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Roland V-Synth

Variphrase Synthesizer
Published May 2003
By Paul Nagle

The V-Synth is a classic case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. None of its impressive features are new — they've all been seen on previous Roland products — but nevertheless, it's the best new synth in years. We explain why...

When Roland released the innovative VP9000 Variphrase Processor three years ago, they must have been surprised that it didn't become hugely popular. It offered an alternative to multisampling and keymapping (the chores of conventional sampling) and a means to create realistic vocal harmonies, gender-bending formant changes, real-time tempo-warping of loops and more. Despite reviews (such as our own) explaining its potential, for many it was perceived as a 'clever but limited sampler' and, at over 2000 pounds for six notes of polyphony, it remained in a niche market.

Roalnd V-Synth.Photo: Mark EwingBut Roland knew they had a good thing on their hands; one that was capable of exploring and manipulating samples in a way we'd never seen before. They were hardly likely to shelve it because some of us missed the point. Thus Variphrase returns, liberated from its rack and incorporated into a flagship performance synthesizer. Enter the V-Synth.

What It Is

The V-Synth represents a tightly integrated collection of Roland's most powerful recent technologies, all crammed into a single instrument. Thus we find modelled analogue and PCM oscillators, plus user sampling, multi-effects, Variphrase and COSM processing. For performance and control, a 'Time Trip' pad, twin D-Beams, an arpeggiator, and knobs and sliders are augmented by a large touchscreen and backlit buttons. It's a user interface with no compromises.

Having a maximum 24 notes of polyphony might seem stingy when compared to today's workstations — but such a comparison would be a mistake. The V-Synth is not a workstation — and not just because it lacks a sequencer. Think of it instead as a performance instrument with imaginative sound-design applications that just happens to have PCM memory and the type of large display often seen on workstations. Roland state that polyphony varies according to the complexity of a patch. It is, after all, a software synthesizer (even if it's running on a dedicated hardware platform) and you decide on its configuration by choosing which components to activate. In my tests, I found that a complex patch featuring two oscillators, two of the more processor-intensive COSM filters and the keyboard split into two zones left me with about eight notes to play with.

Roland V-Synth £1999
pros
  • Onboard sampling and resampling with Flash RAM for sample storage.
  • Extensive, innovative sample manipulation.
  • Expressive performance controllers such as the Time Trip pad, twin D-Beams and so on.
  • Logical, intuitive user interface.
  • Combination of analogue modelling and PCM waveforms.
  • Powerful COSM effects processing.
  • USB and PC Card interfaces.
  • Co-axial and optical digital I/O.
cons
  • Although multitimbral, the synth only transmits on one MIDI channel and cannot access patches on other channels without external help.
  • Zone method of splitting the keyboard is not very sophisticated; there's no means to layer patches, for example.
  • Has managed to reawaken my 'gear lust'!
summary
It just goes to show that the big guys can still be innovative. I've been waiting a long time for something that feels genuinely new and different — and the V-Synth is exactly that. With Roland's best technologies of recent years on board, this synth demands to be programmed and performed with. Quite simply, it's a sound designer's dream machine.

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Face Value

Housed in a sturdy black metal case, with plastic triangular end-cheeks, the V-Synth looks sharp, modern and stylish. At its centre is a bright (320 x 240) graphical LCD, but equally eye-catching is the large circular Time Trip pad, sitting resplendent in a recess on the panel's left-hand side.

To the right of the display are knobs, sliders and backlit buttons, each thoughtfully chosen and whose functions we'll discuss as we come to them. And to the left of the display are program-selection buttons, user-assignable knobs, arpeggiator controls, D-Beams and the master volume slider. Then, close by, there's the input-level control — complete with peak LEDs — plus buttons for keyboard transposition and the innocently labelled 'V-Link'. Roland's three-way pitch/modulation stick (left, right, forward) sits in its usual place to the left of a quality five-octave velocity- and channel aftertouch-sensitive keyboard. At 13kg, this is a serious chunk of kit and looks every bit the top-of-the-range instrument that it is.

Patch Structure & Navigation

A V-Synth patch follows a more-or-less traditional signal flow. The backlit orange Structure buttons along the top right-hand section of the panel are a clear indication of the current routing of oscillators, COSM processors, and so on. They are also a means to try out alternate Structures non-destructively at the press of a button. Take a look at our shot of the front panel overleaf and the options for signal routing should be self-explanatory. You can toggle the status of any part of a Structure by pushing its button, and when you activate an oscillator, COSM processor or TVA (Time Variant Amplifier — always the last stage), an orange LED lights up next to their physical knobs or sliders, indicating they are live.

Finding your way around couldn't be easier — in fact, there are often several different routes leading to the same end result. Knowing there's no substitute for physical controls, Roland have allocated real knobs for the oscillators and COSM processors and, although these are on the small side, I'm glad they're there. The knobs have a centre notch to tell you when you reach zero, as most values can be positive or negative. Four sliders are used to shape the amplifier envelope but when you open an on-screen window featuring an envelope (there are lots of these), they switch seamlessly to control that instead.

