Derek Johnson takes a look at a new addition to the still‑growing Sound Canvas family.
Roland's family of Sound Canvas‑based General MIDI compatible sound modules just seems to grow and grow — a range of half‑rack modules, PC cards and even the innards of the JW50 workstation have seen versions of this technology. The latest incarnation is the SC50, a physically similar unit to the original SC55, but with a lower price tag than the current SC55 MkII.
The SC50 looks just like the original Sound Canvas: the same half‑rack package (rack‑mount adaptor available separately), the same collection of editing buttons and large, orange backlit display. There are, however, one or two small differences. On the plus side, the SC50 has the advantage of the superior (ie. quieter) audio outputs found on the SC55 MkII, 28‑voice polyphony (four up on the SC55) and a PC/Mac computer interface. On the negative side, the SC50 loses the front‑panel mounted second MIDI input (although its single MIDI In is still labelled MIDI In 1) and the SC55's option of operation via a cute little remote control. Remaining the same are the stereo inputs and outputs on phono connectors, and the huge external power supply.
There are changes internally too. The SC50 has a total of 226 sounds and nine drum kits; that's somewhat less than the original Sound Canvas' complement of 315 sounds plus plus 10 drum kits. This saving is made by leaving out the SC55's aged MT32‑compatible drum kit and soundbank, and providing the SC50 with a smaller waveform ROM — some instruments sound as though they use shorter samples that seem to have more in common with Roland's PC card type products.
The SC50 provides 16 Parts, each of which is assigned an instrument, a volume level, reverb and chorus send levels, +/‑24 semitones of transposition, a pan position and a MIDI channel. Note that if you change the voice assignment for a Part, all the other parameters stay the same. These functions are accessed from the front panel with dedicated buttons (labelled Level, Reverb, Instrument and so on), but by indulging in arcane double button pushes (both Part buttons as it happens), each Part can be customised further. The extra parameters are much more 'synth‑like' and do allow for some creativity on the user's part. The parameters you're presented with include attack, decay and release values (EG), filter cutoff frequency and resonance (VCF‑ish) and a variety of vibrato parameters (think of it as an LFO). Also available on a per‑part basis are velocity sensitivity settings, key range, mod depth, bend range and portamento.
Global settings are available by pressing both Part buttons, after pressing the All button, and include overall reverb and chorus types, LCD contrast, various display parameters and master tuning. Other double button pushes allow you to dump the memory over MIDI, initialise the SC55 for GM or GS function, and so on. In common with earlier Sound Canvases, the SC50 has no user memories, but any changes made to a sound within a Part remain in place on power‑down, since the Sound Canvas's memory is non‑volatile. . One of the easiest ways of keeping track of any customisation you might do is to actually dump the SC's memory at the beginning of a sequence, so that when it plays back, your SC is instantly configured exactly for that song.
The sound of the SC50 is very much 'Roland'; of the various GM‑compatible sound modules on the market, Roland have produced some of the best, even those with a PC bias providing sophisticated and useful collections of instantly useable sounds. The SC50 continues that tradition, with the couple of caveats noted in this review. Roland have cut a few corners with regard to the basic waveform ROM in this unit — it has just 16Mbits compared to 24Mbits found on the SC55 MkII — and this is occasionally noticeable. What sounded like compromises occasionally turned out to be slightly conservative programming. For example, the usually serviceable Roland piano sounded dull and uninspiring until I tweaked the velocity response, at which point it played pretty much as I remembered it on other Sound Canvases. Basses can likewise benefit from a little customisation, while woodwinds and brass are fine as they stand. Also 'fine as they stand' are organs, synth textures and drum kits. Strings may need a tweak or two, depending on the user, and saxes aren't quite as memorable as on the original SC55. Stylistically correct sequencer programming can overcome some of these problems, however. If you do go in for tweaking, just remember to keep any edits tucked away in a SysEx librarian, or at the start of your sequence.
I'd also like to make a note of the demo: this is one of the best you'll hear on any synth — apart from one or two fusion‑ish aberrations, it's remarkably close to real music.
I liked the SC50, as I like all Sound Canvas products. While I have an ambivalent attitude to General MIDI and the Disneyesque blandness it stands for, I'm certainly not going to let that stop me from appreciating an affordable source of good sounds — Sound Canvases are perfect for scratch arrangements of all kinds.
