Roland's impressive range of 'next generation' instruments have seen the company share a number of new technologies across a wide range of products. The latest of these is the VA7,an arranger keyboard which incorporates their revolutionary Variphrase technology. Paul Farrer makes arrangements...
The 'home keyboard' tag has been seen as the kiss of death for wannabe pro-studio instruments for some years now. Trying to meet the needs of both the live solo keyboardist and the studio musician is no easy task, and to date there have been very few instruments that have managed to couple the instant-access, user-friendly approach of the home/performance keyboard with the editability and in-depth control flexibility demanded by studio users. Whilst the VA7 is intended primarily as a performance-oriented instrument, with its D-Beam controller, auto-accompaniment features and built-in speakers, a cursory glance at the specification list reveals more than a few features that might interest the studio user.
The V-Arranged Tour
Despite the VA7's reasonably hefty dimensions (1800 x 400 x 180mm), carrying it is easily a one-man job, the heaviest parts being the compact yet surprisingly powerful speakers. The rear of the unit sports a standard three-pin mains socket with power switch and the familiar MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, as well as three types of foots
ROLAND VA7 £2099
Great features for the live performer.
Tons of onboard sounds.
Good use of the Variphrase engine.
Excellent levels of real-time control.
No sound-editing features.
Variphrase only works on mono sound sources.
Not particularly efficient as a studio-only instrument.
Not exactly cheap.
An extremely powerful yet easy-to-use 'all-in-one' performance keyboard whose intelligent auto-accompaniment, Variphrase, D-Beam and MIDI file-friendly approach deserve to make it the prize contender in the live/home section of the market.
Moving to the front, the most visually striking element of the VA7 is its impressively large touchscreen LCD display. In normal operation this presents large amounts of data in the form of icons, directional cursors and virtual faders, all of which are easily readable and extremely responsive to the touch. However, you can actually perform many operations, such as preset selection, with the well-sized and clearly illuminated dedicated buttons if you prefer. For most of the time the screen seems so well laid out and logical that you'll find yourself navigating around the various pages with little need to look anywhere else.
The keyboard itself has the standard 61 unweighted keys and is, as you would expect, both velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive. Just below the keyboard and centrally mounted on the bottom of the front panel you'll find a floppy disk drive, a Zip drive and, unusually, two sets of headphone sockets. To the extreme left of the keyboard are a large ribbon controller and a Roland-style pitch-bend/modulation control. The upper left-hand quarter of the front panel also features a D-Beam controller -- something that first appeared on Roland instruments a couple of years ago. Essentially, it is an innovative and useful proximity and motion sensor, which can be assigned to a large number of MIDI and performance control functions. For instance, many of the VA7's internal sounds load up with the D-Beam set to control frequency cutoff, but it can just as easily be set to trigger an arpeggio or even change elements of the auto-accompaniment in real time.
The three knobs below the D-Beam section control master volume, master effects level and a useful feature which sets the ratio between the level of the auto-accompaniment and any additional performances you might play in the right hand on the upper section of the keyboard. Next to them, and spread fairly evenly across the rest of the lower front panel, are the various control buttons which deal with the calling up of on-screen utility functions as well as the controls for the auto-accompaniment, preset selection and the data entry/tempo adjustment wheel.
However, the real jewel in the VA7's crown is to be found in a section all its own just to the right of the main screen. Roland's new Variphrase sampling system promises 'elastic' audio in so far as it allows you to take a sample of a vocal phrase and stretch it regardless of tempo, pitch or timing without the dreaded 'chipmunk' effect or too much in the way of unnatural artifacts. More about this later, but for now let's begin with the most basic question: what are the VA7's sounds like?
Getting To Know You
At the heart of the VA7 beats a powerful 128-voice 16-part multitimbral General MIDI and GM2 sound source. There are four basic Tone Maps, as Roland call them, and these each contain complete GM sound sets as found in the JV-series modules, giving you access to over 48Mb worth of data in total! Tone Map four contains all the latest generation of sounds, and it is to these that the VA7 defaults on power-up. Hitting any of the 16 Bank/Number selection buttons on the right-hand side of the keyboard displays the preset selection screen; all the onboard sounds are presented in two main banks, each with eight further banks containing eight presets each. This layout is extremely logical and, as with many functions, you can either choose to audition and select presets from the dedicated buttons or, as I suspect most users will end up doing, work exclusively with the touch-screen.
