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Page 2: Roland Fantom

Workstation Synthesizer
By Dave Stewart

Main Sounds

My first impression on hearing the Fantom was 'wow, nice piano', swiftly followed by 'wow, great pads'. The sheer sound quality of the pads' sumptuous, soft, analogue-like waveforms (which draw upon Roland's Jupiter 8 and D50 pedigree) makes you forget that this is a digital instrument. In the synth department, I was gobsmacked to discover that oscillator sync and cross-modulation are implemented, enabling me to create banging, ripping analogue-style timbres strongly reminiscent of my beloved Prophet-5. A very pleasant surprise.

Other highlights include an excellent Fender Rhodes that matches the V-Piano's playability. The clavinet is a little thin-sounding for my taste, but some of the vintage organs (notably a Vox Continental soundalike) are robustly authentic. As ever in Roland workstations, the bass sounds are strong, comprising excellent acoustic, electric and synth basses. There are 90 or so drum kits, which include many classic Roland drum machines (CR-78, TR-808, TR-606, TR-909, TR-707, TR-727 and TR-626), along with a comprehensive selection of Latin percussion.

Orchestral sounds have improved greatly in the new Fantom, and now offer usable woodwinds, a good selection of brass solo instruments and ensembles, passable saxes and some useful pizzicato and spiccato string sections. In addition, there's a vast miscellany of instruments which would require an encyclopaedia to evaluate.

Filter & Effects

The Fantom has various filter types, including low-pass (three types), high-pass, band-pass and peaking. It's interesting to note the JP, MG and P5 settings, which (in Roland's words) "are suitable for reproducing synthesizer sounds of the past". I'd imagine 'JP' stands for Jupiter — you can guess the others.

Ninety effects are available, ranging from simple EQ to combinations such as 'Amp Sim/Chorus'. The usual suspects (phaser, tremolo, delay, auto-pan, rotary speaker, flanger) are all there, along with auto-wah, ring modulator, bit-crusher, pitch-shifter and various distortion and compression options. It's good to see emulations of the classic Boss CE1 chorus pedal and SDD-320 Dimension D included, adding their distinctive, floating analogue swirl to the effects menu.

Each tone in a Fantom scene can have its own effects settings. Global effects (IFX1, IFX2, Chorus and reverb) can be applied to the whole scene, while a third layer of master effects (including so-called mastering compression and EQ) can be applied to the whole shooting match.

Sequencer

Like all well-brought-up workstations, the Fantom includes a sequencer — in this case, an unexpectedly powerful one. In a nutshell, you can record patterns of up to 32 bars length in real or step time, or use the 'TR-Rec' feature (which ingeniously turns the 16 tone-category buttons into TR-808-style illuminated selector switches) to create rhythm patterns or bass lines.

The sequencer has 16 tracks, each of which can hold eight patterns of up to 32 bars long. (Tracks 9-16 are shown in the picture.) Each pattern plays as a loop, and you can start and stop patterns simply by touching them on screen.The sequencer has 16 tracks, each of which can hold eight patterns of up to 32 bars long. (Tracks 9-16 are shown in the picture.) Each pattern plays as a loop, and you can start and stop patterns simply by touching them on screen.

Sequences can have 16 tracks corresponding to the 16 zones used in a scene, each of which holds up to eight patterns. Regardless of bar length, patterns play as a loop. I hoped I could exploit this for a bit of advanced polymetric experimentation, but was stymied by the fact that time signatures are limited to 4/4 and 3/4!

The combination of patterns created for each track is called a group, each of which can be labelled as a song section ('Intro', 'Verse', etc) Groups may then be arranged into song order. You can save the scene you used to compose your arrangement, after which that scene will load with all your patterns, groups and songs in place.

Playback is interactive on a level I've not seen before on a workstation: you can start and stop patterns simply by touching them on screen. The changes automatically happen at the top of the next bar, so you can't accidentally create Trout Mask Replica-style rhythmic mayhem. Other facilities include solo, mute, percentage quantise, input quantise, a loop length setting, a dedicated 16-part mixer and the ability to import and export MIDI files.

This souped-up sequencer will be welcomed by keyboardists who need to create high-quality song backing tracks for their gigs, and the Ableton-style clip-based sequencing could be a great asset for EDM–based acts who need to vary live sequences on the fly. While the sequencer may not be a big selling point for pro players (most of whom use a DAW to create their MIDI sequences), touring musicians may be attracted to the idea of a keyboard they could use to quickly record ideas without having to rig up a computer.

Sampling

I asked my partner what questions she might have if buying this keyboard. Her reply was, "Can you turn off the reverb?" Yes. "Can it do keyboard splits?" Yes. "Can it sound like an orchestra or piano?" Yes. "Does the die-away of the sound you're playing carry on when you change patch?" Yes, the 'patch remain' feature works superbly, enabling seamless transitions even when the outgoing signal has a long release or reverb trail. "Does it have sequenced backing tracks you can play along with?" Yes, there's a bunch of rhythm patterns. "Can you put your own samples in it?" Yes, but there's a catch; you can load in or record 48kHz, 24-bit samples over USB and play them on the pads, but you can't map them out on the keyboard.

