My aim here is to share my first impressions about what it could be considered as the latest incarnation of the Sound Canvas series, the Mobile Studio Canvas SD-50.Introduction
Although this model was unveiled during the last winter NAMM show in January, it hasn’t been actually available in the stores until June (at least, here in Europe). The price in Europe is around 325-350 euro (I’ve paid 325 euro for it). Considering that it’s difficult to find (at least, here in Spain) a second hand SC-88 for less than 200 € including shipping, it seemed to me a good deal, especially when considering that besides being a synthesizer module it’s also a 24-bit usb audio card, a midi interface and a usb audio/midi player.
From what I’ve seen on the net, the SD-50 is very often compared to the Sonic Cell, giving the impression that it’s a kind of a cut-down version of the SC. In fact, there are some reasons to think that, as for example the aesthetics and the form factor (tabletop, instead of the more “classical” square box with a front panel), and the inclusion of the midi/audio interfaces (with either line/guitar/mic input jacks) and the usb player.
Nevertheless, in my opinion this comparison is misleading and inaccurate. The Sonic Cell is mainly a cut down version of a Roland Fantom X, and as such, it is a “full” synthesizer which uses a very powerful and flexible synthesis engine, with tons of parameters to tweak and with the possibility of creating sounds from scratch (from the waveform level) and storing them in the user memory. Moreover, it’s expandable with SRX cards, adding more patches and waveforms. The SD-50, on the other hand, follows the “canvas” philosophy and it’s mainly a box of presets (lots of them), with very few parameters to edit (you can control the filer cutoff and resonance, add vibrato, tweak the ADSR envelope and little more), and those only via midi, and without the possibility to store them, let alone to create new patches from scratch. Also, it’s not expandable at all. (This has nothing to do with the sound quality, as it’s possible to find very good sounds which are not editable, and also very editable but poor sounds).
The main points that made me decide to get one and give it a try were the following: the new “solo” tones, the reworked GM2 section, and GS compatibility. More on these later.Box and contents
The SD-50 comes in a nice full colour box:
Once you open the box, you can find the following items: the SD-50 itself, the English manual, a CD-rom with PDF versions of the manual in several languages, a DVD with Sonar LE 8.5, the usb drivers and a software editor, a usb cable and the PSU. Not bad, at least at first glance.
But things are not so nice when examined more in detail. For example, the manual does not include a list of patches and drum kits, and you have to print a separate PDF document for this (!). I think that the list of patches is important enough to be in the user manual. Also, the software editor is *not* what I would expect from a synth editor. Usually, a software editor allows to select patches for the different midi channels, and eventually to edit them, and also other parameters such as effect settings or general settings. Instead, the SD-50 “editor” is only a playlist editor for midi/audio files to move/copy files from the computer to the usb pendrive and vice versa. In other words, there’s no editor for the synthesizer part, and you have to use the panel or a midi editor/sequencer.
On the good side, the PSU is multivoltage (100V-240V) and quite powerful (2A), so it can be used also with lots of other Roland equipment and all over the world. Also, the Sonar software seems very good, although I haven’t tested it very much (I use Cubase), but again there’s a drawback: no Mac version.
Here’s the SD-50 in all its glory:
I wouldn’t say that it is “nice”, but it isn’t ugly either. As a general rule, I prefer the more classical design with the front panel that allows for “tiling” several modules on top of each other, but that’s a matter of personal taste.
On thing I really like from this module is that it can be powered in three different ways: batteries (for portability), PSU or usb. Even more, the usb power works even with the computer turned off, at least with my motherboard (Asus P6T Deluxe V2). So there’s a single usb cable for transmitting midi, audio and power and even (when needed) you can use the SD-50 without turning the computer on.The sound
And now the important thing: the sound. The SD-50 has 128Mb of rom samples, which is not bad at all (indeed, it’s the same amount of the Roland Sonic Cell and the Fantom XR, and twice the amount of the XV-5080, for example). These samples are used by hundreds of presets, organized in different banks: solo tones, GM2 tones, GS tones, preset tones, GM2 drum kits, GS drum kits and preset drum kits. The “preset” and the “solo” tones are specific for the SD-50, while GS and GM2 conform to their respective standards.
