Photos: Mark Ewing
Regular readers of this magazine may find it surprising that a review of this particular keyboard has been left in my hands — I'm known for many things, but keyboard reviews is not normally one of them! The one area where I do dabble, though, is Hammond organ emulations, being a self-declared Hammond aficionado. From this introduction, then, you will have deduced that the Roland VR760 involves a Hammond organ sound module — indeed, this is demonstrably its underpinning strength, with sound generation derived directly from Roland's VK8 combo organ. But the VR760 is not just an organ: it is much more of a multi-functional keyboard which can provide a versatile and solid centrepiece for any home or stage keyboard setup. In fact, it's the latter which offers the main market for this instrument.
The VR760 is essentially four instruments in one. Its foundation is, clearly, the Hammond organ emulation, complete with drawbars and Leslie simulations. Next comes a range of acoustic and electric pianos. The former are derived from Roland's FP and RD-Series instruments, while the latter are newly sampled for the VR760 and claimed to be the best electronic piano samples Roland have ever produced. The mandatory harpsichord and clavinet sounds are also on offer, and all of these voices can be processed with a comprehensive suite of digital effects. The third element is a synthesizer section which provides strings, brass, choirs and bass sounds, plus some synth-lead and pad sounds, and there's provision to extend the sonic range of the instrument further via up to two SRX sound expansion cards. The fourth and final part of the keyboard is a pretty basic rhythm unit containing four different drum set sounds which can be controlled independently via MIDI — as can each of the three instrument sections, of course. It's apparent, then, that this is an all-rounder of a 'supporting keyboard.'
After opening the large box and unpacking the keyboard, the first thing I noticed was that it was much bigger than I was expecting. Most organ keyboards have five octaves (61 notes) but the VR760 has a 76-note keyboard, from a bottom 'E' to a top 'G'. The advantage, of course, is that playing two different sounds on a split keyboard becomes a lot easier, and expansive piano parts can be accommodated comfortably too.
The keyboard also features wooden end-cheeks, giving it an upmarket appearance, and the manual refers to the nicks and scratches which the end-cheeks are bound to acquire during a life on the road as a "badge of honour", which put a smile on my face. I'll try to think of it that way the next time some of my kit gets scratched, instead of just cursing!
Exhibiting its organ roots (I find myself wanting to say 'organic roots', but that sounds rather agricultural!), the keyboard has 'waterfall'-style keys with a very light and fast action (more of that in a moment) and classic square fronts to the keys. The requirements of a good organ keyboard are fundamentally different to those of a piano, and Roland have chosen the former here, but although the keyboard doesn't have a piano keyboard action or weighting, it is fully velocity sensitive and has a monophonic aftertouch, both of which are put to good effect with the piano and synth sound-generators.
Although I'm jumping ahead a little here, it is worth mentioning a facility in the configuration menus that affects the action of the keyboard when it is used to control the organ sound-generator. By default, the keys have a very shallow action which Roland refer to as 'Quick Firing'. The design is such that only a slight depression (about 3mm) causes the corresponding notes to sound. This gives the keyboard a very fast response which is important for obtaining proper glissandos and rapid repetition effects — both mainstays of popular organ playing techniques.
However, the frequent side effect of such a shallow action is 'key bounce', where notes can sometimes be sounded accidentally after a key is released suddenly. I didn't find this a problem during my tests, but as Roland mention it specifically in the VR760's manual, I guess it's an issue that figured in the instrument's development. Consequently there is a menu option that allows the action to be changed, requiring a much deeper depression of each key (about 6mm) before the note sounds.
After the size of the keyboard, my second major impression of the instrument was the number of knobs and buttons on it. This is clearly an instrument intended for live performance duties, with the majority of features being instantly accessible through dedicated controls, grouped into distinct instrumental and control sections on two layers. The lower row of controls relates to the three main sound-generator sections, while the upper section consists of the LCD and menu controls, and some of the overall facilities, such as reverb.
