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Roland Redefines Bread and Butter

By David Bryce

There is a set of sounds that pretty much every keyboardist needs to have under their fingers in live situations: pianos (acoustic and electric), organs, clavs, strings, brass, bass and a few others. Almost every keyboard player would love to have just one utility keyboard that can provide them a with a really good assortment of those sounds – ideally in an instrument that’s easy to use, doesn’t weigh much, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Sounds like too much to ask for? That’s exactly what Roland is after with their V-Combo VR-09.  Just how close to the mark did they hit?

Roland VR-09 main.jpg
 

What You Need To Know

  • Weighs a bit over 12 pounds.
  • 61 key synth action – feels better than expected.  A bit stiffer than most synth action keybeds…but that’s a good thing when playing the acoustic and electric piano programs
  • 128 voices of polyphony in Whole (single) mode.  
  • 223 programs organized into three sections – Organ, Piano, and Synth…plus, there’s a Drum section. Each has its own dedicated level control, which is extremely useful when splitting and layering.
  • Categories within each section all have varying numbers of programs. Each Category remembers the last program selected within it.
  • 25 banks of 4 Registrations can be saved and quickly recalled. Whole programs, Dual programs and Splits can be stored as Registrations – it’s really the only way to save and recall a customized sound. More sets of registrations can be saved to and recalled from USB memory stick, and a recent software update now allows individual registrations to be loaded and saved.
  • Organ bank is generated using Virtual ToneWheel/SuperNatural technology.  
  • Dedicated controls to select organ type (Rock/Jazz/Transistor), switch drawbar control from Upper to Lower manual, and to toggle percussion and Vibrato/Chorus on/off.
  • In Organ mode, keybed replicates “quick-firing” functionality expected from organs, allowing faithful glissandos and note retriggering/rebounding.  If only there was a way to switch the keybed to a waterfall style…
  • Extensive organ program editing can be achieved with a bit of menu diving. Vibrato/Chorus, Percussion, Leakage Noise, Key Click, LF Boost/Cut and the Rotary effect (including individual upper and lower rotor acceleration and speed) can all be pretty effectively tweaked.
  • Dedicated drawbars for Organ mode can also be used for real time control of envelope and filter cutoff/resonance in Synth mode.
  • Piano mode has four categories: Piano (11 programs – acoustic samples), E. Piano (9 programs – 6 basic EPs, 3 80’s-type), Clav (10 programs), and Other (20 programs, including  – but not limited to – Harmonicas, Accordian, Musette, Harp, Harpsichords, a bunch of sampled organs…and the good ol’ D-50 Fantasy patch).
  • Synth mode has eight banks: Brass (23 programs – mostly synth, some sampled), Strings (20 programs –mostly synth, some sampled), Synth Lead (42 programs), Bass (22 programs – again mostly synth, some sampled), Pad (19 programs), Choir (13 programs), SFX (16 programs), Others (15 programs – wild variety of things like Vibes, Marimba, Glock, Guitars and even a few woodwinds).
  •  Layering can be achieved simply by pressing any pair of category buttons at the same time.  Splits have to be engaged from either the Organ or Synth section using dedicated SPLIT buttons. Note: Drum sounds can be triggered in the lower section of the keyboard in Synth Split mode.
  • Drum mode features 17 different kits.  Not just acoustic – pretty much all the classic Roland beat boxes are there (808, 909, 606, 707 and, of course, the CR-78).
  • 52 onboard pre-programmed Rhythm patterns. Dedicated Tap Tempo button is provided.  
  • Real time Drum performances can also be recorded using tape-style controls.  Multiple parts can be overdubbed using the Looper function.
  • Looper can be used to record keyboard parts while the preprogrammed Rhythm loops are running
  •  Real time performance – either MIDI or audio – can be captured in real time and stored on a USB flash drive. These can be played back on the VR-09 or a computer. SMF and audio (WAV, AIFF, MP3) files stored on a USB flash drive from a computer can be played back from the VR-09.  Very useful feature....
  • GM2/GS compatible….but only a few of the 16 MIDI channels can be accessed via MIDI, and I could only find some of the GM sound set in the program banks.
  • Up to seven effects can be used at once. In DUAL mode, effects are applied to both sounds.  In SPLIT mode, effects are only applied to the Upper sound (except Reverb – which goes to everything).  Note: if an Organ program is used on the Lower sound in a Split, it does get processed by the effects.
  • Dedicated effects knobs control Overdrive (amount), Tone (boosts mids when turned left, boosts highs AND lows when turned right), Compressor (threshold), Delay (time) and Reverb (depth).  
  • Delay (6 types), Reverb (6 types) and Wall (8 types) can be changed – menus appear in the display when the dedicated Delay and Reverb knobs are adjusted.
  • MFX knob applies an additional effect.  Phasers, Flangers, Choruses, Pitch Shifter, Tremolos and T-wahs can all be found here, along with more contemporary sound mangling effects like Bit Crash, Distortion and Slicer.
  • Dedicated Rotary controls (on/off and fast/slow) can be used on any sound, not just on the organs. Can be used in conjunction with MFX Twin Rotary program to simulate using two rotary speakers. Note: when in ORGAN mode, the pitch paddle controls the rotary effect - hitting it sideways changes the speed, and pushing up turns it on and off.
  • D-Beam can be used to control pitch, engage a modulation effect (including Rotary and Tone Wheel braking), or trigger an SFX sound.  
  • Advanced articulation of many of the acoustic sounds (N.Control) can be assigned to the D-beam or footswitch.
  • One Damper pedal jack (TRS) and one Expression pedal can be used. Each can be programmed to handle a variety of functions.  Expression pedal curve can also be edited. Two additional footswitches can also be added in conjunction with Roland PK-6/PK-9 pedal boards.

