Korg's Triton has dominated the workstation synth market for several years, but the past 12 months have seen challenges to this position firstly from Yamaha, with their Motif, and now from Roland. Does this Fantom have what it takes?
With the introduction of last year's XV5080 module, Roland further refined their vision of the ultimate S+S (ie. sample‑based) studio workhorse. This synthesizer bundled together some of the finest sounds and effects Roland have yet produced: the pick of the JD, JV, XP and XV series. Adding the ability to replay samples in Roland, Akai, WAV and AIFF format was another welcome step forward.
As a long‑time owner of Roland's earlier top workstation, the XP80, I watched with interest for what would come next and was, therefore, delighted when offered the chance to review the Roland Fantom. Despite its name, the Fantom is neither shadowy, dark nor mysterious. Instead, it's a sturdy, no‑nonsense music workstation brimming full of quality sounds and featuring a 64‑voice multitimbral synth based on XV‑Series architecture. It boasts a built‑in D‑Beam controller, an arpeggiator and drum pattern generator, plus a large screen, a classy 76‑note keyboard and onboard effects featuring 24‑bit reverb, chorus and 90 multi‑effects algorithms (including COSM amp models and RSS 3D processing).
Running my hand over the brushed titanium surface, I was struck by the almost military appearance of the FA76. In its sleek, rounded metal frame there is more than a hint of Terminator‑style android or grim Russian submarine. Happily, under that cold surface beats the Roland heart we know so well — but can they repackage it one more time and turn up a winner? This is the bit where we say 'let's find out'...
Prior to receiving the review model, I had already encountered a Fantom in a music store in Denmark (no, not Denmark Street... Denmark the country). As I knew little about it at the time, I assumed that it offered a Triton or Trinity‑like touch screen. Perhaps I had been enjoying the pleasures of Copenhagen rather too much but, after I had prodded it enthusiastically (but unsuccessfully) for quite some time, a sales assistant materialised and guided me gently, but firmly, away. In my defence, I should say that, even though I now know this is just an 'ordinary' display, I still have to hold back the urge to touch it, such is the impact the 320x240 screen makes.
Underneath the display, and slightly wider than the screen itself, there is a row of eight soft keys. As they do not line up exactly with their onscreen graphical counterparts, it takes a little while before you hit the right one reliably every time. Thin grooves in the raised plastic panel surrounding the screen help a little in guiding your fingers to the correct key. The manual describes how the display has a finite lifespan so Roland have wisely provided a backlight‑saver function. Once this is activated, the screen goes dark when the synth is not in use for a specified time, springing back into life when you start to play, tweak, or when MIDI is received.
- Display: 320x240‑pixel backlit LCD.
- Controls: D‑Beam; programmable knobs (x4); programmable buttons; combined mod lever/pitch‑bend.
- Maximum Polyphony: 64 voices.
- Wave Memory: 64Mb (1,083 waveforms).
- Wave Expansion (SR‑JV type): one slot.
- Wave Expansion (SRX Series) two slots.
- Preset Memory: 640 Patches (banks A‑E) plus 256 General MIDI 2 (GM2) Patches; 16 Rhythm sets (plus nine GM2 sets); 16 Multitimbres; 64 Performances.
- User Memory: 128 Patches; 16 Rhythm Sets; 16 Multitimbres; 64 Performances.
- Effects: 90 types of multi‑effects in Patch mode; up to three different multi‑effects (selectable from 50 types) can be used simultaneously in Performance/Multitimbral mode; global Chorus (two types); global Reverb (four types); global EQ (two‑band on each of four outputs).
- Sequencer: 16 tracks; one song only in internal memory; capacity 120,000 notes; maximum 9,998 measures; 480 ppqn resolution; MRC Pro and Standard MIDI File type 0 and 1 Song‑import facility.
- Arpeggiator: 88 Styles.
- Preset Rhythm: 50 Styles, 12 Patterns.
- Weight: 14.8kg.
