Roland's original Fantom workstation wasn't really much competition for Korg's Triton, so it was no shock to see it revamped last year as the hugely improved Fantom S. But surprisingly, Roland have done it again. What's new this time around?
When Roland released the Fantom workstation in 2002, it seemed destined for an uphill struggle against rivals that offered user sampling and a greater number of simultaneous effects. Undeterred, Roland returned from the drawing board the following year with the Fantom S — declaring, in no uncertain terms, that the Sampling angle was now Sorted. However, the story didn't end there: this year marked a new chapter, with the Fantom X entering the fray. Have we reached the final stage in this powerful workstation's evolution, and should the others tremble on their X-stands? Let's find out...
The new Fantom is available in three keyboard models, the X6, X7 and X8, which are named according to keyboard length (61, 76 or 88 notes). Although I didn't have this for my review, a 1U rack equivalent, the Fantom XR, is also available, and this has several architectural differences — there's no sequencer, two more expansion slots, and half the amount of flash RAM.
The earlier Fantom S lacked a 76-note version, and its 88-note hammer-action model was paired with a dedicated Piano Mode not present on its five-octave sibling. This mode offered parameters such as 'Sympathetic Resonance' and a simulation of the piano lid opening and closing. Happily, all three Fantom X keyboard models have identical specifications — and these include Piano Mode. I recommend that you read Nick Magnus's comprehensive write-up of the Fantom S (see SOS October 2003 review). I will concentrate here on the key aspects that have been revised, and my comparisons throughout this review will be with the S model rather than the original, non-sampling Fantom (which I reviewed back in SOS February 2002).
The central 320x240 display is angled, so there's no need to lean forward to view it clearly. But it's when you power on that the X factor really makes itself known — in a swirl of animated colour graphics. Roland claim this as a first for high-end synth workstations, which I believe it is, although well-specified arranger keyboards have had them for quite a while — I seem to recall the Technics KN5000 having a colour screen as far back as 1998.
Prior to receiving the synth, I wondered whether colour would be more of a gimmick than a real step forward. However, when faced with the reality, I quickly acknowledged the benefits — not least because each screen can pack in more information before it looks cramped or confusing. Even the Performance Mixer screen, with its 16 sliders and many small buttons, is usable, but had it been rendered in monochrome instead, I doubt this would have been the case.
Other than the aforementioned Piano Mode button and its paler shade of silver, the remainder of the front panel is very similar to the Fantom S. Thus Roland's standard pitch-bender and a D-Beam are present, along with four real-time control knobs, two assignable buttons, octave-transpose buttons, backlit trigger pads, and sequencer and arpeggiator controls (see the pictures later in this article). Unless my eyes deceive me, the alignment of the 'soft keys' F1-F8 beneath the display seems once again to have been improved fractionally. I wonder if, in some future Fantom, they will finally line up perfectly?
Turning to the rear panel, we discover the remaining external changes. Firstly, the digital optical output has been dropped and the co-axial output is now joined by a co-axial input, addressing one of Nick Magnus' complaints about the Fantom S and giving the X models true 24-bit S/PDIF I/O. The four audio outputs and control pedal inputs are unchanged and, of course, the five-pin MIDI trio is present. The Smart Media slot of the S model has been replaced by a more versatile PC Card slot, into which peripherals such as Smart Media or Compact Flash can be inserted (with a suitable adaptor). Finally, the USB connection looks unchanged, but it can now be used in either data or MIDI modes. You can therefore use it to transfer files to and from your computer, or as a MIDI interface to communicate with the supplied Editor and Librarian programs.
Internally, the Fantom X's polyphony has been hiked up to 128 notes, courtesy of a new processor chip at the heart of the instrument, Roland's most powerful to date. For many, this will be the single most significant improvement over the older 64-note Fantoms. Some of the advertising blurb is slightly misleading, though. Take the following example; "it is possible to play expressive four-tone Patches with 128-voice polyphony". In fact, this doesn't mean you can layer four tones without penalty, but if you translate it to read "it is possible to play four tones set to non-overlapping velocity ranges with maximum polyphony" it is accurate — although a lot less snappy. Stereo samples result in halved polyphony, as you'd expect.
A useful so-called Voice Monitor is accessed using Shift and function key F4. This is a dynamic representation of polyphony and one of several animated displays that really show off the screen graphics.
