GM synths have a reputation in hi‑tech circles for being dull and samey, but they're undeniably popular — and now the specification has been updated. Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser take a look at the first of the GM2 generation.
Love it or hate it, General MIDI has been a big success, and if you're a hi‑tech musician and haven't been living under a rock for the last eight years you're unlikely to have escaped it (if you have been living under a rock, take a look at the 'Generally Useful' box for some background). A quick look around the average project studio is bound to scare up at least one GM logo, but that familiar emblem is about to change: coming soon to your local sound module is General MIDI 2, and the first instrument to be blessed with it is the latest in Roland's Sound Canvas family of instruments, the Roland ED SC8850.
As well as being the first instrument to feature GM2, the SC8850 is also the first to bear the marque of Roland's new desktop music division, formed in conjunction with Roland subsidiary Edirol, and the first sound module to have a USB (Universal Serial bus) interface for connection to suitably equipped computers. Of course, this is in addition to MIDI ports and the serial interface the Sound Canvas family have always featured for connection to older computers. It's a deluxe instrument in its class, with high polyphony and multitimbrality, a lot of preset sounds, and a generous helping of effects.
Strictly speaking, the 8850 is the successor of the rackmounting SC880, launched late '98 (see SOS September 1998), but it has more in common physically with the earlier SC88 Pro (reviewed March 1997), which was also a desktop/computer music module. Its deep, stubby casing is similar to the SC88 Pro's, but is finished in matt silver rather than dark grey, and looks not unlike a mini hi‑fi component.
The new Canvas — which, by the way, is supplied with free editing software — appears more streamlined than the 88 Pro, with a spacious layout. This is partly because the 8850 has fewer front‑panel controls, which might seem like a retrograde step. However, Roland have obviously put some thought into this redesign. The reduced control set — 14 small, round buttons, five softkeys under the display, and a value dial — goes hand‑in‑hand with an extensively tweaked user interface, accessed via a clearer, more intuitive display implementation. Three buttons access sound Edit, Drum and Effects pages, and an easily navigable menu system leads you through the options. There's extensive use of graphics, but only really for decorative purposes, each Tone being accompanied by a cartoon representation of its instrument.
The look and user interface aren't the only enhanced features: polyphony and multitimbrality have doubled, to 128 notes and 64 parts respectively. Instead of the 1117 preset sounds and 42 drum sets of its two closest predecessors, the 8850 has a whopping 1640 sounds and 63 drum sets. New stereo samples of pianos, string sections and drum kits are included, and there are additional ethnic sounds. (But Paul, if you're reading, no extra shakuhachis!)
We'll deal with the 8850's front‑panel controls as we encounter them, but a brief rear‑panel tour is in order here. There's a socket for a mains lead, as the 8850 has an internal power supply; two sets of MIDI Ins and Outs (no Thru — this must be set up with the software you're using); one serial connector and one USB connector, plus a switch for choosing whether the module will operate with a Mac or PC via the serial connector, any USB‑compatible computer, or without a computer via its dual MIDI Ins (in the latter case, you're limited to 32 MIDI parts); two sets of stereo audio outputs; and a stereo audio input with level control. The last could save you using an external mixer if you only have one other instrument, as the audio from this would be sent direct to the 8850's output; desktop musicians with no other sound sources could plug in the audio output from their computer here.
Sound Architecture & Effects
The SC8850 follows Roland's usual architecture for Sound Canvases (excepting the SC880, which was rather more editable). The basic currency is the preset Instrument, made from up to four Tones. This in itself is an improvement, since Sound Canvas Instruments previously used only one or two. Not surprisingly, though, four‑Tone Instruments consume double the polyphony of those using two Tones.
The nature of this instrument means that you can never access basic Tones and combine them yourself: new sound creation is confined to modifying entire Instruments (rather than their individual Tones) with a collection of parameters comprising Vibrato Rate, Depth and Delay, Filter Cutoff Frequency and Resonance, and Envelope Attack, Decay and Release times. You could also layer Instruments to produce something more complex and novel. Two user drum sets are available, in which pitch, level, pan, and effects send level can be changed, though individual drum assignments in a drum set can't be changed.
Roland have made more use of velocity crossfades to provide timbral change on the SC8850... which results in sounds with more depth and realism.
The SC8850 is always in multitimbral mode, for immediate use with a sequencer. Each of its 64 Parts has access to a range of Part parameters, including basic mix parameters such as level and pan, plus transpose, fine‑tune, key range, pitch‑bend range, modulation depth, and so on. The Instrument‑editing parameters mentioned above are also available as Part offset 'Modify' parameters, which work on a Part rather than on the Instrument assigned to it.
