Roland VM3100

Pro V-Mixing Stations

Published in SOS July 1999
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Reviews : Mixer

The first of Roland's eagerly awaited digital mixers, the VM3100 is an obvious spin-off from the mixer section of Roland's VS1680 digital multitracker. But it still packs a lot of functionality into a tiny space -- and furthermore, the basic version is the cheapest digital mixer yet! Hugh Robjohns investigates.

As digital signal processing chips have become cheaper and ever more powerful, digital mixers have become increasingly commonplace at the budget end of the market. Indeed, it is probably now more cost-effective to buy a digital mixer, complete with its snapshot facilities and built-in effects processors, than it would be to buy a similarly equipped analogue mixer and a small rack of outboard gear.

Value for money is one thing, though, and usability is another. I would suggest that anyone with some recording experience could quickly find their way around an unfamiliar analogue mixer, and probably master a rack of effects processors in a pretty short time too. However, as anyone who has tried to use a digital desk will know, you need a set of well-honed crampons to scale the near-vertical learning curve. Sometimes, even simple operations like switching auxiliary sends to pre-fader seem to require the kind of warped mind of which Professor Moriarty would be proud.

Another serious issue is the number and flexibility of available inputs. Digital desks tend to be relatively poorly equipped with analogue inputs, bulking out their interconnectivity with modular digital multitrack interfaces. Insert points also tend to be a rare sight too, which makes it difficult to integrate those favourite analogue processors. In fact, replacing a trusty old analogue mixer with a nice, modern, shiny, digital affair is rarely straightforward, and often requires a radical rethink of working practices.

ROLAND VM3100/
VM3100 PRO
£699/£899
pros
Compact.
Low cost.
Flexible signal routing.
Good built-in effects.
cons
Restricted use of digital inputs.
Roland-specific digital buss format.
Digital mastering to 16-bit devices results in bit truncation and consequent loss of quality in masters.
summary
The second digital mixer available for under a grand. Neat and flexible, the VM3100 Pro packs a lot of facilities into its diminutive frame, with surprisingly good-quality effects and processing. However, technical restrictions with the digital inputs limit its usability slightly, and the current lack of dither options on the digital output rather preclude its use for digital mastering to 16-bit recorders.

Nevertheless, for the Nintendo generation who actually enjoy peering at small yellow LCD screens and frantically stabbing tiny buttons, or for those of us who recognise the undeniable benefits of snapshot and even dynamic automation, digital consoles have to be the way to go. The arguments over digital sound quality will continue to rage, but if a digital desk is designed and used properly, with due consideration given to headroom, clocking and dithering, it is almost certainly the noise of the internal mic amps that will be dictating the overall quality anyway, not the digital processing! Whatever else happens in the future, commercial digital recordings at 16 bits and 44.1kHz are going to remain an international standard format for quite a while yet, and with the availability of cheap recordable CDs, it makes sense to embrace digital processing in mixers, to go along with that in recording systems and outboard gear.

VM3100

Roland's VM3100 follows in the footsteps of Tascam's diminutive TMD1000 -- the first of the budget digital mixers -- but the VM3100's technology, and many of its ergonomic characteristics, have been derived from the mixing section of the popular VS1680 Digital Studio Workstation. To help Roland find an edge over Tascam, this attractive new console is currently available in two versions: the VM3100 which, at two hundred quid less than the Tascam, is the cheapest digital mixer yet; and the VM3100 Pro which is priced to match the TMD1000.

The two versions seem identical at first glance, and are certainly compact, being only 300 x 343 x 95mm in size, and weighing just 3.6kg. Their control surfaces look very neat and well-organised but their miniaturised appearance belies their capabilities -- there is a great deal of flexibility of signal routing and processing hidden just under the surface. The standard VM3100 mixer provides 12 analogue inputs plus a pair of stereo consumer digital I/Os, and a single internal effects processor. The Pro version extends this complement with eight further channels of digital I/O (albeit in Roland's own RMDB II format) and also includes a second internal effects processor offering a much wider range of processes, together with double the number of effects presets and 100 user patches. It is the Pro version of the VM3100 which is the subject of this review.

