The Sound, The Look, and The Interface
I remember when I bought my first Roland D-50, back in 2015. I had just moved into my first home and it popped up locally for a good price (I want to say, $450 USD?). It was in pristine, immaculate condition. How something could traverse so long in time unscathed, especially something so mass-produced, was a feat on its own. However, it wasn’t meant to be. I sold that not too long after buying it because I wanted to keep the new studio space clean, which I had converted over the course of 4 months from a pretty gross work room in my basement.
A few years passed and I reached out to my local group to see if anyone had one. Sure enough, a few people did. One person said, “Come on over and check it out!” I said yes and only as I got his information did I realize it was a good solid 45 minute drive out there, which doesn’t sound like a lot but when you’re expecting a 5 minute drive, you can easily be taken aback. Worse, I got there and to my horror, the silkscreen was pretty much ruined. The silkscreen on the right-hand side has a flowchart for the various synthesis methods and other useful information. The guy I met was really nice, but I sat there thinking “No way can I take this home.” I had to tell him that the silkscreen is just part of the charm of the Roland D-50 and I left empty-handed. Although I did stay in touch with him afterwards and bought a Korg DSS-1 and Yamaha SY-77 at a later date.
And then I picked up my second Roland D-50. It was in poor shape and had very clearly been through a lot, with scars on the front. The thing about metal is that it doesn’t patina like wood does. A scratch on metal just looks harsh. Well, this unit had plenty (and some of the PCBs on the inside didn’t look much better). But the thing played, and it sounded just as good as the pristine one I had.
“I don’t understand half of it half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of it half as well as it deserves.”
– Bilbo Baggins, September 22, T.A. 3001 regarding the Roland D-50.
There are three aspects to this synthesizer that I think are important to understand: The sound, The look, and The interface.
The sound. There’s something strangely magical about the Roland D-50’s sound. I don’t at all know what to make of the technical jargon about DA converters or 8- or 12-bit this-or-that. What I do know is that the second you drop-kick the Enya patches (no offense to Enya), you find that there’s a real synthesizer underneath that sounds amazing. I’m sure someone else has gone in-depth on the whole topic of “LA synthesis” or linear arithmetic synthesis (I pronounce it “La synthesis” the same way I pronounce LA Fitness). LA synthesis boils down to “regular subtractive synthesis plus PCM samples.” In other words: regular synthesizer plus a bunch of stuff that sounds like the 80’s. But the marketing phrase looks cool on the front panel acting all big and important and I must admit when I first got into synthesizers I thought LA synthesis sounded extremely cool. No doubt it the 80’s people were also taken by the “new” synthesis method.
For sound design, you can layer sounds (both oscillators and PCM waves) in pretty unique ways, although I most often used “Structure 1” which allows you to use both oscillators as ‘synthesizer sound generators’ (i.e., not the automatic 80’s sounds). One thing to keep in mind is that you can set up the D-50 in “Whole” mode, which allows you to play 16 notes using only two oscillators, or “Dual” mode, which allows you to play 8 notes using four oscillators. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s for my review of The Interface.
The look. I have no idea why I love the look of the D-50. I just do. It should look like Dr. Hans Reinhardt’s sentry robots like the DW-8000 does, but it doesn’t. It’s got an aesthetic I just really like. The silkscreens look nice (as I’ve mentioned). That LCD display is also handsome (the same of which cannot be said for the D-550, the rack-mounted counterpart to the D-50). I love that green text on the black background look of the D-50. Seriously, if someone can describe why the D-50 looks classy and the DW-8000 does not, I’d love to know.
The Interface. All good things come to an end. Where the Roland D-50 truly fails for me is the interface. The user interface is my least favorite out of every synthesizer I’ve used. I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to grasp, but simple things like even getting the filter to open up all the way. I spent way too much time dealing with going “huh?” and then reading the manual and thinking, “Well, I thought I did that.” I sold my second unit so it’s not like I can just walk over it to remember what it was that confused me so much, but I just remember spending an eternity trying to get everything to make sense, and it just never did. This is, of course, where an iPad editor like Patchbase comes in handy (here), but I wanted to understand everything in the way that the developers had intended for it to be understood.
