Is it an effects processor? Is it a Variphrase processor? Is it a virtual analogue synth module? The truth is, Roland's VariOS can be any of these. Is this the flexible future of hardware? We find out...
A subtle revolution is taking place in our studios, right under our very noses. Increasingly, instruments and effects rely more on DSP programming than hardware. We are becoming used to gaining new functionality via software upgrades and, in some cases, we even forgive manufacturers for releasing 'unfinished' products, based on a belief in future development. What if the time is drawing near when we can no longer categorise any instrument or effects unit according to function — because functionality is no longer set in stone?
This isn't a deliberately vague introduction. The VariOS module is a freely configurable hardware and software combination, one of several that are starting to appear. As it stands today, it is capable of being a DSP-modelled analogue synth one moment, and a sample player, arranger, or manipulator the next. In the future, it may be transformed into, well, whatever Roland care to make it. If you're still wondering "yes, but what is it?", this is a tricky question to answer — put simply, it depends! The VariOS is designed to work in conjunction with software loaded onto a host PC or Mac — although it can operate in stand-alone mode too. It arrived here for review accompanied by a lone program, V-Producer, and this was where I started. Later, two more instruments — software synths named VariOS 303 and VariOS 8 respectively — became available for VariOS, and I reconfigured it to run them as well. The newer instruments are described as 'reminiscent' of a TB303 Bassline and unspecified 'Roland analogue polysynths'.
We'll begin with the easy part — the hardware. The VariOS is a cheery-looking module, one rack unit high and with a minimal user interface. The contoured front panel is made of striking red plastic, which contrasts nicely with the yellow-green 2x16-character backlit LCD. Additional information is represented by four small indicator LEDs, which light to indicate clock tempo, MIDI data and the status of computer and USB connectivity.
To the left of the display, three small knobs perform different functions according to the software loaded, while on the display's right there are buttons for navigating the Menu system when using the module in stand-alone mode (Menu, Exit, and Cursor left/right). Parameter adjustments are made via the Value dial, also located here, and pushing this confirms values, so it behaves like an Enter key. You can push the main volume knob too, in which case it auditions the current sample (or synth sound, if that's how the VariOS is set up at the time).
A PC card slot is provided for external data storage using Microdrive, Smart Media or Compact Flash (with a suitable PC card adaptor). A headphones socket and on/off switch complete the front panel.
The rear panel has MIDI in and Out — but no Thru. It also features a USB socket — the vital connection for data transfer between computer and module. Digital outputs are provided in both co-axial and optical form, but the inputs are analogue-only with a level-adjustment pot and a line/microphone selector. At present, the inputs are not referenced by any of Roland's software — so the VariOS can't (yet) function as a sampler or effects unit. The stereo outputs are supplemented by two individual direct outputs.
With V-Producer loaded on your computer, the VariOS module can perform 'elastic' audio file manipulation based on Roland's Variphrase technology. Rather than use precious space here on all the details, please see the SOS reviews of the VP9000 Variphrase Sampler and the V-Synth (SOS June 2000 and May 2003, or at www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun00/articles/rolandvp9000.htm and www.soundonsound.com/sos/may03/articles/rolandvsynth.asp respectively).
Software and driver installation from the supplied CD-ROM is straightforward enough if you follow the given instructions. The software resides in the VariOS module itself, as well as in your studio computer. There was rather too much rebooting of my PC and unplugging of the (supplied) USB cable for my taste but overall, I had no problems. I installed the supplied software on the CD-ROM, but regretted it later when I found out that a newer version was already available from the updates part of Roland's US web site (see the box opposite for more on this). I did my review on a PC running Windows XP, but the software is supplied on dual-format CD-ROM for both PC and Mac (see the 'Computer Requirements' box on page 95).
When running V-Producer for the first time, you need to specify the MIDI ports you're using. USB is ideal for two-way communication between host computer and module and, as well as carrying sample data, it also serves as a MIDI interface. Having set the program's input and output connections to this interface ('VariOS MIDI') a further field allows you to define an input for your MIDI keyboard. This can be via the VariOS's five-pin MIDI connection (the MIDI Input) or the USB driver's proffered 'VariOS External MIDI' option.
