats until youpress the button again; if Loop is turned off, it plays only once.Drum mode plays an entire sample or loop one time. All modes can beset to play any or all Parts in a Performance, and the Previewbutton can be latched to remain on without the user's having tohold down the button.

The large backlit LCD shows all menus and detailed graphics. Italso shows samples, editing parameters, and so on, but it doesn'tdisplay real-time changes to pitch and tempo. You can set aspecific tempo or pitch by pressing the Performance button. To helppreserve the LCD, you can set it to enter sleep mode after auser-defined length of time has passed. The LCD wakes up when youtouch a button or turn a knob, or when the unit receives a MIDImessage.

The VP-9000 is not short on connectivity (see Fig. 2).In addition to a pair of balanced ¼-inch TRS inputs with athree-position gain switch on the back panel, a balanced¼-inch TRS input on the front panel facilitates quick samplingof monaural sources. The back panel has three pairs of balanced¼-inch TRS analog outputs, and the front panel offers a¼-inch headphone jack. The Main output pair can be routedthrough the internal effects (reverb, chorus, and so on), but bothDirect output pairs are dry. Digital I/O is available on opticaland coaxial S/PDIF ports simultaneously.

To supplement the front panel's Zip 250 drive, there are 25-pinand 50-pin SCSI connectors with a single termination switch in theback. External drives, such as CD recorders, can be connected toboth SCSI ports. Standard MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports are also onthe back.

LONG-TERM MEMORY LOSS

Roland ships the VP-9000 with 8 MB of RAM. This can be upgradedwith an additional 128 MB using four SIMM slots you can gain accessto through a plate in the top panel. The basic 8 MB provides just50 seconds of monaural sampling time or 25 seconds of stereo. Inany case, those are the maximum lengths for a single sample in monoor in stereo; you can't record a longer sample, even if you havemore RAM installed.

Traditional samplers require approximately 10 MB per stereominute, but the VP-9000 requires almost twice that amount ofstorage for the same amount of time. The extra memory is gobbled upby all the data that's created when samples are encoded forVariPhrase processing. With 136 MB of RAM installed, you can haveabout seven minutes of encoded stereo samples.

The VP-9000 holds one Performance in RAM at a time. APerformance includes as many as six Parts, and each Part containsone mono or stereo sample. If all the samples are stereo, thePerformance can contain no more than three Parts. Stereo and monoParts can be combined in the same Performance, but the VP-9000 canonly play a maximum of six notes at a time. Each Part has its ownMIDI channel, tuning, level, and pan position, as well as a numberof keyboard assignment parameters.

Although there's a maximum of six mono Parts or three stereoParts in a Performance, the samples in these Parts can be changedon the fly. Fully expanded memory is able to hold 1,024 samples inRAM, and you can instantly gain access to them with ProgramChanges. This feature allows you to call up multiple samples withina single Performance.

SAMPLING SUPREME

Samples can be loaded into RAM from the built-in Zip 250 driveor from other storage devices connected to the SCSI ports. Inaddition to reading its native files, the VP-9000 can import datain Roland S-700, Akai S1000, WAV, and AIFF formats. The unit readsRoland samples without difficulty, but I had problems loading Akaisamples. When I tried to import stereo samples, some would onlyload as mono files. (Roland says it's been unable to verify thisproblem, and it may have been the result of an older system bug.)In addition, Akai samples must be imported individually at thesample level; you can't import multisampled programs.

VariPhrase samples are recorded and stored in 16-bit format at44.1 kHz. You can import 8- and 16-bit samples recorded at ratesfrom 8 to 48 kHz; however, they're converted to 16 bits at 44.1 kHzbefore VariPhrase processing can take place.

To record your samples, route a mic or line-level signal into aninput. You can sample through the internal preeffects: compressor,limiter, and noise suppressor. You begin recording by pressing abutton, by exceeding a user-selectable threshold level, or bysending a MIDI Start command. To ensure that attack transients arenot lost, you can define a pretrigger buffer in milliseconds. Abuilt-in metronome helps you maintain a consistent tempo. (Knowingthe tempo may be important when you reach the encoding stage.)