There are three effects sends amongst the Part parameters, too, feeding three global effects — Reverbs, Delays and Chorus effects (including flange and two short delays). They sound absolutely fine and can be edited to a reasonable degree; in the case of Chorus you can alter type, level, low‑pass filter, feedback, delay time, rate, and depth. There's also two‑band global EQ, which can be switched on or off for each Part, and an insert effect, dubbed EFX, that's pretty much the same as the SC88 Pro's, offering 64 treatments, many of which are parallel or chained configurations of several effects. The insert effect can be turned on or off individually for each part, though as the name suggests there's no 'send' control to vary amounts. Typically, EFX would be used to supply a special treatment, such as a prog‑rock organ's distorted rotary speaker, to the instrument that requires it.
Some of the 64 EFX treatments are worthy of special mention, being more exotic than you might expect from a desktop synth module: for example, Humaniser imposes vowel‑sound‑like filter effects, and a number of treatments offer 3D elements (3D Auto, for example, audibly rotates the sound around the listener's head). Careful programming of the parallel EFX treatments can allow independent treatment of two sounds with two effects, albeit with extreme panning. A bonus for anyone who wants to process sounds externally is that any Part or Parts can be routed through one pair of the rear‑panel audio outputs, which are configurable for stereo or dual‑mono operation.
On the SC88 Pro, no matter how much Part parameters and effects have been altered, they stay in place when it's powered down, and on power‑up it returns to the state it was in last time. The 8850, on the other hand, resets whenever power is switched off. The manual describes a system for saving current settings in a 'User Area' which can be loaded automatically on power‑up, but during the review we found that this only works to a point, with EFX settings being reset. The User Area can successfully be manually reloaded, however.
Using The SC8850
The combination of fewer, logical, controls, softkeys and the clear display arguably make the 8850 easier to use than the more button‑laden SC88. If you've used a Sound Canvas before, you'll have a reasonable idea of what to expect: a core set of 128 timbres, selected using the Value dial. Pushing the Volume knob plays a riff on the current sound — handy for quick auditioning — and stopping at any sound and pressing the Variation button accesses its 'variation' sounds. These could number anywhere from zero to 42, but in total there are many more variations than in the SC88 Pro.
If you come across a sound you want to tweak, pressing the Edit button causes the appropriate page to appear in the display, and then it's a pretty straightforward case of using the softkeys and short menus to make changes. There isn't as much double key‑pressing to access hidden bits of OS as there was on the SC88 Pro, which can only be good news. What we missed, though, was the overview for parameters such as pan and level provided by the SC88 Pro's bargraph display; one is always looking at one SC8850 Part's worth of parameters, never several Parts together. The new instrument has a bargraph display, but it's used solely to show MIDI activity.
One thing to beware of when editing is the distinction between Modify and Edit. Modify works on Parts rather than Instruments, and if you tweak a sound using Part parameters, then assign a new Instrument to the tweaked Instrument's Part, the new Instrument takes on those tweaked parameter settings, because they stay with the Part. To make an Instrument which can be saved in one of 256 memories you must use Edit mode to create a User Instrument. This arrangement is rather inconvenient if, say, you Modify a Part and then like the result so much you want to save it as a User Instrument, because there's no option to copy Part parameters to a User memory. You'd have to write down the parameter changes you made (admittedly, there are only eight) and create a User Instrument from scratch. Another shortcoming of User Instruments is that they can't be named: Piano 1 might get mangled out of all recognition (those eight parameters can do a lot of sonic damage!), but it will always be called Piano 1. User drum sets, though, can be named.
Initial impressions of the SC8850's 'sound' are that it's quite similar to that of the SC88 Pro and SC880 — a good thing, by the way! The 8850's output seems to be less hissy, however, and there are real improvements in the quality of what was already an excellent sound set. Some of the basic wavefors have been resampled, with an audible increase in fullness and richness, and there are several true‑stereo samples, which result in some convincing pianos. Patch 001 Piano 1 has a lovely realistic low end and delicate HF detail. It would be very worthy in a dedicated piano module, so it's especially nice to find it on a general‑purpose sound source. Staying with stereo samples for the moment, Patch 047 Variation 2 is a magnificent stereo harp, and Patch 050 Slow Strings (plus some of its variations) is a high spot in a slightly patchy set of string sounds.
