The latest Studio Canvas module from Edirol aims to expand the sound palette available to those who need GM and GS compatibility.
The Edirol SD80 is the latest in a long line of Sound Canvas and Studio Canvas synthesizer modules, but it goes rather further than offering basic GM/GS sound sets. It's very similar to the SD90 reviewed in SOS July 2002, but without that unit's audio interface functionality. Packed in a half-width 1U metal case, the SD80 is, perhaps surprisingly, mains powered with no adaptor in sight. It offers 32-part multitimbrality, courtesy of two sets of MIDI ports, and for computer users, both Mac OS and Windows drivers are provided enabling a single USB connection to be used in place of MIDI. Mac users need to use OMS or FreeMIDI to make this work, though the setting up instructions in the manual take you through the installation and setup of the USB interface (for both Apple and Windows computers) in very simple, clearly described steps.
To service 32 parts, the instrument has 128-voice polyphony (though some sounds use more than one voice per note) and incorporates sound sets based on 1050 individual tones plus 30 drum sets. Three sets of multi-effects are also built in, offering all the usual suspects plus guitar overdrive effects, rotary speakers and various modulation effects designed to work with electric pianos. The GM side of the machine supports GM2, GS and XG Lite modes, and both 16-part sound engines have their own stereo outs as well as separate MIDI Ins and Outs. Alternatively, the audio outputs can be configured as four mono outs for greater assignability, while for use with digital systems, there are also S/PDIF outputs on both co-axial and optical connectors.
Though the front panel provides access to the various sound sets, sounds and drum kits, and allows effects to be selected and adjusted in level, any deep editing has to be done using the included editing software. This allows in-depth user patch editing.
Unlike some earlier SC units, the Edirol SD80 has a particularly stylish front panel, dominated by an LCD window and a rotary Value Dial and supplemented by 10 further functions buttons, a volume knob and a headphone outlet jack. The dial is used for changing parameter settings, and holding down the Shift key helps you move through the values more quickly. A pair of Page buttons moves between screens when more than one screen is required to undertake a task, while Enter works in the usual way to confirm an action or execute an operation. A Preview button allows currently selected sounds to be auditioned, and of course no Sound Canvas would be complete without its repertoire of demo songs.
Instruments are selected using the Inst button, which leads into a simple menu system where instrument or drum sounds can be selected. The various sound set options can be chosen here, and then the individual patches within the sets can be accessed. A pair of arrowed Part buttons determines the part being accessed, while Effects is used to select an effect type or to adjust an effect parameter. Status indicator LEDs show which sound engine is being accessed, what mode is active and also the MIDI or USB communication status. The MIDI ports are always active unless a USB connection is detected, in which case the USB interface takes over automatically and the status LEDs change to reflect this.
Around the back of the instrument, there's a grounding terminal to provide a solid earth for the metalwork of the unit — as shipped the unit appears to have an inbuilt ground lift to help avoid ground-loop hum, but in some situations, hard grounding of the casework may be preferable. The power inlet is a standard three-pin IEC socket and the four analogue outputs are on unbalanced, quarter-inch jacks; the front-panel volume control affects only the level of Output 1. Conventional phono and Toslink connectors provide the co-axial and optical S/PDIF outputs and a USB cable is provided to connect the USB socket to a computer where required. That leaves just the MIDI sockets: two sets of Ins and Outs are fitted, but there are no dedicated Thru connectors. Instead, a small slide switch reconfigures the MIDI routing so that messages arriving at MIDI In 1 are output again via MIDI Out 2. In USB mode, the MIDI In signals are automatically routed to the computer, whereas in MIDI mode they control the sound generators of the Edirol SD80 directly.
As stated, the SD80 can play up to 32 parts at any one time, where each part can be an instrument or a drum part. These parts are separated into A and B groups, each containing 16 parts and addressed by its own set of 16 MIDI channels. There are four sound-generation modes, listed as GM2, Native, GS and XG Lite. GM2 is the latest incarnation of General MIDI, and is backwards-compatible with standard GM data. It includes provision for limited sound and effect editing, which the original GM format didn't, but in general, this is the mode to use for GM MIDI file playback.
GS Mode, as most Roland aficionados know, is an enhanced version of the GM spec, which allows alternative sounds to be used in place of the original GM 'capital tones'. For example, there may be a choice of acoustic pianos that can be used for patch 001. Because GM and GS sounds are supposed to be standard, they cannot be changed, though certain settings may be adjusted — for example, chorus and reverb type and depth. The number of alternative sounds varies enormously from patch to patch, with some having as many as 10 variations and a typical instrument having between two and four.
