Roland's Fantom workstation reaches its fourth generation with the 'G' series. So just how great is the Fantom family's great‑grandchild?
The keyboard workstation is the modern musician's sonic Swiss Army knife: you can play it at a gig, then take it home and produce a pop song, dance track, symphony, metal anthem or TV soundtrack. Though the first workstations (spearheaded by the great Korg M1) now appear to be little more than souped‑up synths with a built‑in sequencer, these machines have evolved over the last 20 years into something much more sophisticated: they can now be regarded not just as pro‑grade keyboards, but also as fully‑fledged mini‑studios offering multitrack audio recording, MIDI sequencing, rhythm programming, user multisampling, studio‑quality effects and mixdown facilities.
Roland's Fantom G represents the fourth generation of Fantom workstations. The company introduced the original Fantom FA76 in 2001 and have improved the specs with each new model. As a good deal of the Fantom G's functionality has been inherited from its predecessors and there simply isn't space to revisit all of that here, it's certainly worth checking the 'Return Of The Fantom' box for an overview and links to past SOS reviews. The new range comes in three sizes: G6 (61 keys), G7 (76 keys) and G8 (88 keys with a weighted piano‑style action). The three have the same sound engine, specs and controls and differ only in their keyboard action and sizes. Indulging my more grandiose instincts, I used a G8 for this review.
My first impression on powering up the Fantom G was that it was like turning on a television — indeed, I had to restrain myself from lunging for the channel control to find some live football. Its 8.5‑inch, 800‑ x 480‑pixel full‑colour back‑lit LCD screen is considerably bigger than those of previous Fantom models and one of the largest to be found on any workstation. As workstation screens have to display a lot of functions and parameters at any one time, it's nice to finally have a screen big enough to show them all legibly, without the aid of a magnifying glass.
The eight control sliders to the left of the screen are another welcome innovation — they perform various functions (the most obvious being setting mix levels) and have a satisfyingly smooth, solid travel, as do the instrument's five rotary pots. A large silver data wheel is conveniently surrounded by the four‑way cursor controls, making menu navigation easy and intuitive. Keyboardists will enjoy these classy, well laid‑out controls, while those who prefer a more computer‑oriented approach can plug a mouse into one of the Fantom G's two USB ports and use it to navigate around the screen and alter settings. However, you still have to use front‑panel switches to access the different playing modes.
The keyboard's software editor enables you to edit all its parameters on your computer. (However, the sound engine is not available as a separate plug‑in.) Audio and sample transfers are done via a USB memory stick, but you first have to format the device for use with the Fantom, which erases any data previously saved on it. Back‑panel connections include MIDI and a full range of analogue and S/PDIF digital inputs and outputs. There's also a new, all‑in‑one combi jack/XLR input with optional phantom power for mics, a high‑Z switch and its own line input level mini‑control.
Having left the room for a while, I was surprised, on my return, to find the Fantom G8's screen displaying a revolving, 3D‑style, animated screensaver image. With colour screens approaching laptop size, animated graphics, USB connectivity and mouse control, it can only be a matter of time before music workstations become Internet compatible. Perhaps the next generation will follow the American company Open Labs' lead and mutate into fully‑fledged computers fitted with a keypad as well as a keyboard!
The bedrock of the Fantom G's sound is its 256MB of sampled waveforms. By doubling the ROM size of its predecessor, Roland have given the Fantom G a fighting chance of competing with some of the excellent sample libraries on the market, although it should be noted that most libraries nowadays are in the multi‑gigabyte size range. (When will keyboard manufacturers bite the bullet and start building large‑capacity hard drives into their keyboards?)
