Roland's latest high-end arranger workstation is the company's first for three years, yet it looks strikingly similar to its predecessor. Does it have anything new to offer in an increasingly sophisticated market? Simon Trask arranges some time with the G1000...
Roland's introduction of the G800 Arranger Workstation in 1995 marked the company's response to a home keyboard market in which the auto-accompaniment keyboard was drawing steadily closer to the workstation synth in concept, appearance and technology. As such, the G800 was a departure from the approach of Roland's E-series home keyboard range, which was avowedly more traditional in presentation and less advanced in spec than the keyboards many of the company's competitors were putting out. And at £1999, it was designed to compete in the prestigious 'flagship' price range occupied by home keyboards from many of those competitors, such as the Farfisa F1, Solton MS60, Technics KN2000 and Yamaha PSR6000, whereas the price point of the top E-series model put it in competition with budget versions of other companies' flagships.
ROLAND G1000 £1999
Attractive, dynamic quality of the preset sounds.
Large selection of built-in music Styles (and you can add your own!).
User Style programming.
Large and versatile collection of professional effects.
Built-in Zip disk, providing large storage capacity and fast data access.
Limited sound editing, and for Parts, not individual Tones.
A mature home keyboard in conception and technology, more traditionally inclined in approach and emphasis than offerings from some other manufacturers, but offering plenty of scope for Style if not sound customisation.
While the G800 seemingly marked the beginning of a distinctive new range for Roland, it was followed by only one other model, the scaled-down, mid-priced G600. Now, three years on, the company are releasing the G1000 Arranger Workstation as a successor to the 800. The new keyboard looks strikingly similar to its predecessor -- so what, if anything, have Roland come up with to update the G-series for the late '90s?
Like its predecessor, the G1000 is a sturdy-looking, imposing instrument with the sort of serious, professional demeanour traditionally the preserve of the workstation synth. Rounded out by a 76-note keyboard, it's a look which marks this keyboard out as a player's instrument. The keyboard itself has synth-style plastic keys and a medium travel, and although described by Roland as weighted, the action has more of a semi-weighted feel to it, comfortable and fluid but not insubstantial. A controller-rich front panel is nothing new on home keyboards, but again like the G800, the G1000 has such a proliferation of buttons on its front panel that it can feel rather overwhelming at first. However, you rapidly become familiar with the layout. I feel less generous about the small LCD screen, which on first encounter seems rather unsatisfying after the large displays of Korg's i30 and Technics' KN5000.
The sound of Roland's latest G-series keyboard is characteristically crisp, clean and bright, but it also has a 'new improved' smooth, well-rounded, silky quality to it, with a lively and appealing presence. I was also struck by the G1000's ability to combine richness with sparkle, and delicacy with fullness of sound. 'Polite' and 'tasteful' are adjectives which spring to mind when describing the keyboard's overall sound (ensemble and solo) -- 'gritty', 'gutsy' and 'earthy' aren't.
The G1000's sonic architecture can be summarised as follows. The fundamental unit of sonic currency is the Tone, or basic sample. These may be arranged in Styles -- essentially eight-part multitimbral arrangements of Tones (six parts plus drum and bass) playing in patterns (or Divisions, as they are known). Finally, there are the Performances, in which complete Tone, Style, keyboard split, tempo, and effects settings may be stored. Let's look at each of these in more detail.
The G1000's Tones are derived from the company's SC880 module -- the next generation of GM/GS technology on from the SC88, which formed the sonic basis of the G800. Over the years Roland have steadily improved their GM/GS technology with respect to sample quality, sound quality and sheer number of Tones, and playing through the G1000's sonic offerings I was struck by the professional quality of the range, and the impressive variety of sounds on offer courtesy of GS Format's Variation architecture (almost 1200 Tones, in fact, compared to just under 700 on the G800). The number and variety of drum kits has also increased over the years, to accommodate an ever greater range of sounds and Styles -- the G1000 has 43 kits compared to the G800's 25.
