Roland RS9

64-voice Synthesizer

Published in SOS May 2001
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Reviews : Keyboard

Roland's new entry-level performance synth is a full-length yet lightweight synth-action keyboard with ready-to-go sounds derived from recent JV and XV expansion boards. Nick Magnus investigates the RS9's family tree.

Roland's S+S (sample and synthesis) sound-generation method has enjoyed much success in recent years -- notably starting with the JD800 and working its way through the alphabet via JV, XP and now XV prefixes. Recognising a market for instantly accessible, ready-made S+S sounds, Roland introduced the Sound Expansion M-series of 1U rackmount modules during the mid-'90s; units dedicated to specialised jobs (see SOS October 1995 or www.soundonsound.com/sos/1995_articles/oct95/rolandmodules.html). These were effectively JV Sound

ROLAND RS9 £899
pros
High-quality, ready-to-go sounds.
Suitable for stage, studio and multimedia applications.
Easily portable.
Full 88-note range.
cons
Waveform content not expandable.
Number of presets could have been more generous.
Operation can be quite button-intensive.
Prices (especially RS9) on the high side for entry-level keyboards.
summary
A versatile all-rounder that delivers high-quality sounds from a full-length keyboard.

Expansion boards in a box, and Vintage Synth, Bass & Drums, Ensemble Strings and Dance modules appeared, among others. However, Roland's purely sample-based synths began even earlier than the units mentioned above. In 1989 the U20 appeared, offering a built-in library of samples (expandable via PCM card slots) derived from the S-series samplers, in a seven-part multitimbral 61-note keyboard, with rudimentary editing, reverb and chorus effects, user memories and multiple outputs (see review in SOS August 1989). Hold that thought, and let's cast our thoughts back, Graham Norton-style, to 1991.

"It's All Soooo Déjà-Vu!"

Stand up please, lovely audience. Now, remain standing anybody who remembers the Roland JX1. OK -- stay standing if you can remember what it was. Well, for the benefit of our lovely viewers at home, I'll tell you. Despite its JX prefix, it was not related to the classic JX analogue DCO synths -- the JX3P, JX8P, and JX10 -- nor was it the forerunner to the JX305 Groove keyboard. The JX1 -- reviewed in lovely SOS back in August 1991 -- was a preset, 24-voice polyphonic synth with a 61-note keyboard, offering 64 sounds, which were generated using PCM sample waveforms. These sounds came pre-shaped with TVF and TVA envelopes, with the option to spice up the sounds with reverb, delay and chorus. Basic editing was provided in the form of envelope attack and release times, LFO rate and depth, and filter cutoff and resonance. Edited sounds could be stored into the 32 user memories provided. The concept was simple enough, and not dissimilar to digital pianos that offer a selection of additional 'useful' sounds; you just pressed any appropriately named patch button on the front panel and off you went, with a few basic sounds that would be frequently required in a live or studio situation.

Ten years down the line, Roland have merged the JX1 and U20 concepts, whilst at the same time bringing the spec considerably more in line with current expectations. Unlike the M-series modules' dedicated sonic musings, their new keyboard is an all-rounder, covering a wide variety of sound textures. It comes in the form of my next guest. No, it's not Zsa Zsa Gabor... it's the Roland RS9.

Light, Fantastic?

The first surprise on taking the RS9 from its box is how little it weighs for an 88-note keyboard -- 10.8 kilos, to be exact. You can tuck it comfortably under one arm and carry it upstairs without even raising your pulse rate. This is unusual for a

  The Arpeggiator  
  No keyboard today is complete without an arpeggiator. The RS9's is derived from Roland's XV88, offering up, down, and random modes, and has plenty of exotic patterns that range from downright silly to rather cool grooves and rhythms. You can also adjust the accent rate, shuffle rate, octave range and tempo from the four top control knobs when the Arpeggio/Control button is active. There's a lot to explore here, as there are many combinations of styles, beat patterns and motifs. However, you can't use the arpeggiator selectively on the Parts in a Performance, as it operates upon the entire Performance, and also only from the RS9's own keyboard -- it won't respond to incoming MIDI. Still, you can use it selectively within a Split keyboard Performance, as the arpeggiator works on the lower Tone. Also, the arpeggiated notes are output over MIDI, so you can at least record the results into a sequencer.  
n 88-note keyboard, you may be thinking, as they're are not generally known for their portability. The reason for this is that the RS9's keyboard, despite its traditional piano-style, flat-fronted appearance, is semi-weighted. This must be a first; I've certainly never encountered a synth-type action 88-note keyboard before. And no, this is not a criticism -- in fact, it earns several Brownie points in my book. Not only is the weight kept down, but the cost too. And why indeed should fans of synth-style key actions be denied the luxury of a full 88-note range?

