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ROLAND FANTOM G8 WORKSTATION


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...And here we go with another synthesizer Pro Review. When am I gonna learn? Today's workstations are so deep that if you crawl into the operating system far enough, you end up in the center of the earth. The Korg M3 review is still going, and so is the Yamaha Motif XS. Sure, the pace has slowed down on both of them because we've covered soooo much material already, but I'm still finding out things to cover with both units, and I suspect the Fantom G8 won't be any less demanding.

 

As usual with Pro Reviews, there's little point in covering all the specs and details that are available from the Fantom home page at the Roland web site. You'll find a very nice image gallery, but also as usual with Pro Reviews, I'll be taking a lot of close-ups so that you can get the "feel" of the unit's details.

 

The unit being reviewed is the Fantom G8, the 88-note model with the spiffy keyboard. First things first: It comes with a discount certificate at your local chiropractor that you can use after you manage to wrestle the G8 out of the box - this thing is heavy! Actually, it is transportable by one person; after all, I did manage to get it into my studio. But I do wish there were some kind of cutouts or handles. I also would like to see some kind of rubber cover for the gorgeous brushed aluminum end pieces, as it will likely be unavoidable that at some point, you'll need to rest the G8 vertically, on its end.

 

And speaking of gorgeous, this is one impressive keyboard. If the brushed aluminum case doesn't get your attention (and I'm gald that keyboard manufacturers are getting away from "basic black"), then the GIANT color screen will: It's like having an LCD monitor in the middle of your keyboard. It's not touch-sensitive, but jeez, it's huge and the buttons that relate to the on-screen functions make a good target. Even if you don't have the greatest eyesight in the world and you're on a darkened stage, no problem.

 

There's plenty of I/O, as we'll see, and quite a complement of controls, includng a control surface with eight 45mm faders and four rotary knobs.

 

Now check out the three attached images. The first image shows a view of most of the control area; my studio isn't big enough to let me back off far enough to fit the whole thing in! But the aforementioned image gallery has plenty of shots that will give you an idea of how imposing the G8 is.

 

The second image shows the HES (Huge Effing Screen). I cannot emphasize enough how easy it is to see what's going on with it.

 

The third image is a close-up of the mixer displayed on-screen. The screen actually looks a lot nicer than the photo, because the screen surface is glossy, and it would take a better photographer than me (with a more professional photo studio!) to eliminate the glare. I'm hoping that Roland has some kind of service utility that will let me output screen images without having to photograph them.

 

More to come...

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Let's take a look at the audio I/O. Remember, you can sample and process with the G8.

 

First up, there's stereo line in with a level control. There's also one of those XLR/1/4" combo jacks, but refer to the attached image. If you use the combo jack as a guitar input, you can switch to Hi-Z...or not, if you want to drag down the impedance somewhat to simulate something that's more "old solid state" in terms of how it affects the guitar sound.

 

If you use the combo jack for a mic, then you can choose to have phantom power...nice. Also, note the little diagram toward the bottom that shows that Roland got it right, and pin 2 is indeed hot and pin 3 is cold :)

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Next, let's look at the analog outputs.

 

Basically, we're looking at four individual outputs. Referring to the attached image the "A" stereo pair consists of TRS balanced jacks. As with the inputs, Roland has again thoughtfully provided a schematic of how the pins are wired. Note that if you're using the Fantom G onstage and you need a mono out, you can use the "A" Left jack by itself.

 

The two additional outputs use standard 1/4" unbalanced jacks. Finally, you have a headphone jack for private practicing or monitoring.

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Onward to the digital and control I/O. In the first attached image, note the MIDI in, out, and thru. With the thru jack seeming to become an endangered species, it's nice to see one there. There are also 1/4" jacks for two expression pedals, and another 1/4" jack for a hold switch. These are welcome if you want to add foot-controlled expression, but note that the pedals and switches themselves are optional-at-extra-cost accessories.

 

Now refer to the second attached image. The two coax jacks are for S/PDIF digital I/O, at 44.1kHz. This remains the most common sample rate for recording; if for example you like to record at 96kHz, forget about a digital transfer and go analog from the Fantom out to the recording interface in.

 

The three USB connectors are very important. You can insert a USB memory stick not just for memory, but for updating the operating system (more on this later). You can also connect a mouse for navigating around the screen, which is the next best option to having a touch screen - it's very cool to point and click instead of hitting buttons that correspond to things on the screen. USB also allows transfer in and out of the Fantom (which can also serve as a 2 x 2 audio interface) and perhaps most importantly, allows communicating with the computer-based editing software. The whole software is very deep, and will be covered in depth later on in this review.