On the other hand, creative synthesis is not a consideration with GM/GS; you can't edit individual Tones on the G1000, and the emphasis is on clear categorisation of instrumental sounds rather than category-busting sonic experimentation. As on the G800, you can make limited sound edits (vibrato rate, depth and delay, filter cutoff and resonance, envelope attack, decay and release) at the level of individual keyboard parts rather than individual Tones, but that's all. GM/GS is in essence a playback technology rooted in the desire for standardisation expressed by the General MIDI spec. Still, where GM's single bank of 128 sounds was a grave limitation, the progressively greater number of GS Format Variation sounds introduced by Roland over the years has gone a long way to surmounting this limitation while retaining the convenience of GM. On the G1000 you're spoilt for choice, yet the GM/GS organisation allows you to easily locate the sort of sound you want.
Moving up from the basic Tones, Roland's Style programming impresses, as always. Thanks in part to the quality of the sounds being used, the G1000's Styles have a dynamic, energetic musical quality which makes them enjoyable to play along with. Long gone are the days of stilted backing arrangements with unrealistic sounds. As already mentioned, the G1000's backing patterns can have up to six arrangement parts in addition to the bass and drum parts, giving plenty of scope for variation in the arrangements, and making it easy for users to drop in, say, a brass stab or two, or a guitar twiddle.
The G1000's 128 ROM Styles run the usual gamut of keyboard styles from the traditional 'strictly ballroom' keyboard fare of waltzes, marches and cha-cha-chas through popular styles ranging across the decades -- from swing to the house and jungle of the modern dancefloor. The Latin Styles are more authentic than the 'cod Latin' of the ballroom, and have an appealing vibrancy to them which is more in tune with contemporary Latin musical culture. Surprisingly, the jungle Style (ambient drum & bass would be more accurate) is quite decent, though overall the modern dance Styles have more of a pop feel to them, and probably won't appeal to the dance aficionado.
However, for the jobbing keyboard player who needs to draw on a wide range of musical genres, the G1000's Style presets offer something for most requirements -- and even if they don't, you can bring in external Styles if you wish (see box, below).
Each Style has two 'levels' of operation, Basic and Advanced, and within each of these has Intro, Original, Variation, Ending and Fill-in patterns, or Divisions. In essence, Advanced offers another version of the selected Style, often more elaborate or fuller-sounding. There are three Fill-in options: Fill-in to Variation, Fill-in to Original, and Fill-in to Previous. Each of these has its own button, as do the Intro and Ending sections, while other buttons let you switch between Basic/Advanced and Original/Variation respectively, with adjacent pinpoint LEDs to tell you at a glance which is selected. You can also program keyboard aftertouch to switch between different Divisions 'on the fly', for instance to and fro between Original and Variation; this then works from any note(s) played on the keyboard, not just those in the trigger area. In addition, you can globally set the G1000's footswitch input to control Start/Stop or selection of/switching between Divisions.
For each of the Divisions, the G1000 actually has three pattern memories, which can be triggered by three different chord types: major, minor, and seventh. In performance, the pattern changes immediately you change chord. In practice, anything above a major or minor triad (with or without augmented or diminished fifth) triggers the seventh-type pattern. This ability to change patterns simply by playing a different chord type can be very useful for pattern-based live sequencing, where any chord changes in the music are pre-programmed into the patterns themselves.
Roland's keyboard also lets you step through four Drum Variation levels using dedicated up/down buttons. This very effective feature switches between rhythm pattern variations for the current Division, further helping to give the backing arrangements a sense of musical variety and spontaneity. However, it's a pity you can't switch Variation levels using keyboard velocity or aftertouch. The variations aren't pre-programmed rhythm patterns; rather, variation four is the full rhythm pattern for the current Division and chord, and the G1000 successively removes drum and percussion parts for variations three to one. Another useful feature is the Dynamic Arranger, which adjusts the volume of the auto-accompaniment according to how loudly or softly you play in the trigger area of the keyboard. But more than this, you can turn the feature on or off for each accompaniment part individually, and specify not only the degree of response to velocity but also the direction.
There are three chord trigger modes available: Standard, Piano Style, and Intelligent. You can also specify whether the chord trigger range will be below or above a split point, or across the entire keyboard. Intelligent is actually the 'simply play' mode, while Standard requires you to play the proper chords. Piano Style does the same as Standard but only registers a chord change if you play more than two notes at once, so you can readily mix two-handed chordal and solo playing (whole keyboard mode is best for this, of course).
