Roland's eagerly‑awaited multimedia Windows sound package competes head on with the Sound Blaster Pro and Turtle Beach cards well known to PC musicians. Brian Heywood finds out how the newcomer measures up.
Roland's entry into the Multimedia Windows sound card market has been long awaited, and after numerous name changes they have finally come up with the goods. The Roland Audio Producer (RAP) is a complete multimedia Windows sound package which includes both the audio hardware needed by the PC to make a cheerful noise and the software to make use of it. While the Audio Producer package is not specifically aimed at the musician, Roland's place as one of the major players in the hi‑tech musical instrument world, coupled with their history in PC music, makes it worth a closer look.
For a company that's been involved for so long in both the hi‑tech music business and PC sound cards, Roland have taken a surprisingly long time to jump onto the Windows multimedia bandwagon. They were one of the first companies to make a MIDI interface for the PC — the MPU‑401 — and subsequently produced the LA‑PC and SCC1 PC synthesizer cards based on the MT32 and Sound Canvas sound generation hardware.
With the Audio Producer, Roland have addressed the quality 16‑bit MPC sound card market; the RAP system competes head‑on with the likes of the Sound Blaster Pro and the Turtle Beach series of cards. The package is interesting in a number of ways and has at least one unique feature in that it can apply DSP effects — chorus and reverb — to the digital audio output. The bundled software is also interesting, since it goes one step beyond the sequencer/wave editor/MIDI jukebox software normally supplied with MPC cards, to provide a set of tools for combining the various sound elements.
The hardware component of the Audio Producer system is the RAP‑10 sound card, a three‑quarter length, 16‑bit PC (i.e. ISA) expansion card. The card has two audio inputs, an audio output and a 15‑way, D‑type socket for connecting a joystick or an external MIDI interface. The audio connectors are located on the back plate of the expansion card and are stereo miniature phone sockets. The Mic/line input can be configured as either a mono or a stereo input by setting a 'jumper' on the card. The mono setting simply connects both the input channels to the mono sound source; the software decides whether the audio is recorded as a mono or a stereo sound file. The line levels are set at ‑10dBm and the microphone at ‑50dBm, with the auxilary input also being available inside the PC for connection to an internal CD‑ROM drive's audio output.
Unlike some sound cards, the audio output of the RAP‑10 is not capable of driving speakers directly, although you can use Walkman‑style headphones if you like. This means that you need to use either powered speakers or an external mixer/amplifier. All input and output levels are controllable by the bundled mixer application software, as is the line/mic sensitivity. The card is supposed to be able to record and play back at the same time (and Roland assure me that on their test machines it does), but I was unable to persuade the software to do it for me. There is also a software‑controllable monitor that allows you to 'loop back' the input to the output so that you can choose whether or not to monitor what you are recording on the card's audio output.
Although the RAP‑10 has a built‑in MIDI interface, you need to purchase a separate external connector box (the MCB‑10) to access this feature. The MCB‑10 plugs into the 15‑way games port compatible connector on the back plate of the RAP‑10 card and — as well as providing a MIDI In and Out port — has an extension socket for the joystick port. The MIDI connector box is not a cheap option, at £79, but does offer the advantage of allowing you to position the MIDI sockets in a more accessible location than the back of the PC.
The sound card has a number of switches and jumper blocks that allow you to configure the base address and interrupt level (i.e. IRQ) of the card; the DMA channels are configured using the Windows driver icon in the Control Panel. The RAP‑10's MIDI interface is — not surprisingly — compatible with the Roland MPU‑401 standard in 'dumb' (or UART) mode, and thus it uses the MPU defaults of 330address and IRQ9. As I already have an MPU‑type card in my review machine (a 40MHz 386DX with 4Mb of RAM), I had to change these so it didn't clash with my other MIDI card, which wasn't a problem, since the RAP gives a good choice of alternative settings.
Once the card is in place, the software needs to be installed using the supplied setup program, which loads the bundled software and Windows drivers. Unusually, the setup program has an option to remove the software, just in case you decide that you don't like it, presumably! Once the software is loaded, the setup program creates a new Program Manager group containing the Audio Producer software and gives you the opportunity to configure the soundcard driver settings if (like me) you've had to change them.
The bundled software consists of a number of applications for using the sound card, grouped together under the title of the Audio Tool Works (ATW). The software is controlled from a rather flashy looking control panel that provides direct control over the hardware, allows you to play MIDI files, sound files and CD audio (if you have a CD‑ROM) and gives you access to the various editing and composition tools. Although the various elements of ATW can be launched from icons in the Roland Audio Tool Works group in the Program Manager, the main control panel will also always be started, as it acts as an arbitrator between the various applications.