Starting on the left hand-side, the first set of controls applies to the organ section, beginning with the nine familiar harmonic drawbars. I was pleased to discover that the correct 'fold-down' and 'fold-up' of notes towards the top and bottom of the keyboard, respectively, has been maintained, since this is an important element of the Hammond sound. The organ tone-generator is also fully polyphonic, so 'full arm' glissandos sound right too! A rotary vibrato-chorus control (and associated on-off button) offers three levels of each effect, arranged in exactly the same order as the equivalent control on a proper tonewheel Hammond.
Four illuminated push-buttons provide the percussion controls with second- and third-harmonic selectors, soft and slow options. Menu options allow these facilities to be customised in terms of normal and soft percussion levels, fast and slow times, recharge time, and the relative volume of the drawbar sounds when the percussion is set to normal — but the default settings are pretty accurate.
The ubiquitous Leslie speaker simulator has three push-button controls, with an on-off button, plus Brake and Slow-Fast switches. Leslie speed can also be controlled by hand using the D-beam facility (more in a moment), or a footswitch. Again, menu options enable a high degree of flexibility, with separate adjustments for the tweeter and woofer elements of the system, including the 'spread' and distance of the virtual microphones, as well as fast and slow speeds, and rise and fall times when changing speeds. The default settings are, again, very good, and quite believable when auditioned on a decent stereo speaker system.
No two Hammonds ever sound the same, and it is these variations that form an essential part of the unique character of the instrument. Roland have gone some way towards allowing for some individuality by providing various controls to alter the tonality of the organ sound. The first of these is a push-button that toggles through three tone-generator settings labelled Clean, Vintage 1 and Vintage 2. Vintage 1 emulates the tonewheels and filter sets of the last generation of tonewheel organs in the 1970s, while Vintage 2 has the slightly more mellow sound of the typical 1960s instruments. Both include all the 'leakage' side tones that escape when a key is played and that are associated with the Hammond. The Clean setting sounds like Vintage 1, but without the leakage noise. A menu option allows the volume of the leakage tones in the Vintage settings to be adjusted, but not removed altogether. Another menu enables the amount of key-click to be controlled, with separate settings for the onset and release noises.
The second tone-modifying section is based on Roland's COSM technology and aims to simulate the tonality of various amp and speaker combinations. An overdrive effect is also available. The COSM amplifier section consists of a push-button that toggles through four 'Types'. The first replicates a stock valve amp and Leslie combination, while the second substitutes the kind of high-powered guitar valve amp often used by rock bands in the 1970s, and gives a far more mid-heavy sound. Type 3 offers an alternative type of rotary speaker (I wonder whose?), and Type 4 seems similar to Type 1 but with far more distortion and a more compressed sound. The Overdrive control can be used with any setting, although the character and amount of overdrive varies considerably depending on which Type is in use.
The final control in the organ section is a rotary knob for setting the level of the organ sound within the overall keyboard output (a menu function also enables the level of the organ's contribution to the internal reverb processor to be adjusted). A couple of other controls pertinent to the organ are located on the upper section of the control panel. In the 'One Touch' section are three buttons labelled Organ, Piano, and Synth. By pressing one of these you automatically mute the other two sound generators and cancel any Split modes that might be active at the time. Thus it's easy to switch from a layered sound of piano and strings, say, to just full-range organ. The other control is labelled 'H-Bar Manual' and instantly switches the drawbar registration from that stored in the current patch memory to the physical settings on the drawbars themselves.
It's worth stating that if any of the keyboard controls are adjusted, be they in the organ, piano or synth sections, they only 'take over' from the patch memory settings when they are moved through the same setting. So to change the 8ft drawbar setting, for example, you have to pull (or push) it through the memory setting before regaining manual control — hence the reason for adding the H-Bar Manual button.
Two final menu settings applicable to the organ sound-generator include an octave-shift facility (+/-2 octaves), useful when playing on a split keyboard, and a fine-tune control (+/-50 cents). In fact, each of the three sound-generator sections — organ, piano and synth — can be tuned independently, relative to a master tune control spanning the range 415-466Hz. There is also a transpose facility to shift the keyboard down six or up five semitones.