The V-Synth's programming user interface is a good example of great design. You get plenty of front-panel access to the main oscillator parameters via the knobs on the right-hand side of the synth (above), although funnily enough, accessing on-screen parameters is less of a problem anyway due to the (literally) hands-on touchscreen! The illuminated Structure buttons, which give access to the main sound-generation blocks, provide excellent visual feedback about both the structure and active blocks in a patch, and the old-style TVA sliders are most welcome. With all this and the touchscreen, you scarcely need the alpha dial and 'Inc/Dec' buttons... but they're still present.The V-Synth's programming user interface is a good example of great design. You get plenty of front-panel access to the main oscillator parameters via the knobs on the right-hand side of the synth (above), although funnily enough, accessing on-screen parameters is less of a problem anyway due to the (literally) hands-on touchscreen! The illuminated Structure buttons, which give access to the main sound-generation blocks, provide excellent visual feedback about both the structure and active blocks in a patch, and the old-style TVA sliders are most welcome. With all this and the touchscreen, you scarcely need the alpha dial and 'Inc/Dec' buttons... but they're still present.Photo: Mark EwingThere are conventional navigational buttons and an alpha dial too, and I was pleased to note that the touchscreen is rather better endowed than the one on my Korg Triton. Not only can you select on-screen icons and values to adjust via conventional means (eg. the alpha dial), you can drag their values with your finger and even draw envelope shapes. In common with the Triton, I find that long hours hunched over the display can cause a little neckache, so it would have been nice had it been raised at a slight angle.

The manual isn't one of Roland's best, but fortunately you hardly need it. Look at the photos of the various LCD screens throughout this article and you'll see that their layout is both logical and intuitive — so we won't waste time on a guided tour of each one. Thus, touching on-screen buttons opens new windows, each with additional pages that appear as tabs down their left hand side. In some places, a 'List' icon appears that opens up a page of options when touched: patches, waveforms, and so on. These are the little niceties that can make operating the V-Synth such a pleasure.

When in Patch mode, the screen displays a graphical representation of the current Structure, plus the stored positions of the knobs and sliders. A pull-down menu, represented as a small triangle at the top right-hand corner of the screen, reveals familiar utilities such as Patch Name, Write, Init, Copy and Delete. Also within this menu are Zone (for assigning keyboard splits), Data transfer (for sending and receiving patches via MIDI) and Info (for displaying current OS version and multitimbral patches).

Zones & Multitimbrality

It's important to realise that a V-Synth patch can consist of up to 16 non-overlapping Zones. Tools are provided for quick creation of split keyboards or Drum zones — the latter is an option to allocate all 16 zones automatically over a small range of keys. When you create a new keyboard Zone, it is initially empty, so you can either program it from scratch or copy in data from another Zone or Patch. This copy process is somewhat primitive, the source Patch being shown as a number only rather than a name. Zones share the same arpeggiator settings, performance controllers and effects parameters — although they can have different effects-send amounts or be routed to individual outputs. I'd say this is an area that doesn't feel as slick and complete as elsewhere, with the biggest drawback being the inability to layer two patches over the same area of keyboard.

V-Synth.Photo: Mark EwingWhile discussing shortcomings, let's get the V-Synth's Multitimbral implementation out of the way too. I briefly mentioned that the Info menu displayed Multitimbral patches. In fact, looking is almost all you can do. Having told the instrument (via the Mode Button and System Menu) how many MIDI channels to respond to, you cannot play the different parts via the V-Synth's own keyboard, or even specify the patches for multitimbral play — except by external means such as a sequencer program. The V-Synth's keyboard only transmits on one MIDI channel — the channel designated as Part 1.

Regardless of polyphony being an unknown quantity, I don't think multitimbrality was an important factor in the V-Synth's design, so if you're looking for a synth to play lots of different sounds at once, look elsewhere.

Memory Matters

At the heart of the V-Synth is its variable-oscillator technology, with a choice of PCM or Analogue Modelling types, or an external input. As it is Variphrase that separates the V-Synth from everything else, we'll give those PCM oscillators the closest scrutiny.

Roland supply 30MB of onboard PCM waves in the V-Synth that are automatically loaded into Wave RAM when you turn on the power. The V-Synth contains 50MB of this wave RAM, which is not expandable. In addition, 10MB of Flash RAM is provided for storage of your own samples (even after power-down — yay!). One of the most innovative features is that any or all of the factory waves can be replaced with user samples. These can either be recorded on the V-Synth itself or imported as WAV or AIFF files. Never again must you endure the 'wasted memory' problems familiar from other PCM synths. You know what I mean: factory banks that you can't erase full of cheesy saxes, twangy banjos, ghastly bagpipes, and so on. However, the factory waves contain a good cross-section of typical PCM fodder, and even if you do replace them with your own samples, they can be reloaded from ROM at any time.

