Launched at the Winter NAMM show this January, the XP50 is Roland's latest workstation, an instrument whose ancestry can be traced back not just to the JV1080 module, with whom it shares a sound engine, but to the JV1000, JV80, even the JD800 -- even the D50, for heaven's sake. The XP50 is not in the advance party of new Roland technology; the XP50 is a new presentation of a well-loved theme. Even the murderous user interface and owner's manual have a cosy, familiar feel to them.
Roland synths are so often wonderful but slightly annoying, in my book (though I've bought a large number of them over the years, so I guess the former, in the end, always wins out over the latter). We'll kick off in upbeat mood with the wonderful first: sounds. Not only have you got 'em by the sackful, you've got 'em good, and you've got 'em on-going, in terms of being able to slot in up to four SR-JV80 wave expansion boards, offering both new waveform and new patch data, and taking the instrument's tally to more than 40Mb of waveform ROM and more than 1700 patches.
Like the JV1080, the XP50 incorporates Roland's new 32-bit RISC chip (Reduced Instruction Set Chip), to which can apparently be accredited the instrument's ability to process large amounts of data fast, a factor that manifests itself in real-time control over effects, and being able to haul around large amounts of sequence data without going all limp and soggy. So we like the RISC chip.
The XP50 is a PCM sample + synthesis instrument -- in other words, a synth that uses sampled sounds as its waveform base but which processes sounds in (subtractive, analogue) synthesis style. In these days when everyone's busy peering over everyone else's shoulder to get a better view of the latest physical modelling technologies, PCM might seem like dull fare. But not a bit of it. The larger part of these patches are bright, fresh, lively, and inspirational in true Roland fashion.
If I simply enumerated the XP50's patches, that alone would take up a fifth of this review (hey, that's not a bad...), so we're going to have to be thematic here. Fortunately, there is a thread that runs through the programming, if not the actual waveform ROM, and that thread is edgy, ambient, techno, rezzy, squelchy patches, begging for space on your next megamix. This is exceedingly smart thinking on Roland's part, because on the other side of instrument, we have what some people feel is the claustrophobic world of General MIDI, where all pianos, gunshots, applause, and fretless basses are created equal. Marrying up this immediate, highly useful but standardised GM set with the wacky and weird then balances out the instrument perfectly.
Instrument? Did I say "instrument?" Nay, this is no mere instrument, milad, this is a workstation -- correction, Music Workstation, for those who might otherwise have felt it might be a knitting workstation. The analogy is not entirely random, mind you -- the 16-track MRC sequencer is interwoven into the fabric of the XP50 to such an extent that any operation more complex than increasing the volume seems to require fingers and wits of an ultra-nimble persuasion. Intuitive was certainly not the first word that sprang to mind.
The first word was, in fact, "light!" The XP50 weighs in at a flighty 9.2kg, although it has a full 61-note keyboard, disk drive, and internal PSU. The physical design can hardly be called radical but it's pleasant enough, with its little ribbed edges at either end of the control panel. The display screen is small, though, by current standards, and the mass of buttons and switches below it, frankly, a mess. Many of the controls are dual function, some require the addition of the shift key, others a second bank key, some work only when others are on, or off, some are just bizarrely named. To complete this small selection of annoyances, we come to the keyboard itself. This is velocity (including release velocity, which is a splendid feature) and aftertouch sensitive, but its weight and travel is just not up to Roland standards. Play these sounds from a decent keyboard and they feel £1000 more expensive.
Completing the physical, from the far left of the control panel protrudes a DD/HD disk drive, beneath which are master volume and a pair of assignable sliders. Beneath this is a multi-function pitch and mod lever which has been given a deeper travel than on recent Roland synths. This works well, and gives you a far greater feeling of control when adding vibratos and the like. Since you can also manipulate effects using the mod lever, this improvement is most timely.
If you are familiar with Roland JV-type synths of recent years, you can skip the next paragraph, but for those who are not, the XP50 organises its sounds thus: a Tone is the smallest part of a sound -- a mini-synth if you like, complete with its own waveform, amplifier, and filter, and accompanying envelope generators (3), plus a pair of LFOs. What you play, though, are Patches, which can be constructed using up to four Tones, combined in a number of ways. These 'ways' are called Structures. For multitimbral use, the XP50 employs Performances, in which Patches or drumkits are then slotted into what are called 'Parts.' This might sound a bit hairy in print, but it's a good system and one that has now been tried and tested to varying degrees on everything from a Sound Canvas to a JD800.
Now for polyphony. Again, those familiar with the system know the pitfalls. For the rest of you, be aware that 64-voice polyphony could perhaps more accurately be described as 64-Tone polyphony. Since Patches -- the things you play -- frequently use several Tones, your polyphony on a given Patch could be as little as 16-voice. And we're not even talking multitimbral yet.
