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  • #16
    Let's take a look at how the Fantom G organizes its sounds. There's nothing too unusual here, although of course, all manufacturers invent different words to describe the same thing

    The basic unit of sound is the Tone, which is a sampled waveform. It feeds a filter and amp, with envelopes for those parameters as well as pitch. There are also two LFOs.

    Tones are then assembled into Patches, which are what you call up and actually play. A Patch can use up to four Tones, which can create more complex, layered sounds although of course, if you stack four Tones on a key that cuts the polyphony compared to having, say, one Tone.

    There's also a variant on the Tone, called the Rhythm Tone. Unlike a standard Tone this contains four waveforms instead of one, and doesn't have LFOs because percussion sounds are so short. They are combined in a Rhythm Set, which instead of spreading a sample over multiple keys as happens with pitched sounds, assigns a different sample to each key. This is the same concept as a General MIDI drum set as opposed to a standard General MIDI instrument.

    Finally, the Fantom G8 is a sampler (a real sampler - it can sample sounds, you're not limited to just importing them). You can combine up to 16 Samples into a Sample Set. More on this later...
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    • #17
      There are three main playing modes that again aren't that different from other keyboards, although I do like Roland's nomenclature.

      Single mode plays a single patch across the keyboard. This is what you would use if you want to treat the Fantom like a traditional instrument, e.g., piano, guitar, drum set, analog synth, etc.

      Live mode is what other synths call a "Combi." The various audio examples given previously used mostly examples from Live Mode. It allows creating a Live Set that consists of up to eight Parts (patches, rhythm sets, or sample sets) which can be layered, split, or layered/split. These patches can also include rhythm parts, so you can rhythms on some keys and tones on another one. The "Within You" audio example in post #15 shows how you can combine various sounds to create a sort of "construction set" spread across the keyboard, and you can play different elements as needed.

      Finally, there's Studio Mode, which is basically the sequencer view. The screen view for the demo song in post #11 shows what's going on: 16 tracks, each with its own Part (which like Live Mode can be a patch, rhythm set, or sample set), all tied together with a mixer that offers level and panning controls.
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      • #18
        The pad modes on the Fantom-G can actually perform 16 separate functions.



        These include not only triggering drum kits and samples but also drum patterns:



        Entire 16-part MIDI phrases (called "RPS")



        One-finger chords. (Hold a note down on the keyboard and use the pads to change chord types.)





        Why the heck can't DAW's (other than Logic and Live) do MIDI triggered RPS-like functions with MIDI / Audio content.

        And what about one-finger MIDI chords?

        Geez - it doesn't seem like rocket science compared to the other demands of DAW's...

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        • #19
          With today's keyboards, memory is very important: You're not just storing patches but samples, recording, and probably dealing with memory expansion issues as well.

          The biggest single Fantom G item you can save is the Project, and as far as I can tell (Dan, please correct me if I'm wrong), you can't have more than one Project resident in the G8 at any one time. A project is the whole enchilada: Samples, sequencer settings, patches used in the sequencer, all the system settings and preferences, etc. In studio terms, think of this as "total recall." The G8 allocates 50MB of internal memory to your project, but you can store bigger projects (as well as multiple projects) using external USB memory.

          Speaking of USB memory, in addition to the previously-mentioned USB connector for the mouse, you have two additional connectors. Typically, one would hold a USB flash/thumb drive where you can store projects and other Fantom data. The other provides a USB port for a computer connection. I installed the Fantom drivers on a Rain Recording laptop, PC Audio Labs desktop computer, and Apple Dual G5. The Windows driver installations went smoothly; see the attached image. This shows the Fantom G as a separate drive under "My Computer," and when you open that up, you'll see the front window - where you have the option of choosing an Import folder (where you can bring WAV files into the Fantom) or the Fantom project. I opened up the Project folder, which contains several folders for various elements of the project; the window toward the right shows the Samples folder after opening it.

          Of course, being able to have the Fantom talk to your computer is very practical - not just because you can swap samples back and forth, but you can also do backup. And of course, there's an editor too, so you can tweak on-screen (although frankly, the Fantom 8's display is so cool on-screen editing isn't as necessary as with some other synths) as well as use the Fantom as a "hardware plug-in" within a host DAW.

