Roland VR-09 V-Combo
By Richard Leiter
Wed, 24 Jul 2013
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Roland’s V-Combo line has always been about live performance keyboards that put drawbar organ sounds center stage but bundle in other gig essentials like acoustic and electric pianos, synths, strings, basses, brass, and more. The new V-Combo VR-09 puts some new twists on the concept: First, it’s so easy to use that you can walk onstage and split and layer it all night without cracking the manual. Second, the entire keyboard weighs about 12 pounds. Third, it has a price that we first thought was a misprint given all it does. About the only thing it lacks is onboard multitrack sequencing, because it’s not meant as a workstation. The VR-09 is for playing—so let’s play.


 

Overview

Power-up to playing takes five seconds, after which you’re in Piano mode by default. The piano section’s four big buttons summon nine or ten sounds in each of four categories: acoustic piano, electric piano, Clav, and “others.” (More on these in a bit.) When you do the one-finger-fandango through these patches you’ll be impressed by how much sonic variety is covered in such a blessedly short list. (When a bandleader at a pickup gig calls an unexpected tune, you don’t need to scroll through 30 variations on a Wurly. You need speed.)

There are two other main sections. Organ mode is a clonewheel with all the bells and whistles: drawbars; harmonic percussion; vibrato/chorus; upper, lower, and pedal parts with the ability to use another keyboard as the lower manual; a dedicated input for a PK-9 pedalboard; and rotary simulation with speed control via a panel button, a pedal, flicking the pitch lever, or Roland’s D-Beam optical sensor.

The third section, Synth, has eight category buttons with all the other sounds we rely on: fat “analog” basses and leads, punchy brass, Jupiter-8-like pads, that Harmon mute trumpet (for “My Funny Valentine” requests), an uncanny oboe, and much more.

A Drum section features 17 kits (including the TR family, 606 through 909), 100 pre-programmed patterns, a MIDI/audio song player (for files on the USB stick inserted into the “garage” on the far left of the panel), and the current must-have crowd-pleaser, a looper. 

Then it gets fun. All sounds are routed through the carnival midway of six realtime effects knobs, and on many non-organ sounds, the organ drawbars double as sliders that let you tweak filter cutoff, envelope settings, and the like.

Now would be a good time to mention that total polyphony is an industry-standard 128 voices, not the 64 we might expect on a stage keyboard at this price. 

CLICK HERE for a video of our first look at the VR-09 at NAMM 2013

Piano Section

Right out of the gate, the acoustic piano sounds are gorgeous, most notably “GrandPianoV” which is emotional at all dynamic levels and smooth over its entire range.

Every manufacturer processes their main piano sound for their assortment of rock, dance, honky-tonk, romantic, and trippy pianos, and Roland does that here. You need those presets less on this keyboard, though, because with all the effects knobs, you can tweak your piano as you play. Is your grand not cutting through on your rock gig? Dial in some compression and a brighter tone and they’ll hear you in the ladies’ room. The only below-average piano sound is the mono preset (monaural, not monophonic), which is murky. I like dedicated mono piano patches, but in this case, you’re better off using the left/mono out on one of the stereo patches.

Roland electric piano sounds have long been realistic and vibey, and this batch is no exception. “Vintage EP” is dead-on ’70s Rhodes, “Stone EP” is the same multisample through a Phaser, and “Tremolo EP” has the auto-panning of a Suitcase model. You’ll find your favorite FM and Dyno EPs, and the Wurly spits nicely when you treat it rough. Funk players will love how the excellent DSP—wahs, phasers, chorus, and even rotary—amps up their Clavinet grooves.

The Others button in the Piano section gives you a tasty assortment of accordions, harpsichords, unusual organs, and harmonicas—which seem odd in a section called “Piano” but are actually very handy to have here. You’re never more than one button press from a ballsy blues harp solo.


Organ Section

 
 Fig. 1. The iPad editor app reveals the depth of the VR-09’s organ model, which includes adjustable upper and lower rotor speeds and transition times, tonewheel leakage, key click, and more.
 

The VR-09’s organ offers three main presets for overall tonal character: Rock, Jazz, and Transistor. The first two are tonewheel models; the third is a Vox simulation that retasks the drawbars to the footages and sine and triangle wave volumes found on the real thing. Drawbar settings, details like harmonic percussion, and associated effects are so easily saved to one of the 100 Registration memories (which also save the entire state of the instrument) that you’ll craft your own in no time. 

As to sound authenticity, the V-Combo’s “SuperNatural” modeled tonewheel organ is very good, but it doesn’t upstage more expensive clonewheels like the Hammond XK-3C or Nord Electro 4D. High drawbars at fast rotary speed is where you’ll hear a bit of a difference, but overall the simulation is deep and full-bodied—not some LFO-like wobble.

It gets more throaty and realistic if you combine it with C3 vibrato/chorus. For a bar gig where you’re playing Booker T. and Santana covers, the VR-09’s organ section will do the job with aplomb. Via a connected iPad and Roland’s VR-09 Editor app, you can get to all of the Organ section’s many parameters at once (see Figure 1).

 


Synth Section

 
 Fig. 2. In Synth mode, the Editor app shows that any sound from the VR-09’s Synth section consists of three “partials”—each of which is an independent single-oscillator synthesis path.
The Synth section is amply stocked with all the sounds that have made Roland ROMplers so desirable since the early JV days: Jupiter strings and brass; jazz horn sections for stabs; choirs, pads, and vibes; every kind of lead synth you’d want; and acoustic, electric, and synth basses for every situation. You’ll be tickled by patches like “Harmonderca” with its Toots Thielemans-esque edge; “OB Strings,” which really captures the warmth of an Oberheim polysynth; and a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar that’s further illuminated by the Hexa-Chorus effect. An iPad app lets you dig deeper into the synthesis engine for heavy-duty editing (see Figure 2).

  Next: Drum Section, In Use, Effects, and Audio Examples

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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