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In the Lab: Roland Fantom synth workstation
#3056484 07/30/20 07:16 PM
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Introduction

Once upon a time, and seemingly yesterday to myself and I’m sure a lot of folks on these forums, the do-it-all synth workstation was king of the keyboards. The hardware boom of recent years, however, has favored specialist instruments from analog synths to drawbar organs to Eurorack. So, it’s intriguing to see Roland advance the new Fantom, a keyboard workstation that’s a proud generalist. What immediately grabbed my attention about it — other than what I think is one of the cooler industrial designs I’ve seen on a keyboard in recent years — was the sheer amount of real-time control. Yes, you have the obligatory knobs-and-faders bank as on any modern workstation, but then over on the right there’s a dedicated synth section with dedicated controls for filters, envelopes, you know … all the fun stuff. There is even a real analog filter as well as modeled filters. Below that is a row of jolly, candy-like buttons (old Ren & Stimpy reference for my Gen-Xers) to select categories of single instrument sounds, called Tones in Roland parlance.

[Linked Image from static.roland.com]

There’s an entire V-Piano engine built in, based on Roland’s modeling-based digital piano. There are a bevy of new sounds using what Roland calls its “ZenCore” engine. Like “SuperNatural” before it, this is more of a marketing term than a technical one, but it should be known that ZenCore supersedes and encompasses SuperNatural. The new Fantom is also a museum of legacy Roland sounds from such workhorses as the Integra-7, which in turn included a warehouse of legacy sounds from XV- and JV-series Roland synths before it. Onboard sequencing and composing takes a page from real-time, clip-oriented DAWs such as Ableton Live, and is intended to get you from idea to finished track without needing to click a mouse.

The big question is, does the Fantom do enough different tasks well enough that it can stand in for multiple other instruments that are all desirable in their own right? Over the next few weeks in this GearLab, that’s what we’re going to try to find out. This first post just provides my first impressions on a number of the Fantom’s features — we’ll get deeper into each area as time goes on. As always, questions and comments are welcome on this thread and if I don’t have the answer to something, I’ll find us someone who does. (Expecting we’ll be hearing from brother Ed Diaz more than once!)

My review unit, by the way, is the mid-sized model, the Fantom-7. Street priced have dropped about $300 since its introduction in mid-2019, and are currently $2,999; $3,299; and $3,699 for the Fantoms 6, 7, and 8, respectively. The semi-weighted action is one of the quicker and more silky I’ve played recently, but Fantom users are not wrong to point out there’s a bit of a “thunk” factor as it bottoms out. Comparing it to other synths I have set up at the time (Nord Wave 2, Prophet REV2, Yamaha MODX, Novation UltraNova) confirms this. The Fantom-8 uses the same weighted action, with simulated escapement, as in Roland's RD-2000 stage piano. (I reviewed the RD-2000

Scenes

The Fantom’s user interface touts a “mode-less” concept in which the Scene is the main unit of organization. Almost everything — which individual sounds (Tones) are split and layered in keyboard zones, what’s going on in the sequencer, effects, you name it —is stored at the Scene level. This “always in multi mode, all the time” approach is becoming the new normal on synths that boast multi-timbral capability at all: Programs on the Nord Wave 2, Performances on the Yamaha Montage and MODX, and the interface on Roland’s own Jupiter-80, to name a few. If you’re used to mode-based operation, it can be initially a little confusing if you’re wondering “How do I just play a piano?” The answer: You use a Scene that has just a piano Tone in it.

On workstations that predate this trend (basically everything from Tritons to Motifs to Kurzweils), the assignment of sounds to tracks in the sequencer could be different than in a “combi” meant for live performance. In a Scene on the Fantom, it’s the same across the board. This also applies to the uniformly great-sounding effects — and there’s a difference between effects common to the Scene and those specific to Tones within the Scene. There is a great deal of flexibility in effects routing, which is all represented graphically. Each of the 16 zones in a Scene can control either an internal or external sound source, switching between one and the other at the touch of a button, making the Fantom the ideal master controller for a multi-synth rig.

There is one type of memory object in the Fantom that’s senior to Scenes: chains of Scenes. Basically, if having random access to scenes from the pages of grids on the touchscreen (a process that’s virtually identical to selecting Performances on the Montage/MODX) isn’t organized enough for you, you can order them sequentially, then use a button or controller to step through in increment fashion. You’d do this, for example, to ensure that an order of Scenes corresponded to a band’s set list exactly. Again, you could also set them up that way on the grid, but it’s nice to be able to approach this however you want.

More on the Interface

As mentioned, the Fantom offers more real-time control than any workstation I’ve ever used. The expected eight sliders and assignable knobs (the endless kind) are supplemented by the compact but mighty synth knob section. Six more encoders are context-sensitive to what’s on the touchscreen. That screen is quite responsive and even supports hold-and-drag gestures in areas where this would be useful.