          To stray for just a bit from this Pro Review, let's touch on the Yamaha Motif XS and Korg M3 as well. They too have computer editors and can run as plug-ins, and this is a great trend for several reasons. First, you have really simple integration with your computer. Second, having a multi-timbral hardware synth that's ready to go as soon as DAW loads means you can play keys with very low latencies, as the CPU has to do virtually no work at all - the synth hardware does all the heavy lifting.

          It's no secret the keyboard market isn't as hot as it was before the Invasion of the Virtual Instruments, but even with V.I.s, you really need a keyboard controller if you want to play expressively. The fact that you can buy a controller with a DAW-friendly control surface, massive internal sounds, and the option to serve as a multi-timbral plug-in is really pretty cool. I suspect it won't be too long before we see companies other the Cakewalk building serious hardware synthesis into an audio interface (i.e., the Roland Fantom VS built into the Sonar V-Studio VS-700R rack-mount interface).

          As to the Mac, after installing the driver, for some reason it stubbornly refused to recognize the Fantom G. I'm using a USB cable with an extension because the 88-key model is physically too big to put next to my computers, but then again, the Windows computers had no trouble recognizing the Fantom G with the same cable setup. The Mac is an older dual G5, and later on, I'm going to see if the Fantom works better with a newer Intel-based Mac.

          We're not done with storage yet: You can install an optional-at-extra-cost half-Gigabyte of DIMM (PC133, 168-pin, 3.3V) memory to expand the amount of sample memory. This is not some kind of proprietary, expensive memory, but is readily available from companies like New Egg for around $50-60.

          Finally, you can install up to two ARX expansion cards. So far, Roland has introduced three of these: ARX-01 (drums), ARX-02 (electric pianos), and ARX-03 (brass). The $499 list price ($445 street) each may be off-putting, but these are real hardware cards that expand overall polyphony as well as the number of sounds. In fact, they're like little synth engines all by themselves, and the sounds are extremely impressive.

          And that's the story on storage. Next, we'll do an overview of the effects.
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          • #20
            Why the heck can't DAW's (other than Logic and Live) do MIDI triggered RPS-like functions with MIDI / Audio content.

            And what about one-finger MIDI chords?

            Geez - it doesn't seem like rocket science compared to the other demands of DAW's...


            In some cases you need to look to the virtual instruments included with the DAW, like Transfuser with Pro Tools, or Beatscape with Sonar.

            But also, I've been telling any DAW manufacturer who will listen that the next step is algorithmic assistance...but so far, no one's seen the value of that
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            • #21
              In some cases you need to look to the virtual instruments included with the DAW, like Transfuser with Pro Tools, or Beatscape with Sonar.

              But also, I've been telling any DAW manufacturer who will listen that the next step is algorithmic assistance...but so far, no one's seen the value of that


              I'm hoping Cakewalk enhance Beatscape to include MIDI content. That would certainly address RPS functionality.

              In a perfect world, functions like RPS and One Fingered Chords, which actually have a name and are documented in the Fantom G, should also be well highlighted features of DAW's, not deep, hidden functionality, sometimes realized through a clever exploitation of other features or plug-ins.

              I'm in the IT field, but even if one is not, it's pretty easy to see that if you can do it in the OS of a hardware workstation - it could only be easier to do it in a DAW. I wonder if there is elitism in the upper end of the DAW world regarding functions which may seem to some like "cheating", like using a Casio keyboard.

              It's good to know we have you championing the cause oke: on our behalf - at least they'll listen to you.

              I'll let you get on with your review of the Fantom G. Sorry for the interruption.

              (now stepping of soapbox)

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              • #22
                Not a problem, you've pointed out some cool features in the Fantom G, so it relates to what we're talking about here!
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                • #23
                  There's nothing particularly ground-breaking here in terms of structure, however, the implementation is very complete.

                  In Single mode and Live mode, you have three main effects options:

                  PFX (patch multi-FX). You can choose from 76 different effects; the first three attached images show three typical effects. The choice is great; the 76 effects are quite different, not just variations on a theme. (For example, they don't have four separate EQ effects with mid parameter 1, mid parameter 2, high shelf, and low shelf; they have a single 4-band EQ, then move on to other effects.) For example, you have esoterica like ring modulators, frequency isolators (extreme cuts for getting rid of, say, just the kick), step filter, slicer, hex chorus, something that sounds a lot like a Dimension D, extremely flexible guitar amp simulator, lofi noise, tons of delay options, pitch shifter...you get the idea.

