Derek Johnson checks out the new flagship of the Sound Canvas range.
I'll make no bones about it: though it's part of the Sound Canvas general‑purpose sound module range, the SC88 really does stretch the idea of a General MIDI sound module to its limits. While maintaining compatibility with earlier machines in the series (instant SC55 MkII emulation is a button‑push away, and there is also CM64/32L module compatibility), it offers much more.
There are three major areas of improvement: firstly, the sound. The SC88 features 8Mb of waveforms, which translates into 354 patches from the SC55 MkII plus 300 patches from the JV80, arranged in 128 memory positions. Now 654 patches won't fit into 128 memory locations; the discrepancy between patches and locations is explained by the fact that each patch has up to 19 variation patches, which don't have their own memory location. In addition, there are 24 drum kits (including two sound effects kits) and 256 User Instrument locations — that last feature is definitely a step, if not a leap, forward for the Sound Canvas ethos. Sound Canvases have always featured effects — reverb and chorus for the most part — but the SC88 goes two better: a fully functioning delay, and a two‑band parametric EQ. The last major upgrade is in terms of polyphony and multitimbrality. How does 64‑voice polyphony and full 32‑part multitimbrality strike you?
The SC88 has a similar look to the SC55 Mk II, although a bit appears to have been welded to the bottom of the module. This extra half a rack unit of bodywork helps to make room for an internal power supply — it's about time — and provides space for even more front‑panel buttons.
Just like the SC55 Mk II, the new machine has two MIDI Ins and a MIDI Out/Thru. The difference here is that the SC88 can actually respond to two completely independent MIDI streams — that's the 32‑part multitimbrality we were just telling you about. And, like the entry‑level SC50, the SC88 features a serial port at the rear, for connection to a PC clone or Mac computer. Apart from an on/off button and a volume knob that doubles as a preview switch (press it and it plays a note on the current part), for established Sound Canvas users, the SC88 feels instantly familiar.
The SC88, in common with previous Sound Canvases, is always in Part mode: that is, you always have access to all Parts — 16 in the case of the older machines, and 32 in the case of the SC88 (A1‑16 and B1‑16). From the front panel, you have control over Part voice, level, transpose, pan position, MIDI channel, mute status, EQ, reverb send, delay send and chorus send; other parameters — such as fine tuning, bend range, velocity sensitivity depth, aftertouch parameters and so on, are available by accessing a sub‑menu.
Each Part also has a selection of Part Parameters that allow the user to customise the sound selected. Part Parameters are dedicated to the Part and will remain in place even if you select a new patch. These parameters include vibrato, envelope and filter settings, and new dedicated buttons make setting them up a much easier task. Established SC users will know that Part Parameters on older machines were, while not inaccessible, a little fiddly to get to.
The problem with Part Parameters in the past was the lack of user memory locations in which to store the edits. A logical step forward would be user memories, and that is what Roland have provided on the SC88: 256 User Instrument memory locations. Using the new collection of buttons, you can apply the same filter, envelope and vibrato parameters to a sound and store the customised result permanently in RAM. All 128 patches have two free variation locations (numbered 64 and 65), and it is here that User Instruments are stored. User memories, as with all Variation patches, are accessed externally by using Bank Select commands, or from the front panel by using the Variation buttons.
In spite of the limited number of User Instrument parameters available, this customisation can still be a creative and powerful facility. There are a couple of let‑downs: the user still has no access to basic waveforms — edits are always based on an exisiting patch — and there is no way to name your personal variation. You'll have to keep notes on what you've done to what patch and where you've put it.
There are also two user‑editable drum kits — and these can be named. Strange, no? While drum sounds can't be reassigned to different MIDI notes, all other parameters can be edited. Each sound has its own volume, transpose value, pan position, reverb send level, chorus or delay send level (drum sounds can't have both) and an assign group, whereby two sounds with the same group number won't play at the same time. This is ideal for hi‑hats — you won't want open and closed hi‑hats to sound together. Individual drum sounds can't be selected by MIDI notes when editing; you have to scroll through them manually. The Preview facility (push the volume knob) does play the currently selected drum sound, however, so it's not as much of a problem as at first it might seem.
If you're moving up from another Sound Canvas, you'll be faced with two scenarios: the familiar front panel and operating system will, for the most part, present few problems. However, many of the multiple button pushes you're familiar with will no longer work. This is countered by the fact that many functions that were hidden behind multiple button pushes are now much more accesible, due to the extra complement of buttons for Part Parameters and voice editing. The display is no different from Sound Canvases of old, so some of the parameter fields do double duty — for example, when altering the delay send level, its value shares space with the Key Range or Chorus send fields, depending on what you're doing.
The SC88 has one annoying habit: when turned on, the display scrolls through a veritable laundry list of basic system parameters — well, it seems like it at the time. The display informs you of which mode the SC88 is in, what the master tuning value is and the serial interface status. I couldn't find a way to stop this in the manual, but I did discover that by pressing the Part left arrow button during power up, the SC88 jumped straight to play mode. But mustn't grumble: this facility actually served as a trouble‑shooter a couple of times during the review.
One welcome feature is the return of multiple triggering, last seen on Roland's U20 and U220 sample playback instruments. Many were disappointed to see this facility disappear with the advent of the Sound Canvas. Multiple triggering allows sounds such as cymbals, tympani and snare drums to be rolled convincingly. Try this on an SC55 or SC50 and you'll immediately hear what I mean: every stroke violently chokes off the previous note. Not on the SC88.
While some previous hidden functions are now easily accessible from the front panel, others remain hidden — the most notable example for me being the alternate tuning system. You can only set up non‑equal temperament tunings by using System Exclusive messages, although this is explained reasonably throroughly in the MIDI implementation at the back of the manual. And if you're using the serial port, you may only be able to use one MIDI input — access to the second MIDI input depends on your software.