While it doesn't have a dedicated front-panel mixer section, the G1000 does provide mixing capabilities via a combination of LCD pages and the knobs and buttons below the screen. A simple Volume mixer, called up by pressing the Volume button in the central panel, lets you edit volume levels and mute status for multiple parts at once (but not the Style parts 1-6). Meanwhile, the Realtime page (which handles the parts
Keyboard: 76 weighted keys, velocity and aftertouch-sensitive.
Polyphony: 64 voices.
Multitimbrality: 32 parts.
Tones: 1161 + 43 Drum Sets; GM/GS-compatible.
Styles: 128 presets in ROM, 16 in Flash ROM; 111 on Zip disk (accessible via Disk Link feature); more than 430 Styles on factory Zip disk.
MIDI Sets: 8.
Sequencer: 16 tracks, editing functions.
Effects: reverb (8 types), chorus (8), delay (10), Insert effects (89), two-band parametric EQ.
Built-in storage: 3.5-inch DSDD/HD floppy disk drive, Zip drive.
Display: 240 x 64-pixel backlit graphical LCD.
Connections: Output 1 (L/Mono & R), Output 2 (L/Mono & R), MIDI A (In, Out, Thru), MIDI B (IN, Out, Thru), Metronome Out, sustain footswitch jack, expression pedal jack, footswitch jack, FC7 foot controller jack, phones out, SCSI port, AC power in.
Dimensions: 1267mm (W) x 407mm (D) x 150mm (H).
Supplied accessories: Zip disk containing 441 additional Styles and 306 Standard MIDI files; slot-in metal music stand; power cord.
The Realtime page in Mixer mode also lets you turn the G1000's insert effects processor (called the EFX) on or off for each keyboard part; unfortunately you don't have the option to route individual accompaniment parts through the EFX, a feature which would have been useful for anyone concentrating on the accompaniment parts for live composition/mixing rather than traditional backing performance.
From the Mixer mode pages you can readily access effects editing by pressing F4 and using the page up/down buttons to select editing pages for the G1000's clean, smooth reverb, chorus, delay, EQ and EFX processors. You can only select, not edit, an EFX effect, but you can edit two pre-defined parameters for each effect using the two front-panel DSP EFX sliders (the selected parameters are listed at the back of the manual).
With its One Touch function enabled, the G1000 calls up preset keyboard sound, style tempo and effects settings for each of the 128 ROM styles.
However, to customise these and other settings you can turn to the keyboard's Performance memories.
In time-honoured keyboard tradition, the G1000's 192 Performance memories store 'snapshots' of current settings on the keyboard. In the past these sorts of memories were commonly called Panel memories by keyboard manufacturers, as they stored the keyboard's front panel settings; nowadays, of course, they typically store many LCD-based settings as well. When you have all your settings as you want them, you simply Write them into a Performance memory for instant recall. So, for instance, you can customise the tempo, the keyboard sounds and even the auto-accompaniment sounds for any given style, as well as mixer and effects settings. Sound edits for keyboard parts Upper 1, Upper 2, Lower 1 and Manual Bass (see the 'Realtime Parts' box for an explanation of these terms) are also stored as part of a Performance, providing a way of customising individual Tones without editing the Tone memories themselves. However, you can't customise Tones assigned to the accompaniment parts, which in turn means you can't perform real-time sound edits on these parts (being able to change cutoff and resonance on the bass accompaniment part would have been an obvious choice, for example).
You can call up Performances directly using the same numeric buttons used for Tone selection (a Select button toggles between the two options), or you can use the Up and Down buttons in the Performance Memory section of the front panel to step through them. Transitions from one Performance to another are smooth, so you can use multiple Performances in a single song, maybe just as a way to change the keyboard Tone assigments while everything else stays the same. You can also quickly turn off style, sound or keyboard mode changes from dedicated front-panel buttons -- say, if you decide that you want to make live sound changes instead. Roland's new keyboard also introduces 16 Custom style memories, consisting of Style data which is stored in Flash ROM so it isn't lost when you power down. Roland pre-install different sets of Custom Styles for different countries or regions -- an idea whose time has definitely come. UK models get modern dance Styles, but all the Custom sets are available on the factory disk for loading; you can also create your own Custom sets, say for convenient access to your most-used Styles. Another way to expand the range of available Styles is to program your own. The G1000 follows its predecessor in offering user Style programming capabilities (a must on any self-respecting keyboard these days). The RAM location D88 is used for this purpose. There are three ways to create a new Style: copy any section(s) of any track(s) from a MIDI song file (among other things this allows you to make use of MIDI song file toolkit disks such as those from Keyfax Software), copy an existing Style into the D88 RAM and selectively edit the parts to customise the Style, or program a Style from scratch. Copying from existing Styles is extremely flexible, as in addition to copying a single Style wholesale, you can copy right down to a bar/beat/clock range of a single track of a single pattern within a single Division, and freely mix and match in this way from different internal and disk Styles. Recording Style tracks yourself is a straightforward process, though it's a shame that you can't switch tracks while loop recording. The G1000 provides erase, delete, insert, transpose, quantise, velocity adjust, gate time adjust, and note-shift editing features, all with optional bar/beat/clock ranges and some with note ranges. Also provided is an event-level editor, the Microscope editor, which lets you step through, listen to and edit an alphanumeric listing of the note (and indeed all other) data. Insert, delete, move and copy functions are also included.
