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Roland XV3080

Sound Module By Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser
Published July 2000

Roland XV3080

Roland's JV1080 and 2080 have become the bread‑and‑butter sound sources for innumerable MIDI studios worldwide. Now the company have introduced their successors in the shape of the XV‑series. Derek Johnson and Debbie Poyser test the new XV3080.

Six years is a long time in music technology. But while hi‑tech gear of all kinds has come and gone since the 1994 launch of Roland's JV1080 (reviewed SOS December 1994), this synth module has maintained its position as an industry standard, finding a happy home with musicians of all kinds. Its younger sibling, the JV2080 (reviewed April 1997) is also long‑lived for a contemporary synth. Roland must have done something seriously right with these two modern classics. A look at the spec proves that they did: 64‑voice polyphony (whopping for the time); three effects processors; six individual outputs; the ability to host four wave expansion boards (or eight in the case of the 2080) from a range which covered most of the musical bases; and sounds which were fairly universally a hit.

But time has finally caught up with the forward‑looking JVs, and Roland are bringing the curtain down on them and raising it on their two successors, the XV3080 under review here and the more powerful 5080. Over the years the market has caught up with the standard set by the JVs, and moved ahead in some areas, so Roland evidently feel a bit of updating is in order.

Heart Of The Matter

While Roland have implemented features such as PatchFinder to eliminate some of the tedium of scrolling through lists, the XV3080's small LCD can make editing frustrating in some respects.While Roland have implemented features such as PatchFinder to eliminate some of the tedium of scrolling through lists, the XV3080's small LCD can make editing frustrating in some respects.

So what's inside the XV3080? In short, an S+S synth featuring 128 voices (excellent news) and 16‑part multitimbrality (not so excellent). The better multitimbrality figure of 32 parts is saved for the 5080. On the up side, the XV3080 has a hugely pumped‑up waveform ROM, compared to the JV1080 and 2080, of 1083 raw sampled waveforms. This includes a vast range of instrumental multisamples and individual percussion and sound‑effect hits. From what we can see, you get everything from the JV2080 plus some Roland legacy ROM and some newly‑recorded waveforms.

The 3080 has a very generous six banks of factory presets, containing 128 patches each — a total which excludes 256 General MIDI Level 2 patches called into play in the 3080's GM2 mode and which can also, of course, be used outside GM mode. Rhythm sets, of which there are 12, occupy their own bank, and 64 preset Performances (the 3080's sound architecture will be explained shortly) are also on board. User edits can be stored in 128 patch memories, four Rhythm set memories and 64 Performance slots.

On the effects front there's no big change over the JV1080, at least with respect to numbers. Though the XV's effects are derived from more up‑to‑date technology — the recent SRV3030 reverb, VS‑series multitracks and RSS surround processing — Roland have still decided to give the new synth three processors: Reverb, Chorus, and Multi‑effects.

Skin Deep

The XV3080 offers six analogue outputs, but users who require digital I/O will have to pay the extra for the XV5080.The XV3080 offers six analogue outputs, but users who require digital I/O will have to pay the extra for the XV5080.

Things might have changed somewhat since 1994, but it seems that black remains the colour of choice for serious Roland synths. The XV3080 also retains the substantial 2U rackmount format of its forbears, and the same 2‑line x 40‑character LCD as the JV1080 (like the JV2080, the XV5080 has a large graphic display). The 3080's front panel rejoices in no fewer than 41 buttons, and it's a minor surprise that Roland have not provided some real‑time control knobs, as are present on so many current instruments. People clearly find them useful, so we think that's a bit of a missed opportunity. Likewise, the switches below the display don't operate as 'soft' controls in any major way, which is a shame.

Notable features of the XV's package include the slot for the widely‑available SmartMedia cards which store patches and performances — a definite improvement over the JVs' proprietary card format — and the access panel that hides six wave expansion slots. Four of them accept Roland's older SR‑JV80 boards, while the remaining two are designed for the new, smaller SRX‑series boards. The new ones hold more sounds but, apart from that, we don't know the rationale for introducing another format. At least the older slots provide backwards compatibility for JV owners wanting to upgrade.

The back of the XV3080 is plain sailing: there's a socket for the internal PSU, MIDI In/Out/Thru, and six quarter‑inch audio outs, which can be configured as three stereo pairs or six individual outs. Sadly, there's no digital output, as this refinement is saved for the 5080.

Sound Architecture

Roland XV3080

Many thousands of words have been written in SOS over the years about how Roland synths work. They've tried and tested their approach and tend to stick with it for each new generation, so once you know one Roland S+S synth, you can probably operate the others. But for those new to the game, we'll run through the essentials.

