The Edirol SD90 combines Roland's Sound Canvas sound set with a USB audio and MIDI interface.
Even though much studio equipment is becoming virtual, there are some devices used by desktop musicians that will remain in hardware form: MIDI and audio interfaces are two obvious examples. Moreover, if you work with a computer that lacks the ability to accommodate PCI cards (like an iMac or a laptop), it's easy to end up having several external USB devices with associated leads and hubs just to connect a simple MIDI keyboard, a sound module, and maybe a guitar or microphone. A neat solution is to put all these devices into one box, which is exactly what Edirol have done with the SD90. But how does such an all-in-one device compare with the sum of its parts?
The SD90 is the first device developed by Edirol under the Studio Canvas banner, and it's basically a sound module, a 24-bit audio interface, a 32-channel MIDI interface, an effects unit, and a simple digital mixer rolled into one silver brick. A single USB lead is all that's required to connect this Studio Canvas functionality to your computer, and the SD90 is compatible with Windows 98, ME, 2000 and XP, and Mac OS 9. Currently there's no direct support for OS X, although there's nothing to stop you using the SD90 as a stand-alone MIDI sound module with a separate OS X-compatible MIDI interface. However, this obviously undermines the whole point of an all-in-one unit and, fortunately, Edirol confirmed that OS X drivers are currently in development.
The SD90 is also well-specified in terms of rear-end connections, with two pairs of MIDI in and out ports, stereo input phonos, two pairs of stereo output phonos, optical and co-axial S/PDIF input and output, an internal power supply, and of course, the USB port. A headphone mini-jack is provided on the front panel, along with a quarter-inch jack socket for plugging in a microphone or guitar.
The Mac installation went smoothly, and although the procedure requires a fair amount of user interaction, the steps are clearly outlined in the manual and the process only took me about five minutes with a couple of restarts. The MIDI drivers rely on the latest version of OMS (version 2.3.8 is provided on the installer CD), and the supplied SD90 OMS setup worked flawlessly with all the inputs and outputs of the SD90 assigned to devices. On the audio side Edirol supply four ASIO drivers (16- and 24-bit versions of ASIO 1 and 2 drivers), which have to be manually copied to the ASIO Drivers folder of every application you'll be using the SD90 with.
Installing the SD90 under Windows XP was also fairly painless, with the whole process outlined in the Getting Started manual. You have a choice between installing WDM or MME drivers for MIDI and audio, while ASIO 2 drivers are installed automatically. One slightly quirky thing, however, is that the manual tells 2000/XP users (with full instructions) to deactivate File Signature Verification, the feature that confirms the integrity of new drivers — not a problem, of course, but not exactly reassuring either. Nevertheless, after connecting the SD90, Windows began the installation process and after a reboot everything was ready to go.
The Mac ASIO drivers performed well on my iMac running Cubase VST 5.1r1 and Logic Platinum 5.1.2, and the only slightly annoying aspect to the driver is that you have to reboot your audio application every time you alter the latency for the change to take effect. The ASIO driver's control panel provides a slider for setting the latency, but I found that even on the minimum setting I was still getting far too much latency for comfort — over 40ms. However, it's also possible to assign custom settings to the input and output buffers, allowing a theoretical minimum latency of just a single sample! I tried this out of curiosity and while it seemed to work, I doubt very much that I was really getting only 0.23ms of latency. I managed to use VST Instruments without any glitches via the 16-bit ASIO 2 driver set with a 256-sample buffer, giving me just under 6ms of latency. By way of a benchmark, the 'Blue World' Cubase demo song for Waldorf's virtual PPG synth played back fine, though the CPU meter was approaching the 70 percent mark. Indeed, when I tried the 24-bit ASIO 2 drivers, I couldn't get the song to play at all without glitches and gave up tweaking the buffer sizes after reaching a latency of 100ms. However, to put this in perspective, I loaded the simpler 'World Beat' demo song supplied with Cubase VST 5 and had no problems playing this back with the 24-bit ASIO 2 driver at a buffer size of 256 samples.
Like many people, I still find myself sceptical of USB audio devices, but the SD90 performed better than I expected. If you're not an intensive user of software instruments and stick with mostly audio tracks, you shouldn't experience too many problems, although it's clear that the combined overheads of USB and 24-bit audio put quite a strain on the computer's processor.
I tested the Windows ASIO driver with Cubase VST 5.1r1. It provides a similar control panel to the Mac version, but unlike the Mac version, the control panel has to be launched separately as a standard Windows control panel applet. On the plus side, this doesn't require you to reboot Cubase every time you make an alteration.