Expand In Style
Roland's new keyboard isn't just limited to its onboard preset Styles. The company have stolen a march on other keyboard manufacturers by including a built-in 100Mb Zip drive; also included is a SCSI port so you can hook up other, external drives if you want. The G1000 comes with a factory Zip disk providing over 400 additional Styles and over 300 MIDI song files. In addition to the 128 onboard ROM Style memories, the keyboard has 121 Disk Links Style memories (in Banks C and D) which can be programmed with pointers to Style memories on disk. When you select one of these memories, the Style is loaded in about a second off Zip disk into a single RAM memory (D88). Loading can take place in the background while a Style is playing, and the G1000 moves smoothly to the new Style at the beginning of the next bar; in practice you might just as well be selecting a Style from internal memory. Of course you need to have the right Zip disk inserted for the pointers, but you can save the set of pointers as part of a Performance Set file onto the same disk as the styles they point to, and load the pointers when you insert the disk.
Roland's new keyboard also introduces 16 Custom style memories, consisting of Style data which is stored in Flash ROM so it isn't lost when you power down. Roland pre-install different sets of Custom Styles for different countries or regions -- an idea whose time has definitely come. UK models get modern dance Styles, but all the Custom sets are available on the factory disk for loading; you can also create your own Custom sets, say for convenient access to your most-used Styles.
Another way to expand the range of available Styles is to program your own. The G1000 follows its predecessor in offering user Style programming capabilities (a must on any self-respecting keyboard these days). The RAM location D88 is used for this purpose. There are three ways to create a new Style: copy any section(s) of any track(s) from a MIDI song file (among other things this allows you to make use of MIDI song file toolkit disks such as those from Keyfax Software), copy an existing Style into the D88 RAM and selectively edit the parts to customise the Style, or program a Style from scratch.
Copying from existing Styles is extremely flexible, as in addition to copying a single Style wholesale, you can copy right down to a bar/beat/clock range of a single track of a single pattern within a single Division, and freely mix and match in this way from different internal and disk Styles.
Recording Style tracks yourself is a straightforward process, though it's a shame that you can't switch tracks while loop recording. The G1000 provides erase, delete, insert, transpose, quantise, velocity adjust, gate time adjust, and note-shift editing features, all with optional bar/beat/clock ranges and some with note ranges. Also provided is an event-level editor, the Microscope editor, which lets you step through, listen to and edit an alphanumeric listing of the note (and indeed all other) data. Insert, delete, move and copy functions are also included.
Playback & Sequencing
The Recorder section of the G1000 provides transport controls for playing back a MIDI song file that you've loaded off disk. You can solo and mute individual tracks from either the Song page in Mixer mode or the main screen of the 16-track sequencer in Song Tools mode. The highly useful Song Header Edit function allows you customise a MIDI file by changing global and track information at the head of the file. You can transpose the whole song to a more suitable key, change its tempo, even adjust the master tuning, and also select whether the song should use the reverb and chorus settings programmed into the song or those of the currently selected Performance.
For each track you can change patch, volume and pan settings along with reverb and chorus send levels, octave transposition, mute on/off status, track routing (internal, MIDI or both) and whether or not the track will execute SysEx and NRPN data. You can then write the song file back to disk complete with all your changes.
