Roland were the first Japanese manufacturer to take MIDI really seriously. Indeed, they virtually invented the 'master keyboard' concept when, in 1984, they released the MKB300 and MKB1000 as part of the system that included the MKS10 Planet P, MKS30 Planet S, and MKS80 Super Jupiter sound modules. For a brief spell Roland reigned supreme, before Yamaha stole the high ground with their KX88. Despite adding the excellent MKB200 to the range, Roland were squeezed out as other manufacturers muscled in on their territory -- Kurzweil's MIDIboard, the Elka MK88 and the Kawai K8000 at one end, Akai's MX keyboards and the Cheetah MK-series at the other.
In 1988 Roland hit back with the 76-note A50 and, somewhat later, the 61-note A30. In between came the more expensive 88-note, piano-action A80, from which is descended today's offering, the A90/A90EX (pre-fitted with one of three expansion boards, adding sound generation to this otherwise 'mute' keyboard). So, will they place Roland back at the top of the MIDI Controller tree?
The A90 is an imposing lump. You immediately notice things like its size and weight, plus the wooden end-cheeks that look like a Juno 60 on steroids. Then there are the JD800 buttons complete with in-laid orange LEDs, the case on which you could safely park a Chieftain tank, the steel lip that protrudes an inch beyond the keys, and the feel of the keys themselves. On these points and others, Roland can award themselves 10/10, a big tick, and one of teacher's gold stars.
The A90's operation is based upon 64 Performances, each of which contains eight 'Zones' (four internal and four external) whose outputs you define using the plethora of controls and controllers on offer. The most important of these are the 16 primary parameters that you select using the Parameter Select keypad and which you can manipulate individually for each Zone. To be specific: you choose a Zone's MIDI channel using button 1, apply coarse tuning of +/-3 octaves (in semitones) using button 2, and determine the key range over which the Zone applies with button 3. For each Zone, button 4 then offers access to the seven keyboard velocity response curves, the degree of velocity sensitivity, and the maximum velocity that the Zone will transmit to any connected MIDI devices. You control the MIDI volume of the Zone using button 5, and its pan from button 6.
The next two buttons (Rev Send and Chor Send) are primarily for owners of other Roland modules, and may not be compatible with other manufacturers' devices, but buttons 9 to 12 are far more global, applying modulation, aftertouch, and expression to each Zone, as well as adjusting the portamento time. Buttons 13 and 14 determine the Program Changes and Bank Changes that the A90 sends when you select a Performance and, finally, the last two buttons -- Aux1 and Aux2 -- should allow you to jump through arcane MIDI hoops by transmitting channel messages, NRPNs and SysEx messages. Unfortunately, every time I attempted to edit them, the A90 crashed. (It did so on a few other occasions, too.) Oops!
Editing couldn't be simpler: just decide whether you wish to adjust an internal or external Zone, press the Edit button, select the parameter that you wish to modify (either via a bunch of hierarchical menus, or by pressing, pushing, or twiddling the offending item) and use the Palette sliders, data entry slider, or Inc/Dec buttons to alter the values presented. You can assign most MIDI functions to most of the A90's controls, including four foot controllers, a breath controller, a pair of traditional pitch-bend and modulation wheels, Roland's more usual mod-lever, twin volume sliders, a number of assignable buttons, and four faders that either assist in editing or initially control the amounts of breath control, aftertouch, expression, and portamento applied to each sound. My only gripe concerns the screen: it's backlit, clear, and can display parameter values as both text and graphics, but it's just too small. Abbreviated function names are acceptable on cheap and vintage gear, but some of those forced upon us by the A90's 2x17 (!) character LCD are too short by far. Come on Roland...
The System menu also offers a number of goodies. The most interesting of these are the 12 name maps that, if you have another Roland instrument such as a JV80 or SC55, display the names of the factory presets when you select the appropriate bank and patch numbers. For players with other manufacturers' equipment, there are a further four empty, but user-definable, name maps. These are an absolute blessing when you use the A90 with modules such as the Cheetah MS6 and Korg EX800 that have no onboard patch names. Unfortunately, whilst setting up my own maps proved to be a doddle, I couldn't get the preset maps to display for me. Was this another bug, or was I missing something, somewhere?
Once you've configured each Zone within a Performance, you can direct each of them to any combination of the four MIDI Outs. You can then save everything to one of the 64 onboard memories, or one of the 128 that are available if you have the requisite plug-in RAM card. But that's not the end of the story... you can string together a chain of 64 Performances, and save 10 such chains simultaneously. With 640 configurations available, I can't imagine any performer running out of steps, no matter how long or complex their stage set may be. Nevertheless, Roland have seen fit to make chains loopable, and allow you to move both forwards and backwards within them. You can even dump and load chains using SysEx. Whatever next?
