What gigging keyboardist doesn’t want it all? The B-3 and Leslie, the Rhodes, Wurly, and Clav, the rich grand piano — such is the stuff of rigrelated dreams. If such a pile of heavy, expensive goodness isn’t in the cards, check out one of the latest archetypes of today’s keyboards: the all-in-one stage piano-slash-clonewheel organ. Roland’s V-Combo VR-700 is a light and powerful 76-key instrument that combines physical organ drawbars with the company’s tonewheel modeling technology, and throws in strong piano, EP, synth, and other non-organ sounds to boot.
Appearance, Controls, and Sounds
These buttons make the joystick do pitchbend and modulation, or control organ settings such as rotary speed.
Roland went with a simple and classy design—a wise choice, given the wide variety of contexts in which the instrument will no doubt be used. Given its dark earth-tone colors and dashboard layout, the V-Combo looks more like a clean, classy church organ than a spaceship console, a vibe that makes it appropriate for nightclubs, wedding receptions in hotel ballrooms, and houses of worship alike.
Roland does a great job of making the instrument non-intimidating, simple to learn, and easy to navigate on stage. The crown jewels are its nine drawbars, which feel like home for anyone familiar with a Hammond organ. Push and pull the drawbars, slap on the Rotary Sound controls, dial up some reverb, and you’re ready to rock.
With optional KS-G8 stand and PK-7A pedalboard. The PK-7A includes an expression pedal with left and right toe-kick switches for switching rotary speeds and other functions.
It’s very quick and easy to split and layer the keyboard, with up to three different Organ parts and two different Ensemble (non-organ) parts. Want to lay down some organ pads in the left hand and play piano melodies in the right? Hit the Split button, set your drawbars, dial up the piano of your choice (they’re all expressive and resonant—no surprise, considering they come from Roland’s stellar RD-700 stage piano technology), and you’re good to go in the time it takes for the applause to die down between tunes. One cool layering trick involves putting organ and synth brass together and using the dedicated red Ensemble Volume drawbar: Push the drawbar all the way in, start playing a high organ line, and gradually pull it out as you play for some instant ’80s excitement. Once you’ve gotten your tones, splits, and layers locked in, it’s easy to assign them to the Favorite buttons for easy recall mid-gig or mid-song.
To expand the V-Combo for a full console organ experience, optional pedalboards such as Roland’s PK-7A let you kick bass via the dedicated MIDI pedal in, plus there’s another MIDI in for hooking up a controller to act as a lower manual. Since there’s only one set of drawbars, you use buttons in the Harmonic Bar section to switch which part’s sounds you’re tweaking: upper, lower, or pedal.
Whether I was jamming on a Wurly EP sound or cranking up the reverb on strings, I found the V-Combo’s Ensemble section, electric pianos in particular, to be varied and inspiring. Nearly each one I played gave me an idea for a melody or groove I wanted to expand on. As the V-Combo is mainly a stage keyboard, players used to editing and customizing their sounds may be disappointed by the limited amount of Ensemble tweaking that’s provided. Other than adjusting the type and intensity of the Reverb and dialing in the amount of one factory-assigned effect per sound (sympathetic resonance on pianos, for example), you can’t edit the Ensemble tones. The sounds are quite strong to begin with, though, and while you only get two Clavinets, the Effect Control section can add a cool phaser to one and a “Higher Ground” style auto-wah to the other. Most gigging players won’t need deeper editing, but if you’re the type to build every one of your non-organ patches from the oscillators up, you’ll want a more traditional synth or workstation.
With a wave of your hand, Roland’s D-Beam affects pitch, filter, or volume on Ensemble tones. On organ, it can do ring modulation, wheel break, and simulate kicking a spring reverb.
Two minutes out of the box, the V-Combo made me forget that I wasn’t playing a vintage B-3 through a beer-stained Leslie. Given the immediate tactile satisfaction of tweaking the drawbars, the easily accessible Leslie parameters, and the perky, responsive keyboard, I was able to go deep after just a brief “get to know you” phase. Palm-swipe glissandi felt smooth and natural. Editor Stephen Fortner commented, “Like the Roland VK-8’s keyboard, the V-Combo’s is quiet, with a nice deadness as the keys bottom out. If your technique includes pyrotechnics like palm smears or key-slapping, the ‘clack factor’ is less than on other clonewheels I’ve played.”
