During the last year the Roland VS880 has established itself as the cornerstone of many small or semi-professional studios, my own included. Reviewed back in March 1996's SOS, the original unit was a compact 8-track hard disk recorder with integral digital mixer, SCSI interface and an optional effects card (VS8F-1). With a maximum of eight virtual tracks for every real track, it offered ample scope for trying out alternate mixes or several takes of a solo. By means of Roland's own cunning compression routines, the VS880 was able to squeeze the maximum recording time from a hard disk without sacrificing quality -- although if you did turn compression off, it was reduced to playing back only four simultaneous tracks.
Not content to rest on their laurels, Roland created several useful (and free) improvements in the form of system-updating MIDI files. Now, a year on, they have released the V-Xpanded version of the VS880, at the same price as the original but with some useful new additions. Existing owners needn't fear being left out in the cold, since all the V-Xpanded features are available in the form of the S1 System Expansion kit, consisting of a Zip disk, new manuals and front-panel reference stickers, all at a very reasonable £49. (If you don't own a Zip drive contact your Roland dealer, who should be able to perform the upgrade for you. If all else fails you can return your unit to Roland.)
The new VS880 V-Xpanded supports six tracks of uncompressed audio. I suspect this may be pushing the sysem to its limit, and that eight may simply not be possible with existing hardware. Remember that Roland (unlike some of their competitors) do not restrict you to fixed track lengths, allowing you to allocate available time to tracks as you require. Personally, I'm happy using eight tracks at MT1 compression mode (approximately 2:1 compression) and think such things should always be judged by your ears and not a meaningless spec sheet.
The expanded VS880 offers 10 new effects types, as follows: Voice Transformer, Mic Simulator, 19-band Vocoder, Hum Canceller, Lo-Fi Sound Processor, Space Chorus, Reverb 2, 4-band Parametric EQ, 10-band Graphic EQ and Vocal Canceller. Examples of these appear in a new bank of 100 presets, taking the total to 300 presets in all, with 100 of these user-programmable. For my money, the Voice Transformer alone (probably derived from the Boss/Roland VT1 self-contained Voice Transformer box, reviewed SOS November 1996) justifies the upgrade fee, providing, as it does, a range of real-time voice pitch and formant characteristics. Some of the gender-bending factory presets are quite uncanny, transforming tenor to soprano (or vice versa) with none of the "munchkinisation" associated with cheap vocal processors. Even my own squeaky voice could be translated into a reasonably convincing Darth Vader or a manic gerbil on helium. A Robot Voice option sets incoming vocalisations to a fixed pitch of your choice, creating some unique special effects. If that weren't enough, real-time editing is available via the first five channel sliders, which control five parameters of the voice transformer -- so you can tweak as you record. Note that, due to the processing power required, the Voice Transformer and the 19-band Vocoder use up both effects slots when in use.
My other favourites are the Space Chorus (designed to simulate Roland's classic SDD 320), the 19-band Vocoder and the Lo-Fi Processor. The last is complete with a resonant filter (low-, high- or band-pass) and can transform your clear, crisp recordings into the wheezing output of a toy radio or low-resolution sampler. It also derives some grungy, processed electronic effects from the most polite and sanitised sources.
The Mic Simulators apparently use Roland's COSM (Composite Object Sound Modelling) technology, and aim to transform the sound of your humble 'Karaoke mike' into that of a high-quality condenser microphone. I expected this to be a little gimmicky but was surprised that my initial results showed rare promise, adding 'air' to the recordings of acoustic drums, for example. Even my nastiest microphones were able to exhibit improved tonal qualities with minimal effort, although much practice will be needed to fully exploit these capabilities.
One of the most popular questions I hear about the VS880 is "how do I record with effects?" It is often desirable to add an effect during recording rather than leave it until the final mix, so Roland have taken note and added new insert options. Understanding signal flow is essential to get the most from the mixer, and the much-improved manual now includes a better explanation of the busses, despite a curious plumbing analogy based on kitchen sinks, bathtubs and toilets.
Thankfully, it is now possible to assign stereo reverbs and delays to both effects slots, not just slot 1. Effects can be added at the master output stage for a last-minute EQ or compression of the whole mix.