While on the subject of receiving MIDI data, I should point out that Roland have implemented the two MIDI Ins in somewhat different manners. You use In1 primarily as a remote control for the eight Zones within the A90, while In2 merges incoming data with that generated by the A90 and then directs this to the Zones of your choice.
Finally, I should mention the Sequencer Controls and the Effectors. The former will select the Song Number, send Song Position Reset, Start and Stop messages, and determine the tempo of any sequencer that responds to an external MIDI clock. The Effectors are edit messages that determine settings within external effects units and drum machines. Unfortunately, the manual is very unclear about their use and function, and time and space precluded a detailed investigation from first principles. It's a shame that the documentation should let down what is otherwise such a well-produced instrument.
I appreciate all the arguments for having one powerful keyboard controller connected to a rack full of small, light MIDI modules, but I'm personally still a bit wary of keyboards whose only audible output is a dull 'thunk'. It's not a particularly attractive sound, nor one I've ever found the urge to sample. That's why I'm particularly glad that the instrument under the microscope today is an A90EX, not the basic A90.
The VE-RD1 Expansion Board sits behind the screen cover, and can be removed by messing about with a few screws and clips. Still, it's a shame that Roland couldn't have made its installation simpler, because it is completely impractical should you wish to switch between expansion boards with any sort of frequency. As a result, I suspect that an A90EX shipped as a piano will always remain a piano, and that one with, say, the GS board installed will likewise remain a permanent source of GS sounds.
Roland have been building sounds from Partials, Patches and Performances since 1988, and the VE-RD1 is no exception to this. Four Patches (assigned to the internal Zones) make up a Performance, and it's within the Performance that you apply and store the Patch edits. Unfortunately, and unlike true synthesizers such as the JV1080, the A90EX offers no way to modify the Partials themselves. So, for example, whereas Patch 91 'JP-8 Haunting' demands four voices for every note played (reducing polyphony to a maximum of 16 notes) and, we must surmise, uses four Partials, you can only control parameters that apply globally to the Patch itself.
Editing a Patch couldn't be simpler, with the Parameter Select buttons also controlling the dedicated synthesis functions. Starting, somewhat unusually, at button 13, this allows you to choose the Patches that will occupy the four Zones of the current Performance. You can then select the MIDI channels of each using button 1 (which also controls the Patches' fine-tuning), and can adjust the coarse tuning and the key-range of the Patch using buttons 2 and 3. Once again, button 4 determines the velocity responses and, likewise, you can adjust the volume of each Patch and its position within the stereo field using buttons 5 and 6. Skipping functions 7 and 8 for a moment, we then come to... the Attack function (button 9), which opens up many creative possibilities, and makes the Patches far more flexible than their somewhat defining names would suggest. Similarly, the Decay and Release buttons (10 and 11) offer a remarkable number of synthesis possibilities. Indeed, by the time that you start adjusting the low-pass filter labelled 'Bright' (button 12), you begin to view the Patches as Partials that you can modify using the ADR envelope and low-pass TVF (Time Variant Filter). Hey! This thing's an S&S synth, after all! You can even control the LFO speed using the Sequencer Control's tempo function (which can itself be assigned to any of the continuous controllers). Mind you, the absence of a Sustain control and the lack of modulation routing restrict things somewhat, but within seconds I had the monophonic Sawtooth Patch sounding just like a monosynth sound on Tangerine Dream's Rubycon -- and you can't get much more synthy than that.
The final three buttons access the three effects that apply to each Performance. The first is an 8-mode reverb/echo unit (two rooms, two stages, two halls, and two delays), with controls for the effects' level, time, high frequency damping, and feedback. The second is a chorus with level, rate, depth, pre-delay, feedback and output mode controls. (The three output modes are: (i) chorused and reverberated sounds output in parallel, (ii) reverb applied to the chorused sound in series, or (iii) a mix of pure and reverberated chorus.) You control the amount of signal that is directed from each Patch to these effects using the aforementioned buttons 7 and 8 (Rev Send and Chor Send). The third effect is an equaliser that offers low, mid, and high frequency gain, and 17 choices of mid frequency, from 200Hz to 8kHz. There's no 'Q' control though. Shame.
So what does this all add up to? Quite a lot, actually. Roland introduced a similar type of synthesis with the U110 module, and later used it in the U220, the U20, and the Rhodes 660 and 760 keyboards. Its implementation within the VE-RD1 expansion board is somewhat different to these but will nevertheless surprise many players with its range of sounds and programming flexibility. Indeed, describing the A90EX as a 64-voice 'stage piano' doesn't do it justice. OK, many of the acoustic and electric pianos are superb, and the Clavinets are excellent, but the real surprises are the pad sounds one would more usually associate with a powerful polysynth. A bit of tweaking with transpositions, envelopes and effects produces Performances that display a richness and depth rivalling even the most expensive programmable synthesizers.
