Thirty years after the launch of the groundbreaking D-50, Roland’s Boutique version offers the same iconic sound.
It’s sometimes hard to explain why players of a certain age go dewy-eyed whenever the D-50 is mentioned. To understand this, try putting yourself into my shoes at the start of 1987. There were no affordable synths based on samples, there were no affordable synths with built-in digital effects, there were no digital audio workstations and therefore no plug-ins so, if you wanted a polished sound, you had to go to a recording studio and pay someone to obtain it for you. The D-50 changed all of that. Whether dark and menacing or smooth or sparkling, it generated a ‘produced’ sound that was a revelation, and it took the world by storm. But, 30 years later, many players don’t appreciate the D-50’s unique character even though there’s nothing else — other than the D-550 or the more recent V-C1 and V-Synth XT emulations — that sounds like it; if you try to obtain its signature sounds from anything else, including the most powerful and expensive of modern workstations, you’ll fail. Consequently, we shouldn’t be surprised that the latest of Roland’s burgeoning Boutique series is another recreation of the D-50.
Before receiving the D-05 I was keen to know whether it sounded like a D-50 so, as soon as it arrived, I liberated my D-50 from storage, hooked the two into my mixer, balanced everything and... realised that I would need the factory sounds to perform an initial comparison. Having found the card containing these, I selected Patch 1:1 (Fantasia) on both and... blimey, the two synths were indistinguishable from one another. Digital Native Dance, Soundtrack, Glass Voices, Nightmare, OK Chorale, Intruder FX... all of the D-50’s signature sounds were recreated so perfectly that I could immediately say that the D-05 is a D-50.
As you might imagine, the only way to achieve this degree of authenticity was to make the D-05’s synth engine the same as that of the original, warts and all. Consequently, there are three layers in a D-05 sound, the lowest of which is the Partial. This is a complete synthesizer voice that can take one of two forms. When it appeared on the D-50, the ‘S’ (synthesised) Partial was possibly the first example of a virtual analogue synth, although the term wasn’t coined for another seven years or so. Its signal path comprised a Wave Generator, a resonant Time Varying Filter with a dedicated contour generator, and a Time Varying Amplifier with another dedicated contour generator. Alongside this, the ‘P’ (PCM) Partial was an early example of a sample playback engine comprising just a wave generator and a Time Varying Amplifier with a contour generator. Whichever form you chose, additional modulation was then provided by a pitch contour and three LFOs, which represented remarkable flexibility in 1987. The next level up is the Tone, which offers seven Structures that combine two Partials, either by simple mixing or a combination of mixing and ring modulation that does weird and wonderful things to their outputs. The resulting sound — often configured as a sampled attack phase followed by a synthesised sustain phase — then passes through an EQ and a chorus (modulation effects) unit.
Finally, two Tones comprise a Patch, and these pass through the internal reverb before being presented to the outside world. There are also three Chase modes that play the two Tones one after the other in various ways to create yet more unusual effects, and nine key modes that determined how the Tones are distributed within the patch. These range from Whole (a single Tone played with 16-voice polyphony) to Dual (the Tones are layered, so the polyphony drops to eight voices), Split (two separate Tones, each with eight-note polyphony), and various modes that allow you to play one or both Tones monophonically, and on separate MIDI channels if desired. So, if you used Dual mode, that’s four (rather than three) layers in the sound, comprising eight Partials in four Tones contributing to two Patches layered on top of one other to create a sound, but who’s counting?
To recreate this in the D-05, Roland used a technology that their marketing department has called Digital Circuit Behaviour. When I first saw this name, I thought that it was daft — after all, digits do as you instruct them. Nevertheless, the company’s engineers had discovered some years ago that recreating the D-50 was trickier than they had expected because, back in the 1980s, their predecessors had found some remarkable ways to make the synth do what it did with such limited processing power. Emulating those methods and shortcuts wasn’t just a matter of finding the old code and recompiling it for a modern processor and, in recent videos, they have admitted that they sometimes had to hypothesise what was happening, model this, and then verify the results. So the name isn’t as daft as I had thought. But however they achieved it, the results are remarkable, right down to things like the arcane generation of the ‘S’ Partial’s sawtooth wave (see box), and I think that they deserve credit for resisting the temptation to ‘improve’ the D-50. They’ve even eliminated the extra 28 PCMs that were introduced in the V-Synth XT implementation (which, if I’m honest, I rather liked) and returned to the original 100 that were available in the D-50 itself.
When I liberated my D-50, I also grabbed its PG-1000 programmer to test with the D-05. You might think this would be a problem because the D-05 has only a single MIDI in, and I wanted to connect two devices to it — my D-50 and the PG-1000 — using five-pin MIDI cables. Happily, the PG-1000 performs the neat trick of echoing any data received at its MIDI in through its MIDI out, which means that it adds any parameter changes to the MIDI generated by the controller. So I plugged the D-50 into the PG-1000, and the PG-1000 into the D-05 and everything worked as it should. Well, that’s not quite true... it worked better. While the D-50 can respond to a handful of parameter changes in real time, there are many to which it can’t. Most obviously, the sound doesn’t change when you adjust the filter cutoff frequency until you play new notes. In contrast, the PG-1000 resembles an analogue control panel when hooked up to the D-05, changing things like the cutoff frequency of any existing notes in real time. You can even do things such as change the Patch Structure while playing, which is probably pointless, but amazing nonetheless. Either way, the ability to perform filter sweeps and make other real-time changes is a bonus that many seasoned D-50 programmers and players are going to relish.