Silver Streak

The RS9 continues the streamlined theme with its shallow but attractive brushed aluminium panel adorned with seven rotary knobs, a combined three-digit LED and 2 x 40 LCD display, and 39 large, friendly buttons. To the left of the keyboard is the standard Roland pitch/mod lever. The overall styling is akin to a hybrid of the JD800 and one of Kawai's K5000-series keyboards.

The rear panel is equipped with a set of basic, no-nonsense connections, power being provided by a floor-wart power supply. Stereo outputs alone are on offer here, together with a hold pedal jack and a continuous controller input. MIDI In, Out, and Thru sockets complete the connections available, while at the centre of the rear panel, two holes are provided for mounting the included music stand, which is a useful bonus.

What You Get

The RS9 has been primarily designed as a live performance instrument, full of ready-to-go, JV/XV quality sounds. It is also a capable multitimbral sequencer-driven tool, with a set of GM/GM2 sounds thrown in, making it ideal for creating and playing bespoke music as well as standard MIDI files. However, unlike its more complex JV, XP and XV cousins, the waveform content is not expandable. What you get is... well, what you get.

Let's take a broader look at the RS9's features. The sound library comprises both Preset and User memories; firstly there are 512 preset tones, of which 256 are termed 'original' (JV/XV type). The other 256 are of the General MIDI 2 type. The Drum sets consist of 11 'original' and nine GM2 types. These presets are further organised into

  Piano & Manual  
  The Manual button applies the rotary knobs' physical position to whatever parameters they are currently assigned. This produces unpredictable results, depending on what the knobs are programmed to do at the time. As the knobs are few and always 'live', this feature seems a tad redundant to me.

Pressing the Piano button, according to the manual, gives you "the perfect settings for a piano performance". "Perhaps some specialist velocity curve?", I wondered. However, all it seems to do is return you to Piano factory preset 001, regardless of the sound you've previously been playing. Well, I could have done that myself by assigning that Performance to one of the eight Favourites buttons located beneath the display! I suppose that Piano is most likely to be the sound that players will return to on a regular basis (especially given the 88-note keyboard) -- but I can't help feeling that the dedicated button is a rather gratuitous addition. On the other hand, it does free up one extra Favourites button, so I suppose I shouldn't carp.

 
128 preset Performances. Although the RS9 is primarily a preset instrument, User memories are provided in which to store any customised sounds (more on editing these in a moment). To this end, there are 128 User Tones, 128 User Performances and two User Drum sets. Considering that Roland's sub-£500 preset JV1010 module comes with 512 non-GM presets, plus the ability to add an expansion board, the RS9's 256 presets could be seen as a bit on the mean side.

Polyphony is a maximum of 64 voices (subject to the usual voice-layering caveats) and the whole instrument is multitimbral up to 16 MIDI channels/parts. As mentioned above, the RS9 is equipped with 256 GM2 tones, so GM-compatible MIDI files should play as originally intended. Indeed, my treasured collection of sci-fi theme tune MIDI files played as expected -- with subjectively greater sonic accuracy than on my JV2080.

The 256 Preset tones are derived from waveforms and patches from the existing range of JV/XV synths, as well as a selection from the various JV expansion boards currently available. I recognised material from several boards, including the Vintage Synth, Keyboards of the 60s & 70s, Session, Orchestra II and Vocals boards, to name just a few.

Noises Off

So, having sat yourself at the RS9, how best to navigate one's way through the 512 presets to the one you want? Help is at hand thanks to Roland's Tone Category system, now commonly used on such units as the JV2080, XV3080 and XV5080 synths. The primary 10 categories are represented by 10 named and numbered buttons to the right of the RS9 panel. These are: Piano, Key & Org, Guitar, Bass, Orch, Brass, Synth, Vocal & Pad, Ethnic, Rhy [ie. Rhythm] & SFX. To search for a sound, you first put the RS9 into Tone mode, then press the button labelled Tone Category, followed by one of the 10 category buttons. This takes you to the first sound of that type in the preset list, and you can scroll through the various sounds in that category using the +/- Value buttons. Each sound category also has a number of sub-categories. To reach the sub-categories, you press the Category button repeatedly and it will cycle you through the various options. For example, repeated toggling of the Guitar button will cycle through Acoustic, Electric and Distorted guitar. The category titles are shown as three-digit abbreviations, but the full names can be displayed by pressing and holding the Tone Category button, then cycling round the options on any of the 10 Category buttons. When you've found the category you want, press Tone Category again and then use the Value buttons to further zoom in on your target sound. The Phrase Preview button can also be used to play a test phrase to check out the sound. This is a useful feature on a module which may be some distance from its controlling keyboard, but it's a curious option on a keyboard you'll have in front of you most of the time?