Having got V-Producer up and running, a quick exploration of its windows revealed a six-track sequencer with Variphrase manipulation, a mixer, an effects section and a basic sample editor. If you have experience with any MIDI sequencer software, it should look familiar. The tracks on the so-called Vari Track window feature the usual Solo, Mute and Record buttons, and musical parts can be dragged around with the mouse. All in all, it's like a more basic version of Cubase or Cakewalk. However, its function is tied irrevocably to the VariOS module and, if the module is not present, V-Producer does nothing at all.
All the audio processing is done within Roland's hardware rather than in your computer and the VariOS has a maximum sample storage time of 2.5 minutes stereo, five minutes mono. Maximum polyphony is 14 notes; this figure is halved for stereo samples.
The VariOS's 46MB of non-expandable internal Wave memory can only hold a single collection of samples (or Performance, as Roland call it), comprising six multitimbral parts and up to 128 samples. To back up this working pool of storage, 32MB of internal flash RAM is provided and yet more data can be stored via the PC card option. In practical terms, you could store many projects for quick retrieval from card. This can be done even without V-Producer or a computer present. Having recently purchased a Roland V-Synth, I had a brand-new PCMCIA adaptor and 128MB Compact Flash card, which I dedicated to the VariOS during this review.
I should point out that the maximum sample time does not impose limits on the length of songs you can create with V-Producer. It is not a hard disk recorder after all, but a sample player/manipulator; the samples are played back via MIDI. When used in stand-alone mode, the six parts operate in typical multitimbral fashion.
I've already stated that the VariOS does not, itself, sample, but it's worth repeating this point to drive it home. Instead, V-Producer is the means by which sample data is loaded from a computer over the USB link. The program can handle its own Variphrase-format (VPW) files, or WAV, AIFF, and SDII files, and these are selected from an Explorer-style dialogue box. Having chosen a series of audio files to use in a song (via the Add button), you must load them into the VariOS's memory before they can be used. The program's Load button makes this both quick and transparent, automatically encoding the files and saving them to a working directory on your PC. The load screen also features a 'Free Memory' display, so you can tell how full the module's wave RAM is.
The VariOS module arrived for review with a CD-ROM that was obsolete even before I unsealed it. Roland's US web site (see www.rolandus.com/products_static/varios/) now has new versions of the USB drivers and V-Producer software for free download (plus the two software synths) that weren't even included on my CD.
After a download of approximately 30MB, I was ready to go. OK, I admit it: first I installed the V-Producer software and USB driver from the CD, then I looked on the web site and realised I was behind the times. You can learn from my mistakes here...
If you are still on a dial-up connection, it's worth contacting your dealer, as Roland should be able to supply you with a CD of all the latest software. With luck, by the time you read this, VariOS modules will ship with the latest software included — unless they're out of date again by the time that happens, of course!
Did you notice how I've just slipped the term 'encoding' quietly past you? If you recall the V-Synth and VP9000 reviews, you'll know that this is an integral and essential part of the Variphrase functionality. There are three encoding types on offer: 'Solo' (designed for solo instruments or vocals), 'Backing' (for percussive samples) and 'Ensemble' (think 'pads'). By default, encoding is automatically set to 'Backing' on the Load screen, since this covers the broadest range of sounds, but if you tick the Manual box, the other types may be selected. However, you can always re-encode later, so if you select the wrong type, it's not a problem. One situation where you might prefer manual encoding is when loading loops. In such a case, you have the option to enter the loop's tempo — otherwise the program will calculate it for you.
Before recording your first song, there's one final setting you might wish to make. Keyboard Map is an almost invisible on-screen parameter in the sample list that specifies how a sample will play when triggered via MIDI notes. It has two modes: Phrase Map (denoted by a blue 'P') and Groove Map (a pink 'G'); the former is used for conventional sample playback where sample pitch is set according to the note you play. In the latter, the sample is divided non-destructively over a range of keys and is therefore the equivalent of the V-Synth's Event playback mode (I'm not sure why Roland chose to mix their terminology).