Native mode is non-GM, though it makes use of the same basic waveforms. However, it does allow far greater freedom in editing and includes two special sound sets that show off the un-GM-ness of the SD80 to good effect. Finally, XG Lite mode is a simplified version of Yamaha's XG system, which is their own take on the idea of GS. The same GM sounds reside in the same locations in both GS and XG formats, but there are some technical differences, such as the type of bank change command required. XG Lite facilitates the playback of MIDI files recorded to the XG standard, though the degree of control over effects and settings is quite limited.
The GM2 and Native sound sets are further categorised into four categories for GM2 and six categories for Native. The four shared categories are Classical, Contemporary, Solo and Enhanced, with Special 1 and Special 2 being added to the Native set. Classical aims to give the greatest compatibility when playing generic GM MIDI files, whereas Contemporary aims to make the individual instruments a little more expressive. Solo mode takes this further and contains sounds that work well as lead or solo voices, while Enhanced provides sounds that have been teamed with specifically designed multi-effects. For example, here you'll find organs set up with rotary speaker effects, guitar patches fed through distortion effects and so on. Up to three Enhanced sounds can be used at any one time, the limit being in part due to the multi-effects structure of the SD80.
The two Special sound sets can be used only in Native mode, and include a mixture of sounds taken from the Enhanced sets and more abstract sounds not part of the GM sound set. Many of the sounds use the multi-effects capabilities of the SD80. In all modes, parts may be muted or soloed, but sound parameters can only be controlled from the front panel of the unit when it is set to either GM2 or Native mode. Any changes made can be saved as a user patch. Part parameters are fairly basic and include the obvious things like volume and pan, but in those modes where editing is allowed, you also get access to filter settings, modulation depths, portamento, envelope settings, effect levels and so on.
The SD80's editing software looks very similar to that provided with the Roland XV2020, suggesting that this machine is based on the latest XV engine. A main page, styled after a hardware synth, provides access to all the subsections, each of which has its own page. This way you can stay near the surface making only superficial changes, or you can get right down into the nuts and bolts to build your own sounds and effects settings from scratch.
The SD80's internal effects comprise separate chorus and reverb blocks, an EQ section and the multi-effects section. Though the type of chorus and reverb is set globally, the amount that can be applied to individual parts is adjustable and there are around half a dozen choices for each effect type. The EQ can be applied only to the physical outputs to which the sounds are routed. Certain routing options are included to give greater flexibility when using the SD80 with a mixer, so parts may either be sent to a multi-effect processor and then to an output, or sent to one of the outputs (either stereo or mono) without having multi-effects added. Only one multi-effect block can be applied to an output — there is no way to cascade multi-effects.
The SD80 benefits from a manual that is somewhat clearer than the usual Roland offering, but there's a still a lot of depth to explore if you've a mind to. When used as a playback device for GM MIDI files, the quality of the sound is generally good and reminds me of the GM bank in my Roland JV2080. Some of the string sounds are exceptionally nice, though as with earlier Sound Canvas units, I feel that some of the patches are somewhat lacking in sparkle and/or depth. Certainly the sounds integrate well in a mix, but if you want something to stand out, you really need to experiment with using the Enhanced or Solo sounds. As ever with Roland products, the drum kit sounds are strong and cover a variety of styles, from rock and pop to electronic.
While the non-GM sound capability of the SD80 is to be applauded, you need to use the editing software to make any significant inroads into sound creation or customisation. For those with the patience, there's the potential to create sounds that rival those of the Roland JV and XV machines in complexity and depth, though I don't think the factory sounds offer anything that strays too far from 'safe' Roland preset territory.
The final question concerns the nature of the user. I could be wrong but I'd imagine an education user or an entertainer looking to play back GM MIDI files would appreciate something simpler, while the more serious musician could be frustrated by instrument's limitations. For me, the SD80 falls somewhere inbetween the traditional Sound Canvas and something like the Roland XV2020. Maybe this is in response to demand, in which case the SD80 should be a roaring success, but I'm still a little unsure as to which market the product is aimed at. That concern aside, the SD80 does what it does very well, the manual is more helpful than most (though it still skimps a little on issues related to sequencer use and the index includes all the words except for the ones you really need) and the generously extended GM sound set is augmented by a very capable 'roll your own' section. So, the SD80 is more silk than canvas, but it's up to you to decide if it's your bag.
£629 including VAT.
Edirol Europe +44 (0)20 8747 5949.