Presets of different categories can be mixed: for instance, you can use a “preset” tone in midi channel 1, a GM2 tone in channel 2 and a “solo” tone in channel 3. There are some exceptions: in GS mode (activated when a GS reset message is received), you can only use GS presets and drum kits. It’s there mainly for backward compatibility reasons. Also, there are two different GM2 sets: “classical” and “contemporary”. You can select which set to use, but it’s not possible to select individual sounds of each set, so if you happen to like, say, a piano from the “classical” set and a guitar from the “contemporary” set, it’s too bad.
When listening to the demo songs, it’s soon obvious that the SD-50 *can* indeed sound very good. My favourite demo song is the following one:http://shadowfax.ismael.cat/sd50/Demo_SD50.mp3
Nevertheless, as usually demos are quite good, this cannot be taken as a definitive guide or criterion to evaluate the sound quality of a synthesizer, or at least to evaluate how easy it is to make it sound good. First, I’ll consider the GS mode, then the GM2 sounds and, finally, SD-50’s “preset” sounds (the soundbank with sounds that aren’t either part of the GM2 or of the GS standard).
I’ve said before that GS compatibility was one of the features that I found as most appealing. After all, it’s a sound canvas
. Ideally, at least for me it would be great to use a single unit both for listening to classic GM/GS soundtracks and for having an arsenal of good sounds to make original music. If GS compatibility (soundwise) is good enough, there would be no need for having also a SC-55 or compatible module lying around on the desk anymore. But how does the SD-50 perform in GS mode? Well, not bad, but also not very good. In a few words, the sound is pretty close to the SC-55, but also noticeably different for the trained ears (and, in my opinion, a bit weaker). If you’re picky with the sound and it’s important to have the “original” sound canvas sound, then the SD-50 is definitely no substitute for it. On the other hand, if you only listen to GS files from time to time and you’re not very picky about “purity”, then the SD-50 does the job. Here you can hear the same track as recorded from a CM-300 (a SC-55 clone), and from the SD-50 (AUDIO GS)
“Vampire Killer” from X68000’s Akumajo Dracula (CM-300):http://shadowfax.ismael.cat/sd50/06_Vampire_killer.mp3
“Vampire Killer” from X68000’s Akumajo Dracula (SD-50):http://shadowfax.ismael.cat/sd50/Castlevania_SD50.mp3
Now the GM2 banks. One of the most advertised features of the SD-50 is the inclusion of a “reworked” GM2 sound bank. As I pointed out before, the SD-50 includes two different GM2 banks, labelled “classical” and “contemporary”, although you can only use one of them at once. I believe that the “classical” set is the same one that can be found in many other Roland products, such as the SD-20 or the Hyper Canvas software synthesizer. These sounds are, in my opinion, merely OK, but not very good. The “contemporary” bank, on the other hand, has better and more realistic sounds, with a quality more or less on a par with the “preset” native sounds. But annoyingly, the contemporary set tends to sound quite muddy when playing back standard GM or GM2 files. These sound cleaner with the classical set. So if you want to use the SD-50 for playing back GM/GM2 midi files, it’s better to stick to the classical set. The contemporary set is much better to create original music, though.
The “preset” soundbank is the biggest one (640 presets), and also contains usually the best sounds. A quite good number of patches have the same names as some presets from the Sonic Cell and the Fantom X synths, and in these cases, they sound more or less the same, and I’m quite sure that they use the same waveforms. I’m saying “more or less” and not “exactly as”, because even in this case, the sounds in the SD-50 are partially spoiled by a severely (and stupidly, IMHO) limited effects section. If you take a look at the effects section of the SD-50, you’ll find that there’s only reverb, chorus/delay (not even chorus AND delay, but either one or the other), and “mastering” (a kind of equalizer, but limited to 3 different preset settings, so it’s not even a true editable EQ). No overdrive/distortion for guitars, no rotary speaker for organs, no tremolo for electric pianos, no sympathetic resonance for acoustic pianos, no sophisticated FX for synthetic sounds… Come on, Roland, we’re in 2010, not in 1990! Even much older gear, such a SC-88Pro for example, is far better when it comes to the effects section. At least the reverb is quite good (as good as in the Fantom), and it really gives the impression that the instruments are playing “live”, but this limitation cannot be understood in a product launched in 2010. In fact, it’s a good idea to record each track with effects turned off and use the software VST effects that nowadays are included in every music software package, such as Sonar (bundled with the SD-50).
