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Roland Sound Expansion Series

Synth Expander Modules By Paul White
Published October 1995

Paul White bolts Roland's new range of synth expander modules into his rack, seats himself in the comfy chair, then switches on.

New synth modules are rather like buses — nothing happens for ages, then five come along at once. That's certainly the case with Roland's new Sound Expansion Series, which draws heavily on the JV1080 expansion card sound library to bring us five new rackmount synth modules, each specialising in a different category of musical sound. Four of the five modules appear to be based on the same hardware, and offer similar features, the exception being the M‑GS64 GM/GS module, which offers 32 parts, with 64‑note polyphony. The four non‑GM modules are 8‑part multitimbral, 28‑note polyphonic, with one of the parts being dedicated to drum, or rhythm sounds. Performance mode (giving you 8 parts with their effects), is available for use with sequencers, or you can select Patch mode, where individual patches are selected as required for live performance. When used with a sequencer, the patches for each part are called up using Program and Bank change messages to access the two sets of 128 patches, and the type of bank change message can be changed if need be. Program changes are used to call up any alternative rhythm or drum sounds in the Drum part, which is initially set to Channel 10, as dictated by convention. There's also a sound remapping option, which (quoting from the manual), "Offers a selection of sound mappings, so that music data for the General MIDI System/GS Format can be conveniently enjoyed".

So much for the basic theory, but what are the different models and how do they fit into the 'General Scheme of Things'? In no particular order (other than the one in which the modules happen to be stacked in my studio), the cast of thousands comprises the M‑GS64 GM/GS module, the M‑SE1 String Ensemble, the M‑OC1 Orchestra, the M‑VS1 Vintage Synth, and the M‑DC1 Dance modules. All the models have external stereo jack inputs, allowing sounds from another module to be mixed in — handy if you're running out of mixer channels.

Sounds can be edited via SysEx, but as far as front panel operation is concerned (again with the exception of the M‑GS64), you're limited to setting the effects level, pan, and tuning/transposition for each part. This might seem very limiting, if it weren't for the fact that most of the sounds provided are exceptionally good, and eminently usable. Furthermore, you get two banks of sounds with up to 256 presets per module. Even so, had Roland fitted just three knobs for attack, release, and filter brightness (as I've been nagging them to do for the past five years), the end result would have been damned near irresistible!

Physically, I have to say that the units are about as uninspiring as it gets, with drab white legend on a plain black front panel — only the perspex panel around the numeric LED readout lends any sort of colour to the scene. There are just 11 buttons, one volume knob, a headphone jack, and a handful of LEDs to guide you on your way, but then you could argue that as there isn't much editing to do, and you're going to spend more time listening to the modules than looking at them. The same LEDs also serve as MIDI activity monitors and sound level meters, and you'll also be happy to know that power comes from a mains lead, not from an unsightly lump of plastic.

On the sound front, I'm pleased to report a satisfactorily low level of background noise, and an overall high technical level of sound quality, although the joins in some of the multisampled sounds show up if you listen for them, especially on the Orchestral module.


The M‑GS64 is the odd unit out, because of its 32‑part operation, and this obviously requires two MIDI Ins to enable all the parts to be accessed simultaneously. To accomplish this without designing new hardware, the three MIDI sockets are simply redesignated MIDI In A and B, with Out and Thru being combined in one socket — all the other modules have conventional In, Out, and Thru arrangements. Of the 32 parts, each can be set for Normal, or Drum operation, and because this is a GM/GS instrument, there are several banks of sounds, bank 000 being the so‑called Capital GM sounds. Pressing both arrow buttons flips you to one of the Variation banks, where the GS sounds reside, and although these are all similar to the GM sounds, they are, as the name implies, variations. However, any parts set to Drum will not change, as these have no variations, but there are three complete keyboards of drum sounds from which to choose. Some instrument sounds have more variations than others, and from my interpretation of the patch map in the back of the manual, the greatest number of variations I could find for a sound was 14 — although there may be more if you look hard enough.

All the modules have a simple editing system, where a 4 x 4 matrix of LEDs and parameter names is navigated using the Select and F1‑4 buttons, and whichever parameter is in the sights may then be changed by using the arrow buttons. On the M‑GS64, there are five sets of edit matrices which may be stepped through, but as the front panel legend only refers to the first set of parameters, a piece of paper with the other four sets on is pretty much essential if you're not to spend the whole time with the manual in your lap. This makes a total of 80 editable parameters, including envelope, modulation and filter settings, so you can get into very serious editing if you feel the need.