A handy A-B Loop feature in the Recorder section lets you set up loop points for any bar/beat range, allowing you to practice the melody line for a particular section, or solo over a repeating chord sequence. Another potentially useful feature is the Lyrics page, which displays any lyrics encoded into the MIDI file, Each part has its own volume and pan settings and effects send levels, and can have EQ and/or EFX routing turned on or off. The Melody Intelligence part, by the way, is used by the Melody Intelligence harmonisation function for Upper 1; as well as choosing from 18 harmonisation types, you can assign the harmony notes their own Tone and their own volume, pan, effects send level, EFX on/off and EQ on/off settings. The Upper 3 part is only available in a split arrangement with Upper 1 and/or 2, for up to a three-way split, with Upper 3 between the Lower and other Upper parts. You can define the main and the Upper 3 split points yourself, simply by holding down the Split or Upper 3 button and then playing the required note on the keyboard. The main split point also defines the upper or lower limit of the chord trigger area, depending on whether you selected Lower or Upper as the trigger range.
As mentioned elsewhere in this article, Realtime is Roland's name for the Parts whose sounds you play on the keyboard (as opposed to the auto-accompaniment parts played for you by the G1000's virtual 'backing band'). There are three Upper parts and two Lower parts, plus Manual Bass and Manual Drums and a Melody Intelligence part. Each part can be turned on or off individually, and you can select Whole Left, Split, or Whole Right keyboard assign mode to determine how the sounds (Tones) are spread across the keyboard, making a variety of split/layer keyboard textures possible.
Each part has its own volume and pan settings and effects send levels, and can have EQ and/or EFX routing turned on or off. The Melody Intelligence part, by the way, is used by the Melody Intelligence harmonisation function for Upper 1; as well as choosing from 18 harmonisation types, you can assign the harmony notes their own Tone and their own volume, pan, effects send level, EFX on/off and EQ on/off settings.
The Upper 3 part is only available in a split arrangement with Upper 1 and/or 2, for up to a three-way split, with Upper 3 between the Lower and other Upper parts. You can define the main and the Upper 3 split points yourself, simply by holding down the Split or Upper 3 button and then playing the required note on the keyboard. The main split point also defines the upper or lower limit of the chord trigger area, depending on whether you selected Lower or Upper as the trigger range.
Sequencer mode also provides a Style Converter function which lets you copy any bar range of any tracks of a song for your own custom styles. You need to set the Key parameter to the key of the section you're about to Convert, otherwise when you trigger it as an auto-accompaniment the pitches will be wrong. A handy feature here lets you quickly set up a loop over any bar range and listen to it play back, either all tracks or solo'd tracks. The 16-track sequencer rectifies a key omission from the G800. However, you should bear in mind that songs are saved with GS Format headers, and the whole orientation of the sequencer is towards creating GS Format songs using GS Format sounds -- although the G1000 can transmit and receive via MIDI (Song tracks default to MIDI Out B 1-16, keyboard and auto-accompaniment parts to MIDI Out A 1-16).
For G800 owners who want a more sophisticated and versatile version of the instrument they're already familiar with, the G1000 fits the bill nicely -- which was no doubt Roland's intention. Adding the Zip drive was a great move on Roland's part, and the Flash ROM Custom style memories are also a welcome feature, while the 16-track sequencer was a very necessary addition to bring the G1000 up to contemporary expectations. With its SC880-generation sound and effects capabilities and greatly increased number of Tones and Drum Kits, the new keyboard is a professional and powerfully versatile instrument sonically; however, with its GM/GS orientation and the absence of in-depth patch editing, this is not an instrument that will satisfy anyone into creative synthesis. As for the display, the LCD and its associated knobs and buttons provide a nicely streamlined interface, but I still feel a lingering disappointment that Roland didn't go for something more up-to-date and adventurous.
The Performance memories are great for storing split/layer keyboard textures with internal and/or MIDI'd sounds, and with the multitrack sequencer you can record your own songs from scratch in familiar workstation fashion. But the heart of the G1000 as an instrument is still its auto-accompaniment capabilities, and here it really excels, particularly with the power and flexibility it provides for user Style creation and customisation, and its suitability for live mixing and pattern-based music creation. For those keyboard players who want a versatile instrument for traditional auto-accompaniment plus melody performance, the quality, range and variety of the G1000's Styles, not to mention the sheer number of Styles courtesy of the factory Zip disk, make this a very attractive instrument.