Roland XP80

Music Workstation

Published in SOS May 1996
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Reviews : Keyboard workstation

The latest and largest addition to Roland's XP family is a strapping workstation with a monster sequencer and masses of programming muscle. PAUL NAGLE puts it through a complete work-out...

 

I used to think all the built-in instrument demos were somehow faked. I mean, did anyone ever get a complete song out of a Roland D110? It seemed so easy in the shop, but once back home, all it took was a bass line, a melody and a few chords to make all those precious notes disappear. A few minutes with the Roland XP80, however, and I've changed my tune: not only is it possible to produce complete songs, I've actually done it!

Described as a Music Workstation -- with hardly a mention of the word 'synthesizer' in the manual -- the XP80 has evolved from the rich gene pool of Rolands JV/JD (and even D-series) synths, married with the popular MC range of hardware MIDI recorders. The XP80 is endowed with 64-note polyphony, quality effects, a 60,000-note sequencer and various performance controls. Shrewdly, Roland have provided room for expansion, in the form of their JV series of plug-in boards. With the maximum of four installed, this gives instant access to almost 1700 patches. A staggering amount, but don't assume it makes your programming skills redundant -- there's still plenty to keep you busy!

PHYSICAL LAYOUT

Roland have opted for a traditional black, slimline appearance with plenty of hard plastic buttons, a continuous alpha dial, a 3.5-inch DD/HD floppy drive (for song and patch data) and a 320 x 80 green-ish LCD. I don't think this quite rivals the display of, for example, the Korg Trinity, but it presents a large amount of information clearly, supplying graphical views of effects settings, key ranges, filters and so forth. The review model had a quirk, in that its contrast settings rendered the screen invisible at settings below 4, and from 5 up to 10 there was no discernable difference. Four screen text types are available, but again, on the review model I could see no difference between them.

Continuing our guided tour, the back panel sports two sets of stereo outputs. One has effects, the other is a direct out for external processing. Alongside the three MIDI ports are five sockets for pedals; one is dedicated to sustain/hold, but the rest are assignable from a wide range of options and MIDI controllers. Unusually, there is also a separate output for the sequencer's click, with a separate level control pot -- but no sign of the XP10's 'to host' connector, for a direct link to PC or Mac.

The keyboard has a very light, shallow action: too shallow in my opinion, and I'm no concert pianist. It is, however, very fast, and anyone contemplating the XP80 will know after playing it for five minutes whether or not it will suit their style. Performance controls include two assignable sliders, Roland's 'stick' (for bend and modulation), and four further sliders which allow quick edits of the filter and envelope, or become a simple mixer. These controller values are all recordable over MIDI.

For the first couple of days, I had the synth but no manual. I'd love to be able to boast how, with my years of experience, skills honed on unfriendly instruments like the Yamaha DX7 and Korg S3, I mastered every feature. Alas, this wasn't quite the story -- 'intuitive' is not the word I'd use to describe the XP80. The LCD and softkey approach is a great improvement on the XP50, however. The panel is laid out in a confusing manner, and for a while I stumbled around like a kid presented with his first typewriter. However, once the manual arrived, things improved considerably.

SOUNDS

If you've heard any PCM-based synthesizer in the last five years or so, you'll have an idea what's in store; what you might not have expected is the sheer quality that oozes from every pore of the XP80.

The user area houses 128 patches, 32 performances (16-channel multi setups) and two drum sets. The preset area has a further 512 patches (including a General MIDI set), 64 performances and eight drum kits. Even without expansion, this is a whole bunch of sounds, and if I'd spent half the time playing them as they demanded, I'd never have finished writing this review. Unlike its smallest brother the XP10, Roland's GS logo is entirely absent. Instead, plain vanilla General MIDI allows playback and creation of GM files. I dutifully dug up a few old favourites, and discovered nothing untoward.

 

"With four expansion slots eager to be filled, this is not an instrument you'll get bored with quickly."