Sixteen pads trigger audio samples or notes, mute and solo keyboard zones, manipulate rhythm patterns that function more or less like those in an arranger keyboard, and more. Interestingly, the pads perform their tasks independently of Scenes, i.e. changing Scenes doesn’t change what the pads do. Instead, this is accomplished with dedicated selector buttons just below the pad bank. The pads are not velocity-sensitive, which I found odd for a flagship workstation at this price, so we won’t be doing MPC-style drum programming. This is a Roland, however, so 808-style programming is both possible and encouraged (and it doesn’t happen on the pads); more on that later.

Design and I/O

I’m a big fan of the industrial design, but more importantly, the materials quality throughout seems really top-drawer. For what my aesthetic sense is worth, the Fantom joins the Yamaha Montage in looking like what a workstation is supposed to look like in the 21st century: slick wedge shape, bright touchscreen, and packing tons of twisty things and blinky things without coming off as cluttered. A popular Facebook meme that went around a few years ago showed a picture of a Moog Modular with the caption “Synthesizers: They used to be for people who knew what they were doing.” The Fantom will definitely give onlookers that impression about you. Plus, the goal of Roland’s UX design — which includes “workflows” you select from the touch screen — is that you actually will know what you’re doing, fairly quickly.

[Linked Image from static.roland.com]

The I/O complement around back is seriously old-school — not in terms of formats, but because it hearkens back to the days when the keyboard workstation was the central thing on your studio desk, and you plugged everything else into it and it into everything else. Roland clearly wants you to do exactly that here. There are both XLR and 1/4-inch main outs, then two pairs of 1/4-inch sub outs. Two pairs 1/8-inch of CV and gate outs let you interface to whatever analog/modular world you have set up. In addition to the expected USB B and A ports for computer connection and storage, three more USB-A ports let the Fantom host and command other devices (e.g. desktop synth modules, iPads) the way a computer would. XLR combo inputs can bring external mic- or line-level audio through the analog filter, and yes, the Fantom can function as a USB computer recording interface. For monitoring or hearing your soft synths, USB audio gets its own fader on the panel. When I first unboxed my unit, bespoke DAW control was limited to Apple Logic Pro via a downloadable template; a profile for Apple MainStage is also available. (I have yet to download any OS updates and see if that’s changed but I will. I also invite Roland to respond with any update news.) Rounding out the I/O complement is 5-pin MIDI with the thru configurable as a second out.

First Thoughts on Sonics

The Fantom sounds huge, lush, and buttery-smooth across all categories of Tones. The ZenCore sound engine improves upon previous Roland technologies such as SuperNatural and behavior modeling, and it’s as deep as it is broad. If it’s acoustic instrument realism you’re after, ZenCore might seamlessly switch articulations in response to your playing technique. Want synths? It includes oscillator types such as PCM, virtual analog, Roland’s signature SuperSaw, and more.
Featured acoustic piano Tones employ a modeling engine first developed for the Roland V-Piano and also found in the RD-2000 stage piano. This provides fine-grained control over nuances including damper and string resonances, piano lid position, and the tuning and level of each note independently.

As mentioned previously, the Fantom includes a true analog multi-mode filter that can be routed to its own outputs and/or folded back to the main outs. This beast is not only fat, it’s downright dangerous. Comparing it quickly to the “regular” modeled filters (which are also no slouch), it’s capable of speaker-cone-extruding resonance and eardrum-shearing screeches if you’re not careful.

Here is something I find sort of baffling. Unlike Roland’s RD-2000 stage piano or VR-series combo keyboards, the Fantom does not have a dedicated drawbar organ mode; its organ Tones are sample-based and some are quite serviceable, but seriously, what? I’d be inclined to say that no single instrument can be all things to all people, but given everything else the Fantom does, not to mention Roland’s own marketing materials, they seem to want it to be most things to most people — and they’ve been doing a great job at clonewheel technology for a very long time.

Pattern Sequencer

So much modern music is produced using agile creation and arrangement of short phrases, as opposed to the linear, multi-track tape style past workstations (and still most DAWS) tended to emulate. The Fantom’s onboard sequencer is very mindful of this.

The Pattern display shows eight or 16 instrument tracks horizontally; each track’s column holds up to eight pattern variants. You can record patterns in real time or in a step fashion based on Roland’s classic TR drum machines. Any pattern can be triggered by pressing its “cell” on the touchscreen, with active patterns showing a graphic countdown (a circular one, like at the beginning of a movie) of where you are in the measure. The Fantom can then arrange specific paths through a pattern matrix into what are called Groups of variable lengths, and these Groups can be further chained into songs. All this is much simpler to do than it is to describe, and anyone even a little familiar with Ableton Live (or Roland’s own Zenbeats app) will take to it right away.

As of OS version 1.10, audio samples from the trigger pads can be brought into the sequencer. Since the Fantom supports user sampling (up to 60 minutes at 16-bit/44.1kHz), this makes for some interesting possibilities involving audio recording. It’s not linear DAW-style recording (remember how this was a big deal in the Korg OASYS?) and I have yet to investigate to what extent imported audio can be tempo-synced with everything else going on in the Fantom, but we’ll get there. Honestly, the sequencer is so deep that it’s going to get its own big post — probably more than one — but I just wanted to give an initial take.