                  Chorus and Reverb. These are permanently "wired" aux bus effects, so they get sends from pretty much everything. The next two attached images show these two effects. Note that there are three chorus variations, and ten different reverb algorithms.
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                  • #24
                    In Studio mode, you have the option of Chorus and Reverb, as well as two MFX (multi-FX) that get feeds from the various parts. These two MFX can use any of 78 effects, most of which overlap with the PFX options.

                    The first attached image shows a fairly simple routing for a track. You can see that the track feeds into the Chorus, Reverb, and one MFX, and they all dump into output bus A.

                    The second attached image shows a typical MFX, in this case, a flanger/delay.

                    In addition to the PFX and MFX, there's yet another "mastering" effect that processes everything that feeds the output. This is a three-band compressor, with variable frequency split points - see the third attached image. This is very cool, but setting up multiband compression is not trivial, and I'm concerned this might go over the average player's head. I think it might have been a better choice to have a single-band compressor with its controls set up to do level maximization (i.e., turn up one knob to "squash" more) and the option to "expand" it into a full three bands for the people who know how to take advantage of multiband compression.
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                    • #25
                      This is very cool and make the sampling process far more efficient: You can add effects to condition the signal being sampled. The first attached image shows a Limiter, which of course, is a pretty logical option for sampling when you want to avoid distortion. If Roland had left it at that, Input Effects would still be a valuable feature. But, there are five other Input Effects; you can see the list in the second attached image.

                      The Enhancer is great for adding a little shine to the sound, and the EQ can solve problems, like trimming the bass to compensate for an overly muddy room sound, as well as boost or cut highs and lows. The Noise Suppressor in the third attached image is also very handy when your source isn't particularly clean.

                      What I particularly like about the Input Effects is that these are all the types of processors you'd have to cobble together anyway from outboard gear, and stick between the mic and audio input. It's so much more convenient to have all these effects on-board and ready to go for your next sampling session.
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                      • #26
                        You know how virtual instruments love to say "unlimited polyphony?" Well technically that's true, but your computer will run out of CPU power long before you've finished your "Switched-on Beethoven's Ninth" masterpiece. In fact, one of the advantages of hardware is that the polyphony is fixed, so you can always count on a certain number of voices being available. In the case of the Fantom G, it's 128 notes.

                        Now, that may sound like a lot, but it's definitely not "unlimited." That's because a Tone can use two WAV files, so that's two notes right there. If four of those Tones are combined to make a Patch, you're now up to 8 notes, so you can't play more than 16 keys on the keyboard at the same time without experiencing voice-stealing. And of course, if you're in Studio Mode and using lots of parts with lots of notes...well, you can do the math.

                        However, voice-stealing has come a long way since the days of "first note played, first note stolen." You can choose an algorithm that works in that way, i.e., by stealing the oldest note that's still sounding if you exceed the 128-note limit. However, I definitely prefer the other algorithm that steals based on level, where the lowest-level note gets stolen first. This avoids those embarrassing situations where you have something like a pedal-point bass that's been droning on in the background, but gets stolen because it was played early on.

                        Another useful tool is Voice Reserve, where you can allocate up to 64 notes to particular sounds that are "unstealable." For example, in that pedal-point example given above, you could simply reserve one or two notes to the bass so it doesn't get stolen.

                        Now in case you're wondering why I'm talking about polyphony after talking about effects, there's a reason: A lot of programmers design patches with lots of layering to create a thicker, huge sound. However, instead of using two WAV files and detuning them to make a thicker-sounding tone, you can just as easily throw on a chorus and accomplish the same effect - although with the hex chorus, you can do even thicker sounds. (Cakewalk's Rapture soft synth uses a similar trick to provide up to nine notes, spread across the stereo field and slightly detuned, but which use up only one note of polyphony.)

                        As another way to cut down on voice consumption, you can add a reverb effect to give a sound a "tail" rather than doing a long envelope decay. So, with some careful programming and voice management, you can make those 128 notes stretch pretty far.
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                        • #27
                          Hi all - well, I'm done with the Frankfurt show, finished editing the videos, got really sick with the flu, and did a Harmony Central Confidential newsletter...so now I can get back to Pro Reviews! Yay!!

                          Let's do an overview of the Fantom G8's sequencer, as it's very capable.

