Hot on the heels of Fostex's DMT8, Roland's new VS880 offers another take on the affordable digital multitracker concept. But as Paul White discovers, beneath the apparent similarities lie significant differences...
Roland's VS880 has arrived, not long after the Fostex DTM8 and is, on the face of it, a similar type of product — in so far as it is a hard‑disk based, 8‑track multitracker with integral mixer. However, a casual inspection reveals significant technical and operational differences between the two products, and it is how these fit in with your own working methods and requirements that will determine which model you prefer.
While Fostex opt for simplicity, with a multitracker‑style format, straightforward analogue mixer and uncomplicated recorder section, Roland have gone for a greater degree of operational sophistication in both recording and mixing. Inevitably, this makes for a more complicated operating environment.
The VS880 comes without a hard drive, though most dealers will offer to fit one, and the most efficient configuration is with a 1Mb internal IDE drive, which should cost around £300 on top of the basic cost of the VS880. A 25‑pin SCSI port is provided so you can use an external drive, and at the recent NAMM show, I saw a VS880 working with an Iomega Jazz drive using 1Gb removable cartridges — possibly the best option of all, if you can afford it.
I've a feeling that in a few years' time, we'll regard backing up to DAT in the same way as we now look back on the happy hours spent loading Space Invaders from cassette into our Commodore 64s.
Once a recording has been completed, it can be backed up to an external disk drive via SCSI, or to any audio DAT machine with a co‑axial digital S/PDIF input. A 1Gb drive will store approximately 186 track‑minutes of audio at a 44.1kHz sampling rate, and the VS880 can be set to sample at 32kHz, 44.1kHz or 48kHz. For applications where longer recording times are necessary, three further recording modes are provided, where data compression is used to extend the recording time to 373, 497 or 596 track‑minutes respectively. These four modes are known as Mastering (no compression), Multitrack 1, Multitrack 2 and Live. As you'd expect, the sound quality is compromised most when you use the Live setting. In context, most people should hear little difference between the Mastering and Multitrack 1 modes, but after that, the differences begin to show.
Unlike an analogue multitracker, the VS880 can output MTC without having to sacrifice one track to time code. Because the audio is recorded to disk rather than to tape, there are various sophisticated editing options for moving around and compiling the various elements within a song. A 'virtual' track system stores up to eight alternate takes of each track. Of course, these take up just as much disk space as real tracks, but the benefit is that you can compile one perfect track from the best parts of several virtual tracks — or simply have several goes at something, and then pick the best take. Something else you can't do with analogue tape is to undo steps you wish you hadn't taken, and in the case of the VS880, you can also undo an unintentional undo by holding down the Shift button, and undoing again. The machine even supports multiple levels of undo.
The mixer section of this little machine looks very simple, but that's because most of the functions are hidden behind multifunction buttons, and many of the parameters have to be changed using the Data wheel, which also doubles as a scrub wheel in Scrub mode. In fact, the only conventional controls that you can go to directly (other than the headphone level and the external aux send), are the channel faders, the input gain trims and the Pan knobs. A maximum of four tracks can be recorded simultaneously, and in situations where more than eight tracks are needed, bouncing can be carried out in much the same way as on analogue machines.
Unlike the Fostex DMT8, the VS880 features a fully digital mixer, and all the mixer settings may be saved as a snapshot for later recall. Up to eight snapshots may be saved for each song and recalled during mixing, but if you want full automation, you have to use an external MIDI sequencer. As the mixer is adjusted, MIDI data is sent out corresponding to the parameters being varied, including the master stereo fader and the aux send master. Providing the sequencer is locked to the VS880 (via MTC or MIDI Clock), this data can be stored as part of the song you're working on. Mixer data is available both as controller and SysEx data, (SysEx can be switched off in the System Sync menu), though for most users, the controller information will be easiest to deal with, especially if it needs editing.