Supposing you want to run a drum loop throughout the song (hey, it happens!), you simply drag your loop onto the Vari Track window, then hold down the right mouse button and click on the newly created part to perform various actions such as copy and repeat. To relieve the monotony of the loop, you could overdub some knob tweaks. The three knobs on the VariOS module control Time, Tune and Formant; you can twiddle these and record the results.
If your song's tempo does not match that of the loop, open the Sample Edit window and ensure the Time Control button is set to 'on'. Having done this, the loop will adapt smoothly and without fuss, Acid-style, whenever tempo is changed. A simple time/tempo map is provided, although the tempo is accurate only to two decimal places, whilst the Sample Editor's tempo calculator is accurate to four.
V-Producer has standard transport keys for play, record, rewind and so on. Loop points may be configured for a small section or for the whole song, and if you're recording in loop mode, you can decide whether to keep discrete 'takes' for each pass or overdub data into the same track repeatedly.
Mostly, you will use V-Producer in the same way as other sequencers: select your sound source (from the sample list) then play it, recording the performance into a track via a connected MIDI keyboard. The VariOS sound engine doesn't have the bells and whistles of, for example, the V-Synth, so there are no COSM filter options, external signal processing or analogue waveforms to play with. But at least all the Variphrase tools are at your disposal. If encoded using the 'Solo' option, a sample has access to the full range of Variphrase favourites including formant control and robot voice. The trademark time/pitch manipulations are available to all encoding types.
I explained in my review of the V-Synth how this technology endows a single sample with a far wider playable range than a conventional sampler. An assortment of playback modes offer Retrigger, Step and Time Sync in very much the same way as I've described when discussing Variphrase before. It's when you start to overdub using vocal samples that V-Producer really shines. For a start, the 'Poly' key assign mode, in conjunction with Time Sync, means you can play passages where new harmonies are added as the sampled phrase progresses, without restarting the sample on each new note. You can use the key-assign mode 'Solo' (not to be confused with the encoding type of the same name!) to replay a musical phrase, but replacing its melody with one of your own. These are just two of the reasons I loved Variphrase when I first encountered it.
The Scope Editor window is where you make detailed adjustments to a track, and its nature depends on the Keyboard Map setting for the sample. If you are using the conventional Phrase Map, the resulting PhraseScope window (shown above) places the sample along the top, its start position corresponding to each note. You can't modify the wave itself from this pane, but you can in the next one down, in which MIDI note information is displayed. Here notes may be added, deleted, moved, and so on. Finally, the lowest pane displays either sample pitch, time, formant, dynamics or velocity. If you have recorded time, pitch or formant changes, perhaps by tweaking the VariOS module's knobs during playback, or by sending the appropriate MIDI controllers, these are shown graphically. With a quick mousey flourish, you can edit them or create new events from scratch.
If the keyboard Map parameter is set to Groove Map, the Scope Editor window becomes the GrooveScope, displaying the time-sliced audio in the loop and allowing you to swap the slices around to create new variations and patterns — and all non-destructively. As before, each event's pitch, dynamics, and time can be tweaked graphically.
If you don't have a MIDI keyboard, the on-screen red keyboard may be used to input notes or controller information, and serves as a real-time display of notes that are playing on the currently selected part. The keyboard window also has a 'surface controller option, accessed by double-clicking on the middle area. This opens a rectangular frame (akin to the Time Trip pad on the V-Synth) within which mouse movements can be recorded to tweak any combination of time, pitch and formant.
The levels, output routing and panning of each track/part may be set from V-Producer's Mixer window, and the objects in this window handle nicely with the mouse, although their actions are not recordable. The finishing layer of polish is accessed from here, courtesy of three buttons that open up the wonderful world of the effects section. With nine reverb algorithms, eight chorus types and 40 multi-effects, these are a great way to breathe life into your V-Producer creation. Dedicated windows for all the effects parameters make the editing process painless, although again, I'd have liked the ability to record on-screen tweaks into a track. The effects are of a high quality and the multi-effects in particular have some funky algorithms, comparable to those I admired in the V-Synth.