Whilst the Roland VM3100 Pro is directly comparable to the Tascam TMD1000 (reviewed in SOS November 1998) in terms of channels, effects processors and general facilities, it embodies a totally different set of compromises in its specification -- two balanced mic inputs instead of four, for example, but two digital inputs instead of the Tascam's one. These minor differences are likely to be the issues which steer potential purchasers in the direction of one mixer or the other, depending on their specific requirements, as the two mixers are very similarly equipped in all other respects.

Interconnections

It is the pluggery of a console which gives the biggest clue as to how well it will integrate into a system, so I'll describe this aspect of the VM3100 Pro first. All of the analogue inputs are mounted on the top panel of the mixer towards the left-hand side, making re-patching very easy and obvious. Of the 12 analogue inputs, two are balanced, with both XLRs and jack sockets, and provide a gain range which spans -50 to +4dBu. Phantom power is switchable from a menu page on the screen, but is applied to both sockets together. There are six further unbalanced jack inputs providing the same gain range, and input four also boasts an extra high-impedance socket specifically to accommodate electric guitars. This collection of eight 'instrument' inputs all feature rotary gain controls immediately below the relevant connector on the front panel. The remaining four analogue inputs are provided with pairs of standard red and white phono sockets and accept a fixed 0dBu line level signal, intended for replay sources such as cassette or CD players.

The analogue outputs consist of a pair of unbalanced jacks for the two auxiliary outputs (which make use of internal busses 1&2, and so can also output these), a pair of phono connectors (from busses 3&4), another pair of unbalanced jacks for the master stereo mix buss output, and a stereo headphone jack socket for monitoring. The master output sockets can also be switched to follow the monitoring signal to provide a loudspeaker feed if required. In fact, the signal-routing capabilities within the mixer are very comprehensive, and most signals can be routed to most places -- which makes this an extremely flexible little machine!

The back panel of the console houses the digital I/Os and assorted other interfaces which would tend to be plugged and left alone. A pair of DIN sockets provide MIDI In and Out/Thru connections (see the 'MIDI' box), and a jack socket caters for a footswitch (its function is programmable, but it is normally used to step through the snapshot memories). Next are a pair of orange phono connectors providing the first of two S/PDIF digital I/Os, the output side of which can also access mix busses 5&6 in the digital format. A pair of TOSlink optical connectors provide the second domestic digital I/O, and access to mix busses 7&8. Both digital outputs are available at the same time and can be configured to output different signals.

The VM3100 Pro also includes a 25-way D-Sub connector furnishing eight channels of digital I/O via Roland's RMDB II interface. This is a bespoke format, but an optional converter box, the DIF-AT, translates between this Roland in-house configuration and either ADAT or TDIF, allowing a modular digital multitrack machine or computer workstation using either of these formats to interface directly with the mixer (unfortunately, the converter box is not yet available, so I wasn't able to test it for this review). An internal routing matrix permits the RMDB connector to output any of the eight busses, stereo mix buss, or post-fade channel direct outputs, so working with a multitrack should present no problems.

The only remaining facilities on the rear panel are a power switch and an IEC mains inlet. The internal power supply accepts mains voltages between 117 and 240V, and consumes 15 Watts (12W in the case of the basic model).

Taking Control

The operational controls on the VM3100 are sensibly organised, given the relatively compact nature of the machine. Across the front of the mixer are 11 short-throw faders, which have a distinctly firm feel to them. The first eight cater for the main mono analogue inputs, with the next two being stereo faders for inputs 9&10 and 11&12. The digital inputs can be routed to any pair of channel faders, but use 11&12 by default. The last fader has a red cap and acts as the master output fader. Channels can be stereo-linked if desired, and equaliser settings can be copied from one channel to another.

The first eight faders operate in one of four fader banks as selected via a couple of illuminated buttons to the left of the fader block. These assign control of either the eight mono analogue inputs (channels 1-8), the extra eight RMDB channels (13-20), or 16 MIDI channels (1-8 and 9-16). The MIDI mode sends the fader position as Continuous Controller 7 (Volume) data on each respective MIDI channel. Colour coding of these Fader Assign buttons is such that red denotes audio channel 1-8 and MIDI channels 1-8, whilst green indicates channels 13-20 for the RMDB, or MIDI channels 9-16.

