A hands-on report of the new synths, digital pianos, beat boxes and more
Roland’s global “909 Day” event unleashed a torrent of mind-boggling keyboards and synths that really do warrant the media extravaganza that the international, live-streamed parties generated. I made an appearance—accompanied by legendary soundtrack composer (and former Keyboard contributor) Jeff Rona—at the L.A. party. While everyone was distracted by the trio of stages featuring performances in every genre, I snuck into the darkened demo room and donned a pair of their new AIRA-branded V-Moda headphones (which really sound great, incidentally). Here’s a summary of what my hands-on time revealed.
Between the original System-1’s plug-out technology and the Boutique series’ uncanny replicas of Roland’s genre-defining polysynths, packing the tech into a larger form factor was a no-brainer for expanding the AIRA series.
With a default synthesis engine that could go toe-to-toe with every other virtual analog – and the ability to load Boutique-grade emulations of the Jupiter-8 (included), Juno 106 and JX-3P into each of its three plug-out slots – I expect to see the radioactive gleam of the System-8 in a lot of live keyboard rigs in the next year. As if that weren’t enough, the incredibly intuitive TR-style step sequencer and knob-per-function integrated effects add to the allure of this kryptonite beast.
Boutique Series 2
VP-03. In a bold move, Roland’s newest entry in their Boutique line of virtual analog classics is based on their beloved – and hugely influential – VP-330 paraphonic vocoder-plus-strings keyboard. Released in 1979, the VP-330 became the vocoder mainstay for artists ranging from The Cars to Tangerine Dream. It was also the primary vocal processor on Laurie Anderson’s seminal art-pop hit, “O Superman”, which spotlights the sound of the synth in extraordinary fashion.
While adjustable parameters are a bit spartan by modern vocoding standards, the large XLR input that consumes a sizable portion of its front panel (gooseneck microphone included) makes the Boutique VP-03 wonderfully straightforward to integrate into both studio and live rigs. The choice of a vocoder over other Roland analog classics like the Jupiters 4 and 6 may seem a bit odd, but considering the scarcity of the original and its trademark choir and strings, I’m kinda smitten by this little gem.
TR-09 and TB-03. With the original AIRAs barely two years old, many were surprised by the introduction of the TR-09 and TB-03 (and the absence of a TR-08). After all, the TR-8 includes both the 909 and 808 samples in a kaleidoscopic housing that can also be expanded with the 707 and 606 kits, so it’s arguably more capable. That said, at $399, the TR-09 is a tad less expensive than its AIRA forebear and it features design, interface and functionality that are a dead ringer for the original. What’s more, it also sports a voltage trigger output on the front panel, so it plays wonderfully with vintage gear. As for the sound? Frighteningly identical.
In the same mold as the TR-09, the TB-03 eschews the AIRA TB-3’s more modern interface and expanded tonal palette for a slavish devotion to the original TB-303’s idiosyncrasies, resulting in a box that will keep even the most hardcore purists happy. The TB-03’s exact recreation of the 303’s synth engine and sequencing approach allow for the kind of “inspired accidents” that helped define the acid house and techno genres. It’s slippery and aggressive and actually feels like a real 303, thanks in part to the trio of distortion, delay and reverb effects that became a huge part of its vintage club sound. I look forward to giving it a thorough workout in the very near future.
V-Accordion FR-4x and FR-4xb
While the AIRA and Boutique products took center stage at the event, Roland also updated its V-Accordion line with two more units—the FR-4x and FR-4xb. Both feature traditional accordion sounds, orchestral voices, organs, drum sounds and onboard effects, with the main difference being that the FR-4x is based on a traditional keyboard approach while the FR-4xb relies on a button layout. Also included is USB connectivity, for jamming along with recorded audio (via a USB memory stick) and for interfacing with the free FR-4x Editor software.
Four new digital pianos were unveiled at the show, all of which utilize Roland’s SuperNATURAL piano modeling technology combined with authentic weighted action and mechanicals. Each piano hits a different price point ranging from the RP501R family-oriented model ($1,499) and the giggable FP-90 ($1,799) to the DP603 spinet ($1,999) and ultra-luxe GP607 ($4, 999).
All four pianos pack a ton of modern amenities, including splits and layering, Bluetooth MIDI, and the ability to play tracks from a standard USB flash drive. And if you’re splurging for the top-of-the-line GP607, you’ll be treated to an integrated 4.1-channel multi-speaker system and the ability to select tracks remotely via your Apple Watch.