The VS880 also includes its own metronome and tempo map facility, for musicians working without a sequencer or drum machine. The internal metronome issues a rather disappointing click, but as the data also comes out as a MIDI note, you can select any MIDI sound of your choice. For those needing to sync the VS880 to an external source, it is designed to lock to incoming MTC if required, and all the usual MTC formats are supported, including drop‑frame.
For those working without MTC, the VS880 has an additional dedicated track which can be used to record MIDI clock sync. Unlike analogue machines, however, you don't need a MIDI‑to‑tape sync box — the VS880 accepts MIDI Clock directly via the MIDI In socket, and takes care of everything from there on.
Though the VS880 provides two external effects sends, an optional effects card is available, the VS8F1, which functions as a dual multi‑effects unit and includes a degree of RSS spacial processing, as well as COSM guitar amp simulation. This makes it very cost‑effective. It also has the benefit that the signal remains in the digital domain.
For all its power and flexibility, the VS880 is no larger than a typical cassette multitracker, and to make it feel familiar to tape users, is equipped with chunky transport buttons for play, record, fast wind, return to zero and stop. All the main mixer controls are located on the left of the front panel, with the rest of the panel space being given over to the display, the data wheel and the controls normally associated with recording. The LCD display is based on a customised liquid crystal matrix, and its readout changes depending on the mode currently selected. For example, during recording and playback, it handles metering for all eight tracks plus the stereo outs and the two aux sends, but it can also show the location of recorder data on the various tracks, or even function as a crude waveform display in Scrub mode. When the hard drive is being formatted, as it must be when first used, the display turns into a clock face to tell you to wait.
The mixer section has four unbalanced analogue jack inputs, each with their own trim controls, and these can handle both mic and line level signals. Duplicate inputs on phono are provided, though the jack inputs always take precedence. However, there are no phantom‑powered XLR inputs, so if you want to use a capacitor microphone, you'll need an external mic preamp with its own phantom power supply. Digital signals may also be recorded to tracks 5 and 6 via the S/PDIF input, and the VS880 wisely ignores SCMS copy codes which might otherwise interfere with legitimate operations. When recording digital signals, the same sample rates must be used, and the VS880 must be set to external sync while the recording is being made.
Signal routing is normally set up so that input 1 feeds tracks 1 and 5, input 2 feeds tracks 2 and 6 and so on, but this can be changed so that several inputs feed the stereo mix buss, and then the stereo mix buss (or perhaps just one side of it) is recorded onto a specified track or tracks. However, because the mixer has only four inputs, it might be easier to record things like drum kits by patching in a small external mixer and doing the submixing there. For track bouncing, tracks are again routed to the stereo mix buss, and then this is recorded onto the desired track or tracks. The routing mode is accessed via the Mixer Mode Select button at the top of mixer section, and this must be used in conjunction with the Shift key — a measure adopted to prevent accidental switching.
I don't think the VS880 will seduce those people who've already experienced the freedom of a good MIDI sequencer with audio capability, but for anyone looking for a compact hardware solution, the VS880 looks to have it all.
Each mixer channel has physical controls for Pan and Level, as well as a button for setting the channel's record/play/mute status, and another for selecting the individual channels for editing. These latter are dual‑function buttons and, when used in conjunction with the shift key, they access the various channel parameters to be edited, including the input/buss selection, the number of the virtual track being worked on, the high, mid and low EQ bands, the two effects sends and the aux send. Once something like the high EQ has been selected for editing, its parameters come up in the main display, after which cursor keys and the data knob are used to change the values. Selecting a different channel then allows you to adjust the same parameters for a different mixer channel. The EQ section is actually very flexible, with a fully parametric mid section, plus shelving high and low filters featuring variable cutoff frequency.
A multicoloured LED above the Status button shows at a glance what the channel is doing; orange means the channel is monitoring the input source, green means the channel is monitoring the tape track, and red means the channel is armed, ready to record. In record mode, the monitoring automatically switches when you punch in or out, as it does on a conventional cassette multitrack. Finally, an extinguished LED means the channel is muted, and changing status is simply a matter of stepping through the options using the Status button. The master output level is controlled via a single‑ganged fader, and above this is another Edit button, which also provides access to the mixer's solo facility.
