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Roland VS2400

Digital Studio Workstation
By Hugh Robjohns

Roland offer a downsized version of their flagship VS2480, providing all of the most important facilities at a much lower price point.

The Roland VS series continues to be popular, and the company continue to redevelop and repackage the technology to appeal to different sectors of the market. The latest addition to the fleet is the VS2400, probably best thought of as a scaled down and more affordable version of the flagship model, the VS2480. It shares the same fundamental features, operating paradigms and software, but incorporates a smaller digital mixer, eight analogue inputs (instead of sixteen), thirteen motorised faders (instead of seventeen), and no phrase pads. However, it also boasts two new features. The first is a virtual 3D panning facility using Roland's RSS technology which allows up to six mono sources to be placed anywhere in a virtual 3D sound field. Intended for use with conventional stereo loudspeakers, RSS can be used to create a sound stage which extends around and even behind the listener. This facility joins the existing surround mixing capabilities of the VS2480.

Roland VS2400 multitracker.Photo: Mark EwingThe other new function is called V-Link and is provided to help the VS2400 synchronise with and control (or be controlled by) certain Edirol video devices, thereby making audio-for-picture operations a little easier. Like its predecessors, the new VS2400 machine contains onboard digital effects, coming with two stereo processors as standard, but with the facility to install a VS8F2 option card to double that number. All the usual effects are provided -- 36 algorithms in all -- including Roland's COSM mic, speaker and guitar amp modelling features, and there is also a CD 'mastering tool kit' with a multi-band compressor amongst other functions.

A slim-line internal CD-RW drive is mounted under the front armrest too, for CD mastering or archiving projects from the internal 40GB hard drive (the maximum partition size on any drive is 10GB, and up to 13 partitions can be created on a single drive). The CD can also be used to import WAV and AIFF audio files from sample CD-ROMs, or to export files in the WAV format.

Roland VS2400 £2099
pros
  • High potential standard of recording quality.
  • All the important VS2480 features in a compact package.
cons
  • Not the most intuitive of user interfaces until familiar.
  • Noisy fan and hard drive on review machine.
summary
A comprehensively equipped, but petite, multitrack workstation with expandable onboard effects, full automation, and basic audio editing facilities. It is capable of 24/96 resolution, albeit with reduced track counts, has both real multi-channel and RSS virtual surround capabilities. A noisy hard drive and fan let down an otherwise competent machine.

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As with the VS2480, the new VS2400 provides up to 24 physical replay tracks with a staggering 384 virtual tracks, all at up to 24-bit resolution and sample rates extending to 96kHz. The internal digital mixer effectively provides 48 channels in a split input/monitor format with eight effect returns. The 16 input and 24 monitor channels all have four-band EQ and comprehensive dynamics facilities, and the mixer is controlled through the usual arrangement of fader layers. Two fader layers access the input channels (1-12 and 13-16), while another two carry the 24 playback tracks (1-12 and 13-24). A fifth layer accesses the eight aux sends and the four stereo effects returns, while another controls the twelve subgroups and the last layer can be configured to act as a MIDI controller for external equipment. The main stereo output is provided with its own permanent fader at all times.

The operating system will be familiar to anyone with previous VS workstation experience, but confusing to any Yamaha converts! For the novice, it has a fairly shallow learning curve, with generally well-labelled buttons and controls, and a clear graphical user interface on an internal monochrome LCD. When using the built-in VGA port to drive an optional external monitor the status of the whole machine is much clearer, and the revised control displays are easier and faster to use, thanks to the more detailed colour display and pull-down mouse-driven menus. Incidentally, a PS2 mouse (included) and a PS2 keyboard (not supplied) can also be connected. The latter simplifies naming things and provides an additional means of controlling certain functions -- for example, the Space bar can toggle playback on and off.

Ins & Outs

Although the VS2400 has only eight analogue inputs and two S/PDIF digital inputs, its connections can be expanded further through the eight-channel bidirectional R-Bus port. This can be used to interface the machine directly to other VS2400 or VS2480 workstations, or to a computer fitted with an RPC1 interface card, as well as to a range of other compatible products including multi-channel analogue converters. The machine is equipped with eight analogue line inputs which can be accessed using either balanced TRS sockets or XLRs. Phantom power can be applied to each XLR individually, and the eighth input has an additional quarter-inch socket and selector switch to provide a high-impedance DI input.

