Before Sony developed the Walkman, no-one knew they needed a tiny, portable, personal radio-cassette. Before Yamaha developed the Walkstation, no-one knew they needed a tiny, portable sequencer with built-in sounds. Both products filled a niche that no-one knew existed, and in Yamaha's case, the company created a new category of musical instrument -- the mobile musical notepad. Such was its success that several new generations and spin-offs followed, and amazingly, Yamaha have had the field all to themselves for the best part of five years. The company you'd have expected to see leaping into action, Roland, was surprisingly quiet.
Five years down the line, Roland have hit back with a vengeance. We've waited a long time for the Roland answer to the Yamaha challenge...
Bearing a striking resemblance to one of the latest generation of notepad computers designed to be used with a stylus, the PMA5 Personal Music Assistant comes wrapped in a smart black vinyl Filofax-style cover, which protects it when not in use. In fact, when it's closed, you'd think it was a Filofax, and it's just as easy to carry about. The slim silver pen-like stylus slots perfectly into a channel in the PMA's 'spine', and is used to access all the PMA5's functions via its touch-sensitive LCD display. Roland make much of the fact that only the supplied stylus is suitable for use with the display, yet it would be stupidly easy to lose -- why not anchor it to the main unit with some kind of cord, as on the good old Stylophone?
Main connections -- MIDI In and Out, a mini-jack Stereo Line Out/headphone socket, and a 9V power-supply socket -- are located along the top edge of the unit. No power supply is provided, but you do get six AA batteries, with a life of about five hours. There's a socket for a start/stop footswitch, also on a mini-jack, on the side, where you'd expect the edges of the pages to be if the PMA5 really was a Filofax. As a piece of design, it's cute, clever, and covetable.
In contrast to Yamaha's QY-series Walkstations, the PMA5 is not covered with buttons. The Roland approach is to let the display (measuring 64 x 83mm, more than half of the PMA5's front surface) do it all. It shows various text labels and graphic devices which select different functions when pressed with the stylus.
Inside the PMA5 is a General MIDI/GS sound source featuring 306 instruments and 16 drum sets, plus a sequencer offering four auto-accompaniment 'backing' tracks and four 'melody' tracks (for the user to enter his/her own musical ideas). The GM/GS synth is actually 16-part multitimbral, and can be used simply as a sound module when connected to an external sequencer or MIDI keyboard. In this mode, you'll be able to access all 16 parts. When used with its internal sequencer, however, it's effectively only 8-part multitimbral, because the sequencer has only eight tracks.
The sequencer's backing tracks come courtesy of Roland's 'Intelligent Arranger' technology, and can make use of 100 preset 'Styles', each up to eight bars long, though when you count the associated variations (six per Style, including intros and fills), there are more like 600 individual patterns, which can be mixed and matched to your heart's content. You can also create and save your own Styles -- 200 slots are available for these. There's room on board for up to 20 Songs too, with a limit of approximately 21,000 notes for the lot. When you've assembled a track from the options on offer and your own input, you can put a gloss on it with the built-in digital effects, which include reverb and chorus.
The PMA5 also has an integral Mac/PC computer interface, and an optional 'PC Communication Kit' is available, which allows you to transport song and sequence data between the PMA5 and your computer sequencer. You might load a PMA5-generated sequence into your computer for detailed editing, or move data in the opposite direction, for easy gigging, for example. The PMA5 can naturally be synchronised from, or sync to any MIDI timing reference. Something else to note is that the comprehensive MIDI implementation info at the back of the manual seems to indicate that the PMA5's sounds will be editable over MIDI, in at least as much detail as the average Roland Sound Canvas module.
One drawback when using the PMA5 as a MIDI interface with a Mac or PC is that it lacks a MIDI Thru connection: it's possible to use an external keyboard to play the PMA5 and input notes into sequencing software, but MIDI data coming back from the software won't go any further than the PMA5. So you won't be able to use your MIDI keyboard's own sounds, or any other connected sound modules, when using the PMA5 as a MIDI interface.
The PMA5's touch-sensitive graphic LCD is your window on its inner workings, and in some ways it behaves like a computer sequencer. The transport bar at the bottom of the display mimics the transport bars used by many modern computer sequencers, with the usual sequence of Start, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind controls. In addition, however, there's a set of soft buttons:
Mix accesses a virtual mixer page.
EFX takes you to the effect edit page.
Mute opens a Mute/Solo page, where you can mute or solo parts in both Styles and Songs.
Loc allows you to jump to one of two user-defined Markers, and loop songs.
Edit takes you into edit mode.
Step accesses Step Record mode.
Finally, there are two parameter increment/decrement arrows, and a horizontal 'Ad Lib' bar: while a Song is playing, you can wiggle the stylus across this bar for an improvised solo that's always in tune with the Song's or Style's chord progression. Nice idea, but in practice, results are, shall we say, odd.
