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Published in PM January 2009
Reviews : Keyboards+Synths
Roland may not be quite as well known for their arranger instruments as Casio and Yamaha's all-conquering PSR range, but their instruments carry a lot of credibility amongst musicians, with trickle-down technology from their more upmarket workstations.
Mention the words 'arranger keyboards' to many musos and you might get a disparaging reaction. After all, the musical world (and the world of education, it has to be admitted) is littered with budget keyboards for the one-finger 'play in a day' merchant. The serious muso uses a proper workstation with all the bells and whistles, does their serious sequencing at home on a computer and then loads up the results to take on the road. Well, only up to a point. Arranger keyboards take things rather further with pre-sequenced backing tracks, which not only make it easy to make a standard song your own in performance, but also let you customise and restyle your songs on the fly. As well as that, you can control the entire backing and chord progressions with just a couple of fingers of the left hand, letting you vamp, solo and otherwise fly musically with your right hand.
They're also — and this is the important point — great fun to use. Indeed, there's a flourishing community of musos who are working with arranger keyboards, looking at not only MIDI files for repertoire, but also styles, which can free up your gigging approach. A good arranger keyboard can let you modify any song to a completely different idiom very quickly, without going back to the sequencer drawing board from scratch, and the top-range models offer you a bewildering range of styles to suit just about any type of gig. Which all adds up to a good thing for the solo keyboard player.
The GW8's 128-voice sound engine is derived from Roland's own Fantom range of modules. Onboard is a colossal range of sounds and interactive backing styles, with additional sounds and styles from around the world. Very cannily, Roland advise that the range of sounds and styles will vary from country to country, taking advantage of prevailing musical trends in different areas around the world. Roland's own popular USB memory player allows direct playback of not only MIDI files, but also MP3, WAV and AIFF files, with a handy Center Cancel feature for audio if karaoke sing-alongs are your thing. There's a newly designed graphic display, Style Select buttons and two real-time Analog Modify knobs for sound creation on the fly, as well as a fully assignable D-beam control. Included with the GW8 are Style Converter and Playlist Editor softwares on CD-ROM (for PC only at present), and there's an onboard 16-track sequencer for saving those moments when inspiration strikes.
Meet the panel
The GW8 comes in a format that makes it an ideal candidate for the gigging muso: light and portable, and with a stylish control panel that makes navigation a straightforward prospect. Let's have a look at the controls themselves and see how the concept works in practice.
At the far left is the USB memory stick port for data loading and saving. This has a movable flap covering the stick when inserted, and an optional extra is a lock for the flap to eliminate unwanted tampering. Next to the 61-note keyboard is the master Volume pot and Roland's customary mod/pitch lever, while the D-beam controller is at the upper edge of the panel. Below this are Solo buttons (to play the keyboard as a mono lead synth for those Minimoog moments) and Assignable 1/2 buttons to switch the D-beam on/off and select functions. Below this are the Style Select buttons, with labelled categories: Pop/Rock, Dance, Jazz/Latin, Traditional (an eccentric mix of early rock, blues, country and European styles including polka), World and User.
The next section covers the backing track and song/USB memory player controls. There are buttons here for selecting the backing type (Style, Song, USB Memory Player), balancing between the backing and keyboard part volumes, viewing a part on the display, and song record.
The style controls are at the heart of the accompaniment section, offering Intro, Main and Ending buttons (which light up when active), Sync Start and Stop, and a Tap Tempo button. There are four variations to each backing of increasing sophistication, with Auto Fill-In and Start/Stop buttons. These last buttons also double as tape recorder-style controls for playing back data from song lists and the USB memory, and use the Minus One/Center Cancel button for sing-alongs.
The Analog Modify section is the one that I'm guessing will see the most use in real-time playing. Here we have two rotary pots that are fully assignable to Master EQ (Low, High), Effect (Reverb, Chorus), Filter (Cutoff, Resonance) and Envelope (Attack and Release). I would guess that you can have a lot of fun with quick and intuitive editing of sounds, as well as the usual real-time performances.
The centre display is 240 x 64 dots, showing white on a black background, and is very clear under reduced stage lighting conditions. The main screen page shows style/song and performance parameters, lower and upper sound names, measure and tempo, and a handy window showing a keyboard indicating which keys you press in the left-hand for accompaniment and the resulting recognised chord. To the right of the screen display is a Value dial, which can be used for selecting sounds, although scrolling through the many hundreds available makes this a rather time-consuming prospect. But there are numbered instrument family group buttons (Piano, KBD/Organ, Guitar/Bass, Strings/Scat, Sax/Brass, Synth, Perc/SFX, Rhythm, World and Special) to help. Even so, it'll take some time to call up the very sound in a group that you want, although you can save favourite sounds, as described further on.