So Far

It would be impossible to do an instrument as comprehensive and deep as the new Fantom justice in any review the size of ones I’ve written for print magazines (even the longer ones), so taking it on makes me especially grateful for the open-ended format we enjoy here at MPN.

My “elevator pitch” so far is that it successfully updates the tradition of “one keyboard to rule them all” in a way that skews towards ultra-modern “producer” sensibilities, but also has the right vibe to keep those of us who primarily identify as keyboardists interested. Some very off-the-cuff preliminary observations:

LIKE: Audiophile sound quality in all instrument categories. V-Piano built in. The pattern-based sequencing. Positively tons of knobs and real-time performance control. Excellent weighted and semi-weighted keyboard actions. The massive I/O including CV/gate, audio interfacing, and USB device hosting.

PSYCH: No clonewheel organ mode. When using the “TR-Rec” drum machine style recording, you can’t tweak individual volumes and pans for the individual drum hits — something you can do on Roland’s recent TR-series drum machines. Trigger pads are not velocity-sensitive.

Next

We’ll ease into the Fantom by examining one of the simpler things to talk about: The most excellent V-Piano engine.

Last edited by Stephen Fortner; 07/31/20 01:26 AM.

"I'm just a confused musician who got sidetracked into this damned word business..." -Hunter S. Thompson

Stephen Fortner
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Senior Editor, Music Player Network
Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine

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Re: In the Lab: Roland Fantom synth workstation
Stephen Fortner #3056506 07/30/20 11:54 PM
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I look forward to a more detailed take on this one, as your EM review was truncated so hard, it hurt my toe. I remember the romance of suddenly having an orchestra under my hands with my first hardware workstation, so I'm oddly drawn to seeing how the Fantom works out. Its a semi-anachronistic form outfitted with a warp drive. The sound is outstanding, but my GAS wants to hear the micro-niggles, too. Good review choice!


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Re: In the Lab: Roland Fantom synth workstation
Stephen Fortner #3058131 08/12/20 11:34 PM
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Updating the OS

Folks, sorry for the bit of dead air since my initial post. Anywho, before I got into the V-Piano sound engine, I figured I’d better update to the most recent OS, which as of right now is version 1.60. Roland’s support download page has info on how to do this, but it’s worth an anecdote and fresh in my mind. Besides, it should be the first thing you do once you take your Fantom out of the box, as Roland is being quite diligent about fixing bugs and improving workflows.

The process has several steps and while not difficult, it is among the more wonky I’ve encountered.

Recall that the Fantom has four USB-A ports: one meant for memory sticks and three for hosting devices as a computer would. Both sorts are involved in the update process.

First, you want to stick a flash drive in the “regular” USB memory port and format it using the Fantom itself: Hit the Menu button, tap Utility on the screen, tap USB Memory Format, and follow the confirmation prompts from there.

Once that’s done, plug that drive into your computer, go here, and select the top item in the list, which is the new OS. This takes a bit of navigation to get to, an and on the immediate parent of this page, there are entries for “FANTOM 6 Synthesizer” followed by 7 and 8. These are the correct ones. The one labeled “Fantom Workstation” is for the original Fantom from 2001, and says something about floppy disks!

You may want to grab the USB driver for your Mac or PC and, if on a Mac, the Logic controller plug-in and MainStage profile while you’re there.

Download the file to your desktop or wherever you put downloads. It’s a ZIP file. Unzip it, and you'll get three files: “_DATA,” “FANTOM_UPA.BIN,” and “update.” Copy all three of these to the root directory of the Roland-formatted USB stick. If they’re in a folder, things won’t work.

Now, put that back in the Fantom’s USB Memory port, with the power off. Hold down the Write button and power it on. Hold it down until you see “preparing for update...” onscreen. Wait until the top line of text onscreen says “Update (board1) End.” Then, switch the USB drive to any of the three device-host ports; it doesn’t matter which. When the second line of text changes to “Update (board2) End” you’re done. Pull the drive, power cycle normally, and you’re good to go.

Initially, I made the mistake of just copying the ZIP file over to the USB stick because I was in a hurry, not paying attention, and figured it was just a disk image. That got the update process stuck. When I actually RTFM’ed, things went quickly.

Every keyboard maker has their own way of updating. Nord, for example, does it all from the computer, with no button presses or menus on the instrument itself. I’d guess that board1 and board2 refer to sound ROM and the mainboard, with board2 as the mainboard because presumably stuff like iPads or desktop synths would be hosted from there. That the instrument loads each board’s files separately suggests a modular architecture under the hood, and my first impression is that the Fantom indeed feels like several devices (V-Piano, ZenCore sounds, Pad section, analog filter, USB hub, etc.) that share a common skin. How well integrated are they? We’ll have to see.

Okay, now onto the V-Piano stuff, which I promise is really very cool.

Last edited by Stephen Fortner; 08/12/20 11:38 PM.

