The Integra 7 might at first glance seem to be a Jupiter in rack form, but it turns out there's more to it than that — much, much more...
Based upon the XV5080 rackmount synth, the Roland Fantom X family (launched in 2004) was both a critical and a commercial success, due in no small part to the immense range of sounds that could be wrung from its capacious ROM and SRX expansion boards. Four years later, the company released the Fantom G series and, at first sight, this appeared to be the next big thing. But first sights can be deceiving. The new models couldn't host SRX boards and Roland released just three of its new ARX boards, covering nowt but drums, electric pianos and brass. Consequently, I have every sympathy with owners who, had they been able to afford the criminal record, might have propelled their Fantom Gs through the windows at Roland UK.
The next, seemingly unrelated, chapter in this story occurred when Roland launched the Jupiter 80, a synth based in large part upon the company's new Supernatural physical modelling technologies. But, despite modest success, neither this nor the more recent Jupiter 50 took the world by storm, so I was rather underwhelmed when I heard that Roland were to release a Supernatural synth module. Happily, that proved to be a misjudgment because, as we shall now see, the Integra 7 will be of huge interest to XV and Fantom owners, as well as to players wanting to get their hands on a rackmount Jupiter.
Although it looks complex, the Integra 7 actually comprises just two distinct synthesizers. The first is a Supernatural synth derived and expanded from the new Jupiters. As shipped, this offers 256 Supernatural Acoustic Tones and 1109 Supernatural Synth Tones, 26 Supernatural Drum kits, and six 'virtual' expansion boards — five containing a total of 108 additional Supernatural Acoustic sounds, and one with seven additional effects for the Supernatural Drums. The second is a PCM-based synth derived from the XV5080, and this includes all 896 of the XV's preset patches, all of its drum kits, plus 12 of its 14 SRX boards and a high-resolution GM2 expansion pack with 512 additional PCM-based sounds.
To integrate all of this into a coherent whole, the Integra 7 eschews Roland's traditional Patch/Performance architecture in favour of something called a Studio Set, which is a multitimbral setup offering 16 Parts plus an external audio input. With the exception of a Drum Kit Part (which offers additional compression and EQ effects) each Part comprises a Tone (ie. a patch from one of the synth engines), an MFX effects unit, and a dedicated EQ. The patches are editable within their usual constraints and, once assigned to a Part, they can be further modified to determine their levels, pitches, pans, key ranges, the MIDI channels to which they will respond, and so on. The outputs from the Parts are then mixed before the whole shebang is sent to Roland's standard chorus/reverb architecture or to the new Motional Surround effect (see box) and, finally, to a global EQ.
On one hand, this structure is great news, because it makes the Integra 7 truly multitimbral in the sense that the use of an MFX on one sound demands no compromises from another. On the other hand, it's no use wailing that you've only assigned Tones to a handful of Parts, so you should be able to assign multiple MFXs and EQs to each, because nobody's listening. This means that you can't use the Integra 7 to recreate Fantom Performances that cascade multiple MFXs, let alone match the complexity of the effects paths available on, say, a Korg Kronos.
Now, what about the pattern play modes, chord memories, phrase memories, arpeggiators, sequencers, sample loading and playback, and all the other gubbins found on modern synthesizers? Forget them; they're not here. The Integra 7 is a sound generator, pure and simple.
Despite the presence of the PCM-based synth engine, it's tempting to think of the Integra 7 as a Jupiter 50 module. Nevertheless, that's wrong... In some ways it's better. To start with, there are 117 Supernatural Acoustic patches in a Jupiter 50, but 256 in the Integra 7, even before loading the expansions. What's more, the range of editing parameters has been enhanced. For example, whereas the electric guitars on the JP50 offered four parameters — noise level, strum speed, strum mode and Variation — those on the Integra 7 offer a fifth: picking harmonics. Another example? The saxophones have evolved even further, adding three new parameters: Play Scale, Scale Key and Glide. Performing a similar crosscheck of the Supernatural Synths in the two models also reveals an upgrade: whereas there are 363 PCM waves in the Jupiter 50, there are 450 in the Integra 7. There are some losses too — for example, the APS sounds have disappeared from Supernatural Acoustic — but I'm still confident that you could recreate the vast majority of Jupiter sounds on an Integra 7. Then there are the aforementioned expansion packs — Ethnic, Woodwind, Session, A. Guitar, Brass and SFX — and some of the sounds in these are excellent. In particular, ExSN1:Ethnic gives me the same sort of tingle that I experienced when I discovered the equivalent sounds in my Roland S330 library back in the late-'80s.
