Roland XV88

Synthesizer

Published in SOS January 2001
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Reviews : Keyboard

The XV88 is the first of Roland's new XV range of synths to sport a keyboard, and also adds all manner of real-time control facilities. Gordon Reid checks it out with two of the new SRX-format sound expansion boards.

I first saw the XV88 in a shop. My first (printable) thought was "wow" -- but I admit that part of that was a reaction to its metal end-cheeks. Last seen on the Jupiter 8 and Jupiter 6, these are like pheromones to a wrinkly such as me and, on a subconscious level, they were impelling me to flash a credit card. I managed to resist but, on a more practical level, a brief widdle on the keyboard and a dance around the control panel -- resplendent with its large, friendly JD800-style buttons -- promised many good things to come. So, when SOS offered me the opportunity to review the XV88, I jumped at the chance. And when it became clear that the review XV88 would come with two of Roland's SRX-format sound expansion boards (the new-style cards which are only compatible with the XV-series synths), I jumped right over the chance.

XV88 Keyboard Synth

The XV88 is, in essence, an XV3080 with a keyboard attached. For those of you who haven't heard about it yet, the XV-series contains the most powerful synthesis engine yet developed by Roland; the 3080 offers 128-note polyphony, 16-part multitimbrality, a huge ROM with many stereo samples, stereo effects processors, and six ROM expansion slots in addition to a conventional RAM card slot. The XV88 incorporates all of this (except that the number of ROM slots is cut to four), so, rather than regurgitate all of the XV3080 review here, I recommend that you read the original in SOS July 2000. Those of you who think they might be interested in the top-of-the-range XV5080 module, have a look at the review in SOS November 2000.

ROLAND XV88/SRX01/SRX02 £2399/£299/£299
pros
The XV88 is a superb, weighted, controller keyboard, incorporating everything that makes the XV3080 a great synth.
The SRX01 board has an excellent range of basic drum samples.
cons
The XV88's key return is too slow, causing occasional problems.
The XV88 would benefit from more real-time controllers.
The SRX boards only work in an XV host.
The velocity transitions between the samples on the SRX02 are too obvious, the samples have an unnatural volume envelope, and the multi-sample transitions across the keyboard can be too obvious.
summary
The XV88 is an excellent weighted master keyboard containing the powerful XV3080 synth. While not perfect, I suspect that it may become the instrument of choice for many players who prefer weighted keyboards, no matter what sounds they are playing. The SRX01 percussion board is superb, and should be on everybody's wish-list but, sadly, the same cannot be said of the SRX02 Concert Piano board.

With the modules out of the way, back to the XV88 keyboard. And what a keyboard it is... 88 notes wide, beautifully weighted, pressure sensitive, and in some ways the most responsive that I have ever played on an electronic instrument. It offers five velocity responses, called Light, Medium, Heavy, Full, and 'Fixed' (which sets a single MIDI velocity for every key you play). In practice, I found that I used 'Light' for everything. This may be a consequence of too many years playing synth keyboards, but I found medium and heavy too... well, heavy. As for 'Full', I reckon that I could have dropped a reasonably endowed modular synth from a great height on to the XV88, and still not achieved a MIDI velocity of 127. As it was, I was rather disappointed with this limited range of options. The only way to modify the action further would have been to reprogram the velocity responses of the time-variant filters and time-variant amplifiers in the patches themselves. However, this would have been a huge job, and not one that I would be prepared to undertake unless I intended to make the XV88 one of my main instruments.

Of course, and in common with many keyboards of this nature, the XV88 boasts a number of master control functions that make it suitable for use as a MIDI controller. Most important of these are the 16 zones that you can split and/or layer across the keyboard itself, specifying Local on/off and MIDI transmission states independently for each. These allow you to determine which parts of the keyboard will play which sounds, whether internally or externally generated.

