Roland VR-09 V-Combo

July 24, 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

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Drum Section

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 over.


In Use

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 batteries?

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 split point.

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. 


Conclusions

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 12 pounds.

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

rolandus.com

 

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