Though the vast majority of the waveforms are mono, there are stereo multisamples of grand pianos, Hammond organ with Leslie, harpsichord, octave pop brass, orchestral strings and brass unisons, full string sections, violin sections, cello sections, jazz vocals, kicks and snares. Stereo samples appear in the waveform list as separate entities labelled '‑L' and '‑R'. You can quickly load both by selecting the left‑hand waveform and then hitting the 'Set Stereo' button, which automatically adds the appropriate right‑hand sample and takes care of the stereo panning. Neat. Most of the acoustic and electric pianos were recorded at three different dynamics, and these layers are presented as separate waveforms so you can create your own velocity splits. A Fantom G patch (which is the basic building block of more complex sounds) can hold four stereo waveforms, which may be velocity‑switched, layered or keyboard split — a very good starting point for those wanting to program their own sounds.
Many waveforms are presented in alternative 'A', 'B' and 'C' versions; some of these variants sound very similar on first listen, but closer scrutiny reveals tonal differences (possibly the result of different miking positions and/or EQ) and alternative sample mappings. Surprisingly, each stereo piano waveform has a mono version, which struck me as a waste of ROM space. (I believe the mono rendering was done to avoid phase problems that might arise when the stereo samples are panned into mono.) With a staggering 2230 waveforms to choose from, no‑one could accuse Roland of offering too few options, but some may feel that it would have been better to sacrifice some of the subtle tonal variations and provide more stereo samples instead.
In the Fantom G hierarchy, the next level up from a single patch is the 'Live Set', a multitimbral setup containing up to eight patches, each of which can be set to any MIDI channel (MIDI 'Omni' mode is not supported). The Live Set also has 16 'external' slots corresponding to MIDI channels one to 16, in which you can enter program changes and volume/pan settings. These settings are transmitted via MIDI to external sound modules when a Live Set is selected, making the Fantom G an ideal master keyboard. With 16 multitimbral sound slots, the 'Studio Set' represents the highest level of sound production and is designed to be used in conjunction with the sequencer.
One minor inconvenience I noticed is that if you switch from single patch to live mode, the keyboard automatically selects preset patch number one when you switch back. Maybe Roland's programmers could fix that in an upgrade? A truly great new feature is that if you change patch while playing, there is no audio drop‑out, glitching or interruption to the sound — the change sounds perfectly smooth and musical, with decays and reverb tails preserved. I've been hoping for many years that this facility would make a comeback, and I salute Roland for implementing it.
I found sounds in this keyboard that I loved: it has excellent Rhodes electric pianos, nylon string guitars, basses, distorted lead and rhythm guitars, some hilarious jazz scat vocal‑group samples and an impressive range of synth pads and basses. I found many playable three‑dynamic grand piano patches, decent‑sounding and very well multisampled. Although the acoustic pianos are fine for rock, pop and dance (what am I saying — any sampled piano is fine for dance), classical and jazz pianists are unlikely to find them a satisfactory replacement for the real thing, especially in the studio. Quite handy for gigs and the odd bit of nocturnal practising and composing, though.
Although there are plenty of usable string patches, the orchestral strings waveforms lack the lush quality of the excellent Peter Siedlaczek full string sections found in Roland's JV‑series orchestral expansion board of yesteryear. The orchestral brass is fairly beefy and the solo woodwinds (some of which I thought I recognised from old Roland CD‑ROM libraries) just about pass muster, although neither can realistically compete with the quality of those found in specialised orchestral collections. An exhaustive list of conventional rock, pop, dance and jazz drums and percussion includes some unusual and colourful electronic percussive effects. I enjoyed the tabla set, but would have appreciated some more of the ethnic percussion.
The Fantom G's vintage keys (Wurlitzer electric piano and Hohner Clavinet) are pretty good and its pipe organ samples are superb. The Hammond patches are a mixed bunch — though realistic enough, many feature too many drawbars, excessive vibrato and the obligatory maximum Leslie rotor speed, resulting in a big, cheesy, 1950s TV quiz show sort of sound. I prefer plainer, more supportive Hammond registrations that use fewer drawbars and little or no vibrato, a few of which are included. Having said that, I'm sure a lot of musicians will get a kick out of the iconic, '60s‑style shrieking and grinding Hammond patches (think Santana or 'Smoke On The Water'). In any case, it's good to hear real Hammond/Leslie samples recorded at both slow and fast rotor speeds. A real Leslie cabinet will always sound better than a digital rotary speaker emulation.