In sum, the sounds in the SD-50 are good, but there aren’t many really good or excellent sounds, while other ones are merely average (I’m here comparing the SD-50 to the Sonic Cell, Fantom and the like, not to other “canvas” products). If I had to rate them, this would be my verdict:
- Acoustic Pianos: average/good (some nice stereo pianos, but none of them is 88-key sampled, and they don’t have sympathetic resonance. Also, the maximum sustain time is about 8 secs., whereas the pianos from the K-RD700GX card installed in my RD-700GX can last up to 30 seconds).
- Electric pianos: good/very good (a nice collection of Rhodes/Wurlitzer/FM pianos)
- Organs: poor/average (here it’s obvious the lack of rotary speaker effect)
- Strings: good/very good (nice, full and realistic)
- Acoustic/electric basses: good/very good (not many patches, though)
- Guitars: poor/average (very penalized by the lack of effects; acoustic guitars aren’t great, either).
- Brass: poor/average (it seems as if Roland used old SC/SC waveforms instead of Sonic Cell/Fantom ones).
- Woodwinds, flutes, sax: average (Roland has got much better woodwind patches)
- Synth: good/very good (tons of good and varied sounds here; still, the lack of effects is evident).
- Drums: good (could be better, but they are more than decent, and natural sounding).
Finally, there’s a sound bank labelled “Solo tones”, which only contains three sounds: violin, trombone and shakuhachi. Yes, only three, and maybe not the most used ones, but to be honest, they are absolutely lovely. They sound *very* good, and are the best violin, trombone and shakuhachi sounds I’ve heard on a synth so far. They are not only realistic, but also very flexible because they reproduce and control a good number of the nuances of the real instruments. For example, the violin uses different samples for playing single notes, two notes at once, legato, staccato, pizzicato and also for the bow noise (the amount of noise, as well as many other parameters, can be regulated via control change midi messages). My guess is that the solo tones take up an important amount of the 128Mb wave rom of the SD-50. It would have been desirable to have more tones, but these ones are a nice bonus, and perhaps one of the most remarkable features of this model.
And, finally, a couple of audio examples. They are adaptations of XG/GS midi files originally made by Yamaha and Roland, respectively. I’ve made some adjustments in order to use SD-50’s sounds. They are direct recordings from the midi synthesizer; there’s no audio processing at all: it’s the same sound that you can hear directly from the SD-50’s output when playing the midi file. Better results could be achieved if each track were converted to audio and then applied some effects in Cubase, Sonar or similar software, but my aim is to show just how the SD-50 sounds like.http://shadowfax.ismael.cat/sd50/ChillOut_SD50.mp3
This was originally a XG demo midi file for the Yamaha soft synthesizer. It uses different sounds from the “preset” and “GM2 contemporary” banks.http://shadowfax.ismael.cat/sd50/Peace_SD50.mp3
This was originally a jazz GS demo midi file from Roland. The lead instrument is a trombone, so the adaptation uses the trombone patch from the “solo” bank. As this theme wasn’t made specifically for the SD-50, it doesn’t take advantage of all the possibilities and nuances of the trombone patch, but you can get a pretty good idea of how it sounds like.Bottom line
It’s not easy to conclude whether the SD-50 is a good product or not. It has some very interesting points, but also other ones are quite weak for a product released in 2010 by a major company such as Roland.
In my opinion, for people who are mainly looking for a device to reproduce GM/GS/GM2 midi files, the SD-50 wouldn’t be a good option. A SC-55 or compatible will perform better in GM/GS files (with the exception of polyphony), and the GM2 bank which works better with midi files, the “classical” one, is an old one that can be found in older and cheaper products. On the other hand, if the main use is for creating/composing music, it’s a much more interesting product, with a good amount of good sounds, although always keeping in mind the very limited effects section (this “problem” is nowadays less relevant than in the past as music creation software provides every day more and better effects for audio processing). Another important point to consider is the audio/midi interface: if you don’t have a good 24-bit audio card, then the SD-50 could be a really interesting choice. Couple it with a cheap netbook and you’ll have a powerful audio/midi system at a very reasonable price. If, on the other hand, you’ve already got a good audio card and GS is not important for you, then it could be more interesting to get a second hand Sonic Cell, XV-2020, or something similar for about the same price.Pros
• Solo tones (although only 3)
• Quite a large number of good sounds
• 24-bit usb audio interface and midi in/out for external devices
• Sonar LE included
• Line, mic and guitar inputs
• Batteries, usb and PSU powerCons
• Very limited effects section
• No software editor
• Not expandable
• It’s not possible to use both GM2 banks at once
• It’s not a real substitute for the classic Sound Canvas
• Form factor (as a matter of personal taste)