Roland's latest module provides the most affordable way yet to access the company's fine XV soundset, albeit with reduced polyphony and a less intuitive user interface compared to the more expensive XV5080. We weigh up the pros and cons.
It would be reasonable to speculate that the number of ways a manufacturer decides to repackage a particular synthesizer design is a fair measure of its success. Roland's JV/XP-series took many forms; the JV80, 90, 880, 1000, 1080, 2080, 1010, XP10, 30, 60, and 80 all spring to mind, not to mention the M-series of dedicated 'Expansion Board' models. The JV1080 and 2080 modules soon became industry standards, and at that point it must have been clear to Roland that they were on to a winner (or several). The time was right to reveal their next-generation multitimbral S+S synth, and so the XV-series was born. This has produced the XV5080, XV3080, and XV88 keyboard so far, as well as the recent keyboard spin-offs RS5, RS9, and Fantom. The series continues with the arrival of the newest XV to hit the streets — the XV5050 module.
The XV5080 remains the flagship of the XV range, sporting the maximum amount of everything. While the XV3080 shares an identical synth engine and architecture to the 5080, some compromises and feature reductions were implemented in order to meet a lower price point. The new 5050, meanwhile, retails at £749 in the UK — £250 less than the XV3080 — so a few further compromises are to be expected in order to achieve this lower price tag. However, as it turns out, while the XV5050 does indeed lose something on the swings, it also gains a couple of things on the roundabouts...
The XV synthesis engine and architecture have previously been detailed in an examination of the XV3080 (see SOS July 2000), so this review will be more concerned with operational and feature comparisons between the XV5050, 3080 and 5080 modules. Further background can also be found in the XV5080 review (SOS November 2000) and the XV88 review (SOS January 2001).
The XV5050's appearance is quite striking, with its slim 1U front panel finished in shiny, brushed chrome. When all its lights are blazing, the vermilion display, the green, orange and red LED buttons and the blue/red legending give the impression of those pick-and-mix junk sweeties that are so irresistible at your local cinema. You won't easily mistake this module amongst the others in your rack!
There are significantly fewer buttons on the 5050 than on any of its siblings. Bearing in mind that the XV is a very 'deep' synth with a huge number of parameters, thisimplies a fair amount of cursoring and dialling if anything other than out-of-the-box sounds and default settings are required. To this end, the 5050's front panel sports the usual Value dial, which takes on multiple tasks as Patch and Performance selector, menu scroller and value adjuster. Six rectangular buttons offer left/right cursoring, access to Performance, Patch, Rhythm and GM2 modes, and Exit and Shift functions. To the right of the Value dial is the very useful Patch Finder button, which allows you to search for sounds by category. With 1024 Presets to choose from (not to mention the User and optional Expansion board patches) this can be indispensable. The 10 round buttons to the right assist in Patch Bank selection, Part selection, Tone switching/selection, making System settings and accessing Utilities such as Patch writing and SysEx data transmission. To have condensed all the functions of an XV synth down to this handful of controls is quite an achievement, but does it present any barriers to the adventurous user?
In established XV tradition, the 5050 is a sonic goldmine — and I say that as a happy owner of an XV5080. The sheer breadth of preset sounds available should keep anyone happy for a very long time, and should you wish to design your own sounds, the raw material and sound-shaping tools on offer should make it possible to construct almost anything that you might need. I've always been impressed by the quality that Roland maintain in creating the samples for their S+S synths — with only a few exceptions, I find them realistic where appropriate, lively, and with good tonal consistency among multi-sample sets. This makes the synths themselves extremely musical and playable, and consequently inspirational. It's important to be able to sit and tinkle the ivories (or um, plastics) and totally lose yourself in the moment — and the 5050 in no way disappoints in this respect.
The first big departure from the other XV synths is the 5050's polyphony. Whereas XVs 5080, 3080 and 88 enjoy a generous 128 voices, the 5050 has been bestowed only 64 voices. Admittedly this never seemed like too much of a problem on the earlier JV series, for various reasons. Firstly, the JVs' Tones dealt only in mono samples, thus using a maximum of four voices per note. The XVs, on the other hand, have the ability to use stereo samples on each tone, so you could use up to eight voices of polyphony on a single note. In a worst-case scenario, this would reduce the 5050 to only eight-voice polyphony! Secondly, the JV Rhythm section uses a mere one voice per note, and whilst being versatile in its own right, would probably not be my first choice for producing an entire sequenced drum track. The XV Rhythm section, on the other hand, can have up to four velocity-switched/faded sample layers per note, with a highly detailed specification that just begs you to use it. Such are the XVs' band-in-a-box capabilities that I've produced a number of complete tracks on my XV5080 without feeling the need to resort to any other instruments — but of course such an approach inevitably amounts to a much greater strain on XV polyphony. Even while playing a single Patch on the 5050 which used two mono and two stereo tones, I was experiencing voice-stealing. This means that if you intend to produce complete performances on the 5050, you will have to be very careful indeed with your choice of sounds and the way you play them. The 64-voice polyphony is the XV5050's most restricting aspect, so you will need to take this factor into account in deciding if it is right for you.