One final point about the expansion card: this can be decoupled from the internal Zones and controlled exclusively by the MIDI Ins. You can then route the four internal Zones to the MIDI Outs, making the A90 capable of directing no fewer than eight independent Zones (in any combinations) to any or all of the four MIDI Outs. Powerful!
There's lots more in an A90EX. We haven't mentioned the Utilities that offer all the writing, copying, dumping, naming and re-initialising features you would ever want. We've skipped many of the 43 edit functions, and we've ignored goodies such as the onboard Help messages that guide you through the controls and parameters.
But details aside, we should judge the A90EX on four fundamental levels. Firstly, despite needing a vice to get any meaningful aftertouch out of it, I suspect that the A90 would today be my piano keyboard of choice. Indeed, Roland have fitted it with perhaps the best hammer-action ever to be incorporated within an electronic instrument. It's fast enough for monosynth chops, smooth enough for L102 swipes, and firm enough to demand and exercise good pianistic technique. Secondly, and with regard to its credentials as a MIDI controller, the A90's routing and controller flexibility are almost without peer, although it seems to need a software revision to eliminate a handful of teething bugs. On the third count, there's nothing on the market to touch the realism of its piano sounds -- the A90EX is definitely the instrument to beat. And finally, there's the question of its limited synthesis capabilities, and even on this level the A90EX acquits itself surprisingly well. (Just don't expect it to replace your Trinity Pro X or K2500X.) So, are Roland back at the top of the MIDI Keyboard Controller tree? Undoubtedly.
Despite its other qualities, it's as a piano that players will perceive the A90EX, not only because of the preponderance of piano Patches, but because of its weighted keyboard. So I patched the A90EX into and compared its piano Performances to my dearly loved Roland HP5600, a classic SAS (Sampled Adaptive Synthesis) piano that weighs a few hundredweight, and incorporates a 6-speaker sound system that rattles and resonates like 'the real thing'.
I may as well come straight out with it... the VE-RD1 Expansion Board, despite using 'mere' PCM technology, offers the most accurate piano simulations I have yet heard. The detail of the hammer action is excellent, the dissonance of the soundboard is exquisite, and the harmonic richness persists well into the tail of the sound. Yet, in common with just about everything from the cheap and not particularly cheerful Emu Proformance up to an expensive Yamaha PF100, the 'thunk' of the hammer is perhaps a little over-pronounced. It's almost as if Roland have decided that you grasp the soul of a piano by close-miking to within a few inches of the soundboard. Unfortunately, this fails to capture some of the richness and body that you hear if you're sitting in the third row of the auditorium. Yet if I stop analysing, and just listen to the A90EX, it sounds superb. While there's no such thing as a definitive 'piano' sound, I'm going to take the plunge... the A90EX isn't perfect, but it's damn close. Listen and be impressed.
Provided that it is fitted with a VE-RD1 Expansion Board (the architectures of the VE-JV1 and VE-GS1 boards are somewhat different), each A90EX Performance can combine any combination of up to four of the 128 available Patches. The following are not necessarily Roland's descriptions of each:
5 Stereo Concert and Semi-Grand Pianos.
8 Monophonic Semi Grand & Grand Pianos.
6 Electronic Pianos.
6 Rhodes Pianos.
1 Wurlitzer EP200.
2 FM Pianos.
2 D50 Pianos.
2 MIDI Stacks.
4 Piano + (Strings/Choir/Pad/Bass) combinations.
1 Vibe + Marimba combination.
1 Brass Section.
3 Bass + Lead Synth splits.
2 Pads with LFO effects.
29 Acoustic Pianos.
3 JV80 Pianos.
4 SAS Pianos (two E-Grand, 2 Rhodes).
1 CP Piano.
8 Rhodes Pianos.
4 D50 Patches.
6 FM Pianos.
7 Hammond and Other Organs.
6 Polysynth Patches.
4 Brass Patches.
5 Pads with LFO effects.
6 Monophonic Monosynth Patches.
The quality and feel of the keyboard itself.
Breadth and flexibility of the controller functions.
Excellent piano sounds.
Excellent non-piano sounds.
Limited to one Expansion Board at a time.
The pressure needed to generate Aftertouch.
Very poor manuals.
If you're prepared to leap-frog the cheap 'n' cheerful and mid-price instruments on offer, and stick your hand in your pocket for nearly £2,000, you have every right to expect something a bit special. Despite the occasional lapse, the A90EX will not disappoint you. It's a top quality master keyboard, beautifully designed and built, and with a superb keyboard action. It's also the best piano in the business. Enjoy!
£ A90 Keyboard £1699; VE-RD1 Expansion Board £399; A90EX (RD1 pre-fitted) £1999. All prices inc VAT.
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