With the advent of 'groove'-based instruments like Yamaha's DJX, the humble home keyboard is acquiring a new hipness. Derek Johnson and Debbie Poyser explore Roland's attempt to make the cutting edge user-friendly.
There have always been dangerously 'home keyboard'-like aspects to the recent trend for 'groove' instruments. Taking their lead from the kind of music-on-a-plate deal hinted at by loop and break sample CDs, the new dance-oriented synths have offered users the easy (and basically sterile) option of glueing together preset musical and drum patterns to form 'new' compositions from day one. So it was inevitable that fully-fledged dance auto-accompaniment keyboards would appear as another step in the boiling down of this particular genre -- see the Yamaha DJX review in SOS September 1998.
Enter the Roland EG101, a 'Groovekeyboard' from the company who brought us the popular, well-received MC303 and MC505 Grooveboxes and the JX305 Groovesynth. Pre-publicity has emphasised the fact that the EG101 has features in common with these machines -- notably the D-Beam light controller, the presence of dance-oriented sounds and patterns, and the colour scheme. But the word 'keyboard', and the two speakers on the EG101's front panel, should tell you what's really inside the box.
Home keyboards have many uses, of course, and they sell in large quantities all over the world, but as Roland freely admit, 'non-musicians' loom large in their vision of the EG101's target market, and its potential for the trained or experienced musician is correspondingly reduced. That's not to say that no SOS reader will consider the EG101. If this feature list whets your appetite, you'll want to read on:
ROLAND EG101 £599
Lots of features.
Good amp/speaker system.
Sounds sourced from MC Grooveboxes.
Small, cryptic display.
Lone reverb effect.
No user voice editing.
No user pattern creation.
Only one song can be stored on board.
The EG101 falls between two stools in some ways, being neither quite cheap enough to be an impulse fun purchase, nor open-ended enough for the musician writing original compositions. Nevertheless, its looks, sampler and sounds should ensure it appeals to aspiring dance newcomers and club performers.
24-voice polyphony. 49-note touch-sensitive keyboard
with pitch-bend and mod wheel.
Basic sampler with effects.
Over 400 dance-style sounds with basic real-time modification.
"Hundreds" of dance phrases and Roland's RPS Real-time Phrase Sequencer.
Mic input, which can be processed through the sampler's filter and ring mod effects.
Simple recorder for chaining together preset patterns with your choice of chords.
Tap Tempo facility.
Two 15W speakers.
At £599, this might seem like a tempting package. However, there's no proper voice editing, no true user Style creation -- in fact, no user sequencing at all, other than chaining of patterns and a soloing option -- and only one song can be saved onboard at a time.
It's Got The Look
The appearance of the EG101 is spot-on: it looks very much like a vintage analogue (though not, strangely, like Roland's own antique SH101), with a short keyboard and steeply sloping front panel for easy access to the controls. The blue and silver colour scheme is straight off the JX305, with silver panels delineating different areas, as follows:
Volume: with two knobs for Master and Sampler volume.
D-Beam: featuring an on/off switch, plus a switch to define what the D-Beam controls. It's preset to filter cutoff/resonance, tempo cut and 'ad lib' -- play tunes by waving your hand in the air! -- but several user-definable options are available.
Arpeggiator: this section has an on/off switch, plus switch for Range (up to three octaves), Grid (note resolution -- eighth, 16th, eighth triplet, 16th triplet and eighth or 16th swing) and Type
(up, down, up/down and random)
parameters. A Decay knob alters the decay of arpeggiated notes.
Part Effects: this is actually the sound-tweaking section, with three knobs, altering two parameters each, and a switch to shift between the two. Tweakable parameters are filter cutoff
Recorder: this section records real-time Pattern selection, chord changes, knob tweaks and arpeggios (but not D-Beam ad libs) into a song.
Sampler Effects: on offer are Pitch-change, Time-stretch, Filter and Ring Modulation, with an Amount knob to set how much of the effect is applied.
Master Section (with a skimpy 3-digit LED display and a variety of global switches): Keyboard Velocity and Portamento, Transpose (+/-12 semitones), Tune, variable by +/-100 cents, Tempo/Value + and - buttons, which alter tempo (20-250bpm) and change the values of certain parameters when making user settings, Write, which saves modified Styles and RPS sets to user memories, and MIDI/Exit, which sets how the EG101 responds to MIDI (various sync and local on/off options are available).
