Man Cave Review: Roland Clown

I have to admit some bias – that I have already paid for some of these ‘plug outs’ – both hard and software, and am seriously annoyed to have to rent (‘rent’ is such an ugly word when ‘subscribe’ sounds so charming) them again to be able to have the others. I acknowledge that Roland have some vague offer in mind for people that have helped them in this way, but it’s been long coming ‘soon’.

Like Adobe, Roland have found that holding their customers by the balls is rather warm and comfy – not for the customer mind you. And like Adobe, Roland’s cloud has some great stuff mixed with wiffy leftovers, and you can’t pick and choose. It obviously can’t compare to Arturia’s collection, which ranges across a wide swath of manufacturers, and even KORG’s small collection has more sonic variety, because KORG. I don’t know how hard things are for Roland at the moment, surely accordion sales are evergreen – but let it pass, we should talk about the software.

D-50_Marquee

Start with the good – By far the best deal in the box is the D50. It’s such a odd machine when you try program it yourself, but the people that made the original patches included here did an excellent job. The sounds are varied and useful, they complement the analogue sounds so popular at the moment. Yes, it’s ‘legendary’ but it’s also useful and you will use it. It comes with a reproduction of the original programmer which is a pity, that was a confused monster which was later improved upon by third parties. I would buy this.

Great disappointment that the JV1080 is CPU crazy, and unusable. From the moment you load it, the CPU meter surges up to 100 and bangs against it like a bird trapped in a house. It’s a ROMpler – why on earth does it need more CPU than the virtual analogues? Was the wiring in the JV that crucial? Same goes for the derivative SRX plugins – they aren’t optimised yet. I own a XV5080 and it’s a wonderful machine once you understand the way it thinks – just go the whole hog and give us an Integra-7. That’d be instantly worth the rent.

You’d think that the JUPITER-8 would be the one with the CPU problems, but it’s fine. I guess Roland has had to make it work in their little boutique boxes. I set it up next to Arturia’s JUP-8. Only this has original factory sounds so there’s much fluffing required to compare them – I found that the JUPITER was generally louder and more modulated/lively than the JUP, but with adjustment they were close. Other virtual analogues like the SH101 are much the same – where I know them, they’re spot-on, where I don’t, they seem spot-on.

I don’t really get some of the choices here – a software PRO-MARS doesn’t offer that much over other mono-synths and the SH2 is as dull as ditch water. The JUNO-106 is fair enough I guess, but the JX-3P was originally designed for people who didn’t care much for synthesisers, and it has maintained that distinction since. A collection should be based on sonic versatility, that each component has a virtue not covered by the others. The Roland ‘sound’ is here, repeatedly, and you’ll end up using only a few of these instruments for actual music.

I almost forgot to mention the TR808 and TR909. They’re fine. They sound like the old drum boxes, as do a thousand other replicas out there.

Back to me – and I did admit bias up front – the legendary thing is not working, because the SYSTEM-8 does all that stuff quite well thank you – as does alternatives like U-He DIVA. The D-50 is sonically different, as are the JV series. But how many things Roland actually sound different? They’re trying to sell breadth, where breadth isn’t their strong point. If I was running things, ASAP get the damn CPU under control, but try to get some un-legendary things like the V-Synth and Integra-7 in the mix so that everything in the box isn’t a different coloured spork.

Man Cave: The Arturia Strikes Back

IN our last installment of the Arturia franchise, the once diminutive Smurf village took on a certain virility, which having been mentioned allows us to enjoy this image all over again.

The 6th version of the V Collection doesn’t advance the collection as a whole, at least not in matters that appeal to me, but introduces four new instruments of mixed virility. Two of them remind me of the bad old days of weakling Smurfs. So much so that I’ve waited on the 6.1 update to see if this lethargy has been corrected – it has to some extent, but not to my satisfaction.

Clavinet V sounds like a clavinet. Take the time to blow a party horn once, sadly, and move on.