As far as I can see, all of the D-50’s other attributes — things such as its various key modes and MIDI modes — are emulated in the D-05. Furthermore, unlike previous Boutique modules such as the JX-03, JP-08 and JU-06, a single D-05 offers the full polyphony of the original synth. This may sound like a minor point, but it’s not. You needed to buy two of each of the earlier models to obtain the polyphony of their inspirations, and this stopped me from buying any of them. Nonetheless, there are differences. Happily, they’re all good ones, because the D-05 offers three improvements that add to the synth’s capabilities without affecting what has gone before: an arpeggiator, a 64-step sequencer, and an expanded memory.
I like the D-05’s arpeggiator because it provides a degree of animation to the D-50 sound that was never available on the original synth. It’s a simple implementation — just one or two octaves with up, down, and up/down modes, seven clock division options and a Hold function — but the results can be lovely. You can change patches while the arpeggiator is running, and even edit the sound while it’s doing so, which is great for fine-tuning the interaction between the sound and the pattern animating it. For such a simple addition, this has taken me in new directions on a synth that, in effect, I’ve already owned for 30 years!
Turning next to the sequencer, this expands upon that available in some of the previous Boutique products because it’s polyphonic. The usual parameters are available and these can be defined and saved in the normal fashion — pattern length, tempo, note values, gate length, rests and ties, shuffle, and which patch is used when the sequence is played — but there are a number of additional parameters that are not saved within the sequence, including the order of the steps (forward, backward, forward/backward, odd and even steps, and random), the start and stop steps (to define a subset of the sequence to be played), and whether muted steps are treated as rests or skipped. I have no idea why these haven’t been implemented as saveable parameters. There’s probably a good reason, but it’s a shame nonetheless.
Having conducted all of my tests on the sequencer and arpeggiator, I decided that it was time to have some fun. So I selected a suitable patch and created a sequence that I liked. I then selected the arpeggio page and pressed a couple of keys, and the sequencer and the arpeggiator worked together and were synchronised, which was fab. I then had a light-bulb moment and tried adjusting parameters on the PG-1000 and... whoo-hoo! I could change the sound in real time while the combined sequence/arpeggio was playing. This was way, way beyond D-50 territory! If you already like the D-50, you’re going to love this.
The final addition is the inclusion of 13 extra banks of 64 patches. Whereas the D-50 offered just 64 rewritable patch memories and a card slot that allowed you to save and access a further 64, the D-05 offers no fewer than 896 memories, of which 512 are rewritable. For me, this would be a boon because I’ve amassed a considerable library of D-50 patches — some commercial, many of my own making — and the D-05 is compatible with all of these, and able to load them from the D-50’s internal memory into its own. Happily, I wouldn’t need to find space for my four PN-D-50-0x cards (the extra banks programmed by Roland for the original D-50) because these are already contained in the presets alongside the original factory sounds and a new bank written for the D-05 itself.
Having used the D-50 for many years, I found it simple to navigate and use the D-05. Sure, the smaller screen means that there are two rather than five menu headings or parameters visible at any given time, but Roland have been careful to model the menus and the physical controls upon the original synth’s and, after a few minutes, I barely noticed the differences.
Having said that, programming the D-50 was never intuitive, so I envisage that many users will want a decent manual. Unfortunately, as is the norm for Boutique modules, the D-05 was delivered with just a large, folded sheet of paper for a manual. But a quick trawl of Roland’s web site revealed that there’s a 45-page parameter guide available in PDF form, which puts a great deal more flesh on the bones of the D-05’s operation and capabilities. I would prefer this to be included in the box, even if it added a few pounds to the price, but I realise that many people will be happier to save a tenner and download the PDF, so let’s move on.
While reading the manuals, I noticed that the D-05 features both the original (low resolution) D-50 sound mode and the higher resolution ‘clear’ mode that was introduced on the V-C1. In truth, the difference is very subtle but, while I’m happy with the original sound, some people may prefer the new mode.
Now, while I’m talking about things that don’t bother me, I can’t continue without discussing the hysteria that surrounds the D-05’s latency — the length of time between pressing a key or receiving a MIDI instruction and the sound appearing at its output. I remember that, for the D-50, a figure of around 20ms was bandied around, and the forums are now heaving with indignation that the D-05 has a latency of similar duration — I’ve seen a figure of 15ms quoted. But 15ms is the time that it takes for sound to travel about 15 feet. So, if you were playing in a studio control room and the monitors were 15ft away from you, the latency between playing a note and hearing it would be 15ms even if everything in the audio chain responded instantaneously (which, by the way, it can’t). Yet nobody complains about this. As for playing live, you might be a superhuman playing perfectly on the beat, but if your drummer were 15ft away from you, you would already be 15ms late. Does anyone notice? No, of course not. If you have an insatiable urge to line up the start of every note in your DAW, feel free to do so, but please don’t claim that it will ruin the music if you don’t.