The 76‑note keyboard has a very pleasing action: quite firm and very 'hammerable'. Given just how playable it is, I found myself wishing that Roland had dared to be just a little radical and revolutionary and bestowed polyphonic aftertouch upon the Fantom, rather than the channel aftertouch it has. The other performance tools on offer include the traditional Roland waggly stick, which combines pitch‑bend with a perpetually inadequate, shallow‑travelling modulation. The D‑Beam is much more interesting, allowing you to tweak the filter, level, and modulation in real time, and additional user‑assignable control is offered in the form of four knobs and four buttons.
As you can see from the pictures accompanying this article, the expected workstation transport and navigation controls are all present, and there are dedicated buttons for the arpeggiator and the rhythm pattern section. The Menu button is used to access all the in‑depth stuff, such as patch edit, effects, system functions, disk utilities, and so on. Several keys have multiple functions accessed via the Shift key, including Jump and List. Jump can be used to select tones or to move the cursor quickly around the display, and can be used in conjunction with other buttons such as D‑Beam On/Off, in which case it displays the parameters being controlled (or the MIDI Controller being transmitted) and also the range and polarity. List is context‑sensitive, showing lists of Performances, Effects, Patches and so on.
The rear panel boasts a 24‑bit stereo digital output (co‑axial and optical connectors are provided) and four audio outputs that may be configured as two stereo pairs or as four individual mono outputs. Bearing in mind the quality of the onboard effects, this is probably going to be enough, and I know many of you will be especially pleased to see the digital output. A headphone socket, MIDI In, Out and Thru, and three pedal inputs (Hold and two assignable control inputs) complete the connections to the outside world.
Staying with the exterior a moment longer, the Fantom has a floppy drive too. This is something Gordon Reid looked for in vain when reviewing the XV5080 (see SOS November 2000), as he wished to make use of his 3.5‑inch DSDD library of samples. However, the Fantom cannot import samples at all, so its drive is purely used to load and save Patches, Performances and Songs. In that context, a floppy drive is sufficient and with it, I was able to import songs and patches from my XP80. Incidentally, I observed that importing a bank of patches in this way left all the user‑assignable knobs and buttons set to null. I hope that a future OS upgrade might allow some default setting for them instead, perhaps one matching the functions of XP80's sliders.
Unlike the XP80, the Fantom lacks that handy means of dialling up patches, a numeric keypad. Instead, Roland have provided several ways to locate patches including the aforementioned List button, which shows ranges of them on screen and a Category function, with no less than 38 different categories from which to choose patches. There's yet another, even friendlier, method of recalling your own selections too and, in deference to the world's most powerful nation and its problems with difficult spellings, Roland have named this method 'Favorite Sound'.
As with all good features, the 'Favorite Sound' function is simplicity itself to use — you simply register in it the 64 patches you like best. These are arranged in eight banks of eight patches so that they can be recalled instantly. 'Favorites' are shown along the bottom of the display and you select any of them using their corresponding soft key. To store the current patch as a new 'Favorite', hold down the Shift (aka Registry) key and the soft key of your choice. In typical computer fashion, a message asks you to confirm that you wish to store this. Unlike a computer, though, the screen shows no 'Cancel' option, so if you change your mind at this point, you have to use the Exit key — one of only a few deviations from 'screen‑focused' operation. To select a different 'Favorites' bank, hold the Jump key and any of the eight soft keys. This system works so well it should be compulsory on all synths with more than 128 patches!
The Fantom has many more than 128 — in fact it has 1024 patches (640 Preset, 128 User and 256 GM2 sounds) in all. As if this weren't enough (strangely, it never is...) and if the 64Mb of waveform memory (over 1000 waveforms!) doesn't have everything you need, you can expand using two SRX‑Series wave expansion boards and just one from the SR‑JV80‑series. Of course, this single slot would be insufficient if you wanted to upgrade from one of Roland's earlier workstations and had several JV boards already.
The Mode button presents on‑screen options to select Patch, Multitimbre or Performance modes. It's not quite as instant as the dedicated buttons on the XP80, but pride in the Fantom's screen has obviously led Roland to base everything around it. In fairness, it's still pretty speedy and intuitive.