"I'm just a confused musician who got sidetracked into this damned word business..." -Hunter S. Thompson

Stephen Fortner
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Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine

Re: In the Lab: Roland Fantom synth workstation
Stephen Fortner #3058372 08/14/20 06:55 PM
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V-Piano Sound Engine

The V-Piano is the sound engine in the Fantom that’s not under the ZenCore umbrella. The V-Piano was originally a $6,000 hardware instrument introduced in 2009. Based entirely on physical modeling (no samples), it allowed for note-by-note tweaking of tuning, volume, and harmonic character. This went above and beyond the usual adjustable parameters on high-end digital pianos (stretch tuning, lid position, sympathetic resonance, etc.), effectively letting you design any piano in your mind’s ear. More importantly, it sounded damned impressive.

V-Piano has since trickled into various Roland keyboards, most recently the Fantom. It’s also in the RD-2000 stage piano, but more fully implemented and editable here. Any Scene in the Fantom can include a V-Piano part, but only one. In a Scene with multiple piano Tones, the other piano parts will have to come from the ZenCore engine and will be sample-based. To clear up one possible confusion, other Roland keyboards boast “SuperNatural” pianos, which is not the same as V-Piano — SuperNatural pianos can be very good but V-Piano is superior still.

[Linked Image from ]

Scene A001 “Piano + Pad Layer” uses the V-Piano, but the quickest way to get a “naked” one is to select Scene A016 (bottom right on the first page), which is dedicated to playing single zones. Then, hit the A. Piano Tone selection button (that’s the backlit button row and you’ll get a menu of V-Piano Tones. All those variants you then see are achieved by different values for the further parameters you can adjust in Tone Edit mode. Stepping through them with the cursor keys gave me an idea of just how much tonal variation is possible. I wound up back on the first one, “Stage Grand,” which is a good all-around concert grand sound — bright enough for jazz or pop but with no shortage of depth.

Popping back out to the scene selection screen, six parameters across the bottom of the screen are adjusted by the six soft encoders. (In a multi-part Scene, what’s down here follows whichever zone currently has the panel focus, which is determined with the Select buttons just above the eight main encoder knobs. So, for example, it would switch from piano stuff to synth stuff if you switched zones.) Scroll past the pic for descriptions.

[Linked Image from ]
  • Lid: Grand piano lid position from 0-6 where 6 is fully open. I liked the sound at the default of 3 but found that 5 and 6 added a midrange bump that would not result from opening the lid on an actual grand piano.
  • String Reso: This is the sort of sympathetic string resonance in which strings that are undampened due to, say, held notes, vibrate in sympathy with the most recently-struck notes. Cranked to 10, I silently held a McCoy quartal chord and hit a loud G octave in the bass. The chord notes were there very subtly. I think that’s good, because this is a subtle phenomenon on a real piano, and many digital pianos exaggerate it seemingly just to show that they can.
  • Damper Reso: This is the other kind of string resonance that occurs when you hold the damper pedal down and thus all strings vibrate in sympathy with whatever you play. This is a lot less subtle, but not unnaturally so, and at higher settings really makes you feel like you’re inside the piano.
  • Key Off Reso: I don’t know that I’d call this resonance. It’s more an adjustment for how long a damper takes to fully mute the string once you release a key. As such, it adds just a smidgin of envelope release as you turn it up.
  • Cabinet Reso: This simulates the natural resonances of the wooden cabinet of the piano. Turning it up increases a quality I’ll call “roundness.”
  • Duplex Scale: On some pianos, either at one or both ends of the string, there’s a part of the string that passes over a bridge or fret-like structure, or around a pin, before it goes on to its ultimate anchor point. That segment of the string doesn’t “speak” when struck with the hammer, but is instead intended to vibrate in sympathy, producing richer harmonics. (There’s a whole debate in the acoustic piano world about whether makers should use duplex scales, whether they should be tuned if you do, and other things.) The Fantom lets you simulate this. This is maybe its most subtle adjustment, as I had to really “squint with my ears” to hear differences.


Roland collectively calls these settings Piano Designer, and they’d be a respectable amount of tone-sculpting on any digital piano. Going even deeper, though, we have the note-by-note adjustments. Hit Menu, go into Tone Edit, and first you’ll find three more Piano Designer settings for Sound Board Resonator, damper pedal noise, and key-off noise. In the category menu on the left of the screen, there are blocks for Tuning, Level, and Character. These all bring up a similar looking page where you first select a note by striking its key, and can then crank the value up or down for that note.

Tuning and Level are pretty self-explanatory. I would point out that the Tuning page is how you’d set up stretch tuning. I’d like to see some presets for this as opposed to having to adjust it a note at a time. (Though there is a “Preset” tuning option, there seems to be only one preset; I couldn’t immediately find away to access a bank of tuning templates or some such.) History buffs will have a field day here and may need to, because I did not find any presets for historical tuning temperaments (Pythagorean, Werckmeister, etc.) anywhere in the Fantom. UPDATE: These do indeed exist. They are found in the Zone Edit menu, and let you set different scale tunings and temperaments for each Zone independently. I cover this in more detail later in this thread.