Furthermore, each zone can send Program Change messages independently. This means that, when you select an XV88 Performance, you can determine the patches selected on each of the connected keyboards or modules. This is particularly useful on stage because it reduces the patch selection of a complete MIDI rig to just a couple of button presses on the XV88 itself (yes, the XV88 has a numeric keypad that both the XV3080 and XV5080 lack). Indeed, you can even select in each zone between banks on external keyboards or modules that offer more than 128 patches.

Next, there are the four, large top-panel faders. These will each control up to three functions, routing real-time changes to both the internal sound engine and any connected MIDI devices. And then there's the D-Beam proximity controller that's been a standard feature on many Roland instruments recently. For those who aren't familiar with it, the D-Beam allows you to modify parameters in real time by moving your hand above the transmitter/receiver mounted on the control panel. You can allocate a wide range of controllers to this, and choose whether they act internally, externally, or both. You can also select minimum and maximum values for the parameter, decide whether they act 'normally' or 'reversed', and set the sensitivity of the controller itself. The D-Beam is great fun if you're into the Theremin-esque control of sounds, and can be a very useful performance tool. It's also an excellent substitute for a breath controller... a boon for those of us who are useless at using breath controllers!

Unfortunately (and for obvious reasons, when you think about it) the D-Beam applies to the instrument as a whole, not to individual patches within performances, or to individual zones. So, if you want the beam to control individual patches, you should choose an obscure and otherwise unused MIDI Continuous Controller, and then program each patch to respond to it -- or not -- as required. My only criticism of the D-Beam is its susceptibility to strong ambient light. This reduces its physical range considerably, which means that you have to move your hand much closer to the XV itself (and with much greater precision) than in low light conditions.

I've already mentioned that I fou

nd the keyboard beautifully weighted and responsive; I found it a delight for sounds such as guitars and Clavinets. The aftertouch sensitivity is also well judged and responsive, and this is ideal for playing many orchestral and other expressive sounds. Unfortunately, the XV88 only generates channel aftertouch. This is a shame, because like the XV3080 on which it is based, it will receive and respond to poly-aftertouch.

I'd like to say that the XV88 is also ideal for playing all other sounds, but I can't. Unfortunately, it has a flaw: the return speed of the keys is too slow. The result of this is that you miss a note if a key hasn't returned before you press it a second or subsequent time. This becomes particularly apparent when you play hi-hats or flams in real time. The only solution is to allocate the same sound to more than one key. But why should you have to? Furthermore, rapid playing on one key isn't confined to programming rhythm parts -- it can be as necessary with a piano patch selected as it is for drum patches. You don't need to be a concert pianist to encounter the problem, either. Chico Marx would have had great difficulty performing on an XV88 -- it simply wouldn't have responded quickly enough to his trick playing techniques.

SRX02 Expansion Board -- Piano

All of which brings us neatly to the SRX02 Concert Piano board. I'll be honest... I was dying to try this so, as soon as it arrived, I whipped the metal grill off the back of the XV88, installed the board, and had everything back together and on its stand in double-quick time.

My first impressions of the SRX02 were sheer bliss. I whizzed around the keyboard playing party pieces -- a bit of Chopin, some ragtime, poor renditions of Keith Emerson's fancy bits, Tony Banks' solos from Genesis's twiddly-widdly era... if I overlooked my playing limitations, it all sounded great.

Then I tried a piano solo from an old Enid LP. This didn't sound so great, and I then began to notice something distinctly strange. Everything that I had played up to this point was quick -- the notes had no time to decay before the next flurry of twiddly excesses came along. The Enid's piece was slow, much in the mood of the romantic composers from whom it was plagiarised, and in comparison it sounded dull and uninteresting. What was going on?

I determined that there are no fewer than three problems with the board. The first concerns the velocity response within the patches. Take Patch C:001 'Premier Grand' as an example. This uses four Layers, each of which utilises a dedicated sample multi-set. However, the leap in brightness from Layer 1 (the softest) to the next one is far too great. Consequently, when you're playing softly, some notes -- those in Layer 1 -- have a muffled, dispirited sort of sound, while others that should be just the tiniest bit louder and brighter -- those in Layer 2 -- jump out and grab you by the throat. Other patches are less affected by this, but the problem persists to a greater or lesser degree. Perhaps the most satisfying patches are the brighter ones that side-step the issue by utilising just three Layers.

The second problem concerns the shape of the samples themselves over time; they have a curious, and, to my ears, unnatural, AD<Break>R profile that is unlike any real piano I have ever played. In synth terms, this profile has an instant Attack (as, indeed, it should) followed by a rapid Decay down to a break point of, say four on a scale of 0 to 10. Its Release is then far too rapid for the nature of the sound, particularly at higher pitches.

I was so surprised by this that I began to think that maybe this was the sound of a good piano. So I walked a few feet across my studio to a good piano and played a few notes. Sure enough, my Broadwood decays slowly and richly with a simple AR envelope. Returning to the XV88, there was no doubt that the amplitude envelopes of its samples are... at best, different. And, since it's the samples themselves that have this profile, you can't correct it by reprogramming the time-variant amplifiers in the patch. The only (partial) solution would be to compress the output fro

  SRX02 Waveforms  
  Roland derived the SRX02 from a single concert grand piano, apparently sampling it in two different but undocumented ways that they have named Grand1 and Grand2. Each multi-set is sampled in stereo, at four velocities, and then mapped to the keyboard in three ways, called A, B and C.

The resulting 48 multi-sample sets (which Roland call Waveforms) are combined within 50 patches. However, because the SRX02 contains only the grand piano samples, half these patches use the XV88's internal PCM waveforms to provide the raw material for its piano/pad, piano/bass (and so forth...) combinations.

 
m the XV88, but that would lead to other problems and, in all likelihood, the treatment would have worse effects than the illness.

My third unwelcome observation concerns the inconsistencies that the piano sounds display as you travel up and down the keyboard. Best at the furthest extremes, there are a number of noticeable multi-sample transition points within the critical middle octaves.

I was very disappointed by all of this, not least because, at root, the basic sound of the SRX02 samples is authentic. Furthermore, I couldn't remember the last Roland piano I reviewed -- the VE-RD1 board in the A90EX -- displaying these problems. So I compared the two. Roland kindly supplied a VE-RD1 board, which I installed in my JV90 and played from the XV88 keyboard via MIDI. The result was disturbing. Despite a fundamentally inferior basic sound, the VE-RD1 proved to be the more playable, especially in non-classical styles. Its piano samples lack the ADR envelope of the SRX's, the velocity transitions are smoother, and there are only minor inconsistencies across the keyboard.

Of course, there are as many piano sounds as there are pianos, and the range of 'real' piano tones and responses is enormous. Nevertheless, I contend that the SRX's sample envelopes are un-piano-like, and that its inconsistencies in both velocity response and note response are unsatisfactory. So, do I have anything good to say about it? Well... yes. This may be the first of a new generation of piano boards, and it has a huge amount of potential. If so, and if the company can eliminate the problems, I can see it becoming the electronic piano of choice for many players, especially classical performers. Until then, I would continue to play the VE-RD1 from the XV88 keyboard over MIDI -- it's undoubtedly the best combination.

SRX01 Expansion Board -- Dynamic Drum Kits

The SRX01 offers 719 drum sounds grouped into 79 combinations that Roland call Rhythm Kits. There are 24 complete kits, plus 11 families of kick drums, 18 of snares, eight of toms, eight of hi-hats, five of crashes, and five of rides. OK, so it only encompasses basic kit instruments, but these are superbly sampled, and provide an array of fundamental percussion sounds. In particular, the snares provide an excellent demonstration of the range of timbres within a given instrument, with utterly believable pitch and timbral shifts at a range of velocities. I was also drawn to the hi-hats, because their sound and dynamic is more realistic than any I have heard before. Likewise the toms... very 'real' and completely playable. Sure, there are a couple of strange decisions... for example, the cymbal s

amples are tailored to decay to silence, which means that you can't extend a crash beyond Roland's decision regarding its maximum length. But that length is well chosen, and again, the sounds are more than usable.

Once installed, the SRX01 waves form part of the standard Rhythm section on the XV88, so you can edit the patches in which they reside. This is a good point at which to note that the XV drum structure is a huge leap ahead of the JVs' rhythm section, and more sophisticated than many dedicated drum machines. This is because, unlike most (which offer just one, or maybe two samples under each key) the XV allows you to place no fewer than four stereo tones under each key, much like a top-class sampler. The patches in the SRX01 board take full advantage of this (and many other XV facilities) but I still enjoyed experimenting with parameters such as FXM (frequency cross-modulation) and random variation. These introduced many changes to the basic SRX sounds, and made otherwise sterile and synthetic drum loops much more realistic and interesting.

Overall, it's hard to find much to criticise about the SRX01. Perhaps (and this is on a par with the SRX02) some of the velocity transitions in the factory patches are too obvious. You wouldn't hear this in normal playing, but a smooth 'press roll' from very quiet to very loud would make the transitions obvious. However, and unlike the deficiencies of the SRX02, you can eliminate this problem by editing, so this is a trifling concern. When it comes to the crunch, I'm really impressed by the SRX01.

Conclusions

We have three separate products here but, in the case of the XV88 and the SRX02, they're ones whose success or failure may depend upon each other. So let's dispense first with the SRX01: it's great. Even at a not inconsiderable £299 for just six percussion families, I have no complaints. Indeed, I found the SRX01 kits every bit as usable as the combination of Roland S770, Alesis D4 and Alesis DMPro that I have used of late. It has just one shortcoming: you need an XV of some description to host it. Not everybody is in the market for an XV88, a 5080, or even a 3080, so I heartily recommend that Roland release this board as a dedicated module like its recent MS-series rackmounts. I'm sure that it would be a winner.

Moving on to the XV88, let's make one thing clear... this is an excellent weighted keyboard, a master controller, and a wonderful synth. I have never been a big fan of playing synth sounds, organs, or drums, from a grand piano, but I recognise that many players love the combination of a weighted keyboard and a powerful synth. For them, the XV88 would be synth nirvana, were it not for the key return problem.

On the other hand, the XV88 is less of a mother keyboard than you might like. I think that, on something of this quality and price, we should be able to expect more in the way of real-time controls than just a single 3-way joystick and four faders. A ribbon controller would be very welcome, as would pitch and/or modulation wheels to complement the joystick. Eight faders (which have become something of a norm on Roland keyboards) would also be far more acceptable than four.

Lastly, we have to consider the combination of the XV88 and the SRX02. Roland advertise this as "quite simply, the finest [piano] Roland have ever offered" but this is palpably untrue. The more expensive HP-ser

ies pianos -- the ones offering sympathetic resonance -- are clearly superior, both in tone and in realism. Even the VE-RD1 board against which I compared the SRX was more playable. Sorry Roland; I would love to love the SRX02, but I don't.

So where does this leave us? At the recently enhanced prices of £1449 for the XV3080, £1999 for the XV5080, and £2399 for the XV88, there are many permutations to consider. Since the XV88 is, in essence, an XV3080 with a keyboard, this means that the keyboard itself (together with its controller capabilities) costs just £800 -- a bargain by any measure. On the other hand, there's no way to expand either the XV3080 or the XV88 to XV5080 capabilities. Therefore, if you fancy the top-of-the-range synth, you may be better advised to buy the XV5080 module and hunt down a second-hand Roland A90EX master keyboard (reviewed SOS September 1996). Given that the A90EX hosts the VE-RD1 piano board (which the XV88 can't), this might be the best combination. All of which begs the question, 'Since Roland have gone to the bother of creating the XV5080, why didn't the company base the XV88 on this?' With the XV5080's sample playback capabilities and other goodies, this combination would have given the Kurzweil 2600 a real run for its money.

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