Roland Fantom S & Fantom S88

Synth Workstations

Published in SOS October 2003
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Reviews : Keyboard workstation

Despite the synth-spangled history of the company, it's been many years since a Roland product ruled the high-end keyboard roost, and 2001's Fantom workstation failed to change this. However, there's much more to the new Fantom S than one extra letter...

Nick Magnus

Photos: Mark Ewing
Fantom 1.s

Roland have frequently shown a pioneering spirit with innovative products, recent examples being Variphrase, VariOS, and V-Guitar — basically all things 'V'. Yet they have been curiously reticent to lead the field in other areas, notably that of the 'traditional' sampler. Despite joining the sampling revolution in the late '80s with the S500-series, followed by the S770 in 1990, they seemed thereafter to make only marginal progress, whilst the likes of Akai and Emu steamed ahead with ever more powerful products. Rumours would abound of the latest Roland Super-Sampler, but these would turn out to be just that — rumours. The Variphrase VP9000 came along in 2000, but this fell into the category of a processor rather than a sampling instrument. The SP808 (1998) and the SP808EX (2000) sampling workstations are in yet another category — that of remixing and phrase-sampling tools. The XV5080 was Roland's first (and most recent) 'traditional' sample-based instrument since the S760, and even then it is not a sampler per se, but a very powerful sample player that nestles alongside a sophisticated S+S (sample and synthesis) synth architecture. The company have been equally cautious — you could almost say conservative — when it comes to developing the all-singing, all-dancing, sampling workstation. Korg have dominated the workstation arena for some time now, first with the Trinity, and now with the Triton. Yamaha have recently joined the front-runners with their Motif keyboard range, and of course Kurzweil have been doing it for ages, albeit at the rather more expensive end of the market. The thing that these other manufacturers have in common is that their workstations have offered user sampling or sample import, either as standard or as an optional add-on, pretty much right from the start. With the exception of the much older W30, which was purely sample-based, Roland's synth-based workstations, fine machines as they are, have so far remained resolutely user-sample-free zones. Indeed, the principal criticism of the original Fantom workstation was that its lack of sampling facilities was likely to limit its appeal in the face of the Triton and Motif. All that could be about to change, however, because the Fantom has now risen again as the Fantom S sampling workstation. Two models are available, the Fantom S, with its 61-note synth keyboard, and the Fantom S88, which is identical in almost every respect, but has an 88-note, progressive hammer-action keyboard. For the purposes of the review, all comments about the S apply equally to the S88, unless otherwise stated. Additional S88-specific details are covered elsewhere in this review (see the box at the end of this article).

I recommend reading Paul Nagle's review of the original Fantom (see SOS February 2002, or www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb02/articles/fantom0202.asp), as this will make comparisons with the Fantom S somewhat clearer. And rather than skipping details because they have been reviewed before, I shall revisit certain areas where it helps to paint a clearer picture of the Fantom S.

Front & Rear Views

Fantom 6.s
The connections are appropriate for a top-end workstation — expression pedal jacks, the full MIDI trio (no penny-pinching joint Out/Thru here!), digital outs (on co-axial and optical connections), the stereo audio input for sampling, and then four assignable outs, the main pair balanced, in addition to a headphone socket.
The connections are appropriate for a top-end workstation — expression pedal jacks, the full MIDI trio (no penny-pinching joint Out/Thru here!), digital outs (on co-axial and optical connections), the stereo audio input for sampling, and then four assignable outs, the main pair balanced, in addition to a headphone socket.
The connections are appropriate for a top-end workstation — expression pedal jacks, the full MIDI trio (no penny-pinching joint Out/Thru here!), digital outs (on co-axial and optical connections), the stereo audio input for sampling, and then four assignable outs, the main pair balanced, in addition to a headphone socket.

On unpacking the Fantom S, my first reaction was 'Mmmm... nice!' Whereas the Fantom bordered on utilitarian in appearance, the Fantom S is a very attractive instrument. The most striking visual difference from the Fantom is the addition of a Dynamic Pad Bank — an eight-by-eight group of large glowing buttons at the right of the panel. If this makes you think 'that'd be good for programming drums', you'd be right — but that's just the beginning. Centre stage is the same 320 x 240 LCD as on the Fantom (and it's still not touch-sensitive, sadly). This is mounted flush to the panel surface and covered with a thick perspex shield, giving it the appearance of a huge, heavy-duty diver's watch. The panel buttons have mostly been reduced in size (there are more of them, after all) which means that the eight 'soft' keys beneath the display line up much more closely to their on-screen tabs than on the Fantom. The Sequencer's Stop/Play/Rec transport buttons are larger and chunkier than their forebears, and there are two additional buttons beneath the D-Beam. The Arpeggiator's panel button group has grown to accommodate new features, and while the four real-time control knobs are still present, they now have a four-way function selector. The assignable switches are down from four to two, but they are joined by octave-transpose buttons for the keyboard and an RPS switch (of which more in a moment). Over by the Pad Bank is a round, blue-glowing button enigmatically labelled 'Skip Back Sampling', just above which is a button labelled 'Sampling'. Two sampling buttons? Fear not, all will become clear... To the right of the D-Beam is the external audio input level control which, as we will see, can be used for more than just sampling. Below the volume knob, we find a button labelled V-Link, which enables the Fantom S to control not only music, but visuals as well — provided you have appropriately equipped video devices which can utilise Roland's new V-Link protocol. Finally, the original Fantom's floppy disk drive is gone, to be replaced by an infinitely more versatile Smartmedia slot on the rear panel. Hoorah!