It's perhaps interesting to note that the 5050's display is illuminated by eight rear-mounted LEDs instead of the usual electro-luminescent screen. I haven't come across this before — perhaps it's intended to increase the display's lifespan, as some luminescent types have a tendency to go dim and eventually peg out altogether over time. Intriguingly, the manual warns you not to take flash photos of the display, as 'malfunction may occur'. So think twice before taking that snap of your favourite keyboardist — their cries of "no photos!" may not be out of modesty if they have an XV5050 in their rack...
Notwithstanding the polyphony, the 5050 actually improves on the specifications of the 3080 in a couple of areas — the first being the MFX effects. Whereas the 3080 followed the JV1080's spec of having only one MFX insert effect (or EFX in JV-speak), the 5050 has been appointed the full complement of three MFX sections, as on the XV5080. Unlike the XV5080 however, the 5050 imposes some restrictions on their use. The user manual highlights a number of DSP-hungry effect types that allow the use of only one such MFX in a Performance, which suggests that the XV5050 has reduced DSP power compared to the 3080 and 5080. The remaining effects, the manual claims, are freely assignable in a configuration of three MFXs, but at this point it's important to explain that the manual is a particularly annoying example of the breed. I could find no mention of how to jump between the pages related to MFXa, MFXb and MFXc. It's via the first three Tone Select buttons, as it happens — but you are left to discover this fact for yourself. Equally arcane (and again inadequately explained) is the manual's discussion of how the MFX Source parameter affects the setup — it is merely stated that the parameter is there, but is not clear enough why you should select one mode in preference to another. Consequently, a newcomer to XV synths might well find the process of setting up effect assignments and routings on the 5050 rather confusing. Indeed, there were a number of 5050 operational procedures which I knew about from my XV5080, but which appeared not to be mentioned in the manual at all, although I searched the pages thoroughly!
Be prepared for some head-scratching... the solutions exist, but the manual could make them much clearer. On a happier note, the full set of 90 effects is here, as on the XV5080, including the wonderful COSM effects which were absent from the XV3080.
The 3080 was also criticised for its lack of digital outputs, so Roland have provided co-axial and optical S/PDIF digital outputs for the 5050, which is good news for those who like to keep things squeaky clean. Also new to the 5050 are additional GM2 Reverb and Chorus options, and a front-panel USB socket for direct connection to a computer. A CD-R with the necessary USB driver is provided, so even non-MIDI equipped computers can join in. The driver installed flawlessly on my PC, and the connection worked fine, appearing as an extra MIDI port under Cakewalk.
The 5050 is expandable via two Expansion Board slots, which accept only the newer SRX-type boards — the JV-series SR-JV boards are not compatible. Still, if only two slots are available it makes sense for Roland to favour the boards that are contemporary with the instrument. There are currently five SRX cards available: Dynamic Drums, Concert Piano, Studio, Symphonic Strings and Supreme Dance. No doubt more are on the way.
Absent, sadly, is the SmartMedia cardslot found on the other XVs. This is a shame, since SmartMedia cards are so affordable these days — one 128Mb card (currently at under £60 including VAT if you hunt around) should theoretically hold 584 Banks, equivalent to 74,752 Patches — and would be an excellent way of building up a gargantuan library of instantly accessible sounds.
