Designed to replace the JV1010 as Roland's entry-level synth product, the XV2020 is diminutive, affordable, and crammed with those great XV sounds. But what's it like to use?
Roland's XV2020 is an affordable spin-off from their flagship 3080 and 5080 sample-based synths, providing the same type of high-quality additive synthesis based on internal ROM sampled waveforms, and further tonal expansion via a pair of SRX expansion slots. In many ways, the XV2020 mirrors the way the JV1010 was derived from the JV1080/2080 machines, as it shares the same 1U, half-rack packaging, and is based on presets with very little front-panel editability, although a software sound editor is included which can be run on both Mac OS and Windows machines (OMS or FreeMIDI are needed for use with a Mac, but both are supplied on the CD-ROM).
Like the JV1010, the XV2020 has only stereo outputs, and the front-panel display is numeric only, but it also includes a USB interface, as well as conventional MIDI connectivity. While the JV1010 could accommodate only one wave expansion board, the XV2020 can take two (though only SRX-type cards), accessed via a top-panel plate (shown below).
If you're a fan of JV/XV sounds, you'll probably enjoy the XV2020, as it comes packed with the types of sound that made those earlier machines so popular. In all, there are 1083 ROM waveforms, 768 ready-to-go patches, and 17 complete rhythm sets that include many of the classic Roland analogue drum sounds, as well as more conventional acoustic drum samples. The comprehensive effects section offers 40 multi-effects in addition to separate chorus and reverb. Polyphony is 64 voices, though this can sometimes be less than it seems, as Roland base their polyphony figure on how many Tones can be played back at any one time, not on how many voices. An XV2020 patch comprises between one and four Tones layered together per voice, so if you go for a four-Tone sound, the polyphony comes down to 16 voices.
A bank of 256 GM sounds (the 128 main sounds plus a selection of GS type variation tones) is also included for multitimbral sequencer operation. Because the GM sound set is a standard, this set cannot be edited or modified in any way, and the drum part is always set to MIDI channel 10. Multi-effects can't be used in GM mode, but reverb and chorus are available with adjustable levels per part. The sounds are organised in a similar fashion to those on the JV1010, with one bank of user patch memories followed by four preset banks (A to D), the GM bank and two further banks that access the SRX expander cards if fitted. All the banks hold a full 128 patches except for the GM set, which includes additional 'alternative' sounds.
Power comes from an external PSU, and all connections other than the headphone outlet and the USB socket are to be found on the back panel. The audio outs are furnished on both jacks and RCA phonos, and there are In, Out and Thru MIDI sockets.
On the face of it, the front-panel controls appear quite straightforward, but there are a couple of hidden surprises, as the Volume and Value knobs have built-in push switches which, when used together, get you into an edit mode for modifying Patch, Performance and system settings. To the right of the Volume pot is the Part/Patch MIDI Receive control used to set the receiving MIDI channel(s). However, most of these functions are more easily accessed via the editing software, and no patch editing can be undertaken from the front panel; if you're into editing, you'll really need to use the included software. To be realistic, most users will probably stick with the sequencer template Performance and then simply fire in Patch and Bank Change commands from their sequencer.
In normal use, the Value knob is used to scroll through whatever value the window is currently displaying, but its push switch is also used to step through the four main operation modes: Patch, Performance, Rhythm and GM. These are indicated by LEDs to the right of the display window. The final knob controls a rotary switch used to select which banks of sounds are to be played back in Patch mode, but it also includes seven category sections marked in blue where the patches are grouped into types organised as Piano, Keyboard, Guitar/Bass, Orchestral/Brass, Synth/Pad, Ethnic and Rhythm/Effects. This makes it easy to audition patches as does pressing the Volume knob, which causes the currently selected patch to be played. There's also a small selection of demo songs that show off the diversity of the sounds and styles available.
Roland seem to have a penchant for using different bank change command protocols for their instruments rather than sticking to a common system, and the XV2020 is no exception. Naively, I expected it to follow the JV1080 or JV2080 bank-change system — but no such luck! Instead, I had to enter the appropriate LSB and MSB values for each bank into my sequencer's custom bank message editor to get things moving (these are listed on page 40 of the user's manual).