The rear panel of the Fantom S (see above) shares the same features as the Fantom: a headphone socket, two sets of configurable stereo outputs, MIDI In, Out, and Thru, S/PDIF and optical digital outs, two controller input jacks, and the mains socket and power switch. Joining these are stereo inputs for external audio, the previously mentioned Smartmedia slot, and a USB port. The USB port allows the transfer of audio files to and from a computer (for sample import, say) as well as song data and bitmap files. Bitmap files? Yes, you can even customise the LCD screen by importing your own background image that will appear on certain screen displays (bless!)

Sample Editing Tools
Fantom 11 Sample Edit
The main sample-edit page, showing a waveform overview in the upper frame, and a zoomable detailed view below. Start, Loop and End points are visible in both views.
The main sample-edit page, showing a waveform overview in the upper frame, and a zoomable detailed view below. Start, Loop and End points are visible in both views.
TRUNCATE
Discards unwanted portions of a sample, for example silence at the beginning or end.
NORMALISE
Maximises waveform level to peak at 0dB.
EMPHASIS
Adds Emphasis (high-frequency content) to or removes Emphasis from samples.
AMP
Applies an amplitude envelope to the waveform according to points that you specify, You can use this, for example, to change the volume of individual beats within a loop, or to 'magnify' one quiet word in a spoken phrase.
TIME-STRETCH
Changes playback speed without affecting pitch. This can be referenced to desired tempo, desired time, or a percentage of the original speed.
CHOP
Allows a sampled drum loop (or similar rhythmical sound) to be chopped up into individual samples. This can be done either manually by specifying points in the sample, or automatically where the 'chopping tool' can be dependent either on level, or note value, or up to 16 equal-sized 'slices'.
COMBINE
Any combination of up to 16 samples can be combined end-to-end, in any order, with gaps if required, to make one new longer sample. A useful tool for making off-the-wall loops or musique concrete-style patchwork effects.

Meanwhile, Down In Engineering...

At the heart of the Fantom S is Roland's exemplary 16-part multitimbral, 64-voice polyphonic XV S+S synth engine, which has been discussed in detail in reviews of products such as the XV5080, XV3080, and of course the original Fantom. To recap very briefly, Patches are made from up to four mono or stereo tones, with comprehensive modulation and controller facilities, and effects processing in the shape of Reverb, Chorus and up to three MFX insert effects. Not content to sit on their laurels, Roland have enhanced this engine even further with the addition of new features: the LFOs, for example, are joined by two new waveforms. The first is 'V-Sine', a sine wave of randomly varying amplitude. It's great for enhancing the animation of ensemble tones, although clearly it wasn't named by anybody familiar with British slang... The other LFO option is a user-programmable Step LFO, not dissimilar to the one found in Native Instruments' Kontakt. The LFO produces a melodic pattern of 16 steps, and with careful programming, it can act almost like a mini-sequencer in its own right. If you were to apply this to all four tones, each having different LFO 'patterns', you'd have a complete four-part polyphonic 'sub-pattern' on one key (check out Patch PR E 095 'SoundOnSound' — how appropriate!), and that's before you even begin to consider the RPS, Arpeggiator and Sequencer functions the Fantom S has to offer. The previously mentioned Patch also demonstrates yet another new feature — tone cycling. In a Patch, the four tones can be made to cycle either in numerical order or randomly, with each consecutive key press. Rhythm set voices also have the same facility — except the cycling is random only. This is great for alternating between strum up/strum down guitar samples in a Patch, for example, or for alleviating 'sameyness' by randomising different hi-hat samples.

Fantom 8.s
Those sample pads are just asking to be hit! [Note: no sample pads were injured during this review — Litigation Ed].
Those sample pads are just asking to be hit! [Note: no sample pads were injured during this review — Litigation Ed].

Further enhancements appear in the form of a new waveform set of 1228 samples. This has quite a few differences to the set found in an XV synth, with many of the 'workhorse' sounds such as pianos and strings having been improved. Many of the old favourites are still there, though. The drum and percussion waves have also been considerably improved, with the inclusion of (unsurprisingly) an influx of trendy dance-oriented samples. I've said it before, and yes, I'll say it again — Roland have always been right on the money with the quality of their built-in samples. There is very little in the way of polyfilla (ie. polyphonic filler) to be found here, and the 'real' instrument samples, with few exceptions, are amongst the best I've heard outside of dedicated CD-ROM sample libraries. This is why the JV1080 remains a major workhorse in my studio, long after other synths have come and gone.

