Photo: Mark Ewing
The FANXUP1 Sample Tools Expansion Kit is an operating system upgrade for the Fantom X range of workstations, namely the X6, X7, and X8 keyboards (reviewed in SOS September 2004, or at www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep04/articles/rolandfantomx.htm), but not the cut-down Fantom Xa. The upgrade is also available for the rackmount Fantom XR, in which case it is more properly known as the FANXRUP1 upgrade, but both versions offer very similar new features for both keyboard and rack Fantoms, including improved Fantom X Patch/Performance editing software, a Fantom Librarian, proper large-scale, on-screen sample editing, a multisample editor and — at long last — an S700-series sample-library converter. The major difference between the rack and keyboard upgrades is that the keyboards' sequencers receive the benefit of eight fully sync'ed audio tracks. These are not available in the XR Rack upgrade, which is understandable, as the XR has no onboard sequencer, but rather less fairly, the XR upgrade is the same price than the keyboard one.
Roland supplied SOS with an XR Rack pre-installed with the FANXRUP1 kit, so this review pertains to the XR version, and there will be no discussion of the eight-track audio features. Aside from this, though, comments pertaining to the XR also apply to the X6, X7 and X8.
The v2 Fantom X Editor now has three principle parts: a Patch/Performance editor, a sample editor and a Multisample editor. The Patch/Performance editors (shown on the right) are just as easy to use and immediate as those in the previous version of the Fantom X. Once you have specified the appropriate communication port, you go to the Edit menu on the toolbar and select 'Synchronise'. All the XR's data is transferred to the editor, and you can then select a Patch or Performance to edit. The Fantom X Editor makes getting around the XR a breeze — and infinitely preferable to the button-intensive menus and small display found on the XR itself. If there is one complaint to level here, though, it is that control over many of the parameters is too coarse. All too often, the exact values you wish to set are 'skipped' by the knob or fader, and no means is available to make 'fine' settings. So you have to delve into the XR's own edit menus to set them precisely — which somewhat defeats the object of having this Editor!
The Fantom X's Version 2 OS now allows fully detailed individual Patch editing from within Performance Parts, which is good news. However, edited Parts must be saved 'by hand', one by one — there's no option to write these using Performance Write (unlike on the earlier JV, XP and XV synths) which is not quite so convenient.
The upgraded Editor adds two new screens: the Sample Editor and the Multisample Editor. Both of these require samples to have been loaded into the XR. These can exist either in the XR's User RAM or be resident on a inserted Compact Flash card. Note that samples in the Preset bank must be saved to the User or Card memory area first before they can be edited.
The Sample button at the top-right corner of the editing software invokes the Sample Editor in a separate window. Whenever this is running, the LCD display on the XR shows the words 'PC Mode' and the XR's hardware controls are locked out. The Sample Editor window (shown overleaf) is in two halves — on the left-hand side is the sample list, with buttons above to show either the User bank or the Card bank sample list. On the right-hand side are two waveform displays — the upper display is an overview of the entire selected wave, whilst the lower display is the 'detailed' view, and can be zoomed either vertically or horizontally using the '+' and '-' scaling buttons. The waveform can also be zoomed horizontally by dragging the left or right extremes of the yellow boundary box in the waveform overview.
Below the waveform displays are numerical fields for entering sample start, loop start and end points. These points can also be dragged into position in the waveform window, or moved very precisely using back/forward nudge buttons. Each point has its own speaker icon, and clicking on one of these causes the wave to play back in a continuous loop from that point for auditioning purposes. Below these are further settings for loop tuning, wave gain, sample fine-tuning, sample level, original key and loop mode. Four loop modes are available: One-Shot, Forward, Reverse Loop and Reverse One-Shot. Curiously, the Fantoms do not support Roland's Alternate (bi-directional) looping option — more on this later.
At the bottom of the screen, a Preview button allows you to audition what you have been doing to the sample, whilst the remaining six buttons open separate windows to perform 'hardcore' editing functions. The time-stretching, truncating, emphasis, normalising and sample amplitude processes can either overwrite the existing wave data or make new versions of the processed waves. The 'chopping' process in particular benefits from this visual form of editing — chop points can be added, deleted and dragged with the mouse, and the resulting 'chunks' can be auditioned via 16 virtual pads, similar in appearance to those found on the keyboard Fantoms (see below). It is important to remember that none of these sample edits become permanent until they are written to User or Card memory. This must be done via the Fantom XR's panel controls — the Editor provides no Write functions. Similarly, other sample-management tasks such as deleting and loading samples have to be performed on the XR itself, so be prepared to do a certain amount of 'menu surfing' on the main hardware unit.