 

The factory patches are mostly excellent -- with silky strings, crystal-clear acoustic guitars, powerful brass and the usual assortment of strange, synthetic textures which make good use of the resonant filter. The instrument samples are first rate, with the possible exception of the rather kazoo-like saxophones, and there's surely enough variety here to satisfy the most discerning player. With so much at your fingertips, the chances are there will always be something pretty close to what you need, be it breathy choirs, pounding basses or swooshy pads. One of the softkeys presents a patch list, which is a great way of getting around, especially as the alpha wheel occasionally seems to pedal in the opposite direction to what you expect. Oh, and being Roland, the drums are simply the business...

PROGRAMMING A BIT

You could be forgiven for thinking that with its plethora of classy factory sounds, there is no need to learn to program the XP80. In fact, it has several powerful tricks up its sleeve that make for a rewarding experience, whether tweaking existing patches or boldly creating something new. Check out Julian Colbeck's review of the XP50 in SOS June '95 for more details, but here's a quick run-through for those of you who don't keep back issues:

An individual Patch can comprise up to four layered Tones. The more Tones you use, the fatter or more complex the sounds, but the payback is reduced polyphony (although a patch using all four can still play a healthy 16 notes). Patches can be grouped together in Performances -- multitimbral setups with each part having its own MIDI channel.

Try to think of Tones as complete, one-oscillator synthesizers, tied together in any of ten different structures, ranging from simple oscillator-filter-amplifier routings to more radical settings using ring modulators (to create metallic harmonics), or a booster (to add distortion or simulate pulse width modulation). The TVF -- Time Variant Filter -- has a powerful resonance (watch those speakers), which is a little harsh to my ears. It may be set as Low Pass, Band Pass, High Pass, PKG (peaking) or Off for each tone. Thoughtful combinations of structure and filter settings should provide interesting opportunities for years to come. I thought the band-pass filter was particularly good, ideal for the sort of nasal sweeps that sit so well in a crowded mix.

If you want to simulate old analogue gear (and why not?), there's an 'Analog Feel' setting to introduce a welcome air of unpredictability at the Patch level. Or individual Tones can use 'Random Pitch Depth', which, if used to excess, sounds more out of tune than the average Memorymoog. In subtle amounts, however, it comes close to reproducing those warm string synthesizer sounds that never quite sample properly. Every Tone within the same Patch can have differing amounts of random pitch depth, so you can really muddy things up nicely, if that's your bag.

Each Patch has an associated tempo setting, since several parameters, eg. LFO speed and tone delay (a user-definable period before the tone sounds) are tempo-aware. If you slave to the sequencer clock, and experiment with these, some great, pulsing rhythms magically appear. A liberal sprinkling of MIDI-sync'd echo from the multi-effects unit can further compound things, but we're straying from the path of good taste here...

As well as the usual sine, sample & hold, square and triangle modulation waveforms, a new one (to me) is 'Chaos wave', which is a kind of tempo-ignorant sample & hold. A 'random' LFO wave can add a 'Smurfs on helium' feel if applied to pitch, and is very effective when modestly applied to the filter. The LFOs have both fade-in and fade-out options, which permit unusual touches such as 'add modulation only after key release'. Once I began exploring the XP80 in depth, I could have spent weeks just trying different combinations of waveforms, structures, filters, cross-modulation and other settings -- but I dutifully put these aside, so I could investigate the sequencer.

MC HAMMERED

It's been some time since I looked at a hardware sequencer, so it was a pleasant surprise to find the inclusion of Groove Quantise, Fit To Time, event editing, Data Thin and tempo/signature maps. Only one song can be resident in memory at a time, regardless of its size. Saving and loading individual tracks is possible though, and it seemed strange that such an otherwise well-featured MIDI recorder had a resolution of only 96 pulses per quarter note. This compares poorly with most software sequencers (Cubase uses 384 divisions for its quarter notes, for example) and would certainly not persuade me to throw aside monitor and mouse for everyday use.

Once you get past the basics, using the sequencer is pretty straightforward, whether you need real or step time. Don't worry about mistakes, as you can list events and edit each individually later, using filters to limit the data on the screen to the type you want. I enjoyed shortening the gate time of individual parts to create some of those resonant acid blips, or shifting whole tracks in time to generate interesting rhythmic 'accidents'. Loop recording is a doddle, allowing you to build up layers of music, erase mistakes, audition without recording, and all without stopping. You can assemble the bare bones of a song very quickly, then overdub afterwards. Once recorded, a song is volatile, so it's important always to remember to back up to disk -- I only got caught out once by this!