Fader banking is a good way of packing a lot of facilities into a small space, but unless motorised faders are employed (so that faders physically jump to the new positions of recalled channels) there is inevitably going to be some confusion involved! The VM3100's faders are not motorised, so to make the system as friendly as possible, Roland have provided a menu page to display the stored fader

"...the signal-routing capabilities within the mixer are very comprehensive, and most signals can be routed to most places -- which makes this an extremely flexible little machine!."
positions alongside their physical placements. The user can also choose how the system reacts when a fader is moved: the 'Null' mode waits for the physical fader position to match that stored in the mixer before allowing the level changes -- thus avoiding unwanted jumps in volume. The alternative 'Jump' mode causes the level to change to a physical fader's position as soon as it is moved, potentially with a step change in volume. The same two options are available for the equaliser and other processor controls.

Like most digital mixers, the VM3100 employs assignability to keep the number of operational controls (and therefore cost) to a minimum. Thus equalisation, aux sends, dynamics and routing facilities are all centrally controlled, being allocated to each channel by pressing an illuminated 'Select' button above each fader. These buttons also double as the channel Mute and Solo keys if the dedicated mute or solo mode buttons are pressed first (above the two Fader Assign keys to the left of the faders). When any channel is muted or soloed, the master Mute or Solo buttons flash to warn the user and, although it sometimes feels as if a lot of button-pushing is necessary to achieve anything, the process is quite logical. Software options allow the solo system to monitor a channel signal pre-equaliser, post-EQ (pre-fade), post-fade (AFL), or 'in-place' (post-pan).

Moving up to the top of the front panel, the small backlit LCD screen provides a wealth of information about the console settings, many of which can be altered with the four soft keys and soft knobs immediately below the screen, or by using the cursor buttons, data wheel, and yes/no buttons to the right of it. The top line of the display always shows the currently assigned (selected) channel number, the current snapshot (or locator) memory bank and scene number, the status of phantom power, whether the two internal effects processors are turned on or off, and a time display in either measures and beats or MIDI timecode.

A button to the left of the display (Level Meter), is the one to press when everything has gone horribly pear-shaped, or you are lost in the menus. This resets the display to its default condition of a set of bar-graph meters, one for each of the 12 analogue inputs or the eight RMDB inputs, according to the selected fader bank. These meters are inherently very small and can provide only a general idea of signal levels rather than any precise information, but they do have a software-switchable peak hold facility which helps a lot, and can be switched to show levels pre- or post-fader.

When in the meter mode, the four soft keys under the display access related screens: a set of output meters, for example (effects, monitors and stereo mix buss on one page; auxes, buss and digital outputs on the next; and the eight RMDB outputs on the last page). The second soft button recalls a channel overview page showing the stored fader, pan, effects, aux and equaliser control positions, plus routing settings and a channel bar-graph meter. The third and fourth soft buttons show channel and output fader placements respectively, with stored and physical positions clearly marked to help with nulling.

To the right of the display, a column of three equaliser knobs are labelled simply High, Mid and Low. However the equaliser is rather more flexible than it might appear, and turning any of the knobs automatically recalls the equaliser menu page which shows values for the gain of each band, its turnover or centre frequency, and the Q of the mid section. The top and bottom bands are shelving types with variable turnover frequencies, whilst the mid section has variable centre frequency and variable Q ranging from a broad 0.5 to a narrow 8 -- more than enough to sort out most problems. These parameters are selected and adjusted with the cursor keys and data wheel but glitches (zipper noise) can sometimes be heard as changes are made. Favourite equaliser settings can be stored and a load of preset starting points are also available.

