One or two General MIDI modules are simply a cut above the rest, and Roland's
high‑end Sound Canvases fit right into this category. Paul White retires to the studio with the latest in the line and dips into a seemingly limitless palette of sound...
General MIDI synths tend to be regarded as fairly unexciting by the majority of serious musicians — but although more esoteric synthesizers have a seductive appeal, most musicians still need at least one set of high‑quality, bread‑and‑butter sounds at their disposal, ideally with plenty of variations to choose from. Perhaps budget soundcards are to blame for GM's distinctly unsexy image, but Roland want their SC880, with its huge library of hi‑fi sounds and hefty 64‑voice polyphony, to change all that.
The SC in this new module's name obviously derives from Sound Canvas, Roland's long running series of GM/GS modules, but the majority of sounds used in this model are more advanced even than the GM sounds used in the company's pro‑level JV1080 and 2080. Furthermore, to retain backwards compatibility, the SC880 also features complete sets of sounds from the earlier SC55 and SC88 sound modules. Bank Select commands may be used to switch between the SC55, SC88 and SC880 libraries, and to select the GS variations of each sound. Of course, these may also be selected directly from the front panel.
Presented in 1U rackmount format (unlike its tabletop‑format predecessor, the SC88) the SC880 is capable of 32‑part multitimbrality via its two MIDI input ports, and the user has the choice of configuring it as one huge machine or as two relatively independent 16‑part modules, the latter being at the expense of delay and EQ effects, which can't be accessed in Double mode. Navigation and editing is via the usual cursor buttons, data‑entry Value wheel and LCD screen, though on this model the Value wheel also has a push switch built into it. Depending on what operation you're doing, pressing the Value switch will allow you to view certain parameter lists. The LCD features the familiar Sound Canvas bargraph display mode, showing the multitimbral MIDI activity of the instrument. To aid in auditioning sounds, pressing the Volume knob plays an appropriate demo tune or riff using the currently selected sound.
Though the front panel looks pretty simple, it provides access to all the SC880's sound and effect editing facilities, while the rear panel sports direct Mac and PC computer interfacing, along with regular MIDI sockets. Two MIDI Ins, A and B, handle the 32 parts of the SC880, so if you're accessing the unit via MIDI you'll need a MIDI interface with at least two ports (or two separate interfaces) to take advantage of its multitimbrality. Using a PC may or may not allow you to access the second set of 16 parts (B) depending on the software you're running, so there's a swap mode to change sections A and B around. This is useful for situations where you may want to play a live patch from section A while sequencing several parts using section B. A four‑position slide switch selects between Mac, MIDI and two different speeds of PC serial port; the unit must be switched off before the interface mode is changed, in order for the change to be recognised. A single combined MIDI Out and Thru is also fitted.
On the audio side, there are two pairs of stereo outs, plus a pair of input jacks which allow a stereo source to be combined with the output of the SC880 without recourse to a mixer. With a synth that offers 32‑part multitimbrality you can never have enough outputs, even though the internal effects reduce the need for external sound processing; Roland have made the effort to provide a reasonable amount of flexibility here by configuring the SC880 so that any sounds routed to Output 2 are stripped of their effects. Output 1 generally handles a stereo mix with effects, though inserting just the left jack provides a mono output when needed. The unit is supplied with nothing routed to Output 2, though the user has the option of routing any of the 32 Parts either to Output 1, Output 2 stereo, Output 2 Left or Output 2 Right. Note that sounds routed to Output 2 aren't affected by the front‑panel volume control setting.
It's probably fair to say that the SC880 offers more in the way of drums and percussion than some dedicated drum machines that cost almost as much.
Inside the machine are the three sets of 128 Capital GM tones (for the SC55, 88 and 880) plus a large number of GS variation tones — 1117 tones and 42 rhythm sets in total, complemented by a very powerful effects section. Because there are so many variation tones, some sounds that normally wouldn't make the GM set have managed to find their way in, such as digeridoo and a number of vintage analogue sounds. But while in some areas you're spoilt for choice, in others it seems you have virtually no choice, with the SC55, 88 and 880 versions of some sounds seemingly identical. For example, I could only find one shakuhachi sound — and that was the old familiar Sound Canvas sample that sounds more like a harmonica than a shakuhachi.