With a finished masterpiece waiting to be unleashed on an eager world, there are several options at your disposal for combining V-Producer's output with other software. The song data can be exported as a standard MIDI file for use in your favourite MIDI sequencer. Choosing Export from the File menu creates the MID file with up to six tracks, including all the data necessary to play back the parts from your sequencer rather than V-Producer. Of course, the VariOS wave memory needs to contain the correct project data when you play this MIDI file at it, and your sequencer tracks must be routed to the appropriate VariOS input (either the MIDI input or the USB port's simulated MIDI input — either of these methods worked fine for me in practice). If you're using the five-pin MIDI port, you have to ensure that the VariOS module knows it by selecting the 'Internal' MIDI Mode from within the Module's menu system.
I should refer to the VariOS hardware's menu system briefly here. It isn't something you will typically use when V-Producer is running; the on-screen panels are far, far more friendly than the small LCD, menu button and Value knob. However, if you're using the VariOS as a stand-alone module, you can navigate through most of the options using these controls, although it takes a little time. I expect you'd only resort to using the menu system for simple project load operations, either from Flash RAM or from the PC card.
The other means of getting your work out of the VariOS is to export it as audio. You can, in turn, do this in one of two ways: either export it as a completed stereo mix or as multiple files (one for each part). The resulting WAV files can even be used to overdub the VariOS module multiple times, in conjunction with an audio sequencer.
Finally, V-Producer can run simultaneously with your other software, taking synchronisation information from it. I ran it alongside Cubase VST and found it sync'ed to either MIDI Clock or MIDI Time Code with no problems. I was surprised to note that MIDI Clock seemed to have the edge in practice. Its timing was good enough and it locked up far quicker than it did to MTC, which required a couple of seconds to work out where it was before starting playback.
V-Producer can also act as your MTC or Clock master, but I would generally recommend using your main sequencer as the master unless you have a valid reason not to — using your soundcard as a sync source generally gives the tightest MIDI/Audio sync).
I'll end this section by saying that V-Producer combined with the VariOS module is an interesting vehicle for the Variphrase technology; I certainly achieved some good results with it. But if it were all this system had to offer, I would feel slightly underwhelmed. Fortunately, the VariOS is no one-trick pony. Roland's release of two completely free software synths for it was my cue to start this review all over again.
For the most recent information and updates on VariOS, the Roland US web site seems to be on the ball — as my review was in progress, updated drivers for Windows 98SE and Mac OS X (not originally supported) appeared.
Windows PC users may use Windows XP (Home or Professional), Windows ME or Windows 98. Windows XP/2000 are recommended. The minimum CPU requirements are a Pentium or Celeron processor with a minimum 128MB of RAM, though 256MB is recommended.
As for Apple users, the VariOS USB driver now supports Mac OS X, and version 2.1 of the V-Producer software now supports OS X too. The minimum CPU requirements are a 233MHz G3 or better. Again, 128MB of RAM is quoted as the minimum, with 256MB recommended.
VariOS 8 is a software emulation of an analogue polyphonic synth. The graphics are intended, I think, to recall a Jupiter 8 — albeit a less colourful one. When scanning the advertising blurb, I noted the absence of any specific claim to replicate the mighty Jupiter, and there's a reason for this — VariOS 8 offers far more synthesis options than a Jupiter 8 ever did, but has a sound more reminiscent of a generic virtual analogue synth. This isn't to deny its ability to get pretty close to some Jupiter (and Juno) patches, but side by side with my own Jupiter 6, there was little doubt which was hardware and which was software.
Once I had copied the VariOS 8 program onto my PC card, the VariOS module happily detected and automatically loaded it on power-up. If you have stored the VariOS 303 software in the same place, you are asked on the module's display which one you want to load. This is not terribly intuitive, though; VariOS 8 is referred to as 'VPI-01' and the 303 emulation rejoices under the moniker 'VPI-02'. This is fine while there are just two to remember, but I hope Roland will change their naming standard at some point to make the selection rather clearer.