Across the top of the display are various legends: in the top left corner is a number, which, depending on what you're doing, can refer to the current Style, Song, or Measure within a Style or Song; next right is 'Song' (pressing this selects Song mode), and under it are labels for selecting the four user Sequence tracks; next is 'Style' (selects auto-accompaniment pattern mode), and under this are labels for the four Style tracks; the 'Utility' label selects Utility mode; and the 'MIDI' label does the same for MIDI mode. Under the latter two labels are two legends for selecting the Chord track (defines the sequence of chord changes for a Style, or a sequence of Styles in Song mode), and the Style track (used in Song mode to chain Styles to produce a finished backing).
The middle of the display is dominated by a graphic keyboard -- used, obviously, to input note data for Styles and Songs -- which can be shifted three octaves up or down to increase its range. The keyboard also has a little graphic above it to indicate velocity. You use this to set up the keyboard's velocity output -- the display may be clever, but it's not clever enough to be velocity sensitive. Under the keyboard is a 'Message' area filled with descriptive text, the wording of which depends upon what you're doing at any given time: it's here that you'll find Style and Song names, editing parameters and their values, and so on. This section of display isn't anywhere near large enough to show all available parameters and display options: manoeuvring around the system involves touching the stylus to the arrows that appear to the left and right of the display from time to time. This moves you from parameter to parameter when editing, and to the different modes when using and editing Styles and Songs. If there's no arrow, you can't go any further. An 'Enter' button appears when parameters are being changed: you have to press this to confirm edits you've made.
The hierarchy of the PMA5 is harder to explain than it is to use. The following description of Song creation with the PMA5 should clear up any confusion:
There are 600 Preset and 200 User Styles, each of which is up to eight measures long and is made up of four parts: Drums, Bass, Accompaniment 1 and Accompaniment 2.
Six tracks are used to create a finished Song: the Style track (which itself contains four tracks, remember), the Chord track, and four Sequence tracks.
Use the Style track to select and chain Preset or User Styles to make up a Song's complete backing.
Then, with the Chord track, assign chords to the Styles chosen for the Style track.
Once your backing track of Styles and Chord progressions is finished, you can overdub up to four personal Sequence tracks, which, as with the tracks in a 'normal' sequencer, can last the full length of the Song if you like.
In addition to the basic Style/Song hierarchy, the PMA5 also provides a graphic virtual mixer, for altering the volume, pan position, reverb and chorus send level for each part, as well as a separate page for customising the reverb and chorus effects.
Recording of Styles and Songs can be in step time or real time, and results can be comprehensively edited after recording, with all the facilities you'd expect from a hardware sequencer. Individual notes and events are edited in step time, and the display is deployed quite neatly to give you a reasonable graphic idea of what's going on. In addition to note data, you can edit controller information, tempo, pitch-bend, program change, and velocity information. In Edit mode, you can take advantage of sophisticated track manipulation options, including transposition, track merging, copying and erasing measures, and so on. You can even quantise a sequence, with a resolution anywhere between quarter-notes and 32nd-note triplets. An especially nice point is that a varied range of time signatures can be selected: if you fancy working in 7/4, 11/8, or 13/16, no problem.
The PMA5's display, which is similar to those that have been appearing on some consumer electronics remote controls as well as notebook computers, is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it takes no time to get used to touching and dragging your way around the system, and the interface is more intuitive than the tiny buttons and limited displays found on similar products. The stylus/touch LCD interface means that some PMA5 functions are especially easy to access. For example, virtually all parameters can be changed rapidly by touching the number you want to change with the stylus and dragging the stylus up or down the screen. In the same way, modulation or pitch-bend can be added to notes by playing the note with the stylus, then dragging the stylus up or down. This is great fun. On the minus side, a lack of display backlighting means that readability is quite poor in certain lighting conditions -- this could be a downer on stage. We also wondered whether the display might eventually suffer from constant jabbing with the stylus, though when asked about this, Roland say that if you just use the supplied stylus (and not a biro), the display should be quite hard wearing.
Putting a Song together with the PMA5 is perfectly straightforward if you have used a sequencer before. Once you understand the relationship between the Style track and the Chord track, you can be stringing together convincing 'cheat' backings in no time, then overdubbing your own four tracks to produce a final result that's hopefully a little more original. If you're used to computer sequence editing on a monitor, you should be aware that editing sequence data on a display this size is slower and more laborious in comparison. However, you get used to the limitations surprisingly quickly, and in fairness, Roland have implemented editing jobs very well considering what they had to work with.
This may be a fairly trivial point, but the PMA5's cover opens the opposite way to what you'd expect (imagine opening your personal organiser: that's the way the PMA5 doesn't open). This means that the cover flap interferes slightly with the operating hand of a right-handed person. It's hunky-dory for a left-hander, though -- which is fair enough, given what a raw deal southpaws usually get. Note that the cover can be removed completely with the aid of an ordinary screwdriver, or even a 5p piece (we tried it -- nothing's too much trouble for you lot).