As a bonus, the VP-9000 can resample signals routed to itsoutputs, which includes signals processed through the effects andpreeffects. Its ability to internally resample itself helps theVP-9000 offset its limited polyphony.

The VP-9000 provides eight preset and eight programmablesampling templates. These templates are designed for typicalsampling situations such as recording from a microphone, a CD, orthe VP-9000's outputs. These templates store settings such as thetrigger mode, which input is used, metronome count in, and soon.

The VP-9000's waveform-editing capabilities are among the bestI've seen in a hardware device, but editing is still morecumbersome than using computer software. There is no Undo editbuffer, so all edits are destructive. If you want to experimentwith edits, do so with a copy of the file in case you don't likethe results.

Samples can be graphically edited with a variety of commands,including Cut, Paste, Truncate, Normalize, Trim, and Reverse. Loopstart and end points can be locked, letting you shift a portion offixed length (two measures, for instance) within a longer sampledphrase. Although there's no autolooping, a zero-crossing searchfunction can help you find good loop points.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

To allow VariPhrase processing, samples must first be encoded bythe VP-9000. The encoding process divides a sample into separatesegments by analyzing it for amplitude level changes and insertingan Event marker when there's an abrupt change. The threshold isdefined by default, but you can change the Encode Depth parameterto produce more or fewer Events. Each Event marks the beginning ofa new segment. Unlike the results of time slicing, the results ofencoding are nondestructive; the original sample data is preservedintact.

If you are encoding sampled phrases and you know their tempos,you should input that information into the corresponding Partbefore encoding. The VP-9000 is also able to determine a loop'stempo if you cleanly truncate the phrase and provide the number ofbars and beats.

By dividing the sample into segments, encoding lets you stretch,bend, and warp audio in several creative ways. For example,encoding makes it possible to manipulate a loop's separate timingelements. After encoding, the start and end times of individualsegments can be manually adjusted, as well as inserted and deleted.I stretched a snare sample to create a longer decay time, withgreat results.

There are three encoding algorithms, which are selected based onthe audio source material. Solo encoding works best for monophonicinstruments such as solo voice or saxophone. For rhythmicpercussive sounds with clean, sharp attacks, use the Backingalgorithm. Ensemble encoding is designed for sustained sounds,especially if they're polyphonic.

Solo encoding lets you take advantage of pitch shifting, timestretching, and formant correction. Samples encoded with the Soloalgorithm can be played polyphonically, which lets you play vocalharmonies from a single mono sample, for example. Solo samples mustbe completely monophonic — with no effects, overlappingnotes, or bleed from other tracks — to apply formantcorrection.

The Robot Voice function is only available with Solo encoding.It removes all pitch information from the sample and replaces itwith whatever you play on the keyboard. With this function, you cansample someone with no singing ability and make that person soundlike a vocalist — sort of. Robot Voice sounds quiteunnatural, but it's much clearer than a vocoder. The effect is cool— a cross between a vocoder and Cher's infamous Auto-Tunesound — and it will likely make its way into many clubmixes.

The Backing algorithm is especially useful for rhythmic loops.It lets you change pitch, tempo, and groove, but not formants. Bychanging the groove, tracks with a straight feel can swing. Thereare only four groove templates: two 8-beat and two 16-beat swingfeels. Although real-time groove control is moderately useful, Iprefer the groove templates found in software sequencers. I hopeRoland plans to offer additional grooves in an update.

Ensemble encoding also lets you change pitch, tempo, and groove,but not formants. It's the preferred method for encoding strings,vocal ensembles, and mixed audio tracks. If a solo instrument isrecorded with effects, use Ensemble.

You can achieve some excellent sonic warping by deliberatelyencoding sounds with the “wrong” algorithms. Forinstance, I transformed a four-bar guitar loop by encoding it withthe Solo algorithm and automating the formant control with asequenced MIDI controller. The resulting effect was much hipperthan simple filter modulation.

Whichever encoding method you choose, the process takes only afew seconds and needs to be performed only once. After you encodeand save a sample in native VariPhrase format, you can preview twoseconds of sound directly from the disk before loading it into RAM.Samples can be renamed and classified into preset categories thatyou can gain access to with the touch of a button.

