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A Series of Articles Reviewing the Latest Production Software and DJ Hardware

Producing EDM with Vintage Equipment: The Roland D-50 A Waste of Time?

Roland D-50 Synthesizer Eddie.Fm

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.

Roland PG 1000 eddie fm Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 9.00.12 PM

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.

Roland D-50 Memory Card

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.

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Korg Volca Beats – Analog Drum Machine Review

Picture of Korg Volca Beats

OVERVIEW
I was excited to pick up the Korg Volca Beats and test it.  In this review I analyze the 6 analog drum parts and 4 digital (PCM) drum parts.  If you are inexperienced with drum machines, halfway through this article, I created easy instructions for programming a simple House Music beat on the Volca.  The Volca Beats’ Kick, Closed Hat, and Open Hat are my favorite sounds on the Volca.  The PCM parts are marketed as “lo-fi” and unremarkable.  The sequencer is good but lacks important features.  Programming it is easy if you are familiar with a Roland 808, 909, or Korg’s Electribe.  Beginners will likely need to watch a tutorial on programming this drum machine.  Ultimately this drum machine does not live up to standards that most professionals require.  With the Volca Beats priced around $150, you get what you pay for.   And here, you do not get much — making this a terrific drum machine for beginners.

KICK PART (ANALOG)
Part of the reason I wanted to use this machine is to get a nice analog kick on a track that I have been frustrated with.  When I create new tracks I prefer to keep it organic.  I stray from using sampled drums or prefabricated loops.  If you are new to making electronic music keep in mind that you could avoid purchasing this gear by getting a sample pack loaded with percussion instruments and loops.  You will probably get a better result that way too.  Regardless, I love making beats from scratch.  Achieving a good track from scratch is no simple feat.  It takes a lifetime of audio engineering experience.  

Right now I am plugged into the Volca Beats with a pair of headphones.  For testing I am using Beyerdynamic 770 DT Pros (80 Ohms).  Occasionally I used the Volca Beat’s internal speaker but its worse than plastic speakers from the 99 Cent Store.  The internal speaker does not cover low end frequencies.   If you listen to the kick drum through the internal speaker, you will not hear it much unless you turn up the Snappy Knob to increase the attack of the kick.

Vocla Beats keeps it simple.  There are only four major variables to change the kick.  The variables include Click, Pitch, Decay, and Part Level.  These are easily controlled by potentiometers.  The pots are small and made with cheap plastic.  The pots are close to each other so that could be a problem if you have large fingers and intend to use this during a live performance or DJ set.  Programming patterns may also be problematic for the same reason.  The Click pot adds a stronger attack to the kick when its dialed to the right.  Turning the Click pot to the left removes the attack creating a rounder and muffled kick sound.  The Pitch pot manipulates the pitch of the drum head.   Adding some Delay makes the kick sound rich and deep by increasing the length of the drum head sound.

SNARE (ANALOG)
The Snare Part has four major variable controls including Snappy, Pitch, Decay, and Part Level.  I am not a huge fan of the Snare sound.  With the Snappy, Pitch, and Decay pots turned completely to the left you get a clean analog percussion sound.  The Snappy knob adjusts the volume of the sound that Korg describes as “the snare wires.”   Turning the pots completely to the right leaves you with a messy, unusable, over modulated sound.

LOW TOM (ANALOG)
The Low Tom sounds pretty decent on this.  I like it.  However the Low Tom only has three major variable controls including Lo Pitch, Decay, and Part Level.  With the Decay pot turned completely to the left, the Low Tom sounds similar to a kick drum with a low volume.  As you increase the Decay the Low Tom starts to get some decent action.

HI TOM (ANALOG)
The HI Tom has the same variable controls as the Low Tom.  Again you can adjust the Hi Pitch, Decay, and Part Level.  The Hi Tom is not noteworthy.  Its sound is passable.

CLOSED HAT & OPEN HAT PARTS (ANALOG)
The Closed Hat  sounds great.  Unfortunately it only has three variable controls.  You can adjust the Decay, Grain, and Part Level.  I also liked the Open Hat.  You could get a pretty decent groove out of the way these two parts cut through your sequence.  The Grain control is mediocre but it does add a different approach to the sound.  Adding to the unique possibilities one might achieve when creating beats on the Volca.