On the whole, though, the palette of sound offered by the SC880 is impressive, not just because of the monstrous GM/GS library, but also because of the excellent range of drum kits on board. All the standard acoustic and electronic sounds are there, but there are also kits of sound effects, ethnic drums and weird combinations that can be used in anything from ambient techno to mainstream pop.
In Roland terminology, a Tone is a basic sound such as a piano, guitar, bass, or synth, though some Tones actually comprise two Voices, which reduces the available polyphony accordingly. Each Tone has eight editable key parameters:
- Vibrato Rate
- Vibrato Depth
- Vibrato Delay
- Filter Cutoff Frequency
This might not seem like a lot of editing depth compared to what's provided by some instruments, but in practice it allows fast and easy tone shaping over a surprisingly wide range, and parameters can be changed over MIDI using a remote device — a hardware controller such as the Peavey PC1600 or the Keyfax PhatBoy, for example. Once Tones have been edited, they can be saved in one of 256 user locations.
When one or more Tones are used together, with effects, the result is known as a Patch, which can comprise layered Tones or keyboard splits. There are 128 factory Patches and a further 128 user Patch memories. The 42 rhythm sets are configured as drum sets with one percussive sound per key, and though some sounds are common to several kits there's still a huge range on offer, including a number of Roland's classic 808 and 909 sounds. It's probably fair to say that the SC880 offers more in the way of drums and percussion than some dedicated drum machines that cost almost as much.
The next level of sound construction is the Performance, which groups together Tones and Rhythm sets to form a multitimbral ensemble that can be accessed from a sequencer. The SC880 includes 16 Performances, eight of which are Presets, with one specifically designed as a sequencer starting‑point template. Eight more may be saved by the user.
These days, effects are pretty much de rigeur on a decent general‑purpose sound module, and the SC880 offers two types: System effects are applied to all Parts, with user‑adjustable amounts per part, while Multi‑effects are applied to specific Parts. The System effects comprise reverb, chorus delay and EQ, while the Multi‑effects section offers a library of 64 different treatments. The latter can be configured in series or in parallel, and it's possible to store 64 of your own Multi‑effects creations.
The SC880 is always played in either Patch mode or Performance mode, and from either of these you can move into Tone, Rhythm or Multi‑effects mode to access specific settings. Normally Performance mode is used when the SC880 is linked to a sequencer and Patch mode when it's being used as a live sound source controlled from a MIDI keyboard.
The manual makes it clear that some of the SC880 Tones don't play across the whole width of the keyboard because they have been constrained to the natural range of the instrument in question. Some of the instruments have also been designed for legato playing (shown by a colon at the end of the instrument name) so that if you don't end one note before starting another the second note will be played without its attack portion. This is obviously useful for emulating instruments such as violin, that can jump to different notes within the same bow stroke.
...though the number of editable Tone parameters is relatively small, you can reshape a sound beyond recognition in almost no time at all.
On a technical level, the sounds themselves are clean, with a creditably low background noise level. Immediately you notice that plenty of memory has been dedicated to the pianos to ensure natural, seamless sounds with no obvious loops. There's also a good range of organ sounds, and if you're into guitars you'll discover a comprehensive selection of acoustic, electric and distorted sounds to choose from. I was also pleased to see a musically relevant range of bass sounds on offer — the regular electric and fretless bass sounds are particularly strong, with plenty of depth and definition. This section also includes a whole load of synth basses, including (but not restricted to) classic Roland models such as the TB303, the JP8 and the SH101.
So far so good — but the quality shifts up a further notch when you get to the orchestral sounds. These are really excellent, with plenty of variations to choose from. The string ensembles are especially convincing, as are the brass and reed sections, and the only slightly weak point of this section is the Pipe sounds, where the various flutes sound very much like their regular Sound Canvas counterparts. I've never found Roland's flutes to be totally convincing, and even the pan pipes and bottle‑blows seem too aggressive and chiffy. There's also less choice in this area than in most of the other sections.
Things pick up again with the synth leads, pads and FX. A few Patches, such as 'Fantasia' and 'Atmosphere', sound rather dated, but the sheer number of other sounds on offer in this area more than make up for that. Again, the Roland arsenal of vintage machines has been brought into play, but the collection is not without examples from other manufacturers' instruments. A lot of what's included on a JV Vintage expansion board turns up here in one guise or another, as do a few FM sounds.