At the bottom level is a raw sampled waveform. Up to four waveforms can be assigned to 'Tone' slots, creating a Patch. The four Tones can be configured in a variety of preset ways, allowing ring modulation and distortion (called 'Booster' in the manual) to be set up. Synthesis parameters can also be applied to the Tones, each Tone having access to two LFOs, a pitch envelope generator, a time‑variant filter (like a sophisticated VCF) plus dedicated TVF EG, and a time‑variant amplifier, plus TVA EG. (Usefully, certain synthesis settings of all Tones in a Patch can be altered at once, offsetting the Tone‑specific parameters.) Tones within a Patch can have their own level, pan and output assignments, as you'd expect, but also independent velocity and key ranges, so a Patch can become a mini‑performance.

Rhythm Set Patches — drum kits — are a special case, as up to four Tones can be assigned to each key in the set. Rhythm Tones have most of the flexibility and synthesis functions they'd have if they were in a normal Patch, including velocity crossfading of tones. There's therefore great potential for creating rich, sonically interesting drums with different elements introduced at different velocities.

Patches themselves can be further organised into a 16‑part Performance, typically for use with a sequencer. A Performance also lets the user layer or split Patches to be played on one MIDI channel . You can alter tuning, level, pan position, polyphony and several other parameters of Patches assigned to a Performance 'part', and it's even possible to apply EG attack/release and filter cutoff/resonance offsets to a Patch within a Performance, without altering the original Patch.

The XV3080's effects can enter the audio chain at two stages: Patch level and Performance level. In a Patch, reverb, chorus and multi‑effects are accessed via a send from each Tone to the effects processors. In a Performance there's a slight difference: the Multi effect can be used as a global processor, with a send amount from each part, just like the Reverb and Chorus processors, or as an 'insert' effect dedicated to one part. This second option is ideal, for example, when using a Patch requiring a specific effect, such as an electric guitar which wouldn't sound right without overdrive.

Now that we've given an overview of the XV's synthesis system, we can talk about one of the most obvious differences between the JVs and the XVs. Each XV3080 Tone, rather than being limited to a single waveform, can accommodate two waveforms, arranged as a stereo pair. Any two waveforms can be used, but the facility is especially suitable for authentic‑sounding stereo pianos, organs, strings, and so on. Appropriate left/right sample pairs are supplied in the waveform ROM. Polyphony is reduced when two waveforms are used in a Tone, but for special sounds the compromise is worth it. You do have 128 notes to play with, after all!

If you didn't want to 'spend' the extra polyphony, however, there's a way to create a stereo feel for, say, a piano even with a mono sample. Using the 'pan modulation key follow' parameter, all the notes to the left of middle C are panned progressively further left the lower they are on the keyboard, while those to the right of middle C are given automatic pan positions to the right of the stereo image.

Enter The Matrix

Though the XV3080 has a well‑developed MIDI interior — all parameters are accessible via SysEx — its so‑called 'Matrix Control', offering a straightforward way to assign MIDI controllers to Patch or Performance parameters, is rather simpler to access. It's something like the system Emu use for real‑time control in their Proteus family, though not quite as sophisticated as the Emu matrix: there are not as many control links and not as many parameters that those control links can be assigned to.

Basically, your choice of four MIDI continuous controllers (the sources) can be assigned to four destinations per Patch. These include pitch, level, chorus and reverb send, four multi‑effect parameters, various LFO parameters, filter cutoff frequency and resonance, plus the attack, decay and release parameters of the three EGs. Each Tone can be set to respond, or not, to the incoming controller. In addition, each control destination offers four sub‑destinations, which means that one controller can alter the value of up to four parameters at once. Besides MIDI controllers, the Matrix also allows a Patch's LFOs, TVF EG, TVA EG and pitch EG to be used as control sources, assignable to the same destinations.

Staying with MIDI features for the moment, the XV3080's memory can be dumped over MIDI, sodata could be stored to a computer's hard drive, saving on SmartMedia cards. One surprising but welcome MIDI facility is disguised as an 'Info' option in Performance mode: this turns out to be a comprehensive MIDI analyser, which is a rather neat facility to have in a synth.

Time & Motion

Though used reasonably well for its size, the skinny LCD combines with a rather button‑heavy and busy front panel to make editing the XV3080 less enjoyable than it could be. A few knobs or encoders would have helped immensely, as would soft keys under the display, as featured on the JV2080. In fact, we've become so acclimatised to soft keys and
soft knobs that when an OS, no matter how well organised, has to be navigated with arrow buttons it feels uncomfortable.