MFX Effects

The MFX effects have undergone a major overhaul, and although there are 77 of them, less than on the XV5080 or the original Fantom (which have 90) it is nevertheless a versatile collection that includes numerous new effects, many of which not even the XV has. These include Low Boost, Super Filter, Step Filter, Step Phaser, Multi Stage Phaser, Infinite Phaser, Step Ring Modulator, Step Pan (they really love those Step effects) VK Rotary, VS Overdrive, VS Distortion, and many more besides. My personal fave is the Infinite Phaser — the phasing effect has an endlessly moving, upward sweep — pure magic. An MFX Structure parameter (in Performance mode only) is also new, and this allows you to chain the three MFXs together in a variety of parallel and/or serial configurations. This feature is sorely missed on the XV synths, where the three MFXs remain forever independent and unchainable. The Fantom S therefore provides the means to create layered sounds with very complex effects structures. Patch mode also has an MFX upgrade; not one but two MFXs are available, one for the keyboard sound and one for the Rhythm set. Finally, a three-band Mastering compressor has been added, which is applied across the master output of the Fantom S. Controls are Attack Time, Release Time, Threshold, Ratio and Level for each band, and the split frequency of the high and low bands can be set individually. This is very much of the Finaliser or Maximiser ilk, designed to let you 'turn it up to 11' whilst avoiding level clipping. There are five useful presets and one user setting, which can be stored. Although this Mastering compressor defaults to 'on', it can be permanently bypassed if you would rather preserve the Fantom S's natural dynamics.

Where Have All The Samples Gone?
It is important to understand the relationship between SDRAM, User and Card memories, and where on the Fantom S samples 'live'. My major moan (there is always one!) is that the manual describes this complex subject very poorly — if at all. I'll therefore attempt to explain it as simply as possible, as it is fairly involved — perhaps a little too involved for its own good!
SDRAM
The Fantom S comes equipped with 32MB of sample SDRAM as standard. Any DIMM memory you install is added to that 32MB, so if you install a 128MB DIMM, you end up with 160MB of SDRAM. On powering up, the Fantom S auto-loads 7MB of 'preset' samples into that SDRAM — these samples provide material for the factory demos. They can be unloaded to reclaim SDRAM, but they cannot be permanently deleted, although auto-loading of these preset samples can be separately deactivated if desired.
USER MEMORY
This is the flash RAM where all your User Patches and saved Songs live within the Fantom S. Its total capacity is 16MB. You can also save samples here so they become 'permanent' — in other words, so that they are auto-loaded into SDRAM whenever you power up the Fantom S.
CARD MEMORY
Functionally identical to the User memory, but with the advantage that the Smartmedia card can be anything up to 128MB in size. As with the User memory, the Card memory can store samples, Patch data and song data in any combination, and saved samples can be auto-loaded at power up.
So far, so good. Confusion begins to arise, however, when samples are imported. Importing is a two-stage process — firstly, samples are added to an import folder, either in the User or Card memory areas. They take up real space in that memory, but in order to play them they must be imported into the SDRAM. So, if you place 10MB of samples into the card folder, then 10MB of card memory space will have been used up. These samples remain on the card, even if you turn off the power. If you then load those 10MB of samples into the SDRAM and power-off, they will be lost from the SDRAM, but will still be in the card folder (still with me?) If you load those 10MB of samples into the SDRAM but decide you want to make them permanent (ie. auto-loadable at power-up) you have to save them. It's crucial to grasp the next bit — if you then save them, they are saved to the card memory in addition to the original samples in the list — therefore they exist twice. This actually makes sense if you have edited the sample in some way, as you might still want to keep the original unedited version. So you now have two lists — the Import Sample list (of original samples) and the Sample List (of saved samples). If saving samples causes you to run out of space in the card memory, you will have to delete unwanted samples from the import list, which can only be done from the computer screen. Newly created (ie. not imported) samples will of course have to be saved to User memory or the Smartmedia card if you wish to preserve them.
There are further complications — if no card is inserted, newly created samples are added to the User SDRAM list, and when saved, are saved directly to the User memory. If a card is inserted, new samples are added to the card SDRAM list, and if saved one by one, can be written either to the card or the internal memory. However, if you save all the samples together, they are written to the card, with no option to choose the internal memory. If you really wanted them in the internal memory, you have to re-write them, one at a time, specifying 'User' as the destination. But what happens if you have several new samples to save, and the card is already full? In this instance, the only option is to save them one at a time to the User memory. And if that is full, you're stuffed — the manual issues dire warnings about removing or inserting cards when the Fantom S is powered up. This entire philosophy seems hugely complicated, and I can't help thinking that the whole process could be made so much simpler. However, once you get your head around it, it makes sense... well, sort of.
To put all this into a practical context, say you have sequenced a song that uses nine samples — three from User memory, three from an Smartmedia card and three brand-new, unsaved samples. When you save the song, you select 'Save Song + Samples'. The song data can then be saved to either the User memory or card. However, because a card is present in the slot, any new samples will be always be saved to the card. The manual makes no mention of whether the existing (saved) User or card samples are overwritten, but various experiments indicated that they are. If you wish to re-load this song (or any other) at a future date, you select 'Load Song + Samples'. Since the song's Patch data contains pointers to all the necessary samples, they will be loaded both from User memory and the card into the 'temporary' SDRAM — and you're ready to roll again.
It's therefore clearly practical to archive samples onto Smartmedia cards whenever possible, rather than the User memory, as that way there is always going to be room in the User memory to save newly created samples. It's a shame that the maximum compatible card size is restricted to 128MB — why not 256 or 512MB? But of course you can always offload samples from the card via USB back onto the computer if you need more long-term, larger-capacity storage.

