By virtue of its most visible features, the AT-350C would seem to appeal
equally to Mr. and Mrs. Scheblanski, discerning folks who want to play
and sing along to music at their summer condo; “Fingers” Fowler, who
plays in a bar band and wants a self-contained rig that fits in his ’92 Geo
Storm; and Pastor Scott, who leads worship in a contemporary-minded
congregation where he sometimes has a rock band and other times just
an organist. I’m not the Scheblanskis, but like many of you, I wear the
hats of Fingers as well as the keyboardist in Pastor Scott’s band. So I was
able to put it through its paces in those environs.
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There are two sound generators here: a sample-playback engine and a
tonewheel modeling engine. Organized into sections corresponding to
the keyboards, the Upper and Lower sections default-assign (sensibly
enough) to the upper and lower manuals, respectively. The Vintage
Organ section default-assigns to both manuals. The Solo section
defaults to the upper manual, and the Pedal section . . . guess where?
However, anything can be reassigned pretty much anywhere.
The lower, 64-note manual (five octaves plus three more notes
down to a piano-like A on the bottom) has waterfall keys but also
adjustable velocity sensitivity, so in addition to being the ideal choice
for Hammond-style pursuits, it’s also the natch for pianos and other
sounds you might play with both hands. You can also split and layer
sounds from the Drums, Manual Percussion, Bass, Lower, and Solo
categories on the lower manual with complete flexibility. The 49-note
upper manual is chiefly intended for the Solo voices, but it can also play
organ and other sounds as well.
Oddly, any Solo voice that offers the instrument-behavior-modeling
bonuses (Roland calls ’em SuperNatural) only works properly on the
upper manual. Once you assign these voices to the lower manual or
pedals, they become “normal” sample-playback voices, albeit quite
good ones. Also, for songs that require switching from organ to piano
and back again multiple times (think Petty or Springsteen for the barband
set and Tim Hughes or Third Day for the worship players), I might
prefer the upper manual have waterfall keys as well. Why? Because I
really want the longer keyboard for piano parts, but I also really want
the waterfall keys for organ.
To play both from the lower (waterfall) manual, you can either
do two button-presses to toggle both the Lower and Vintage Organ
sections on and off as needed, or simply write two registrations,
which save the state of the entire instrument. This is as easy as
touching and holding the Write button while touching one of
the adjacent preset buttons numbered 1 through 8. In pipe organ
fashion, all these buttons are located on the fallboard between the
manuals. This makes quick preset switching super-easy. Ninety-nine
banks of eight presets each are available.
Roland provided us with a PK-7A pedalboard (sold separately at a street
price of around $1,500). You need it to take full advantage of the AT-350C, as
its expression pedal has left and right toe-kick switches that can, among other
things, trigger the alternate articulations of the SuperNatural sounds. (Roland
says they hope to offer a standalone expression pedal with similar switches
in the future, but none is currently available.) The PK-7A connects to the
mothership with a single multi-pin cable that carries both data and power—
pretty slick. Bonus: The pedals don’t have to do bass, as you can assign any
sound and shift it up to three octaves higher. Mark, my music pastor, often
asks for a “clothesline,” which is shorthand for a high, one-note part that floats
over the chord changes. If both hands were busy, I could play a high string
sound with one or both feet because the pedals transmit polyphonically.
The Others button adds utility and flexibility, and one is found in
each section’s sound selectors. This pool of “other” sounds (actually
the entire Voice list) is available to each set of keys—including the
pedals—and although the arrangement of banks does force you into
some mild contortions, it requires no menu-diving at all; it’s all done
from the surface-level controls. For example, to layer a piano and a pad
on the lower manual, you’d pull up a piano from the Lower section’s
Piano bank. Because pads are in the Others bank, they’re not available
simultaneously within the same section, so you’d raid the Upper (or
Pedal) section for a pad sound and touch “To Lower” to assign it to the
lower manual. The upper manual is still available for Solo and Vintage
Organ sections, and they can be layered or toggled at will simply by
lighting the buttons that activate them in whatever combination you like.
If the Pedal section hasn’t been touched, it can be used for any kind of bass
sound or, because it can be transposed so widely, something completely
not bass. Again, you can save the whole enchilada by touching and holding
Write and a preset button. Th is includes mixer settings (including reverb
parameters and per-section sends), organ settings (drawbars, overdrive,
vibrato/chorus, percussion), and all active auto-accompaniment settings,
including locking those controls so you don’t accidentally trigger a tango
with an errant touch intended for the rotary speed button.
Two pairs of stereo outputs, main and aux, give you routing options.
Choices for the aux outs include “Ambience” (just the reverb output), “To
Effects Unit” (a clone of the Main Outs intended to let you apply external
processing), “Orchestral Voices” (everything but organ), and “Ensemble”
(auto-accompaniment). A pair of inputs lets you connect the device of your
choice to be mixed into the Main Outs. A USB type B connection on the back
goes to your computer, and a USB type A connector tucked at the very left
end of the control panel accepts thumb drives for recording a stereo audio
file or a Standard MIDI file of everything you do on the AT-350C. Operating
system and sound updates are also done via thumb drive.
