Roland's new flagship VS workstation again raises the stakes in the all-in-one hardware market, but has it raised them enough to rival the success of the 1680? Mike Senior finds out.
There's no denying that the VS-series recorders have been a great success for Roland. When the VS880 was launched five years ago it provided, for the first time, an all-digital successor to the cassette eight-track. Non-linear editing, mixer automation, SCSI as standard and optional twin stereo multi-effects was more than bedroom musicians had ever dreamt of getting from a single box before, so it is perhaps not surprising that so many of these little grey boxes left the shelves. It helped that Roland didn't rest on their laurels either -- major software upgrades were released to add extra effects algorithms, extra automation functionality, and the ability to write CD-Rs over SCSI. Indeed, so carried away did Roland get with expanding the VS concept that they even souped up the hardware -- more tracks and mixer channels, large backlit display, more I/O including phantom-powered preamps, 20-bit A-D/D-A conversion and 24-bit recording, two extra optional effects processors -- and had yet more success with the resulting VS1680 in the process.
And now at the top of the VS tree is the new 18-track VS1880, which packs in not only every feature of the original VS1680 (see SOS June '98) and its version two upgrade, but also a number of useful extras. As there's been no separate review of the VS1680 v2 within SOS yet, I'll cover this ground in addition to dealing with the features specific to the VS1880.
You've Come A Long Way, Baby
The sleek charcoal exterior of the VS1880 immediately sets it apart from its forebear. However, at first glance, this is about as far as the external difference between the two machines goes -- there's no extra I/O or additional hardware control on the new unit. On closer inspection, you notice that the panel
ROLAND VS1880 £2199
Incorporates all of the VS1680's functionality, plus a numberof additional features.
Powerful multi-band dynamics processing.
Nicely modelled vintage effects algorithms.
Automation now editable in bulk.
Metering inadequate for a mastering-capable unit.
Operating system still frustratingly unresponsive.
The VS1880 is a very powerful recording workstation which is capable of producing release-quality CD-R masters of your music, if used with care. Though facing more competition than the VS1680 did two years ago, it's still very much in the running if you're looking for a self-contained recording workstation.
However, there is one hardware alteration which is not immediately apparent from the outside of the machine -- both A-D and D-A conversion throughout the unit has been upgraded to 24-bit resolution. However, most musicians with budget mics and sound modules are unlikely to benefit much from this increased resolution. What's more, the processing resolution of the internal mixer and effects processors has remained at 24-bit, so it's unlikely that the increased headroom gained in the conversion will survive the mixing process, even in the 24-bit MTP recording mode. Not that I'm really complaining though, even if the 24-bit converters are just for marketing purposes: the sound of the VS1680 was already more than good enough for most commercial projects and the VS1880 is at least on a par.
Mastering... Who Needs It?
Possibly the most exciting of the VS1880's new capabilities are the Mastering Room and Mastering Tool Kit. The first of these allows you to quickly bounce an entire mix to a couple of spare tracks, with any unused effects processor inserted into the mix buss if desired. The Mastering Tool Kit effects algorithm is obviously designed for exactly this application, and comprises a powerful chain of effects in series -- four-band equaliser, high-pass filter, enhancer, three-band expander, three-band compressor and full-band limiter. The high-pass filter can be swept between 20Hz and 2kHz and the equaliser and enhancer mimic the pre-existing Stereo Multi algorithm. An Input block before the two multi-band processors allows a 'look ahead' delay of up to 10mS and also allows the frequency crossover points between individual bands to be specified: the lower crossover can vary between 20 and 800Hz, and the upper can vary between 1.6 and 16kHz, both values being variable in third-octave steps. Each band of the expander has controls for threshold, expansion ratio, attack time and release time, and the compressor bands are equally well specified, though with the addition of individual gain-reduction metering. Following the multi-band processors, a mixer block recombines the frequency bands for limiting, allowing you to adjust the respective levels of each band individually.
These tools are undoubtedly powerful and provide reasonable results when used carefully, but it would be hazardous to believe that they obviate the need to have your work mastered professionally. Professional mastering needs a carefully designed listening room and excellent monitoring, together with an engineer who knows how both relate to the huge variety of end-user listening environments -- not a common combination of equipment and skills in most small home studios! If you do intend to master your own recording using the Mastering Tool Kit, I would advise archiving at least one 'unmastered' mix of your track, just in case you ever find you want to get it re-done...
Though I would probably avoid using the Mastering Tool Kit for important mastering applications, multi-band dynamics processing is still an invaluable asset to the VS1880, and will inevitably come in very handy for a number of tasks other than mastering -- it's often the only thing that will render usable a badly recorded drum or guitar loop (and there are plenty of those around!).