Get The Picture With V-Link
In common with some of Roland's other recent products, the VR760 features 'V-Link'. A button near the Registration section activates this facility, which can be used to switch between video images stored on a connected Edirol DV7PR 'Digital Video Presenter'. Image switching can be activated either by pressing the eight registration memory buttons or, if they are suitably configured, by pressing the eight bottom keys on the keyboard.
The piano and synth controls are somewhat simpler than those of the organ, but are no less versatile. The piano facilities include a tone-selection panel, more COSM modelling features, a collection of digital effects, and an output volume control. Whereas the organ generator is fully polyphonic, the piano and synth sections combine to provide up to 128 simultaneous voices derived from a 96MB internal PCM wave memory.
The piano section is equipped with nine separate voices, only one of which can be active at a time. These are grouped into acoustic pianos, electric pianos, and 'Others' — each with three variations. The acoustics include a concert grand, a more mellow classical piano, and much brighter, harder 'European' piano — all very usable and useful variations. I have an entry-level Roland HP piano for practising at home, and have always found the acoustic piano sounds very good, but the electric pianos have always disappointed. However, the electric piano contingent on the VR760 is a real breath of fresh air. There are three variations of Rhodes — vintage, brighter, and hot-rodded — while under the heading of 'Others' we have a lovely Wurlitzer electric piano, the obligatory Clavinet, and a nice woody harpsichord. The Rhodes and Wurly pianos are fantastic — indeed, in the context of a multi-purpose keyboard, as 'naked' sources, these are all pretty good voices. However, they can be enhanced further with the application of some COSM modelling. The COSM controls here include a push-button to select one of two Types of modelling and a rotary knob to change the virtual mic distance or amp EQ. In the case of the acoustic pianos, the modelling affects the type of microphones used to capture the piano — a small-diaphragm condenser or dynamic mic — while it simulates a vintage electric piano amplifier or guitar amp for the electric piano sounds.
The multi-effects section can be switched between Chorus, Tremolo, Wah and Phaser effects, with rotary controls for depth and rate (the last complete with an LED that flashes to show the current speed). These effects can be applied to any piano sound, although they really come to into their own with the electric piano sounds.
Once again, the menu structure provides a lot of scope to customise the piano section, with the same two-octave shift and section-tuning facilities as the organ, an overall stereo width control, four levels of stretch tuning, decay and release times, three levels of touch sensitivity, and an echo send-level parameter. The effects section can also be customised, with settings for the chorus return level, mono or stereo tremolo modes, modulated or touch-sensitive wah effects, and the amount of filter resonance in the wah and phaser effects.
The rear panel of the VR760 is well equipped. Mains power is connected to the right-hand side of the keyboard via the usual IEC connector, adjacent to a power switch. On the left-hand side are all the output, foot controller and MIDI sockets. There's a stereo headphone socket, a pair of balanced line-level outputs on XLRs, and a pair of unbalanced line-level outputs on quarter-inch sockets. With nothing plugged into the right output jack socket the left output carries a mono mix.
I was surprised that the damper and expression pedals were not supplied with the keyboard. The only accessories are the mains cord, handbook and a music rack. It's almost impossible to play a realistic piano part without using the damper pedal, and a major element of an organ part is pedal dynamics. While I can understand not supplying a foot controller for the Control facility, omitting the damper and expression pedals does seem particularly stingy to me. Hopefully, dealers will be more generous and considerate!
The control switch facility provides a great deal of useful functionality, partly because it will operate with either a footswitch or a volume pedal. Depending on which type of controller is connected, the control options include rotary speaker speed (switched or continuously variable), the amount of organ overdrive effect, tonewheel brake effect, patch memory incrementing up or down, piano soft or sostenuto, adding extra piano octaves (as per the D-Beam), pedal wah-wah effects, synth glide (as per the D-Beam), rhythm section start-stop, and external sequencer start-stop.
The LCD contrast control is tucked away on the back panel next to the usual trio of MIDI sockets, and a Compact Flash memory card slot (with metal protection bracket) is also provided. The manual doesn't specify this, but the slot appears to be able to accept both Type 1 and Type II cards, which can be used optionally to store the registration and system memory data.
