Roland's SC88 could be described as a Rolls‑Royce in the world of General MIDI sound modules. So is the new upgraded SC88 Pro a luxurious stretch limo complete with mini‑bar and luxuriant walnut veneer? Derek Johnson dons his chauffeur's cap and takes it for a drive...
It hardly seems possible, yet it's nearly two and a half years since Roland released the SC88 Super Sound Canvas, the company's then‑definitive statement of what a General MIDI sound module could be. What's even more surprising is that, in this age of fast turnover in the hi‑tech music market, it's taken this long for Roland to come up with a successor. The intervening time has seen Roland cut and paste the Sound Canvas innards into a rackmounting module (the MGS64), and repackage the original as the grey‑liveried SC88VL desktop music module. Given that the original SC88 was already a high‑quality, and relatively high‑priced, module, adding a 'Pro' tag to the new model should really promise something special. For some basic background on the SC88 ethos, take a look at the SOS review which appeared back in September 1994 (the MGS64 was reviewed in October 1995). For now, a quick recap is in order. In short, the SC88, housed in a half‑rack package slightly taller than 1U high, offered 64‑note polyphony, 32‑part multitimbrality (via two MIDI In sockets, one duplicated on the front panel), a GM/GS sound set much enhanced by many extra banks of variation sounds, front‑panel editing, three effects processors plus 2‑band EQ, stereo audio input, a PC/Macintosh interface, and an internal power supply. The Pro has all this, and more — which is just as well, since such a specification is nothing out of the ordinary these days. Korg's NS5R and Yamaha's MU80 and forthcoming MU90R all offer something similar.
Physically, you have to look closely to find differences between the SC88 Pro and its non‑Pro predecessor, though front‑panel labelling has been modified, so that apart from the word 'Pro' being added next to 'SC88', many of the buttons are re‑named to reflect new features and functions.
One of the most significant enhancements to be found on the Pro has to be in the sound department. The original SC88's sound set was vast, at 654 instruments and 24 drum kits, but this has now been almost doubled with the addition of waveforms and sounds drawn from Roland's JD‑ and JV‑series synth expansion board options. The resulting 20Mb of waveforms — two and a half times that found on the SC88 — provides 1117 sounds and 42 drum kits. And there's still 256 memory locations for user voices and two for user drum kits. Accessing such a massive number of sounds is easier than you might think: over MIDI, Bank Select commands, if your MIDI software or controller can generate them, make life fairly easy, and you can also select sounds from the front panel. The pair of buttons labelled 'Instrument' select a Part's main sound, while pressing both together takes you into a variation mode, where the banks of variation sounds can be accessed using the same buttons. It's just as well that the extra banks are easily accessible, since some basic sounds are provided with as many as 31 variations. Of course, the SC88 Pro is fully compatible with all GM and GS (Roland's extended GM protocol) song files, and complete compatibility is provided for files written for the SC88, SC55 and SC55 MkII, and the now rather elderly CM64.
The effects section has also been enhanced; the three system effects (eight types of reverb, eight choruses and 10 delay types, which are available to all parts), plus EQ, are now joined by an 'insertion' effect, which can be applied to any part individually (although it can be switched in for all Parts, if you like), so that you can have a truly distorted guitar or swirly rotary organ without compromising the rest of your arrangement. There are 64 insertion effects (and room for 64 user edits) and several dual‑effect and multi‑effect options, plus several 3D treatments that use a version of RSS — Roland Sound Space — technology.
In addition to the vast collection of new sounds, Roland have added a bank of what they call Patches: these are quite independent of the main instrument, and offer the user 128 presets (plus space for 16 user Patches) that appear to be complex sounds more akin to those found on an up‑market synth. Some Patches have actually been ported from Roland's expansion boards, and some are brand new for the SC88 Pro, but all take advantage of the new insertion effects. Selecting Patches from the front panel is, of course, possible, but can be fiddly (it involves manually loading a Patch and pressing 'All'); external selection uses Bank Select commands, and is much tidier.
One slightly frustrating aspect of the original module was its sole stereo output — the module could, in essence, be split into two fully 16‑part multitimbral sound sources, with effects, yet the audio was squeezed through a single stereo output pair. There are two pairs of outputs on the Pro (a feature first introduced on the MGS64 module) which is a great improvement.
Operationally, the Pro is always in Part mode, like every Sound Canvas instrument before it. You will always be able to access all 32 parts, and select sounds, change effects, transposition and MIDI channel at any time. These tweaks remain with the Part even on power down, and can also be made remotely over MIDI, using System Exclusive or Controller information. In common with the original SC88, the Pro offers a large display, plus a collection of 28 buttons that can be used for selecting and modifying sounds, setting individual Part parameters, and so on.
While the idea of General MIDI may have a relationship to real synths akin to that of the Spice Girls to real music, like the Spice Girls, these products do have a place in the market.