Patches & Memory

The factory Patches contain a large number of brand-new creations, with five Preset banks of 128 Patches each. Furthermore, the S88 has an additional bank of eight dedicated piano Patches. There is also a GM Patch bank (256 Patches) and 32 preset Rhythm groups (plus 9 GM rhythm groups). You have a generous complement of 256 user-programmable Patches, and a further 256 can be saved to (and read from) a Smartmedia card. 32 User Rhythm sets are available, and again a further 32 can be saved to a card. Performance memories number 64 Preset, 64 User and 64 on a card.

Fantom 5.s
The rear-panel Smartmedia card slot is a welcome replacement for the original Fantom's floppy drive and is essential for decent sample storage.
The rear-panel Smartmedia card slot is a welcome replacement for the original Fantom's floppy drive and is essential for decent sample storage.

The Fantom S is expandable in two ways: firstly, up to four SRX expansion boards can be installed, each of which adds another preset Patch bank to the total available. Secondly, the sample SDRAM can be upped to a total of 288MB using DIMMs (the Fantom S comes with 32MB as standard). This translates into a whopping 54 minutes of mono or 27 minutes of stereo sampling. However, if you install the full 288MB (a 256MB DIMM plus the existing 32MB) you will have to sacrifice two of the SRX slots to get access to the entire SDRAM memory. This restriction is not compulsory, and you can choose (via the System menu) whether or not to disable two of the SRX slots. Thus, if you install 256MB and choose to keep all four SRX slots running, the total available SDRAM is reduced to 192MB, which should still enable you to achieve quite a lot. DIMMs of up to 128MB capacity will not require such a sacrifice, and all four SRX slots can be used. On the subject of the SRX slots, it may seem a shame that the SR-JV series format has been forsaken (one such slot was fitted to the original Fantom) but since then, many of the best SR-JV sounds have been re-released as SRX compilations with more sounds on board than the SR-JV boards, so at least the SRX boards represent good value for money.

Performing With Patches

You can do a lot more with the Fantom S than simply play its keyboard. You can assign an independent Rhythm set to the Pad Bank, and while you're playing the keyboard with one hand, you can thump out a drum part on the pads with the other — assuming your hand-to-hand coordination is up to scratch! If you feel especially perverse, you even can swap the roles so the keyboard has the Rhythm part, while the pads have the tune — or have them both do the same job, if you wish. Selecting a new Patch does not change the Rhythm set — it would have been nice to be able to set things up such that a specific Rhythm set is called up with each Patch, with perhaps an optional lock feature for when you wanted the Rhythm set to 'stay put'. Oh well. The pads themselves are velocity sensitive — the manual is not entirely clear on this, but I believe they generate 16 velocity levels. In practice, it felt to me like rather less than that, and even with much effort, I found it hard to control the velocity with any precision. The pads' velocity sensitivity is adjustable (from a choice of Light, Medium or Heavy) or you can make them all one fixed velocity. Either way, I didn't feel sufficiently 'in control' while using them for drumming, so for that reason I would personally feel more comfortable using the keyboard to play Rhythm sounds, especially when recording fiddly parts into the Sequencer. But that's not to dismiss the pads — they have other applications, as I'll explain shortly.

Fantom 2.s
The control panel on the left of the display houses the D-Beam controller, input source gain, main volume, V-Link video protocol control, the four assignable real-time controller knobs, the arpeggiator setup controls, and the main sequencer transport.
The control panel on the left of the display houses the D-Beam controller, input source gain, main volume, V-Link video protocol control, the four assignable real-time controller knobs, the arpeggiator setup controls, and the main sequencer transport.

Like the Fantom, the Fantom S has built-in Rhythm patterns, 256 of them. Unlike the Fantom, the Fantom S also has 256 programmable Rhythm patterns — so you can create styles of your own using the Rhythm set of your choice — including sets you've created using your own samples. To access these, you simply turn on the arpeggiator. The eight uppermost Pad lights go out, and these unlit pads will now play back eight pattern variations of your chosen style. If you wish to prevent the keyboard from arpeggiating as well, you can turn that function off independently. The remaining eight lit buttons play single hits from the same rhythm set, so can use them to jam along with extra live percussion, or to play back other samples you've created.