Unfortunately the VA7 doesn't offer anything by way of actual sound-editing facilities. However, if the familiar GM layout seems a touch too regimented for some players' tastes, the instrument at least goes some way to offer a few viable alternatives for each sound. In the preset selection page a 'Variation' icon appears at the bottom of the screen and, once selected, reveals a list of alternatives to that sound. For instance, hitting the 'Variation' icon whilst looking at preset A81:Trumpet gives you a further 21 other trumpet sounds, from flugels to mute trumpets as well as trills, swoops and effect sounds. You can flick through the list auditioning each sound, and if you particularly like a variation you have the option to customise the preset list so that your newly selected sound appears in the main preset list in the future. This is an extremely handy option and, coupled with the fact that the variations on offer are both distinctly different from the original sound while remaining highly usable, many users will find the lack of sound-editing features largely irrelevant.
As for sound quality, Roland have obviously been burning both ends of the candle trying to come up with a great collection of non-GM-sounding GM sounds! While the arguments as to whether or not synth presets should be so 'uniform' are likely to run for years to come, Roland have decided to stay one step ahead of the anti-GM campaign by putting together a collection of sounds as responsive, realistic and downright playable as any I've yet heard. The 116 new drum kits are particularly impressive, and lots of work has clearly been done on the acoustic kits giving maximum high-end realism and polish to the cymbal, hi-hat and tom-tom sounds (the latter coming complete with a hint of ambient snare ring for extra realism). Generally speaking, it's the response of the drum sounds which test the mettle of any sample-based sound source and in the VA7's case the velocity-switching snares, the meaty bass drums, the ultra-realistic percussion noises and the sheer range of sounds that you get for your money pass any test.
Having such a large and easy-to-use touchscreen has enabled Roland to vastly slim down the number of buttons needed on the front panel. Those that are present are generally large, clearly labelled and often back-lit. The other spin-off from this is that there are very few buttons that have more than one function, maximising ease of use, particularly in a live situation. The screen itself, as I've already mentioned, is a major selling point for the VA7, and those unfamiliar with touchscreen technology on synthesizers are in for a treat. Flying through preset and style selection menus is just one benefit of the system, but it's in the Mixer pages where the screen really comes into its own. The good-sized virtual faders are also touch-responsive and you can see four on screen at any one time, with the others accessible from the page Left and Right cursors. In fact the only negative to this system is that you can only adjust one fader at a time.
Of course there's the obligatory bird tweeting effect (has anyone ever actually used that one?) and a less-than-believable Recorder preset, but one of the VA7's main strengths is variety and if those sounds don't interest you, selecting the 'Variation' icon allows you to choose a dog, a horse, a cat, a seal or even something called a 'Fancy Animal' instead. Gimmicks aside, the VA7's 3,694 (yes, you read that correctly) different tones set new standards for what GM sounds could and indeed should sound like (the new Nylon Guitar preset simply has to been heard to be believed). If you don't like the VA7's sounds then the chances are you're never going to be converted to the GM cause.
Allow Me To Accompany You
Auto-accompaniment has always been seen in pro music circles as something of a taboo. This is, in part, due to the fact that music fashions change very rapidly and what may seem cool and useful to a programmer in a factory in Tokyo is perhaps unlikely to inspire the average teenager in Detroit or London. The VA7's concept of auto-accompaniment, however, is vastly improved from the blue 'Bossa Nova' button that you first discovered on your Casio home keyboard on Christmas morning in 1983. The basic concept is still the same, with the lower half of the keyboard given over to determining the chord progression of the accompaniment and the upper half featuring a sound to solo with. The VA7 refers to its system of accompaniment as 'styles'; the unit ships with 128 basic onboard styles, with 559 others stored on and easily loadable from the Zip drive. The selection you get covers an impressive range of musical genres from techno to Charleston and from retro '80s synth-rock to jazz. Of particular note are the Latin sections, with some impeccably programmed sambas, mambos and even a couple of respectable bossa novas (is there no escape?). For such a futuristic instrument, however, there does seem to be a distinct lack of more modern material, with the 'Dance' page featuring only eight examples of the type -- two each of techno, house, dance and hip-hop.