In Patch Mode, the four‑tone structure remains at the root of Roland's architecture, although each tone can use two waves now, to accomodate stereo sources. I don't propose to say much here about the Fantom's S+S synthesis. This is not laziness on my part; it simply reflects the fact that Roland continue to rely on their well‑tested S+S techniques, and haven't changed anything in terms of the programming architecture of the synth for a while. For the best recent explanation of how it all hangs together, see the XV3080 review from SOS July 2000. To be fair, Roland can feel justified in repackaging the same engine for some time to come, as there are so many patches around, and it seems that most people do prefer to use what already exists. I wonder just how many JV1080 owners do program their own sounds?
Given that the biggest single stride forward is the implementation of stereo waveforms for each tone, it is surprising that the majority of the Fantom's onboard waves are rendered in traditional mono — especially as those waves that are in stereo seem more spectacularly 'alive'.
In Performance mode, up to 16 patches can be layered or split by key position. There are a number of ways to specify note priority and voice reserve too: features designed to make those 64 notes of polyphony go as far as possible, which are often omitted from modern multitimbral instruments. I would have liked an easy way to define velocity zones. Instead, Roland have implemented a 'velocity offset' function that is far less intuitive when layering different patches.
When in Performance mode, the Fantom does a good job as a master keyboard controller, whether for internal sounds or external modules (or both simultaneously). You can transmit Bank Select, Program Change, volume and pan information, define how each part will respond to MIDI Controllers, and so on. It's comprehensive enough without being over‑engineered.
Finally, for simple multitimbral use, up to 16 patches can be set to seperate MIDI channels in Multitimbre mode, which is ideal for sequencing.
The generous LCD, as I've already noted, looks great and provides lots of information at a glance. When in Patch mode, you can see which tones are active, the status and settings for the effects processors, any transposition or octave shift, the current settings of the four user‑assignable knobs and buttons, and of the D‑Beam.
In Sequencer mode, the display becomes even more important, with a small, but perfectly serviceable song representation which calls to mind early versions of Cakewalk or Mastertracks Pro. Musical bars with data are represented as filled blobs and, in Track Edit mode, up to 15 lines of individual MIDI events are shown, which you can edit, delete, copy, and so on. In Performance mode, the display provides a simple graphical representation of the layers and keyboard zones used. Curiously, a small keyboard graphic even shows the notes you are playing, which might be handy if for any reason you are unable to see the large keyboard under your nose...
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the large display, the onboard sequencer offers everything you need for quick and easy recording without tears or head‑scratching. With its capacity of 120,000 notes, it offers extensive recording and editing options to rival some of the (more basic) commercial sequencer programs.
Real‑time recording can be as simple as selecting the patches you want, picking the track to record on and hitting the Record button. Then you just decide the count‑in period, and away you go; what could be easier? As an alternative to real‑time recording, a beautifully implemented step‑time mode allows you to enter notes, chords and riffs with very little effort.
Once you've created your song, it must be saved to floppy — when you turn the power off, it's history. Usefully, Roland have added a new command to boost the disk management routines: Disk Copy. This is a simple utility that computer users would take for granted but is important when trusting your masterpieces to a humble floppy disk. As only one Song can be resident in memory at once, to call up several Songs (up to 99 if you can fit them on your floppy) in a particular order, a 'chain play' mode is provided.
Quantise may be performed either during or after recording, and has enough options for creative use but never so many that you get lost. Indeed, all the edit options seem well chosen to give you functionality without the pain, unlike on most software sequencers.
My only gripe is that you cannot just hit Record during playback. Roland's advertising blurb desribes the sequencer as 'always active' but it transpires that this just means you can use it whether in Patch, Performance or Multitimbre mode. If linear‑style track recording is not for you, or you simply prefer to assemble your songs from shorter building blocks, up to 100 Patterns can be stored and then recalled from within a song's phrase track. Having specified the order of Pattern playback, you can overdub on top of this too, but always remember that the Patterns themselves are not written into the song, merely pointers to them. If any Patterns change, a song using them changes accordingly. A Pattern can also be triggered repeatedly from a single key using Roland's RPS mode (Real‑time Phrase Sequence); up to eight simultaneous sequences may be played back at once.