The Arpeggiator

While we're in the vicinity of the arpeggiator, that too has had a major overhaul — most significantly, there is now provision for 128 user-programmable arpeggio styles. These can be programmed either graphically or in step-time, and can be polyphonic. And it's not just 'block' polyphony either — each note can have its own velocity, rest and tie values set quite separately from the surrounding notes, allowing for the creation of complex sub-sequences. There are yet further ways to manipulate the arpeggios: Grid (which sets the overall 'pace' of the arpeggio relative to the set tempo), Duration (which globally changes note lengths), and Velocity (which either plays the notes back at a fixed value or with the values that you programmed). Range sets the number of octaves over which a pattern will play, and Accent adjusts the velocity range of the pattern. Finally, Motif selects either the 'real' pattern you programmed, or overlays various up/down/random and note-priority variations to the pattern. The unpredictability of this last feature renders a verbal description impractical — the number of possible outcomes would be the number of possible patterns x 12 Motifs x the other variables — which makes a lot of possible patterns! Real-time variations are provided courtesy of the four rotary control knobs. When the function button of these is set to Arp/Rhythm, they enable you to control the arpeggiator Range, Accent, Tempo and Rhythm Accent (if a Rhythm Pattern is also running). These knobs can also be assigned to control the Arpeggio Style, Grid, Duration and Motif for even wilder on-the-fly variations. The Chord Memory, while not exactly innovative in itself, provides 64 preset and 64 user-definable chord forms with one-finger triggering of the selected chord. However, even this goes one step further, and when used in conjunction with the arpeggiator, provides yet another source of self-accompaniment, based on arpeggio style and the selected chord form. This has got to be one of the most versatile arpeggiators out there — its potential is close to inexhaustible.

Real-Time Phrase Sequencer

The original Fantom featured a Real-time Phrase Sequencer, or RPS, whereby up to eight such phrases could be simultaneously triggered from the keyboard. Once again, the Fantom S takes the concept further. There are 100 Patterns available for the RPS, each of which consists of a custom multitimbral sequence of any length. These patterns can be assigned either to the keyboard (as many as 61 patterns to all 61 keys if you wish) and/or to the Pad Bank. Any Pads not assigned an RPS will still play their assigned drum sounds/samples, and if the Arpeggiator is on, the upper eight Pads also play Rhythm patterns. In this way, you could have Pads 1-3 each playing an RPS, Pads 4, 5 and 6 playing percussion sounds, Pads 7 & 8 playing samples, Pads 9-16 playing Rhythm patterns while the bottom octave of the keyboard plays another 12 RPS patterns! How's that for choice? The RPS phrases can be individually set to loop either for as long as you hold the Pad/key, or to latch-loop (pressing the Pad/key again stops playback) or as one-shot types (so that they play through once). There is a global velocity setting for all RPS phrases — Low, Medium or High (all of which have an additive/subtractive effect on the overall phrase velocity) or 'none', where the phrases play back at their programmed velocity regardless of Pad/key trigger velocity. The Pads/keys can also have their own Mute Groups, rather like the open and closed hi-hats in a Rhythm set, which allows specific phrases to mute others in the same Mute Group. The programming of the RPS patterns is actually a sub-function of the Sequencer, so let's take a look at the Sequencer 'proper'.

Sequencer & Performance Mode

The Fantom S's MRC Pro sequencer works in either Patch or Performance mode. That it functions in the former mode is a useful bonus, because you can immediately begin to record scratch-pad ideas using the current keyboard and Pad set without first having to dial up a suitable Performance. It's then a simple matter of switching from Patch to Performance mode, and continuing to develop the sequence from there. To this end, the MRC Pro offers 16 linear phrase tracks, a tempo track, a beat (time signature) track and a Pattern track (utilising the same 100 Patterns as the RPS). I've been a huge fan of Roland's MC-series hardware sequencers for many years, and although I now use Sonar, I spent the best part of 15 happy years using an MC500. That robust, reliable, no-nonsense sequencer has come along a bit since then, and now the MRC Pro version provides a clear, graphical approach, thanks to the Fantom S's large LCD display. In his review of the original Fantom, Paul Nagle likened it to earlier versions of Cakewalk, and he wasn't wrong — the main play screen looks very similar, as does the piano-roll style editing. Although the MRC Pro does not offer such luxuries as Cakewalk's mouse-drawing controller editing, pretty much every other sort of essential editing tool is provided, including real-time or retrospective quantising using a variety of straight, groove and shuffle types. Pattern Calls, or triggers, can be inserted manually or recorded in real time into phrase tracks, so you can work either linearly, or in a Pattern-based fashion, or in a combination of the two. Only one Song (of up to 120,000 notes) can be held in temporary memory at once, and this must be saved to the Fantom S's internal SDRAM before powering off. However, up to 256 Songs can be saved to internal memory and/or your Smartmedia card. A Quick Play function enables you to 'mark' songs stored in the internal memory or memory card for immediate playback, and Chain Play will, as it suggests, play these back consecutively in the order specified.