Roland supply a software editor on CD with the Fantom X, plus a basic librarian. The software requires at least a 400MHz Pentium with 256MB of RAM, and will run on any operating system from Windows 98 onwards. Mac users should have at least a 233MHz G3 for Mac OS Classic and a 500Hz G3 if using OS X. Again, 256MB of RAM is recommended. The graphic editing of parameters is well implemented, although personally, I thought the synth's screen did the job just fine.
Listed under 'Accessories' in the manual is a 'sample data convert tool'. Unfortunately, this is not yet available at the time of writing, so whether it will address Nick Magnus' complaints in the Fantom S review about the workstation's inability to import existing sample libraries, I can't say.
The 16 backlit trigger pads of the Fantom S were (literally) a hit, and their sensitivity has been improved for the Fantom X. I certainly found them responsive enough in a variety of roles. They can trigger up to four samples in separate velocity zones and, better still, they generate polyphonic aftertouch (the keyboard itself transmits the more common channel aftertouch).
The pads are not confined to triggering percussion or samples — they can play any synth patch you select. By programming each pad to trigger a specific note, you can build up chords, and here that polyphonic aftertouch can work wonders, emphasising notes within the chord in ways not possible on the keyboard. The Pad Hold button allows notes to be sustained so you can trigger drones or ambient washes of evolving sound. Or, when triggering sample loops, activating Hold will keep the loop running. You can record such performance tricks into the sequencer too, so building up a song that features a selection of loops is remarkably fast.
RPS mode — Realtime Phrase Sequencing — is another useful performance aid. Once activated, the top eight pads can trigger RPS loops. Some useable patterns are supplied, or you can program your own. It seems Nick Magnus' complaint about the way pads are allocated globally in Patch mode has been partially answered by implementation of the Live Setting mode, which I'll discuss in more detail later. Nevertheless, it's a shame that pad assignments and note values cannot be made for every Patch.
It is now possible to expand the sample memory to an impressive 544MB without compromising the fitting of four SRX-series expansion boards. With just one memory slot available, you will need to choose between adding a 64, 128, 256 or 512MB DIMM. As before, 32MB is supplied, giving approximately 180 seconds of stereo sampling straight out of the box. If you install a 512MB DIMM, you get a total of 54 minutes stereo or 108 minutes in mono. Then there are the ROM sound sources, which have been increased to 128MB, with 1480 waveforms to choose from. If this still isn't enough, don't forget those expansion slots. A fully maxed-out Fantom X can have almost 1GB of wave memory to draw from!
User memory (separate from Sample memory) has been doubled: 32MB is provided for storage of samples, patches, Performances and Songs. As this is Flash memory, it remains populated after power-down and a System option determines whether user samples are automatically loaded when you switch on.
Preset memory of an unexpanded Fantom X stands at 1024 patches, divided into banks A-H, each with 128 patches. On top of this, there are 256 GM2 (General MIDI 2) presets, nine GM2 kits, 40 preset and 32 user kits, with a further 32 available from a PC card.
To store your own patches, there are 256 user locations, but just 64 memories for multitimbral/layered Performances. And there are a further 64 preset Performances — but does anyone ever use preset Performances? Unlike on the Korg Triton (to take one obvious example) where every patch location may be overwritten, if there are entries in the Fantom's preset memory you don't want, there's no way to delete them. Fortunately, Roland score highly in the provision of reliable bread-and-butter sounds, although perhaps they lag behind Korg and Yamaha in the exotic or gratuitously 'showy' stakes. The drum samples are well up to the standard expected from a company who have consistently led the field in creating classic beatboxes.
I mentioned the PC card option earlier, and it's a flexible way to expand the data-storage capacity — you can store up to 7000 samples on a single card, for example. The Fantom X supports cards of up to 1GB. Curiously, even with such a large card installed, you can apparently only access an additional 256 user patches. I didn't have such a large card to check this, but coupled with the internal memories, the expanded total should probably suffice. More restrictive, again, is the number of user Performances — a card adds the capacity for a mere 64 extra.
If, after a while, all these large numbers start to blur, you might begin to wonder whether some kind of practical limit will one day be reached: a point where packing in more and more of everything doesn't result in a better musical instrument. Perhaps in recognition of the value of simplicity, the Piano Mode button does exactly what it says on the tin. It offers direct access to two lists of sounds catalogued as Acoustic or Electric Piano (although you can sneakily catalogue your own sounds to appear in these lists, even if they're not piano-based). The pianos range from good to very good; most impressive of all is an 88-note multisampled acoustic piano, where every note has been sampled in stereo, complete with four velocity-switched layers. Roland proudly declare that more than 700 individual samples are used to bring you their most detailed piano recreation to date. It is a delight to play, especially from a weighted keyboard.