MIDI control is especially important in the case of the typical General MIDI module, since so many of the parameters that a user would want to alter can only be accessed using MIDI controllers or SysEx in some way. And, of course, this data is used by commercial MIDI File programmers to coax the basic synth engine into generating a more polished, convincing performance. To this end, pretty well everything on the SC88 Pro can be so controlled, although, as previously mentioned, the Pro offers much more in the way of front‑panel editability than the average GM module. If you feel a particular Part's sound suffers from a slow attack or needs a bit more resonance, this is all easily done by hand. It's worth recalling that once you've tweaked all the Pro's Parts in this way, you could actually do a System Exclusive dump to an external storage device, with all the changes intact, saving you the trouble of inserting the necessary commands into your sequence, if all you need is a few simple changes.
Actually, front‑panel editing is slightly more complicated on the Pro than its predecessor, because there is so much more going on. For example, the strip of eight buttons at the bottom of the machine were used to edit user instruments on the original SC88, also doubling as Delay effect send, instrument select and variation select controls; on the Pro, these buttons are still used to edit user instruments, but now double as edit controls for the insert effects — though, just to complicate matters, in certain modes the older functions can still be accessed.
One of the best things about the SC88 was that you could use it as a 32‑part multitimbral module, via its two MIDI Ins, and flexibly configure it to behave as two virtual modules, in so‑called Double Module mode (Modules A and B), with each module having its own reverb and chorus effect. The compromises necessitated by this method of using the SC88 involved losing the delay effect and EQ, and not having a separate stereo output to route the second module through. The Pro solves the second problem, courtesy of its extra stereo output, but you still lose the delay and EQ. However, the additional output pair does allow for a few more options. For example, the extra outputs can be configured as two individual outs, so that you could separate a couple of sounds from the mix and treat them externally. Note that when the Pro is split into two modules, or if any Parts are routed to the second set of outputs, any audio appearing at the second outputs goes missing from the headphone mix.
You might be wondering how you access the SC88 Pro's 32 part multitimbrality (and the ability to split the instrument into two virtual modules) in practice. If you're using a hardware sequencer with two MIDI Outs (such as Roland's MC50 MkII), an Atari with an extra output plumbed into the modem port, or a multi‑port MIDI interface with your PC or Mac, you simply attach two MIDI Outs to the Pro's two MIDI Ins for instant access to all 32 independent parts — simple. But you may be a PC or Mac user who hasn't yet invested in an interface, and would rather like to use that provided on the module. This also is simple — to a point.
The ability to access 32‑part multitimbrality down a single serial cable depends on which software you're using. On my Mac, running Steinberg's Cubase, there was no problem; I unplugged my usual interface, substituted the SC88 Pro, tried out a few sequences that needed two MIDI ports, and had 32 Parts coming out in no time. I had a tinker with OMS (Opcode's Open MIDI System), and again, there seemed to be no problem. It mightn't be so easy with other software, and the SC88 Pro's manual is next to no use on this subject, so you'll have to do your homework first.
For PC users, the situation may be more complex, but a driver is apparently available for Windows 95 users that allows them to access both the A and the B module within the SC88 Pro. If your software is dependent upon special drivers, whether you're a Mac or PC user, keep in touch with your supplier to make sure you get what you need.
Sonically, there's not a lot to say: Roland have continued their tradition of quality GM/GS sounds, but their number has increased significantly. It's even harder than usual to pick out favourite or noteworthy sounds, since there are so many variations, with nearly every sound benefiting from at least one or two. For example, GM program 039, Synth Bass 1, has a total of 18 variation basses, including the evocative JP4 Bass, JP8 Bass, TB303 Bass 1 and 2, and more; 040 Synth Bass 2 has 26 variations, and 082 Saw Wave has a whopping 31. This is the kind of raw material you'd normally expect from a 'real' synth, and the available editable Part parameters (and User Instrument locations) give the user plenty of room for customisation. It is possible, however, to make one or two generalisations. The synth sounds and textures are excellent, coming as they do (in sampled form) from the legendary Roland analogue family, and drum kits are bright and happening. Once again, the provenance couldn't be more convincing — who better to provide TR808 and TR909 samples than Roland themselves? A definite favourite amongst the kits is 053 Asia, which is shown off to brilliant effect on two demos called, simply, 'Chinese' and 'Japanese'. Basses are pretty good too (with a particularly useable Acoustic Bass), as are woodwinds, brass and saxes. String groups are varied and lush, although, as is usual in this part of the market, the solo strings suffer: the demo on the accompanying disk showcasing a string quartet should not be played to a purist! Acoustic and electric pianos are nearly all good, and varied, although I still don't see the point of Honky Tonk Piano.
Worth separate consideration are the new insertion effects and the collection of 64 so‑called Patches. The new effects basically provide your compact module with the facilities of a multi‑effects processor: everything from individual filter‑ and distortion‑type effects to full multi‑effects is provided. In the latter category, three, four or five effects in series are suitable for a variety of guitar, bass and keyboard treatments. These effects are used to good advantage on the collection of 64 Patches — have a listen to the demos provided on a floppy disk; many of the 35 examples feature extreme guitar treatments.