[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]

Character is, as the name suggests, the harmonic profile of each note, and you can go five arbitrary steps above or below the baseline. In practice, this sounds like applying different EQ curves to the note, though not in a simplistic linear fashion from dark to bright. What’s more, the same value affects different notes differently; +4 might make one note hit the sweet spot you were looking for while causing the next to sound nasal or bandpass filter-y. I’m not sure what’s going on under the hood here, but there certainly is a lot of power to create piano Tones as conventional or as quirky as you want. Check out the quick video below.



Getting back to more practical concerns, how does the Fantom’s V-Piano sound overall? Putting tonal variation aside and just talking quality and realism, I would put this engine up against any marquee piano patch in any hardware workstation or digital piano made. Is it “better” than, say, the CFX concert grand sample in the Yamaha CP series and Montage? No, it’s more of a horizontal difference. In both cases, a jazz or classical soloist could play that piano sound and nothing but, and have as premium an experience as is possible in the digital domain.

Next
Let’s explore various sounds from the ZenCore engine (i.e. most of what’s in the Fantom) and get our heads around the synth knob control section.

Last edited by Stephen Fortner; 09/05/20 08:56 PM.

"I'm just a confused musician who got sidetracked into this damned word business..." -Hunter S. Thompson

Stephen Fortner
Principal, Fortner Media
Senior Editor, Music Player Network
Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine

Re: In the Lab: Roland Fantom synth workstation
Stephen Fortner #3059277 08/21/20 07:52 PM
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Going live on Synth Talk with Ed Diaz (Roland) talking about the Fantom and Keyboard magazine history! Watch right here:



"I'm just a confused musician who got sidetracked into this damned word business..." -Hunter S. Thompson

Stephen Fortner
Principal, Fortner Media
Senior Editor, Music Player Network
Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine

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Re: In the Lab: Roland Fantom synth workstation
Stephen Fortner #3059754 08/24/20 09:30 PM
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ZenCore Sound Engine

We could talk about what presets sound like, but the best way to do that is probably for me to do an “all playing, no talking” video, so stay tuned for that. Here, I’d instead like to get into the structure of the ZenCore engine, which is essentially everything but the V-Piano. Roland users will see a lot of familiar terms here. If you’re not one, I hope this section amounts to a useful vocabulary lesson as well.

Tones, Partials, and Oscillator Types

“Tone” is just Roland’s term for a single sound program, or what us synth players call a patch. Each Tone is made up of up to four Partials. Each partial is basically a completely independent synth voice, consisting of an oscillator/sample section; multi-mode filter; amp, filter, and pitch envelopes; two LFOs; two more “step LFOs” (these modulate a parameter like a step sequencer, to tempo); a three-band EQ with all frequencies sweepable and adjustable mid bandwidth; and finally, a very flexible modulation matrix where you can hook up virtually any source-destination pair you can think of. On top of all that, you can control whether each Partial within a Tone responds to pitch-bend, expression, sustain pedal, and various other controllers. I’d expect that one level “up,” i.e. for Tones within a Scene (as then we’re talking about MIDI parts in a multi) but down here, this is pretty impressively surgical.
Some of this architecture goes back to the days of the JV-series synths, of course, but the Fantom gives you a lot more to work with inside that framework. For starters, you can select the oscillator type for each partial.
  • PCM: Multisamples from the Fantom’s base and expansion wave ROM, which cover every type of acoustic and electric instrument sound imaginable. There is a ton of legacy stuff here (as well as new) from the Integra-7, XV, and JV eras. In place of old-school physical expansion slots, the Fantom has internal memory into which you can download even more wave data packs from Roland Cloud.
  • VA: Virtual analog waveforms: saw, square, two sines, three kinds of triangle, ramp, supersaw, noise, and “Juno.” This last one sounds like a pulse wave with varying amounts of the Juno’s classic sub-oscillator dialed in with the “fat” parameter.
  • PCM-Sync: These are sampled waveforms that have different “hard sync” characters baked right in as a shortcut to those squawky, angular sounds.


Noise and SuperSaw are also options at the Osc Type level, but they’re just shortcuts to the VA mode with the corresponding waveform selected. For the uninitiated, SuperSaw is Roland’s invention of a bunch of simultaneous sawtooth waves that can be detuned relative to each other with the twist of a knob, resulting in anything from a little extra girth to downright wooziness.

[Linked Image from ]
Partials 1/3 and 2/4 are intended to be used as stereo sample pairs, though nothing forces you to. Shown in the image above, the Structure parameter offers additional flexibility. Set to OFF, 1/3 and 2/4 do not interact. But then there are a couple of cross-modulation options as well as hard sync and ring modulation. I haven’t dug into this deeply, but on just a little poking around it seems like this means the Fantom is capable of some degree of inter-partial FM synthesis.

What Editing Tones Is Like
I know, it’s a bit unusual to be this deep in the edit menus (Tone Edit in this case) this early in a synth review, but there’s so much to the Fantom that what I’m writing is simply following the order in which I discover things — lest I either forget something or take inordinate time to make a new post because I’m first taking notes then figuring out what to write about first. Nope, my fingers go straight from the Fantom’s keyboard to my word processor’s, sometimes with a head-scratching stop in between.