As for the remaining patches, the many hundreds of them become an exercise in cataloguing and retrieval. Fortunately, Roland provide several ways to speed up access to those you want — including Favorites (sic), Patch Categories and the curiously titled 'Live Setting'.
Live Setting (accessed via the menu system or directly using Shift and the Piano Mode button) is a means of registering up to 20 banks of 16 patch/rhythm combinations. For greater convenience, you can register Performances too, and access them in exactly the same way. In each bank, the eight function keys below the display are used to select the first eight Live Setting selections and using Shift, the second eight are available.
Though the name may initially seem odd, it makes sense when you consider that Live Setting provides an ideal means of gathering together everything needed for a live set. Selection of the Performance or Patch/Rhythm pairing is made even slicker as text files can be imported and associated with each Bank. This is so handy, since the text can be anything you would find useful: lyrics, jokes, reminders and so on. The text appears in a scrollable window for each Bank and is far better and far easier to read than bits of paper stuck to your synth with gaffer tape!
At every level, shortcuts are implemented to make operation as speedy as possible. For example, on many screens, a Zoom edit softkey opens an expanded graphical window of parameters, often adjustable with the four assignable knobs.
The Fantom X makes extensive use of the Shift key to access menus you will need regularly. The pad Clip Board is another great timesaver, and may be customised to take you directly into 16 of your favourite screens. To register a shortcut to your current location within the menus, hold down the Clip Board button. Any pads already assigned are then illuminated, and you complete the assignment by touching the pad button of your choice. Later, to jump directly to any stored shortcut, hit and release the Clip Board button, then select the appropriate (flashing) pad. A visual representation of all 16 screen shortcuts is a handy reminder of the choices.
I noticed that it was wisest not to try to navigate through some of the menus whilst the synth was receiving heavy amounts of data. At one point during the review period, I happened to be sending 16 MIDI channels of dense, quantised notes to the synth at the same time as I was poking about in various System menus. In this instance, the Fantom X struggled to juggle the incoming notes with the screen updates. Under more normal usage conditions, however, I had no complaints about timing or response, and this was after some pretty heavy-duty testing!
Multitimbral Performances are accessed by pushing either the Layer or Mixer buttons. The Mixer shows all 16 channels on a single screen and is packed with on-screen sliders, knobs and buttons. A small floating rectangle represents those parameters whose value may be tweaked by the four assignable knobs. As you can record the slider movements into the sequencer, you have an attractive and valuable visual reference of a complete automated mix. One final example of the way shortcuts are implemented is worth a mention here: hit the Mute softkey from the Mixer screen and the pads may then be used as a direct means to mute or unmute any of the 16 parts.
The Layer screen is equally informative, although it shows just four layers at any time. An arrow indicates the currently selected layer and to play several patches at once, you add a tick to the 'Kbd' box. Velocity and keyboard zones can be set up quickly, although I'd have liked to have the ability to set these using the keyboard rather than the data-entry dial.
Chord Memory is a feature I've always enjoyed, and this implementation is quietly sophisticated. There are 64 Preset and 64 user-programmable chords, and chord selections may be stored with Performances — although not with Patches. To select a chord to play, or to edit the existing chord, use Shift and the Chord Memory button. In this screen also, you can activate 'Strum' mode to create strummed chords from a single key, the speed varying according to how hard you play. Chords can be strummed up, down or alternately up and down. If you create a complex chord, then apply it to an acoustic guitar or harp patch, the results are addictively pleasurable. Each note in a chord is represented on a music stave, so there's educational value too. Activating the arpeggiator and Chord Memory at the same time gives arpeggiated chords, and you'll be pleased to know that arpeggios and strums can be recorded into the sequencer.
Sampling is largely unchanged from the Fantom S, although the colour screen does make sample editing slightly prettier. In the Fantom X, you have the additional option to sample from the digital input, after which the comprehensive array of tools can be applied. As described in the review of the Fantom S, you can normalise samples, chop and divide them over the keyboard, combine them, stretch them, and do plenty more besides.