However, editing is made more bearable by several aspects of the 3080's design. The multi‑function buttons have colour coding to help you zoom in on their jobs in different modes (blue for Performance‑related parameters, orange for Patch parameters, grey for system settings, and white for general controls). And when you're editing a Patch, Tone selection is handled by four illuminating buttons which considerably speed up the process. For example, if you're working on the EG settings for a Patch, one Tone at a time, and you press a Tone Select button to move to the next Tone, the EG page remains in the display for immediate access. Four more illuminating buttons let you mute Tones, so you can concentrate on single elements in a Patch while programming.

The Preview function gives an idea of how a Patch is progressing during editing even if no keyboard is connected — just press the volume knob, and a phrase, chord or run of notes using that Patch is generated. The Palette function is helpful too, showing a single parameter in the display for all four Tones (the alternative is to scroll through screens full of many parameters for each Tone).

One of the XV3080's great strengths is the sheer amount of sounds it offers — and fitting wave expansions adds even more. However, just scrolling through them is time‑consuming, so the PatchFinder facility is very handy. It uses Patch name 'categories' (PNO for pianos, for example) to group similar Patches so they can be quickly selected or auditioned. It's not a new idea, but it's still elegant, and if you give your own Patches the right prefixes, they can be searched like the factory presets; PatchFinder has also been implemented for the 3080's multi‑effects processor. We did, however, notice a rather sluggish response occasionally when scrolling though patches in PatchFinder — the synth appears to freeze if you scroll too fast, and you have to wait for it to catch up.

Aural Examination

As synths offer more and more sounds, so it becomes more difficult to cover them adequately in a review. Perhaps the quickest way of conveying how good the 3080's sounds are is to say that it's a surprise to find a dodgy one. The vast majority are beautifully done and could enhance (indeed, even make) any composition. The sound set is varied and impressive, ranging from orchestral through to cutting‑edge dance. They really show off the quality of the raw waveforms — hi‑fi and clean‑sounding, with excellent depth — the talents of Roland's programmers, and the power of the synthesis system. If there's a downside to the presets, it's that some suffer from trigger‑happy aftertouch, which can cause Patches to change drastically and unexpectedly if you don't play carefully! Highlights of a great sound set are difficult to choose, but here's a few:

  • 'Film Octaves': breathtakingly haunting, evocative string pad with shimmering high frequencies.
  • 'Prelude': majestic string, oboe and cello layer.
  • 'Oboe mf' and 'Clarinet mp': outstanding solo winds.
  • 'Celtic Harp': delicate and rich.
  • 'Temple of JV': a pulsing, layered split with a life of its own.
  • 'Severe Ow Bass': has some serious LF energy, with an effective slow filter sweep. Just one of many excellent synth‑bass sounds.
  • '8VCO MonoSynth': with each of its four Tones featuring stereo waveform assignments, this sounds huge and cutting from bottom to top of its range.
  • Practically all the electric pianos: each distinct and wonderful to play.

The General MIDI sound set seems rather weak in contrast to the other sounds, but side‑by‑side comparison with an SC88 Pro indicates that the two have a lot of raw waveforms in common. (Note, however, that the GM2 sound set may not be completely compatible with Roland's previous GS standard.)

Expansion boards are great for expanding the life of a synth, as Roland obviously know. A JV2080 packed with cards for different styles and purposes is a staple in many a film and TV composer's rack. As mentioned earlier, the 3080 has six slots for wave expansions, four accepting £255 SR‑JV80 boards from a range comprising more than a dozen. (We were lent the Techno and Hip‑Hop boards, but since they were reviewed in SOS November 1998 we don't have space to talk about them here.) The other two slots take the new SRX‑series expansion boards, which cost £279 each. Installation of both types is easy: remove the access panel using the supplied screwdriver, place the board in its slot, lock the holder with the second tool provided, and replace the access panel.

The two SRX boards that currently exist, Dynamic Drums and Concert Piano, were supplied with the review 3080. Like the SR‑JV80 boards, the new ROMs come with their own waveforms and preset Patches. No extra user memories are added, which is a shame, especially since the 3080 has only 128 user slots on board. Emu's Proteus sound expansions do add extra memories, which makes good sense.

The Concert Piano board features 48 piano waveforms and 50 Patches. Two grand pianos have been sampled at four different dynamics levels (piano to fortissimo). These samples have then been used to create patches with a range of different feels, and in layered combinations with other sounds, such as brass, voice, and synth pad. Sonically they're abolutely excellent. Extensive multisampling seems to have been used and this gives the pianos a more authentic feel than the ones provided on the base XV.

We never really feel the need to have hundreds of extra drum sounds about, but if you do, the Dynamic Drum Kits board should fit the bill. It features 719 waveforms, including lots of stereo pairs, and 79 Rhythm Sets. The sounds are very well recorded, with an excellent range of dynamics, and are all from real drum kits — no beatboxes. They're probably intended for use in rock and pop music rather than dance, but who's to say!