Not all that much, though, because once you get used to the Fantom’s editing setup it’s really pretty elegant. Extensive use is made of the six encoders below the screen. On the left is a list of parameter pages (Oscillator, Filter, Envelope, etc.) and the leftmost knob always scrolls through those. Then, you have a choice of Zoom or Pro views:

[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
Zoom shows a plug-in-like graphic interface for the selected page and is good for working on one Partial at a time.

[Linked Image from ]
Pro displays a spreadsheet-like table of the parameter values (on that same page) for all four Partials at once, so you can see the big picture.

It took me some twiddling to understand which Partial(s) I was adjusting at a given moment. You can toggle each Partial on or off (heard or silent) but also select each partial for editing. This can be done on the touchscreen but I strongly recommend the pads — there’s a mode where the top row turns Partials on/off and the second row selects them, and it looks like this:
[Linked Image from ]

Here’s the thing: With regard to the synth control section (filter and envelope knobs etc.), a given knob twist affects whatever Partials are both on and selected. By default (as in, when you’re performing), this is all four at once. You can hone in on a single Partial two ways: Deselect the others; or, in Pro view, simply tap the row (onscreen) containing the parameter you want to tweak, then grab the screen encoder that corresponds to that Partial’s column.

I’m probably over-explaining, but the point is that there is so much going on at the Tone Edit level that I seriously went “WTF?” when I first dove in. Once the light bulb went on, I found myself positively flying as I adjusted factory Tones to my liking.

Tone Common Parameters
At the Tone level, some settings apply to all four partials regardless. These cover everything to do with portamento, legato triggering (whether notes played legato re-trigger the envelope), monophonic vs. poly mode, coarse and fine tuning, entry octave shift, “analog feel,” and more. A very useful option I found here was that you can decide whether legato playing is required to trigger portamento.

Next
That synth knob section, plus learning about zones.


"I'm just a confused musician who got sidetracked into this damned word business..." -Hunter S. Thompson

Stephen Fortner
Principal, Fortner Media
Senior Editor, Music Player Network
Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine

Re: In the Lab: Roland Fantom synth workstation
Stephen Fortner #3060163 08/28/20 05:20 PM
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Those Synth Knobs Though

It’s standard issue for synth workstations to have a bank of faders and usually assignable knobs, almost always to the left of the central display. Faders are usually dedicated to part/zone levels, with knobs being assignable or having several preset “pages” of functions you step through with a button (sterep pans, filters-and-envelopes, etc.). That’s certainly the case here, but the Fantom also has something I’ve always wanted to see in a workstation: Dedicated synth controls, like you’d expect to find on a virtual analog synth. There aren’t a ton of them, but there are enough to handle the essentials most often grabbed during live performance or when designing sounds.

OSCILLATOR SECTION: Here, you can quickly access oscillator types, waveforms, and parameters for the selected Tone as you would in Tone Edit mode.
FILTER SECTION: Large cutoff knob, resonance knob, type select, and a “Param” button that gets you to the selected Tone’s zoom view of the filter.
ENVELOPE SECTION: This is a basic ADSR envelope. Actually, it’s three of them: for amp, filter, and pitch, per Tone.
EFFECTS SECTION: This access the effects the Tone feeds into at the end of its synthesis signal chain. There are enough different levels of effects in the Fantom that this will get its own post, probably more than one.

Here’s the thing. All these knobs amount to shortcuts to stuff you’d adjust in Tone Edit mode, and the minor bummer about that is that within a Scene, you can edit one Tone at a time. Which one? That’s determined by the Select buttons above the eight main rotary encoders (left of the display). Those choose which zone has the panel focus and is up for editing and thus, the Tone living in that zone.

Practically speaking, this means that the dedicated synth controls are a lot better for sound design than they are for live performance. If I have a three-layer, huge sounding Scene like A002 “Jupiter Explored” for example, grabbing that big smooth filter knob will sweep the cutoff on only one of its three Tones at a time. In performance, I’d be far more likely to want to do an overall sweep. Likewise for tweaking the envelopes, as we all know that a pad can turn into a chewy poly-key sound with a couple of twists less attack and release. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there is no way to do this using the dedicated synth controller section.

There is a way to do it, though, which uses — yup — the main encoder knobs. In addition to pan, these have two pages of assignable functions, which work at the Scene level, meaning they affect everything in the Scene at once. In “Jupiter Explored” the first knob was assigned to filter cutoff across all three layers. Of course, there are plenty of slots to set up more assignments — resonance, ADSR, envelope amount, whatever you need. The thing is, the encoders are endless but detented (clicky) and I heard audible stair-stepping as I swept the filter. Still, it would be far more intuitive to grab the controls to the right of the display, but these seem to be only for drilling down into individual Tones.

The analog filter is also controlled from the filter section knobs, but only when activated. This is common to all Tones in a Scene, as it’s a single filter near the end of the Fantom’s audio path, into which everything dumps. You route into it as though it were an audio effect (well, I guess it is), and it is capable of dramatic and even speaker-damaging impact.