Other features familiar to analogue tape machine users include auto punch in/out, footswitch punch in/out, and cycle mode, which lets you rehearse over a looped section of your recording. Hard disk recording is an advantage here, as there's no rewind time: everything is almost instantaneous. You can set a pre‑roll time before auto punch‑in operations and eight Locate points (accessed via four buttons and the shift key) let you set eight markers within each song, which can be recalled instantly via the eight Locator buttons. The ten buttons used for handling locates and auto recording also double as number keys, for direct numerical entry whenever the Numerics button is depressed. A further 1000 Tap Markers may be added to each song, with the proviso that they're not closer than one tenth of a second apart, and these may be stepped through sequentially or recalled by number. Because they aren't so quick to access as the eight Locator markers, it is probably a good idea to use considerably fewer than the 1000 on offer!
Up to 200 songs can be specified for a disk, but given the maximum capacity of a disk, you're unlikely to use this many: around five or six single‑length songs, with all eight tracks recorded, would fill a 1Gb drive — fewer if you make use of the virtual tracks. However, you can use different recording modes for each song, to make the best use of the available remaining space.
Once recorded, tracks may be cut, tracks or parts of tracks may be copied, moved, erased or exchanged, and blank space may be inserted between sections. However, not all these operations are non‑destructive: if you paste a new piece of data on top of old data, it will overwrite it — although the Undo button does offer a last‑chance saloon. Copying sections of a track is a particularly useful facility, as it allows similar sections of a song, such as choruses, to be used as many times as required. During track copy operations, the display screen shows the various sections of recorded data on the different tracks. If you can imagine a Cubase screen about the size of a Christmas issue postage stamp, you'll have an idea what this looks like. The actual procedure for copying or moving data is straightforward if long‑winded, so it helps to have the manual open at the right page until you've done it enough times to commit it to memory.
Another useful edit operation is time expansion and compression, which lets you change the length of a piece of audio by up to +/‑ 25%. The source track is processed off‑line and copied to a designated virtual track, which means you can always go back to the original if need be. However, you don't seem to be able to switch between virtual tracks during playback: you have to stop first.
Providing the amount of compression or expansion is just a few percent, the sound quality is acceptable, but if you try to use the extreme settings, most types of material will sound obviously processed, just as they would with a conventional pitch‑shifter. The process seems to take rather longer than real time to process, but as it's something you're unlikely to use often, that shouldn't be a problem.
Making simple recordings of one mic or instrument routed to its correspondingly numbered disk track is very straightforward, and is very similar to what you'd expect from a tape‑based system, except you don't have to wait for the tape to rewind once you've finished. Once you've created a song to record into, it's just a matter of setting the record level, putting the track into record and then playing as usual.
Mixing two or more inputs together for recording is less straightforward, and occasions a visit to the LCD window, followed by a little menu‑surfing. Similarly, track‑bouncing takes a little planning, but it's really quite easy. However, as track‑bouncing appears to work by submixing to the stereo buss and then recording the stereo buss onto one or two destination tracks, you can't monitor the destination tracks during the bounce, otherwise you route the output back to the input, and end up with audible feedback. I found it easier just to turn down the faders on the destination tracks during the bounce, then turn them up again once the bounce was done.
Punching in is accomplished in exactly the same way as on a tape machine, using either the Record and Play buttons or the optional footswitch. I could detect no gaps or glitches at the punch‑in point, but as there's a 10ms crossfade time, this doesn't surprise me. The crossfade can be adjusted from 10 to 50ms in 10ms steps, but I never felt the need to change it from the default setting.