Editing multisamples on the XR was never an entirely intuitive process. The update adds some enhancements to make the task a little more bearable on the XR's small LCD display, but nevertheless it's still very fiddly compared to the clear, on-screen method enjoyed by Roland's original S-series samplers. The new Multisample editing screen harks back to those halcyon days, providing an efficient, large-screen means of assigning samples to key ranges in order to create a playable multisampled 'instrument'.
The Multisample Editor button is located in the Patch WG section of the Fantom X Editor. If a Patch contains no multisamples, the button is inactive (greyed out). To activate it, a multisample must first be created using the XR's 'Create Multisample' function, and of course this requires that some samples have been loaded into the XR. It doesn't matter what samples the multisample you create contains, just as long as you create one. Alternatively, you could select an initialised multisample as the waveform source in the WG section. Once a multisample is in place, you can access the Multisample Editor and adjust this multisample to taste, or even go on to create as many additional new ones as you need.
As you can see in the screenshot of the Multisample Editor over the page, the editor screen consists of three sections — the sample list on the lower left, the Zone list on the lower right, and the keyboard-mapping tool at the top. To create a new multisample, you select any initialised (empty) multisample from the drop-down menu to the right of the multisample's name — these are all named 'INIT MSMPL'. The Zone list and keyboard map will then show as empty. If you then drag the mouse across the keyboard map for the desired range of your first sample, a red boundary box appears above to reflect this range. To assign a sample to this range, you just select a sample and click the Assign button. The red box turns orange to show an assignment exists for that Zone, and a small orange arrow between the red box and the keyboard shows the original or root key of the sample. You can drag this arrow over the desired key if you wish to change it. The Zone box shows the same info in a text list, and here you can also change the original key, level and tuning of this Zone. Nudge buttons are also provided as an alternative means of setting the upper and lower range of the Zone. Zones can be erased individually or en masse, and swapping one Zones' sample for a different one is as easy as selecting a Zone in the list, selecting a new sample from the sample list, and clicking Sample Select. Finally, the Oct buttons to the left of the keyboard shift the keyboard's viewing range by up to ±2 octaves, whilst the Shift button nudges the selected Zone's range up or down in semitone steps. As with edited or newly imported samples, edited multisamples are only temporary, and must be written to Card or User memory to be stored — there is room for 128 multisamples in each of the User and Card banks.
Installing The Update
All recent Fantom Xs ship with the upgrades pre-installed, but if you're performing the upgrade on an older X, the FANXUP1 kit will supply you with a Compact Flash card containing the upgrade software, and a PC card adaptor. To install the upgrade, you plug the Flash card into the PC card adaptor, insert this card assembly into the XR, power up and follow the on-screen instructions. Afterwards, the Compact Flash part should never be needed again, but don't lose it just in case — and the adaptor will be required if you wish to import compatible wave data from any other Compact Flash card. The XR unit provided by Roland had already been pre-installed with the upgrade, so I can't comment on the ease or otherwise of this upgrade process, but it sounds pretty straightforward. The next step is to install the XR's USB driver on your computer. This enables the XR to communicate with all the included software utilities, as well as providing an additional USB MIDI I/O port in your sequencing software. Before installing the driver, the XR must first be set to USB MIDI mode in the System settings, and then powered off. You then connect the USB cable to the computer, power up the XR and install the driver. See the box on USB modes over the page for more on this.
This separate application (shown on the opposite page) enables Roland S700-series sample libraries to be imported into the Fantom XR. Converting and loading these Patches is quite an involved process, and it can be rather off-putting if you simply wish to audition material. Firstly, the XR must be in USB Storage mode in order to convert the Patches, with all the attendant USB cable unplugging and powering on and off (see the 'USB Modes' box below). Next, USB Storage is selected from the XR's main menu to establish a USB link to the computer. If all is well, a drive icon appears on your desktop named 'FANX_USER'. This contains a folder structure, within which is a sub-folder named 'PATCH_IMPORT', and it is in here that the converted Patches must be saved. Now you can insert a native Roland format sample CD-ROM and fire up the S700 File Converter utility. As you can see in the screenshot on the opposite page, the user interface for this is very simple — all Patches on the disk appear in the lower list (and can be sorted by type or alphabetically). For the most part, you'll want to leave the sample-conversion method on the Auto setting. You select the desired Patch from the list, or hold down the Shift key and click to select multiple patches. When you've selected everything you want, you then click 'Convert' and choose the 'PATCH_IMPORT' folder as the saving destination. However, you mustn't change the file name from 'IMPORT.SVD'! The manual is not clear about this process; only one .SVD file is written, and it must be named 'IMPORT.SVD', even when you are converting several Patches in one pass. My first impulse was to convert each Patch one at a time and save each file with a name of my choice, but this does not work. When conversion is complete, and before you can proceed with the actual import, the XR's desktop drive icon must be 'ejected' to terminate USB communication with the PC. Then, and only then, you enter 'Import Patch/Rhythm' from the XR's Utility menu to import the converted Patches. However, the task is not yet over — in order to play or edit your imported samples, you must return the XR to USB MIDI mode, with all the usual unplugging and powering on and off... For this reason, it's a good idea to always maintain a five-pin MIDI connection with the XR (in addition to the USB one) so you can at least audition what you've just loaded without having to change USB mode.
