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.
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
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
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.
| 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
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).
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).
| 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.
Next: Drum Section, In Use, Effects, and Audio Examples
While the drum kit sounds in the VR-09 are authentic and
punchy, they’re not used to great advantage in the pre-programmed rhythm
patterns; maybe future updates will provide a more vital selection. The
real fun in this section is the audio looper, which—if you haven’t
played with one—is an exciting toy and tool. The VR-09 gives you about
20 seconds of stereo sampling time to lay down each pass: bass line,
drum figure, synth riff, and whatever else, and you can save the results
to a USB stick. You can also use the USB connection to record your
performances in audio or MIDI form and play back audio files to solo
I’m a weighted-action, full-keyboard kind of guy. (Having
said that, I must have played a million cover gigs on a pair of DX7s.)
Where the VR-09 worked best for me was as the “top keyboard” above a
stage piano. That let me comp with my left and play horn lines, organ
riffs, or synth leads with my right. When the muse hit, I could stand
and deliver ripping organ solos or build up serious comp tracks and
grooves on a solo gig using the looper. I even used my digital piano to
trigger the VR-09, whose already-good pianos and EPs really come alive
under a weighted action.
You could show up to many gigs with just the VR-09, though, as you don’t need seven-plus
octaves of weighted keys to get through a night of covers. I did so on a
date where I was the second-chair keyboardist, on songwriting sessions,
and on impromptu jams. Did we mention it runs on rechargeable
The keyboard can address only two sound sections at a time
(including upper and lower drawbar zones within the Organ section), so
you can split and layer and two sections out of four. Layering the Piano
and Synth sections (or keymapped Drum hits with either of those
sections) is a two-button operation: Hold a sound button from one
section and press a sound button in the other. The layers appear in the
LCD along with their volumes and octave selection. Pairs of increment
buttons control the relative volumes of the Piano, Synth, and Drum
sections; the Organ section uses a dedicated red drawbar. Splitting
involves just one more button, which you can press and hold to pick a
Can you split and layer the Organ section with the others?
Yes—big praise here, as we were initially wondering if a tonewheel
modeling mode would take over all of the VR-09’s processing power given
its low price. Doing so involves a couple more steps—basically you set
up a Piano/Synth or upper/lower Organ combo, then change one of the
parts in the LCD using the cursor buttons and data wheel. Save your
setup as a Registration, and you’ll only have to do this once.
On top of any existing split or layer, you can also bring
in a drum pattern (since it’s pre-programmed and not being played from
the two-zone keyboard). You can access more sections at once if you hook
up more controllers (e.g., the lower-manual Organ part all the
time from a second keyboard), plus an internal General MIDI 2 tone
generator that’s separate from all the sounds we’ve been talking about
by driving the VR-09 from a sequencer.
Effects and Realtime Control
If I were king of the world, every keyboard would have an
effects section with dedicated knobs like this. The overdrive and
compressor are totally WYSIWYG—turn clockwise for more—and the tone
control makes the sound brighter. Adjustments you wouldn’t usually make
onstage because it’s too much trouble, you now can’t resist making. The
delay knob dials in the wetness of a preset, but also bring up a screen
that lets you pick from a smorgasbord of options including a cool tape
delay emulation (think Roland Space Echo) and various tempo-synced
panning types. Likewise, there are various rooms and types of reverb,
with the knob controlling the wet/dry mix. MFX is Roland’s grab bag of
phasers, flangers, tremolos, choruses, wahs, and other time-based
modulations, but also includes some novelties like a bit reducer and two
Slicer effects, which cut in bits of silence that you control with a
knob and can sync to the tempo of the onboard song player. It’s
on-demand stutter effect that’s a totally rad way to end a solo.
In Synth or Piano mode, the first three and last two
drawbars become sound-shaping sliders. Each slider brings up a data
window (-64 to +64) which is more than frill, because some of the
envelope and filter controls can turn the sound completely off—so if
nothing’s happening, you can see at a glance and correct things.
The rotary effect actually lives in the Effects block, so
you can put it on non-organ sounds if you like. Effects are routed
serially in a fixed order from compression to reverb, so it’s kind of
like having seven stompboxes in a row. You can certainly choose how much
of each effect applies to each section, e.g., having only reverb on a piano and only compression on a bass.
Like an umbrella in a tropical drink, the D-Beam
controller is unnecessary to some and delightful to others. It lets you
use hand proximity to control parameters like rotary speed, pitch (think
Theremin), and SFX, which is a collection of one-shot noises and
articulation variants for four instruments. On these—trumpet, alto sax,
flute, and acoustic bass—you can wave in elements like glissandi,
growls, falls, slides, and harmonics. You can also bring these in with
an expression pedal or the pitch-bend/modulation lever, but if you have a
flair for showmanship, the D-Beam can be crowd-pleasing.
The VR-09 just may be the ultimate
what-you-see-is-what-you-get keyboard. It has a consistently playable
and engaging sound library; a bonehead-easy user interface for
splitting, layering, and editing; and convincing organ and rotary
modeling—all in a seemingly impossible 12-pound package. We think of it
as an ideal “first professional keyboard” that will remain quite welcome
as your second pro keyboard when you do get that weighted stage
piano or workstation. Then there’s the price, which is extremely low for
something that can satisfy your drawbar-pulling desires, cover your
PCM-based piano, EP, synth, and other sound needs at the same time, and
sound good at all of it. Verdict: The price-performance ratio of the
V-Combo VR-09 earns it our Key Buy award.
PROS: Modeled tonewheel organ with full drawbar control and
convincing rotary simulation. Full complement of PCM-based sounds from
pianos to synth to acoustic orchestral instruments. Can split or layer
organ section with other sections. Lots of effects knobs. Drawbars
double as synth editing sliders. Deep editing via free iPad app. Weighs
CONS: Unweighted action is stiff at the top of the key travel.
No aftertouch. Data wheel requires a sensitive touch not to overshoot
your goal. Keyboard limited to two-way split or layer—though you can get
more with an external controller.
Bottom Line: While the Roland VR-09 is not the only “Swiss Army knife”
keyboard, its ease of use, startling lightness, and low price make it
stand way out from the pack.
$1,165 list | $999 street