I'd also like to remind you of the potential for creating alternate tunings on the SC88 Pro, with tunings set for each Part; an offset of +/‑63 cents can be applied to every step of a scale, allowing you to customise quite drastically. Examples are provided in the manual for just intonation (with C tonic) and an Arabic scale.
While the idea of General MIDI may have a relationship to real synths akin to that of the Spice Girls to real music, like the Spice Girls, these products do have a place in the market. Like it or not, there are many musicians, bedroom, desktop, gigging or otherwise, who thrive on playing back commercial MIDI files of pop hits for fun or profit, and there are dozens of small companies who are happy to supply this market. For this type of customer, the SC88 Pro offers sufficient polyphony for even the most complex arrangements, a high‑quality sound source, and the new insertion effects, which most GM modules lack.
The Pro also has plenty for the creative musician: a huge collection of great sounds, editability, extensive MIDI control, a pretty good filter (for squelchy, bleepy effects), PC/Mac interface and 32‑part multitimbrality. For bread and butter sounds and drum kits, there is little to beat the Pro, especially if you're a fan of Roland sounds. If you've experienced the Sound Canvas phenomenon before, you'll be right at home, since operation is very similar, but newcomers may find the manual a little obtuse. Since neither the index nor the table of contents gives the complete story, finding a specific piece of information can involve chasing references from either source and using the pointers that appear within the manual's text.
When I started writing this review, I was going to put somewhere in my conclusion that the SC88 Pro offered great facilities, but at a price. The launch price was £799 — actually the same as the original SC88 back in 1994 — so I would have concluded that more facilities for the same price was a good thing. However, the good news is that as I was finishing the review, Roland slashed £100 off the retail price! This may well be in response to its direct competition, since Korg's NS5R and Yamaha's MU80 both retail for £599, but the reduction is welcome nonetheless.
The existing SC88 owner may be a little cheesed off at the new machine's spec, and lower price, but at least he or she has had up to two and a half years of access to quality sounds. In light of the older module's success, the enhanced power and facilities of the Pro — not to mention the 12.5% price cut — should ensure the flagship Sound Canvas's continuing popularity.
- 32‑part multitimbrality.
- 64‑voice polyphony.
- 1117 preset sounds, 42 drum kits.
- 256 user sounds, 2 user drum kits.
- 128 preset Patches, 16 user Patches.
- Effects: 8 reverbs, 8 choruses, 10 delays, 2‑band EQ, 64 factory insert effects, 64 user insert effects.
The SC88 Pro's spec notes that it is provided with 42 drum kits. This number is arrived at by adding up the 25 kits available in native Pro mode to the slight variants offered in SC88, SC55 and CM64 emulation modes. The main 25 'native' kits are as follows:
- Standard 1, 2, 3
- Hip Hop
- Kick & Snare
- Cymbal & Claps
- Rhythm FX
- Rhythm FX 2
- FILTER: Stereo Equaliser; Spectrum; Enhancer; Humaniser.
- DISTORTION: Overdrive; Distortion.
- MODULATION: Phaser; Auto Wah; Rotary; Stereo Flanger; Step Flanger; Tremolo; Auto Pan.
- COMPRESSOR: Compressor; Limiter.
- CHORUS: Hexa Chorus; Tremolo Chorus; Stereo Chorus; Space D; 3D Chorus.
- DELAY/REVERB: Stereo Delay; Modulation Delay; 3‑tap Delay; 4‑tap Delay; Time Control Delay; Reverb; Gate Reverb; 3D Delay.
- PITCH‑SHIFT: 2‑voice Pitch‑Shifter; Feedback Pitch‑Shifter.
- OTHERS: 3D Auto; 3D Manual; Lo‑Fi 1 and 2.
- TWO EFFECTS IN SERIES: Overdrive‑Chorus; Overdrive‑Flanger; Overdrive‑Delay; Distortion‑Chorus; Distortion‑Flanger; Distortion‑Delay; Enhancer‑Chorus; Enhancer‑Flanger; Enhancer‑Delay; Chorus‑Delay; Flanger‑Delay; Chorus‑Flanger.
- TWO EFFECTS IN PARALLEL: Chorus/Delay; Flanger/Delay; Chorus/Flanger; Overdrive 1/Overdrive 2; Overdrive/Rotary; Overdrive/Phaser; Overdrive/Auto Wah; Phaser/Rotary; Phaser/Auto Wah.
- MULTI‑EFFECTS: Rotary Multi; Guitar Multi 1, 2 and 3; Clean Guitar Multi 1 & 2; Bass Multi; Rhodes Multi; Keyboard Multi.
- Huge variety of sounds.
- New insertion effects.
- Excellent new Patch collection.
- Two sets of stereo outputs.
- Display now a bit limited for what's going on.
- Manual still not good.
- Still no user instrument naming.
Significant enhancements and a lower price for the 'Pro' version combine to maintain the SC88's position as one of the most desirable GM modules around.