Roland have made more use of velocity crossfades to provide timbral change on the SC8850, rather than simply altering filter parameters with velocity, which results in sounds with more depth and realism. Many new Instruments are also made up of 4‑Tone layers, as mentioned earlier. Particularly impressive amongst these is Patch 045 Variation 10, Suspense String 2, a moody, filmic, massed‑string sound with a lot of potential. You'd be hard pressed to distinguish this from real strings if it was used carefully and sparingly on a track. Other stand‑out 4‑Tone patches include Patch 62 Variation 5, Quad Brass 2, a dark, Wagnerian brass section; two stereo orchestral brass Variations (36 and 37) also impress.
There are lots of new organs, including the 4‑Tone Full Organ 1, with really feelable deep bass, and an array of 4‑Tone organs with different stop settings, for organ buffs. Jazz organs get the update treatment too, with more than double the SC88's complement. While the guitar sounds remain largely the same as on the SC88 (and the acoustics are pretty good), there are some additional electrics giving a greater choice of pickup characteristics, and an enlarged collection of synth basses. Roland are obviously aiming to bring the 8850 more up to date with this last set, which includes an appropriate 'jungle' bass and several typical squelchy TB303‑style basses with varied filter settings. The new velocity crossfading technique can be heard in action on some of these, with as many as three different samples coming in at different velocities.
More and more people want ethnic sounds these days, and Roland hope to satisfy them with extra Indian, Indonesian and Celtic Instruments. The percussion department offers the most variety, while a not entirely successful attempt has been made at uileann pipes, and there are a couple of new sitars. As with previous Sound Canvases, creating a convincing drone for either of these instruments requires a separate MIDI channel. The most remarkable result of the added ethnic interest comes in the shape of two Gamelan drum sets. These make a kit out of non‑tuned percussion plus keygroups of tuned instruments arranged in 5‑note slendro and 7‑note pelog scales. There's no help on using them in the manual, though!
As for standard drum kits, the usual Roland quality and variety is here, ranging from pop and jazz kits, through drum‑machine kits (CR78, TR606, 707, 808 and 909) to jungle kits. There are several new kits, and one or two offer a 'random' feature; this isn't user‑controllable, but basically introduces a subtle (sometimes very subtle) timbral change for each hit, with the aim of making rhythm parts more interesting.
A small fly in the otherwise well‑formulated ointment of the 8850's sound set is the existence of some rather noticeable crossover points between individual samples in a multisample.
General MIDI, and its GS and XG offshoots, allow programmers to customise sounds via MIDI controllers, SysEx, NRPNs (Non Registered Parameter Numbers) and so on. Typically, these would be used to create real‑time timbral changes during a performance, or alter effects settings. When you hear a particularly well‑programmed GS/XG MIDI File, you're not just hearing the sound source's preset sounds: you're hearing the result of a programmer using controllers and NRPNs to bend the presets and create a performance as close as possible to that of a 'real' musician. Everyday users won't necessarily access these MIDI depths, but it's good to know that the technology is there — and it also allows the creation of mixer maps for software sequencers and profiles for hardware controller boxes.
The SC8850 seems to have an even more comprehensive and controllable MIDI spec than previous Sound Canvases. It's hard to say at the moment whether this is Roland offering more to customers or whether these facilities are part of the GM2 spec. In general, though, all parameters accessible from the front panel are tweakable over MIDI, plus several parameters otherwise inaccessible. For example, mod wheel, pitch‑bend and aftertouch response can be fine‑tuned to a much greater degree over MIDI.
The Big Picture
Offering, as it does, polyphony and multitimbrality right at the top of what seems technically possible at the moment, plus a larger collection of high‑quality sounds than its predecessors, and USB compatibility, the SC8850 can hardly fail to be a success. The ranks of USB‑toting iMac owners may even now be massing for an assault on Roland dealerships.
Roland have at least two markets to exploit with this module — studio owners and the committed desktop musician — and that can only be good for its sales. The SC8850 will do a fine job in either environment and maintains the reputation of the Sound Canvas modules as some of the very best offered under the General MIDI banner.
- GM/GM2/GS compatible (with SC55, SC88 and SC88 Pro sound maps; will also play back XG files).
- 128‑voice polyphony.
- 64‑part multitimbrality.
- 1640 preset sounds, 63 drum sets.
- 256 user patches, 2 user drum sets.
- Global Reverb, Chorus, Delay and EQ, plus EFX Insert effect.
- 160 x 64‑dot backlit graphic LCD.
- USB interface.