One thing to note is that once you've saved either or both of the software synths to your PC card, if you then want to use the V-Producer software instead, you must boot VariOS without the card present. I became rather fed up of constantly switching on and off in order to use the three items of software at my disposal but I expect, in practice, you would be unlikely to jump between them with quite the same frequency as I did during this review.
VariOS 8 is actually composed of two pieces of software. One is loaded into the module itself, the other — the graphical front end — runs in your host PC. With VariOS 8 loaded, the module's three hardware knobs act as high-pass cutoff, low-pass cutoff and resonance controls, their tweaks recordable into your sequencer. For more extensive control, the results of on-screen mouse movements are transmitted too. The onscreen sliders and knobs generate SysEx data; I wish Roland had designed VariOS so that adjustments could be made using MIDI control changes instead.
VariOS 8 is a two-oscillator polyphonic synthesizer with up to 24-note polyphony, depending on load. The first 30 factory sounds are full of classic old-style sounds with names like 'Jupiter Strings' and 'Juno Bass', but there are a further 98 Blank patches ready for hot, uncensored mouse/slider interaction. Some of the factory sounds are very useable indeed and the interface for programming new patches is clear and logical. In order to keep the screen footprint small, additional windows are opened by clicking on the various orange 'Detail' buttons — so the synth is actually more complex than it might first appear. The end result, though, is lots of little windows strewn across your desktop.
Each oscillator has access to the same waveforms as Roland's V-Synth — namely a mixture of low- and high-quality analogue waves, a noise source and a 'Juno' wave. A Sub function is available to all sources except the high-quality sawtooth, square wave and noise, although it acts more as a bass boost than a traditional divided-down square sub-oscillator. Similarly, each wave except the high-quality sawtooth and noise may have their pulse width modulated via an LFO or a dedicated envelope (one for each oscillator).
The low-pass filter has just two modes — 12dB- and 24dB-per-octave — but it does a decent job. A non-resonant high-pass filter allows you to really thin out a sound if you need to. The Detail menu for the filter contains a separate envelope for both cutoff and resonance, and there's a dedicated LFO as well, the latter sync'able to MIDI Clock.
No Jupiter wannabe would be complete without an arpeggiator. This one is realistically basic, lacking only a Hold button — but at least it responds to MIDI Hold pedal information. It can also sync to MIDI Clock.
Rounding off this comprehensively specified polysynth, there's an effects section consisting of reverb, a chorus/flanger and multi-effects. The latter section features a ring modulator, three-band EQ, pitch-shifter, phaser and delay in series.
Neither VariOS 8 nor VariOS 303 support the module's audio inputs, so you cannot process external signals via the filter models. Well, not yet, anyway!
It is the VariOS 8's MIDI implementation that most reminds me of a Jupiter — it's abysmal! For reasons known only to Roland, the synth responds to all MIDI channels, emulating the MIDI cockup of the Jupiter 6 that powered up in Omni mode. Twenty years ago you could forgive this, especially as the Jupiter 6 was fixed in a later ROM update so that it could operate on specific MIDI channels. With a USB MIDI driver serving as your exclusive connection to the VariOS, this behaviour would still be acceptable, but if you wanted to take the VariOS to a gig and have it perform stand-alone polysynth duties, you'd need to dedicate a whole MIDI port to it. Madness!
Many people have pleaded with Roland to remake the original TB303, and such is the allure of its acid squelch that, even now, the originals can fetch over £600 second-hand. OK, we're not talking about an analogue rebuild, but at least Roland have finally created a pretty faithful rendering in software — complete with the thing that really made the TB303 interesting — its sequencer.
Take a look at the screenshot on the right and you'll have to confess that Roland have done a nice job in capturing the look whilst throwing in a little new functionality too. All the controls work as you'd expect; start one of the TB303 patterns running and you could almost be fooled into believing it was the real thing. Listening closely, the square wave doesn't sound as hollow as memory tells me it should, but the sawtooth is sufficiently full and the filter is wet, warm and fattening — like chips soaked in vinegar. The higher resonance settings are more shrill than squelchy and Roland haven't quite nailed the characteristic bloopiness on accented notes either, but I'm being picky: it's a creditable job unless you're an analogue die-hard.