The Fantom S comes pre-programmed with split/layered keyboard Performances, as well as a number of multitimbral Sequencer templates. Setting up your own Performances is fairly straightforward — simply scroll down through each of the 16 Parts, hit Patch List, and choose a Patch. If you're after a specific sound, you can search by category — there are 38 categories to choose from. If you want to play split/layered sounds and have Parts played by the Sequencer, no problem — simply mark the Parts you want to play from the keyboard with a tick, and leave the Sequencer Parts unticked. Blissfully easy. There is only one Pad Bank setting for each Performance, and this is selected by pressing Pad Setting, then choosing the Rhythm set you want. This can of course be edited, as can any or all of the Parts' Patches, directly from Performance mode, just as if you were in Patch mode. In equally user-friendly fashion, hitting 'Save Song' saves the Performance, together with all its edits (and of course any song data) to internal memory. The beauty of this is that you have total recall at the touch of a button — when you reload the song, everything comes back just as you left it, edits and all — which saves a lot of frantic searching for 'expendable' Patch locations in which to save everything.

Fantom 12 Editor-Patch
The main Patch editing window in the Windows version of the Fantom S Editor.
The main Patch editing window in the Windows version of the Fantom S Editor.
Fantom S Editor & Librarian
Both Fantom S models ship with editor and librarian software for Mac and Windows. The Fantom S Librarian lets you organise all your Patches, Performances, Rhythm sets, Arpeggios, and so on, and transfer them to and from your computer's hard drive. It's a very straightforward, database-style program that is entirely intuitive to use. And if you feel the Fantom S's display isn't big enough (there's no pleasing some people!) and the menus are bogging you down, the Fantom S Editor provides a big-screen, full-colour interface to aid the speedy creation of Patches and Performances. Only the actual Patch and Performance construction is dealt with by this program — it provides no editing or sample-management tools. Both programs talk to the Fantom S via MIDI, but not USB.

The Sampler

Not one, but three ways to acquire samples are provided: sampling from an external input, sample import, and Skip Back sampling. The first of these, sampling from an external input, is perhaps the most interesting, as it provides the key to another very useful feature — the live processing of external sources by the Fantom S's effects. So, connect your external source (CD, Minidisc, microphone, synth or whatever) to the audio input jack(s) on the rear panel. The sampling is done strictly in the analogue domain, I'm afraid. If you want to maintain first-generation quality from a digital source, you will have to create the sample by other means — in other words, by using your computer and importing the file into the Fantom S. Pressing the Input Setting button brings up a routing schematic and a set of choices. From here, you can see that the Fantom S's synth output is permanently routed to the sampler (anything the Fantom S synth plays can be sampled) while the external audio input can be toggled on and off. A dedicated input effects block can be inserted here, which optionally enables you to apply one of six pre-sampling treatments: two-band EQ, Enhancer, Compressor, Limiter, Noise Suppressor and Centre Canceller. These are fairly basic yet useful effects with simple editing facilities. The functions of the first five are clear enough — the Centre Canceller is intended to remove material from the centre of the stereo image (a lead vocal, for example) but as ever with such treatments, the bass usually disappears while the vocal reverb is still left behind! Best of all, the external audio can be routed as desired to the Reverb, Chorus and either of the three MFXs. Not only can you sample through these effects, but the external input can be left 'live', allowing you to treat any external sound with the Fantom S's effects at any time — this should please a great deal of people!

Fantom 4.s
The menu-selection, Performance and Patch controls, plus the sample-editing access buttons and the Dynamic Pad Bank. The blue Skip Back Sampling button is particularly inviting.
The menu-selection, Performance and Patch controls, plus the sample-editing access buttons and the Dynamic Pad Bank. The blue Skip Back Sampling button is particularly inviting.

Once settings are complete, you can choose one of five sampling modes. The straightforward 'Sampling' mode, as its name suggests, samples the external input only, 'Resampling' mode samples any performance, either live or sequenced, from the Fantom S, and 'Mix' mode combines sampling of the external input and the Fantom's output. 'Solo' mode samples only the external input, but you can hear anything you play on the Fantom S at the same time, and lastly, there's 'Auto Divide' mode, which chops incoming audio into individual samples wherever there is silence — this is useful for quickly sampling consecutive drum hits. The usual Auto Trigger and Pre-sample parameters are here, as well as a Trim Switch (for automatic trimming of the start and end of samples) and you have the option of starting and stopping the sampling process manually, or setting an exact sample length based on either time or number of beats. Having selected your sampling method, the input level meters appear — both bar-graph and 'VU' types for good measure — then you just adjust the input knob to set the input gain and you're ready to go. Once a sample is taken, its waveform appears twice in the display — one overview of the whole wave, and a close-up view of either the start, loop or end point. This view can be zoomed horizontally and vertically, allowing for precision trimming with the value dial.