- Serial interface.
- MIDI In/Out x 2.
- Stereo audio input (phonos).
- 2 stereo outputs (phonos).
- Internal PSU.
- Size: 218 x 278 x 88mm (WxDxH).
- Weight: 2.3kg.
- Free Mac/PC CD‑ROM containing GS Advanced Editor software, drivers and background material.
Generally Useful: The GM Standard
The widely‑adopted General MIDI standard guarantees a minimum level of common sounds — 128, covering traditional instruments, synth timbres and sound effects — positioned in identically numbered memory slots, across synths by different manufacturers. It has been especially good news for MIDI file producers, games/multimedia developers, and covers bands. The last have been able to buy MIDI song files in the knowledge that the result, played back with their GM‑compatible synth, should be close to what the files' programmer intended. This has made it unnecessary for anyone ever to hear that song from Titanic performed on tuba, glockenspiel and didgeridoo.
GM is sometimes berated by those making original music, on the grounds of blandness and predictability, but this is probably unwarranted, because on balance it's more useful than detrimental. For one thing, it has encouraged the development of reasonably uniform, good‑quality sets of essential instrument sounds in products bearing the GM logo. A GM module from a reputable manufacturer makes a good starting point for a synth setup — you can be pretty sure there won't be many musical styles completely beyond its capabilities. Finally, if you collaborate long‑distance with another musician, GM can help you avoid tuba‑glockenspiel‑didgeridoo fiascos when exchanging song data.
As good an idea as it was, the original General MIDI standard was criticised as less than ideal for creating the most subtle and sophisticated MIDI compositions. Certain manufacturers, therefore, extended its relatively limited sound palette, introducing sets of related variation sounds and providing more flexible and expressive ways of manipulating and controlling them via MIDI. Thus were born Roland's GS and Yamaha's XG protocols.
Eight years since its inception, General MIDI has been overhauled, to bring it more into line with current requirements and the changes made by extended protocols. Various discussion documents have expressed a desire on the part of MIDI file developers for GM2 to offer more standardised editability, and to become more integrated with Internet music delivery standards. However, at the time of writing official documentation on GM2 (being produced by the US‑based MIDI Manufacturers Association) wasn't available. The SC8850's manual is little help on the subject of how the new standard has been implemented, beyond stating that GM2 is a "set of recommended specifications that provide detailed definitions for functionality, such as sound editing and effects that had not been defined in General MIDI 1". Preliminary enquiries, however, confirm that GM2 marks the official acceptance of Roland's GS and Yamaha's XG as a standard, which means more sounds, the use of Bank Select messages to access these extra sounds, the implementation of XG's reverb, chorus and delay effects, and the formal implementation of 20‑30 controllers that alter parameters such as attack and release time, brightness, effects sends, and so on. Naturally, as soon as more is certain about GM2, SOS will cover it in more depth, so watch these pages.
Catching The Bus: USB
Sound Canvases have always had a serial port for direct connection to a computer, without requiring a MIDI interface. This is a useful inclusion on products aimed at hobbyist computer users as well as studio musicians, and it makes perfect sense for Roland to add the latest interface protocol to their latest desktop music module. When used with a computer, either via the serial port or the USB port on computers such as the new Apples, the SC8850 functions as a simple MIDI interface. USB offers an advantage over serial connection, however, in that it allows access to both the 8850's set of MIDI Ins/Outs rather than just one. These external MIDI streams are in addition to the SC8850's 64 internal parts, so up to 96 independent MIDI channels could be controlled via the 8850 — if your software can handle it.
We couldn't check the operation of the USB interface, as we don't yet own a suitably equipped computer, but Edirol report that they have the SC8850 working happily with an Apple iMac, and also with a Windows 98 PC. Still, problems with some USB peripherals have been reported by people using certain PCs: check out Pete Jardine's letter, and Martin Walker's reply, on page 234 of the September issue for more. We're not suggesting that the SC8850 will present any problems, but it's as well to be aware of the current situation.
- USB interface.
- Free PC/Mac editing software.
- Huge polyphony and multimbrality.
- Large sound set.
- New, improved waveforms — some stereo.
- Easier to use for novices.
- More facilities, yet costs no more than SC88 Pro.
- User‑edited patches can't be named.
- Some user settings don't auto‑load.
- No MIDI Thru.
A winning combination of vast and generally pleasing sound set, usability and fair price. General MIDI 2 doesn't seem to add much that GS didn't already have covered, but the USB interface will be welcomed by a growing number of USB computer users.