The main event in the sounds arena is the Solo section, where the “W”
bank contains the SuperNatural sounds. These are all identified by the
prefix “N.” in the name (not to be confused with the “N” bank, which
houses plucked and fretted string instruments), and most of them are
simply uncanny. Interaction between velocity, legato/staccato playing,
and the status of the toe-kick switches on the expression pedal empower
you to wring additional realism from the AT-350C’s sounds. There’s
definitely a learning curve involved, but it pays off . For your travail, you
get performance gestures specific to an instrument’s physiology. The
trumpet, for example, gives a realistic gliss with a touch to the left kickswitch
and legato playing with a tap to the right. You hear the artifacts a
real trumpet emits when the valves are operated and the embouchure is
changed—not the mechanical noise, but the pitch burbles and “breaking”
of the tone as the valves are actuated. Play notes at the top of the velocity
range with the right switch engaged, and you get an actual brass fall,
not merely a downward pitch-bend; you hear the discrete steps as the
trumpeter slackens his embouchure. D-Beam gestures let you bend the
pitch up or down, with realistic note-skips. All 15 SuperNatural sounds
offer you the same kind of control by harnessing the volume pedal, kickswitches,
D-Beam, and velocity, and they really are breathtaking.
You may be asking, “Isn’t Roland just catching up to what Yamaha
has had in the Motif (or apples-to-apples, the Tyros arranger line) for ten
years now?” It’s tempting to position Roland second in that particular
arms race, but doing so fails to take in the whole view. I see Roland going
for differentiation rather than “me-too.” My take is that while the Tyros
gives you glitzier gestures and articulations, the AT-350C is a little
more . . . classical in its approach.
I do think the American weekend warrior—tavern or tabernacle—
would be better served by a few more pad sounds (there are only six)
instead of the plethora of admittedly excellent Chinese instruments,
though admittedly, these may have broader appeal in overseas markets.
For comparison, my church has the Roland RD-700GX, and it offers
more than a dozen pads. There’s also only one Clav sound on the AT-
350C, and while there’s a nice Rhodes electric piano sound, there’s
no Wurly—a significant omission if you want to cover Ray Charles
or Tom Petty.
Perhaps the sound complement is too broad across categories
rather than having more of the depth I’d like to see within categories,
especially considering the price and the fact that there’s no sound
editing. That’s right—you can’t tweak and save sound settings such as
the filter cutoff or envelope parameters. However, Roland’s signature
D-Beam can affect the filter in real time, and it also handles pitch-bend.
While the lack of sound editing on a $5,500 instrument is a major
omission (Casio’s $500 WK-7500 arranger offers rudimentary editing),
the as-is quality of the sounds is very high. The question is, can you find
exactly what you want, and if not, can you accept compromise? That
said, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the AT-350C’s true
raison d’etre is to simply be the baddest mega-arranger keyboard on the
block. Let’s get into that now.
The styles here are among the hippest and most musical I’ve ever heard
from an arranger. This is where the AT-350C’s sounds realize their full
potential. As fodder for the onboard Styles, they had better far outshine
what you find on sub-$1,000 personal keyboards. And oh, do they ever.
There’s a jazz-organ-with-big-band style that reminded both me and
editor Stephen Fortner of Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova” (in the
Austin Powers context), not to mention Jimmy Smith’s “The Cat”—this
brass really swings! A couple of the Gospel styles sound as though they
can dang near lift the roof off the church all by themselves, without the
choir. There simply isn’t enough room for all the highlights. It’s enough
to say that if you’re up for spending this kind of money on an arranger,
you have a right to expect first-class material, and on this point the AT-
350C delivers in abundance. As much as “organ as home entertainment
center” players might dig it, much of this material would also appeal to
a jingle composer facing ever-shrinking fees and schedules. The “feels”
are that good.
You can set things up so that you trigger chord changes with the bass
pedals or your left hand on the lower manual, or so the AT-350C scans
the manuals and makes holistic decisions about the chord you’re going
for. Despite my trying a lot of altered and extended chords, it almost
always guessed my intentions correctly.
Standard MIDI file recording is ridiculously easy. Simply get
the instrument set up to record the song (either by recalling a preset
registration or by setting up the panel manually), press the dedicated
Rec button, and then use the value up/down buttons to select “SMF” in
the display. Now, touch the Play/Stop button for a two-measure countin,
and have at it. There’s only rudimentary onboard editing, but you can
save your tune to a connected USB thumb drive and then import that
data into a computer for editing in any sequencing program. As long as
you save your edited version as an SMF on the computer, you can later
copy it back into the AT-350C’s local memory. Additionally, you can
record the Bass, Lower, and Solo/Upper section parts individually for
Unlike SMF recording, which can be done into the AT-350C’s
internal memory, audio recording requires more space, and so a USB
thumb drive must be connected. You follow the same procedure as SMF
recording, but choose “Audio” rather than “SMF.” Audio is recorded as
a WAV file.