Many musicians (and non-musicians) will have their breath taken away by the impact of some of the PMA5's built-in Styles, coupled with its pleasing sounds. Almost anyone, musician or not, could produce release-quality backing tracks or instrumentals with this machine, with little of their own input -- and no doubt some will. Using the PMA5 like this, however, would be little better than carefully filling in a painting-by-numbers kit and then passing it off as your own. One wonders what motivates the people who provide the preset Styles to give away their ideas (actually, they're probably starving artists, like the rest of us...). Our fervent hope is that people use machines like this to provide a convincing framework for their compositions, which they then take to their band or into their home studio for recreating in a more personal and original fashion. Then again, we also hope for World Peace and an end to starvation...
Setting aside the moral ambiguities for the moment, though, you have to applaud Roland for the PMA5's sexy, "I want one" packaging, ingenious and usable interface, logical operating system, good sounds, effects, and instant usability. The PMA5 is a music-on-the-move tool for when you're out and about, a hardware sequencer for home use if you don't already own a sequencer, and a 16-part multitimbral sound module with built-in effects. Even people with fully-equipped studios don't say no to an extra sound module, and that's what the PMA5 is when you don't need its sequencing and auto-accompaniment functions (although the PMA's PC/Mac MIDI interface is of limited usefulness in the latter situation). Looked at in this light, it's very good value for the money.
The portable music notepad may have been Yamaha's idea, but Roland have certainly put a new and contemporary slant on it.
Assessing the preset Styles provided by auto-accompaniment instruments is always subjective -- what's wonderful to one person may be irritating or boring to another. The PMA5's collection is, for the most part, quite acceptable, with nothing too off-base. The selection is certainly varied: everything from Rock, Ballad and AOR to Techno and Jungle, by way of Foxtrot, Tango and Wiener Waltz, whatever that is. Roland have to sell this baby all over the world and to all types of musician, so this accounts for some of the eclecticism of the Styles. It almost goes without saying that all are well-played, though there is some stiffness, and some of the Styles are too well-played, or too 'nice', to feel really authentic -- the House and Jungle Styles, for example, amongst others.
Preset Styles aside, the creative mobile musician could see the PMA5 as a phrase-based sequencer (get to grips with those user Styles!), with an additional four overdub tracks -- in fact, this is the way the sequencers on most Ensoniq synths and workstations behave. You are limited to 8-bar phrases, however, and the more user Styles you programme, the less memory is available for finished Songs (and vice versa), since the PMA5's RAM is shared between the two.
8-track sequencer, with four Style tracks (preset or user) and four 'melody' tracks.
100 preset Styles, with six variations per style.
User memory of up to 200 User Styles and 20 Songs.
Touch-sensitive graphic LCD/stylus interface.
GM/GS sound source, with 306 Instruments, 16 Drum Sets
Maximum 28-voice polyphony.
16-part multitimbral sound module mode.
Built-in digital reverb and chorus.
Mac/PC computer interface.
The PMA5's GM/GS compatible sound source shows its Roland provenance -- it's bright, realistic and eminently usable -- although it probably doesn't use exactly the same waveform ROM as the top-of-the-range SC88 Super Sound Canvas. Rather, the sound set seems to be sourced from one of Roland's PC soundcards. The result is a quality collection of sounds, although the samples seem curtailed when compared to the best that Roland can offer. Highlights include acoustic guitars, drums, pianos and basses; lowlights include woodwind and brass, which are rather distracting when they turn up in preset Styles.
The dual effects -- chorus and reverb -- are once again drawn from the Sound Canvas family, although both types include a variety of non-reverb and non-chorus effects. The reverb effect offers three rooms, two halls, plate, delay and panning delay, while the chorus effect offers four choruses, feedback chorus, flanger, short delay and short delay with feedback. The quality is good, and helps to add the final touch to your work.
Although only 11 chord types are immediately accessible from the virtual keyboard when in Chord mode, a total of 26 types of chord are actually available for use with PMA5 Styles: Maj; M7; M9; 7; 7/b5; 7/13; 7/b9; 7/+9; 6; 6/9; m6; m6/9; 9; add9; madd9; mM9; m; mM7; m7; m7/b5; m7/b9; dim; sus4; 7sus4; aug; aug7.
The full range is available by touching the stylus to the chord type in the main display (not the keyboard), and dragging in either direction until the desired chord is selected. When you touch and change a chord or its type, the chord sounds, giving you audio proof of your choice.
Versatile -- doubles as sequencer and GM/GS sound module.
Good value, especially considering the above point.
No backlighting on display.
Playing notes with the stylus takes some getting used to.
An audio input for jamming along with Styles would have been nice.
Mobile music, late '90s style, the PMA5 combines well-thought out sequencing features, a respectable sound source, and a hi-tech interface in a package you won't be ashamed to be seen with.
£ £445 inc VAT.
A Roland UK Ltd, Atlantic Close, Swansea Enterprise Park, Swansea, West Glamorgan SA7 9FJ.
T 01792 702701.
F 01792 799644.