S/PDIF digital inputs can be connected via either a phono or optical port, and both flavours are available simultaneously for digital outputs. Each physical input can be assigned to any of the 16 input channels on the digital mixer and, as with the VS2480, there are 16 record busses which may be freely routed to tracks on the hard drive with a separate 24-channel monitor mixer provided for balancing the playback tracks. There are also eight aux busses and eight direct paths, the latter being used to carry individual signals to effects processors, recording tracks or outputs as required, instead of tying up aux busses for the purpose. One stereo effects processor can be assigned independently to conventional send/return loops (typically for reverb programs, for example), or used within channel inserts. The latter is required for the COSM processes, for example.

On the output side, there are the optical and coaxial S/PDIF outputs already mentioned, plus the eight-channel R-Bus port. Analogue outputs are provided courtesy of eight configurable balanced analogue sockets, just as on the VS2480. There is also a single headphone socket. By default, the analogue outputs provide the main stereo bus, two stereo auxes, and a stereo monitoring signal.

The sampling rate of the VS2480 can be synchronised to an external digital source, but only via one of the S/PDIF inputs or the R-Bus port -- there is no BNC word-clock input on this machine. The timecode input of the VS2480 is also absent, and time synchronisation can only be achieved through MIDI or the R-Bus interface. A pair of MIDI sockets are provided for In and Out/Thru connections, and these are also used to connect the optional external MB24 meter-bridge unit or the VE7000 Channel Edit Controller. A quarter-inch socket on the rear panel accepts a standard footswitch which can be assigned to various control functions. Although the VS2400 is equipped with PS2 connectors for mouse and keyboard, and a VGA port for an external monitor, the SCSI connector found on the VS2480 is absent.

In Control

Since the VS2400 uses the same basic hardware control functions and software as its bigger sibling, there is no real need to labour through the detail here. However, the smaller control surface and reduced cost of the machine have forced some control sacrifices -- most notably the channel rotary encoders on the VS2480, which is a shame as they provided a convenient and tactile method of adjusting all sorts of channel parameters in the bigger machine.

Roland VS2400Photo: Mark EwingThe VS2400 control buttons employ the same extensive dual-functionality as the bigger machine, with almost every button having a shifted function in addition to its primary role. In fact through using this machine you soon learn some bizarre stretched-hand positions to access the shifted key functions! Most buttons are illuminated, some with dual colour displays depending on the current operating mode, and many flash to draw attention to themselves or to warn the user of some important condition. With all the dual-functionality switching and flashing/coloured lights, it takes a while to become familiar with just what this control surface is trying to tell you at any time, but once mastered its operation becomes clear and it is possible to control the machine very quickly.

One other change from the VS2480 is the input and monitoring section controls. Rotary input gain controls set the input level for whichever input socket is in use. The range spans -14dBu (line) at the anticlockwise position to +50dBu (mic) at the clockwise end, and there is no pad facility. The mic amps are adequately quiet for most purposes assuming close-miking techniques, and the harmonic distortion problem that beset some VS2480 machines appears not to be an issue with the VS2400 analogue inputs -- at least, I couldn't provoke audible distortion below 0dBFS on the input meter. I was confused briefly, as the input clip light came on around -6dBFS, but I eventually discovered that this was because it had been configured that way (other options are -3dBFS and 0dBFS). The VS2400 only has one headphone output, so there are only two controls to the right of the input connectors, one for the overall monitoring level, and a second for the headphone level.

 Test Spec 
 
  • Roland VS2400 OS v1
 

As with the other VS machines, there are six soft keys below the LCD to provide access to the various context-sensitive functions on appropriate menu screens, and a Page button is also provided to cycle through any submenus. As with the VS2480, the 'get out of jail free' Home button is to the right of the display, recalling the main display page with its master time display, level meters, recorded hard disk tracks, and virtual track status.

The recorder is controlled with chunky Play, Stop, and Record buttons, plus smaller zero locate and wind buttons, and a jog dial. Buttons for such essential functions as Enter/Yes, Exit/No and Shift are all arranged around this dial wheel, with four cursor keys nearby which double to provide track display zoom functions. Additional shifted transport button functions include saving the current project, shutting the machine down, recording dynamic automation, and jumping to the start or end of a project. An unusually laid out numeric keypad can be used to access memory locate positions and doubles up for entering the In, Out, From, To, Autopunch and Preview positions.

