Roland Atelier Combo AT-350C
By Ken Hughes
Tue, 23 Aug 2011
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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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Overview

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.

Sounds

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.

Auto-Accompaniment and Recording

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 more personalization.

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.

In Use

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.

Conclusions

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’ musical outlook.

Specifications

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 arranger workstation.
POLYPHONY 128 voices.
SYNTHESIS TYPE Sample playback; tonewheel modeling for organ sounds.
SEQUENCER 7 tracks; approx. 40,000-note capacity.
WEIGHT 56 lbs.

PRICE List: $6,499.99
Approx. street: $5,500

rolandus.com

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