To get you started there is a slightly over-simplistic multilingual 'Virtual Band Wizard' which asks you a few dumb questions about the kind of accompaniment you want (in one place narrowing your three choices down to Romantic, Ballroom or Heavy!). Alternatively, you can select your own in the same way you would load presets.
In operation the styles can be triggered with the Start button on the front panel or using 'Sync Start' by striking the first chord in the left hand. Depending on the style you have selected, the pattern usually kicks off with a long and generally impressive intro -- which, incidentally, changes quite radically to suit the type of chord you have just played. Once it has started, you simply input the chords of the progression as you go along (if you play just single notes, the VA7 assumes you want major chords) and jam along in the right hand. As far as structure goes, each style comes with an intro, an original -- which is to say the main body of the verse and chorus, for instance -- a fill button, a variation (for middle eights and the like) and an ending trigger button.
For each style there is also the nifty 'One Touch' key which suggests four lead instruments appropriate to the selected style. For example, whilst playing the excellent 'Blues' style, One Touch recommends Guitar, Piano, Sax or Organ.
The VA7 comes with some pretty comprehensive keyboard layering and zoning facilities which allow you to layer up to five sounds at once. Alternatively, if you prefer, you can zone each of these five tones to specific areas of the keyboard. When working to an auto-accompaniment, you can additionally split the upper portion of the keyboard, giving you control over the chord progressions of the style with your left hand, an octave of, say, a drum kit in the middle and possibly a solo lead sound in the upper two octaves. Driving these multitimbrally via MIDI proved rather involved, but then it's unlikely that any VA7 user would wish to attach the keyboard to an external sequencer anyway -- the onboard one and the VA7's auto-accompaniment ought to suffice for most of the musicians at whom the machine is pitched.
So what are the styles themselves like? Well, the inherent problem is that as the VA7 is pitched at such a wide potential market, Roland obviously have their work cut out trying to please everyone. Having such a wide and believable palette of sounds to draw on certainly helps make the VA7 sound better than other accompaniment synths you may have previously heard, but I've already mentioned that I personally felt that there could be more contemporary dance-type styles on offer. However, when you consider the type of venues this instrument is liable to end up being used in, there's probably a vast number of potential buyers for whom the lack of dance styles is a blessing. Certainly the VA7 offers a solid and usable selection of styles which may not be to everyone's taste (some are downright and unforgivably cheesy) but for the most part offer credible and surprisingly intelligent musical accompaniment.
The VA7 also offers quite a lot in terms of tweaking the styles on the fly. A quick flick of the 'Orchestrator' button allows you to build up or slim down the arrangement in the middle of a performance, with four friendly icons depicting a band of varying sizes. This page also offers a 'Morphing' feature and enables you to substitute elements of one style with another as you go along. For instance, you might be jamming along in a basic rock style and suddenly feel like bringing in a hip-hop bass line, then changing the drum patterns accordingly until you are eventually playing a totally different track with the same tempo and chord progressions. This is a very well-implemented feature and, despite sounding rather The other feature which I can see being of tremendous help to live performers is the MIDI file player, which was working. The VA7 fully exploits the interest live performers have in this area, and comes with over 300 well-known MIDI song files ready stored on the Zip drive. Everything from the Beatles to Queen, from Led Zeppelin to Bob Marley, and even epic film themes like Jurassic Park and Star Wars are included. The MIDI file player offers you numerous options regarding tempo, transposition and track muting, and even has a scrolling lyric page for appropriate files. You can chain a number of song files together to create a live set or work with each file individually, again tweaking and changing mix elements as the file plays. These can then be resaved to the floppy or backed up to the VA7's Zip drive, mounted on the front edge. Now I'm not really a fan of the MIDI file culture, but being able to load files into the VA7 via disk, shoot off down the pub to do a gig and have your lyrics scroll in front of you on a large backlit LCD screen has to be seen as a major step forward.