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If there's one thing I've learned, it's to go to the manufacturer's web site with any high-tech product to find out about updates, issues, free goodies, etc. Lo and behold, there was indeed a software update.

 

The updating process is really quite simple, providing you have internet access. You download a 9MB ZIP file (so you're not screwed if you're still on dial-up!) to your Mac or Windows computer, then unzip it. You then copy the unzipped file over to a USB stick.

 

Next up, you turn off the power to the Fantom if it's on, insert the USB stick into the Fantom's USB slot (yet another use for those little suckers), and turn on power.

 

At that point, everything happens automatically. Just make sure the power doesn't go out while updating!! It's worth getting an uninterruptible power supply (which you should have for your computer anyway) just to do firmware updates - if the update gets corrupted, you could end up with a non-functioning device.

 

After the update was done, I flipped out when I saw the blue screen (too many Windows crashes, I guess). Turned out it was a "Blue screen of non-death," though :) - check out the attached image. BTW the update was fast - less than a minute, for sure.

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Before we get into the audio examples and evaluations, I thought that since y'all can't be here looking over my shoulder, it would be a good idea to do a bunch of shots of the unit itself so you could get an idea for how the controls are laid out.

 

Let's start with the physical controllers. The first attached image shows the pitch bend lever and two assignable switches. Moving the lever left or right lowers or raises pitch respectively, while pushing it away from you is like turning up the mod wheel. The one caveat with this kind of approach is that unlike a Minimoog-type mod wheel, you can't leave the mod wheel in a particular position unless you hold it there - it's spring-loaded to return to the "rest" position.

 

The second attached image shows the Roland D-Beam controller. You can think of this as a sort of theremin-like controller where waving your hand can control a parameter. Like all the controllers, we'll cover applications during the course of this review; the photo tour is just so you can get acquainted with the various elements of the Fantom.

 

The third attached image shows the fader control surface; you can see what this looks like on the screen in the third attached image in the first post.

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Right above the mixer faders are the four assignable control knobs, as shown in the first attached image. This is half the number of the Motif, but then again the Motif doesn't have a pad interface...and speaking of the pad interface, let's look at those pads.

 

As shown in the second attached image, the Fantom G gives you 16 pads, so you have that basic MPC-style interface that is sooo de riguer these days for beatmeistering (a tip of the historical hat to Roger Linn for coming up with that whole MPC groovebox thang). These pads are a smaller target than the ones on the Korg M3, although the M3 has eight pads as opposed to 16.

 

That takes care of the controllers, let's look at some of the more utilitarian controls.

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Here are some more elements that involved in controlling the Fantom G8.

 

When it comes to sequencing and transport controls, the first attached image shows the transport buttons. In addition to the usual stop/play/record/return to beginning/fast forward/rewind, there's also a Loop button and Jump button for navigating around a song.

 

As to the tempo display, as the second attached image shows, it's a separate LED readout accurate to tenths of a BPM, and located to the immediate left of the main display screen.

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The first attached image shows the keyboard real-time controls: Hold, Arpeggio, Octave Up and Octave Down, Chord Memory and Transpose.

 

The second attached image shows your basic navigation control. The wheel is a standard data wheel, except that it has a sort of cool future retro look. The five buttons below the wheel take care of Exit, Enter, Shift, Decrement, and Increment, and below that, there are buttons for selecting the two expansion slots, and the Sampling buttons.

 

Speaking of audio inputs, there's an input overload indicator along with a mix button, as shown in the third attached image.

 

There are also dedicated buttons (fourth attached image) for choosing what you want to list or edit in the Huge Screen: Patch, Song, Sample, and Effects.

 

At this point, you've pretty much seen what the Fantom G looks like...what's harder to show is what it feels like, but that's what we're covering next.

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The pad modes on the Fantom-G can actually perform 16 separate functions.

 

FGC5.jpg

 

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

 

FGC1.jpg

 

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

 

FGC2.jpg

 

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

 

FGC6.jpg

 

And you can trigger arpeggiation phrases using the pads. (Hold down a note on the keyboard, and use the pads to change arpeggiation phrases.)

 

FGC7.jpg

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Hey Dan,

 

You must be psychic...I've been working with the G8 this past week, so get ready for a bunch of posts.

 

I have to admit, I needed to re-do my studio to accommodate the G8 for recording...everything is set up for five-octave keyboards :) Those 88 keys take up a lot of space! But it's worth it. However, this does remind me I need to knock out a wall and make a bigger studio. The good news was that in process of re-arranging the studio, I finally got the wires all neatened up.