There are two main modes of operation: Single Module Mode, and Double Module Mode. In Double Module Mode, two types of effect can be used at the same time, such that you could have one type of reverb for your first 16 MIDI channels, and a different one for the remaining 16. In Single mode, all 32 parts pass through the same effects combination, although you can, of course, set different amounts of each effect. In addition to GM and GS operation, you can also switch the module to CM mode for the playback of music recorded using the Roland CM‑64 module, and all parameters may be sent as a SysEx bulk dump. This feature is common to all the units in the series, as is the facility to mute unused parts.

Soundwise, the M‑GS64 is comparable to the Roland Sound Canvas series of instruments, which I've always thought to be amongst the most competent GM modules around. I have to admit that I can't get too excited about GM sounds, but because this instrument includes resonant filters, some impressive variations can be programmed. In purely practical terms, if you run any sort of commercial facility, you need at least one GM instrument to satisfy client requirements, and in this context, the M‑GS64 is particularly good, especially if you only need to edit occasionally.

M‑SE1 String Ensemble

As the name implies, the M‑SE1 is in the business of producing string sounds, most of which are emulations of the real thing, but there are also some synth strings, as well as a few horn sounds and general pads. The Rhythm part includes quite a lot of orchestral percussion, including timpani, triangles, tambourines and so on, but the notes from F sharp 3 up are all harp samples, which could be useful. Many of the string patches include a special legato feature, denoted by a letter 'L' to the left of the display. If a new note is depressed before the original is released while in one of these patches, the attack portion of the note is not retriggered, making the string patches sound more realistic. To make the sound more exciting, a dozen or more of the patches are treated with Roland's RSS 3D enhancement system, which gives them a very wide stereo spread.

All the orchestral string members are well represented, both in solo and ensemble form where applicable, and there's enough variation of attack and release characteristics that you can nearly always find a sound that's exactly right. As stated earlier, you can modify the patches via SysEx, but until a suitable piece of software appears to do the job for you, it's a pretty heavy‑duty task.

The string sounds on offer are exceptionally usable, ranging from accurate orchestral simulations to silky analogue string pads, and ethereal patches that barely qualify as strings at all. If you use a lot of strings in your compositions, and you just want to be able to grab off‑the‑shelf sounds without having to edit, then you might find this the ideal module, although I feel the Orchestral module is perhaps a little more flexible, albeit at the expense of quite such a wide choice of string sounds.

M‑OC1 Orchestra

No RSS or legato modes this time, but you do get the full gamut of orchestral instruments, and a good orchestral percussion section, including timps, orchestral snares, wood blocks, triangles, tubular bells, and castanets to name but a few.

Most of the orchestral sounds are very usable, although I found that both the flutes and tubular bells were rather 'fluffy' sounding — the flute, in particular, sounded rather synthetic. In this respect, the Proteus 2 module makes a far better job of realism as far as my ears go. The string and brass sounds fare much better, and when it comes to orchestral hits and stabs, there's a choice of six in major, minor and diminished variations. Several percussion effects are included in the standard patch list, including snare and bass drum rolls, a gong, and even sleigh bells and church bells. On the whole, this module is mainly good news, with just a few weak examples letting it down, but as you'd expect from Roland, the string and brass sounds are excellent.

M‑VS1 Vintage Synth

I have to admit that this is my favourite module in the series, and even though I own an Oberheim Matrix 1000, I find the M‑VSI far more to my liking. What's more, the M‑VS1 is multitimbral and seriously polyphonic, whereas the Matrix 1000 is only 6‑voice. On top of that you get the drum section, which provides a choice of six different kits, with a good mix of standard drum machine voices, plus popular classics such as 808, 909, and other electronic sounds.

I think the drum and percussion sections are excellent, especially on the Dance module, where you get instant access to all those classic beatbox sounds

The synth sounds are drawn from the back catalogue of Roland synths, including the Jupiter 8, D50 and SH101, but there are also sounds from ARP, Oberheim and Moog, as well as classic Hammond‑type organs, Mellotrons, vocoder choirs, and one or two digital instruments. You also get TB303 bass sounds, JX3Ps, and pads made up from layers of different instruments. The individual sounds can be categorised as synth strings, general pads, bass sounds, and resonant 'thwicks' with plenty of filter movement. Again, add attack, release and filter brightness knobs, and this would be a synth to gnaw your own back leg off for, but even as it stands, it sounds simply stunning — it is instant analogue synth gratification on a stick!

