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The Roland D-50 first burst onto the music scene in 1987 and quickly became the most popular digital synth of its era. Roland, the Japanese company founded in 1972, have always designed and produced outstanding musical instruments over the years. The D-50 was certainly no exception, it quickly became the number one digital synth by pushing aside its main competitor, the Yamaha DX7. The D-50 sound defined the music scene in the late 80s and early 90s and was used in countless records across the world.
The arrival of the D-50 brought with it some unique and innovative technology. Roland had managed to create a revolutionary synthesizer with a new process called Linear Arithmetic synthesis, combining samples from real instruments with synthesized waveforms.
The Roland D-50 has just celebrated its 30th anniversary, the company rounded up all of the original designers and engineers to shed some light on how they produced the legendary synth, take a look at the special D-50 profile on the Roland website.
The D-50 design enables you to work with four analogue-style synths, made up of tones (patches) and partials (PCM sample or synth). Patches can be layered in many different ways to create an array of sounds and this gives you great potential for experimentation.
The joystick is a welcome addition and is used for real-time control of tones and partials, adding to the fluidity of workflow and live performance. The joystick design allows for a lot more creativity, which was certainly lacking in other synths.
The Chase Play is a unique feature that lets you delay one of the tones and then repeat it, giving you delaying effects and interesting progressions as you change the level and Velocity. It certainly helps to give the D-50 its unique character.
All of these features helped to provide instant studio sounds to musicians everywhere, so much so that back in the day you would be surprised not to see a D-50 up on any live stage!
The sound became instantly recognizable with many of the top artists and although some might say the built-in patches were overused, the songs that were created still remain classics and the D-50 will forever be proudly associated with them.
Digital reverb and chorus was unheard of in commercial synths and the D-50 was one of the first to get these features onboard. These effects all have parameters available for editing, giving you a great platform to build a wide range of percussive and non-acoustic sounds.
The chorus and reverb effects are a great addition and they do help to bring greater fullness to your sounds, but most of the instrument samples are still as pure without them.
Traditional synth modulation functions are also available. There are three LFO’s available and two envelopes available for each partial, giving you twelve LFO’s and eight envelopes to create some huge sounds.
The built-in presets became famous through their use on many records during the 80s and 90s. The likes of the strings, jazz guitar and organ patches opened up a new era of synth programming. D-50 patches quickly inspired musicians and film producers all across the world.
Listen to the records of Prince, Duran Duran and Eric Clapton, plus many more, and you’ll hear the D-50. Check out the list of songs inspired by the legendary synth at Reverb Machine (you’ll be surprised at just how many classic songs have the sounds of the D-50 in them!).
You can recreate those classic sounds easily and yes they are a bit outdated nowadays, but the real fun can be found when you test the synth engine itself. Once you start to spend some time playing around with the D-50, you’ll start to realise the potential it is fully capable of.
The keyboard itself is velocity and aftertouch sensitive, it also includes slightly weighted keys to give a much improved performance all-round. The various Modes also allow for further control and sound-shaping (Whole, Dual, Split and Separate Modes are all available).
Keeping in mind that this synth is over 30 years old, we need to be considerate in terms of what its limitations are. The D-50 was a game-changer in its day and paved the way for all of the digital synths we know and love today. However, we’ll highlight some of the minor issues below.
To get the most out of this synth you have to get hands-on with the interface, and this is where things can get a bit complicated. Roland were obviously aware of this because they also launched an external controller, the PG-1000, this made programming the D-50 a lot simpler.
Nowadays there are many shareware programs available that enable you to hook the D-50 up to your computer. These programs emulate the PG-1000 and let you create original patches, what’s even better is that you can get these for free!
The polyphony is slightly limiting when you are creating those soaring pads that the D-50 is known for, you sometimes wish for more. But it’s more than capable for brass, bells and for when only one or two notes are required at a time.
The piano sounds were never highly recommended on the D-50, for example the grand piano sample is non-existent. However, it does excel in airy pads and synth sounds, so be sure to know what to expect from the D-50, it can’t do everything but what it does do, it does well!
As with all vintage synthesizers, you need to make sure all parts and components are working as they should. The more standard parts, such as internal batteries, are still widely available but things will get complicated if you need to start fixing the internal circuits and connections.
The Roland D-50 is one of those synths that will stand the test of time, the history behind it and the classic look is more than enough for it to be a worthy purchase. It may not match up to some of the sounds of today’s modern synthesizers, but that’s not the reason you buy a D-50. You buy it for the distinctive sound and style that it is known for, it’s arguably one of the best synths ever made, plus you’ll be owning a little slice of synth history and that’s something to be proud of!
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