You can store up to 999 waves in the wave RAM, dividing up the memory as you see fit. The maximum size of a wave depends only on the free space within RAM. As shipped, there is room for approximately 115 seconds of stereo sampling (230 seconds in mono). By deleting all the factory waves from memory, you increase this to 280 seconds stereo, 560 seconds mono. This is way beyond the capacity of the 10MB onboard Flash, so if you're into big samples, some form of external storage will be a priority. You could transmit the samples to a computer via the USB connection — there's more on this in the 'Rear-View Mirror' box elsewhere in this article. But there's an easier and quicker stand-alone method. The PC card slot on the rear is designed to house standard PCMCIA devices such as you might use for laptop computers. I happened to have a 128MB Compact Flash card for use with my digital camera, complete with a PCMCIA adaptor, and this proved ideal when slotted into the V-Synth. Alternatively, Smart Media cards or Microdrives (with appropriate PCMCIA adaptors) could be drafted in.

Whatever tweaks you make, the V-Synth automatically loads the last 'Project' you worked on at each power-up. A Project is a complete dump of patches and waveforms — and just one can be resident at once. The time taken to boot up depends on the amount of data being loaded; with about 40MB of waves in my Compact Flash card, the load sequence takes about a minute, and with a blank new Project it takes about 10 seconds.

Effects

The V-Synth's effects consist of dedicated reverb, chorus and multi-effects. The reverbs offer several types of room and hall, plus garage, plate and 'Non-Linear' algorithms. This latter is capable of producing panning reverbs, the rate of movement controlled by an envelope. A delay is included in the Reverb section, and two delays can also be found within the Chorus section that otherwise houses four different chorus algorithms, feedback chorus and a flanger.

The Multi-effects section has no less than 41 types of effect with a range encompassing equalisers, filters, overdrive and amp simulators, as well as flangers, phasers, chorus, delays and composite effects such as Overdrive/Chorus, Flanger/Delay, and so on. Some of them are very good — indeed this whole effects section wouldn't disgrace any top-of-the-range synth. I particularly enjoyed the Boss Flanger and Space Chorus effects, but it was to the more unusual ones I found myself turning more often. The Humaniser deserves special mention, consisting of vowel sounds ('a', 'e' , 'i', 'o', 'u') that can be switched from one vowel to another according to input level. The Phonograph effect revisits all the scratchy, noisy characteristics we spent so long refining out of the audio equation, and Radio Tuning adds noise, reduces the frequency range, and imposes a fashionably 'cheap' sound. To sound cheaper still, the Bit Rate Converter combines sample-rate and bit reduction, squirting the results through a multi-mode filter.

Delays are well represented, with a Tape Echo simulator mimicking the behaviour of Roland's famous RE201 Space Echo — even down to its three playback heads, wow and flutter, and tape distortion. Other delays include Band Pass Delay
— featuring a phaser, delay line and five band-pass filters. All the delays (except the Space Echo) and many other effects may be synchronised to MIDI Clock (as can all the V-Synth's LFOs, incidentally).

Whilst programming, the effects can be quickly turned on or off with the three dedicated buttons at the far right-hand side of the front panel. The effects section is the icing on the V-Synth's very rich cake, and the only surprise was an omission that we've started to take for granted these days — there is no vocoder.

Sampling

The supplied waveforms offer plenty of room for experimentation, but at some point you'll probably want to incorporate your own original samples. I'm happy to report that the V-Synth's implementation of sampling is pleasantly uncomplicated. I recommend that you read the review of Roland's VP9000 (see SOS June 2000), as this will give you a more comprehensive overview of the technology involved.

Sampling is accessed by pushing the Mode button, and then selecting the Sample icon. You are presented with a further menu offering Sampling, Import, Edit, Encode and Save options, plus a built-in sample browser, which looks every bit like a computer's file-selection menu. Once in the Sampling menu, you see eight sampling templates that are supplied to make your life easier. As shipped, these are: Mic, Line, Optical, Resample, Compressor, Limiter, Noise Suppressor, and MIDI (the last of these activates sampling after receipt of a system real-time start command). Each of the templates are ideal starting points, but can all be modified if necessary. Perhaps you prefer to use the co-axial input instead of the optical one, in which case you simply select this source (via the General page) and rename the template. The 'Resample' template internally connects the main left/right output as sample source, and sampling starts when you hit a key. This is ideal if your patch is pretty complex and you want to regain some polyphony.

The comprehensive Sample Edit screen, including a built-in tempo calculator.The comprehensive Sample Edit screen, including a built-in tempo calculator.Photo: Mark EwingWhether you've picked a template or set things up manually, the sampling process is pretty straightforward — so I won't take up too much space with it here. Familiar options are provided, for example Pre-trigger sampling, which is ideal for grabbing that vital initial transient if you have initiated sampling via a threshold trigger.