Between the equaliser controls and the screen are three more buttons which provide direct access to facilities such as Pan, Effects and Aux sends, and Buss Assigns. These recall menus showing relevant settings for four channels at a time, with further sub-pages to show the other channels. The cursor keys select adjacent channels in order, but a complete page can be skipped if the cursor key is

  EZ Routing  
  The VM3100 borrows the EZ Routing idea from the VS1680. Pressing the front-panel button with this title recalls a set of graphical menu screens to guide the user through setting up the console, determining (for example) which input signals appear on which channel faders, the uses of the internal busses (tape busses or auxiliary sends, for example), and which signals feed which outputs (direct or buss outs to the RMDB port, and buss, stereo mix or monitor feeds to the digital outputs, for example). If manually configuring the console is not your cup of tea, there are also a number of presets available for basic setups like four-track analogue recorders, sub-mixing, PA desk, mixdown, digital 8-track recording and so on. Custom configurations can also be saved to memory.  
pressed in conjunction with the Shift key (more on this in a moment). A fourth button in this section allows the user to set up personal preferences for the console such as screen contrast, master word-clock source, phantom power, and sundry other options. This also provides access to the global MIDI settings, bulk data dumps and reinitialisation of the console.

However, for the first couple of days I was frustrated with the VM3100 because I could find no way of storing my preferences -- the machine always rebooted to a factory standard. Eventually I discovered the secret in the errata notes with the manual: you have to press the Level Meter button after changing the preferences in order to store your new settings. Hmmm.... logical and intuitive, I don't think!

The number of buttons required on the control surface has been reduced by relegating many of the lesser-used operations to shifted functions which are accessed by first pressing a 'Shift' key to the right of the master fader. Even this simple facility has a number of software options to determine various ways in which the Shift button can be made to latch. I won't mention all the shifted functions but, for example, employing the shift key with the Level Meter button provides a much larger time display, and shifting the Effects buttons accesses the compressors.

To the right of the equaliser controls is the monitoring section. A knob sets the volume through the headphones (and potentially the master outputs, if selected to follow the monitor signal). Two buttons provide monitoring of either the mixer itself (Source) or a pre-selected digital input. Only one of the two digital inputs can be used at a time, and then only when the mixer is slaved to the input signal's word clock (which gives rise to a problem I'll come to towards the end of this review). A further limitation is that only sources with a sample rate of 44.1kHz can be accommodated -- the mixer will not operate at any other rate at all.

Effects & Dynamics

Above the Fader section is a printed table showing the four primary parameters of each of the main effects processors. These tabulated functions relate to four 'soft knobs' between the table and LCD panel. To the left of the table are two buttons accessing the effects processors, and to the right is another button (Patch Select) which cycles through the pre-programmed effects groups: Reverb, Delay, Voice Multi, Guitar Multi, and User.

The effects processors can be used as either a conventional send and return system (there is a dedicated effects return level control to the right of the table), or as an insert to any selected channel. Both models of the mixer have 21 reverb algorithms of various kinds (including gated reverbs and a variety of different halls and rooms), six assorted delays, nine combination effects for voices (programs like limiting with equalisation, or chorus with compression, for example), another nine similar combination programs for guitars, and five more for keyboards (including some ring modulators). However, the Pro version of the 3100 incorporates an additional set of five reverbs, two choruses, two pitch-shifters, six RSS effects (Roland Sound Space pseudo-surround processor), nine simulators (mics and guitar amplifiers), six dynamics effects, eight parametric and graphic equalisers, five assorted phaser, flanger and chorus effects, 50 and 60Hz hum cancellers, a centre canceller (for that karaoke effect), and some clever multi-band isolators and filters intended for use by DJs.

This is a comprehensive list, but it's certainly not quantity at the expense of quality. All of the effects work well -- particularly the delays and phasers/flangers. The reverbs are pretty usable too, although they don't have the quite the same degree of naturalness or genuine variation that might be found in a

"If manually configuring the console is not your cup of tea, there are also a number of presets available for basic setups like four-track analogue recorders, sub-mixing, PA desk, mixdown, digital 8 -track recording and so on."
dedicated mid-market stand-alone unit. Being realistic, you can't really expect such quality when the all-in price of this console-plus-effects is as low as it is. Nevertheless, this system is certainly no dog, and it represents real value for money. For the kind of end-user and application this mixer is aimed at, all of the effects are fine, and with plenty of adjustable parameters for fine-tuning if required.