The VA7 comes with a basic onboard 16-track sequencer which, as I've explained in the conclusion, wasn't yet operational on the software of the review model. The Roland tech who delivered the keyboard to me was keen to stress the planned capabilities of the sequencer, so it was a shame I didn't get a chance to test it out. At this point, they say that the sequencer will not only allow you to swap performance ideas between itself and the unit's auto-accompaniment styles, but will also perform as a standard sequencer suitable for programming, editing and storing song or style data. As with the presets and Variphrase samples, your sequencer songs will also be archivable onto the Zip drive for quick and easy retrieval. Roland's plan was to have the sequencer out by the time this review was published. All I can say is try before you buy...
The other feature which I can see being of tremendous help to live performers is the MIDI file player, which was working. The VA7 fully exploits the interest live performers have in this area, and comes with over 300 well-known MIDI song files ready stored on the Zip drive. Everything from the Beatles to Queen, from Led Zeppelin to Bob Marley, and even epic film themes like Jurassic Park and Star Wars are included. The MIDI file player offers you numerous options regarding tempo, transposition and track muting, and even has a scrolling lyric page for appropriate files.
You can chain a number of song files together to create a live set or work with each file individually, again tweaking and changing mix elements as the file plays. These can then be resaved to the floppy or backed up to the VA7's Zip drive, mounted on the front edge.
Now I'm not really a fan of the MIDI file culture, but being able to load files into the VA7 via disk, shoot off down the pub to do a gig and have your lyrics scroll in front of you on a large backlit LCD screen has to be seen as a major step forward.
If you want to make more subtle changes to the individual mix levels of your performance, the Mixer page is easily accessible from the main performance page, and shows a series of large virtual faders complete with effects inserts, all of which can either be adjusted using the data-entry wheel or, more effectively, on the touch screen.
Roland's flagship VP9000 Variphrase processor was reviewed in SOS June 2000. The VA7 offers the chance of experiencing the same amazing new technology, albeit in a more limited format. For those unfamiliar with what Variphrase is, I can recommend checking out last month's VP9000 review for more in-depth background -- for the purposes of this review I'll just touch on the basics. Traditionally, the tempo and pitch of samples have been locked together during playback -- change the pitch of a sample and the tempo alters accordingly, and vice versa. What Variphrase allows is the 'elastication' of a sampled line, allowing it to change during playback to accurately track the movement of any MIDI signal. In practical terms, this means that you can sample a vocal line singing, for instance, 'Love Me Do', then play a four-note chord (limited as the unit is to four-voice polyphony) across a two-octave range to create a harmony chord, with all the samples tracking at the same tempo and all finishing at the same time, and without any of the 'munchkinisation' that can result from traditional sampling techniques.
While the potential uses for Variphrase technology are only beginning to be discovered, the VA7 showcases it as something specifically to give vocal 'oomph' to your live performance. The samples in this section fall into three main types: Background Vocals (oohs and aahs), Melodic Vocals ('Baby Baby', 'Set Me Free' and so on), and Rhythmic Vocals ('Doo Doo', 'Be-Bop', and so on). There are 48 different vocal samples on board with many more ready to be loaded from the Zip drive, including a few wonderful ethnic samples and a few truly terrible yodelling samples. The other amazing thing about this feature is that all the Variphrase samples automatically load up set to whichever tempo the keyboard is currently working at, and of course this can be changed in real time, meaning that whichever vocal you decide to work with, it's always going to fit the style of your chosen auto-accompaniment.
The VA7 also allows you to record and manipulate samples of your own via the jack input previously mentioned on the unit's rear panel. The maximum recording time is 60 seconds of mono sampling, and for Variphrase to work properly, the vocal has to be singing a one-note phrase and be as free from noise and hum as possible. Once recorded and given a name, your sample can be trim edited using the unit's rudimentary waveform editor, and after a process called 'Encoding' which analyses and prepares the sample for Variphrasing, it then appears in the User Preset list. You can have a maximum of up to 16 different vocal samples in memory at any one time providing that the sum total of all the recorded material does not exceed one minute. Of course, just like a conventional sampler, if you want to keep your samples for future use after power-down you have to save them to the Zip drive. The VA7 also supports WAV and AIFF file formats via the Zip drive, so any appropriate samples can be imported directly in this way.