Part Manipulator: eight buttons mute Parts and drum sounds in real time and select different Parts to have Part Effects applied to them. In addition to the eight Style Parts, there's a
so-called 'upper' Part -- the sound played by the upper half of the keyboard while the rest is being used to select patterns or play chords for the Arranger.
Mode: a simple section featuring two switches for selecting RPS or Arranger mode. If both are off, the whole keyboard plays the 'upper' Part voice.
Tone/Style/RPS: selects Tones, Styles and RPS types.
Sampler Player: this area hosts controls for playing and recording samples, plus rudimentary editing.
Arranger: all the controls needed for selecting Parts of a given Style. Worthy of note are Synchro Start, which starts a Style as soon as you hit a key or chord, and Chord Memory, which continues playing the last chord even if you take your fingers off the keyboard.
While it's true to say that a user with an EG101 alone can't create new Styles, edit voices or change voices for each Part in a Style, with a little MIDI trickery these features do become available, after a fashion. Sixteen of the 101's 64 Style locations are Flash RAM and can be loaded over MIDI with new Styles, which Roland are creating now. A MIDI spec wasn't available for the review (it was still being printed), but it seems that voices for each Part in a Style can be substituted using Program Changes, and various sound parameters can also be altered. These changes can be saved as part of a user Style, adding a welcome slice of user customisation. This editability should make the EG101 more applicable in a MIDI environment, as an MC505-style sound source.
Both the Arranger and the RPS (we'll look at the latter shortly) are usable in real time, allowing a performance to be composed on-the-fly from the Styles available. The 64 Styles are arranged in eight groups -- House, Dance, Techno, Big Beat, Drum & Bass, Hip Hop, Pop and World. Each Style has a collection of sections -- intro, original, fill, variation and ending. Each section also has an alternative, making a total of 10 basic sections per Style. As with any other auto-accompaniment keyboard, harmonic material is derived from chords played in the lower half of the keyboard. Single notes produce simple major chords; the more keys you press down, the more complex the chord generated.
In addition to the 64 factory Styles, there are 64 user Styles, though these are simply preset Styles with certain parameters set by the user. For example, it's possible to choose a tempo, Part and rhythm mute settings, a split point (between the chord and upper voice Part), and the upper Part voice itself.
The RPS (Real-Time Phrase Sequencer) is a nifty Roland concept that makes the creation of new tracks from existing phrases as easy as pressing down keys on a keyboard, which is exactly what you do. It's at its best on an MC505 or JX305, where you can break down and rebuild your own compositions, but with
Boom! Shake The Room
The speakers on home keyboards are legendary for enhancing the 'plinky plunky' feel of the music being produced. However, Roland have come up trumps on the speaker front for the EG101: the 15W amp plus stereo 'bass reflex' speakers can be driven hard -- ie. loud -- without distortion, and the sound quality is quite solid and punchy.
The Part Manipulator section comes into play with both the Arranger and the RPS. Bar slightly different labelling, it's pretty much the same as the mute/select buttons found in the mixer section of the MC505, even down to identical, transparent buttons. Parts and rhythm sounds can be easily muted and umuted using these buttons, and they also select Parts to be treated by the Part Effects knobs.
Not, sadly, a sequencer in the way most of us would define it, the Recorder nonetheless allows the recording of Style selections or RPS movements, together with the user's choice of chords. It's a simple affair: anything you press or wiggle is recorded and played back. User =samples can even be triggered as part of a recording.
The most logical way to use the Recorder is in conjunction with the Synchro Start feature of the Arranger: as soon as a key or two is pressed, everything leaps into life and subsequent changes (chords, Arranger section changes and knob tweaks) will be recorded. If you've got a hand to spare, upper-section soloing or arpeggiations will also be recorded. This soloing capability is another of the few opportunities for original input.
Not being able to record more than one song and save it on board is a bummer, but the lack of any kind of overdubbing is even more heinous -- another pair of hands (and the person they're attached to, naturally) would be required in order to record anything reasonably sophisticated. For example, Part Effect tweaks can be recorded, but on only one Part at a time, and while you're tweaking you wouldn't be able to solo or arpeggiate.