For another opinion, I asked former touring rocker and current church organist Gary Frank Scaggs to give the V-Combo a try. “My first impression is that it sounds and feels so nice that I want to continue playing, and I haven’t really experienced that with a digital keyboard before,” said Gary, whose vintage B-3 is his primary church instrument. “The drawbars feel good. Going by feel, I didn’t notice them—that’s a compliment.” Gary also pointed out how strong the rotary sound of the V-Combo is: “It doesn’t just sound jiggly,” he said, and I agree. I found the rotary simulation particularly tasty when playing some Chester Thompson-inspired funk.
Roland’s D-Beam shines in the V-Combo. I had a blast turning up the gain on the Rotary Sound control, setting the D-Beam to do ring modulation, and theremin-ing it up with my left hand while hammering out tightlyvoiced, upper-register chords with my right; the result sounded like a wonderfully demented intersection of DJ scratching and percussive organ slapping. To add a unique visual aspect to your performance, and stretch what an organ can usually do, the D-Beam is a wonderful tool.
While organ is the V-Combo’s highlight, the Ensemble sounds are nothing to sneeze at. I stepped through the acoustic pianos while accompanying a singer on some Gabriel Fauré art songs and was impressed by the pianos’ depth and nuance, especially given that they were completely exposed in this setting. I was also pleasantly surprised by how the keyboard reacted to my touch, and how I was able to breathe a good amount of pianistic life and expression into my playing, more so than I’m used to with other “semi-weighted” (which might as well mean unweighted if you’re a serious pianist) keyboards. Building an action that works for both organ and piano is no easy task, and I commend Roland for striking a workable middle ground.
The only area where I found the V-Combo lacking was gutsy synth leads. As a big fan of Roland’s V-Synth and AX-Synth distorted leads, I was hoping to find at least a handful of similar tones in the V-Combo. If the instrument let you run Ensemble sounds through the rotary simulator and crank up the drive to add some grit, it could cover the same territory— but this isn’t the case.
At 35 pounds and change, the V-Combo is a featherweight champion. Setting it up in my studio was a breeze, as was throwing it into my car. Among other thoughtful additions, Roland makes it easy for you to tell the rotary speed in the dark, as the Slow/Fast button blinks in sync with it. Finally, call me silly, but I really liked that Roland included a sturdy wire music stand that you can install in 30 seconds without a screwdriver.
In their quest to design an all-in-one stage keyboard, Roland has slayed the proverbial dragon. While I’d hesitate to take the V-Combo out on a straight-ahead jazz piano gig, or anything that requires an intensely nuanced piano touch, the V-Combo is currently my top call for rock, pop, R&B, and whatever else requires an authentic organ performance alongside broader tonal variation. Flexibility, portability, and an impressively vibrant and versatile organ are the keys here, and for players who need all that, the V-Combo is an excellent choice.
Keyboard editor Stephen Fortner tries the V-Combo for the first time.
Shredding peformance demo at Winter NAMM 2010 by Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess.
PROS: Organ sounds are vivid, gutsy, and highly playable. Physical drawbars, knobs, and buttons provide an authentic playing experience. Easy to learn and navigate on the fly. Organ and rotary section are deeply tweakable. Non-organ sounds, especially acoustic and electric pianos, don’t cut corners. Lightweight.
CONS: Can’t route non-organ sounds through rotary simulator. Ensemble tones have limited editing. More aggressive lead synth sounds would be nice.
CONCEPT An all-in-one stage keyboard with a focus on tonewheel (i.e., Hammond B-3 and Leslie) organ sounds. The clonewheel section is modeled; non-organ sounds are sample-based.
POLYPHONY Organ: full, like on most modeled clonewheels. Ensemble (non-organ) sounds: 128 voices.
MULTITIMBRAL PARTS Organ: 3 (upper, lower, pedal). Ensemble: 2 at once, which you can split and layer with organ sounds. KEYBOARD 76 semi-weighted waterfall keys with velocity sensitivity, but no aftertouch. As non-fully-weighted keyboards go, it’s much more playable, responsive, and satisfying than we expected.
ORGAN VARIATIONS/EDITING 4 tonewheel models, 5 amp types with “tube” overdrive. Harmonic percussion slow, fast, and “recharge” times. High and low rotor slow, fast, and speed-up/slow-down times.
NON-ORGAN SOUNDS 65 tones, 5 rhythm sets, 256 GM2 tones, 9 GM2 rhythm sets.
PLAYER SECTION 51 internal rhythm patterns. Playback of WAV, AIFF, MP3, or SMF backing tracks from USB stick.
W x D x H 49-5/8" x 15-9/16" x 5-1/16".
WEIGHT 35 lbs., 5 oz.
PRICE: List: $2,329
Street: Approx. $2,000