MAN CAVE, or a grotesque of mid life crisis
Roland. Could they have picked anything harder to say with a Japanese accent? Is there some machismo in this naming? A dare?
Australia was the second country to open a Roland office. We love our Roland down in Oceania, and all of the Moogs and Sequentials in the world don't earn nearly the same fondness. Every band on Countdown would mime on the same unplugged Jupiter 8. The dorks would sigh to think of owning such a thing.
S+S actually stands for Sample and Synthesis, but I prefer that it’s really based on old Hercules movies. The first S+S was the Roland D50 in 1987, and the latest the GAIA released 2010. That’s an impressive run by any measure, especially as no GearSlutz will ever ever admit to liking the way these machines sound.
The reason I became interested in S+S was reading people bickering over this versus that keyboard and wondering what made them different. Over a few months of idle reading it became obvious that the majority of Roland’s synthesisers are nearly the same guts over and over again, simply tossed in different ways. And to me that’s like being backstage at a magic show.
Hercules: The D50
Each D50 voice is two waveforms. In most cases the first waveform is the initial transient of a sampled sound, and the second is a sustaining sample loop. For example, for a piano the first waveform is a very short hammer strike and the second is a loop of piano strings. The idea was to fit as much expression as possible into the tiny expensive sample memory of the time. It works because the initial transient sound is the strongest identifier of the sound, and the listener accepts that it’s the familiar noise.
There is also the option to have one or both of the waveforms be a synthesised square wave and filter. The two tones (waveforms and treatments) are then added, or multiplied as ring modulation. Cryptically, the manual says a saw wave is made by processing the square wave at the filter, which could mean that the saw is really a rounded square – it does sound like it. The maths for the filter pretends to be a low pass analogue with resonance although I’m told it’s something to the left of that.
At the time Roland were busy kicking Yamaha’s DX7 in the nuts, and so the emphasis is all about adding and multiplying tones in ‘linear arithmetic synthesis’, with subtraction kept hidden up the back of the warehouse. How times change.
Two of these voices can then be stacked or split across the keyboard. In many cases you’ll now have four tones in two voices sounding on each note, although they have yet to be wedded, as they will in the later models. Four tones becomes the Roland way of life.
Son of Hercules: The D70
Not long after Roland tried to do something tricky with the D70 called Super linear arithmetic synthesis (the word ‘Super’ in Rolandese just means ‘upgraded’). The four tones are now all samples, and there is a filter for each. Although there’s upper and lower pairs they really act like 4 separate signals.
The ‘super’ bit is Differential Loop Modulation, which is a weird thing.
DLM seems to have been shit, dooming the D70 to instant oblivion. Along with an LFO that slows down as you play more keys. Roland stopped trying to be tricky.
Hercules Versus Rompler: everything for years running.
By the time we hit the JV’s in the late 80’s/early 90’s there’s been a lot of changes under the hood. ‘LA synthesis’ is dead. Now the four tones are arranged in pairs. Each pair can be used as it was in the D50, but memory has come down in price and the samples are longer, so that you’re less in need of a chiff up your front. You can control the voice load by turning individual tones on or off.
The JV80 introduced plugin sound cards such as the very desirable ‘Vintage Synth” that adds a good variety of Moog, Oberheim and other oscillators to the mix. But it was the JV1080 rack with multiple cards installed inside that gave Roland a sugar hit they found hard to escape for the next decade – the JV1080, JV2080, JV3080 and JV5080 (no I don’t know why no 4080) were the business for years on end. The one box could make synthesiser sounds and near natural acoustic sounds and does both rather well.
The tone pairs are joined in a structure. The basic structure is each tone with a sample, multi mode filter, and amp. The second adds both waveforms into both filters in series. The third structure has the first waveform overdriving the second into a hard clip which causes a nasty kind of wave shaping. The last structure uses ring modulation to multiply the tones. Understanding how to use these is all a bit trial and error. Here’s a sensible guide.
The filters are now lowpass, highpass, bandpass or peak, which is the opposite of bandpass. The filter on the JV1010 is an odd one – it wants to be vowel more than any other Roland I’ve used.
Hercules, Space Man: SH-32
We’re left wondering – just which Roland keyboards are the same guts used in different recipes? From my own listening I’m pretty sure the JP8000 isn’t sword and sandals, but I’m very sure the SH-32 is. Even though you see twiddly knobs, and Roland touts some fancy-pants new synthesises technique, the same oscillator noises are passed through the same filters with the same modulations and effects. For some fool reason Roland has identified the samples on the SH-32 by numbers, but they are obviously the old samples from the D50, JP8 et al. that were there on the JV80 – I am a nerd and I have proved it. I’ve the sad suspicion that the piano and oboe samples are in there somewhere, tied up and blindfolded.
The idea of a Super SH-32 with all the sounds and a decent display … would have been bank I tell you. Instead came the SH-201 which doesn’t seem to have set the world on fire. It says Virtual Analogue on the tin, but who can be sure?
If it’s true that the GAIA is yet another S+S in disguise that’s the dead end of it all. The Fantoms were S+S in their infancy but later took on SuperNATURAL, a process which has something to do with real sounding bassoons and that’s not my scene.
It was either this or a red car and I think I chose wisely.