After recording, samples may be truncated to get rid of wasted areas at their start or end, or they can be normalised, looped, reversed, have their base pitch altered, and so on. In fact, editing samples via the V-Synth's display was a doddle; the zoom options for viewing a waveform were adequate and never left me pining for my PC and Wavelab. The range of tools on offer might lag behind those of top-of-the-range samplers, but I found them well chosen. Perhaps the main omission is an auto-loop function, but the V-Synth offers a Zero Crossing Search facility that is an invaluable aid in creating smooth loops. If your sample is a loop where tempo is important, you should type in the time signature and the number of measures used, then let the V-Synth calculate the tempo for you — or you can enter it directly. The tempo will be needed if you wish to synchronise a loop with the onboard clock or other loops.

Encoding

After recording (or importing) and editing a sample, there's just one final step before it can be used by the V-Synth — it must be encoded. This was explained in the VP9000 review, so I'll only touch on it briefly here. Variphrase technology works by first analysing the sample and processing it into a form suitable for real-time bending and stretching. For this to work well, you should choose an encoding process suitable to your material. The encoding options are:

  • Lite — this takes up the least additional wave RAM space and is more suited to conventional sampling.
  • Solo — this is the most versatile, perfect for speech, vocals and instruments with perceived formant characteristics. Only if you use Solo (note that this doesn't restrict you to monophonic playing), does the full palette of Variphrase features become available. So to use Formant processing and the Robot Voice effect (of which more in a moment), ensure you encode with this method.
  • Backing — designed for decay-type instruments such as percussion.
  • Ensemble — ideal for sustain/pad instruments.

Encoding isn't foolproof, and occasionally, out of a range of similar samples, some end up sounding unaccountably peculiar. In such cases, one of the other encoding methods can be tried, since encoding is non-destructive. Other than selecting the encoding type, there is little to tweak except a 'depth' control that alters the encoder's sensitivity to changes within the waveform. This is used to generate the so-called Events which are necessary for the Variphrase magic to work. You might need a few attempts to set the depth correctly — if you set it too high, too many events are generated, whereas if it's too low, Variphrase really doesn't have enough to work with. Usefully, you can preview each section between Events with the Preview tab, and manually adjust their position by deleting or adding them yourself. This is handy if you're working with speech and you want to make sure individual phrases are articulated. Once encoded, simply name and save your sample within the current Project and you're ready to make it jump through a few hoops.

V-Link

The V-Link button is something I'd love to have explored, as it allows the V-Synth to control a connected V-Link compatible video device such as the Edirol DV7PR. I saw this demonstrated at a recent trade fair and was blown away by the possibilities: the V-Synth was controlling such things as playback speed, colour, dissolve time (between video clips) and various effects. For live performance, synchronisation of V-Synth and video playback offers great potential, but I suppose that if I'd had the chance to test out such a system, I'd never have completed this review!

Elastic Fantastic

The next stage in our exploration of Variphrase (which is much quicker to use than to read about) is to activate an oscillator and select 'PCM' as its waveform type. From the oscillator screen, you select a source wave and, having done so, the display reflects its encoding type, tells you whether the wave is mono or stereo, and allows you to specify a start offset for playback. Assuming you have picked a waveform encoded with type Solo, all Variphrase functions will be accessible, shown as six on-screen buttons governing PCM sample playback. These are:

  • Variphrase Switch. This enables Variphrase processing. Without this, sample playback happens as on a conventional sampler.
  • Time Trip Switch — when enabled, controllers such as the Time Trip pad can be used to move forwards or backwards through the waveform. See the 'Control Box' panel on the next page for more information about this.
  • Time Trip Beat Keep — if you've been whizzing your finger around the Time Trip pad, this function tells the V-Synth whether to 'chase' to the beat location you would have been at prior to messing with playback time.
  • Loop — enables looping of your waveform (unless defined as 'one-shot' when you created it).
  • Robot Voice — extracts pitch information from a sample, turning it into a monotone. You can then add pitch manually via the keyboard, or overlay chords. This became an instant favourite of mine, and put my voice back in tune (albeit in a strange robot-like way) for the first time since I was a wee choirboy.
  • Tempo Sync. This locks sample tempo to internal clock. If you have several drum loops operating within different zones on the keyboard, you can sync them all together with this button, regardless of their original tempo.

For direct PCM manipulation, there are of course, knobs. With the Formant knob, tonal characteristics may be altered — quite drastically at the most extreme settings. Although not always natural-sounding (no bad thing in a synthesizer), the results can be impressive and can really transform voices — even making passable gender realignments. A little formant tweaking to a solo instrument can make a dramatic difference — quite unlike traditional filter effects — and even has applications for disguising 'borrowed samples'. Not that I could endorse such a heinous crime, of course...