The drum section offers 10 different kits, which include quite a lot of electronic sounds drawn from the TR808, 909, and Roland Compurhythm sets. Even now I can feel my credit card doing its best to levitate out of my back pocket!


Finally comes the M‑DC1 Dance module, which, I must admit, was rather more impressive than I'd anticipated. In addition to the obvious armoury of dance synth sounds and scratches, you get around 50 stereo drum loops (complete with bpm), vocal snatches, and numerous hits and stabs. Most of the loops provide instant inspiration to get you writing, and even if you don't wear a baseball cap pointing in the direction from which you've just come, the rhythms are very compulsive. The sound quality of the loops is deliberately varied, from grungy and crunchy, to tight and bright, with at least one example being adorned with vinyl scratchiness. There are plenty of ambient‑sounding synth textures, as well as the inevitable house pianos, filter swept 'thrips' and 'zwees', and cheesy organ pads, so there's plenty of scope here for composing other styles of music too.

As you might expect, the drum side of things features a lot of 909 sounds, as well as latin percussion, vocal oohs and ahs, breath noises, and things not unlike neutron bombs being let off inside garages with metal up‑and‑over doors. For those who want to make dance or rap music, but don't have access to a sampler, or who simply want to get their ideas out fast, this is a great module with lots of creative potential. As far as I'm aware, there's nothing quite like it at the price, so whatever else it does, it makes the composition of dance music much more affordable.


Although I love the sounds, I don't feel entirely comfortable with all these modules, mainly because of the lack of any serious editing facilities other than on the M‑GS64 GM/GS synth. The retail price of £499 would have been easier to swallow if some rudimentary edit knobs had been included on the front panel, even if they only let you tweak the envelope and brightness, and I also feel the displays are rather inadequate — we have come to expect patch names on an illuminated LCD, leaving these numeric LEDs feeling rather second class.

Even so, I feel that the Dance and Vintage modules offer great value, but the Orchestral and Strings modules are less competitive when you compare them to something like a Proteus 2, which, to my ears, sounds rather more accurate. Perhaps Roland would have done better to combine the two units, and add a World Sounds module to the range instead? The M‑GS64 is obviously good value, with its massive polyphony and good range of GM/GS sounds, but even though you can edit pretty much everything, the actual editing system is rather clunky. Some users may also find that having just a stereo output is limiting.

On the benefits side, I think the drum and percussion sections are excellent, especially on the Dance module, where you get instant access to all those classic beatbox sounds, as well as to more drum loops, and conventional acoustic drum sounds. The Vintage synth drum section is pretty good too, and one thing that did surprise me is the sheer number of drum voices available — they almost go so far as to rival stand‑alone drum machines.

So, the final verdict? If you are one of those people who avoids editing at all costs, then these units do offer a wide range of immensely useful sounds in an easy access, success‑on‑a‑plate format. There are very few duff sounds in any of the modules, and as intimated earlier, the Vintage module is quite superb, and worth every penny, simply because it delivers the best of analogue and vintage digital sounds with multitimbrality and plenty of polyphony. Similarly, the Dance module is, to the best of my knowledge, unique within its price range, and the sounds provided are spot on. The loops in particular are well chosen and well sampled.

If you're a habitual patch tweaker, and living in preset land isn't your idea of heaven, or if you're in the market for more than one or two of these modules, then you might consider buying a JV1080 instead, and adding the appropriate expander cards.

Roland Versus EMU?

You could easily jump to the conclusion that this series is Roland's response to Emu's very successful Proteus series, and in some ways it is, but there are some very big differences. Although Roland's modules are somewhat less expensive than the Proteus modules, they are effectively based on preset sounds, the internal effects are limited to basic chorus and reverb, and all the sounds are mixed to a stereo output. The only exception is the M‑GS64, which offers rather more editing control, and has delay and EQ effects, as well as reverb and chorus.


  • Generally excellent sounds.
  • Easy operation.
  • Good drum and percussion sounds included in each module.


  • Lacklustre styling.
  • Very limited editing facilities.
  • Stereo outputs only.


Exceptionally fine‑sounding units, best suited to those who do little or no sound editing. The Vintage and Dance modules are particularly impressive.