Roland's V-Synth XT soft synth certainly looks like it means business with its 'Roo-Bar' handles on the front and the dominant colour screen centre stage. What's more, the angled casing means it's as at home on the desktop or mother keyboard top as it is in the rack, and as you get to understand how much of a performance piece this is it's never likely to sit more than an arm's length away.
There are three good reasons why so: firstly the colour screen is touch sensitive and more or less all programming can be done in this way rather than with laborious cursors and value knobs. And it's response time is excellent, virtually no time-lag at all. Secondly, there are eight real-time performance knobs assigned to eight different parameters: assignments are freely changeable, but it's very clear from the screen which parameters are linked to which knob. And thirdly, you'll just want to program it, which is a rare thing to say about a complex modern synth: many new offerings rarely get tested beyond the army of presets but this is so well structured, intuitive and accessible you'll immediately want to 'go in'.
There are a couple of other reasons why you just have to play with this thing: the control pads. On the original V-Synth there's the Time Trip Pad, a control feature that emulates a record deck, whereby you get to 'play' a sampled VariPhrase loop like you would scratch a deck. Better still, the VariPhrase loop needn't go up and down in pitch as the scratch speed changes.
On the XT this has sensibly been moved on to the screen to save space and the idea has been expanded with a Matrix Control Pad, a more simple X-Y matrix, like the Korg Kaoss pad: two parameters are assigned to the X and Y matrices and these can be played by sliding your finger up and down, across or around. Patches are saved with pad assignments for quick recall and performance.
If you still don't get why you should part with £1,500 when you've got a computer full of softies, here's further encouragement: audio inputs. To get the most out of the XT these should be attached at all times. There's a pair of line inputs on the rear that can be plumbed to a pair of outputs from your desk or audio interface, and on the front panel there's a combi-connector for an XLR mic input (with phantom power), line input or high impedance instrument input. There are three entirely different things you can do with the audio sources once they're attached: processing, sampling and vocoding.
Plug your guitar directly into the XT, set up a patch to use the external input as the oscillator source and the vast array of synthesis and effects processing is at your fingertips. The XT can be treated almost like a pedal board or a multi-effects processor, except that you still have to be sending it a MIDI note for it to make a sound -- you'd have thought that could have been sorted by now.
The second use for an audio source is sampling: the XT comes with 50MB of sample wave memory, of which 32MB is taken up with factory presets. Thankfully these can be overwritten and replaced by anything you care to sample or up-load via the USB connection (any WAV or AIFF files) and the acquired PCM waves can be used as a building block for a patch instead of or along with the internal oscillators -- a patch is constructed from up to two oscillators, of which more later.
Sampling is easy and much like any normal sampler: record, edit, loop, and so on, but the XT does more than a run-of-the-mill sampler, it encodes the wave with VariPhrase data relating to tempo and pitch that then enables you to play the sample in real time without pitch changing. It also makes tempo-sync'ing easy, adjusting the format of the sound across its key range to maintain a more natural tonal shift.
In practice the encoding is a bit hit and miss and can take a few goes with the different encoding types to get something useable; the more dynamic a sample, the more successful the process tends to be. The third use for an audio input involves vocoding using the Vocal Designer V-Card, which you can learn more about in the box below.
One of the most endearing things about the XT is its useability - it's so straightforward that there's very little need for a manual once you get started, and the touch-screen makes editing immediate. Along the bottom of the screen are a row of window tabs for the major synth sections (Osc 1, Osc 2, TVA etc) that run, more or less, in signal flow order -- depending on the structure you choose in the first 'Common' menu.
The structure defines the signal flow of a patch and basically relates to how the two oscillators connect to the two COSM (Composite Object Sound Modelling) effects processors. You can apply both COSMs to both oscillators in series, each individually in parallel, or variations thereof. On the left of the screen are a column of sub-window tabs for each of the major sections, so it really couldn't be better thought out.
Generally, the signal flow is the same as the original V-Synth: two oscillators each with a choice of 14 analogue waves, a PCM wave or the external input, followed by a modulation section and two COSM effects processors, and finally a TVA and normal effects section. All sections have their full complement of envelopes and LFOs.
COSM is Roland's proprietary effects system that applies processing to each and every note. The 16 available effects range from straight-ahead compressors and limiters through a bunch of interestingly odd filters, and on to amp and speaker simulators and lo-fi emulators.
This section blurs the line between synthesis and effects, it's here that things can really get happening: the Wave-Shaper, for example, wreaks havoc with the most polite sounds and the Side-band, Comb and Dual filters can bring a new angle to the dullest of sounds.
The V-Synth is primarily a performance piece: it isn't really designed or set up like, for example, Roland's JV series, where you have an orchestra spread across the 16 MIDI channels. You can call up different patches into each of the 16 parts but the XT is only 24-voice polyphonic, and even that gets reduced as patch processing increases, so you'd soon run short. Also, there aren't multiple outputs, only a pair of main outputs and a pair of direct outputs, for delivering the sound prior to the on-board effects processor.
One criticism levelled at the original V-Synth was its poor preset spread, and this has been wholly re-addressed by Roland, who've got in a variety of producers and sound designers (including the likes of Richard Barbieri, Crystal Method and Tatsuya Nishiwaki) to create a huge selection of patches -- 512 in all. These do a good job of showing off the diversity of the instrument covering musical styles from ambient to hardcore. This is an instrument for the adventurer. It doesn't do the ordinary, so there are no strings or guitar sounds in earshot.
Roland have always been good at warmth compared to other well-known synth makers -- they do a good fat bottom end -- and though they might always sound good in solo sometimes their sounds don't cut through in a mix. The general V-Synth sound has the toughness and edge to do that as well as the low frequency warmth.
The arpeggio feature is comprehensive and with the edgy sounds there's some really good driving sequences. There's always something to prick up your ears. And it's so easy to tweak sounds on the XT that a preset need only be the start point.
The V-Synth is essentially a softsynth in its own hardware container and with that come some of the drawbacks of computers -- it did crash a couple of times during testing and it did stop playing for no particular reason occasionally, but on the whole it was quite well behaved and feels stable.
In a world where the softsynth is king, it's hard to see how one could justify shelling out for a dedicated hardware synth, but were you to spend time with the V-Synth XT you'd come away thinking differently. Why so? Back to our three good reasons: one, it's a joy to work with, from the ultra-responsive colour touchscreen and the eight performance knobs through to the intuitive program layout. Two: it sounds good: big, warm, hard and edgy, it's all there and it works within a busy mix. And three: the audio inputs for either sampling waves for the PCM oscillator or for using the extensive processing on any audio track, such as a guitar, make it much more than just your everyday synth.
It's only 24-voice, which is a limitation if you want to run several parts, but then the XT is really all about performance. With so many real-time controls, such as the in-screen Time Trip pad, it's just asking to be played.