With another knob, you can modify the pitch of a sample without affecting its timing. And then you can tweak the timing without altering pitch. It's surprising just how many quirky sounds this yields. Variphrase lets you perform tricks such as sampling a guitar strum and playing it back convincingly over several octaves. If you tried this on a conventional sampler, not only would the strum timing vary, it would also sound terrible.

As well as dedicated knobs, a PCM oscillator's Formant, Time, Pitch, TVA and LFO each have their own menu pages tucked away within the oscillator screens. In these pages you can set velocity, envelope and LFO control of each element, allowing you, for example, to play back a sample at differing speeds according to how hard you hit a note. If your source sample gets gradually brighter, this technique produces far more realistic-sounding dynamics than merely velocity-crossfading between a 'hard' and 'soft' waveform. There is a separate envelope within each page, but only a single LFO common to all, and this means you cannot slowly cycle Formants whilst applying a faster vibrato, for example; it's perhaps the only limitation of the synthesis engine.

Control Box

The V-Synth's performance controllers add a new dimension in expressibility. The Time Trip pad (right) operates according to the mode set by its adjacent buttons. When acting as a fully assignable X/Y controller (like Korg's Kaoss pad), it reacts to left, right, up and down movements, and you can perform finger-wiggling vibrato, extravagant cutoff/resonance sweeps — and more.

The Time Trip pad.The Time Trip pad.Photo: Mark EwingWhen in Time Trip mode it responds to circular motion, scanning forwards through a sample as you rotate your finger clockwise, and scanning the sample in reverse if you rotate anti-clockwise. This is a little like scratching, but the Variphrase functionality prevents the pitch from being altered by the motion. Push the Hold button and the sample will 'freeze' at the current point — even when you remove your finger from the pad. I found this to be the doorway to some truly unusual sounds. Greedy that I am, I'd like to see an additional mode that maps an entire sample, regardless of length, to a full rotation of the pad. With such a feature you could home in on specific areas by sight, confident of hitting the part of the waveform you wanted to play. Perhaps in a future update?

In use, the twin D-Beams (below left) are an absolute delight. When you move your hand into range, blue LEDs light up. These would be visible on a darkened stage, but aren't bright enough for laser harp impressions. With four buttons (Time Trip, Time, Pitch and Assign), you have instant switchability between different types of control over your patch. For example, if you assign the left-hand beam to control pitch and the right-hand beam to control formant, a vocal sample can be made to behave in a very expressive fashion. This kind of direct interaction really puts control where it belongs — in the hands of the musician.

The behaviour and assignment of performance controllers are programmed from the Common tab found at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. You can define modulation destinations for each D-Beam (with positive or negative polarity), assignments for the pad controller, the two assignable knobs, aftertouch, the modulation stick, pitch-bender, velocity and keyboard position. The range of modulation destinations is reasonably comprehensive and even includes control of some multi-effects parameters (these vary according to the multi-effects selected). The actions of the performance controllers send, and respond to, MIDI Control Change numbers, while the programming knobs and envelope sliders are transmitted as the rather less wieldy SysEx data.

Playback Modes

We're not finished with the cool things you can do with PCM waveforms yet! A typical sampler will replay its samples from the start each time you hit a key — and the V-Synth can do this too. But additionally, it borrows the VP9000's idea of 'Legato' playback. Select this mode, then play legato-style (not quite removing your fingers between notes) and the sample is notretriggered for new notes. Therefore you can play a long vocal phrase, adding harmonies, and even chords, without the jumble caused by restarted samples and different playback speeds.

There are two further playback modes: Event and Step offer yet more possibilities. Remember the Events that are created during the Encode process? Well, if you select Step playback mode, the sample will play to the next event then stop each time you play a key. One of my favourite tricks combines Step Playback with Robot Voice. Process a vocal passage with this and — hey presto — that marvellous 'Shpongle' vocal effect is at your fingertips. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, surf to www.twisted.co.uk and you'll soon see what I mean.

Event playback mode non-destructively splits your sample across the keyboard, so you gain access to the individual hits within (for example) a drumloop without altering the loop itself. Neat, eh?

Analogue Modelling

Modelled analogue waveforms are something Roland probably included because they could — and if they blur the identity of the V-Synth a little, nobody is likely to complain. In order to conserve processing power (presumably), oscillators may be of either low or high resolution, with the usual types to pick from (sawtooth, square, triangle, noise, and so on). When a high-resolution waveform is selected, you get smoother transitions and fewer artifacts, but sacrifice a little functionality.

All the low-quality waveforms may have their pulse width and 'Fat' parameters adjusted either via a dedicated envelope, key position, velocity or the oscillator's LFO. "What's the Fat parameter?" I hear you ask. Well, it's nothing more than a low-frequency boost and, by quirk or design, both the Pulse-width modulation and Fat settings produce some rather strange, quite nasty noises at the extremes of their ranges.