The supplied music rest can be attached (with screws) to the rear of the keyboard if required.
The third main voice section is for the synthesizer, which is equipped similarly to the piano. A group of six buttons provides access to the different voices, each of which has three variations. The categories are Strings (Orchestral, European and Jupiter 8); Choir (Real Choir, Female Vox and Jazz Scat); Brass (Brass Section, Concert Brass and OB Fat Brass); Synth Lead (Vintage, Dual and Retro); Synth Pad (OB Pad, 2.3 Pad and Glassy Pad); Bass (Acoustic, Fretless and Hefty); and SRX Expansion (see below).
On their own, none of these sounds is likely to win any awards for authenticity, but when used in a layer with other sounds they fit in remarkably well, and the variations have been well chosen in the main — particularly the strings and brass, where they each have usefully different tonal characteristics. The only voice I found difficult to use was the Jazz Scat voice, which seems to require a particularly skilful and consistent touch for the most effective use, since different key velocities trigger radically different samples.
As I've already mentioned, the VR760 has provision to accept two SRX Wave Expansion boards, which can be fitted after removing a plate on the underside of the keyboard. The current collection includes Drum Kits, Concert Piano, Studio SRX, Symphonique Strings, Supreme Dance, Complete Orchestra, Ultimate Keys, Platinum Trax, and World Collection (the last four being derived from JV80 sample sets). When installed, the SRX voices are all available in one long list and are accessed via the SRX button and its associated plus and minus buttons to scroll through the options.
The Synth voices can also be modified using four rotary controls to adjust attack and release times, filter cutoff frequency and filter resonance, thereby allowing both tone shaping and some real-time manual effects. Like the piano section, the synth also has its own dedicated multi-effects processor, but in this case there's just a single control knob to adjust the amount of effect. To modify the effect or substitute another, you have to delve into the menu system, which tends to preclude real-time manipulations but does provide access to a full range of effects and parameters, just as you would find on a stand-alone processor.
The effects list includes equalisers, overdrive/distortion, phasers/flangers, rotary effects, dynamics, delays, pitch shifts, reverb, and various combination effects. They are all usable, versatile, controllable, and well suited to the task at hand. The final control elements are an output volume control and an 'Active Expression' facility. The latter applies when an EV7 expression pedal is connected, and allows the player to control either the volume or the timbre of the synth section independently from any other sounds that might be layered with it — enabling string parts to be faded up under a piano, or expression to be added to a lead solo, for example.
Like the other sections, the synth registration menus provide a range of customisation parameters. For example, the voices can be switched between monophonic, polyphonic or mono-legato modes, and different rates and kinds of portamento (glide) can be applied. There are also the now familiar octave-shift, reverb send level and section tuning parameters.
Rhythm & Control: The Drum Styles & D-Beam
To the left of the LCD screen is the D-Beam controller section and the controls for the internal rhythm section. The latter is provided with an on-off button and volume control, the current rhythm program and tempo being selected via the LCD screen. There are 23 pre-programmed rhythms, almost all in 4/4 (with one each in 6/8, 5/4 and 7/4), and spanning the common styles including Jazz Funk, 8- and 16-Beat Pop, Blues, R&B, Jazz and Latin.
The D-beam controller has become a standard feature on many of Roland's more recent keyboards. On the VR760 it can be used to change different parameters for each of the three primary voice generators. For example, it switches the rotary speaker speed between fast and slow if allocated to the organ voice generator. If assigned to the piano it can be used to add notes an octave higher than those played, as well as adding the sub-octave if the hand is brought closer to the panel. For the synth section the D-beam controls the glide effect between notes. An LED changes colour to indicate the current status. While I'm sure some users will find this a useful facility, I think I would generally prefer to use a footswitch or controller — but the option is there for either mode of operation.
In addition to the D-Beam facility, there is also a conventional two-axis Bender/Modulation control (pitch-bend left/right, modulation forwards). The maximum amount of pitch-bend can be programmed into different registration patches, and the modulation action can be used to switch the rotary speaker speed, if required.