The 303 emulation is monophonic and shares the same MIDI limitations as the VariOS 8. It receives on all MIDI channels and you can't access the knobs via MIDI control changes, having to rely on the less wieldy system exclusive. But the user interface was the biggest difference for me. The TB303 was a tactile little beast, brought to life by twiddling. Turning on-screen knobs with a mouse is as satisfying to the performing musician as watching somebody else eat your favourite meal. But if you're an adept rodent wrangler, you are probably already sneering at my dinosaur-like misgivings. Fortunately for the likes of me, with VariOS 303 loaded, the module's front-panel knobs control Tune, Cutoff and Resonance.
Each of the 128 patches (with 20 to start you off) contains up to six patterns that may be selected with a click of the mouse, even during playback. The Step input screen faithfully reproduces the look of the original but I wanted to see all of VariOS 303's 16 available steps — and sod the purists! Fortunately, the 'Slider' mode does exactly that, allowing you to see the full range of steps, program their values, add slides and ties, mute steps and enable Accent. It's a welcome addition to supplement the original method of pushing the Next and Back buttons to select the step to edit. I liked the way you could make changes during playback and, with careful programming of accent and slides, the results were fun. This rapidly became my favourite VariOS program.
The sequencer will sync to MIDI Clock, although it seems to deviate from the method used by V-Producer; it requires clock information via the 'VariOS External MIDI' port rather than the 'VariOS Sync' port.
The Pattern on/off button determines whether MIDI Note information is used to govern pattern playback. With this activated, if you take your hands off the keyboard, pattern playback stops. The Pattern Shift button also allows you to transpose the current pattern via MIDI, which could be useful.
Of course, the original TB303 had no effects, but Roland have added a compressor, overdrive/distortion, chorus, delay and three-band EQ—all connected in serial. For me, the compression and distortion really shone in this context, throwing up many of the sounds popularly associated with the TB303. If you've been wondering what the secrets were all this time but didn't dare ask, Roland have hidden some of them in here for our edification.
It's still early days for the VariOS, and given that its major selling point is its completely fluid nature, it's rather hard to reach any solid conclusions about it. The hardware is indeed capable of wondrous things, but it is only as good as the software that powers it. I have to say that this currently feels hastily implemented and rather unsophisticated.
As it stands, I found V-Producer useable but unremarkable. Although it's now hard to track down, the VP9000 Variphrase sampler, even with its reduced polyphony, seems to offer a more rounded implementation of the same technology given its ability to sample and work in stand-alone mode. That said, it isn't hard to get your head round V-Producer, and impressive Variphrase tricks are easy to accomplish; I especially liked its ability to export songs as WAV or Standard MIDI Files. For live work, you could quickly load projects from internal Flash memory or the PC card without a computer even being present.
If Roland continue to expand the platform — for example by finishing the MIDI implementation of their two free software synths — VariOS could become a flexible multi-purpose tool. I enjoyed myself playing extensively with VariOS 303, but was less blown away by VariOS 8 — not because of its sound, which was fine, but because it seemed to really need multitimbrality to exploit it fully. In its present incarnation, it's not even bi-timbral like the Jupiter 6 or 8 were.
Roland make much of the fact that the VariOS module handles all processing, preventing drain on the host computer's CPU. However, modern PCs are increasingly laughing off even the most complex software synths, so this alone may be unlikely to sell the VariOS. I believe the way forward must be for Roland to release a Developers' kit as, for example, the Spanish company Soundart have with their own 'Reprogrammable DSP', the Chameleon (more on this in a forthcoming issue of SOS). In this way, the VariOS could truly become an 'Open System', as it is rather optimistically described on its front panel. With devoted users beavering away on its behalf, a much longer shelf life would be guaranteed. For now, we can only speculate on what is coming next.
The potential to turn the VariOS from a synthesizer into an audio processor or even a sampler (assuming those audio inputs are included for a reason) should not be underestimated — this could still become a very versatile system. For the moment, however, the jury is still out.