Roland VP-9000 Variphrase

Feb 1, 2001 12:00 PM, BY ROBERT HANSON

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So is it a sampler or your favorite loop-based application in a box? People seem a little bit confused about who and what the Roland VP-9000 Variphrase Processor is for, though everyone seems pretty convinced that it's the next big thing. (It recently scored an EM Editors' Choice Award for Most Innovative Product.) The VP-9000, intended for professional producers, engineers and especially remixers, delivers the features and creative flexibility that we've all wished for from our samplers and DAWs.

Though the VP-9000's pitch, time and formant control features are available as separate pieces of software for a fraction of the cost, the Roland unit packs all these features in one box, conveniently behind a few knobs and allows you to audition them in real time (which no software can presently do). The interface gives users a quick and creative way of tweaking and remixing elements of audio that would normally bog down computers and throw a wrench in the creative process.

Roland's advertising pitch of “Elastic Audio” isn't too far off: The VP-9000 allows you to match the tempo of different samples and add swing to stiff rhythms, and the unit also provides real-time, independent pitch, time and formant control. The VP-9000 is not, however, an all-purpose sampler; the six-voice polyphony, the loading time and the output architecture do not compare with the features of the E-mu and Akai units. But the powerful, sample-based processor will allow you to create fresh sound designs that you can send right to multitrack.

MAIN FEATURES

The in/out architecture clearly speaks to both the professional and semi-pro recording set. The I/Os include a pair of ¼-inch balanced inputs (with selectable -20, -10 and +4dBm gain settings); optical and coaxial digital I/Os; three pairs of ¼-inch outputs; MIDI in/out/thru; a single front panel, ¼-inch, balanced input; SCSI A and B; and a headphone jack.

The front panel is divided into three regions. On the left side are all the controls for loading and recording samples, including control knobs for output volume and recording level. In the center is a larger, amber-colored LCD with a series of function and scroll keys. On the far right are the time, pitch and formant/groove control knobs, the real meat and potatoes of the unit, plus a generous complement of onboard effects. The effects are based on the same algorithms found throughout the Roland/Boss family of products: chorus, reverb, numerous multi-effects and standard LFO for each sample, and they can be automated. There is also a great resampling function, which allows you to print effects to an existing sample and create a new file out of it.

The unit ships with eight MB of installed memory, allowing for a maximum sample length of 25 seconds in stereo (50 seconds mono). The onboard memory can be expanded to a respectable 136 MB (though no single sample can be larger than eight MB, even with the upgrade). The memory upgrade is accomplished by simply removing the top panel of the unit (four screws) and dropping in up to four 32MB SIMMs; in fact, any combination of eight, 16 and 32MB SIMMs will work. For storage, the VP-9000 includes a 250MB Zip drive; the good people at Roland swear that the infamous and unexplainable “Zip-disk click of death” is a thing of the past, and I didn't experience any problems with it. The VP-9000 will also back up to an external hard drive and is capable of burning its own CD-Rs via SCSI.

GETTING STARTED

Getting audio into the VP-9000 really couldn't be any easier. Users familiar with Roland's VS Series of workstations will recognize the concept of EZ routing, though the VP-9000 uses a slightly different version. Simply press the Sampling key on the front panel to pop up the sampling screen. Turn the value knob (on the right) to select the desired input source (front panel mic, analog or digital in), adjust input level, create a name for the file and you're rolling. All the settings for source, stereo/mono, original pitch, etc., are also totally straightforward, and they all appear in the same screen along with the recording level. From here, you have to load or “encode” your new file in order to audition the unit's real features. This, unfortunately, takes longer than you'd expect—30 to 40 seconds.

Features associated with the internal metronome allow you to set tempo, sample length in bars, click and count off. This can save time in the sample editing screen (because you're essentially punching in your performance to a click), plus the information travels with the file for later use. However, if you fail to properly label these elements, then you will be unable to sync samples and swing rhythms accurately. After recording and truncating a sample in the wave edit screen, change tempo and the sample length, in bars and beats, to reflect the changes.

When encoding a sample, you have three labeling options for the file: Solo, Backing or Ensemble performance. Following Roland's recommendations, vocals and lead instruments should be encoded as Solo files, drum and rhythmic phrases as Backing files, and strings, pads and ambiences as Ensemble. The Solo and Backing formats allow you to apply the formant and groove controls as they were intended.

PITCH, TIME, FORMANT AND GROOVE

One obvious use of the VP-9000's pitch control is to produce harmony vocals, which you can control via MIDI from inside your favorite DAW without taxing your system. I found that the 50 seconds of mono recording time was generally more than enough to thicken up the average vocal phrase. With the VP-9000 set to Time Sync and Polyphonic modes (which allows you to trigger the phrase from several keys, at different times, without the phrase starting over or falling out of sync), you can simply create whatever elaborate harmony you like right off the keyboard and then fine-tune it in a MIDI step editor.