Next
The Fantom has a lot of “levels.” I’m going to help us sort out the Scene level from the Zone level from the Tone level, and cover important settings related to each.


"I'm just a confused musician who got sidetracked into this damned word business..." -Hunter S. Thompson

Stephen Fortner
Principal, Fortner Media
Senior Editor, Music Player Network
Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine

Re: In the Lab: Roland Fantom synth workstation
Stephen Fortner #3061322 09/05/20 08:54 PM
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Scenes vs. Zones

Again, the Scene is the memory object that contains basically everything, so it’s more than what we’d normally think of as a Performance, Multi, Combi, Setup, etc. A Zone, on the other hand, is a container for an internal Tone (or external sound source via USB/MIDI) with associated parameters such as key ranges, what controllers it responds to, and the like.

The important stuff that lives at the Scene level is accessed by pressing Menu > Scene Edit:
[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
This mainly involves what physical controls do: pedals, wheels, assignable encoders, etc. Controls for the two pairs of CV/gate outs live here, including a setting that decides which Zone controls each. So do parameters for the vocoder. Yup, there’s a vocoder that uses the Fantom’s audio inputs as the modulator. Here, you decide on the vocoder preset (carrier) and which zones it’s active in.

At the Zone Edit level, on the other hand, there is a staggering amount of fine-grained control over how each Zone behaves:
[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
On the Key Range page as above, you get a visual representation of each Zone’s range, for example. I couldn’t find a way to set key ranges by striking low and high keys; it seems you have to use the knobs, but the process is still fairly quick. The preceding page (Tone) specifies which Tone occupies each Zone, independent velocity curves for each zone (if desired), and which output each Zone feeds into. These include points in the Fantom’s effects signal chain as well as physical outputs. Say you wanted to create Scenes where organ Tones are routed to a sub out for use with a Leslie or rotary simulator — that’s really easy to make happen here.

Here are most of the other things you can tweak per Zone: three-band EQ with sweepable center frequencies on all bands and adjustable Q on the mids; pitch and portamento settings, including whether pitch-bend range and portamento just mirror what’s saved at the Tone Edit level or have their own offsets here; stand-alone vibrato (doesn’t tie up an LFO or modulation assignment); entry offsets for filter and envelope parameters; mono/poly/legato behavior; what types of MIDI messages each Zone responds to; whether each knob, slider, and button is active per Zone; and even priorities for voice allocation!

I also found something here that I thought the Fantom didn’t do: alternative and historical tuning temperaments. These too can be different for each Zone, and are found in the Scale Tune parameter page. I had been looking for them in some sort of global settings menu because that’s where they are on most keyboards. I’ll update the previous post to correct my mistake. D’oh!

There’s a similar roster of parameter pages for external Zones. Importantly, you can name each external zone yourself using a QWERTY pop-up:
[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
This makes for clean housekeeping if using the Fantom to control desktop or rackmount sound modules.

I have to say, this is the point where I really began to be impressed with the Fantom’s capabilities as both a make-every-sound workstation and a master controller. The touchscreen pages generally make very good use of screen real estate, showing you a lot at once and laying things out logically so that even if you’re creating complex setups that involve both internal Tones and external synths, things don’t feel too much like building a ship in a bottle. I’m not going to say it won’t take some time to learn how the Fantom “thinks,” but that time has its rewards. The sheer depth of Zone settings plus the generous and diverse physical I/O make a good case for the Fantom being the “brain” of any Wakeman-fantasy live rig as well as for it being the keyboard that sits in the center of your Argosy desk between your speakers while your other synths sit on stands at its flanks.

About USB Connectivity

Speaking of physical I/O. At this time, the three USB-A “external device” ports are not fully implemented. I’m talking about these guys here:
[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
I was having visions of being able to hook my iPad Pro up to one with its stock Lightning cable and play iOS synths like Korg Mono/Poly from the Fantom’s keys. Roland says that iscoming, but right now, what the extra ports are good for is limited to class-compliant MIDI controllers. That is, you could plug an extra slab of keys to play more of the Fantom’s sounds at once. But control other stuff from the Fantom? Only if it’s class-compliant. Audio streaming? Not yet.

The USB-B “to computer” port does stream audio as well as MIDI, but only MIDI was functional when I connected my iPad via the Apple Camera Connection Kit (the standard way to hook an iOS device up to a MIDI controller or audio interface). This is because for audio, the device on the other end needs to use Roland’s driver, which shows up in preferences menus as “Vendor.” So, it looks like we’re limited to Mac- and PC-based audio sources for now. Of course, let’s not understate the coolness of being able to use the Fantom as a computer audio interface — especially if combined with its DAW control abilities for Logic and MainStage, which we’ll get to later.

Next
We’ll take a deeper dive into the onboard sequencer, then the user sampling capabilities.


"I'm just a confused musician who got sidetracked into this damned word business..." -Hunter S. Thompson

Stephen Fortner
Principal, Fortner Media
Senior Editor, Music Player Network
Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine

Re: In the Lab: Roland Fantom synth workstation
Stephen Fortner #3063219 09/21/20 07:17 PM
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Version 2.0 OS

Roland just released (on September 18) version 2.00 of the OS for the Fantom, which is really its most comprehensive update since the instrument came out. Here’s what it does.