Previously, VS880 owners wanting to perform an automated mixdown had to do so by sending MIDI control changes from an external sequencer. The V-Xpanded VS880 allows you to record real-time mixes along with the audio data -- up to 12,000 events per song. Mixer events can be recorded statically or during song playback, or even generated automatically for smooth fades between two existing points. If you don't already use a MIDI sequencer, this facility will be an invaluable addition. Even if you do, it's sometimes handy to keep everything in one place, although EQ settings must be automated, as before, via external sequencer control. Each track has its own base level, set from -12 to +12dB. This is great for altering the relative volume of a finished track without affecting an existing automated mix.
I was delighted that Roland have now introduced scene and effects patch selection via MIDI. I was less than delighted that the manual advises that we refer to "the separately sold MIDI implementation" if we require information on scene selection and real-time effects manipulation via MIDI controllers. Most manuals have a MIDI section at the back, and I hope that this V-Xpanded approach is a temporary aberration and not some ominous indicator of future direction. I haven't yet seen this optional 'extra', so I can't tell you exactly how many effect parameters can be modified in this way. A nice new touch is the use of MIDI to switch track status: by sending Controller 29, with various values, you can switch tracks into play, mute, record or source modes, something I'll be adding to my Cubase mixer map as soon as I get a chance.
If you're still pondering the merits of stand-alone hard disk recorders, perhaps weighing them against a wholly computer-based solution, you owe it to yourself to check out the VS880 V-Xpanded. With its automated mixdown, integral effects and virtual tracks, the whole philosophy of the VS880 is liberating, recalling the days when you just switched on a tape deck, hit record and made music.
For existing VS880 owners, the choice is simpler: if you have the effects card, you should not be without the S1 expansion kit. If you don't yet have the effects card, I can only assume it's on your shopping list, after which the upgrade should be on there too.
A stereo signal can now be mixed in at the master output stage, taking its source from inputs 1&2, 3&4 or digital. This last option is ideal when two VS880s are operated in synchronisation.
It is now possible to use the 3-band EQ in both the simpler track->input mode and the more flexible input>mix/track->mix mode (at least for up to eight selected channels). I should perhaps explain that track/mix mode is designed for controlling VS880 tracks alongside external sources.
Something that surprised (and worried) me when I first heard about it was the inclusion of SCMS (Serial Copy Management System), which allows you to infect the digital output of the VS880 with the SCMS digital protection virus. Fortunately this can easily be switched off, so we'll say no more about it.
There are some new options for creation of sync tracks and tempo maps from mark points, etc. For example, if you can tap reliably at the start of each bar, the VS880 can convert these mark points to a tempo map.
A small tweak to the Remaining Space display means that this value can now be represented as time, % free, actual space (in Mb) or events free.
Peak levels may now be held on the track level display -- useful for setting input gain accurately.
Finally, the Operating System provides basic disk diagnostics, in the form of a surface scan which is done either at drive initialisation or later.
I'm not sure what future plans Roland have for the VS880, but my first suggestion would be a backlit LCD kit (the VS880's display being the only real annoyance) and my second the ability to switch virtual tracks during playback.
6-track playback in Master (uncompressed) mode.
Auto Mixing functions without need of an external sequencer.
Scene and effects changes via MIDI.
10 new effects algorithms with 100 additional presets.
Improved effects inserts.
Can now use stereo reverbs and delays in both effects slots.
Can now use 3-band equaliser in both mixer modes.
Integrated 8-track hard disk recorder with virtual tracks.
Compression allows more recording time per hard disk.
Effects card keeps all processing in digital domain.
No phantom powered mic inputs.
The VS880 was already a superb studio tool; the new
V-Xpanded machine has even more going for it, with mixer
automation, improvements to the already excellent effects
implementation, and an extra two tracks in uncompressed mode.
£ VS880 V-Xpanded (without hard drive) £1499; VS8F-1 effects board £340; HDD3 1.4Gb internal hard disk £399; VS880-S1 System Expansion kit for original VS880 £49. Prices include VAT. Version 2.04 reviewed.
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