So, it looks great, feels robust, and sounds exactly as it should. Sure, I found that I could create extreme patches that exhibited tiny differences between the D-05 and the D-50, but you would have to be mad (or a reviewer, which may be the same thing) to go hunting for these. If you’re considering the purchase of a D-05 to make music, be reassured that its sound engine is for all intents and purposes identical with the original’s.
It’s also great fun and, while it doesn’t sport the performance joystick of the original, I found that I could use its twin ribbons to the same effect, and it responds to aftertouch in the same way as the D-50, which is a source of deep joy. Ultimately, I have just one reservation about it. Despite everything that I like about the D-05, I can’t accept Roland’s claim that it’s a “professional synthesizer designed to fit in any studio, stage, or music space”. In terms of synthesis and sound, that’s true, but no unit that derives external power from a micro-USB socket, which uses 3.5mm sockets for its audio I/O, and which has its volume control on the rear panel should be called professional. Like the other Boutique modules, the D-05 should be fine in the studio, where minimal stress will be placed on its cables, but I would want an integrated power supply and quarter-inch sockets before I started to consider using one on stage.
When Roland’s marketing people claim that the D-50 was massively influential, they’re not exaggerating; it ended the dominance of the DX7 and ushered in the era of the modern digital synthesizer. Even today, there’s something unique and captivating about it, so the D-05 should appeal to many. Indeed, the D-05 may soon be the most affordable way to obtain the D-50 sound in hardware, because prices of second-hand D-50s and D-550s are now creeping upward toward the £400 mark and beyond. So, which should you buy? Vintage or emulation?
There’s no difference in the sound, so the decision comes down to practicalities. On the one hand, there are lots of D-50s and D-550s in circulation, they’re built like tanks and they feature larger screens, robust sockets, and internal power supplies. On the other, the D-05 is small, light and convenient, has all of the factory sounds and expansion cards built in, has room for hundreds more patches, incorporates an arpeggiator and a step sequencer, and responds in real time to parameter updates. Of course, it would be nice if one could have all of these attributes in a single unit... oh yes, that’s called the V-Synth XT, but that’s much rarer and more expensive. In the absence of one of these, I think that I would still take the vintage instruments on stage, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use the new one in the studio.
Since it’s a Boutique module, the D-05’s rear panel again offers 3.5mm sockets for its stereo audio output, headphones output and audio input. This input is labelled Mix, which is appropriate because it allows you to mix your playing with the presented audio. But there’s a potential problem here. When I powered the review unit from my MacBook Pro and presented the input with audio generated by the same computer, I obtained an unpleasant hum that rendered the setup useless. Using a separate, battery powered input device or running the D-05 from batteries eliminated the problem, so the loop was to blame. The only other audio I/O is provided by the micro USB socket, which carries both audio and MIDI in both directions, and from which the unit derives external power. The final holes are 5-pin DIN sockets for MIDI in and out. There’s no MIDI Thru.
The D05 is compatible with the K25m mini-keyboard and the DK-01 docking unit and, if nothing is inserted into the audio output socket, you can play it through the tiny speaker mounted on its underside. This means that you can doodle with it in the middle of a field, although it would have to be a very quiet field because the output level is rather low.
I would like to thank Roland for the quality and reliability of my D-50 and PG-1000. As far as I can remember, I haven’t switched on either of these for 12 years or so (yeah, go on... shoot me!) yet both powered up instantly and worked perfectly. Some might say that you can’t buy reliability like that, except that you can. Quality components and good engineering may not be cheap, but they’re worth it.
The way the D-50 generated its sawtooth waves was one of the strangest — if not THE strangest — bit of engineering I ever saw on a digital synth, and one of the unexpected consequences of this was that the polarity of the wave flipped one way and then the other as you played. On the D-50 itself, it was never clear to me when the flip would take place, but on the VC-1 card and the V-Synth XT, it occurred on alternate notes.
Interestingly, the D-05 exhibits the same behaviour as the newer models, implying that its maths (or at least that element of it) is based upon the VC-1 rather than the D-50. But don’t worry about it. While you can view this anomaly on an oscilloscope, it makes no difference to the sound.
Given the era in which it was released, it’s not surprising that the D-50 recognised a limited selection of MIDI CCs, and so it is here. It didn’t recognise MIDI Clock either and, although the manuals said that you could ‘sync’ its LFOs, this merely meant that you could re-initialise each voice’s LFOs when a key was pressed. In contrast, the D-05 recognises MIDI Clock and you can sync its master tempo to this. The clock appears to be directed only to the arpeggiator and the sequencer, but it’s a useful addition nonetheless.