                          The main "unit of sequencing" is the song. It can hold up to:

                          128 MIDI tracks
                          24 audio tracks
                          Tempo track
                          Beat track


                          Let's look at each one of these individually.

                          MIDI TRACKS

                          Of course, keyboard workstation sequencers excel at MIDI. However, with the Fantom-G, you have more options that you might expect because of the expansion boards. In addition to assigning a MIDI track to one of the Fantom-G's internal parts, you can also assign it to the up to 16 parts per expansion board, as well as to the MIDI output (again, 16 parts, because of the 16 available channels) for driving an external tone generator.

                          The raw MIDI data can become part of what Roland calls a "phrase," and you can have up to 2,000 of these in a single project. Note that a phrase does not have to be a short loop; for example, it can be an entire, song-length bass part. Nor is it restricted to a single channel - a phrase can have 16 channels' worth of MIDI information.

                          There's a subtle difference between recording with phrases and tracks. When you record into a track, you pick and track and a start time, and go. This type of phrase is "attached" to the start location in the track, and works like a standard linear track. But you can also record into a phrase that has no specific start point; for example, if you want to come up with a bass track by experimenting with several shorter phrases that you assemble to create a track (sort of like how with drum machines, you string patterns together into a song). After creating your collection of phrases, you can then decide where to place them in the sequence. Furthermore, phrases can have a live performance aspect because you can trigger them from the Fantom-G's pads (the "RPS" function).

                          You can export the MIDI data as a Standard MIDI File (SMF), and of course, the Fantom-G can read GM-compatible files. Also note that you're not restricted to real-time recording if your keyboard chops are a little shaky - there's step recording as well.
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                          • #28
                            AUDIO TRACKS

                            Conceptually, recording audio is a variation on sampling. You can record up to 24 tracks, but that's limited by memory, as audio is recorded into RAM. With an unexpanded Fantom-G, you can record about 6 track-minutes in mono, and 3 track-minutes in stereo - not exactly huge. If you do the 544MB DIMM expansion, though, you're now up to about 54 minutes stereo, and 108 minutes mono. That's really all you need for serious recording, and the fact that it's in RAM is kind of nice, too. As with phrases, there's a limit of 2,000 audio samples per project.

                            High-res recording is not supported; all recording is done at 44.1kHz with 16-bit resolution. Well, it's good enough for CDs, right? However, I don't know if the internal processing is higher...maybe someone from Roland has the answer.

                            One very cool aspect of recording is the ability to use the Input Effects. Although this means the effect is "baked" into the track, with something like limiting or light compression - which might save a track from overloading if you're not careful with levels - you probably won't regret adding these kinds of effects. Another useful feature is that you can bring in audio from the USB connector as well as the line, mic/guitar, and digital ins.

                            BEAT TRACK

                            This is a simple, but useful, option as you can change time signatures within a track. It's easy to use: You just specify the measure where you want the time signature change, then enter the time signature change.

                            TEMPO TRACK

                            Regular readers of my articles know I'm a big fan of introducing subtle tempo changes within a song to add interest - a "flat-lined" tempo is not the way real musicians play. So, I'm glad to see that the Fantom-G has two different ways of dealing with tempo changes. One is simply to record whatever tempo changes you create in real time to the tempo track. The other is to do detailed editing, e.g., specify a time for the change, than enter the change.

                            The latter is good if you want to bump the tempo up or down a bit, but is inconvenient for things like ritardandos. For those, you're better off just recording the tempo changes.
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                            • #29
                              I think we're pretty much done with the overview aspect, so let's get into more of a review of what it's like to actually play with the Fantom-G8.

                              With a complex workstation like this, the emphasis for me is on the user interface. Let's get real: All workstations these days exhibit a very high standard of sonic quality, and they include so much power that if Star Trek's Scotty had been a keyboard player, he never would have been able to utter the immortal line "I can't give ya any more power, Captain!" So, the biggest issue in my mind is how easy it is to access that power.

                              We already mentioned there are three basic playing mode - Single, Live (the Roland equivalent of "combi" mode), and Studio, which is sequencing/recording-oriented. "Single" is the easiest route to auditioning, playing, editing, and saving individual patches, so it's a good place to start.

                              When you call up Single mode, you're presented with a bunch of parameters on that - I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating - gorgeous "big screen." The first attached image shows what we're dealing with.

                              The top is where you can select banks and presets, but there's a more comprehensive way to do this (we'll cover this shortly). The "top screen" patch selection is, at least to me, optimized for stepping through presets you've already programmed as opposed to searching for sounds.