A crude form of audio scrubbing is provided for locating a rough track editing point, although I found it easier to judge edit points by looking at the waveform display. In the scrub mode a section of audio from any one selected track is repeated, centred around the current time position. I found it almost impossible to recognise where I was within a section of audio listening to the repeating section, and I don't really think this mode has a great deal of practical use.

Roland VS2400 screens.

Redefining 24

This machine, like its forebears, is marketed as a 24-track, 24-bit, 96kHz digital studio workstation. This, I fear, may be a little misleading, since, although it can offer all of those things individually, it can't provide them all at the same time! I think most people will happily accept that if you want to record at 96kHz sample rates the number of tracks that the machine can support will be halved compared to its base-rate performance. In this particular case, the VS2400 can record up to eight tracks simultaneously and replay up to 12 when using the higher sample rates.

However, at the more practical sample rates of 44.1kHz or 48kHz, the machine will record a maximum of 16 tracks simultaneously -- not 24 -- and it can replay either 16 or 24 tracks depending on the recording format. However, these technical limitations are largely irrelevant to the VS2400 since it only has eight analogue inputs and 16 mixer inputs anyway. Like its bigger brother, the VS2400 provides a choice of recording modes using various data-reduction strategies. The highest-quality recording mode is called M24 (Mastering 24) which uses a completely linear 24-bit format. This obviously eats into disk capacity at a high rate, and will only support 16-track record and replay, but offers the highest possible quality. At elevated sample rates the machine provides eight-track functionality.

The standard operating mode is called MTP (MultiTrack Pro) and this uses Roland's own RDAC 3:1 data reduction strategy, thereby increasing disc storage capacity by a factor of three. By reducing the amount of data that has to be transferred, the machine becomes capable of supporting 24 replay tracks at standard rates (12 at elevated rates). Unlike the application of data reduction to a complete mix, where the sheer density of audio often makes coding artefacts audible, this MTP system is typically working on individual instruments with far more data redundancy, so the audible side-effects are minimal. Listening critically to recordings made on the previous VS2480 demonstrated clearly that the RDAC system is actually very good on solo instruments, so this mode is the most pragmatic choice.

There are six further recording modes, starting with the M16 format, which is a 16-bit linear mode with the same track limitations as the M24 mode. It has a logical partner format called CD-R which is used when creating an image file of a stereo master track for burning to CD-R. It is, obviously, a 16-bit linear format which can only operate at a 44.1kHz sample rate, and the system can only record a stereo pair of channels. The final four modes employ much heavier data-reduction strategies, with two multitrack modes (MT1 and MT2) and two Live Modes (LV1 and LV2). The data reduction ratios (and correspondingly increased disk capacities) are 3:1, 4:1, 4.8:1 and 6:1 respectively. It is not clear to me what the difference is between MTP and MT1, but, in general, I would only use these modes when disk capacity was in very short supply, or if audio quality was less of an issue than track counts or file sizes.

Roland have always supplied a veritable mountain of documentation with their machines, usually in the form of several bite-sized booklets and appendices covering specific aspects of the machine's operation. The VS2400 handbook has been approached in a different way, though, with one huge main book and a couple of smaller guides and updates. The big book is the best part of an inch thick and contains 500 pages, so it may appear a little intimidating to the novice, but it is written in a logical and clear way for the most part, and doesn't seem to require as much translation as some of Roland's previous efforts!

 Roland Sound Space 
 The first Roland Sound Space (RSS) system was launched back in the mid-1990s. It works by running individual sound sources through sophisticated psychoacoustic DSP processing, such that when they are replayed over a stereo monitoring or hi-fi system they appear to be located in any desired position in a three-dimensional space around the listener. In real life, we are able to locate the direction and distance of sound sources using a variety of techniques, including characteristic changes in frequency response (caused by the shadowing effects of the head and outer ear) and comb-filtering effects (caused by interfering signals reflected from the shoulders and the complex folds of the outer ear).

By modifying the left and right elements of a signal to introduce these kinds of distinctive characteristics in a controlled way, the user can make a sound source appear to be located almost anywhere in the space around him or her: above or below, in front or behind, to the left or right, nearer or further away... The source can even be made to appear to move from one place to another -- in effect creating a complete surround sound stage which can be auditioned with only two loudspeakers.