Of particular note is the Real-time Time-stretch tool, which is perfect for stretching sampled loops. To use it, you must specify the tempo of the loop and the time-stretch type from 10 different choices which optimise the sample according to whether it contains fast or slow phrases. Then if you turn on the patch's Wave Tempo Sync parameter, the waveform playback speed can be altered without affecting the pitch. The results are pretty good in all but the most extreme cases, and even then, they often fall into the 'interesting' category.
As on the Fantom S, there's also Skip Back Sampling, in which the sampler constantly records in chunks of up to 40 seconds. So if you play something of interest, hit the glowing blue button. You can then assign the resulting sample to a pad, to the keyboard, or just save it for later.
The SOS Fantom S review covered issues and niggles regarding sample import (in WAV or AIFF format) and memory handling, and I've nothing to add here, except to echo the frustration that loop points in imported samples are ignored. The increases in User memory size and PC Card capacity rendered the whole issue of sampling so painless that I rarely considered the memory complications explained so thoroughly in Nick Magnus's review. I found the Fantom's implementation of sampling to be spot-on — and the automated loading of samples on boot-up was a huge improvement over the manual method required by my Korg Triton.
Other than an increased capacity (now 400,000 notes), the sequencer maintains the reassuringly familiar 16-track format. Only one song may be present in memory at once, although up to 256 songs can be saved to a PC Card or to user memory. A 'Quick Play' function is a handy means to play such songs directly without loading them into volatile memory. The sequencer is well specified, and, other than graphic controller editing, has everything you would expect — and a few features you might not (for example Quantise Templates and SysEx editing). It is, however, MIDI-only. There's no attempt to incorporate audio, other than by triggering samples either from the pads or keyboard. However, you can sample an external instrument as the song plays back, creating a single WAV of the resulting output. It's not hard disk recording — and you certainly daren't make any mistakes — but it works.
There's a selection of 78 multi-effects (MFX), three choruses, five reverbs, six input effects and a three-band mastering compressor. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted here that the Fantom X gains one extra MFX over the S model. This is 'Sympathetic Resonance' — an integral part of the Piano Mode implementation, but here presented as a separate effect in its own right. The effects sound great, and include algorithms like COSM guitar-amp modelling, lo-fi processing, tempo-sync'ed delays; all Roland's usual high-quality favourites. In Performance mode, the three MFX can be configured for parallel or serial use — or various combinations in between. However, in Patch mode, just a single MFX can be assigned to the keyboard and a second to the pads, which is rather limiting. When you're ready to mix down a song, the dedicated Mastering processor, with its multi-band compression, works well to create tight, punchy mixes.
Having used the Fantom X for some time, I have to admit to being a convert to its colour screen. It does make a difference, although given the choice between a colour screen and the excellent touchscreen of, say, Roland's own V-Synth, I'd still opt for the touchscreen!
I'm sure the doubling of the polyphony is going to be the single most appreciated benefit over the previous model, but this was required in order to play catch up with Yamaha's Motif ES and Korg's Triton Extreme.
In their quest to compete with Korg and Yamaha, Roland have looked at ways in which the workstation concept can be refined. The addition of the pad bank offers several performance advantages — whether used to trigger samples, drones or loops. For its pairing of Patches with Pad assignments, I therefore found the Live Setting feature very welcome indeed.
My disappointments were few, but of these, having just three multi-effects compares poorly with the Triton and the Motif ES with their five and eight insert effects respectively; both Korg and Yamaha use their effects well to give a superior finish to every sound. I would also have liked a few more user Performances — or to dispense with the supplied preset patches entirely.
For those who still prefer hardware sequencers, the Fantom X boasts a tried and tested design that is both easy to use and well specified. However, it makes no attempt to integrate audio, and there's no equivalent of Korg's 'In Track Sampling'. Finished songs can be sampled directly though, and the resulting WAVs may then be transferred across the USB connection for burning to CD on your computer. If you are already using your computer for this purpose, it's quite logical. Yet other workstations offer the facility to create CDs directly, and this may be a purchase factor.
Many will find Roland's implementation of sampling to be exactly to their taste — and I did. It's straightforward to use and the range of editing on offer covers all the bases. Addition of a large-capacity PC card would give access to a huge selection of user samples. In fact, the only gripe I had echoes that comment from the Fantom S review, about loop points of imported samples being ignored.
For anyone already happy with their workstation, whether the Fantom S, Triton or Motif, the improvements present in the Fantom X will probably cause no great rush to the SOS Readers' Ads section. However, for those who are workstation-shopping today, it is a classy-sounding, expandable instrument worthy of serious consideration.