In contrast, the high-quality waveforms don't have access to the Fat parameter and only the square waveform retains the variable pulse width. These waveforms sound cleaner and closer to 'analogue' in character but, arguably, the dirtiness inherent in the lower-quality waves is more in keeping with the distinctive digital nature of the V-Synth. Either way, it's good to have so many choices.

With Analogue waveforms selected, the oscillator knobs take over Pitch, Pulse Width, Fat Amount, LFO rate and depths (ie. modulation of Pitch, Pulse width and Fat), plus the oscillator's level. My only gripe is that, after a good twiddle, there is no quick way to see what any knob's value was prior to tweaking — the Patch Compare option only appears on the Patch Save menu.

Mod Section & External Signals

At its simplest level, the 'Mod' part of a Structure is a humble mixer. In many cases, this seems superfluous, because each oscillator already has its own built-in TVA, envelope and level pot. However, the Mod section has four additional types: Ring Modulator, FM, Env Ring and Oscillator Sync — the latter available to the Analogue oscillators only. Of these, Env Ring mode seemed an unfamiliar term — but experimentation revealed that it drives the level of Oscillator 1 according to the output of Oscillator 2. This can produce a gating-type effect and prompted me to investigate the final oscillator identity: External Signal.

Before using an external signal, you should enter the System Mode menu and specify whether the audio input is true stereo, summed from both inputs, or sourced from either left or right channels. Having done this, simply select External as your oscillator source and you're free to process it via the Mod section, effects, and either (or both) COSM processors. Naturally I tried shouting "Exterminate!" into the ring modulator (is there anyone who hasn't done this?) and found that FM also yielded worthwhile signal-warping results. Indeed, with a wealth of options on board, the V-Synth can be an awesome signal processor, especially when you program some of the performance controllers for real-time interaction with COSM or effects parameters. The only thing I missed was some means of keeping the VCA open without having to play a note to allow audio through.

Arpeggiator

The V-Synth's arpeggiator is well equipped to perform all the usual up-and-down stuff, but it may also be programmed to play polyphonic phrases that are either transposable from the keyboard or of fixed pitch — the latter ideal for drum patterns. Arpeggios may be recorded in real time (although I found it very hard to get my timing accurate using this method) or in step time (up to 32 steps in total). The resulting pattern is then stored within the Patch.

One especially cool feature is that controller information may be recorded too — and this can really add life and movement to your arpeggios. The only downer, for me, was the lack of a range setting so I could confine arpeggiation to specific zones of the keyboard.

Sounds

This is the part of the review where I look through some of the factory sounds to see what the V-Synth is capable of out of the box.

Curiously, of the 512 available patch locations, Roland have left approximately half of them empty. This is an unusual (and praiseworthy) attempt to confirm the V-Synth's status as an instrument you'll want to program — the included patches are just there to get you started!

The first patch location, entitled 'Mad Orchestra', conjours a seething, grinding atmosphere, evoking feelings of orchestral manoeuvres in a dark basement of Bedlam. Here, the Time Trip pad is configured in X/Y mode (as opposed to the rotation method) with the X plane controlling COSM1 filter cutoff, while the Y plane is assigned to Oscillator 1's pitch. Filter modulation is introduced by pushing the modulation controller and the COSM2 Frequency-shifter is tweakable by aftertouch. The left-hand D-Beam controls the Time of Oscillator 1, and the right-hand beam controls the same parameter, but with a negative offset. The end result is that as your hand homes in on the left-hand beam, you can hear the wave speed up and reveal the base sample responsible for these wondrous noises (it's a piano arpeggio loop, amazingly enough) or with the right-hand beam you can reverse the playback — very warped.

If you think that the V-Synth excels at atmospherics then you're dead right. But it can also handle other roles, as can be heard in the patch 'Poppy Day'. This capitalises on the Robot Voice function combined with Step playback mode which, if you remember, steps through various points in the waveform for each note you play. The resulting vocal tones are hauntingly good, leaving me grinning like a man newly hired as Halle Berry's personal masseur.

Skipping through some more patches, you notice a whole range that are impressive and vocal-based such as 'Let Them Pray', 'Choir & Prayer' and Click here to email, this latter using the Event playback mode (dividing the sample over the keyboard) plus Robot Voice. Also using Event playback, the addictive drum loop 'InSaNe dj' plucks its rhythm from a quite different source loop, courtesy of an arpeggio pattern. Add some Sideband filter courtesy of the Time Trip pad, plus some D-Beam pitch sweeps, and the result is rather wonderful. The arpeggiator gets more opportunities to strut its stuff in 'Radar ARP', again with plenty of performance controls assigned and ready to experiment with. For further examples of how far you can stretch a single sample, check out 'Bird Island' — a lush pad whose 'birds' are actually another piano arpeggio loop, but you'd never know! The V-Synth contains pads of Wavestation-like qualities, such as 'Flotation' or 'TouchPad Pad' or there are quality solo patches such as 'DigiHarp' and 'ThinkLead'.