 

"Congratulations to Roland for including dedicated on/off switches for the three effects sections -- a great aid to programming."

 

Groove Quantise allows you to overlay an existing musical 'feel' on the timing or velocity of your own recordings. There are over 70 preset grooves supplied, with space for a further 16 of your own. Grooves can be applied gradually, which is useful, as the chances of hitting on something that works first time are remote. Personally, I think this feature works best when used against step-time recordings, since it often takes as long to find a groove that complements your style as it would to play it that way in the first place. Tempo and time signature changes are well catered for, with separate 'tracks' for each, as is synchronisation with the outside world. A special section in the manual deals with linking the XP80 with the wonderful Roland VS880 hard disk recorder. With these two working together, you have a complete MIDI and Audio recording system in a very convenient package. You can switch tracks on and off during playback, and loop entire songs if you wish.

By specifying a chain of songs to play in order direct from disk, I think the XP80 would be more than adequate as a backing band. It's somewhat bulkier than a DAT machine, but at least you can do more than just hit 'play'! The disk drive hums away to itself whenever a disk is present -- this is apparently to enable fast response to load commands, and if the noise annoys, simply remove the disk.

As well as storing songs, patterns, patch data and RPS settings (see the 'New & Improved' box), the operating system can read and write Standard MIDI Files (of either type 0 or type 1) or MRC Pro songs. If you have a hoard of S-MRC songs created on the MC range of sequencers, it can load those too. The manual describes how to add patch data to a song, so that it will always play back with the right sounds. In fact, the section entitled 'Getting The Full Potential' contains some invaluable hints, such as sync'ing LFOs and effects to your song, playing breakbeats correctly in tempo, and so on.

Unlike some other workstations, there is no option to load new samples via the disk drive -- the only way to add new raw sound material is via the plug-in expansion slots. Shame really, but then how many sounds do you want -- or need?

SUMMARY

Roland have obviously listened to existing XP50 owners. They've trebled the capacity of the sequencer, souped-up the software, added extra outputs, implemented an improved user interface and controls, a longer keyboard, that great arpeggiator... I think they've done more than enough to justify the XP80's existence.

At the same time, I can't help feeling there could have been still more. Perhaps the addition of sample RAM or external inputs to the effects section would have lifted the XP80 into a different class -- but maybe then, it would have been dangerously close to the magic £2,000 mark. The sequencer is simple enough to use, and offers scope for copious experimentation, and yet for me, its poor resolution lets it down. Maybe I'm just being picky: it's been done to maintain compatibility with the MC range of sequencers, and they've managed with 96ppqn for years, thank you very much.

Nevertheless, the sequencer would make a trustworthy backing band for live work, and is a tonic for musicians who are anxious to avoid computers at all costs. With programming muscle in abundance, the XP80 offers even the most fanatical twiddler hours of pleasure, and with four expansion slots eager to be filled, this is not an instrument you'll get bored with quickly. Ultimately, the XP80 is up there with the best workstations on the market, and its arpeggiator and phrase sequencer might just tip the balance for a live performer looking for a complete band in a box.

 

EFFECTS

Congratulations to Roland for including dedicated on/off switches for the three effects sections -- a great aid to programming. The sheer quality of the effects couldn't fail to impress, divided into reverbs (lovely and warm), chorus (rich and lush) and 'EFX'. This features distortion, flanging, EQ, enhancer, compressor, various chorus and delays and composite effects. See the XP50 review for a full list.

Much of the synth's (sorry -- 'workstation's') character is derived from the way individual tones or patches in a performance can be processed, and I'd love to have been able to add external instruments too, but sadly that's one option not provided. But many of the effects parameters can be modified by the performance controllers, thus giving considerable scope for developing an expressive repertoire of solos.