If I were specifying the design of an instrument like the XV2020, which is going to be used mainly by sequencer users, I'd have put a button on the front panel labelled Sequencer, which locked the machine into multitimbral mode and disabled any MIDI Performance change activity. At the very least, I'd have put the sequencer template Performance right at the head of the list, but instead, the Performance menus (which differ depending on whether User, Bank A or Bank B are selected) comprise layers, keyboard splits and sound sets designed for live performance. The sequencer template clocks in at number 046 in the User Performance menu, and MIDI channel 16 seems to be reserved for sending Performance change messages, so is best avoided. The manual provides few solid clues as to how to set up the XV2020 for sequencer use, or even detailed explanations of what the Performances are set up to do, but once you've cracked the system, it's easy — just switch to the User Bank, go to Performance mode, select Performance 046 and then send each part the required custom bank message and program number.
Unless you're using the software editor or a sequencer sending real-time control info, the extent to which you can adjust sounds is pretty much limited to level-changing, panning and effects level. Nevertheless, the XV2020 comes loaded with a huge range of sounds with the distinctively warm Roland character.
The User bank appears to be filled with an assortment of sounds taken from the existing ROM banks, and Preset Bank A comprises a large array of piano, keyboard and guitar sounds, most of which gave me that 'heard-it-all-before' feeling. That's not to say they aren't good or musically useful though, as such sounds are the stable of many a pop composition. Preset Bank B also treads familiar ground with basses and synth sounds, but there's plenty for the dance composer as well as the pop writer. Preset C moves into slightly more adventurous synth territory, as does Preset D, which includes some very nice dance, techno and acid jazz patches. Also included are ethnic sounds, choirs, evolving pads and a number of vintage synth sounds, so there's something here for everyone.
And of course the real beauty of the instrument is that you have the option to add up to two expansion cards featuring sounds in the genre you prefer. As you would expect, the sound is similar to that of the previous XVs, and not hugely dissimilar to that of the JV1080/2080, although the GM section is a cut above what you normally expect in this area, with some genuinely useful variations. The drum sounds are also extremely worthy, and range from typically Roland-sounding acoustic kits to classic synthetic drum sounds, many based on vintage Roland instruments.
While the multi-effects section is very powerful, this is most useful when you're using the machine in Patch mode, as the multi-effects section has to be shared between all 16 parts working multitimbrally — you can't have a different multi-effect on every part. Most of the time, a little light reverb and/or chorus is all the patches need to bring them to life, so this isn't too restrictive. Though some effects adjustment is possible from the front panel, the editor software makes it a lot easier and allows full-depth editing of effects, patches, drum kits and performances. Most of the 'general' adjustments to a patch can be made on the main editor page, but additional windows or 'extra detail' panels can be opened for when more depth is needed. Unlike earlier editors, which were based on Emagic's Sound Diver software, this one appears to have been written specially for the XV series of machines and has a very nice look and feel, complete with an on-screen keyboard for testing patches. There's also an on-line help section, which is essential reading if you're to get the best out of the editor.
In many cases, I suspect the XV2020 will be used as a preset machine hanging off a sequencer, and in this role, it provides a useful array of 'stock' sounds as well as numerous drum kits and a huge range of great synth patches and textures. Its polyphony limit means that you'd have to be very careful using it for playing back 16-part epics other than GM files, but it would be realistic to expect it to handle between four and eight fairly complex parts without getting too upset. The included editor is extremely comprehensive and worked reliably during my tests (via USB using OMS) and it works well for both casual tweaking and in-depth sound design — you only have to go as deep as you want to.
My only dislike is the way in which sequencer use (arguably the major application for this machine) is almost brushed off by the manual as an afterthought and is not handled as elegantly as it could be. You have to get involved in custom bank message programming to make it work, and I'm not sure how many users will feel comfortable with that.
Everything has to be weighed up based on cost and performance, and even treated as a preset-only machine, the XV2020 brings 3080-quality sounds to the mass market at an affordable price. The inclusion of well-designed editing software adds to the attraction as does the expandability, so despite a couple of minor irritations, the XV2020 represents a cost-effective method of adding a huge library of high-quality sounds to your MIDI system.