Zooming through the available patches, you soon learn to appreciate the Patch Assign button. With this you can store eight banks of eight favourite sounds for quick retrieval.

  • ‘Clara’: A vocal sample used like a Theremin.
  • ‘EtherChoir’: A single Mellotron sample forms the basis of this sound, with processing on top.
  • ‘GeetR’: This sound is created from a single acoustic guitar note.
  • ‘Mad Clock’: This is based on a drum loop which has been slowed down. When the ‘Hold’ feature on the TT pad, it sounds like a clock chiming. Shades of Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’...
  • ‘AcoustiMadness’: Though it sounds like a cross between the output of DelayLama and the sounds of overenthusiastic merrymakers on the streets of Preston on a Saturday night, this is actually created from a sample of a beaten-up acoustic guitar which has been slowed down and had effects added to it.
  • ‘RoboMel 1’: It doesn’t sound like it any more, but this is actually derived from a sample of a little girl singing “daddy, daddy, daddy”.
  • ‘RoboMel 2’: More sounds derived by the same process described in ‘RoboMel 1’ above.
  • ‘SquelchyMan’: This sound is derived from one of the V-Synth’s analogue-modelling oscillators.
  • ‘SynclySucks’: More analogue modelling, this time featuring the low-quality oscillators with sync.

COSMic

It's a testament to the V-Synth's depth that we've got this far but still haven't given COSM (Composite Object Sound Modelling) more than a passing mention. These effects are placed within the voice structure, where you'd typically expect a filter to be, and are naturally polyphonic. Actually, this is usually seen as the primary distinction between an 'effect' and 'synthesis'. Roland could have got away with implementing a typical selection of multi-mode filters but instead have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink.

The many COSM processing facilities (including the fantastic Sideband filters) are just a touch of the LCD away.The many COSM processing facilities (including the fantastic Sideband filters) are just a touch of the LCD away.Photo: Mark EwingIn all there are 15 COSM effects including overdrive, Sideband filters, polyphonic compressors, a Frequency-shifter and a Lo-Fi processor. Also included are multi-mode filters, dual filters, a comb filter and so on. Most have several pages of parameters to play with and most have at least one envelope (many have two) and an LFO.

The first effect is Overdrive and is (relatively) uncomplicated, offering a selection of overdrive or distortion, two envelopes (one to control drive, the other for tone) plus an LFO that can be assigned to drive and/or tone amount. The next effect, Waveshaper, is another form of distortion, its tone derived from a selection of six waveforms. The Amp Simulator does what it says on the tin, with just three amp types to choose from. Then there's the Speaker Simulator, offering 12 different types. For some particularly authentic-sounding guitar impersonations, try choosing a structure with two COSM effects in series, and feed the output from the amp simulator into the speaker simulator. You soon learn the importance of a COSM processor's position within a Structure.

Next, the Resonator models the resonance of various guitar bodies (OK, one of them is a banjo...) with their size variable either via LFO or via keyboard position.

Then we have two of my favourite processors — the Sideband filters. They are labelled '1st Order' and '2nd Order' filters, the second having a higher resonant characteristic. These are brilliant for plucking out the fundamental or boosting overtones from unpitched sources — such as noise or percussion — and transforming them into something musically useful. Many of the sounds they produce are metallic and ringing in nature and it's a neat effect to assign these filters to be controlled by the D-Beam. You can then transform a drum loop into a ringing arpeggio with nothing but a gesture and a haughty expression.

The next algorithm — Comb Filter — is far more subtle than the one in my Analogue Systems modular synth; its function is to remove some of the overtones in a signal. This is followed by a succession of more traditional filters: dual configurations featuring high-, low- and band-pass modes, plus a multi-mode filter with a varying selection of slopes. A Dynamic filter whose cutoff can be varied according to the level of Oscillator 2 is ideal for processing samples or external signals. All in all, there's plenty of variety here, and if I have any criticism at all, it's that the filters sound a little steppy when swept with the cutoff knob.

A polyphonic compressor and limiter, followed by a Frequency-shifter and Lo-fi processor, complete the picture. The Frequency-shifter introduces a range of atonal, metallic effects and the Lo-Fi processor offers both bit- and sample-rate reduction. As the V-Synth's samples have a fixed rate of 44.1kHz, you might want to simulate the lower rates of older samplers — and this is just the tool to do it. It also contains a filter for smoothing out some of the resulting grunge.