Having the facility to add so many variation tones elevates the Ethnic sound section from a token gesture to a worthwhile library, though to get a convincing sitar sound you still need to put the drones on one track and a the melody on another, so that you can pitch‑bend the melody without bending the drone. Perhaps a new mode, with a keyboard split‑point below which pitch‑bend doesn't operate, would be useful for such instruments — bagpipes included?
I've already mentioned the drum sets, which are a tough act to follow, but there's also a percussion section, which is stuffed with gamelans, taikos, synth drums and reversed sounds, as well as tinkly bells and latin percussive noises. The melodic toms are both varied and powerful, yet musical — something that can't always be said of the final SFX section. How did helicopter, bird tweet and telephone make it into the original GM spec? With up to 13 variations on each of the 880's SFX sounds alone, you don't have to worry too much about these — though the bird has been joined by a dog, a horse galloping, a kitten, another bird and a growl! The good news is that there are many guitar string and fret noises, some genuinely useful sound effects, wind chimes, and a whole lot more weather!
Finally, though effects tend to be taken for granted these days Roland must be commended for providing very high quality in this area, with some useful and less obvious offerings in the Multi‑effects section. Used with care, these can turn fairly standard GM/GS sounds into something a little bit special.
While the SC880 inevitably has something of a traditional Sound Canvas flavour to it, both the quality and choice of sounds is to be applauded, as is the powerful effects section and quite magnificent drum section. Aside from a few weak sounds inherited from earlier Sound Canvas products, the overall quality is really very good. The manual makes the unit seem more complicated than it really is, but once you start to use the SC880 it's actually quite easy to find your way around.
When you get into editing Tones, then creating Patches from two or more Tones, plus effects, you can generate sounds that transcend the basic GM/GS repertoire. An external hardware controller makes creating new sounds especially quick and easy. The resonant digital filters have a nicely analogue edge to them, and though the number of editable Tone parameters is relatively small, you can reshape a sound beyond recognition in almost no time at all.
Not everyone will turned on by the prospect of more and better GM/GS sounds, but anyone working in traditional pop music areas could do a lot worse than choose an SC880 as the basis of a sound‑generating system. In addition to massive polyphony, you get all the stock pianos, basses, guitars and organs needed for pop work, as well as a surprisingly large selection of classical and synth sounds, some of the best (and most varied) drum sounds going, and a powerful effects section. Having at least one GM‑compatible instrument also gives you a means to exchange song data with other musicians, as well as the wherewithal to build up mixes from commercially available MIDI files. If you feel lacking in the GM department, you need to listen to the SC880 to see what you're missing out on.
The SC880's Multi‑effects section is actually very powerful, and while it isn't possible to string together chains of effects, there are some preset chains on offer, as well as some unusual treatments that greatly enhance the SC880's ability to produce creative sounds. For example, in addition to the various conventional EQ options, there's also a spectrum filter, an enhancer and the Humanizer vowel filter. Additionally, there are various overdrive and distortion options, as well as wah, rotary speaker, and all the usual chorus/flange/pan/tremolo modulation effects. There are also processors such as compressors and limiters; effects featuring Roland's own RSS stereo enhancement; gates; pitch shifters; multi‑tapped delays; and devices for turning all the pristine new sounds thoroughly lo‑fi, if that's what suits your music.
Effect chains include guitar multis, comprising three or four effects in series, various keyboard multis, and a few dual effects, such as overdrive combined with rotary speaker, or phaser with auto‑wah. Each effect has various user‑accessible parameters, allowing fairly in‑depth editing, and some parameters may be controlled in real time via MIDI if you're feeling adventurous. Effects such as EQ can obviously only be on or off, but reverb, chorus and delay have individual amount parameters that determine the feed levels to the System effects when in Multi‑effects mode, so you have a lot of control over the effects applied to different parts.
|• SC55||September 1991|
|• SC50||May 1994|
|• SC88||September 1994|
|• SC88 Pro||March 1997|
- 32‑part multitimbral, with 64‑voice polyphony.
- Loads of good sounds, augmented by powerful effects.
- Vast choice of quality drum kits.
- Built‑in computer interface for Mac or PC.
- Useful Audition feature.
- A few of the sounds are let down by being lifted directly from older Sound Canvas models and having no (audibly different) variations.
- The Audition riffs are usually better than the stuff I'm trying to write!
While the SC880 has a distinctly Sound Canvas flavour, the sounds are technically good, with numerous variations on most, making the unit much more flexible than its predecessors. This is a GM module to be taken seriously.