Sampling Improvements

The Fantom always let you record user samples, but only to the trigger pads, and not multisamples. Both of those things have changed. You can now sample to the keyboard and re-pitch the sample by playing different keys. You can also sample directly to internal or external storage, and select the audio inputs and/or the currently selected Tone as the source. Yup, that means the Fantom can resample itself.

[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]

Useful sample editing functions include normalizing, adjusting loop start and end points, one-shot and reverse options, and the ability to select the MIDI note number that plays back the sample at its original pitch.

Multisampling works via importing multiple audio files into the Fantom, not by real-time recording. You can then map them to key ranges in a destination Tone. I initially thought you couldn’t map them to velocity ranges, but you can. It’s done by assigning each sample to a Partial, and since a Tone can have up to four Partials, you get four velocity layers.

Sequencer Improvements

It feels a little weird to talk about this because I haven’t written up a full deep dive into the sequencer yet, but I’m glad I waited, because in v.20, the sequencer graduates from an Ableton-meets-808 piece of retail bling to a more professional composition tool.

First of all, when editing a pattern, you can now automate control messages in the piano roll view, much like you would in a DAW:
[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
On the pattern editing screen, you select the automation, then the pencil or line segment tool (the latter for drawing smooth sweeps), then trace the curve onscreen with your finger. A drop-down menu selects the target parameter, and you can automate as many of them as you please. I was surprised at how smoothly the screen accepted input from my sausage fingers. If you want to use a stylus for more precision, you’ll need the kind designed to work with iPhones and other capacative touchscreens — a capped plastic pen won’t work.

Then there’s a “microscope” view, which basically combines a squished piano roll with a MIDI event list:
[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
You can create, erase, copy, paste, and move MIDI events here, one by one. When editing in linear fashion, you’re still working at the pattern level, then combining patterns into groups and groups into songs. The size of the display makes for what I’ve called a “building a ship in a bottle” vibe, but the functionality is all there. In fact, the functionality is solid enough that it made me wish the Fantom supported an external display and mouse, like Roland’s VS-2480 hard disk recorder did back in the 20-naughties.

Scene Chain Improvements

The Scene Chain function has always been a way to string scenes together so that you can step through them incrementally (using a footswitch, too) during your set list. The difference in v2.0 is that before, I wasn’t sure why I’d ever use it as opposed to just arranging banks of scenes on user pages on the home screen. Now, it’s my preferred method for getting through a set.
[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
Graphically, a chain now looks like an actual chain of blocks (no, not a blockchain) whose color-coding matches the Scenes the home screen. Creating chains is now bonehead simple: touch Edit, select a scene, and it becomes the next one in the chain. An especially cool feature is that the Tone Category buttons (those Jupiter-like ones on the lower right) now become Scene selectors, backlit to match the color coding:
[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
You can even add markers in the chain, as you would in an audio or video editing timeline, and jump between them.

Zone Control Tweaks

The Fantom has always been able to control external devices, but now a single zone can control internal and external sounds at the same time. There’s also some clarification of the relationship between the zone on/off buttons (which also decide whether a zone is internal, external, or both) and the zone selection buttons (these decide which zone has the panel focus). This has sometimes been wonky, e.g. I couldn’t figure out why I was hearing a zone I thought was turned off. Essentially, the Fantom treats the zone selection buttons as a “monitor preview bus” such that the keyboard will play at least the selected zone regardless of the status of the on/off buttons. (To recap, the select buttons are above the eight main encoders on the left side; the on/off buttons are just below them.)

In v2.0, the on/off buttons have a basic and advanced mode, toggled in the system settings. In basic mode they work as before: red indicates an internal zone is active, green an external one. (For the reasons stated above, you might play the keys and hear something even if a zone is turned off i.e. unlit.) In advanced mode, yellow backlight indicates that zone will send to both the internal sound engine and an external source at once, regardless of the status of the selection buttons.

I’m oversimplifying a bit here because in both basic and advanced modes, there’s this sort of if-then-else hierarchy of what happens if the “applicable zone” (i.e. with regard to the on/off button) is the same as the select-buttoned zone, versus if it’s different. There’s a chart for it in the manual update, which gave me a headache. Trial and error was the way to go here. Also, advanced mode is generally better for when you want the keys doing something completely different than the sequencer.

Wallpaper

This refers to the fact that you can adjust the color of the screen background via red, green, and blue levels. There’s also an alpha (brightness) control and a gradient: darker at the top and lighter at the bottom. The gradient gets darker as you turn the alpha up. For ease of reading I still preferred a black background, which you get with all color levels at zero and alpha at maximum (255).

Next

How about that deep dive into the entire sequencer now? Yeah, that.


"I'm just a confused musician who got sidetracked into this damned word business..." -Hunter S. Thompson

Stephen Fortner
Principal, Fortner Media
Senior Editor, Music Player Network
Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine


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