Rear Panel Facilities

As you'd expect from a flagship instrument, the rear panel of the V-Synth is not short on features and connectivity — there are inputs, outputs, and connectors of all kinds on either side of the traditional Roland back-panel logo. As well as the headphone socket, twin audio inputs (with a line/mix selector switch) and stereo outputs, two direct outputs are provided. LCD contrast adjustment, the trio of MIDI ports and three footpedal inputs (hold and twin assignable jacks) are all present and correct, and I was pleased to see digital I/O in the form of both co-axial and optical ports. The two final items of interest are not the mains socket and on/off switch but rather a USB port and a PC card slot, the latter for the the connection of PCMCIA peripherals such as memory cards and the like.

A full-featured rear panel of MIDI and audio connections.A full-featured rear panel of MIDI and audio connections.Photo: Mark Ewing

The V-Synth makes integration with computers easy, with its USB connection and PCMCIA slot.The V-Synth makes integration with computers easy, with its USB connection and PCMCIA slot.Photo: Mark EwingThe USB port is designed to allow either MIDI connectivity or visibility as an external storage device from a PC or Mac. I dug out a USB cable, followed the supplied instructions for driver installation and very soon, I was up and running. It wasn't quite plug and play, requiring both synth and PC to be rebooted before contact was established, but it was quite painless really. Incidentally, if you run Windows 98, you can only get MIDI functionality via USB, and if you run Mac OS X you don't get MIDI, but do get Storage mode. As I have Windows XP in the studio, I had access to both MIDI and Storage modes (but not both simultaneously). You also get this with Mac OS 9.04 (or later).

The V-Synth appears in MIDI applications as both a MIDI input and output. You can address all 16 channels too, providing these are first activated in the System Mode menu. Using Cubase, I was able to control the different parts by re-channelising the V-Synth's MIDI output. That's fine if you don't already have a MIDI interface on your PC, but it was the Storage Mode I was most anxious to test. In order to use this, again enter System Mode and touch the USB icon. The USB Storage screen pops up containing just two options: Internal and PC Card. As you select either one, Windows XP automatically recognises it as a new drive. Then from your PC, you can see the contents of this drive and perform drag-and-drop operations to and from it. This is an ideal way to back up your data and fire in samples for import to the V-Synth.

Conclusion

I almost don't want to tell anyone about the V-Synth, because it's the first instrument in years that promises a genuine edge over the competition. Variphrase technology is capable of twisting samples to an extraordinary degree, and extracting interesting sounds from even dull samples in a way that I'd always hoped a sampler would. I've owned a few samplers over the years, but I must admit I've never been satisfied with any of them. Perhaps because of my synthesizer background, I always felt frustrated by how little you can do with a sample once you've got it. Therefore, the V-Synth was the breath of fresh air that made me reassess sampling from the ground up.

Within just a few days, I had created a dozen or so patches based on single note samples taken from sources as diverse as string scrapes from an acoustic guitar, the rasp of a 'snake charmer' flute, drum loops and my own voice. These I transformed into roaring metallic drones, PPG-like string synths, bizarre rhythms and amazing robot voices — and all easily. The V-Synth is highly intuitive, and I love the user interface with its combination of touchscreen, knobs and sliders. Add a veritable feast of performance controllers, and finally the keyboard player can be seen to perform! Teamed up with this synthesis engine, D-Beams fulfill their true potential at last; Roland have found what in the computing world would be termed the 'killer app' for them.

If I've done more than my usual amount of wild-eyed crowing about this synth, it's only fair to state that there are things that Roland could improve on. For a start, there are a few issues with keyboard zones that didn't quite feel right to me — particularly the inability to overlap zones to create layered patches. I'd like to be able to confine the arpeggiator within a zone of my choice too, for more versatile keyboard splits. Some will complain about the multitimbral implementation — I personally doubt I'd use it — but if I was going to, I'd really like the option to play the different patches in a multimbral setup from the keyboard without having to resort to an external sequencer. Finally, there were a couple of operational problems — during one long session the synth spontaneously rebooted. Quite what caused the crash I don't know, but on two other occasions it became quite sluggish in its response, once losing all audio output until I selected a new patch. Also, at times, there is a slight delay between selecting a patch and being able to play it.

I've suggested repeatedly that Variphrase is wonderful — and so it is. Nevertheless, samples cannot be stretched indefinitely with no penalty. Sometimes the result can sound very unnatural — especially at higher pitches — but this strangeness, possibly unwelcome in a sampler, can be a definite bonus in a synthesizer. This is another reason that I feel Variphrase has 'come home' and found a setting where it works to its best advantage.

The V-Synth is a heavyweight performer and priced accordingly. That it has such a wealth of sound sources and processors is great, but it is Variphrase technology, housed in the body of a responsive musical instrument, that makes it so exciting. The sum of the parts adds up to the most groundbreaking Roland synth in years.

V-Synth OS version reviewed: v1.12.

£1999 inc VAT.

www.roland.co.uk

www.roland.com

Published May 2003