DX7 V is very exciting at first glance. The original DX7 was such a inscrutable closed fist of a thing that I’m amazed I got anything out of mine. Every software replica is an improvement in that you have increasing hope of rapport with the sound, and I think Arturia have come up with the best interface so far. It would be the bee’s knees – if it could only manage more than piffling polyphony.

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Like the bad old days of the first V Collection, the CPU meter is halfway up the scale before you even play a note. I have a fast i7 machine, other complex tools run fine, Native Instrument’s FM8 runs fine, but DX7 V shits itself with any more than 6 or so notes. Something is trying to emulate the constant buzz/fuzz of the old Yamaha circuitry and it’s really not needed at all. Allow us to turn it off. I know that some accuracy will be lost, but it’s a tool, not an idol.

When it does work it’s a pleasure. The way in which operators are selected, tuned, filtered and modulated are all intuitive and effective. You must like being able to place on a resonant filter on a modulator, along with feedback, otherwise you’re heartless.

The other instrument with the problem is the Buchla Easel V. I see these come up on eBay for stupid amounts of money and I ask myself – why do the same people that complain about the short throw of the System-1 put up with that nasty touch keyboard? Where is the filter? No filter is like having a mouth with no lips. Humph. I don’t get it and I don’t like it, and so when it overloads the CPU I just don’t bother. There’s already Aalto out there, and I guess that’s enough of this sort of thing for me.

Which leads us to the two big ticket items, well big ticket in 1980 something. The Synclavier was the first, the Fairlight CMI 2x was next, both were insanely expensive and both rather laughable in this day and age … or not?

Synclavier V has the advantage of the original programmer leading the project. It was always a synthesiser foremost, and all sampling features have been left out, being a little quaint. Unfortunately that includes the ability to convert a sample via Fourier synthesis. What you get is additive synthesis by frames, plus complex FM modulation. You can find better additive synthesis in Apple’s Alchemy and IL’s Morphine, but the FM is more than a bit special, getting you to complex DX7 like sounds quickly and elegantly. And there are 12, not 4 channels of this which stack up rather nicely into lush space boings. Do you like ooooiiiiimmm-aaaaah-klunk? I do.

The Fairlight was sampler foremost, and inspired a whole chapter of music. Which is all the more impressive when you hear, yet again, how utterly crap the sampling quality was and is. No one in their right mind is going to swap Fairlight V for Kontakt. It’s probably there because you can re-synthesise the audio and get busy with Fairlight V’s own synthesis features. Two main techniques are on offer – a Spectral synth (not in the original machine) which bows through harmonic clusters to make a cool relative of a filter sweep, and the Time synth which moves through additive frames much like the Synclavier V.

What pumps this emulation are the Assigns and Function Generators, which map LFOs, envelopes and controllers to just about any part of the synthesis process, sensible or not. The rather stolid sampler becomes a wonderland of stupid unexpected what-the-fuck as you bend and stretch parts of the sound that we never supposed to do that sort of thing. If you love the Ensoniq ASR, you will love this too. There is hope for Arturia yet, I think they are letting their hair down.

There is also Page R. You may blow your party horn again, forlornly.

Man Cave VS Sample Robot

Congratulations! You’ve bought near a thousand synthesisers, and now spend all your ‘quality time’ swapping internal batteries, making line diagrams, racking and unracking, piling up dead Behringer patch bays and all kinds of other non-music related busy work. You’ve just bought a keyboard you already have, same as the one under the one propping up the table on which all the Korg boxes sit dust farming. This is out of control!

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Sometime in the last year you managed to create some patches on one or more of them (which ones it’s not clear, maybe a black one) that would sound great on that tune you’ve been nursing forever. How the hell do you get all those sounds in a place where you can actually use them?

The simplest way is to sample the sounds. Plug the keyboard into a sound interface, play each note over MIDI, and cut them into individual samples. The first few times you don’t mind doing it manually, but you soon realise it’ll become yet another task that’ll keep you away from actually being creative.