The Audio Tool Works applications are very much focused on manipulating sample files; although MIDI files can be played and even combined with sample data, there is no way to create a MIDI file. I guess that Roland feel that the PC world is well endowed with MIDI sequencers and that they don't need to add yet another one. Be aware, however that you will need to buy a Windows‑based MIDI sequencer if you create your own MIDI files with the RAP system.
- THE 'RACK'
The heart of the system is the AudioSim Rack application, which acts as a master control centre for the rest of the ATW programs. The panel looks just like a stack of hi‑fi components with graphics of a mixing panel, a tape machine (WAV file player), a MIDI file player and a CD Player — complete with eject button. At the top is a title panel that allows you to hide or show the various components, and a set of buttons for activating the editing tools. The main purpose of this application is to give you a quick way of controlling the volumes of the sound sources, playing audio files, recording WAV files and playing audio CDs on a CD‑ROM drive.
The Rack also seems to have a secondary purpose of keeping track of the audio data for any sample files (i.e. .WAV) being used by the software. This means that data can be shared between the other applications without having to keep multiple copies of it in memory. The data is stored in 'sessions' (of which there are 16), any or all of which are then available for editing or in the various 'composition' tools. I found the whole thing a bit too gimmicky for my taste, but it looks impressive.
- WAVEFORM EDITOR
The Waveform editor allows you to record and edit digital audio data, either to be played directly by the Rack's .WAV player or to be used by one of the compositional tools. There can be up to 16 Waveform editor windows (sessions) open at any time. Throughout the ATW system you keep coming up against this 16‑session limit, which is really just the number of independent wave files that you can have open at any one time. You can cut and paste between any sessions that are currently open, either by inserting or merging the new data or you can even combine two mono samples to produce a pseudo stereo sound file.
The Waveform editor has a number of tools available as graphic buttons along the top of each window. These include: noise filter, gain adjust, reverse, fade, add or remove silence, echo, flange and pan effects. The edit window also lets you define the tempo of the sample and then calibrates the time display in bars, beats and ticks. You can then use the loop play button to find drum loops and the like. You can also 'scrub' the cursor across the sample (play back the sound data at reduced speed) to find your edit points by ear. In fact, the editor window is packed with buttons to access the various functions, which gives it a rather baroque feel and takes a bit of getting used to; I think that judicious use of a few drop‑down boxes would give a cleaner user interface.
- SESSION MANAGER
With up to 16 wave files being edited at once, it can be a pain to find the one you want, so to get around this problem Roland have supplied an overall control panel to keep track of the active wave sessions. The Session Manager provides a way of listing the sessions, assigning descriptions to the wave files and quickly activating the relevant wave edit window. This window also acts as a useful way of organising the wave sessions for the other ATW sound file tools, since you can save the 'Wave Scenario' and thus quickly load all 16 sound files on demand. You can also access any other ATW window with a single mouse click.
- WAVE COMPOSER
This window allows you to mix the contents of all 16 sessions down into a single .WAV file using a simple graphical editor. The soundfiles are displayed as horizontal bars, which can be placed by dragging them with the mouse; the sound segments can be made to 'snap' to either the start or end of other segments or the start time can be entered from the keyboard. The only way to audition the new sound file is to perform a 'mixdown', which builds a new file reflecting the current state of the display. The build process can take quite a while and can fail if there is insufficient disk space available. You can specify the format of the resulting .WAV file to be different from the source files, to conserve disk space by decreasing the sample rate or bit resolution of the output file.
- WAMI SEQUENCER & EVENT MIXER
The Wave MIDI sequencer looks — on the face of it — to be one of the most interesting features of the Audio Tool Works software, as it allows you to integrate 2‑channel wave replay with a MIDI file. Unfortunately, its usefulness is limited by the fact that you cannot record digital audio or edit the MIDI data in the sequencer — it is simply a way of compiling existing MIDI and WAV data into a sequence. This means that it can be used to compile a 'voice over' and a music 'bed' into a single entity but not to create a MIDI performance using a sampled break‑beat as the basic rhythm. This reduces the WaMI sequencer to a slightly different version of the Wave Composer, with the addition of the ability to use up to 32 MIDI files.
The WaMI Event Mixer also looks impressive. It is laid out as an 18‑channel mixer — two digital audio and 16 MIDI channels — allowing you to record both level and MIDI controller changes for a WaMI data file. You can also record a new digital audio track synchronised to the MIDI tracks, but I was unable to get this to work since my 386 PC consistently crashed when I tried to do it. However, it worked OK on a 486 SX, 25Mhz PC. You may need to ensure that the software works with your particular PC. This feature looks as though it could be useful to the musician who wants to add digital audio — say one or two vocal lines — to a MIDI sequence.
My overall feeling about the software was that it represented a number of good ideas, but in general the implementation was either too fussy or flawed for use in a musical environment — not really surprising, since the system is aimed more at the multimedia market. I found that the software looked impressive but was a tad difficult to use in my PC's usual 800x600 graphics mode. The software also caused the PC to give regular 'General Protection Faults' messages and a number of 'Memory parity error detected, system halted' messages, which indicates to me that the software is still pretty 'flaky'.