Flipping through the XP50's Patches is an overwhelming experience. Thank goodness my review model didn't come fully loaded with the new SR-JV80-06 Dance Expansion Board (jointly produced by Roland and AMG) and its siblings, or I'd never have got this review underway. The XP50's power is evident from the stream of sweeping resonant filter patches, gate-effect-type jiggery pokery, psychedelic flanging and phasing, and Lord knows what else. It's a real multi-coloured, fun-lover's instrument.
By now you might be thinking, 'yeah, but I bet it's going to be a real headache to program.' Strangely, it's not. Although I'd cheerfully throttle the bloke who designed the front panel, the internal layout, and sound tweaking in general, is surprisingly clean and clear-cut. If you just want to do a bit of customisation, try removing Tones from, or adding them to, a Patch. There are four Tone buttons that you can select or de-select quite painlessly. Almost as painlessly, you can slip into edit mode and substitute the odd waveform. Being able to effectively solo constituent parts of a sound so quickly takes a lot of the headache out of programming.
For the few smart Alecs who really do know what they're doing in programming terms, there is considerable fun to be had. The Structures, of which there are 10 types to choose from, set the style of your Patch, since they define which, and how, Tones are combined. Structure Type 1, for instance is very straightforward: two Tones run in parallel, in a waveform through filter to amplifier chain. Type 8, on the other hand, finds the Tone 1 (and Tone 3 if used) waveform through filter to amplifier chain ring-modulated with the Tone 2 (+4) waveform; the resulting waveform is then processed through Tone 2's filter and amplifier. Here, then, there is interaction between Tone groups, with appropriately complex-sounding results. Some structures use a ring modulator as this link, others, what Roland call a 'booster,' which overdrives the incoming signal, producing amp distortion-type effects.
The next most critical decision comes in choosing waveforms. On a standard XP50, these range from acoustic piano samples -- full samples to thumps -- to electric pianos, D50 waves, organs, component parts of electric guitar sounds, basses, through wind noises, string scrapes, hits, plucks, tinkles, crashes, to a vast army of unadulterated percussion samples. Within Internal banks A and B, there are some 450 nuggets of sound to choose from.
The signal path from the waveform will be familiar territory to anyone acquainted with analogue-style synthesis, which is not to say there aren't plenty of interesting lay-bys and side turns along the way. Amongst these are frequency cross modulation, numerous variations on the 'tone delay' theme -- including 'playmate', which helps tie the delay time to your current style of playing, and clock sync, which lets you delay tones in time with a sequence, velocity controllable pitch envelope, high/low/band pass and peaking resonant filter options, and synchronisable LFOs. The envelope generators are Time Variant, Roland's four-stage time and level types -- never the easiest to work with, but by now we're all kind of getting used to them. As mentioned, there is a separate envelope generator for the pitch of a note, its tone, and its volume. Powerful stuff.
Concentrating on the XP50 for pure sound programming would miss the point of this instrument, though, because it is designed, and I'm sure will be used far more often, as a workstation housing sounds that people will leave largely unaltered.
And so, without further ado, to the sequencer. Roland are one of the few companies which continue to tread the now-lonely path of the hardware sequencer. As an MC500 user myself (if nowadays only for on-stage use), I can fully understand. Roland's MRC-system sequencing offers that wonderful mix of enough power to do what you want, without so much control that you never get anything finished.
If you know the MC500, there are enough similarities in terminology and systems to make you comfortable with the XP50's sequencer. However, understanding how this sequencer works, physically, I found rather more difficult. The reason is the front panel layout once again -- plus certain annoying little factors such as a metronome that works independently of the sequence. In other words, when you switch it on, off it goes, and even when you press Stop after you've finished a take, the metronome keeps tapping away until you switch it off again.
When you're working on a sequence, you slide the XP50 into Performance mode (Performances, as you may remember, house batches of Patches, slotted into Parts, that can be arranged multitimbrally). Out of the box, Roland provide a number of Performances named and styled for certain types of recording -- Big Band set, LA Ballad set, Ambient set, and so on. There are 64 preset Performances, in fact, and just 32 locations in which you can write and store your own. Having made sure to marry up tracks and Parts so that the sound you're playing will be the sound you record, you can now begin basic recording in either real time or step time.
As I said, it's the button pushing rather than the sequencer itself that I personally found quite tiresome. For instance, when you stop recording, pressing STOP simply halts the proceedings. If you want to go back to the top, you have to press the SHIFT plus BWD (backward) button. Pressing the BWD button alone merely nudges you back a few ticks, or bars if, like me, you first of all drill at the wretched thing like a woodpecker because you can see no other obvious method of returning to the beginning of your sequence. By the time you've done this a few squillion times, plus toggled the metronome on and off... well, I've said my piece.