Verdict

The XV3080 has many great strengths — 128 voices, a vast number of waveforms and Patches, Roland's usual fine programming, a beautiful big sound, new possibilities offered by the capability of Tones to accept stereo waveforms, and the superb expandability of six board slots. If you owned an XV3080 it's conceivable that you wouldn't need another synth, though its 16‑part multitimbrality looks on the mean side with all these sounds available and 128 voices to play them with. Of course, Roland have saved 32‑part capability for the 5080, but it's arguable that the 3080 should have had it anyway at this rather high price point, or at least that it should have been upgradable to 32 voices. You could say the same thing of one or two other features that the 5080 has but the 3080 doesn't, such as digital interfacing: Roland want to get a proper model hierarchy going, of course, but at least one cheaper synth we can think of has a digital out, and it seems perverse to leave it off an expensive instrument just to preserve a product differential. The more demanding or professional user who is most likely to be bothered by these omissions, may well think it worthwhile to budget for the more expensive 5080.

In summary, whilst in some respects the XV3080 left us feeling that a bit more could have been done to bring it up to the cutting‑edge position that the JV1080 occupied on its launch, we still have no hesitation in concluding that it is a great general‑purpose instrument that screams quality and sounds fantastic.

Big Brother: The XV5080

The XV3080's sibling will be reviewed in a future issue of SOS, but for now here's a quick run‑down of the main differences:

  • 32‑part multitimbrality.
  • Eight analogue outputs rather than six.
  • S/PDIF digital out and word clock in, plus Roland's R‑Bus digital multitrack interface. If you don't have other Roland gear with R‑Bus, you can buy boxes to convert R‑Bus to ADAT and TDIF format.
  • SCSI port.
  • Eight expansion board slots rather than six.
  • COSM‑modelled guitar effects and three insert effects per Performance.
  • Capacity to host up to 128Mb of sample RAM. Once this is installed, the XV5080 can read Roland S700 and Akai S1000 CD‑ROMs via the SCSI port.
  • Large graphic display.

Unfortunately the XV3080 can't be upgraded to 5080 spec. One might also observe that some 5080 features should really have been given to the 3080, as competing instruments have them. The £749 Emu Proteus 2000, for example (which can take up to four sound boards) has 32‑part multitimbrality and a digital out, as well as four real‑time control knobs. In several other ways it equals the spec of the XV3080, including 128‑voice polyphony and six audio outs.

A Bit Of A Treat(ment): The Effects

Though Roland haven't increased the number of effects processors on the XV3080 (reverb, chorus and multi‑effects sections are available, as mentioned in the main review), they've upgraded the effects themselves, importing reverbs and other effects from products such as the 24‑bit SRV3030 reverb.

The Reverb processor offers just four algorithms: Reverb (including a set of eight options with basic editing parameters that look remarkably like the reverbs on a Roland GM module), SRV Room, SRV Hall and SRV Plate. The SRV‑derived treatments are more like what you'd expect from a professional sound module: pre‑delay, reverb time, 'room' size, high cut, density, diffusion, LF and HF damping can all be modified.

The Chorus processor has just two algorithms — chorus and delay. The chorus option is well specified enough, but its parameter set doesn't really let you explore the wider world of modulation effects such as flanging. Delays can be programmed with note values, to produce rhythmic patterns sync'd to incoming MIDI clock, which is nice, or absolute values in milliseconds.

Much more interesting is the multi‑effect processor, with 63 algorithms including single and dual parallel/serial effects. In the single group are such treatments as overdrive, distortion, phaser, stereo delay, quadruple‑tap delay and gated reverb, while dual processes include overdrive/chorus, enhancer/delay, and chorus/flanger. Happily, Roland have also included some off‑the‑wall effects, namely a formant filter, ring modulator, lo‑fi compressor, 'slicer' (which chops up a signal in a user‑definable rhythmic fashion), 3D chorus and 3D flanger. The multi‑effect can be routed through both the chorus and the reverb processor, and the chorus can be routed through the reverb.

Sonically, there are no complaints about the effects — the reverbs, for example, are well up to Roland's high standards, showing their SRV3030 provenance with depth and realism, and the chorus processor sounds good as far as it goes. It would have been nice to see more variety in the reverb and (especially) chorus departments, though.

Pros

  • 128‑voice polyphony.
  • Great expandability.
  • Sounds polished and inspiring.
  • Stereo waveform capability in Tones.
  • Useful matrix MIDI modulation control.

Cons

  • Only 16‑part multitimbral.
  • No digital output.
  • Small display.
  • Quite expensive.

Summary

The XV3080 is a very accomplished instrument that will not disappoint on sound, expandability or polyphony, but is let down somewhat at this price by one or two omissions. The sound may swing the balance for many, though!