Jumping Through Loops
The EG101's sampler appears to be a simplified version of the Boss SP202 Dr Sample (reviewed in SOS January 1998). There are 16 sample locations, in four banks, with triggering from four dedicated buttons or the keyboard. A maximum of 32 seconds of sample time is available at the 'Hi-Fi' rate of 31.25kHz. The alternative 'Lo-Fi' rate (7.81kHz) quadruples the sample time, but is rather crunchy. Stereo sampling is possible, but has implications for polyphony. In fact, using the sampler is an exercise in compromise. Hi-Fi mono samples can be played with the maximum 4-voice polyphony, but record a stereo sample and you can only play two notes at once. Add effects and you're compromised further: time-stretch uses up three voices of polyphony in both Hi-Fi and Lo-Fi modes, and Hi-Fi stereo samples can't be filtered or ring-modulated, since three voices are used by these effects on higher-quality samples. More than one effect can be used together in some cases, but with polyphony cut to the bone. Still, it's nice to have the effects, and they don't sound bad, though time-stretch is rather
64 dance styles.
RPS with dance phrases.
Real-time sound control knobs.
Stereo and mic inputs for processing
Onboard Bass Reflex speaker system.
Another compromise arises when editing a sample; new start and end points can be defined, but audio either side of these points can't be discarded. So save on sample memory by getting samples right first time. The trigger recording option, which starts sampling at a user-variable threshold, helps. A user-sampled loop can substitute for a drum Part in a pattern, which is nice, and it's possible to tell the EG101 the tempo of a sampled loop, so that the pattern will sync to that tempo. Up to four drum kit sounds can also be replaced by samples.
The sampler's inputs can combine external audio with pattern work -- this could be from a CD, another MIDI instrument, or a microphone -- and incoming audio can be treated with the sampler's filter and ring modulator. There is just about the possibility of trying to run patterns in sync with pre-recorded music (using the tap tempo button), but this requires a steady hand. Overall, there's an impression that the sampler has been bolted on, and this is further enhanced by the fact that it can't be processed by the global reverb.
The sonic raw material of the EG101 is obviously drawn from the MC505 and JX305 -- the first patch on all three is identical -- and is of excellent quality, though there aren't as many voices in the EG101. However, this is probably academic given that it's not possible to change the voice assignments in Styles or RPS It struck us as slightly odd that the EG101 has a D-Beam when the JX305, which is pretty much the MC505 with a keyboard, doesn't!
Light Fantastic --
The D-Beam Controller
The D-Beam controller on the EG101 works in pretty the same way as it does on the MC505. There are slightly fewer choices for customising its operation, but 36 options are still offered. More than half of these are different scale types for when using the 'ad lib' soloing option. Other choices for D-Beam control include modulation, pitch-bend up or down, and Arranger start/stop.
It struck us as slightly odd that the EG101 has a D-Beam when the JX305, which is pretty much the MC505 with a keyboard, doesn't!
Unlike the sounds, the Styles in the new keyboard don't seem to be drawn from the other Roland Groove instruments, and though they're perfectly competent, to our two sets of ears there's not quite the same degree of subtlety, punchiness or originality as evidenced by the MC505's patterns.
Over & Out
On the plus side, the EG101 is feature-packed, easy to use, and looks the business. The sampler is a good bonus, and the D-Beam will always be an appealing novelty that can produce unique results. A better-than-average speaker system also helps the overall impression, the sounds are good, and the chord-recognition, Arranger and RPS features work just as expected. On the other hand, you couldn't really describe the EG101 as a serious instrument, and anyone creating completely original music would probably find it frustratingly limited before long. It's got the fun factor on its side, but arguably £599 is edging a bit high for fun.
The kind of criticisms made here, though, have to be taken in context of the type of instrument the EG101 is, and though they'll disqualify it for many musicians, they'll be far less important for the novice or for the club musician who's after a short-cut to a contemporary sound.
£599 including VAT.
Roland UK Ltd Brochure line
+44 (0)1792 515020.
+44 (0)1792 799644.