Only two expansion slots are provided. The potentially bad news for owners of earlier Roland keyboards is that the popular SRX range of expansion boards is not supported; the company have now instigated a new ARX range which currently offers only two boards (ARX01 Drums and ARX02 Electric Pianos). Let's hope more follow, starting with a best‑of orchestral collection!
Fantom G patches have dedicated effects, so when you construct a Live Set or Studio Set the patches sound exactly the same as when you play them in single mode. This is a big improvement over other workstations, including previous Fantom models. The 78 effects include auto‑wah, reverse delay, lo‑fi radio and telephone simulations, 3D Roland Sound Space effects and the entertaining 'step filter', which enables the creation of tempo‑sync'ed filter modulation rhythms. All sound very good, and the master reverb struck me as particularly classy and expensive‑sounding.
It's important to find the right sound for a part, but even the most ardent sonic explorer can lose the will to live when forced to wade through hundreds of patches. The Fantom G's handy patch directory helped me keep my sanity while auditioning its 1664 factory patches; it divides the patch list into 39 sensible categories, limiting the number viewable on screen at any one time to 40 or so. Holding down the 'shift' key lets you scroll through on‑screen lists at 10 times the normal speed, another useful navigational aid.
Being an inveterate fault‑finder with an obsessive programming bent (something I tend to omit from my CV), I inevitably found some patches and Live Sets that I felt could be improved with a bit of work. Fortunately, the programming functions of the Fantom G go very deep and there are numerous sound‑shaping options at patch level. Add to that the huge waveform list and excellent effects menu, and you have a bunch of facilities that should keep even the most nit‑picking of tweakers happy.
The functions of the 16 back‑lit rubberised pads have been significantly expanded from the Fantom X. As well as acting as MPC‑style dynamic triggers for rhythm sounds, samples and pre‑programmed MIDI sequences, they now double as switches that you can use to mute parts and sequencer tracks, recall favourite sounds and so on. One of the most useful functions is 'Numeric Mode', in which 10 of the 16 pads become a numeric keypad — an essential shortcut if you want to quickly access patch number 1572!
When using the Fantom G as a master keyboard in single patch mode, you can use the 16 pads as on/off switches for the 16 MIDI transmit channels. (There is no global 'MIDI transmit channel select' parameter on this keyboard, which seems a strange omission.) Using this facility, one can transmit data on several MIDI channels simultaneously, but I wouldn't advise it: playing a single note on all 16 channels generates 16 separate note‑on commands that travel down the MIDI cable one after another, with negative timing consequences for the receiving MIDI device. It's far better practice to sequence parts on a single MIDI channel, then copy them to other MIDI tracks inside your sequencer.
I used a Roland MC500 hardware sequencer for donkey's years and was satisfied with its 96 pulses‑per‑quarter‑note timing resolution, so I'd have no qualms about using the Fantom G's sequencer, which records at 480 ppqn. At 120bpm, that gives a timing resolution of just over a millisecond, which should be precise enough for the strictest timing fascist (and definitely close enough for jazz). The Fantom G's sequencer can now hold 128 MIDI tracks and 24 audio tracks, which should be enough for most projects. If you need to crowbar in more data, you can always free up track space by merging some MIDI tracks and/or bouncing a few audio files. (However, if you feel the sequencer's maximum capacity of a million notes is insufficient, I suggest you re‑think your composition.) The only facility I missed on the sequencer is a track solo function.