The software version of the review model as delivered was v1.02. but I later went to Roland's web site and upgraded to the current one, v1.05. So far I haven't found any discernible differences, and I can only assume that the upgrade contains various bug fixes. It would be useful if some notes were included with these upgrades explaining what new features and enhancements have been added.
|Sample RAM/Playback||No||Yes (less than 128MB)||No||No|
|SRX Expansion slots||2||4||2||2|
|SR-JV Expansion slots||none||4||4||2|
|Digital Out||Co-axial & Optical||Co-axial & Optical||No||No|
|Smart Media slot||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Insert FX (MFX)||3||3||1||1|
|Display Type||2 x 20-character||320 x 80-pixel graphic||2 x 40-character||2 x 40-character|
Throughout the course of this review, I put the XV5050 up against my 5080 for direct comparison. Soundwise, I could find no difference between them whatsoever. The big difference, however, was apparent during the editing process. While the 5080 has a large, 320 x 80-pixel graphic display that shows numerous parameters at once (and their relationships to one another), the 5050 has a 2 x 20-character display that harks back to the days of the JV880. It's obvious from the front-panel layout that a larger display simply wouldn't fit on the 5050, but it is nevertheless the display, which is capable of showing only one parameter at a time, that firmly applies the brakes when it comes to editing. Purely in a spirit of scientific enquiry, I thought a comparative speed test might be interesting, so I set up identical multitimbral Performances from scratch on both machines. This comprised four Parts, plus a Rhythm Part, with panning, reverb, chorus and two MFX effects. On the XV5080 the whole process took less than two minutes, while on the 5050 it took nearly five minutes (and I made a number of mistakes along the way).
It is always advisable to save your work as you go, and it's worth mentioning a caveat here: if you've only been editing the 5050's Performance parameters (and not any of the Patches it comprises) you can simply write the Performance into memory. If you've edited any of the Patches from within the Performance, it seems you must write them into memory individually before you save the Performance. Unlike the 5080, the 5050 does not offer you the opportunity to save these Patches during the Performance-writing stage — it merely warns you that they have been edited. I tried this without saving the Patches first, and lost all my edits. Again, there is no advice or even mention of this fact in the manual. Nor is there any suggestion that you can edit Patches from within a Performance (by pressing the Perform/Patch buttons together), or that these edited Patches can only be saved while in this mode. These omissions may seem inconsequential to the seasoned XV user, but they present a significant barrier to creativity for the newcomer, who is kept in blissful ignorance. Oh, and an edit Undo facility is not present. This could have been included without any front-panel additions by copying the JV1080's method — that of 'double-clicking' the Value Dial. It would be nice to see this included in a future OS upgrade.
I like the 5050 — it's hard not to like an XV synth. Compromises aside, my main gripes are to do with the manual (as if you hadn't guessed) which seems determined to prevent newcomers to XV synthesis from discovering its full potential. Of course, the XV5050 does have its foibles and weak points. There's the designers' apparent (and rather daft) assumption that the user will never want to edit a Patch after it's been placed into a Performance. There's the polyphony, which is a little low on a module that frequently layers several samples together in its preset sounds. There's also the apparent shortfall of available DSP power in the effects, and a display which brings to mind that classic old SOS reviewer's phrase about painting the Sistine Chapel through a keyhole. However, on the positive side, there is the huge library of 1024 Patches and 1083 raw waveforms, the fully specified MFX and the digital outputs. What's more, from a sonic perspective, the 5050 is superbly equipped to take you where you want to go. If deep-level sound design via a fast interface is more your bag, or if you think that the 64-voice polyphony could hold you back, you may feel that the XV5080, although over twice the price of the 5050, is better suited to your needs.
As this review was being readied for publication, news reached us from Roland UK of a new PC/Mac software editor for the XV5050, which gives you full graphical control of the synth via your monitor and mouse. Free for download from Roland UK's web site, the Editor clearly goes some way towards addressing the concerns Nick Magnus expresses about the XV5050's restricted front-panel editability elsewhere in this review — providing you have a computer in your studio, of course! Matt Bell
It's worth comparing the price of the XV5050 against similar modules from Roland's competitors. At £899, the Emu Proteus 2500 has 128 voices and 32 MIDI channels. The 64-voice, 16-channel 'specialist' Proteus modules come in at £649, while the original Proteus 2000, having 128 voices and 32 channels, cost £749 on its release in 1999, but is of course now available for less. A keener pricing for the 5050 — say £699 — might place it more fairly amongst the front-runners when the time comes to assault your credit-card balance.
- A goldmine of inspirational sounds.
- Digital outputs as standard.
- Full complement of XV5080 and COSM effects.
- Expandable via SRX sound cards.
- Front-panel USB MIDI/To Host connection.
- Only 64-voice polyphonic.
- The small display can make editing time-consuming and occasionally confusing.
- MFX use restricted by under-powered DSP.
- The manual maintains MI6-style secrecy about important features and operational procedures.
- Could be more keenly priced.
An extremely versatile and musical instrument, despite the odd compromise.