To test the Supernatural Drums ("drawn from V-Drum technology”) I hooked the Integra 7 up to a TD3KW kit and, to Roland's credit, everything worked immediately. But it didn't take me long to decide that I wouldn't want to substitute this for a V-Drum brain without a lot of reprogramming beforehand. However, it would be superb as an adjunct and, when used for sequencing, the range and quality of the kits in the Integra 7 is impressive, especially you get to grips with the instrument variations and using modulation controllers to introduce embellishments such as snare and cymbal rolls.
Following my reviews of the Jupiter 80 and Jupiter 50, I became aware of people expressing concerns about the latency of the Supernatural sound engines under heavy load. To test this on the Integra 7, I inserted the Supernatural Drums '0001 Session Kit' into all 16 Parts in a Studio Set, set them all to the same MIDI channel, and played. The sound was horrible, of course, but there was no hint of delays significant enough to suggest timing errors. I was reassured.
Moving on to the PCM-based synth engine, it's worth noting that the sample library underpinning the XV5080 remains impressive to this day, and its sounds sink into a mix with an ease that makes many other synths eye it with undisguised jealousy. Hooking mine up next to the Integra 7, I initialised both to their factory settings and dialled up the first patch, '128VoicePno', on both. The difference was clearly audible and simple to identify: the effects differed, so I switched them off. The two now sounded similar, and it didn't take too much tweaking to get to a point where I could have swapped between them without problems. Interestingly, this revealed that the XV menu structure has not been perfectly recreated on the Integra 7 because some of the items are in a different order, which could cause experienced programmers to trip over occasionally. Sweeping through the presets, I found that the effects were usually the main culprits for the differences between the XV5080 and the Integra 7 patches and, after suitable editing, it would have taken a braver man than I to tell which synth was which in a blind test. Hmm... that's not strictly true. If I had to summarise the overall difference between the two, I would suggest that the Integra 7 sounds like the XV5080, but a little more so; not in a 'Wahey! Viagra!' sort of way, but in a 'I've brushed my teeth and combed my hair, and I feel ready to take on the world' sort of way.
This then brings us to the virtual SRX boards. Echoing the structure of a Fantom X, there are four virtual slots in the Integra 7 so, although there are 12 boards present in the ROM, you'll have to select which four you want to use at any given moment. Happily, you can save your choice as the default, so you don't need to reload them manually each time that you switch on the synth. Comparing the genuine SRX11 (Complete Piano), SRX06 (Complete Orchestra), SRX04 (Symphonique Strings), and SRX07 (Ultimate Keys) boards to the versions in the Integra 7, I again found that most of the sounds were at least similar, and almost all could be tweaked to perform the same tasks.
Finally, it's clear that Roland view GM2 as an important aspect of the Integra 7 because, in addition to the standard bank, it provides a high-resolution expansion bank of GM2 sounds, plus a further 256 ExPCM sounds to complement it. These take up all four expansion slots (so they can't be used alongside SRX sounds) and they can't be edited, but don't ignore them because they are another source of high-quality sounds.
I very much like the look and feel of the Integra 7. Its hardware feels good, it boots and loads expansions more quickly than many modern synths, its sound quality is first-class and, while you might think that programming it would be a bit like painting the Sistine Chapel through its letterbox, it's quicker and simpler than you might think. Mind you, the fact that you have to download all the manuals (other than the basic user guide) does not impress me.
Of course, it has some limitations. I have already mentioned the inflexibility of the effects structure, and I think that, if Roland expect the Motional Surround effect to play a big part in its use, eight-channel digital I/O would have been sensible. The company could also have taken this opportunity to sort out some of the deficiencies in its Supernatural synth engines. For example, the inability of aftertouch to affect modulation in Supernatural Synth and the lack of a dedicated Hammond chorus/vibrato effect in Supernatural Acoustic remain very frustrating.
More significant is the maximum number of Studio Sets simultaneously available: just 64. That's a tiny fraction of the 2000 (or thereabouts) Combis available on some of the synths I use and, given that this is the only place where you can create splits, layers and multitimbral setups, it's a gob-smacking limitation.
Also worrying is the 128-voice polyphony. This sounds a lot, but if you program a patch using stereo PCMs, it can in extreme cases drop to just 16 notes, even before layering of other sounds is taken into account. Given that Roland are marketing the Integra 7 as a one-stop solution for media composition, voice stealing may become an issue, so I would have been far happier had it offered the 256-voice polyphony of the Jupiter 80.