Only… I’m convinced the developers didn’t want me to understand the D-50. The black monolith was just that, a big black box that couldn’t be understood. Cue the music from that space movie with monkeys throwing stuff.
Well, what about the Roland PG-1000? I’ve heard that’s sort of a nightmare to use (although this was second-hand knowledge from Gearspace and I can’t find that particular thread any more). It was something about how, if editing one partial (of which there are 4, and I think partials are pretty much synonymous with oscillators), and then you go to edit another one and come back, the sliders don’t align with where they were. Basically, the D-50 would have required four times the number of sliders than the PG-1000 provided. You might argue that when you switch to a new patch on something with sliders like the Roland Juno 60 or 106 you would also have the same issue where the sliders were not where they were for that patch. That’s true, but it’s one thing when you have only 23 editable parameters (Juno 60/106) compared to something like 313 editable parameters (D-50). On the D-50, you can easily run into this problem multiple times within the same patch. This is not so on the Junos.
I’m not sure how they could have done it better, but the reality is, the D-50 is the antithesis of the Juno 6/60/106. It has way more parameters than the Junos, but equally has a more constrictive user interface. Come to think of it, I don’t really understand the rule that 80’s synthesizer developers came up with that stated, “As complexity increases, hands-on controls must decrease.”
Dtronics also makes a programmer for the D-50, which is far more reasonably priced (here). It seems cool, but I have no experience with it. I imagine it would suffer the same design ‘flaws’ that the original does. In fact, I would argue Patchbase (or other computer-based software) is probably going to provide the smoothest user experience because parameters do update when you switch between partials and parts, although this option does lack hands-on knobs/sliders.
A final note, which relates somewhat to The Interface. Roland seems to love “Upper” and “Lower” parts for their synthesizers. I don’t know where the heritage began and I’m not writing a thesis on it, but I know that it started at least back with the Roland Jupiter-8. I just double-checked its manual and, yep, it’s there and really doesn’t make sense to me. The Roland D-50 uses this concept. The System 8 (unsurprisingly) uses this concept (and its performance mode that makes use of these parts is really an exercise in patience). The D-50 at least saves everything as a single patch, even though the Upper and Lower parts are separate. I’m not sure you can save edits on the Jupiter-8 in ‘Dual’ mode. On the System 8, you can, but it requires some fun menu diving and I just avoid it like the plague. Something about this whole concept makes me feel like they took a bad idea, and kept making it worse as they went along because they weren’t going to back down and admit it was bad.
The Roland D-50 was recently re-re-introduced (because I think Roland’s modus operandi is to put a new coat of lipstick on old mannequins) as a boutique model, the Roland D-05. From what I’ve heard (YouTube videos being my source), it gets close, but it was missing something I couldn’t quite explain. Of course, since it was a boutique model and only a limited supply was produced (and is now out of production), the world can experience the joy of surging used prices of that as well.
One thing that I found odd with my D-50 and I believe is an issue in general with the D-50, is that the D-50 is sluggish to respond to MIDI. It always sounded a bit ‘late’ in responding to incoming data. I do not know is was solved in the boutique model. A friend had told me they hadn’t noticed any latency issues, but I look back and wonder if they had really assessed it properly (not that I had either).
The D-50 competed back in the 80’s with the Yamaha DX7 (which is also great) and the Korg M1 (which is not so great). If I had to pick one of those three, it would be the DX7 (the original, not the DX7II) because I find FM synthesis way more interesting on a number of levels. Also, I actually prefer the interface of the DX7 and it’s bigger brother, the SY77, over the D-50. In fact, the SY77 basically does LA synthesis based on the criteria Roland used in marketing LA synthesis.
To end, the Roland D-50 has a sleek design, sounds great, and as some (who?) have argued, it might be the earliest Virtual Analog synthesizer produced. It is a very deep and powerful synthesizer, and although I didn’t mention it earlier, I think the keybed feels pretty good. It’s surprising just how much is under the hood, considering when it was made. Unfortunately, the user interface left me pretty uninspired.