The second method of acquiring samples is to import them from a computer via the USB connection. The USB connection is activated only when the Fantom S's USB menu is accessed, at which point the Fantom S appears as a 'virtual hard drive' on the computer screen; then you simply drag and drop the files you want to import into the Fantom S drive's sample folder. You hit Import Audio on the Fantom S, and those samples appear as a list on the Fantom S display. Finally, you select the samples you want, and hit Import. This is fairly straightforward — would that the Fantom S's sample memory allocation was similarly easy to grasp (as explained in the 'Where Have All The Samples Gone?' box).

The third method of sample acquisition is Skip Back sampling. Basically, the Fantom S is 'constantly sampling' both the external audio inputs and the synth's own output. So, you could be playing a CD into the audio input, or a radio, or a live microphone. If you hear something that you like, just hit the blue Skip Back button, and it is 'retrospectively' sampled — for anything up to 40 seconds as long as you have enough memory (the length is set in the System menu). Not only that, but anything you play on the keyboard, an unrepeatable solo for example, can be captured in exactly the same way. You could even sample an entire multitimbral sequencer phrase or performance, with a live vocal, and save it for future use. Although the manual innocently suggests that you could sample a solo in this way and instantly replay it at the touch of a button, in truth it's a little more complicated than that. Mainly because the chances are relatively slim that the start of your sampled solo will line up exactly with the sample start point, and also because some editing will inevitably be required. Nevertheless, this is a valuable feature that is sure to come in useful.

Whichever method you choose to acquire your samples, some editing will probably be necessary, and to that end, a number of sample-editing tools are provided. Most are familiar and self-explanatory, while others are less obvious — see the 'Sample Editing Tools' box for a more detailed description.

OK, so you've just sampled a great vocal phrase, drum loop, thunderclap, or whatever. What do you do with it now? The Fantom S provides two speedy ways of deploying single samples where they're required: Assign Keyboard, which creates a Patch containing the sample across the entire keyboard, and Assign Pad, which allows you to place the sample on any of the 16 Pads in the currently active Rhythm set. Very quick, very simple. But what about multisamples? These, too, are catered for. If you have a number of guitar samples, for example, from which you wish to create an instrument, simply select all relevant samples in the sample list, then hit 'Create Multisample'. A Patch (together with a special XV-type multisample 'tone') is automatically created, the split points being based on each sample's original key (which must be specified first in Sample Parameters for this to work!). In this way, you could also create a Patch of several vocal phrases, each on its own key, within a single Patch. The same can be done with Rhythm sets — select a handful of samples from the list, hit Create Rhythm, and a new Rhythm set appears with each sample assigned automatically to its own key, with the first 16 samples also appearing on the Pads. The Fantom S certainly does all it can to speed up the creative process!

The Fantom S88
Fantom 10.s
The 88-note, weighted-action Fantom S88.
The 88-note, weighted-action Fantom S88.
Bestowed with an 88-note progressive hammer-action keyboard, the Fantom S88 is simply classy with a capital 'C'. It looks great, it weighs a lot (29.5Kg) and the action is just weighty enough to feel really involving, yet light enough to make playing nippy phrases a breeze. Compared to the synth keyboard on the Fantom S, which I found to be rather clattery and a little too light for my taste, the Fantom S88's weighted keys make precise control of velocity so much easier and more 'natural'. I know it's psychological, but it even seems to sound better as a result — sheer nonsense, but there you are.
The Fantom S88 also comes equipped with a Piano Mode button that turns it into a dedicated piano. In this mode, the Patch list is restricted to acoustic and electric piano categories, with three piano-specific on-screen parameters that can be altered. 'Open/Close' simulates the tonal changes that occur when a piano lid is... er... open or closed, with six settings to choose from. Key Touch adjusts the keyboard response through soft, medium and hard settings, and Resonance adjusts the amount of simulated sympathetic string resonance when the sustain pedal is depressed. This effect is created using a special Sympathetic Resonance MFX effect not implemented on the Fantom S. When examined in isolation, this effect is more akin to a specialised pedal-activated reverb algorithm than string resonance — but nevertheless, it works well and adds a very pleasing 'aura' to the sound.

What Have I Forgotten?

The Fantom S has so many aspects, many featured on Roland products reviewed previously in SOS, that it would be impractical to describe everything here. An honourable mention must go to the D-Beam, however, which has two new features. In addition to its usual filter/modulation tricks, you can now use it to trigger any one of the Pads. It also conceals a hidden instrument — the 'Solo Synth'. This synth is completely independent from the rest of the Fantom S — it is not stored as part of a Patch or Performance, and it cannot be recorded into the sequencer. It is a two-oscillator, monophonic tone generator with some basic variable parameters (waveform, detuning, sync, filter, resonance, LFO, with Chorus and Reverb sends) that makes using the D-Beam a truly novel experience — imagine if you will a psychotic theremin, and you're on the right lines. The default sound has all the charm of a flatulent cyborg duck, but with careful editing and some suitable effects, I was able to coax some very pleasing Ondes Martenot-like sounds from it, although precise control of pitch is a somewhat hit-and-miss affair. Nevertheless, I found myself liking it, and subsequently wishing it could be recorded into the sequencer. But then there is always Skip Back sampling...