If you want multiple analogue monosynths in a box, a knobby step sequencer, and a control panel the size of Berkshire, go and buy them. Don't complain that Roland have designed a module that will help me to convince 5000 soggy people in a field that I've got a Bösendorfer, a string section, a C3, a Solina, an EP200, a Compact Deluxe, a couple of Minimoogs and an ARP2600 on stage. Meanwhile, in the studio, the Integra 7 will undoubtedly be more pleasant to use (and probably more reliable) than the powerful hardware, host software and plug-ins that I would need to obtain an equivalent breadth of sound generation on a Mac or PC. Sure, it has its shortcomings, but its sound quality competes with the best synths from elsewhere, and the inclusion of the XV5080 engine and the SRX boards is a game-changer. You won't always be able to substitute an Integra 7 for an XV or Fantom but, when possible, I know which I would choose — and it wouldn't be the older models. I suspect that many people will question whether a dedicated sound generator should be able to command a price of more than £1000$2000 in 2013, but I nonetheless expect the Integra 7 to be a deserved success.
The Integra 7 offers eight analogue outputs (presented as A, B, C and D pairs) that you can assign as a stereo mix plus a 5.1 mix, or as a standard eight-channel configuration. The 'A' signals are provided through balanced quarter-inch TRS and XLR sockets, and as an S/PDIF signal, while the others are presented on unbalanced quarter-inch sockets. Stereo inputs are also provided on the font and rear panels, and, if signals are presented to both of these, they are summed and treated as a single input.
Standard MIDI In/Out/Thru is provided on five-pin DIN connectors, and there are two USB sockets; one for saving and recalling user sounds and Sets on memory sticks, and the onefor computer connectivity, carrying two-channel audio (again, the 'A' signals) and MIDI.
Like the Jupiter 50 and 80, the Integra 7 has an iPad editor that you can connect via the Camera Connection Kit or Roland's new USB Wi-Fi adaptor. This is capable of modifying Supernatural Synth sounds, selecting and mixing Parts in Studio Sets, saving and loading Sets, and controlling the Motional Surround effect. Am I impressed? I'm sorry, but I'm not, because it doesn't address the Supernatural Acoustic engine, the PCM-based engine, the other 40 (or thereabouts) effects, or the global settings. What's more, the software is only available from the iTunes App Store, a place that I view as only slightly less evil than Danté's ninth circle of hell. If Roland want to provide external editing, they should do so with software that addresses the whole synth and runs on real Macs and PCs.
For years, Roland have claimed to be able to position a sound in space, not just by panning (left/right) and by using amplitude and reverb to create depth (near/far) but by the use of phase distortion to create an illusion of up/down and even to place sounds behind your head. I tested this when it first appeared in 1991 and was unconvinced but, when Roland launched a low-cost version, the RSS10, I bought one on impulse. I then sold it again, which tells you almost everything that you need to know.
The Integra 7 incarnation of this, now named Motional Surround, can be placed in the signal path of all 16 parts as well as the external audio input. It's simple to use and, when monitored in stereo, it can create pleasing soundstages, adding depth to mixes as well as allowing you to sweep sounds around the panorama. Whether this is more than you could achieve with panning and careful use of level and reverb is moot, but there's no question that it's quicker and easier to control.
Overuse of Motional Surround on stereo mixes could become tiring for the listener, but I suspect that it will be much more effective when used in 5.1 mode, and I agree with Roland that this will make the Integra 7 of great interest to people involved in sound for TV and movies.
|Number of voices||128|
|Number of Parts||16|
|Sound generators||Supernatural Acoustic|
|Expansion slots||Four virtual SRX boards|
|Six ExSN(x) Supernatural libraries|
|One ExPCM GM2 + PCM Sound Collection|
|Number of programmable Studio Sets||64|
|Number of user memories||256 x Supernatural Acoustic|
|512 x Supernatural Synth|
|64 x Supernatural Drums|
|256 x PCM Synth|
|32 x PCM Drums|
|Multi-Effects (MFX) processors||16 (one per Part) with 67 types|
|EQs||17 (one per part, plus global)|
|Compression + EQ||Six (assigned within Drum Part only)|
|Other effects||Motional Surround, Chorus (three types), Reverb (six types)|
|Screen||256 x 80 monochrome backlit LCD|
|Audio inputs||Two quarter-inch pairs on front and rear panels|
|Outputs||Output pair 'A': balanced quarter-inch jacks, XLR, S/PDIF|
|Output pairs B, C, D: unbalanced quarter-inch jacks|
|Headphones: quarter-inch stereo|
|MIDI||In/Out/Thru and USB|
|USB||Computer port on rear panel (MIDI & Audio 'A')|
|Memory port on front panel|