I think that most serious users of the sound card for music production will be able to safely ditch the software and replace it with more suitable tools such as Cakewalk, Software Audio Workshop or SeqWin. The software does show you what is possible and could be used for light work, or to give you some basic experience in the issues involved in combining digital audio and MIDI files in the multimedia Windows environment.
The sound quality of the RAP‑10 card is excellent and rates at least as good as the original Turtle Beach Multisound card, especially since it lets you apply chorus and reverb to the digital audio playback as well as the MIDI synthesiser output. The General MIDI sounds are obviously based on the Sound Canvas range of wavetable synthesisers and give excellent sound quality, although at the expense of programmability — which is true of all sample‑based sound modules that store their sounds in ROM. Roland don't quote any audio specifications in the Audio Producer's documentation but it sounds as least as good as the Sound Canvas PC card (the SCC‑1). Like all internal soundcards, the sound quality is held hostage by the quality of the PC's power supply and the electrical behaviour of any other card installed nearby on the bus. At least the latter point can be addressed by moving the cards around until you find the quietest arrangement.
Whether the RAP system — or at least the sound card — is suitable for your music application rather depends on your requirements. For serious music or audio applications — in common with all MPC sound cards — it is crippled by the lack of a digital interface, meaning that you need to go through an analogue stage each time you transfer sound data to or from the PC. But if this is not a particular problem for you, the RAP is probably the best choice of the current crop of sound cards, with only the new Turtle Beach card likely to challenge it in the foreseeable future. When combined with a suitable sequencer/wave editor combination, or integrated system, and a fast PC it would be difficult to beat. In short, a PC equipped with a RAP‑10 card, the external MIDI box and a MIDI controller of some sort would make a formidable music workstation.
Alternatively, if you need to produce high‑quality multimedia presentations the RAP system is a good choice, if only because of the excellent sound quality and the added impact to the sounds given by the extra reverb and chorus effects. Also, if you are simply combining pre‑existing MIDI files and sample files (say for voice‑overs), the built‑in tools are adequate, although not portable to other systems.
All the above really only applies if you are using Windows, since there are no tools available to use the sample facilities of the RAP‑10 under DOS. However, if you still have some tasks that need to be performed in DOS, the MPU‑401 interface does allow you to use the synthesizer section with any MIDI application that uses the interface in dumb (or UART mode). I wouldn't consider using the card for serious hard‑disk recording either, due to its lack of a programmable onboard DSP and digital interface; the CardD system reviewed in last month's SOS would be a much better bet, due to its digital interface.
Still, the Roland card does sound very nice, and although it inhabits the high end of the sound card market, does represent good value for money when compared with its peers. If you're looking for a serious sound card, check out the Roland Audio Producer; it may be music to your ears!
The Multimedia PC (or MPC) standard specifies that the multimedia PC system must have a sound card that can perform a number of audio tasks. First, it must be able to replay digital audio data at a number of resolutions and sample rates: capabilities range from 8‑bit, mono sound at sample rates of 11.025kHz to 16‑bit stereo at 44.1 kHz (CD quality). The MPC sound card must also have a MIDI synthesizer that supports the MPC sub‑set of the General MIDI standard and a software‑controlled audio mixer to combine these internal sound sources with at least one external sound source, such as a CD or laser disc player under computer control. MPC soundcards also quite often include an IBM compatible games controller port (i.e. joystick) and a CD‑ROM interface.
- 16‑part multitimbral.
- 26‑voice polyphonic.
- Conforms to General MIDI level 1 spec.
- Reverb and chorus effects.
- 8‑ or 16‑bit resolution.
- 44.1 kHz, 22.05 kHz and 11.025 kHz sample rates.
- Two independent audio channels (i.e. 2‑note polyphony).
- ‑50dBm or ‑10dBm input levels (software configurable) on the line/mic input.
- auxiliary line level input.
- MPU‑401 compatible (UART mode).
- External MIDI connector box (optional extra).
- Excellent sound quality.
- General MIDI compatible.
- Useful bundled software.
- DSP effects (chorus, reverb) on sample replay and MIDI synthesizer.
- Two independent audio channels (or one stereo...) for sample replay
- MPU‑401 compatible MIDI interface.
- No digital I/O.
- Synthesizer not Sound Canvas compatible (for DOS games or patch editing).
- MIDI interface box costs an extra £79.
Probably the best choice of the current crop of sound cards; bundled software best disregarded for serious music use, but combined with a suitable sequencer/wave editor and a fast PC, the RAP‑10 would make a good choice for the more serious musician. For those wishing to produce high‑quality multimedia presentations, the RAP‑10's sound quality and effects make it a front‑runner, and in this application the software tools are adequate.