PCM PARTS: CLAP, CLAVES, AGOGO, CRASH (DIGITAL)
Pulse-Code Modulation or PCM is a common technology that has been widely used in drum machines and samplers since the 1980s.   The Korg Volca has four parts that are digital samples.  The digital samples include a clap, clave, agogo, and a crash.  Probably to appeal to consumers, the manual describes these as lo-fi parts.  They are definitely lo-fi.  Although the Korg Volca does not have an ability to record  samples, it comes with for sampled parts including a Clap, Claves, Agogo, and Crash.  If you are new to producing music, keep in mind that these are not analog parts.  They are digital.  The Korg Volca Beats only has 6 analog parts.  These parts are nothing special.  Its disappointing that Korg could not squeeze in some extra analog parts in here.   Even less desirable is that there are only two major variable controls for each of these parts!  You can adjust the PCM Speed and Part Level.  However, one redeeming factor for the PCM parts is your ability to adjust the PCM Speed pot thereby changing the speed that each sample plays back.  The Clap, Agogo, and Crash make some unique sounds when their PCM Speed is minimized.  This could result in some pretty unique textures in your drum programming.   However, if you already have Ableton Live or any basic digital sampler on your Mac or PC, you can do the same.

PROGRAMMING THE SEQUENCER
Now that I am familiar with each of the possible parts.  Let’s take a look at the sequencer and how it holds up.  Without looking at the instructions you can tell that the sequencer programs in  units of 1/16th notes just by looking at the keypad.  The keypad is pretty sweet.  There are 16 step pads.  One of the best features of this drum machine is that you can record the motion of the adjusts you make on the knobs.  For example if you tweak the volume up and down on the Closed High Hat a little bit throughout your sequence, the Volca will save the motion.  Most professionals will argue that drums sound a lot better and groove more when the volume is slightly different for each hit of the drum.  Changing the volume a bit on each hit purportedly gets your drums to sounding more human.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR PROGRAMMING THE KORG VOLCA BEATS
For this review created a simple 4 on the floor House Music beat without using my headphones:

  1. Clear whatever pattern is already programmed by holding the “FUNC” button and the “ALL” button down on the Keypad at the same time.  If you are afraid of deleting a pattern, you can restore the factory presets
  2. Press the “Play” button and you should see the amber colored LED moving across the bottom of the touchpad
  3. Use the “< Part ” button to select the kick, the amber colored LED will remain solid on the instrument part that is selected.  Scroll to the left with the “<Part” button until the light under the kick remains solid.  If you are in play mode, you will still see the amber light scrolling across the 16 parts.  That light you see that scrolls across the bottom of the keypad shows you where which step the sequencer is on.
  4. Press the “Step Mode” button until it is illuminated
  5. Press buttons 1, 5, 9, and 13 making sure that each of those steps on the kick has a solid amber color lit up (note that half of the keypads are not labeled with a number)
  6. On the kick I have set the Click knob all the way to the right so that you can hear its attack.  Otherwise you cannot really heard the kick well on the external speaker.  Adjust the kick’s part level, pitch, click, and decay to your preference
  7. Now, click the ” Part > ” button and the amber color under the snare should remain solid
  8. Tap the keypad on numbers 9 and 13
  9. Adjust the snare’s Snappy, Pitch, Decay, and Part Level knob to your preference
  10. Click the “Part >” button until you see the amber light under CL Hat Keypad button turn solid
  11. Press Keypad buttons 3, 7, 11, and 15 so that they are lighted with a solid amber color
  12. Adjust the CL Hat’s parameters including Closed Decay, Grain, and Part Level to your preference.  Note that lowering the CL Hat’s Part Level to a lower more subtle volume can get your drum tracks grooving pretty quickly.  Playing around with the Grain knob got a good sound out of the Closed Hi Hat
  13. Now press “Part >” until the Clap button has a solid amber LED illuminated under it
  14. Press 5 and 13 on the Keypad so those lights are solid
  15. Remember the Clap is a lo-fi digital sample, not analog.  You can adjust the clap’s playback speed by adjusting the PCM Speed knob.  You can also adjust it’s volume by turning the Part Level knob.  At this point you have a basic four on the floor beat programmed in the sequencer
  16. Adjust the Time Knob and you will hear that your beats start sounding like a drum roll or stutter is occurring.  This knob is best controlled by recording its movement over time.  For now I’m gonna keep it all the way to the left or at zero.  Note that the Depth Knob sets the decay volume for each hit