On an operational level, I have no major complaints with the SC50. The front panel can be a bit fiddly, but it provides a lot more control than similar products from other manufacturers, and sonically, it's equal to the task of reproducing General MIDI compatible song files. I have used a Sound Canvas in the past as a sound generator, and the sequence files I made at this time also played back perfectly well on the new unit, bar a couple of different cymbals and a few slightly less 'realistic' samples.
Where I do have trouble is in placing the SC50 in the marketplace. We've had several different breeds of Sound Canvas sold to us since 1991, and there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for the existence of this particular one. While the SC50's price of £549 is basically attractive, if perhaps a little high, it is only £100 short of the current retail price of the SC55 MkII. Had it been sub‑£500, there wouldn't have been so much to comment on. However, with the imminent launch of the SC88 Super Sound Canvas, which will retail close to the £800 mark, and the rumoured mothballing of the SC55 MkII, the raison d'etre of the SC50 becomes a little clearer. And any comment on its price, of course, must also take into consideration the inclusion of a PC/Mac interface. This valuable addition will save many potential users who are equipped with either of those computers the expense of buying a separate MIDI interface. Also notable is the improved SC55 MkII version audio output stage, which offers a significant improvement on the output found on pre‑MkII SCs — it's much quieter.
However, market analysis and GM cynicism aside, the SC50 does what it aims to do: provides good sounds with GM/GS compatibility at a price somewhat lower than the full‑flight Sound Canvas. Being equipped with the MkII converters does actually result in quieter performance, but on a budget unit, I'd have been more thankful for a slightly more up‑market range of sounds.
The Sound Canvas sound can be had cheaper (ie, the marvellous Boss Dr Synth, whose price and cuteness excuse any compromises, and such desktop music products as the SC7). However, if you want an affordable Sound Canvas that features loads of buttons and the friendly orange display, then the SC50 can be recommended. Magazine review etiquette suggests, nay demands, a snappy, one‑line conclusion, so here goes. Whether the question you're asking is "What can I buy to faithfully play back GM song files?", "Where can I get an affordable, all‑purpose selection of useful sounds?" or "What can I buy to turn my computer into multimedia central?", the SC50 could be the answer.
One piece of good news is that any software developed for the sound canvas appears to be compatible with the SC50. I tried the Easel Sound Canvas Editor from Heavenly Music (0255 434217), and the SC55/SC155 Graphical Screen Editor from Hands On (0705 783100), and everything seemed to work perfectly. The latter is a bit a of a novelty, but is actually very entertaining. It allows you to create moving messages and block diagrams that appear on the Sound Canvas' display; the result can be saved as a MIDI Song File and loaded into a sequencer. I'm not sure what practical use it is (although it surely must appear in someone's video soon), but it's fun, and actually accesses the deepest recesses of the SC's SysEx. Heavenly's Easel also delves into SysEx in a big way. This is an example of a piece of software that provides both access to parameters that aren't available from the front panel, and easy access to those parameters that are available to the user. For example, Easel allows you to edit the effects to a much more comprehensive extent than normal — pre‑delay, decay times, and so on are all editable here, and make the SC an even more attractive all‑rounder. Of course, if your computer software has a mixer map page or some other way of transmitting MIDI control info from the screen, you can do the same sort of thing, and record the result into a sequence. All the necessary info is hidden in the MIDI documentation at the back of the manual; you could save yourself the trouble, since several companies can supply such mixer maps ready configured, especially for Cubase on the ST. This kind of sophisticated SysEx access really helps to stretch the Sound Canvas beyond the realm of being a mere GM/GS playback module.
- Roland SC55 Sound Canvas — reviewed SOS September 1991.
- Boss DS330 Dr Synth — reviewed Recording Musician September 1992.
- Roland JW50 GM Workstation — reviewed SOS November 1992.
- Roland Audio Producer for Windows — reviewed SOS March 1994.
- 16‑part multitimbrality.
- 28‑voice polyphony.
- 16Mbit waveform ROM.
- GM/GS compatible.
- Reverb and Chorus effects.
- Stereo outputs, stereo inputs.
- PC/Mac computer interface.
- Classy Roland sound.
- PC/Mac MIDI interface.
- Quiet performance.
- Perhaps a little pricey.
- Slightly curtailed waveform ROM.
The waveform ROM may have been shaved to the bone to meet a given cost, but the SC50 still delivers the Roland sound for a price that's (just about) right.