Emerging from the mists of time comes the rejuvenated Fantom, Roland's new flagship workstation synthesizer.
Though Roland's Fantom workstation series hasn't been running as long as The Phantom (a popular American comic strip continuously in print since 1936), it still has, as electronic instruments go, quite a history. First released in 2001 as the 76-note Fantom FA76, the keyboard clung to its identity through a bewildering series of revamps and name changes, culminating in the top-of-the range Fantom G (which I reviewed in SOS January 2009). This was followed by the FA08, a more affordable, scaled-down descendant reviewed with typical incision by Gordon Reid in 2014. Since then, all has been quiet on the Fantom front (dramatic pause, drum roll)...
Until now (cymbal crash)! With little advance warning, Roland have unleashed a new flagship workstation-cum-synthesizer which builds on the Fantom's legacy with a brand-new design developed from the ground up for modern music production. Called simply the Fantom, it comes in three models: Fantom 6 (61 keys), Fantom 7 (76 keys) and the 88-key Fantom 8, henceforth referred to as F-6, F-7 and F-8. Given Roland's recent incursions into the world of modular and boutique synths, it comes as something of a surprise (though not an unpleasant one) to see them reviving this classic product line. But that's the thing with phantoms — they tend to come back and haunt you.
Constructed of tough metal, the new Fantom is designed to stand up to the rigours of life on the road — just as well, because I can see many gigging keyboard players wanting to get their hands on one. Roland take pride in the instruments' keyboards: the F-8 uses the PHA-50 'progressive hammer action' (which simulates the subtle 'escapement' bump and slightly heavier bass-note feel of a real grand piano), while the F-6 and F-7 use the new semi-weighted SK-14 action. All three feature a newly designed aftertouch sensor. These actions are optimised for low noise, so when you're practising Jordan Rudess licks at 3am, the sound of furiously rattling keys shouldn't annoy your neighbours, partner or cats.
I opted for the semi-weighted action and chose the F-6 model for this review. Prior to that I'd spent some time playing the F-8 at Roland's Artist Relations Centre in London. Sadly none of my relations were there, but I appreciated the pianistic feel of the 88-key instrument, and subsequently found the F-6 action to be perfectly agreeable — though I must admit, I do miss the cheerful rattle of the old G6 keys!
The internal sound engine is identical for all three instruments. If you want to expand the F-6's five-octave playing range, you can use front-panel buttons to raise or lower the playing register by up to three octaves, while the 'transpose' button allows you to shift the key range in semitones, up to five down and six up (a little confusing, I feel: 11 semitones each way would have been better).
I was glad to see the new Fantom has old-school separate pitch and modulation wheels, an improvement on the all-in-one sprung-lever joystick used on previous models. But surprisingly, the joystick is still there, occupying pride of place at the front left of the instrument. I was all set to moan about the wheels being set back eight inches from the front (a design feature that invariably gets the raspberry in keyboard reviews), but in light of the joystick's inclusion, it's probably the only way it would work — and anyway, I've got long arms.
Reflecting the age we live in, the instrument's seven-inch colour touch–screen offers smartphone-style scrolling on some of the longer menus. The back panel sports five USB sockets: two handle, respectively, data back-up and computer connection, the other three are for connecting external devices. This computer integration enables the Fantom to control popular DAWs such as Logic Pro X, and when connected to apps such as Logic MainStage, plug-in parameters can be displayed on its touch-screen. At present no software...