The two compressors are accessed by using the shift function on the Effects buttons. They can be patched as inserts into any of the analogue or digital input channels and linked together for stereo operation, allowing insertion into any odd/even pair of channels, or the stereo mix output. Five parameters are available -- threshold, attack, release, ratio and make-up gain -- and the LCD shows either graphical representations of the control knobs, or a transfer graph. Unfortunately there is no gain-reduction metering at all, which is a great shame as it makes setting up the compressor a rather hit-and miss affair. A software bug also prevents the graphical displays from updating when the soft key labels are displayed -- as they have to be in order to switch the compressor in and out of circuit for judging the effectiveness of the processing. Fortunately this is not a problem which affects the menus of other facilities (the review machine was running software version 1.00).

In use, the compressor worked well, although a programme-dependent release would have been useful on occasions. User settings can be stored in memory and a whole set of preset configurations are available. I think users should be very wary of falling into the trap of always using presets without understanding how and why they have been determined, although at least it is possible to examine the preset configurations and fine-tune them as necessary, for those so inclined.

In Use

Overall, the VM3100 Pro performs very well and, once you are familiar with the operating system, is relatively easy to use. The equalisers sound typically digital, but are perfectly functional for all but the most demanding of professional requirements. The compressors are effective with flexible routing, and the effects are really very good indeed, given the asking price.

However, there are a few aspects of the VM3100 which concern me. The most serious is in the way the mixer interfaces with a stereo digital recorder. Roland have only provided a digital return to the

 
Snapshots & Automation
 
  Five buttons below the VM3100's cursor keys provide access to the snapshot (scene) memories, which are organised as eight identifiable banks of four memories (the fifth button, labelled Banks, calls up a menu to switch between the banks). Once the mixer is set up as required, simply pressing one of the four memory buttons saves the configuration, and the button illuminates. Subsequent presses of that (or any other illuminated) scene button will recall the setup, although there is a delay of about half a second before the changes are applied. Snapshot memories are erased by pressing the relevant button in conjunction with the Shift key. The mixer is not capable of internal dynamic automation, but if fader movements are recorded to a MIDI sequencer, an automated mixdown can be performed.

The scene memory buttons also double up as locator memories for controlling an external recorder or sequencer. Pressing the shift key in conjunction with the Banks button engages the Locator mode ('Loc' is displayed at the top of the LCD instead of a bank number), and the stored time value follows the measures/beats or MTC selection.

 
monitoring section, so the implication is that the mixer should be used with a digital master recorder. Connecting a stereo digital recorder to either of the consumer digital outputs to record the stereo mix works, after a fashion (more on this in a moment), but in order to listen to the return from the digital recorder, the mixer has to be clocked from it. Selecting either digital input to the monitoring automatically forces the mixer to accept the external clock source as its master clock, so that when the mastering device enters Record mode, the situation develops where the recorder is locking to the mixer (to record its digital output), but the mixer is locking to the recorder to replay into the monitoring. The result is a wordclock howlround, one seriously unhappy mixer, and a great deal of silence!

Without a sample-rate converter being incorporated in the monitor return (which is unlikely at this price level) or there being one on the input of the external recorder, there is no obvious way around this problem. In a professional system a central word-clock generator would be used to synchronise

"Having a dedicated
2-track return facility in the monitoring but being unable to make full use of it is a little irksome..."
the digital replay machines and mixer -- but the VM3100 is not equipped with an external word-clock input, as are few digital recorders of any format, and none in the semi-pro market!

The other major worry is that the digital outputs appear to have a fixed word length of 24 bits. Any Minidisc, CD-R, older DAT machine or other 16-bit device recording the digital output would necessarily truncate bits 17-24 and, without suitable dithering in place, the 16-bit mastered result will suffer quantising distortion and granular reverb tails!