Like its predecessors, the Fantom G can record and play back audio. A not over‑generous 32MB of memory is supplied for this purpose, which can be expanded to a maximum of 1GB by installing extra DIMM memory. Though audio recording is straightforward, importing third‑party samples is not. As far back as 2000, Roland's XV5080 sound module could import Akai and Roland samples. It therefore seems strange that this capable keyboard can't directly import an instrument from a sample library — it will recognise raw WAV and AIFF audio files, but all formatting (including sample loop points) is ignored. If you want to reconstruct a looped instrument from a library, its samples have to be imported, then their parameters, mapping and loop points laboriously copied by hand. This is tedious. One saving grace is that the Fantom G samples at 44.1kHz, so since most libraries use 44.1k sampling there's a sporting chance you'll be able to successfully copy the numbers. (If the samples were recorded at 48k, get out the calculator and the aspirin.)
I set the Fantom G the relatively simple task of reconstructing an ethnic bone flute from Dirk Campbell's Origins library, originally created for Logic's EXS24 sampler. The Fantom G readily imported the AIFF‑format samples from a USB memory stick, after which I entered the keyboard's multisample mode (a last‑minute additional feature not covered in the excellent user manual) and copied the EXS sample parameters by hand. Once I got my head round the counter‑intuitive mapping system, I found I could precisely match the start point, loop points, fine tuning, and even the tuning of the looped portion of each sample. The only facility I missed was a pan control for individual samples, but that's no big deal. The procedure wasn't quick and certainly isn't convenient, but it worked fine.
In an ideal world, you'd be able to point the Fantom G at an EXS24 or Kontakt instrument on your computer hard drive, hit 'convert instrument', check Teletext for exciting showbiz gossip while the keyboard processed the sample data, and a few minutes later be able to play the instrument inside the Fantom. As things stand, that's a pipe dream, but let's face it, any type of sample import is better than none at all.
I would be happy to play a Fantom G on stage in front of my adoring public (though locating them nowadays is proving tricky and I'm still working on the adoration part). The G8's seven‑octave span is a huge boon for pianists (my partner was delighted to discover she could play the final, extremely low note of her favourite classical piano piece on it), and the ability to cover the entire range of the orchestra without using octave‑transpose buttons is an asset if you're working with orchestral libraries. The somewhat matt surface of the G8's keys is pleasant to touch. Conservationists and elephants will be relieved that they're not real ivory, but the makers have imparted a slight yellowish tinge to the keys to simulate its look.
Having started out as an organist, my touch is more attuned to electronic keyboards than to piano, and at first I found the G8's weighted keyboard difficult for fast passages, due to my limited piano technique and relatively puny finger strength. However, after a few days practise I found myself adapting to and enjoying the pianistic action more and more. Rhythm programmers would fare better with a G6 or G7, as the fast spring‑back time of their lighter keys facilitates the execution of repeated 16th notes at tempi that are not feasible on the G8's keyboard.
On the road, the G8's weight (74 pounds) and size (55 x 19 inches) would be a disadvantage. I shudder to think how much it would weigh if flightcased — so unless you're totally committed to piano action and/or 88 keys, the 76‑note G7 and standard five‑octave G6 (weighing in at 37 and 32 pounds respectively) would be more practical and less likely to cause post‑gig backache. If you're thinking of playing a Fantom G live, it's worth noting that it doesn't power up instantly. Even with no samples to load, it takes 15 seconds from switch‑on to entering playing mode. The same may well be true of other workstations; I mention this only because power supplies do occasionally fail in chaotic gig conditions, and when you're under the spotlight those 15 seconds can seem like a lifetime.
The Fantom G has many other tricks up its sleeve: chord memory (enabling complex chord shapes to be triggered with one finger), guitar‑like chord strums, an innovative pitch‑bend mode that lets you hold one note steady while bending another, à la Jimi Hendrix, an arpeggiator, step LFO (artfully employed to create beats and synth phrases), sample beat detection with Recycle‑style sample slicing... I couldn't find the attachment for getting a stone out of a horse's hoof, but Roland are probably working on it. [The v1.2 update was released just as we went to press with this issue; it doesn't provide that stone‑removing attachment, but does include some recording, sequencing and system enhancements we weren't able to cover in this review.]