Performances

At this point in the proceedings, it would be a good idea to explain the difference between the Tone and Performance modes. Essentially, the RS9 is in permanent Performance (multitimbral) mode -- in other words, all 16 parts have a tone assigned to them, and will respond to incoming MIDI messages on their respective MIDI channels. As long as the Performance does not use Split or Layer assignments, then any one of the 16 parts can be played from the keyboard simply by selecting a different Part number using the Part buttons. If Split or Layer is active, then two Parts are 'linked' together as Upper and Lower Parts and will play from the keyboard simultaneously. The two Parts, their Tones, Split points (if in Split mode) and their respective MIDI channels can all be set as required and saved into a User Performance. Note that in Split or Layer mode, only the two linked Parts can be played from the keyboard, although the other 14 Parts are still accessible via the MIDI In socket.

Tone mode, on the other hand, is used to select the actual Tone that will be used within any Part, and to access the Tone editing parameters. The RS9 still responds multitimbrally regardless of the mode it is in, making it easy to make adjustments on the fly while playing a sequence into the RS9.

  U20/JX1/RS9 Comparison Chart  
 
U20 JX1 RS9
Release Date: August 1989 August 1991 March 2001
Price on release: £1050 £535 £899
Sound Source: PCM samples PCM samples XV/JV samples, GM2 soundset
Keyboard: 61 notes 61 notes 88 notes
Aftertouch: TX Channel, RX Channel/Poly None TX/RX Channel
Variable Key Velocity Curves: Sensitivity variable per Tone 4 Sensitivity fully variable per Tone
Polyphony: 30 voices 24 voices 64 voices
Multitimbrality: 7 Parts None 16 Parts
Keys: 61-note synth-action + velocity/Aft 61-note synth-action + velocity 88-note synth-action + velocity/Aft
Tones: 128 User 64 Preset, 32 User 256 XV/JV type, 256 GM2, 128 User
Performances: 64 User None 128 Preset, 128 User
Rhythm: 4 User None 11 JV, 9 GM2, 2 User
Effects: Reverb, Chorus, Delay Reverb, Chorus, Delay Reverb, Chorus, Delay, 42 MFX
Envelopes: Attack, release (TVA only) Attack, release Attack, release
Filter: None LPF cutoff, Resonance LPF cutoff, Resonance
LFO: Pitch Rate, Depth Pitch Rate, Depth Pitch or TVF Rate, Depth
Transpose: Yes Yes Yes
Layer/Split: Both (using up to 6 parts) Layer Both
Scale Tuning: None Quarter tone function Customisable per Performance part
Arpeggiator: Yes, also Chord memory function No Yes
Transmits panel controls over MIDI: No Yes Yes
Stereo Thru Input: No Yes No
 

Tone Structure & Editing

Those of you familiar with the JV synth architecture will be aware of the complexity to which a JV patch can aspire, and the fine detail with which they can be edited. In contrast, RS9 Tones can be edited using a limited but nevertheless useful range of parameters. Firstly, let's define the terminology: a JV Patch is equivalent to an RS Tone. A JV Tone I will refer to as an RS Voice. A JV Patch can employ up to four layered Tones, each one representing one voice of polyphony. Similarly, each RS9 Tone can be constructed of between one and four Voices. This brings me back to my earlier comment on the caveats surrounding polyphony. The voice structure of an RS9 Tone is invisible to the user, so you have to refer to the Tone List in the user manual to determine the number of voices employed by any Tone. Polyphony is not such an issue when playing one sound from the keyboard, but could lead to problems in a multitimbral performance. It is possible to set a voice reserve for each part, but without information concerning the Voices that make up the Tone on the RS9, this can only be guesswork.