After encoding, phrases in separate keys and tempos can betransposed to the same key and tempo, then altered in real time.Parts can also be excluded from selected VariPhrase processes. Forexample, pitched instruments — such as bass, guitar, andvocal — can follow key changes in real time, while drumsremain unaffected. Turning the Time knob can still make all Partsspeed up or slow down. Altering some Parts in real time whileothers remain unchanged is a stunning and magical effect.

For artists who want to experiment with tempo and key of a basicgroove before committing to it, the VP-9000 is a real time-saver,especially when it's coupled with a digital-audio sequencer. Firstcreate your basic groove, then play with the tempo, feel, and keyto create new melodies or harmonies, and then record them into yoursequencer.

The optional V-Producer software package ($395) allowseasier editing of VP-9000 parameters (see the sidebar “V-Producer”). It's available for Windows and should shipfor the Mac OS by press time.

HARMONIC CONVERSION

Samples can be played back in several ways. The Key Assign modespecifies whether samples are played polyphonically (Poly) ormonophonically (Solo). In addition, there are four Playback modes:Retrigger, Step, Legato, and Time Sync. Retrigger mode simply playsthe sample from the beginning each time a key is pressed. Step modeplays a sample to the beginning of the next Event and then stops,letting you play each segment with a different key by assigningeach one to a MIDI note.

When Key Assign is set to Solo, Legato mode transposes thephrase during playback whenever you hit a new note on the keyboard.When Key Assign is set to Poly, Time Sync mode begins playing atransposed copy of a sample from the point at which the original isalready playing. If you hold a key down to play a phrase and thenpress other keys as the phrase is playing, the new notes harmonizefrom the middle of the phrase, in sync with the original.

This is very cool, and I've never seen computer software thatcan do the same. For example, suppose you sample a vocal melodicphrase, “Ooh, I love you, baby,” and play it back byholding the C3 key. When the phrase reaches “baby,” youpress the E3 key, and the word “baby” is harmonized atan interval of a major third — in perfect sync with theoriginal. It sounds as if someone is singing harmony.

I took the Time Sync concept a step further by using analternate take of a lead vocal as the source for a new harmony. Iwas rewarded with a backing vocal that hadn't existed previouslyand that retained the subtle nuances of a different performance,which resulted in a more natural sound.

Of course, harmonizers have been around for years, but theVP-9000 offers on-the-fly harmonization at the touch of a keyboard.The results are often stunning and immensely useful for producersand remixers alike.

CAUSE AND EFFECTS

The VP-9000 includes an excellent effects section. Reverb,chorus, and multi-effects processors are simultaneously available.There are nine different reverbs, and the chorus processor providesfive chorus types, two short delays, and a flanger. Themulti-effects include 40 algorithms that should be familiar toanyone who has used Roland's VS-series digital audio workstationsor XV-series synthesizers.

The multi-effects algorithms range from EQs and filters to abit-rate converter and a tape-echo simulator. Five algorithmscombine an assortment of effects tailored for vocal, guitar, bass,Rhodes, or keyboard. Each effects block offers a respectable numberof user-editable parameters, and most time-related parameters canbe synched to MIDI Clock.

Roland's approach to effects busing becomes more versatile witheach new product; long gone is the limited busing of the JV-seriessynths. However, the VP-9000's new interface was a bit confusing atfirst. Multi-effects are inserted into each Part's signal path.Each Part includes its own send level, and multi-effects can berouted into chorus or reverb with control over each effect's depth(see Fig. 3).

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

The VP-9000 contains no filters, unless you count themulti-effects' EQ section. This is a glaring omission, especiallyconsidering the unit's price; filtering is common in loop-basedmusic. Also, the tempo resolution is limited to one-tenth of a bpm(one decimal place).

The VP-9000's User Guide and Reference manual are written intrue Roland form. They're often difficult to understand, and theycontain a few peculiar turns of phrase. On the other hand, athird-party instructional video available from Roland is helpfuland detailed. In defense of the VP-9000, however, I easily found myway around in about half an hour without consulting eithermanual.