As you’ve probably already guessed, I put the AT-350C to work during
Sunday services with my church’s band. What we do has more in common
with a weekend bar band than, say, traditional hymns. The set list was
five songs, and I started by locking out the auto-accompaniment controls.
For one song, I simply needed a synth lead to play an ostinato on the
chorus and turnarounds. Nothing in the ROM was close to a match, so
I found a sound that suited the part in a different way. Unfortunately, I
couldn’t add delay to match the recording better because there’s no delay
effect in the AT-350C. For the rest of the tune, I found a dark pad very
similar to the one we favor on our RD-700GX. It was great sonic glue.
There’s a great overdrive effect as part of the rotary simulator, but you
can’t apply it to anything other than organ. I settled for a dark Rhodes and
cranked up the ’verb. The reverb is cool—choose a type of space (in this
case a cathedral) and a material: carpet, wood, marble, etc. On the bridge,
I usually reach for the church’s Korg BX-3 organ to my right. Here, I could
put Vintage Organ on the upper manual and memorize it with all the
drawbars at zero. Th is way I could decide the voicing later, as the bars are
always live. Writing the patch with all drawbars silent also kept the organ
off the lower manual.
Lots of the songs are more guitar-oriented and call for pads. I found
the lovely “HollowReleas,” an analog pad with piano-like attack. But
because I had two more manuals to play with, I added a high string to
the pedals and put organ on the upper manual, bringing organ fills in on
the second verse of one tune for some development and the high string
on the last chorus for a little lift . Nice.
On another song, I play a three-note motif on piano all the way
through. I added a glockenspiel assigned to the upper manual. I could’ve
layered it with piano on the lower manual, but I like to flam the hits a
little so that it sounds like two musicians instead of a layered keyboard
patch. Here again was a golden opportunity for a high string on the
pedals for the last chorus.
For the last song of the set I needed a sort of huge “pad that ate New
York,” like on U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I decided to use
textures as dynamics, so it was stringy things up, down, and below. I
put a SuperNatural solo violin up top for definition and layered it with
an icy drawbar voicing. I then put a darker pad on the lower manual
and a warmer midrange string on the pedals. This is where the PK-7A’s
volume pedal was simultaneously cool and tricky; on the SuperNatural
sounds, it’s truly an expression pedal, adding “rosin” and vibrato to the
solo violin as it increases the volume. Not so for the organ and “regular”
sounds, so it was a bit of a balancing act between the basic volume
settings and the extremes of the expression to keep everything steady
until I remembered that the pedal can be deactivated on a per-section
basis. Assigning it to the Solo section only, and writing that into the
preset, sorted me out.
Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi got into the keyboard business out
of a fascination with organs: classical, theater, and electric. The Atelier
division got started as, literally, Kakehashi-san’s atelier—French for
“workshop.” That explains the obvious care and devotion expended
on Roland’s tonewheel modeling technology, not to mention the autoaccompaniment
patterns that make it clear someone cared enough to
sweat over them.
For me, Pastor Scott, and Fingers Fowler, the $5,500 question is,
“Does the AT-350C amount to a replacement for a full keyboard rig?” I’d
have to say that for similar money, we’re better served by more familiar
instruments—for example, pairing an RD-700NX with a V-Combo, or
either of those with a Fantom-G.
Who should seriously consider the AT-350C? For one, the solo
entertainer who plays gigs on an arranger keyboard. The AT-350C’s
top-notch auto-accompaniment styles, expert chord recognition, superrealistic
solo sounds, and two manuals to stretch out on make it ideal
for that application. Then, there’s the time-tested idea of the keyboard
as home entertainment center and family focal point. The chief
competition in this market consists of polished-cabinet digital pianos
that have arranger features, plus a few modern console organs. The AT-
350C is far more portable, and in many cases less expensive, than either.
What’s more, it sounds so hip that it may broaden even the Scheblanskis’
PROS Stunning SuperNatural sounds. Extremely realistic and musical
accompaniment styles. Excellent drawbar organ and rotary simulation.
Flexible assignment of sounds to different manuals. SMF and audio file
recording and playback.
CONS No sound editing. Non-organ factory sounds need more variety.
Pedalboard is required to take best advantage of SuperNatural sound
articulations, at significant extra cost.
CONCEPT Dual-manual clonewheel meets high-end
POLYPHONY 128 voices.
SYNTHESIS TYPE Sample playback; tonewheel modeling for
SEQUENCER 7 tracks; approx. 40,000-note capacity.
WEIGHT 56 lbs.
PRICE List: $6,499.99
Approx. street: $5,500