Thursday, November 5, 2009

Roland D50

Yea! A synth review!

I've been using the Roland D550 (rack version of the famous D50) for months, so it's high time I say a couple words about it.

The Roland D50 was a big success, featured prominently on a number of late 80’s hit songs, in a lot of ways, as symptomatic of the era than the Minimoog for the early 70’s.

There are two kinds of things you might want to do with a D50 : eighties-type pseudo-realistic sounds (strings, etc...) and weird atmospheric sounds and FX.

That doesn’t mean that the instrument cannot perform in synth leads or pads, but my personal feeling is that you’d be well advised to go for an analog or virtual analog synth instead. The best lead sounds on the D50 for instance rely quite a bit on its faculty to add acoustic characteristics to the sound. While it may not sound like a Prophet or a Moog, none of these fine analog machines can produce the intricate, evolving, ethereal digital sounds the D50 provides.
The Korg Wavestation comes close, but in an even more experimental, cold way, whereas the Roland D50 retains that odd, pseudo-realistic quality that gives its sounds a texture not to be found anywhere else in the market.

Strings for instance are outstanding. Not because they sound real, mind you. They sound like real strings the way a Mellotron sounds like real flutes. Hence the appeal. They have that special, imperfect tone that gives a mix a certain edge you don’t get with high-end sample-based instruments. Now you wouldn’t use a D50 in lieu of the Vienna Symphonic Library to do a serious soundtrack, but for a pop song, well, it works.

Ambient strings and FX

While 1987 musicians probably purchased it for pads or leads, these prove a bit dated to many 2009 musicians. But where the D50 unarguably still shines is sophisticated and complex soundscapes, the kind of weird, otherworldy sounds that set up a whole cinematographic atmosphere or add extra layers of sonic oddities to an otherwise regular pop song.

This is weird

The D50 uses what Roland called Linear Arithmetic synthesis, and what we would now label as Sample+Synthesis. A full patch is made of 4 “partials”, that is, waveforms, assembled into 2 “tones”. The “partial” itself can either be sawtooth/square waveforms with pulse width or a PCM sample (out of a ROM bank of 100 samples).

The basic idea is that a good deal of what characterizes an acoustic sound is its attack. So, to save space while still giving a somewhat realistic feel to the sounds, Roland shortened the samples to the instrument’s attack, and looped some of them as well. The result is a mix of sampled attacks of natural instruments and classic synthetic waveforms that you can then alter with a fairly decent resonant filter and a comfortable array of modulation options.

Synthesis itself is your usual subtractive synthesis with low-pass filtering. Playing around with the partial and tone configurations, the keyboard split-points and the three LFOs along with their complex envelope generators is sure to make for most interesting, sophisticated soundscapes.

While the D50 isn’t a workstation, you’ll find integrated reverb and chorus. I strongly suggest that you switch these effects off altogether, even if the patch sounds less impressive at first. Just work out a good patch without effects, and add the external reverb of your choice. While the chorus is all right, the reverb has that nasty, metallic sound we have come to know and loathe from the early days of digital synths.

I had read somewhere that with the Juno-1 and its PG-300 expansion, Roland had made programming optional, but that’s a bit extreme – while the programming interface is sorely lacking, you can still, if you’re motivated, produce your own sounds. The statement rings a lot truer with the Roland D50. Interface-wise, here we stand in a desolate, 1980-style landscape with no hope of doing any serious programming without buying the optional PG-1000 programmer or using software. If you can program a sound from scratch on the Roland D50 alone, congratulations, you have the patience of a saint.

I myself prefer the hardware option, which gives you instant access to most parameters, and turns the Roland D50 into a fabulously expressive instrument. I have to admit, the PG-1000 is somewhat cluttered, and it’s sometimes hard to be sure what will happen when you push this or that slider, but on the other hand, it makes the whole thing quite unpredictable and exciting. At minima, the PG-1000 allows you to tweak factory patches to your liking in a more user-friendly way, but what makes the controller a great addition if you can afford it, is being able to fiddle with that über-digital synthesizer like you would on an old-fashioned analogue.

The Roland D50, like most digital synths of that era, can be found for less than 200€ (and count something like 120-150€ for the PG-1000). It’s all good for the musician who’s looking for a cheap but professional synthesizer that still have tons to offer in terms of experimentation.
There was a hint of nostalgia in my own research of a D50, that is, the simple pleasure of owning a great instrument that had me dreaming when I was a teen, and playing some of these classic late eighties patches.

Demonstration of factory patches used by Jarre
The oh-so-famous Orinoco Flow sound

But obviously the D50 is a lot more than just an artifact of music technology, it’s a fine instrument with a character of its own and outstanding value-for-price ratio.

Some D50-heavy songs :


A page to preview all the factory patches


Anonymous said...

Nice article on the historic D-50, enjoyed the sample songs and sounds.

@music_gears on twitter

Tim said...

The D-50 seems to have had a renaissance and has experienced an increase in value. The PG-1000 even more so. They are commanding such high prices that many of us have turned to software solutions for programming the D-50.