THE BIG PICTURE

The VP-9000 does some amazing things, and it does them fast.Although you may arguably get higher-quality results with asoftware program, the audio quality is excellent. VariPhraseprocessing works well with many types of source material.

Several software programs are adept at converting loops withdifferent tempos and keys to a single tempo in the same key. Otherprograms cut loops into separate segments so you can manipulateplayback order and tempo. Practically all audio sequencers cantime-stretch and pitch-shift. But the VP-9000 does all those thingsin a single hardware product.

The strongest argument for preferring the VP-9000 to software isits immediacy. For those who like to work quickly and specificallyneed what the VP-9000 provides, it can't be beat for pureproductivity. Computer software usually takes longer to get thesame results as the VP-9000, and certain tasks just can't beaccomplished with software. No software package lets you harmonizeon the fly like VariPhrase's Time Sync function does — whichmay be the sole reason some people will buy a VP-9000.

Its limitations can't be overlooked, however. I wish multiplePerformances could reside in memory, limited only by available RAM.Considering that the VP-9000 is probably at its best when used witha computer-based sequencer, it's an expensive tool compared withsample editing and looping software.

Nonetheless, the VP-9000 is truly a breakthrough piece ofhardware. Its usefulness depends on your musical needs, yourworking style, and your budget. Once you've heard what it can do,the VP-9000 might open doors to creativity that simply weren'tthere before.

Rob Shrock served as one of the music directors for the 72ndAcademy Awards. He has worked with Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello,Whitney Houston, Chrissie Hynde, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder,Wynonna, and many others.

VP-9000 Specifications

Sound Engine VariPhrase Analog Audio Outputs (6) ¼" TRS (3 stereo pairs); ¼" stereo headphone Analog Audio Inputs (2) ¼" TRS (rear); (1) ¼" TRS (front) Digital I/O S/PDIF optical and coaxial MIDI I/O In, Out, Thru SCSI Ports (1) 25-pin; (1) 50-pin Internal Disk Drive 250 MB Zip Internal Memory 8-136 MB Maximum Polyphony 6 notes (stereo samples use 2 notes each) Maximum Samples in RAM 1,024 Data Format 16-bit/44.1 kHz sampling Signal Processing 20-bit A/D and D/A; 24-bit internal Effects chorus (8 types); reverb (9 types); multi-effects (40 types);preeffects (compressor, limiter, noise suppressor) Main Display 240 × 64-pixel, backlit LCD Dimensions 2U × 11.94" Weight 11.94 lbs.

V-PRODUCER

Roland introduced V-Producer ($395) at the AESconvention in September 2000. This software serves as acomputer-based environment for as many as six VP-9000s connected toa MIDI network, letting you graphically edit pitch, time, andformant data. It provides drag-and-drop sequencing of VP-9000samples into complete songs, as well as control of mixing andeffects routing. Sequences can be exported as Standard MIDI Files.V-Producer can synchronize with sequencers using MIDI TimeCode or MIDI Clock.

In addition to V-Producer, the software packagecontains V-Trainer. This program lets you performVariPhrase encoding on your computer, then transfer data to theVP-9000 by copying it to a Zip disk or through SCSI to a harddrive. V-Trainer can also batch-encode AIFF or WAV filesfrom CD-ROMs.

V-Producer is available for Windows, and it should shipfor the Mac OS by press time. Minimum requirements are a PentiumII/233 MHz running Windows 98. For the Mac, you will need at leasta G3/233 MHz that runs OS 8.6. Both of the versions require a MIDIinterface, a CD-ROM drive, 64 MB of RAM, and 20 MB of hard-diskspace. Your computer will also need a Zip drive so that you cantransfer samples.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Roland

VP-9000
sampling effects processor
$3,295

FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.0AUDIO QUALITY4.0VALUE3.0 RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Real-time control of pitch, tempo, formant, andgroove characteristics. On-the-fly harmonization. Versatilekeyboard triggering modes. Excellent effects. Internal Zipdrive.

CONS: Only one Performance at a time. Six-notepolyphony. No Undo function. Not enough Groove templates. Maximumtempo resolution is one-tenth of a beat. Expensive.

Manufacturer

Roland Corporation U.S.
tel. (323) 890-3700
Web www.rolandus.com