The Edit section provides four-way cursor buttons plus Enter/Exit, Menu, Effects and Write buttons for navigation and housekeeping. The Keyboard section offers Octave up/down, Transpose split point (preset to C4, but fully adjustable), Split/Dual mode, Key Scale (for alternate tunings), Key Touch and Melody Intelligence (which ingeniously adds counter-melodies to top lines and solos).
The Mode section provides buttons for selecting tones, performances, V-Link (for compatible video equipment), One Touch (recommended sound settings for the selected style), USB Import (to add tones and updates), a Numeric button to input values with the numbered tone-select buttons, and Lock, which locks settings such as tempo when switching performances. At the bottom right are two buttons marked 'Favourite' (Bank and On/Off), which let you select your own favourite tones and performances from the hundreds on offer. Using the numbered instrument family buttons, you can save 10 banks of 10 sounds each.
Round the back of the GW8, you'll find an LCD Contrast knob, MIDI In/Out sockets, jacks for Control and Hold pedals, an External Input jack, Output R and L/Mono jacks, a Phones jack, a USB MIDI connector, a cord hook, and a DC In jack from a 9V wall-wart adaptor, plus a power switch.
There are a colossal number of tones onboard the GW8. Sometimes it seems like an embarrassment of riches, and it took me over four hours to just audition them! With 892 tones, plus 256 GM2 tones and the World collection, you may find the days fly past just seeing what's on offer. All in all, they're a mixed bunch. If you already know the current range of Roland sounds, you'll be familiar with what to expect and need no further prompting. Many of the sound's parameters are controllable via velocity, although you may need to play very precisely to avoid unwanted results. The good news is that the classic synth sounds and pads of yore are here in abundance, and for any synth aficionado you can have great fun 'synth spotting'. In some ways this is a mobile museum of synth history, with classic analogue tones from past decades, some uncannily accurate emulations of Wavestation and Morpheus sounds, and multi-faceted textures that immediately inspire you to play.
The drum kits are excellent and vibrant throughout, as are the electric guitars, while the basses are good. However, it's not all good news on the sound front. Firstly, there seem to be quite a few duplications in instrument collections, with little — if any — perceivable difference between them. Some of the acoustic sounds lack focus and seem to be either over-processed or lacking accuracy to me. Some acoustic guitars are a bit clunky and the church organ is rather wimpy, while the baritone sax lacks depth and body. As always with instruments of this nature, some sounds bear little relationship to their names — the ukelele is identical to the acoustic guitar (likewise the mandolin), the recorder is nothing of the sort, and the orchestral instruments are a very mixed bag, from the OK to the clunky. The strangest ones are some of the (claimed) vocal sounds, which, to my ears, have a string pad mixed in (why?). And the Mellotron emulations will make Melly fans apoplectic with rage at the out-of-tune and knackered nature of the tone.
While most of the culprits sound usable enough in ensemble work, when heard in isolation the shortcomings reveal themselves all too clearly. For some, this won't be a problem, but it's a shame that the same care taken over the synth sounds (which are truly magnificent and authentic) wasn't applied to some of the acoustic sounds. I may be being picky, as there's such a lot on offer, but with a little more thought the GW8 could be the rival of much higher-spec instruments. The fact that new tones can be added from USB memory may address this problem in the future, and my review instrument was only v.1.02...
As ever with Roland workstations, you have a very wide range of effects to play with, and they're all editable to a greater or lesser extent. There's a whopping 78 effects on offer: 10 types of filter, 12 types of modulation, 12 chorus (some of which can double as twin delays and some 3D effects), eight dynamics (overdrive, distortion and gates), 13 delays (with multitaps, 3D and time control that can be programmed to note values), five lo-fi effects, three pitch shifters, two reverbs, 12 combination effects, and a piano-sympathetic resonance effect. With this lot, you can to some extent liven up some of the more disappointing sounds in the tones list, or add sparkle, swirl and definition to performances. As ever with this level of sophistication, it will take time to truly master all the goodies on offer.
Sense of style
The styles (and there are a lot of them) cover most of the essential fare for gigging musos. Unfortunately, the manual doesn't list them, so you're going to have to trawl through each style to select the ones you want! The various groups of styles cover many musical subdivisions, so you'll find just about everything from the past 50 years of musical history here. One advantage of having these on tap is the fact that you can investigate a style that you may not have previously considered for your material. An arranger keyboard can really help your creativity by giving you new musical avenues to explore.
There are some cracking styles here. The world collection includes some terrific reggae and ska styles (one is a direct cop from Madness and very infectious), the rock and blues styles will be staple material for many, and the pop styles from past decades will be ideal for the nostalgia circuit. And if you really like polkas, and other eccentric stuff, they're here as well.