Cut and paste editing is a little more involved, because you have to specify your source track (and virtual track number) and then find the desired start and end points of the section you want to copy. This is made easier by the locators, which can be entered on the fly, but the scrub function is also exceptionally useful. After the Scrub button has been pressed, the data wheel controls audio scrubbing, with the selected track waveform displayed on the LCD. As you scrub, the waveform moves along, and because the scrub system constantly replays a loop of audio 40mS or so long, it's very easy to find the starts of notes or percussive sounds.
Having captured your section, you then have to decide which virtual track to copy it to, and also specify the time at which the copy will start. You can also specify more than one copy, which is useful if you want to repeat a riff a number of times. Once the copy has been executed, you can check it out and undo it, if everything's gone horribly wrong. If you can work to the internal metronome, the ability to use bar and beat locations to define your sections makes life much easier than relying on time only.
As with all digital systems, crashes are possible, though I haven't experienced one yet at the time of writing. Even so, it's a good idea to save your song data at regular intervals by pressing Shift Store, and when you finish a session, it's essential to shut down by pressing Shift Stop — otherwise any changes made since the last save will be lost.
On the whole, the basic operation of the VS880 is reasonably uncomplicated, but I really miss being able to reach out for an EQ knob and turn it. Each channel of the VS880 has the benefit of a very powerful three‑band equaliser. To make a change, you have to select the equaliser band via the dual‑function buttons in the 'Ch Edit' mixer section, use the cursor to select either cut, boost or frequency (and in the case of mid, Q as well), select the channel you want the EQ to apply to, then use the data wheel to make the necessary changes. I can live with the system of having one set of channel controls that can be assigned to any channel by means of a single button press, but I don't think I'll ever be able to accept having to plough through menus for controls I was once able to take for granted.
Those using sequencer packages such as Logic or Cubase might find it easier to create a mixer map with on‑screen faders representing the most frequently‑used controls, and this is most certainly the case if the mixer automation is to be used to its full extent. The faders and pan pots can be accessed directly, but to automate the EQ or the aux sends via the menus would be too slow during mixing. The only other practical alternative would be to make numerous passes, recording one control at a time onto a new sequencer track.
Despite the buried functions, the mixer really is hugely flexible, with an EQ system capable of out‑gunning most 8‑buss analogue consoles.
The ability to mix directly to DAT in the digital domain is very welcome, as is the ability to back‑up song data onto DAT, even if backing up a 5‑minute song of uncompressed data takes around 20 minutes, and another 20 to load it next time it's needed. Again, the system seems to work well enough, and the very low price of DAT tape (as opposed to something like Jazz disk cartridges) makes the slow rate of transfer easier to swallow, Nevertheless, I've a feeling that in a few years' time, we'll regard backing up to DAT in the same way as we now look back on the happy hours spent loading Space Invaders from cassette into our Commodore 64s.
When mixing, the four analogue inputs (and the digital input), are still routed to the mixer, but as there are only eight physical sets of channel controls, there are two mixer modes which determine whether the controls relate to the tape tracks or to the external inputs. Track Mix relates to the off‑tape mix, whereas Input Mix relates to to the external inputs. The channel routing works as normal, so if you're using the external inputs as effects returns, you can still add effects as you bounce and get the effects going to the right place.
If I tell you the manual for the VS880 deals with everything in as concise a manner as possible, yet still runs to almost 100 pages, you'll realise I've had to miss out a lot of the fine detail. There are aspects of the VS880 that I love, and others that drive me up the wall, but all these have to be viewed in the light of the very attractive price and the almost dazzling array of features.
As you've probably inferred, I'm no great fan of menu‑driven systems, especially where menus are needed to access routine functions such as EQ or effects send level, but you should also bear in mind that I'm the type of person who would rather take up juggling live sea urchins than use a hardware sequencer. I've been brought up on computer‑based hard disk recording systems, where if you want to move something, you cut a chunk out with your virtual scissors and then drag it screaming to its new home — end of story.