So what aspects of an RS9 Tone can be edited? Before going into detail, it should be pointed out that the filter-related parameters are pre-routed to modify specific Voices that make up the Tone. For example, 'Talking Box' (Preset 240) Is made up of three Voices: one has a cyclic LFO applied to what sounds like a band-pass filter, and is unaffected by the filter cutoff. The other Voices have no LFO applied, and are the ones that the filter cutoff actually has control over.

LFO rate, depth and delay time are first in the parameter list, and globally affect the whole Tone. The next parameter gives us the option to have the LFO operate on the pitch or the filter. Although there is only the one global LFO, it's a shame that it cannot be assigned to both pitch and filter. Next up are filter cutoff and resonance. As mentioned above, these will modify only those voice elements that have been pre-assigned in the Tone. Following on, we have envelope parameters for attack, decay and release. These, like the other parameters, have negative as well as positive values. This is because all your editing is done on existing Tones that already have values set for these parameters. So, if you want to edit a string sound with a slow attack so that it speaks faster, you will have to set the attack time to a negative value -- ie. subtract from the value already present. And that completes the Tone editing list. It's short, but keeps things simple while still giving some degree of customisation.

Drum Sets are also editable to a degree, although sadly you cannot re-assign drums to the notes of your choice. The options available are pitch, level, pan and reverb depth for each individual drum.

A note about navigating around the RS9 -- for an uncomplicated instrument it can be very button-intensive to get around. Some menus are quite long and require a lot of furious buttoning to cycle through. This means you often miss the parameter you wanted and have to cycle all the way round again! A Back button would have been welcome here, as would a value slider or alpha dial.

Control Knobs & Effects

The front-panel control knobs and buttons to the left of the display duplicate all of the Tone editing parameters (except envelope decay) allowing fast, on-the-fly changes to be made. They can also be used for editing and, as you'd expect, they transmit these changes over MIDI, so filter sweeps and the like can be recorded into a

  Master Controller Potential  
  The usefulness of the RS9 as a master controller keyboard for an external MIDI rig shouldn't be overlooked. It lacks some of the more detailed 'power-user' features of more complex keyboards, but the essentials are all there. You've got two split or two layered zones, four live assignable control change knobs, one assignable pedal, a hold pedal, a pitch/mod lever, channel aftertouch and, of course, the luxury of an 88-note keyboard. I think I could get along with all that without too much trouble!  
sequencer. Pressing the Control switch enables the top four knobs to send a variety of other MIDI controllers -- the actual function of these can be assigned for each Tone.

The RS9 has three effects sections, which should be familiar to JV users by now; Reverb/Delay (six reverb types, two delays), Chorus (three types), and MFX (multi-effects -- 42 types). These apply globally to an entire Performance, and while the Reverb and Chorus sends can be set individually for each Part, the MFX has rather more restrictions. There are three routing options for MFX -- Performance, Upper and Lower. When the Performance routing is selected, all the Parts pass through the MFX, so if you've chosen Distortion as your MFX, your entire Performance (all 16 Parts) will sound a little... er... rough. This is fine if your Performance is a Split or Layered sound for live playing, and you actually want the whole lot to be mangled in that fashion. However, for multitimbral applications this routing would only make sense if you wanted to use the MFX to apply some overall stereo EQ to the mix, for example. Otherwise, you are restricted to having MFX on one Part only in a multitimbral performance, and that Part will be whichever one is currently showing in the display.

Conclusion

Although aimed at the entry-level market, the versatile, plug-in-and-go concept of the RS9 is one that many players should find appealing, especially those who play live and need fast access to a versatile selection of high quality sounds. The 88-note semi-weighted keyboard will be a bonus to synth aficionados, as well as those with less robust spinal columns. It could therefore find favour with multimedia music creators, stage and studio musicians alike.

Pricewise, the RS9 is perhaps a tad on the high side for an entry-level keyboard. In matters of petrol, wine and real estate, we Brits must be prepared to dig deeper into our wallets than many others -- and this has also traditionally been the case regarding music technology. However, the UK asking price of £899 compares unusually favourably with the US dollar price of $1295 (£901.94 at last check). For those on a tighter budget there is also a 61-note version in the form of the RS5 (£599), which is otherwise identical (except that the Piano button is missing -- hardly a drastic loss). In the case of both the RS5 and RS9, the sounds are of the generally high quality one would expect of an instrument from the industry-standard JV/XV stable, though a larger selection of presets would have been welcome bearing in mind the comparatively more generous offerings of the JV1010. Looking at the RS9 as a modern-day revival of the earlier JX1 and U20 concepts, it provides significant improvements, not least of which are the range and quality of the sounds available.

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