VR-09 rear.jpg

 

  • One set of stereo outputs and a ¼” headphone jack.
  • 1/8” stereo mini jack input allows connection of an external playback device.
  • Besides MIDI in/out, a separate jack is available to connect Roland’s PK-5 bass pedals.
  • USB to host connectivity provided – but cannot be used simultaneously with MIDI jacks.
  • Wireless connection to an iPad is possible (allowing use of iPad editor software), but additional Roland Wireless USB adaptor is required.

VR-09 with iPad.jpg

 

  • Can run for about 5 hours on batteries. Useful if you want to plug in a pair of headphones and play pretty much anywhere….



Limitations

  • Uses Roland paddle that double as a modulation control….but mod is basically on/off, and must be physically held up to stay on.
  • No aftertouch.
  • Sounds cut off when new sounds are selected.
  • Not enough quick access to custom programs (registrations).



Conclusions

Don’t let the VR-09’s light weight and low price fool you – this is a fully professional instrument, both sonically and functionally. Despite the remarkably simple looking set of controls, a considerable amount of power has been packed into this bad boy. There’s no question that quite a bit of the horsepower, controls and editing capabilities have been geared more towards an organ player than a pianist…but there’s more than enough of a variety of well-crafted sounds and features (notably the comprehensive effects sections) provided to qualify the VR-09 as being a lot more than just a clone wheel with a few extra sounds on board.

Indeed, the VR-09 synth section has a whole bunch of really useful sounds - especially the lead, brass and string categories…but the synth brass and string programs were much more satisfying than the acoustic brass and string programs. The acoustic piano programs all sound better than expected from such an affordable instrument, but it’s not so easy to critically evaluate them while playing them from a non-weighted action. The EPs are quite useable, but there aren’t very many of them – essentially just a handful with and without basic effects. Interestingly, there’s more Clav program than EPs!  However, it’s really the organs that bring the VR-09’s true magic.  They’re tonally superb (from sweet and mellow to beefy and distorted), are way fun to play, and bring a level of fine-tuning that really allows the player to dial in the sound they want.

It would be much better if there was a way to access custom sounds in an easier manner. The only way you can get to your own sounds, splits and layers is by using the Registration controls…and there’s only four of them, along with a NEXT button that takes you up (only) to the next program, and is meant to be useful getting you from the last program in one bank to the first program in the next bank. There’s also a BANK button that allows scrolling the banks using the data wheel, but then you need to press the enter button to confirm the bank followed by pressing which of the four flashing program buttons within the bank you want to choose. That’s a whole lotta button presses.  Sure, careful arranging of programs and a footswitch set to increment could get around even the need for rapid fire program changes…but for those keyboard players who prefer to operate on the fly, it’d still be nice to have a few more programs available with less button presses, especially if you’re using it mostly as an organ – pretty much all the fun organ tweaks are stored in Registrations.

While this would not be my first (or second) choice to take on a piano-centric gig – as a board to grab and go play at quick load-in and out gigs, for jamming with friends, or to take to play in a field with a set of headphones (thank you, batteries!) it’s pretty hard to come up with a better option.


Resources

Musician's Friend Roland VR-09 online catalog page ($1,165 MSRP, $999 "street")



Roland’s VR-09 web page


Roland VR-09 demo video:

 


 
dB bio image.pngDavid Bryce is a composer/producer living in Thousand Oaks CA.  Specializing in keyboards and synthesizers, Bryce is also comfortable with guitar, bass, drums…and can sort of play some horns.  He operates his own state of the art professional recording studio, where he does music and audio production, and is also an accomplished voice-over artist, with credits ranging from radio and TV spots in markets across the USA through industrial presentations and computer video games.  He currently plays keyboards for a few LA based bands, and spends a large portion of his days consulting with a variety of professional audio and musical instrument manufacturers.

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