But it's not all gloom and doom, by any means. You have an endless array of time signatures to record in, you can overdub, punch in and out, you can set up loops, you can vary count-ins, you can erase on the fly... You can also record items called Phrases, which, as you'd expect, are snippets of parts that you can subsequently initiate direct from a pre-assigned key on the keyboard. The idea, borrowed from home keyboard technology, is that you can add parts to songs in real time -- a ripping brass line, a drum fill, and so on. The XP50 is not, I hasten to add, a home keyboard -- there are no 'Styles'. The Phrase track concept is simply a way of spicing up your performance with or without the internal sequencer in tow.
Another nice feature, and one of my favourite aspects of the XP50, is its range of quantise options. Although Grid quantise drags notes back into time, it can do so in percentage terms, so notes are progressively dragged nearer your set quantise value. Or you can choose Shuffle quantise, which effectively swings the whole framework of timing, the quantise factor, and is similarly alterable in percentage terms. All well and good, you say. Ah, but you can perform these manoeuvres in real time, actually as a sequence is moving along. Thus you can audition the effect of different quantise styles and percentages before you make an actual choice. This is both fascinating and extremely useful.
Editing is as in-depth as most of us ever need, from being able to record tempo changes, filtering out data, cutting, copying, and pasting, track merging (you can even merge all 16 MIDI channels onto a single track), and full microscope editing of every recorded event. Another useful sequencer feature is time fit, which allows tempo to be altered so that your sequence will 'fit' a specified length of time.
This sequencer does have some limitations, the most noticeable (to me) that you can have only one song loaded at a time. True, you can access songs direct from disk for playback, which redeems the instrument's gigging potential somewhat, but free cutting and pasting between songs in a recording environment would have been nice.
What is possible, though, is being able to access data written on older, stand-alone Roland sequencers like the MC500/MC50. I'm sure there are many people (me, for instance) who have disk boxes full of ideas stored on such formats, which are generally never cranked out because you work on a software sequencer. The addition of an XP50 to your armoury would then open up this treasure chest (let's be generous!) of old material. The sequencer also happily accepts Standard MIDI Files. Those who know my involvement with a certain piece of MIDI software that rhymes with "fiddly twits" will presume, correctly, that this was the first such third-party disk to be inserted. Aside from an initial difficulty in accessing a greater pitch-bend range than +2 on the guitar files, everything worked perfectly, instantly. The XP50 can accept data in both Type 1 and Type 0 formats too.
And so to the effects. There are three independent effects processors, one dedicated to reverbs, one dedicated to chorusing, and one containing some 40 fully-editable effects algorithms. Though the effects themselves are extremely well presented, what impresses me most is being able to switch effects on and off, separately, directly from the control panel. Thank you!
It's probably easier to say what the multi-effects bank doesn't contain than what it does contain. Sure, there are reverbs, and delays, and flangers, but there's also the splendid auto wah; a minutely-detailed rotary program with specific upper/lower speaker acceleration and deceleration parameters; a Dimension D sound-alike; a six-phase chorus; overdrive; and, as mentioned, the excellent feature, for which I think we must thank that speedy old RISC chip, controllability of certain effects parameters, depths, speeds, and the like, from the modulation lever, or either of the two assignable sliders. Some of the 40 effects are multi-effects in themselves, some applied in series, some parallel (see box). Effects are applied per-patch until you're in Performance mode, when a Performance setup kicks in.
Speaking of kicking, the XP50 boasts no less than 10 drumkits, plus room to store a pair of your own making. Interestingly, the instrument does not limit you to what it thinks of as drum sounds. You are quite free to build up a kit by trawling the regular tonal waveform bank for likely suspects. Nice touch.
It's no secret that keyboard manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are still feeling the pinch somewhat. The problem is simply that we are not buying enough new keyboards. So who should at least be looking at the Roland XP50? Judging by the instrument's type and range of sounds, the XP50 must appeal to the ambient techno-inclined, who will surely love the samples, enjoy the wild yet controllable effects, and appreciate the street-level directness of MRC-style sequencing. Without wishing to offend, I would also imagine that such programmers, as opposed to players, will probably not object to the lightweight feel of the keyboard as much as an old piano player like myself.
I do have reservations (already voiced), but the XP50 offers a lot for the money. If you've got any, get down to your Roland dealer today and have some fun with it.
Keyboard: 61-note, velocity and aftertouch sensitive.
Polyphony: 64 tones.
Patch Memories: 640 preset (including GM set), 128 user.
Performance Memories: 96 preset, 32 user.
Drumkits: 10 preset (including GM kit), two user.
Sequencer: 16-track, MRC Pro/SMF (0/1 format), 20,000 note capacity, one song.
The XP50 accepts SR-JV80-01-6 wave expansion boards, housing waveform and program data. Currently available: Pop, Orchestra, Piano, Vintage Synth, World, and Dance. (There's no card slot, by the way.)
Familiar style of sequencing.
Initially confusing control panel.
A fun-filled, modern-sounding workstation which
should be of particular interest to the dance fraternity.
£ XP50 £1399 inc VAT.
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T 01792 702701.
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