 

Anyway, I thought it would be a good thing to get some audio examples posted to give an idea of some of the sounds. I have to say, the quality of digital synthesis sure has changed over the years. The G8's sound is gorgeous - in the M3 pro review, I made a big deal of the sound quality but the G8 is on the same level.

 

However, I would say the character is slightly different; it's tough to describe in words, but you can listen to the M3 examples if you really want to do a comparison. To summarize, I'd say the G8's sound is very transparent, almost like there's nothing between you and the sound. The M3 is somewhat "fatter" but really, the best analogy is something guitarists will understand: The G8 is a Strat, the M3, a Les Paul.

 

The audio example is the demo song that plays when you turn on the unit and press Play on the sequencer to hear the song (you can change this to default to a different song, though). The attached image shows the associated screen.

 

This is the "studio" view, which is where the sequencer resides: You can easily see the 16 channels, the faders, the chorus and reverb send controls, panpots, and mutes. And is it just my imagination, or is a little bit of Sonar creeping in there, with the track icons for the channels, and segmented knobs that aren't that different from the Sonar virtual instruments. I must say, it's an interesting concept to think of visual integration between hardware and software; the only companies in a real position to do this are Yamaha/Steinberg with Cubase, and Roland/Cakewalk with Sonar.

 

But I digress, now check out an excerpt of the song (which is copyrighted by Roland, but I figured they wouldn't mind my using it to illustrate the sound).

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Next are some examples of individual "live" patches. Everything you hear is played in real-time - no MIDI, no editing, just the output going directly into the recorder. Most sounds have rhythm tracks available, which you'll hear in a few examples, but mostly I wanted to concentrate on non-ensemble sounds so there wouldn't be distrations. You'll also note I tried to exercise the velocity options a bit.

 

These aren't even the "best" sounds, or anything special; they're representative of what you'd hear if you went intp a music store and just poked around to call up some presets. (Note that all examples also include a screen shot that shows what makes up the sound.)

 

The first audio example uses the "Big & Proud" program, which is classical in nature. Note how on some notes, higher velocities bring in tympani. If you look at the first image, you can see how in Patch 1 there's a tympani sound layered over an octave of the keyboard, toward the top middle.

 

Also note the four rotary controls (cutoff, resonance, attack time, and release time) toward the lower right. These correspond to the four controls located above the faders, as shown previously in the "photo gallery" section, which allow for physical tweaking. Modulation on/off and portamento on/off are assigned to the two assignable switches.

 

The second audio example is of the "Dominique EP" (electric piano) program. I've played with significant velocity variations so that you can hear the responsiveness of the sound. The second image shows the corresponding settings.

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The "DreamLead" program in the first audio example is guitar-like in nature; there's even a virtual "feedback" effect you inject by pushing on the mod lever. Also note the delay effect.

 

The second audio example is the obligatory acoustic piano sound. It's very touch-responsive, which makes it satisfying to play; but I did notice a little fuzziness on some of the notes when wearing headphones.

 

As you can see in the second attached image, the piano sound is the result of several multisamples.

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"GuitarHeaven," the first audio example, is the type of program that's my favorite use of synthesizers: Using "real" sounds as a basis for sounds that can exist only in the virtual world. The sound and feel is guitar-like, but with a gauzy type of overlay only possible with synthesis. But in the first attached image, take a look at all the components used to make the sound: No wonder it's so rich.

 

"System G" is the Fantom G's first preset, so this is the one that's supposed to blow you away when you go into Guitar Center, turn on the power, and start playing. And it's a lot of fun - brass with rhythmic filigrees in the upper range, and a variety of fun/funky/electronic/rhythmic goodies in the lower ranges. Check out the first audio example to hear what I mean; the first attached image dissects the program so you can see the individual sounds behind it.

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The first audio example shows off "Trancy Duo," which gives rhythms on the lower keys and a sort of acidey lead in the upper range.

 

The second audio example, "Within You," reminds me of a construction kit. If you look at the second attached image, you can see how there are different sounds in (primarily) four sections of the keyboard. This sound would be ideal for doing loop recording with a sequencer, as you could take your time building up the layers.

 

Okay, that's enough audio examples to give you a really tiny taste of the Fantom G8's bag of tricks. Next, we'll go over its architecture.

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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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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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The pad modes on the Fantom-G can actually perform
16 separate functions.


FGC5.jpg

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


FGC1.jpg

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


FGC2.jpg

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


FGC6.jpg

 

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? :mad:

 

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

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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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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?
:mad:

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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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 :poke: on our behalf - at least they'll listen to you. :thu:

 

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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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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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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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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