Finally, if those sequencer transport controls don't excite you, you have the option to start and stop your song using the D‑Beam. The wonders of science, eh?
There are five banks of Presets, A‑E, giving a total of 640 factory patches. In addition, 256 preset General MIDI 2 patches offer more GM sounds than I would personally ever need (in fairness, they are as good as any GM sounds I've come across). User memory offers just 128 locations for patches plus 64 Performances, 16 Rhythm Sets and 16 Multitimbres. This seems a little stingy, but then I suppose many workstation users focus on having a host of quality factory patches in ROM.
Some of the supplied patches are very good indeed, so I was surprised to discover that I couldn't get excited about any of the preset Performances at all.
Amongst the Patch banks, a small selection of my favourites were:
- PRB 002: 'XV Steel Gt1' — a very playable steel guitar with realistic pitch‑bend via aftertouch.
- PRE 063: 'Borealis' — a wavesequency pad with D‑Beam control over level.
- PRE 079: 'Vocals Boys' — takes me back to my own choirboy days!
- PRE 080: 'St Choir' — simply glorious.
- PRE 095: 'Celtic Harp' — plucking good.
- PRC 008: 'Oboe mf' — a very expressive solo.
- PRB 039: 'COSM Searing' — a better electric guitar than I'm used to hearing on a keyboard. Just wish I could do it justice!
- PRA 017: 'Sparkle Piano' — the pianos on offer seem to vary from rather dull to marvellous. This one is a delight.
A single dedicated button on the left of the control panel activates the arpeggiator. The in‑depth parameters appear on‑screen if you activate it while also holding down the Jump key. I was pleased to note that if you use Shift and the arpeggiator button, arpeggiation starts in 'Latch' mode — that is, it keeps playing when you release the keys. The button flashes to indicate Latch is active, which is nifty.
This arpeggiator is rather splendid, offering as it does no less than 88 styles including simulations of guitar strums, harp‑stroking, walking bass lines and the like. Each style has several variations, and you can add accents, shuffle and more. Even better, you can specify the order in which the notes are played, from the simple up, down, up and down and random modes to the more exotic glissando, chord, 'Auto' and 'Phrase' modes. There are two Auto modes, and they alter playback priority according to the highest or lowest notes held at any point. In Phrase mode, an arpeggio phrase is extrapolated from a single note (typically, this involves fifth and octave intervals). Perhaps the only thing lacking is a fully user‑definable arpeggiator, but with so much on offer already, that didn't trouble me too much.
Rhythm Patterns are, in essence, specialised arpeggios designed for auto‑accompaniment. They are active over a single octave, starting at a base note you specify in Performance Mode (they don't work in Patch mode). In fact, one of the advantages of the Fantom's 76‑note keyboard is that you could easily choose a zone for arpeggios, another zone for a rhythm pattern and still have room for some additional parts to play. There are 50 Rhythm Pattern styles to choose from with each note in the octave providing a useful variation. By playing the keys you can alter the rhythm as it plays, add fills, percussion, hi‑hats, and so on. The patterns loop round, and are cancelled only when you take your hands off the keyboard. To keep them looping regardless, activate the Rhythm play using Shift and the Rhythm button.
There are no fewer than 90 types of multi‑effect available in the Fantom, including COSM modelling types (for example guitar‑amp simulations) and RSS 3D processing. In Multitimbre and Performance modes, up to three different multi‑effects are available. These are selected from a slightly reduced list of 50 effect types (as shown in the Sound/Parameter List manual) and if you place a complex, processor‑hungry effect in slot MFX‑A, the other two slots cannot be used.