As a revolutionary system still in its infancy, it's difficult to judge where Variphrase will make the biggest impact. Certainly dance producers will delight in the way you can glean an almost entire vocal performance from a single strand of recorded voice. But by anyone's standards, the ability to pre-record background vocals for songs in your set and perform them live whilst retaining such flexibility over tempo and groove is very tempting, and utterly unprecedented on a machine of this type.
Roland brought the review model to my studio with an apology that this was one of the first machines of its kind in Europe, and a warning that as such it might have a few operational quirks. I did indeed experience a few glitches in the operating system, such as vocal samples I had loaded from the Zip drive refusing to appear in the User Pres In general, navigating around the effects pages and the virtual mixer was a fairly pain-free exercise and my only real niggle was that not all of the more in-depth pages featured both 'Exit' and 'Back' icons. The former take you back to the main performance page, while the latter take you back a single step to the page you have just come from, but in several instances the only option was to 'Exit' completely, making some edit operations rather tedious. Hopefully, by the time Roland have perfected the operating system there will be a 'Back' icon on every page.
The VA7 is fully stocked, in typical Roland style, with tons of high-quality onboard effects. There are good numbers of usable reverbs, choruses, delays, an equaliser and a further 89 multi-effect presets including some tasty overdrive guitar effects as well as simulated rotary speakers, tremolos, flanges and 3D echoes. In each case the 'Param' icon reveals all the right numbers of edit parameters, without getting too bogged down in endless effect options such as being able to specify the colour of the carpet in your multi-dimensional virtual echo space. The effects can be routed manually over various elements of your accompaniment, or over different parts of the multitimbral set or keyboard zone. Alternatively you can opt for something called Auto Routing which assigns effects relevant to the selected tone or style.
In general, navigating around the effects pages and the virtual mixer was a fairly pain-free exercise and my only real niggle was that not all of the more in-depth pages featured both 'Exit' and 'Back' icons. The former take you back to the main performance page, while the latter take you back a single step to the page you have just come from, but in several instances the only option was to 'Exit' completely, making some edit operations rather tedious. Hopefully, by the time Roland have perfected the operating system there will be a 'Back' icon on every page.
With the VA7 Roland are making the brave statement that the features the live keyboardist needs are not necessarily the same things that will find favour with studio musicians -- and all power to them for that. With its excellent MIDI file features, intelligent and highly musical auto-accompaniment, clear layout and impressive number of real-time controllers, it's not just a well-specified live keyboard, but also a great instrument to just lay your hands on and play.
The Variphrase sample engine is, quite simply, awesome (and even after days of playing with the thing I still can't quite believe what it is actually doing) but whether or not such a mind-bogglingly futuristic feature really belongs on such an instant-gratification keyboard is, perhaps, open to question. Sensing that this may be a relevant point, Roland are planning a lower-cost version of the VA7, the VA5, which boasts most of the same features but excludes Variphrase and doesn't come with a Zip drive. A great idea, and while I would never be one to moan about an instrument having simply too many features, perhaps Variphrase will prove to be just a little too in-depth for the users this otherwise wonderful keyboard is aimed at.
Whilst the VA7 offers an impressive sound engine and a nicely appointed effects section, studio-only users are likely to find the single outputs, the lack of any real sound-editing functions and the slightly clumsy way that presets are arranged in a multitimbral set less of a turn-on. With such a wide range of other Roland products currently on release, many of which feature the best bits of the VA7, programmers looking for next-generation studio technology would perhaps be advised to wait and see what else Roland have on offer before committing to this keyboard simply because it is one of the first off the blocks with Variphrase. If, however, you are a keyboardist working in a live situation (particularly if you work with MIDI files) and need a great set of sounds and some cutting-edge accompaniment, the VA7 will give you what you need, and more besides.