The upper layer of controls on the VR760 applies largely to all three voice generators. Over at the left-hand side is a master volume control, while at the opposite end of the panel is a master reverb return level knob and program selector (room, hall or church reverb) plus a three-band equaliser (with a sweep mid control).
In the centre is a backlit LCD which shows the current mode, voice settings and menu parameters, as appropriate. There's also a two-digit LED display to indicate the current registration (or patch; the first digit represents the bank and the second the memory, both from 1-8). If a patch has been altered from its memory settings a dot in the bottom right-hand corner illuminates. Adjacent to these displays are the usual quartet of cursor buttons and increment, decrement, Enter and Exit buttons for selecting and cancelling menu options. If the last two are pressed together, the VR760 enters 'demo mode' with a choice of five songs.
The registration memories are accessed via the group of buttons to the right-hand side. One of the eight memory banks is selected first by pressing the small Bank button, followed by one of the larger number keys. Then any of the eight memory locations in the selected bank can be recalled. A Write button enables new patches to be stored in any of the 64 memory locations (eight banks with eight registrations each).
The registration buttons also double up to provide access to the configuration menus, if the Edit button immediately above them is pressed. Although it is simple to navigate to any menu page from any other, it's quicker to use the memory buttons to gain direct access to the required section — such as the organ parameters, or the utility section, for example.
The remaining buttons above the registration controls engage the keyboard Split facility, activate the manual drawbars, and provide 'One-Touch' instant activation of one of the three main voice sections. Holding down the Split button enables the split point to be selected in the usual way, and the current upper and lower voice selections are shown on the LCD. The current sound-generator allocations can be changed fairly quickly with the cursor and Inc/Dec buttons — two or three key strokes at most. However, altering the octave shift (which is almost always necessary when in split mode) requires a lot of key strokes to enter the registration menu for the appropriate voice section, scroll to the octave-shift parameter and then adjust up or down as required.
If you always work with pre-programmed patches, these parameters can all be stored, but trying to change things on the fly is not as easy as it could be. It would have been nice if the octave-shift parameter had been more readily accessible for each voice section through a short-cut combination; shortcuts are already provided for directly accessing such things as the tonewheel leakage level menu screen (Edit + Perc buttons) or the piano stereo width (Edit + Ac Piano buttons). Many of the keyboard shortcuts seem poorly chosen, as they access parameters which would rarely, if ever, need to be changed once configured, whereas some parameters, such as octave shifting, which do need to be adjusted during a performance, are difficult and tedious to access.
The VR760 is an interesting keyboard which will appeal to a lot of stage musicians because of its versatility and sound quality. The Hammond organ and rotary speaker emulations are extremely good, although I felt the 'leakage level' was a tad excessive (however, this can be adjusted through the menu). Roland's COSM modelling has been put to good effect in providing different amp/speaker combinations, which really helps to introduce some character, and the keyboard has a nice responsive action.
The modelling has also been used well with the quite excellent electric piano sounds, and I fell in love with the Wurly EP200 emulation! Roland's acoustic pianos have always been pretty good, and the VR760 is no exception, although I did find it rather odd playing acoustic and electric piano sounds on an unweighted organ keyboard.
The synth sounds provide a useful range of supportive ambient and lead sounds, although the SRX option obviously allows this aspect to be extended and customised further. The rhythm section is obviously rather limited and inflexible — disappointingly so — when the VR760 is used as a stand-alone instrument, although it does serve a useful function as a practice metronome. However, the embedded sound sets are good and they can be accessed via MIDI, helping the VR760 to serve as a complete production platform when connected to a sequencer at home.
If you're a synth/organ player and looking for a fine-sounding, performance-oriented all-rounder of a keyboard, the VR760 must be placed at the top of your shortlist. Piano players may find the lack of a weighted keyboard a drawback, but as you can't play fast synth leads or organ parts on a weighted keyboard, there has to be a compromise. On balance, Roland have got it pretty much spot-on with this machine.