In addition to multi‑effects, reverb and chorus/delay are always available. There is no space for the complete list of multi‑effects, but they include almost everything you would want in a workstation. Thus you'll find overdrive, distortion, phaser, enhancer, compressor, chorus, flanger, delay, pitch‑shifter and reverb. Then there are combination effects (for example distortion plus flanger), formant filters, a ring modulator, shuffle delays, various lo‑fi processors, a beat slicer, an isolator, and the so‑called '3D' effects (chorus, delay, flanger and auto‑panners). The list goes on and on.
For the most part, these effects are excellent; a few of particular interest are the 3D effects, the amp simulator and my own favourites, the formant filters. These provide vocal‑style filtering with a range and tweakability to transform almost any input patch into something cool, interesting and vocal‑like. Multi‑effects templates — 96 in total — are provided for rapid setting up so that you don't need to delve into individual parameter menus. Dial up 'Drum St Comp', for example, for a ready‑optimised stereo compressor patch ideal for drum processing. Or there's the wild 'SynchroSlicr' which uses the Slicer effect to rhythmically chop up source material. With this, each step in a 4/4 bar gets its own level, and you can step through each of the levels at the current tempo.
The ever‑useful List button aids effects selection and is a marked improvement over spinning the alpha dial. The icing on the cake is a final two‑band EQ section provided for each of the output jacks. The quality of the effects is incredible overall; it's just a shame that there's no provision to process external signals through them.
With no audio input, no sampling option and no onboard RAM capability (meaning no importing of WAV files or anything like that), the Fantom seems disadvantaged in the Big Workstation Features League, as both Korg's Triton and Yamaha's Motif, the Fantom's clear competitors, incorporate sampling. Who is right, only time will tell. I think the argument that people prefer dedicated samplers or even computers for sampling is one that makes some sense, but it would be dangerous to apply that line of thought too strictly to the workstation concept. After all, every individual component of a workstation could, in theory, be done better by dedicated units.
Extensive real‑time control over both effects and synthesis parameters is possible as Roland have tailored popular ones such as cutoff and attack time to respond to MIDI control changes rather than SysEx. Additionally, Matrix Control is a facility in each patch where up to four modulation sources can be routed to destination parameters of your choice. The sources available include a selection of pitch‑bend, aftertouch, velocity, key follow, tempo (either that of the internal sequencer or an external source), LFO 1, LFO 2, any of the envelopes, or a variety of MIDI Controller numbers. By assigning a Controller number to the source and then mapping that MIDI controller to one of the four user‑assignable buttons or knobs, you can create a wide range of modulation possibilities
Multi‑effects parameters can be controlled in a similar way: again four slots are available. They can lead you into some quite mind‑bending soundscapes, especially if your source is a MIDI Controller such as the D‑Beam. You can also use these assignments to allow an LFO to vary the rate of another LFO, or the filter envelope to vary the amount of distortion, for instance. Call me an anorak if you like, but I love this kind of thing because it offers the potential to breathe extra life into performances.
The Fantom is a very capable workstation, robustly made and possessing a certain spartan physical charm. Yet it is limited from the outset by the omission of audio inputs, sampling capability or sample import. It may be that these are facilities you don't personally need in an instrument of this type, and Roland's PCM expansion card route might be your preference anyway. Certainly the Fantom arrives with a sound that is already a standard in many studios throughout the world, and it can import patch and sequencer data from earlier Roland workstations, too, which opens up a vast number of excellent ready‑made patches. However, if you wanted to trade up from one of Roland's older workstations, the single 'old‑style' SR‑JV expansion slot is rather limiting and adding just two SRX‑series slots doesn't feel over‑generous either. If I'm starting to sound like a judge on Pop Idols, it's simply that I find it impossible to consider an instrument like this in isolation. Realistically, you can't ignore the advances other companies have made with their workstations over the last few years.
Nevertheless, the Fantom is a great‑sounding, solid piece of kit, based firmly on an existing (and successful) family of instruments. The keyboard, D‑Beam and the screen are all a pleasure to use and those effects sound great. The digital output is welcome, the sequencer more than adequate and I had great fun with the arpeggiator and rhythm patterns. Ultimately, if you are looking for a new music workstation and have your sampling needs covered elsewhere, you should include the Fantom in your list of instruments to audition.