I contacted Roland UK about these concerns and they admitted their existence, and suggested a couple of workarounds for the first problem, although whether these will prove effective for you rather depends on how you like to work. One solution would be to employ the mixer's Scene snapshot memories to set up two modes, one for monitoring the mastering recorder's output (mixer locked to incoming master recorder), and the other for outputting to the recorder (mixer on internal clock and the digital 2-track return deselected). However, using Scenes to switch between monitoring and recording uses up your scene memories, and is still not as instant or convenient as simply toggling the 2-track return switch on an analogue mixer. This isn't really a very satisfactory solution in my opinion.

An alternative suggestion is to bring the 2-track return for monitoring your master back in through a spare pair of analogue inputs and, using the very flexible routing arrangements in the VM3100,

  MIDI  
  The Roland VM3100 outputs fader positions as channel controller information for remote level control of other MIDI devices, and accepts MIDI program change information to recall scene (snapshot) memories. In addition, it will accept continuous controller data for automated level control of the mixer itself. Several transport control options are incorporated using the dedicated transport buttons at the front of the mixer, including three customisable user settings, a sequencer-specific mode, and standard MMC. As usual, all of the VM3100's settings can be downloaded over MIDI as a data dump, and previously saved data can be re-imported.  
allocate these straight to the main monitoring output. Again, the easiest way to do this is to set up a couple of snapshots, one configuring the mixer to monitor the stereo mix buss output in the usual way, and another configured to monitor the analogue returns. It would obviously be essential to ensure the analogue inputs were not routed to the stereo mix buss, otherwise an audio howlround would occur! Furthermore, the whole workaround rather rests on having a spare pair of analogue inputs in the first place. It's not like you have a surfeit of these to start with on such a compact mixer, and surely the separate 2-track return concept was invented in the first place precisely so that you could avoid having to use up precious inputs at mixdown? Having a dedicated 2-track return facility in the monitoring but being unable to make full use of it is a little irksome; a much better compromise would be a software change to allow the 2-track return button to select either a digital or analogue stereo input.

On the subject of the digital output, Roland admit that signals will indeed be truncated to 16 bits if the VM3100 is connected digitally to any 16-bit device (in other words, many of the things you might want to connect it to!). However, their VS1680 also lacked proper 24- to 16-bit dithering options on its first release, and these have now been made available to the VS by means of a 'mastering package' software upgrade. As the VM3100 is derived in part from the VS1680, it might be reasonable to assume that such an upgrade could follow for the 3100. Bear in mind, however, that there is no news of such an upgrade yet, and without it the VM3100's facilities for mastering digitally to (say) CD-R, are rather flawed.

None of this, of course, affects mastering via the analogue outputs of the mixer. You can still master to a digital recorder (DAT, Minidisc, CD-R and so on) using your recorder's own A-D converters to produce a correctly dithered signal for the recording. The recorder's digital output signal can then be returned to the mixer for off-tape monitoring, and the mixer will be happily clocked from the recorder, which would be running under its own (hopefully stable) internal clock. This solves both the bit truncation and word-clock howlround problems, but it does mean your signal is converted to analogue when it leaves the mixer and then back to digital as it enters the recorder, which you may feel defeats the point of having a digital mixer in the first place! This is, however, a matter of personal taste, and may not bother you if you feel the end results are of sufficiently high quality, or if you master to analogue tape anyway!

Whilst it is highly unlikely that a version of the VM3100 will become available with asynchronous digital inputs -- the ideal, if expensive, solution to the problem -- software updates allowing the 2-track return button to select a stereo analogue input, and to provide the necessary dithering, should be fairly easy and quick to implement. If these updates are released, this will be a smashing little mixer which would deserve to do very well indeed.

Until then, the bottom line is that although rather flawed in its intended role as the hub of a small digital studio, the VM3100 still represents reasonable value for money. If you consider the mixer as a simple, flexible and well-specified analogue console (analogue in and out, that is), but with good built-in effects and processing, MIDI control and 32 snapshot memories, it remains an attractive proposition for a great many potential users.

 information
VM3100 Pro £899;
VM3100 £699;
DIF-AT RMDB-ADAT/TDIF interface box £349.
Prices include VAT.
Roland UK
+44 (0)1792 515020.
+44 (0)1792 310248.
www.roland.com

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