If all this sounds a little too good to be true, it is, to a degree. One significant issue is that the accuracy of image positioning tends to vary quite considerably with listeners and listening rooms, making the effect imprecise and inconsistent. Presumably, part of this is because everyone's ears and head dimensions are different, so even if I use the various RSS controls to fool my own brain into thinking a sound is hovering a few feet behind my left shoulder, your brain may interpret the same comb-filtering and frequency-response modifications to be more consistent with a sound source on the floor three feet to the side of you (or wherever). Consequently, although most people interpret these sound manipulations in a broadly similar way, there is no real precision to it, and some people perceive something radically different to what was intended! Reverberant or reflective listening rooms also seem to reduce the accuracy of the system, presumably because wall reflections interfere and partially destroy the intended effect.

If you treat the RSS system as a fun spatial effect, then used sparingly it can add a useful dramatic impact and it works very well. Try to use it to create a believable and complex surround sound stage and you're on a hiding to nothing, because some of your audience may well hear some sounds coming from directions other than those you intended! There may also be some coloration issues if the RSS-treated stereo signal is reduced to mono, although I found this was not really a serious problem (however, it was more noticeable when processing voices). In the VS2400, the RSS manipulations require a lot of processing effort and so the machine requires an optional second effects card to be installed to run the RSS panning.

 

Final Impressions

Although this machine is capable and competent in many areas, there are aspects which I find slightly disappointing. Some operational issues that affected the earliest VS machines have still not been significantly improved in this latest generation and one aspect which is a particular frustration is the way in which the screen is painfully slow to update in certain modes, making the machine appear cumbersome and sluggish when compared to some of its rivals.

For example, the track waveform displays are only created when the machine is stopped, and they can take quite a while sometimes to update when the cue point is moved. This appears to be caused by limited graphics processing power, which seems rather silly given the cost and power of even modest computer graphics cards these days. The mouse pointer is now available on the LCD screen as well as the external monitor (if used), but it has a frustrating habit of disappearing completely on the LCD whenever the mouse is moved -- a problem presumably caused by the poor refresh speed of the specific LCD used.

Another frustration is the tardiness of the audio switching when punching out of record. Using the record button to punch a record-armed track into record works as expected, but when hitting it a second time to drop out, the underlying track cannot be heard for a second or two, leaving the user to wonder whether the punch out worked properly. On playing the track back the punch in and out points are where you expect them to be, but the delay is certainly disconcerting at the time.

A rather more fundamental problem is the unacceptable level of noise emitted by the fan and hard drive, which together make it very difficult to record acoustic sources in the same room as the machine. I appreciate the difficulty of trying to incorporate a high-speed drive in a unit like this, but there are ways and means, not to mention remarkably quiet drives available these days. In fact, the review machine was so noisy that I had to turn it off when I was writing the review because of the distracting drive noise!

Other VS recorders have also suffered from the same problem, of course, but certainly not to the same extent -- the noise from the VS2480 only raised the ambient noise floor by around 6dB when I measured during the review of that machine. The noise floor in my room measured 29dBA according to my trusty Terrasonde test set, but this rose to 45dBA when the VS2400 was powered up -- a rise of 16dB! For the record, I measured the noise level (with slow A weighting) about one metre in front of a low table on which the machine was placed -- the kind of practical position you would have to adopt to play a guitar or sing with the machine just in arm's reach. Like previous models, the hard drive also has a particularly aggressive buzzy quality which cannot be removed with EQ. I recently had the opportunity to use Yamaha's AW16G, and was barely aware of it even being switched on as it made so little noise! So come on, Roland, there's plenty of room for improvement here.

On a more positive note, given the pedigree of the VS2480 it is no surprise that the new baby of the family does everything expected of it in a very workmanlike manner, with the potential to make fine recordings and allow them to be mixed and processed to create good-quality master tracks. The VS2400 is obviously based very closely on the VS2480, and so its operating software is very stable and the machine performed very well during the review. The VS2400 is a nice compact size, and the price makes it very attractive for aspiring home musicians -- indeed, for anyone who has been saving their pennies towards a VS2480, this may offer the perfect solution, providing most of the facilities in a more affordable and space-saving package.

The VS way of working takes a little getting used to, but the handbook smoothes the way quite well and this will be a good machine for the multitrack novice in that regard. The machine is also remarkably well equipped, so as the user's experience grows the machine's comprehensive facilities can be put to more use. This is an attractive and keenly priced package with a pragmatic feature set, and should certainly be high on the list of potential home studio workstations. However, there is a lot of competition in this sector of the market, and I fear that Roland's current VS technology may be beginning to fall behind some of its rivals. In particular, I am concerned about the amount and nature of ambient noise produced by this particular machine, which may limit its usability in the average home studio.

Published May 2003