Playing VST Instruments such as PPG and The Grand (running with the maximum-performance preset) presented no problems, although I couldn't get the same low-latency performance as I did with the iMac. Latencies of 5 and 6ms were unworkable, 10 and 12ms were slightly better, but 18 and 28ms gave the best results, although playing the instruments in real time starts to become slightly less feasible at this point.
Despite the fact my Windows machine is more powerful than the iMac, I ran the same demo songs for the sake of consistency. Even though the performance meter hovered at around 20 to 30 percent, the 'Blue World' demo required a 28ms latency setting to be glitch-free. The 'World Beat' demo was less demanding and played back absolutely fine with a latency of 18ms. As with my tests playing VST Instruments, I found that the lower latency settings produced too much crackling to be usable.
Although it's not mentioned in the manual, I later discovered (thanks to Edirol's web site) that the USB controller on my PC wasn't in the recommended list of compatible USB controllers. Since I didn't have access to a PC with one of Edirol's recommended USB controllers, it's impossible to speculate on whether their performance would have been any better at lower latencies.
Although the manual quite clearly states that the SD90 will not work with the Mac OS Sound Manager (for system sound playback, iTunes and other non-ASIO audio applications), and despite the fact there are no Sound Manager drivers supplied on the CD-ROM, Edirol's web site claimed the SD90 was compatible with Sound Manager. I spoke to Edirol UK and discovered that the web site is correct: the SD90 did work with Sound Manager on my iMac.
If you set your SD90 to work with the 'generic' USB driver instead of 'vendor' in the System settings on the unit itself, switch it off and then switch it on again, the Mac will route all Sound Manager output to the SD90. It will also inform you that software needed for the SD90 isn't available and ask if you want to search the Internet, but clicking Cancel didn't cause any problems. The only thing to remember is that when you want to use your ASIO-compatible application again, you have to switch back to the 'vendor' USB driver or the system will be unable to find your SD90.
The heart of the SD90 is basically a GM2/GS/XGlite-compatible Sound Canvas sound module featuring 32 parts (across two MIDI inputs), and an impressive 128 voices of polyphony. The 1050 sounds are organised into the basic GM 128-program structure, with each program featuring variations and related sounds via different sets (classical, contemporary, solo, enhanced and special). A graphical GM2 editor program is supplied for both Mac and Windows, which makes it easy to set up patches and effects routings from the computer.
Although it's possible to use the SD90 as a stand-alone sound module, you have to set a system parameter instructing it to start up in MIDI mode rather than USB. This means you have to effectively restart your SD90 before it will work as a stand-alone module, and also that you lose the ability to trigger MIDI sounds via USB in this mode.
Getting to the actual sounds themselves, there are some great basses, including the funky acoustic 'Rockabilly', 'Slap Pop 1', which would shine in any rendition of the Seinfeld theme, and many of the synth basses. The plucked string sounds are a particular highlight and there are plenty of usable nylon, 12-string and steel guitars, not to mention ukuleles, banjos, mandolins, and sitars. Roland's pad-styled string sounds are always like the sonic equivalent of central heating, and there are some usable examples here, particularly the tremolos, though don't expect exact orchestral realism all the time. However, many of the double-reeded woodwinds are surprisingly realistic, if a little laboured when it comes to the articulation — you can literally hear the player's tongue! The flutes, bassoons and clarinets, however, like most of the 'natural' brass and solo string sounds, all scream 'General MIDI', and I'm sure the player sampled for 'Pan Flute' can be found playing regularly on a high street near you.
When it comes to synth sounds, the SD90 has a healthy offering inspired by the classic Roland synths of yesteryear. An abundance of pads like 'Warm Pad', 'SpaceVoice', 'Itopia', 'Halo Pad' and 'Sweep Pad' are perfectly capable of flooding your tracks with sonic goodness, while 'Goblin' is just brie that's been left in the heat for too long. I was less pleased to see my least favourite Roland sound in the universe, 'Ice Rain', make an appearance. One word has always entered my mind since first hearing this sound in the D-series: 'why?' And speaking of sounds that make you ask why, how about 'Fiddle', 'Bag Pipe', 'GtFret Noise' (which, let's be honest, sounds like an asthmatic seal), and 'Tubular Bells'? Had Mike Oldfield first heard the sound of these on a Sound Canvas, I think it's safe to say that 1973 would have been a very different year.