The GW8 comes emblazoned with a small sticker proclaiming "with Latin Connections". Here we have a variety of instruments, rhythms and performances devoted exclusively to Latin styles (obviously). While these can be terrific fun, I'm not sure how high a profile Latin music has on these shores. For Latin fans, the GW8 will be unbeatable, but for musos playing a wider variety of music idioms, this may not be as useful or relevant. All credit to Roland for exploring this relatively new territory, but I just wonder whether other options may have a wider appeal. Time, and musical tastes, will show if I'm correct or not.
This is a great instrument to play. It's fathomable to set up and the manual, on the whole, is clear. But set aside some time to check out all the sounds and styles. One drawback is having to use the data wheel for selecting sounds and styles, which can take longer than you might think. I would suggest that you'll soon be setting up your favourite sounds, styles and performances to save time on gigs. I wasn't able to try the Playlist Editor and Style Converter software myself, as I'm a Mac person, but these will be essential tools for getting the most out of the instrument.
Playing-wise, the GW8 is very controllable from the keyboard, with the D-beam assignable to all sorts of musically useful things, and the Analog Modify pots make expressive playing and tone modification a doddle.
The chord recognition feature works extremely well indeed and is much more sophisticated than indicated in the manual, recognising everything up to 13th chords with augmented and diminished intervals. And the chord display not only tells you which chord has been selected, but the notes you've played to produce the chord, which is a handy feature. The intros and endings to each style feature some nice catchy hooks, and overall the system is just about idiot-proof. Use the One Touch button to automatically load suitable sounds for each style. While the ones on offer are in the main good, you might not always agree with some of the selected tones for a style, but these can easily be changed and stored to taste. Loading material from USB memory is simplicity itself and virtually instantaneous, providing many hours (days, even) of material on hand at a keystroke.
Roland have obviously put a lot of thought into the GW8. It works very well for what it offers, which is a superbly controllable and playable instrument for the gigging muso who wants to produce music for just about all tastes. The styles, on the whole, succeed admirably, although I'm not sure about the demand for the more obscure forms of Latin music. Perhaps in future revisions Roland might make custom collections for the prospective buyer. While there's a tremendous range of well-known and classic sounds on board that can be truly inspirational for the creative muso, others let the side down badly in some respects. Hopefully, Roland can fix these problems in future upgrades. These qualifications aside, this is a powerful, expressive and user-friendly keyboard that should find many fans. 0
Published in PM January 2009
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Roland GW8 £595
This is a powerhouse of an arranger keyboard in a handy, light and supremely giggable package. Very playable and controllable, it has bucketloads of sounds from Roland's own module library, many of which are inspiring, but the acoustic sounds are urgently in need of an overhaul. Styles cover a lot of ground and are easy to use, with an excellent chord-recognition algorithm. The Latin collection is a bold move into an unusual and fascinating musical idiom, but will musos follow suit?
+44 (0)1792 702701
61 keys with aftertouch.
16 parts, plus keyboard part.
256MB wave memory (16-bit linear equivalent).
Preset memory: 128 performances, 896 tones (plus 256 GM2 and World), 32 rhythm sets (plus 9 GM2 and World).
User memory: 128 performances, 100 favourite performances, 100 favourite tones.
MFX: 78 upper and lower types, 3 chorus types, 5 reverb types.
Backing type: Style, Song, USB memory player.
Backing tempo (MIDI): 25-250bpm.
Backing style variations: 4 intro, 4 main, 4 ending, 4 fill-in; Sync start and stop, one-touch setting.
Song (16-track recorder): 16-track, Rec mode (Mix, Replace), Count in, Punch in/out, Input Quantise.
USB memory player: 999 songs (SMF: format 0/1; audio file: WAV, AIFF, MP3).
Preset backing memory: 100 styles, 200 songs.
Controllers: D-beam controller, pitch bend/mod lever, and two control knobs.
USB/MIDI: OS: Windows XP Home SP2 or later, Windows XP Pro SP2 or later, Windows Vista.
Connections: output jacks (L/Mono, R), External Input jack, Phones, MIDI In/Out, Hold and Control pedal jacks.
USB connectors: Computer (supports USB MIDI), Memory (supports USB 2.0 high-speed flash memory).
Power supply: DC 9V AC adaptor.
Dimensions (WDH): 1045 x 318 x 102mm.
Weight: 6kg (excluding adaptor).
Style Converter 3 system requirements: Windows XP or Vista, Pentium/Celeron processor 1GHz or higher, 512MB RAM or more, 2MB HD or more, display 800 x 600 16-bit high colour or more.
Playlist Editor system requirements: as above plus 10MB memory, 24-bit full colour or more.
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