Incidentally, individual Roland partials and samples can also be converted using this utility, the only differences being that the converted files must be saved into the folder named 'AUDIO_IMPORT', and imported to the XR using its Import Audio function. The imported files are added to the sample list, and as always, they must then be saved before powering off the XR, or they'll be lost.
So how successful are the Patch conversions? Well the good news is that keymapping, pitch settings, velocity crossfades and switches make the journey intact. For Patches using switched or layered samples, each layer appears as its own multisample, which can be further tweaked if necessary using the Multisample Editor. The bad news is that TVA and TVF (ie. amp and filter envelope) settings appear to be ignored completely — both the filter and amplifier parameters default to a 'vanilla' setting, and need to be set up from scratch. Since the Fantom synth architecture is not significantly different from Roland's own XV5080 synth/sampler, which manages to load Roland sample data with complete accuracy, it's a mystery why the Fantom is unable to do the same. Another problem is that the Fantoms, as mentioned earlier, do not support Alternate sample looping, so any imported samples that use this are interpreted as having a Forward loop. Four out of 10 — see me afterwards!
In addition to the User, Card, Preset and GM Patch groups, two new Patch groups have been added, called USAM and CSAM. These groups allow a single sample to be played like a normal Patch, so samples need to be stored in either the User or Card memory, or both, for these Patch groups to work. Each USAM or CSAM Patch's sample is automatically picked from the sample memory in numerical order — so USAM 001 will play sample 001 from the User memory, USAM 002 will play sample 002, and so forth. If no sample exists in a particular location (if there is no sample in slot number seven, say), its 'host' Patch will display 'USAM 007 - -' and no sound will be produced. By the way, these two Patch groups set their samples' Tempo Sync parameter to 'on' by default, so unless you're playing drum loops this way, you'll want to turn Tempo Sync off, otherwise it becomes impossible to play the sample far beyond its root key without it sounding like a broken record!
The XR has two USB Modes in its System settings, MIDI mode and Storage mode. MIDI mode is used for normal playing or sequencing (when using the USB I/O port, instead of the traditional five-pin MIDI I/O ports) and also for using the editing and Librarian packages. Storage mode is for transferring files, importing samples directly from a computer, and for importing Roland's S700-series sample libraries (although the XR can be in either Storage or MIDI mode when importing ordinary wave data from Compact Flash cards).
It should be mentioned that if you are frequently swapping between Patch editing and PC file-importing tasks, the XR's USB mode has to be changed on a frequent basis. This involves the tedious process of powering off, unplugging the USB cable, powering on, changing the USB mode, saving the System settings, powering off, plugging the USB cable back in, and powering up once again — all of which the manual insists must be adhered to rigidly. After a while it all becomes a bit much, especially considering that many users will mount their XR in such a way that the rear USB connection will be inaccessible, and some will also have their computer in a soundproofed cabinet, or even located in a separate room. All of this simply causes inconvenient and undesirable breaks in the musical workflow.
Additionally, the manual insists that the XR must always be powered up last for the USB connection to function properly, and that the USB cable should never be connected or disconnected while the XR is powered up. The manual even suggests powering off the computer when disconnecting the USB cable — and, frankly, life's just too short. So I tried leaving the XR powered up when replugging the USB cable, and sure enough, I always ended up having to reboot the XR in order to re-establish USB communications with the computer — as well as having to restart my sequencer to get the USB MIDI ports back on line again!
Firstly, let me say that everyone who owns a Fantom X6, 7 or 8, or XR should definitely buy this upgrade. For a modest outlay you'll receive the benefits of graphical sample editing and multisample editing, an improved Fantom X editor and the ability to load Roland format sample libraries — albeit imperfectly. Why this last feature was ever absent from the original Fantom specifications is a mystery — and this is probably at the root of the frustrations encountered whilst using this particular feature of the upgrade. If Roland sample-library imports had been central to the original Fantom design, and the import process had been streamlined so that file-conversion and importing was a single, seamless operation, then perhaps the whole Fantom-to-computer file-transfer processes would have been a lot less frustrating. As it is, far too much replugging of USB cables and rebooting of the Fantom is necessary to access these facilities, so the criticisms must ultimately be directed towards the Fantom design itself, rather than this upgrade package which has of necessity been built around the Fantom's inherent idiosyncrasies. That said, it must be reiterated that this is an essential upgrade for existing Fantom X owners.