The range of drum sounds in the Sound Canvas palette has been consistently praised for its quality and sheer variety, and the SD90 continues this tradition with its 36 drum kits. Where acoustic drums are concerned, sampler users are spoilt by the great memory-hungry kits (such as those supplied with Steinberg's LM4 and LM4 Mark II) available these days. However, there are some highly usable examples here too, especially the ambient kits. The electronic kits are also pretty good, especially 'Analog', 'Bully' and 'Rave'.
It's hard not to have a certain fondness for the Sound Canvas sound set since it's been part of the music technology world for over 10 years now, and I can still remember being jealous of a friend's SC55. The sounds have been continually updated and refined, and as a whole, they remain a good source of bread-and-butter starting points. Don't, however, come here looking for innovation and originality, because most of the sounds are very familiar. Also, let's not forget the price tag: £800 can buy you better sounds.
The effects unit for the SD90 has been pragmatically specified, and the individual effects algorithms are grouped into effect blocks aimed at the tasks musicians will mostly likely want to achieve. For example, the 'Guitar Multi' effect block includes compression, overdrive/distortion, an amp simulator, an equaliser, a noise suppressor, delay and chorus/flanging. Other effect blocks are designed for vocals, bass, dance music production, getting a lo-fi sound, mastering (including high-band and low-band compressor/limiters), isolating particular sounds, and centre cancellation for attempting to remove vocals from recordings.
One interesting effect is the surround reverb, which uses the extra stereo output on the SD90 and employs Roland's RSS technology to put sounds into a quadraphonic field. Although it sounds like a cool idea, in reality it's a bit of a gimmick for SD90 users since you can't create true quadraphonic mixes — basically, you feed in a stereo source and RSS does the rest.
Recording audio into your MIDI + Audio sequencer with the SD90 is very easy thanks to a set of mixer configuration patches, which acknowledge the most common tasks users will want to undertake, and the well-thought-out user interface and front panel. You can record from a line input, guitar or microphone via the quarter-inch input jack, a digital input, the audio being sent over USB (basically the wave output from your computer), or the output of the Sound Canvas sound module. This latter facility is very useful since it provides an easy way to record your MIDI sounds as audio tracks in your sequencer, which is essential for mixing and exporting to CD later on.
Once your instrument is connected (if you're recording an external source), you simply dial up the required mixer patch and hit Record in your sequencer. You're advised to turn off monitoring in your sequencer and use the SD90's internal mixing facilities, which can easily handle your monitoring needs. As I mentioned, the mixer patches provide instant access to the most common configurations, such as recording sounds dry or wet, or recording a sound dry while you monitor it with effects. This is particularly useful if you have singer who likes to drown herself in reverb when recording, for example.
It's interesting to note that at £799, the SD90 costs exactly the same as Roland's earlier flagship SC88 Sound Canvas did when it was released in 1994, and it's the price that is my main concern about this unit. The cost of professional music technology has fallen dramatically in the last eight years, and while the SD90 does have a bulging feature set, there are now many other options available for the same cost. For example, if you have a free PCI slot in your computer, a Roland JV1010 and an M-Audio Audiophile 2496 would give you change from £600, while those forced down the USB route could combine the JV1010 with Edirol's own UA5 audio interface for around £650, and get balanced I/O and phantom power into the bargain.
Equally, if your main interest is the sound module component of the SD90, there's no shortage of professional devices in the sub-£800 price bracket: Emu's Proteus 2000 series and Roland's own XV5050, which includes their very latest XV sound set and a USB MIDI interface, are just two examples. If the SD90 had been equipped with perhaps the JV sound set and a FireWire interface instead of USB, it could have been a killer product at the price.
At the end of the day, the SD90 is about convenience. The idea behind the product is worthy and I can certainly see a place for this type of device in a largely computer-based studio. The inbuilt mixer with its various preset configurations is very flexible, the effects are pretty good, and the plethora of connections means that the SD90 can very easily become the hub of your input and output needs. To me, however, USB audio and the Sound Canvas sound set don't add up to £799, and although I grew to like the SD90, I'm not sure how many people will find it attractive at this price point.
- Integrated all-in-one design.
- All the connectivity you could wish for.
- Good driver support.
The Studio Canvas concept is a great idea and has been successfully implemented in the SD90. However, the SD90's price tag will seem too high to many desktop musicians, and you can buy better sound modules and interfaces for less money.
- 1.7GHz Athlon XP PC with Asus A7M motherboard and 512MB DDR RAM, running Windows XP.
- 800MHz G4 iMac with 256MB RAM, running Mac OS 9.2.2.