There are tools that will automate this, the most prominent one being SampleRobot. That’s because it’s been around for a long time, back from when a MOOG was something you hired by the hour. Venerable it is, and venerable it looks, a little bit-mapped interface that would look right at home on a 90’s beige CRT. (The authors are aware of this and promise a new version soon that will stretch). Actually it’s not just the size of the interface that confounds people born after 199x, it’s the metallic robot/car/can opener detailing. Little metal buttons on little metal remote controls.

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I am old and had an Amiga so I understand where this aesthetic comes from. I also understand that coders used to be free to develop their own interface rules. SampleRobot will often send you back to the manual trying to figure out WTF is going on. For example, having bought the Pro version, I get a tool called WaveRobot, which helps edit loops. I kept wondering how the hell to get the ‘Open File’ menu item to be available, eventually discovered that it’s disabled, and you can only load by right clicking an on-screen keyboard in SampleRobot. Of course.

A ‘wizard’ will set you up for your first sampling adventure. It’ll ask you questions about what you’re trying to achieve and set up the numerous parameters for capturing the sounds (is it a pad or a piano? How many keys did you want to capture?) If you try to do it yourself you’ll find the parameters spread over a number of dialog windows all over the screen. Chances are good that you’ll miss one of them and so you’ll be wizarding for a while.

Assuming you’ve got it set up properly, you then start the recording and the robot plays each key over MIDI, waiting a while between each, attempting to find loop points. It’s not the best at looping (that would be Zero-X Seamless Looper which sadly has left this world on the sky train) but if you take some time to practice with all the settings you can get close to a good loop straight off.

More likely you’ll want to load up each sample in WaveRobot, which as I said took a lot of figuring out, as did the controls to make the waveform sit properly on a large screen. But, like the old hardware you’re sampling, once you get the logic of how it works you can get quick at it. It leans a bit on the crossfade, and you will need to tune things. The overlapping visual waveforms at the loop point are very helpful.

Now hopefully you’ve produced a set of samples that you can work with. Although it claims to save out Kontakt files, it actually saves out Reason’s sampler format which Kontakt must then convert (as NI licenses Chicken System’s Translator software). If you aren’t careful SR will save new truncated samples into its own folder, inside C:\Program Files which is evil, and probably why they want you to launch the software on an admin account (double evil).

Now you have a monolith file in Kontakt … and no more frigging around with MIDI cables, patchbays or that kind of vibe-killing drudgery. Kontakt of course has its own filters, envelopes and so on, so you might sample some of your sources as pure oscillator and enjoy tweaking the filters later, making up multiple versions.

I started with the UltraProteus, from which flows very long complex sounds. It was difficult to get the start point right, and SampleRobot had little chance of finding a loop point by itself. Although it looked like my volume level was good, my first samples came out much too quiet. Turning up the inputs revealed that the UP makes a lot of hum, which of course pitches up and down as the samples are played. I made it not too noticeable. I really liked being able to attach effects to each sound in Kontakt, which isn’t really possible with the UP hardware.

Sampling the MR Rack makes perfect sense as (a) it has no inbuilt resonant filter and (b) the battery is flat whenever you want to use it – but no sense because (c) transwaves don’t play back the way they are supposed to and (d) neither do the wacky FX. SampleRobot wasn’t much help here, and the best thing to do is manually play each transwave, load in Alchemy or Morphine, translate that into an additive wave which will then pitch shift nicely over the whole keyboard without multi-samples. You then modulate the wave point and get perfect Fizmo like results.

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Really the process is best for sounds that don’t rely on your active or programmed modulation. It’s fine for an MKS-80 bass, perhaps for Korg Radias chime, but not much use for a modular sequence. Getting SR working is a complete pain in the ass up front, but I know it beats playing each note by hand and then editing it apart manually.

And once you’ve grabbed Lately Bass from your TX81z you can leave that turned off forever.