                              We'll skip over the middle section for now, as it relates more to pad functionality which really deserves its own section.

                              The lower third is the area of greatest interest to me. The eight sliders in the lower left correspond to the eight physical control surface sliders, and the list to the immediate right tells which parameter is associated with which slider. I wish the type for these assignments was a point size or two bigger, but they're bright and readable nonetheless.

                              Of course, the faders aren't motorized, so they don't "snap to" the indicated parameter values when you change patches. Roland uses the "immediate jump" protocol; as soon as you move a fader, the parameter jumps to the fader's corresponding physical position. As far as I can tell, there is no option for parameter "catch" - in other words, the fader has to pass through the existing parameter value before the value changes. Maybe someone from Roland can let me know if there's some preference somewhere that allows doing this. I prefer the "catch" method because it prevents any jumps that could be problematic, like immediately going to cutoff set to 0, or resonance to full.

                              To the right of the fader assignment list, you'll find similar representations of the four control surface knobs, assignable switches, pitch bend, and D-Beam (which is wild - so wild it will get its own section later on).

                              On the bottom, you have a "jumping off" point for less-used, but related, functions. F1, Patch List, occupies a prominent position because in single mode you'll often find yourself looking for patches.

                              To see what happens when you press F1, check out the second attached image. This makes choosing patches very easy: You can scroll through fairly broad categories on the left, then use the Data Wheel (or cursor buttons) to discover the sounds within those categories. I particularly like the Preview button, which plays a short, idiomatic lick in the style of the instrument. With the instruments I've auditioned, it generally includes any expressive options - for example, if you call up Nylon Guitar with Slide, hold the preview button down long enough and you'll hear the slide effect.

                              Sound quality is always subjective, of course, but it's interesting comparing the Fantom-G8 "sound philosophy" with that of the Yamaha Motif XS and Korg M3. Generally speaking, I'd say the G8 goes for lusher, warmer sounds, the M3 for more detail, and the Motif, for a more accurate, clinical sound quality. Each approach has its strengths and limitations; the Motif sounds are more malleable because they start from a more neutral position, the G8 is more about providing polished sounds "out of the box," while the M3 is a bit of a combination of the two - the "out of the box" sounds are very useable, but they also respond well to editing.

                              Of course, all three can be edited to act like the others: The M3 and Motif sounds can be made lusher, and by removing some of the effects, you can make the G8 sounds more "direct." What I'm mostly talking about is the user experience when you're on the instrument's top layer.
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                              • #30
                                Let's look at some more of the other functions you can all up.

                                If you hit "Control" (F4) from the top Single screen, you can re-assign sliders, knobs, etc. to different parameters. Note that again, we're dealing with a consistent interface (see the first attached image: The F1/F2 buttons select various categories, while the data wheel and cursor controls choose parameters within those categories, and values for those parameters.

                                F7 lets you dive deep into the patch programming, but does so in two stages. The first, "Zoom Edit," shows the most crucial parameters and gives you a simple, graphically-oriented user interface (second attached image). Again, you choose categories, then...well, you know the drill. One convenient feature is that the physical sliders let you edit the slider-controlled parameters; however, the knobs don't see to edit the knob parameters - you need to use the data wheel and cursor buttons for that.

                                The next level, Pro Edit (third attached image), exposes all parameters as numerical values, much like an editor/librarian program.

                                Now, about the editing in general: I'm not always convinced that multi-layer editing options are a good thing - it depends on the implementation. In this case, I think Roland has done a good job of anticipating the needs of casual and pro users. You can do performance tweaks from the top page, program tweaks from the next page down, and drilling down one more level gives the deep tweaks. I think even advanced users will likely find themselves spending most of their time on the Zoom Edit page.

                                However, one good reason to go to the Pro Edit page is you can access utilities (fourth attached image) that are useful for patch programmers - initializing patches and tones, copying tones, and editing multisamples.

                                One thing I'll say about the operating system: Although many functions are immediately obvious, I definitely needed to read the manual to go deeper. However, once you read the manual, you start seeing that there is a very logical consistency in how the interface is handled...the further you explore the G8, the easier it is to figure out advanced functions without reading the manual.
                                N E W S O N G ! To Say 'No' Would Be a Crime (Remix) is now streamable from my YouTube channel.

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