If you produce electronic dance music, does the incorporation of vintage gear actually make a difference? This article explores the vintage Roland D-50 and whether its worth using to produce House Music nowadays.
The D-50 was first produced in 1987 by Roland of Japan. For starters if you have any Roland equipment you can visit BossArea.com’s Serial Number Lookup. Just type in your serial number to determine exactly when your Roland instruments were made. My D-50 was probably one of the first productions, made in August of 1987. The D-50 was manufactured until 1989. It was was known for being a moderately priced yet widely popular synthesizer used in numerous hit records of the time. I think this is still one of the most musical instruments I have ever used. The weight of the keys, the velocity response, the pitch bend, and modulation on it feel just right. This is especially a good synthesizer to control your software synths. The D-550 is Roland’s rack mount version of the D-50.
For an instrument from the 80’s, the D-50 stills dominates 90% of the new synthesizers sold at Guitar Center. However, there are several drawbacks. You need serious patience if you want to program original sounds, the memory cards do not hold a lot of patches, and it is not an analog synthesizer. On the plus side, you can overcome any programming difficulties and the limited storage space by attaching the D-50 to your Mac or PC with midi cables. Most importantly you should be able to purchase a D-50 in excellent condition for less than $400 USD on E-Bay or Craigslist. From time to time you can find one for $150 USD.
PROGRAMMING THE D-50
Good luck using the LED display and parameters buttons to create unique sounds. If you choose that route you are a masochist or a sincere enthusiast. Hopefully you are the latter because this synthesizer is still impressive. And if you were alive and making beats in the 80’s this will certainly bring you right back to the infancy of electronic music. The LED screen is comparable to just about any digital synthesizer from the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s.
Roland obviously knew the user interface for the D-50 was complicated so they created the PG-1000, an external controller that makes programming the D-50 simple. In 2014 the PG-1000 can be found for less than $300 USD. The PG-1000 has faders that control every parameter so you can tweak out each variable without having to tap buttons and shift through the D-50’s menus.
Even better than purchasing a PG-1000, you can simply use a program such as Midiquest 11 if you use Mac OSX. If you are a PC owner, I feel bad for you. Not really though because you are in luck. There are lots of shareware programs available for PCs that can emulate the PG-1000 for free. You just need to hook your computer up via midi in/out and run any of this software and you are ready to create original patches with your D-50.
MEMORY AND PATCHES
The D-50 has a slot allowing you to insert an old school Roland Memory card. In the 80’s and 90’s various producers made patches that you could purchase on a memory card. These older cards can be purchased for approximately $30 USD in 2014.
Purchasing memory cards is not an efficient way to find great patches. Most cards can only hold 64 patches. The best thing about this instrument is you do not need to purchase cards whatsoever. You can download almost all of them on the Internet for free (discussed later in this article). Nowadays the only purpose of having a memory card is if you are a collector or need to save your important patches if you are gigging out in a Phil Collins Cover Band with the D-50.
The internal memory holds 64 patches (8 patches in 8 separate banks). Despite the difficult to use LED menus, calling up patches stored in memory only requires that you press two buttons: select bank button 1-8 then click patch button 1-8.
When the D-50 is turned off, the memory is saved by an internal battery. If you purchase a D-50 and it will not operate, the first thing you should look into is replacing the battery. Replacing the internal battery is not difficult and should only take you about 10 minutes. Internal batteries for the D-50 are readily available at most electronic stores for under $3 USD. Remember, the D-50 will be inoperable without a internal battery that has some juice left in it.
WHERE TO GET PATCHES FOR ROLAND D-50
If you just purchased a D-50 and its loaded with bad patches, I recommend that you download any and every patch ever made for the D-50 on the Internet. Start searching for Torrents. There is no need to pay $30 USD for a Roland Memory Card that holds a limited number of patches. You should be able to find plenty of free patches on Roland’s website. If you have a problem locating a good collection, just e-mail me and I will dropbox you hundreds of them.
LOADING PATCHES FROM YOUR MAC OR PC TO THE ROLAND D-50
Simply connect your D-50 to your Mac or PC via midi in/out. Then use a shareware program such as SysEX Librarian to store all the patches you downloaded from the Internet. Then you can transmit patches back and forth from the D-50 to your Mac or PC.
Transmitting patches back and forth can be tricky at first. You need to turn the internal memory bank’s write protection off. Then you need to hit the Data Transfer button to enter the Data Transfer menu. Once you are within this menu on the LED screen, you need to press the Data Transfer button again while you are simultaneously pressing the B.Load button (the button directly under the B.Load option in the LED display). Then start the transmission from your computer using SysEx Librarian. For this method, make sure that your computer and D-50 are connected with two a MIDI cables (in and out should both be connected). There are various methods to transmit data to and from the D-50 but I find this one to be the quickest and most reliable. Other methods may require you to reduce the transmission speed on your SysEx Librarian. This method seems to work at the fastest possible transmission speed settings in SysEx while running Mac OSX Maverick on a MacBook Pro.
IS IT WORTH IT?
The Roland D-50 is still an amazing instrument. In reality its not efficient to create new cutting edge sounds with the D-50. Its effects processor and filters are stellar compared to most new budget synthesizers. But keep in mind the D-50 is still a digital synthesizer and its sounds can easily be replicated with software based synthesizers. Not to mention its too much of a hassle to program, find patches, and record the D-50 through a digital interface into ProTools, Ableton Live, Logic, or etc. Unless of course, you like a challenge.
The D-50 made music exciting in the late 80s. Its not innovative for 2014. Theres no need to spend your money recreating sounds made by Enya, Gary Numan, and Nick Rhodes unless you are a hipster. Ultimately the D-50 is not a bad investment if you want an excellent MIDI controller with superior key and velocity action to run your software synths. Its an inspiring instrument to have on hand. Who knows though, maybe you can create an amazing patch on the D-50 that revolutionizes music. That’s unrealistic, but if you are going to do it, you will need the assistance of MidiQuest or the Roland PG-1000.
If you are new to the world of creating electronic music I would not recommend you spend too much time looking for your sound through vintage instruments. In general they are overpriced, frustrating to use, need multiple repairs, and cannot compete with modern synthesizers.
Aspiring producers should stick with newer software synthesizers and master them. Good luck on your quest to find the perfect sound. But do not let me discourage you from attempting to incorporate the D-50 in your tracks. Despite the difficulties of using a digital synthesizer from the 80s, there is still plenty of life left in the D-50. Especially if you are making House Music, Electro, and Techno. and techno. But if your goal is to create a popular EDM track with the D-50 in the year 2014, its more than likely that you are a Trance artist because the D-50 is best known for its synth pads.
Although there are decent bass patches for the D-50, I still prefer my Roland TB-303, a Fender Bass Guitar, Ableton Live’s Operator, or Native Instrument’s Massive. Regardless, the D-50 is still a serious instrument with infinite possibilities.