Also not to be dismissed are the Fantom S's real-time time-stretching capabilities. Every 'tone' within the synth engine has a parameter called Tempo Sync. If this is turned on, and the source wave is a user sample, its playback speed will vary according to the Fantom S's tempo setting. This could be seen very much as Roland's take on Acid-style loops, or Sonar's Groove Clip concept. Best results seem to be obtained from drum loops and similar rhythmic samples rather than more complex material, but it seems to work well within a modest tempo range, and is worth having.

Final Observations

You could describe the Fantom S as an amalgamation of XV synth, MRC Pro sequencer and SP808-style sampling, although this would be a tad simplistic. More specifically, the Fantom S brings together high-quality multitimbral S+S synthesis, 16-track sequencing and integrated sampling within an attractive instrument rich with performance-oriented tools such as the Dynamic Pad Bank, D-Beam, RPS, built-in Rhythm patterns and the excellent arpeggiator. So could this be the ideal all-singing, all-dancing workstation? Well, that depends upon your personal expectations of such an instrument, which themselves are influenced by the sort of music you want to produce. If your sampling requirements centre around vocal phrases, effects, loops and other similar audio 'events', then the Fantom S is going to be right up your street. If, on the other hand, you want the sampler to expand upon the Fantom S's S+S synth with the use of performance-oriented sampled instruments, then be aware of the following two caveats.

Fantom 3.s
The large display is inviting, but it's not a touchscreen. Mind you, the eight 'soft' keys underneath line up better with their on-screen tabs than on the original Fantom! The Sampling Standby display is shown, complete with on-screen input metering.
The large display is inviting, but it's not a touchscreen. Mind you, the eight 'soft' keys underneath line up better with their on-screen tabs than on the original Fantom! The Sampling Standby display is shown, complete with on-screen input metering.

Firstly, the Fantom S cannot load existing sample libraries, either by Roland or any other third party. In the light of Roland's forthcoming MV8000 MPC-style sampling drum workstation, which will apparently be capable of importing sample libraries in a variety of third-party formats, this might appear to be a counter-productive omission, especially for a keyboard instrument. Nevertheless, the Fantom S does sample, and very nicely too — and it can import individual sample files, any or all of which can be utilised individually or grouped into multisample tones. So if you want to play your favourite multisampled instrument libraries on the Fantom S, you are going to have to make them up from scratch. That means importing the necessary samples, probably after having to translate them into WAV or AIFF format first, then looping them if necessary, working out the appropriate layout architecture, and putting in some time and effort. Sadly, the Fantom S does not support alternate (back and forth) looping and, crucially, neither does it recognise any loop points from imported files — you will have to recreate these by hand. This is a bizarre decision on Roland's part, especially when you consider that so much about the Fantom S is designed for speedy use and spontaneity.

It would seem, therefore, that the Fantom S sampling functions have very much in common with those of the SP808, being focused primarily on the spontaneous acquisition and deployment of samples, and the easy incorporation of audio — in a generally looser sense — into your live performances and multitimbral sequences. Given that the XV synth engine is more than capable of covering a vast variety of instrumental sounds, both natural and unnatural, Roland have clearly chosen to identify a role for the sampler that is different from the more 'traditional' approach. If that role fits within your musical remit, then the Fantom S should make a fine instrument for live performance, music production and as a songwriting tool. However, if your requirements of a sampling workstation include the use of existing sampled instrument libraries, the Fantom S is not currently able to oblige unless the user is prepared to invest considerable time and effort. That said, under the right circumstances I would feel confident with a Fantom S (or even better, the S88) on stage with me, especially with a well-chosen selection of SRX expansion boards and fully expanded SDRAM, and in that context, it could well be all you're likely to need. As for whether musicians will come to mention the Fantom S in the same breath as the Triton or the Motif, only time will tell.

Roland Fantom S/Fantom S88 £1799/£2299
pros
The superb XV synth engine.
Well specified, easy-to-use sequencer.
External signals can be processed by the excellent Fantom S effects.
Swift and easy assignment of individual samples.
Plenty of toys and gizmos to enhance any performance.
The sampling capacity is generous when fully expanded.
cons
No digital input.
No existing multisampled instrument libraries can be imported.
Loop points of imported samples are not recognised.
Sample memory structure inadequately explained in manual.
summary
The distinctly performance-oriented Fantom S combines an enhanced 64-voice polyphonic XV synth engine, a 16-part MRC Pro sequencer, 16-part multitimbrality, some great performance tools, and most significantly, a sampler that is optimised to integrate audio, in a general sense, into your performances and sequences. It looks great, sounds great, and is surprisingly easy to use for an instrument bestowed with so many features.
information
Fantom S, £1799; Fantom S88, £2299. Prices include VAT.
Roland UK +44 (0)1792 515020.
+44 (0)1792 799644.

Test Spec
Fantom S/Fantom S88 OS version reviewed: v1.03.


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