MIDI
The surface of the unit has a standard MIDI IN jack.  This allows you to control the sound generator of the Volca.  I would rather the unit have an XLR or 1/4 inch output than a MIDI IN.  It seems strange that someone would go to the extent of plugging in an external midi controller to operate these sounds that are outputted through the mini-stereo plug.  

SYNC IN/OUT
You can connect the unit to other Korg equipment such as the Korg Monotribe.   When a step is triggered, the Sync out sends a 5v pulse out for 15ms.

MEMORY
There are 8 memory banks on the Volca Beats.

OUTPUT JACKS
The output jacks on the Korg Volca Beats are a big failure.  There 3.5mm mini-stereo plug for your headphones.  That’s it!  Unless you want to use the internal speaker to play your percussion sounds and rig them up to a live microphone pointed at the internal speaker.  Obviously that would not work very well if you are playing the instrument live.  The lack of professional audio output on the machine indicates that this is an amateur’s instrument.  The device generates some terrific analog parts but you cannot send the signal through an XLR or at least a 1/4 inch cable.  So what’s the point?  An amateur producer probably won’t notice much of a difference between a mini stereo output and using an XLR when recording.  Do not feel bad if you fall into this category though.  Most engineers will not notice much of a loss in quality either.  However, its somewhat like having a Ferrari and not being able to tear it up legally on a Freeway in California.  The Volca Beats leave me thinking, what’s the point?  If I one is going to shell out money to use an analog instrument and the audio quality is bottlenecked by a less than desirable mini stereo output plug when you attempt to record the analog sounds into ProTools, Logic, or Ableton, you lose a lot.

POWER
Volca Beats runs on  6 AA Alkaline Batteries or a 9V DC adapter.  New in the box, It comes with batteries.  However, the Volca Beats does not come with a power adapter.  The unit powers off after four hours of inactivity.  This auto power off function can be disabled.  Having batteries makes the instrument easier to take around with you.   Just remember if you actually plan on using this in a live gig that you should put new batteries in before you perform.  Having to explain that sounds like a no-brainer.  But I’ve seen plenty of tech audio engineers that forget to put new batteries in a wide range of performance equipment such as lavaliere mics only to see the microphone go out during the performance.  If you quickly become tired of using your Volca, do not forget to take the batteries out.  If you leave this instrument in your junk box for a couple of years and come back to it, a leaky battery will more than likely destroy it.

INSTRUCTIONS
The manual for the Korg Volca Beats, like most technical manuals for electronic instruments, is limited.  This machine is designed for someone that is learning how to create electronic music.  One would think that the manual should explain things in greater detail.  I have programmed a lot of drum machines before so I did not have too much of a problem getting this machine to work well right out of the box.  However, If you are new to using a drum machine, you should probably check out some YouTube videos on how to program the sequencer of the Volca.  Since the sequencer has similar features to many other drum machines, anything knowledge you acquire programming the sequencer on the Volca will carrier over to more robust drum machines.

OVERALL REVIEW OF THE KORG VOLCA BEATS
The Korg Volca Beats does not live up to a professional’s needs.  Its a good instrument for beginners looking to create their own beats or to use alongside their dj sets.  I personally would not incorporate the Korg Volca in my DJ sets.  Its too difficult to control if you have larger hands.

There are only 6 analog drum sounds with it.  Only a couple of the sounds are good.  The lack of professional audio outputs is a big failure.  If you go to great lengths to use an analog instrument but it only has a mini-stereo output, you might want to ask yourself why you need an analog instrument in the first place.  Despite its lack of quality and simplistic features, I am  going somehow try to use it on a track that I am finishing up.  In the meantime I do not recommend this instrument for serious producers.  The Korg Volca targets the second major wave of the enthusiasts’ interest in DJ’ing and making beats.

Korg Volca Beats User Manual

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