 

SECRET WEAPONS

Up to four JV-series expansion boards can be fitted at a time. I was lucky enough to be supplied with three of Roland's latest, which I installed in about five minutes. Internal expansion is good. It removes the worry that some light-fingered git can upgrade himself at your expense, should you leave your keyboard unattended in a public place (say at a gig). The expansion banks may be accessed directly via the shift key -- eg. shift-7 takes you to bank C. I don't think it would have hurt Roland to have printed this on the front panel, as it's hardly obvious. Each board contains 255 extra waveforms and 255 patches. Both the Dance set and Super Sound set have an additional eight drum kits.

• DANCE SET (SR-JV80-06)
Made in collaboration with AMG (sampling CD gurus), this was actually my favourite of the three -- odd really, because I've always seen drum loops as the musical equivalent of painting by numbers. With numerous loops, hits, scratches, zaps, vocals and samples from Roland's TR808, TR909, TB303, SH101 and others, it's the perfect palette for creating instant club fodder. There are some cool ambient sweeps, and so many effects that even a sad old bastard like me managed to pull out something to meet with the grudging approval of my teenage daughter (buying my loon pants next week). Of course, the disadvantage is that anyone else with the dance set can use the same distinctive loops and samples, but this doesn't seem to worry any of the enthusiastic XP owners I've spoken to.

• SUPER SOUND SET (SR-JV80-07)
A mixed bag of mainly conventional instrument samples taken from Roland's SO-PCM cards. Particularly notable were the harps, brass, electric pianos (even better than a DX7), orchestral hits, guitars and drums. An absolute pearl of a patch, 'Deep Cave' recalls trickling water droplets with stunning accuracy, and shows off the character of the reverb beautifully. Other atmospherics are good too, although few matched the calibre of the internal banks. Still, there's an abundance of useful raw material here, despite overlaps with many existing waveforms.

• KEYBOARDS OF THE 60s & 70s (SR-JV80-08)
This board contains a wealth of organs, clavinets, electric pianos and several Mellotrons. There should be enough rock organs here to keep an aspiring Keith Emerson happy, with a range of gritty Hammonds, cheesy Farfisas and Voxes. The Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer piano samples, when played via a weighted keyboard, were superb and kept me occupied into the early hours. The Mellotron, too, is well represented by various strings and choirs, although I missed its haunting flute. Some of the Mellotron patches even included the scratchy sound of tape heads, for added authenticity! This was my least favourite of the bunch, but only because there were too many variations on the same theme.

 

NEW & IMPROVED

• ARPEGGIATOR
I'm glad to see arpeggiators making a return to the fold -- especially when they are as well-specified as this. With 33 different modes including all the normal up/down business, plus guitar-strumming effects, bass and keyboard riffs -- even 'bouncing ball' and shamisen settings, for goodness sake! You can add a real-time shuffle feel, alter the accents, the beat pattern and the note order -- a quite overwhelming choice. On the down side, I was surprised there was no dedicated knob for tempo control, and quite amazed that there was no latch setting. To continue arpeggiating after removing your hands from the keyboard, you must keep your foot on a sustain pedal, which is a real nuisance. Also, with all the options on offer, I think that only one user-programmable arpeggio location is hardly sufficient.

• RPS
The Real-time Phrase Synth is a collection of up to eight sequences or patterns to be triggered from a single key. I found this great for simple repetitive phrases, although you can employ just about any keyboard effect, chord or passage recorded in the sequencer. The pattern can either play through once, loop until the key is released, or loop around until the key is pressed again. It can, of course, run in sync with your songs and arpeggios -- brilliant! [Fantastic! -- Ed].

 

pros & cons

ROLAND XP80 £1799

PROS
• 64-note polyphony.
• Powerful sequencer functions.
• Hundreds of top-quality sounds.
• Choose from a range of expansion boards.

CONS
• Limited sequencer resolution of 96ppqn.
• Light keyboard may not suit all tastes.
• With killer effects such as these, it's a shame there's no external input.

SUMMARY
If you want just one keyboard to do everything, you simply must check out the XP80. Quality sounds, effects in abundance and a built in hardware sequencer make this a great one-stop solution for live or studio use.

 

info

£ £1799 inc VAT.

A Roland UK, Atlantic Close, Swansea Enterprise Park, Swansea, West Glamorgan SA7 9FJ.

T 01792 702701.

F 01792 310248.

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