It's been said before, but to these ears, Sound Canvases, in whatever package, offer one of the most consistent and usable collections of basic sounds to be had in a MIDI‑controlled module. Anybody (with the money, of course) will appreciate the comprehensive and high quality selection of basic sounds. At two extremes, scratch orchestral arrangements can be convincingly managed and dance/rave material can absolutely pour from the unit — just check out the TR808/TR909 drum kits. In fact, the SC88 is one of the best general sources of drum and percussion sounds around — so much so that one wonders why Roland don't add a dedicated drum module to the family. But I digress.
The SC88's new JV80‑sourced waveforms add an extra dimension to what was already a pretty successful format, and the expanded range of variation patches adds even more to the package. Although a few sounds are identical to the SC55, most are new, and the majority of these sounds are superior to their equivalents on earlier SCs — for example, acoustic pianos, brass and woodwinds in general have a more natural, realistic feel, and the funky selection of synth basses is impressive (patch 039, variation 010 Tekno Bass is instant Kraftwerk, and who needs a TB303 with variation 008 Acid Bass and 009 TB303 Bass?).
The actual quality of the samples is very good: no buzzing or dead loops, long samples that do sound like the original instrument, and although some crossover points in multisamples are noticeable, none is jarringly so. The effects add a sophisticated, glossy sheen to what is already there. And the 18‑bit DA convertors help to keep hiss and noise at bay.
To be honest, the Sound Canvas series was beginning to look a bit directionless, especially with the discontinuation of the SC55 MkII, previously the best of the range: the recently released SC50 was good but not drastically different from what had gone before. Roland had set themselves such high standards with the original flood of SC‑style modules that it was always going to be tricky to come up with a product in the same range that really had something new to offer. Despite that difficulty, Roland have delivered the goods with the SC88.
I do have a couple of negative points regarding the SC88, however. I'm baffled at not being able to name User Instruments, and I feel that an extra stereo output in dual module mode would have been a useful addition. It's worth noting that rarely will you have full 64‑note polyphony, since many sounds are made up of two voices. With 64‑voice polyphony at your disposal, however, note stealing should be rather less of a problem than it is with 16‑, 24‑ or 28‑voice polyphonic instruments. And I will once again rail at a Roland user manual: it's not very well organised, and is occasionally confusing on some points. I could also mention the price. At £799, the SC88 actually matches the current list price of a Yamaha TG500 — a 'real' synth (access to waveforms and all voice editing parameters) with 64‑voice polyphony, sophisticated effects, optional sample RAM, but no computer interface, no GM compatibility and a more complicated operating system. It's also more than Yamaha's TG300 — but the SC88 offers double the polyphony and double the number of multitimbral parts of that module.
These problems do little to temper my overall enthusiasm for the SC88: the new Super Sound Canvas looks — and sounds — very much like the best General MIDI/GS module Roland have produced so far. It should appeal to a broad range of MIDI‑based musicians, whether rave, jazz, soundtrack or pop/rock‑orientated, and should go down particularly well in schools. The basic sounds are never disappointing (and generally excellent), the polyphony is quite large enough for 'serious' composition, and the built‑in MIDI interface saves everyone money. Whatever Roland do next with their Sound Canvas range, the SC88 is going to be a hard act to follow.
Effects is one area where the SC88 really scores. Apart from reverb and chorus, which are all easily editable from the front panel (unlike previous SCs), there is now a delay and a simple two‑band EQ. The EQ is a global processor, in that you can only have one setting, but it is switchable on all Parts — it even has its own front panel switch. Note that you have to first press the All button, and then press the EQ button before going back to Part mode and selecting EQ for each Part. I didn't find the manual too helpful on this point. The EQ really is a beefy little device considering that it's so simple — all you get is a choice of 200Hz and 400Hz for the low band and 3kHz and 6kHz for the high band, with ±12dB of cut/boost in each instance.
The delay is very well‑specified, with 10 delays types (including pan delays), a low‑pass filter, separate delay times and levels for left, centre and right, feedback, and a delay‑to‑reverb parameter. The reverb includes a variety of rooms, halls, plate and a couple of delays, with pre‑delay and LPF. Decay times aren't noted, but can be quite long, and the overall quality is smooth — typically Roland. There is also a wide range of chorus options, including feedback chorus and flanger.
One really excellent aspect of the effects implementation is that under certain conditions, you can actually have two sets of independent effects. Not only can the SC88 operate on 32 separate MIDI channels, but the module can actually be split into two 'virtual' modules, each addressable by its own MIDI In. This is what Roland call Double Module Mode. Each module in Double Module Mode can actually have its own set of reverb and chorus effects. The compromise is that you lose both the delay and EQ effects, but that's not such a bad thing, since, for example, you'll be able to have a completely different set of effects on your drums than the rest of your track. Simple example — I'm sure you'll think of more.
- 64‑voice polyphony.
- 32‑part multitimbrality (via two independent MIDI Ins).
- 8Mb of waveform ROM.
- 654 patches on board: 354 from the SC55 MkII and 300 from JV80.
- 22 drum kits, plus two SFX kits.
- 256 user instrument memory locations, plus two user drum kits.
- Editable effects: reverb, chorus, delay and two‑band EQ.
- Built‑in serial port for use with Mac or PC compatible computers.
- 18‑bit DACs on the outputs.
- 64‑voice polyphony.
- 32‑part multitimbrality.
- Computer interface
- Large number of varied, useful and high‑quality sounds.
- 256 user memories.
- Well‑specified effects.
- No naming of user‑edited sounds.
- Manual a bit of a let‑down.
The SC88 may not be the best value for money in GM‑based sound modules, but it could be simply the best. Impressive all round.