The great benefits of the VS880 are its good, basic sound quality, the flexibility to use various long‑play modes when you can afford to compromise the sound quality to some extent, and the fact that everything is in the digital domain right from step one. I don't know if I'd make great use of mix automation with so few tracks to mix, but the ability to recall the entire mixer, recorder and effects setup at a stroke is very appealing — as I discovered when reviewing the Yamaha 02R. Even the output to DAT stays in the digital domain. The only sad omission is the lack of a phantom‑powered mic input, because with a recorder of this quality, some people are going to want to use capacitor microphones.
From what I can tell from my short experience with the VS880, Roland have built a very solid, vice‑free machine, and you shouldn't let my comments about the operating system put you off too much, because it's one of those things you invariably get used to, especially when as the centrepiece of the studio, you're going to be using it all the time. The lady demonstrating the system at NAMM flew round the keys almost too fast for the human eye to follow, yet she can't have had the machine for more than a few weeks at most.
I don't think the VS880 will seduce those people who've already experienced the freedom of a good MIDI sequencer with audio capability, but for anyone looking for a compact hardware solution, the VS880 looks to have it all. The effects board is such good value at around £350 (and so convenient) that it should be considered a 'must'. Despite the buried functions, the mixer really is hugely flexible, with an EQ system capable of out‑gunning most 8‑buss analogue consoles. The machine's ability to lock to MTC means that it is useful in a video post environment, as well as in traditional music applications. I, for one, am very interested to see how the war between the various hardware workstations and the available 'audio‑with‑MIDI' computer systems develops.
At the time of writing, no separate documentation was available for the VS8F1 effects card, so it was a matter of diving in and taking a look. The programming style seems to be quite similar to that in my own Boss SE50, where you switch on or off the various effects available within a configuration, before going deeper to change the parameters and levels of the effects themselves. There seems to be quite a range of editability, with the reverbs having access to decay time, pre‑delay, damping, filtering, room type and all the other usual handles. There are also the inescapable delays, stereo delays, multi‑tapped delays, flangers, phasers and chorus modes. On top of that, there are numerous amp and speaker simulation effects, auto wah‑wahs and other guitar‑related processing, some apparently based on Roland's COSM modelling system.
The effects are uniformly high‑class, and because of their diversity, can be deployed conventionally in a post‑fade send configuration, put pre‑fade, or be inserted in the signal chain as though they were connected via an insert point. This latter consideration is important, as some of the treatments are designed specifically for in‑line processing, such as the EQ, compression, guitar amp simulation and gating variants. When you consider that there are two full‑function digital effects on this £350 option card, and when you include the benefits of keeping the signal digital at all times, the price of the effects option looks very attractive indeed.
- Audio Format: Four‑track simultaneous record,8‑track simultaneous playback
- Audio Connectors: Input A unbalanced jacks, all others phono
- Sampling System: 48kHz, 44.1kHz or 32kHz, 18‑bit with oversampling (256x AD, 8x DA)
- Frequency Response: 10Hz to 22.6kHz at 48kHz sample rate, 10Hz to 21kHz at 44.1kHz sample rate and 10Hz to 15.5kHz at 32kHz sample rate
- Internal data path: 24‑bit
- THD: better than 0.08%
- Nominal Input: Level ‑50 to +4dBm
- Input Impedance: 20k Ω
- Output Impedance: 1.6k Ω
- Residual Noise: (1k Ω at input) ‑91dB or less
- Crosstalk: 82dB or less
- Dimensions: 434 x 317 x 88mm
- Weight: 4kg excluding drive
- Options: Internal hard drive; VS8F1 Effects Expansion Board
- Fully digital signal path with mix automation via MIDI.
- Useful compression systems for extending the recording time.
- Powerful mixer with flexible 3‑band EQ.
- Internal effects board option.
- External SCSI connector
- Menu‑intensive user interface.
- No phantom‑powered mic inputs.
An extremely powerful and flexible audio workstation. Some user‑friendliness has inevitably been sacrificed, in order to include so many features for such a low price.
VS880 £1499 (without disk drive); VS8F1 effects board £340. Prices include VAT.