The complete Fantom family, showing (from the top) the 88-key Fantom 8, 76-key Fantom 7 and 61-key Fantom 6.The complete Fantom family, showing (from the top) the 88-key Fantom 8, 76-key Fantom 7 and 61-key Fantom 6.The latter is a surprising omission for a keyboard of this stature, especially since the Fantom G was able to map user samples 10 years ago. Conversations with the design team indicate that sampling facilities will be enhanced in the future, with keyboard mapping likely to be included.

Conclusion

In development since 2011, the new Fantom was a closely guarded secret up until the date of its announcement. Though it's ready to rock with all vital features firmly in place, Roland are keen to emphasise that this is a flexible and expandable instrument: its four internal BMC 'behaviour modelling' chips can be assigned in different ways, allowing new technologies and updates to be added in due course. At the time of writing, 4GB of flash memory is available for external sounds and future expansions (available as downloads only), the first of which may already have occurred by the time you read this.

The story goes that after the original Phantom comic book hero (an Englishman, incidentally) died back in the 1600s, his son took over from him, and when the second Phantom died, his son took over, and so on through the centuries. As returning ghosts go, Roland's new Fantom seems to be in the best of health, and though the music industry thrives on new products, the instrument's massive firepower and expandability makes any prospect of an imminent successor seem remote.

Exceedingly versatile, eminently playable and equipped with a huge sound set which includes stellar pads, a great piano, some good vintage keyboards, an impressive analogue synth emulation, a decent array of solo instruments and ensembles, every Roland drum machine sample under the sun and a loved-up sequencer, this durable, epoch-spanning keyboard workstation looks set to be a future classic.

Alternatives

The gap between synthesizers and workstations is closing all the time, with the latter offering increasingly advanced synth features. That said, for my money, the closest pro-level workstation/synthesizer to the new Fantom is the Korg Kronos 2, a multi-faceted keyboard with similar advanced facilities which also incorporates user sampling.

Get Connected

Back panel of the Fantom.

As you can see, the back panel has more connections than Kim Kardashian! Reflecting the contemporary fascination with all things analogue are a dedicated pair of output jacks carrying signal from the analogue filter and two sets of Gate and CV jacks, the former outputting note-on/offs at +5V while the latter controls the receiving analogue synth's pitch. The audio inputs (which have separate left and right level controls on mini-pots) use mic/line combined jack and XLR plugs — the balanced XLR connections have optional 48V phantom power for mics that require it.

Roland say they can't guarantee all commercially available USB flash drives will work, and also utter dire warnings of potential damage if you use the wrong sort of footpedal (they recommend the DP series, which by a remarkable coincidence is made by themselves). I used a bog-standard SanDisk flash drive to perform a system update, and plugged in a battered old sustain pedal I've had lying around for years. Both worked perfectly, though I did have to reverse the polarity of the pedal to make it work correctly. For those blessed with more than two feet, the three other footpedal jack inputs can be used for expression/volume pedals, which can also control other MIDI functions.

Completing the connectivity are the standard trio of MIDI connectors, with an option to switch the 'Thru' connector to a second MIDI out. You can also send MIDI messages over USB.

The Mother Ship

Powering up the Fantom is quite an experience. The six function knobs glow a hellish red before fading between orange, green, turquoise and blue in quick succession, heralding the on-screen appearance of Roland's familiar corporate logo. This gives way to a multi-coloured spinning circle which evolves into a spherical slinky before morphing into a music-visualisation-style pulsating electronic amoeba. The word 'Fantom' then triumphantly shines forth on a dark background with all front panel lights blazing, while the sample pad lights whizz round in a circle like a scene from Close Encounters. Finally, the display erupts into full colour while the panel lights settle into a colourful array of red, blue and light mauve LEDs, with the green tempo light continually flashing so you don't forget where it is.

It's a lot more entertaining than switching on a DX7, I can tell you. The only downside of this dazzling routine is that it takes 40 seconds to complete, which would seem a long time if you had to re–boot during a live performance.

Pros

  • It sounds fabulous, with a huge range of instruments and drums (including classic Roland drum machines).
  • Some of the pads are wonderful.
  • In addition to being a top-notch workstation incorporating a powerful synthesizer, the inclusion of the revamped V-Piano makes it a good bet as a stage piano.
  • The new mode-free, fast-edit performance concept is a great aid to creativity and fluid workflow.
  • The brightly lit front panel will make life easier on a dark stage — and it looks good!

Cons

  • Currently, user samples can be assigned to pads but not keyboard-mapped.
  • The Auto Off feature, which in a worst case turns the Fantom off when you haven't played it for 30 minutes!
  • Expensive, but then this is a top-class instrument.

Summary

Roland's Fantom makes a startling comeback with this classy and powerful new keyboard. Designed from the ground up for playability and ease of use, it sounds great and includes an updated version of the critically acclaimed V-Piano alongside an extensive set of workstation instruments and analogue-style synth technology. Other attractions include DAW integration and a full-featured Ableton-style sequencer, making this a keyboard which should appeal to pro and semi-pro keyboardists, composers and songwriters.

information

Fantom 6 £3069, Fantom 7 £3249, Fantom 8 £3519. Prices include VAT.

www.roland.com

Fantom 6 $3299, Fantom 7 $3599, Fantom 8 $3999.

www.roland.com

Published November 2019