The formant control is also a slick feature. Without affecting the time or the pitch, you can literally transform vocals from James Earl Jones to Alvin of the Chipmunks. The sound does begin to get artificial and otherworldly at either extreme, but that's not to say it's unusable. Another interesting feature is the “Robot Voice” function, which removes pitch from a vocal phrase, leaving only the base tone. With the unit still in Time Sync mode, you can then “play” a new vocal melody. Again, this can sound less-than-natural, but it didn't stop me from coming up with all sorts of bizarre sounds, and I've already begun hearing a number of remixers and dance music producers using this trick. The catch is that you have to play legato or create just a tiny overlap between notes inside your sequencer's step editor, which I found to be a lot more accurate. It can be tricky in places to line up the notes of the sequencer with individual syllables and breaths in the vocal track, but practice makes perfect.

I found the Time control to be dead-on and blissfully easy to use. All you have to do is turn the knob or dial-up a new master bpm, and you're there. Nothing could be easier. The unit does produce a few pops and hisses with the tempo turned way, way down, but within the 60 to 220bpm range, the results were excellent. The Groove control, however, failed to impress on a practical level. You're given the option of adding either an eighth or a 16th note of swing via a number of templates. But I just didn't feel comfortable with the results, even with the simplest 4/4 drum loop. On the other hand, drums ‘n’ bass and other electronic artists might really enjoy some of the unpredictable syncopation and breaks that the Groove function produces. I found it especially fun to pitch a two-bar breakbeat way down to the basement octaves and apply the Groove function; the result was a cool elemental texture that fell in and out of sync with the rest of the track.

SYNCHING SAMPLES

The VP-9000 is capable of synching up to six phrases of mono audio, regardless of their original tempo (the pieces do, of course, have to be in the same time signature). For this to work, the bpm for each piece must be known and entered. If you're playing or singing into the VP-9000, then this isn't a problem, because you can enter that information before you start. If you're sampling from a CD or some other source, then the VP-9000 can identify the bpm of a phrase as long as it's edited to an identifiable number of bars and beats. The VP-9000 then forces all the elements to play to the identified master bpm, which works fairly well. The overall process of synching samples is again pretty straightforward, but it can get tricky in places. Obviously, if you fudge the beginning of a given sample, then the Sync function is not going to work. Also, if you're trying to get a couple of samples to loop continuously, then you'll have to spend some time really fine-tuning your edits so the whole thing doesn't get thrown off. Otherwise, simply retriggering the phrases on every bar (assuming the original samples were longer than one bar) will keep things moving very smoothly and very accurately.

CONCLUSIONS

Gripes. I can't understand why the three control knobs for pitch, time and formant/groove don't have any sort of corresponding readout on the LCD. If you follow the procedure for sampling and encoding, then the sample files already carry the appropriate pitch and tempo information. Why isn't there a little icon following you along when you turn the pitch knob? A simple display showing the number of steps the sample has moved—or the amount that the tempo has changed in % or relative bpm—would be a huge help. And the same applies to the Groove function; you turn the knob to alter the amount of swing, but in relation to what? The sample editor should also have a playback scroll marker to make editing and identifying loop points a little easier, though it's otherwise very user-friendly; the Zoom function is great. Also noticeably absent from the feature set are any filter envelopes, and this is bound to irritate many users. But if you intend to integrate the VP-9000 into a larger studio environment, then this isn't a big hurdle.

To Roland's credit, though, the company, just prior to press time, began shipping the V-Producer software suite for the VP-9000 ($395 MSRP). The software is compatible with both Mac and PC platforms and brings to the VP-9000 a greatly enhanced feature set that deals with many of the issues noted above. Features of note include: “drag-and-drop” sequencing of VP-9000 files; intricate graphic editing and displays for pitch, time and formant; 6-channel mixing and effects routing; batch encoding of .WAV and .AIFF files; MIDI clock/MTC sync; and a Song Export mode that creates a Standard MIDI file.

So should everyone rush out and buy one? If you are a professional remixer or the bulk of your business is loop- and sample-based music (especially hip hop and dance music), then go for it; the real-time pitch, time and formant controls will justify the $3,200 MSRP in a matter of weeks. Also, from a sound design perspective, the VP-9000 lets you really mangle audio in new and very controllable ways. For the rest of us, the Variphrase is obviously the first in a line of products, which speaks of a very bright, not-so-distant future, but the current high price tag and limited feature set may convince some potential customers to wait for the next product iteration. Today's VP-9000 is a great unit, but a costly one.

Roland Corporation U.S., 5100 S. Eastern Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90040; www.rolandus.com.


Robert Hanson, Mix's editorial assistant, is a musician/producer living in San Francisco.






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