The Mastering Tool Kit is not the only new effects algorithm to grace the new Roland VS workstation. Perhaps to balance out this modern digital process, there are also three welcome digital emulations of
Free Logic VS
Upon registering your new VS workstation with Roland, you are sent free of charge Emagic's Logic VS software, a stripped-down version of Logic Audio optimised for use with the Roland recorders. Because almost all functionsof the VS recorders are controllable and sync'ableover MIDI, this allows you to create an integrated MIDI + Audio environment even if your computer isn't capable of running real-time audio on its own.
Rounding off the added effects are Roland's COSM-based speaker modelling algorithms for those who have Roland's DS90 or DS90A loudspeakers (for details of which see the SOS review last month), and a useful three-band isolator. The latter seems primarily designed for people wishing to tweak samples taken from existing records such that they don't conflict with new instrumentation. The signal is split into three frequency bands so that the level of each is independently variable. In addition, the low- and mid-frequency bands are further encoded to MS format, allowing you to independently control the level of centrally-panned signals in these bands. I often found the combination of these tools to be uncannily effective, particularly when dealing with centrally-panned bass sounds, and they will doubtless be useful for solving a variety of recording problems. However, it is a bit of a shame that the crossover points of the bands aren't editable and that there isn't control over the levels of both parts of the MS-encoded low- and mid-frequency signals -- in the latter case, this would have allowed some nifty multi-band tweaking of the stereo width.
Although Roland have expanded the functionality of the effects board a great deal with the new algorithms, one thing continues to bug me about the VS1880. While I was delighted with the inclusion of the gain-reduction metering in the Mastering Tool Kit, Roland have omitted to retrofit this valuable feature to the other seven algorithms which feature dynamics processing. And while we're on the subject of metering: given that the VS1880 is now being touted as a mastering tool, shouldn't we at least expect a phase meter alongside the higher-resolution meters in the Mastering Room? And would an 'effects' algorithm providing basic spectral analysis be totally out of the question? I suspect that additions such as these wouldn't cause Roland's programmers any sleepless nights, yet would bring the VS1880 much closer to being the professional workstation that it aspires to be.
More Mixer For Your Money
The mixer shows a number of small improvements over the one originally within the VS1680. For a start, eight VCA-style fader groups are now available. Once assigned, adjusting any of the faders in the group will simultaneously adjust the grouped channel levels, with their relative levels remaining in proportion.
Another useful addition is that it is now possible to copy one mixer channel's parameters to a different channel, and equally time-saving is the fact that Automix data can now not only be edited one event at a time, but also in bulk. Ranges of automation events can now be erased, moved, and copied, and they can also be processed to
A new Phrase Divide editing function allows you to automatically remove sections of audio which are below a user-definable threshold -- invaluable for freeing up disk space by removing silences. You can now tweak channel pan parameters by holding any channel's Select button and adjusting the Monitor level control. However, seeing as you could blow your speakers and/or ears if your finger slips off the Select button while you're panning hard right, I would advise steering clear of this particular feature...
The Mastering Room speeds up CD creation by recording directly to a CD image file. However, Roland still only support CD-burning to one of their own more expensive branded CD-RW drives.
A new Phrase Divide editing function allows you to automatically remove sections of audio which are below a user-definable threshold -- invaluable for freeing up disk space by removing silences.
You can now tweak channel pan parameters by holding any channel's Select button and adjusting the Monitor level control. However, seeing as you could blow your speakers and/or ears if your finger slips off the Select button while you're panning hard right, I would advise steering clear of this particular feature...
However, I am a little disappointed that the VS1880's mixer enhancements haven't really sped up its operation during routine tasks, such as general channel parameter tweaking. I found the finite time it takes the VS1880 to respond to each of my key presses occasionally frustrating -- and this is something that no amount of familiarity with the operating system can remedy. However, given that the mixer of the VS1880 is so well specified, I imagine that most potential users won't really begrudge this slight lack of immediacy.
While the VS1880's enhancements substantially add to the VS1680's already winning formula, there is a lot more competition within the market for hard-disk recording now, not only from other hardware manufacturers, but also from the plethora of desktop computer solutions. With this in mind, it's a shame that a new model number didn't signal anything more than the buffing of an already-mature concept. Perhaps Roland are saving comprehensive metering, motorised faders, assignable rotary encoders and a touch-screen for their next big numerical leap -- a VS2480, say.
However, at the moment the VS1880 is still arguably the best-specified 'one-box wonder' for the money, allowing careful musicians to record, edit, mix and master material for their own CD productions. What's more, after four years, it had me seriously wondering what I could get for my VS880 secondhand...