Keyboard workstations are versatile tools, but there's a danger that in trying to do too many things you can fail to do any of them well. If you wanted to be super‑critical, you could say the Fantom G's audio editing facilities don't rival that of Pro Tools, or that its waveforms lack the scope and depth of a specialised sound library's samples, or that it omits some arcane programming options you might find in a high‑end analogue synth, but that would be missing the point: the Fantom G's strength is that it covers all these areas to a professional standard and conveniently combines them into one package.
One final thought: in my experience, it takes time to get the best out of complex keyboards like this one, and the most satisfying expressive moments often come after one has become familiar with their deeper, more subtle functions. The Fantom G has programming facilities in spades, and exploring its hidden depths should keep creative musicians happy for a good few years. During that time, Roland will probably bring out the Fantom Z (or perhaps move on to the Spectre SD, which, having composed and recorded a symphony for you, will then make your dinner). Whatever the future holds, a classy keyboard like the Fantom G should retain its musical value for a lifetime.
If you're in the market for a workstation, instruments with a similar spec to the Fantom G include the Korg M3, which ships in different keyboard sizes and also has a rack version. The Yamaha Motif XS is in the same bracket, sporting a colour display and a maximum 1GB of sample RAM. National Lottery winners might fancy splashing out on Korg's posh OASYS (the Rolls Royce of workstations), while for the hard‑up muso on the road to financial ruin, Roland have the more affordable Juno G workstation synth — though far less sophisticated, it covers most of the Fantom's basic functions at a price that won't haunt you.
The Roland Fantom workstation's sound engine is based on Roland's XV5080 module, reviewed in SOS in November 2000 (see /sos/nov00/articles/rolandxv5080.htm). The company introduced the Fantom range in 2001 and have continued to refine it. You can follow its development in these SOS reviews:
The Fantom FA76 had no sampling and lacked computer connectivity (a floppy disk drive was used for saving data). User sampling was introduced with the 'S' model, which also added dynamic pads and replaced the floppy drive with a Smart Media card slot and USB. Long after the dawn of colour TV, the Fantom X became one of the first keyboards to boast a full‑colour LCD.
Roland have continually improved the Fantom's specs over a seven‑year period. Here's a quick rundown of the evolution of the range:
Fantom FA76 Fantom S Fantom X Fantom G
Year of release 2001 2003 2004 2008
Maximum polyphony 64 voices 64 voices 128 voices 128 voices
Wave memory (ROM) 64MB 64MB 128MB 256MB
Waveforms 1083 1228 1480 2230
Patches (preset) 640 + 256* 648 + 256* 1024 + 256* 1664 +256*
Patches (user) 128 256 256 512
Rhythm Sets (preset) 16 + 9* 32 + 9* 40 + 9* 64 + 9*
Rhythm Sets (user) 16 32 32 64
Performances (preset) 64 (m) 64 (m) 64 (m) 512 (8)
Performances (user) 64 (m) 64 (m) 64 (m) 512 (8)
Multitimbral Setups (preset) 16 (16) 16 (16) 16 (16) 8 (16)
Multitimbral Setups (user) 16 (16) 16 (16) 64 (16) 128 (16)
Sample RAM (factory/max) — 32/288MB 32/544MB 32/1GB
Effects 90 77 70 78
(* = General MIDI 2 patches, (m) = monotimbral, (8) = 8‑part multitimbral, (16) = 16‑part multitimbral.) Fantom G supports 1GB RAM with v1.2 update (released just as we went to press).
In the Fantom G, formerly monotimbral 'Performances' are 8‑part multitimbral and renamed 'Live Sets', while 16‑part multitimbral setups are now referred to as 'Studio Sets'.
The Fantom G's factory presets have a lot to offer. Here's a brief selection of some I particularly enjoyed: