Pros: Vocal Harmonist, Virtual drawbar organ, Song/Style cover, sheer ease of use and versatility, flash memory
Cons: Not much; Heavy and bulky, some features fussier than needs be perhaps.
It has taken Roland a cool seven years to come up with a credible successor to the G-1000 Arranger Workstation. In 2001 they gave us the slow selling VA-7 and VA-76 Virtual Arranger machines but apart from the unsuccessful Variphrase technology and 128 voice polyphony there was very little to get excited about. The VA series were also unashamedly targeted at the home user (the built in speakers gave that away), leaving Korg and Yamaha to steal Rolands crown as maker of the top auto-accompaniment workstation. The G-70, launched in 2005, is Rolands return to the segment. The question is has Roland returned to form?
(For my G-1000 review visit http://www.epinions.com/inst-review-2FDC-13E05A16-3A0C0B4D-prod2 )
With its G- model number, large centrally mounted display and 76-note semi-weighted keyboard, it is clear that the G-70 comes from the G-800 / G-1000 lineage and it would be easy to assume that it is the replacement market for these two keyboards that Roland has its eye on. The overall structure of the G-70 is similar, but there have been a number of notable additions, which I will come to later, but lets start with the sound source. The new tones are from the Fantom-X range of synthesisers, with a selection of G-1000 tones as well as some legacy tones from the ubiquitous SC-55/MT-32 sound set make up the full compliment of 1500 tones. Turning to the display the little letterbox LCD of the G-800/G-1000 and their fiddly rotary data entry knobs has given way to a large 6x 6 touchscreen LCD complete with GUI for navigating your way around the G-70. While this is now a commonplace feature on most high-end keyboards these days, I personally find it wonderfully intuitive and easy to use. Even anyone not used to a Roland arranger instrument will soon be able to whizz around the G-70 without any trouble. I have had it for several days now and I have yet to read the manual! Underneath the display are nine drawbar style sliders. These control the built-in drawbar organ (more on this later), but when this feature is not in use they are relegated to volume adjustment duties for the eight real-time parts.
Real Time Performance
There are 256 brand new music styles, although rather cheekily one or two are recycled G-1000 styles with the odd altered instrument or note tweaked here and there. The styles are arranged into twelve categories, and under each there are custom style links (similar to Disk Link on the G-1000) that allow an external style to be automatically loaded from external memory. The style section is basically the same in philosophy as previous Roland arranger keyboards, but with a few tweaks. Firstly, instead of the familiar Basic/Advanced and Original/Variation structure of the old E- and G-series keyboards, there is simply four variation buttons numbered 1-4. The other departure is that there are no dedicated Fill-in buttons, instead an auto fill-in function that will trigger a fill-in whenever the variation is changed. This allows for more fill-ins, (6 per style), but the new set-up takes some time to get used to. Roland have also learned a lesson from the Korg i-series and provided dedicated Intros and Endings for each variation. For the nostalgic among you, the G-70 is fully backwards compatible with Rolands entire back catalogue of music styles, which can reside either on memory card or floppy disk, or be stored permanently in the built-in 50MB solid-state hard disk.
The first of the showcase features of the G-70. Borrowing from Rolands expertise in vocal processor units, this integrated system allows you to attach an external microphone. Several things can happen from here after assigning the melody line from a MIDI file, or whatever you are playing on the keyboard, the system will automatically correct the pitch of your voice, however bad your singing! There is more the system can also add a counter harmony to your singing which can be augmented with one of the G-70s eight effects processors. After some tweaking of the many parameters, you can tell the G-70 your gender, and the gender of the harmony you wish to have singing along with you, along with the register of those harmonies. Some quite cool effects can be generated in this matter. Personally I find it OK, but it isnt infallible firstly the auto pitch correction depends on the presence of a solid and simple melody line in your MIDI sequence if it wavers around or is full of grace notes, ones voice soon starts to sound like a robot on steroids, and simply downright weird. Better really to switch off the pitch correction unless you really need it. Secondly, it also takes a fair amount of button pushing and knob-twiddling to get your mic set up and effects settings optimised. Once you do get it sorted it is worth it as the harmony section is surprisingly effective if you invest the time and there is a separate set of stereo outputs on the rear panel for the vocal harmonist so that its output can be mixed separately from the real-time parts on your amp.
Harmonic Bar Organ
The second stand-out feature of the G-70 is the built in drawbar organ, known as Harmonic Bars. Taken from the VK- Organ series, the nine sliders beneath the display behave exactly like an old fashioned drawbar organ. The so-called virtual tonewheel technology is authentic-sounding, and Roland have added to the nostalgic theme by providing graphics of a wooden organ control panel on the LCD whenever Harmonic Bars are selected. On here a simulated Lesley-speaker effect can also be selected, along with percussion, overdrive and vibrato/chorus. Like most G-70 features, I found it exceptionally easy to use, but I found it difficult to modulate the volume of the Harmonic Bars in relation to other real-time parts, since they are fed through a different effects processor from the regular organ sounds in the main GM/GS tone banks.
Song and Style Cover
One main drawback of using MIDI files for live performances (and to a lesser extent, music styles), is that very soon your act starts to sound like that of Joe Bloggs who owns the same data. The G-70 includes Rolands Cover facility which allows you to instantly change the entire registration of a MIDI sequence or an auto-accompaniment style with just one touch. Upon calling up Cover, a series of icons will appear on the LCD with different styles of music. Press one and you can instantly hear what a modern waltz would sound like if it were given heavy metal instrumentation, or what a samba would sound like with oriental drums. Get the picture? It is a bit hit-and-miss to be honest over whether the end result will actually be useable, but is still good fun nevertheless, and highly useful.
Registration Memories and Music Assistant
Veterans of Roland auto-accompaniment keyboards will know that the registration memories were called User Programs. Then when the G-800/G-1000 came along they were then called Performance Memories. Confusingly, the G-70 has gone back to User Programs again. Why?? Never mind, the system is still fundamentally the same but with a few tweaks. First of all, sets of 144 User Programs can be loaded in and out of memory instantly from the flash memory or floppy drive, and there are more tools provided to link MIDI sequence data and Vocal Harmonist settings so as to avoid lengthy setting up. One criticism I have of it is that compared to the G-1000, where simply holding down the write button and entering the target two-digit code was all one needed to do in order to write a User Progr .sorry Performance Memory, on the G-70 it involves five presses of the touchscreen to achieve the same end. Another new feature is the Music Assistant. Closely related to the User Programs, it consists of a database of hundreds of well known songs. One can search for a particular song title, and the G-70 will (if it is in the database of course!) come back with a preset User Program with style and suggested tones to fit the song. For copyright reasons, Roland arent allowed to use the real song titles which is quite amusing since they have replaced them with slightly cryptic replacements The Beatles Ob La Di Ob La Da therefore becomes Ob Laa Dee, and Chris De Burghs Lady In Red becomes The Woman In Red and so forth. Music Assistant is good therefore for well known standards, but ask it to search for something more obscure and nothing will come back.
Storage and Media
Users of the G-1000 and VA-7 will be used to Iomega Zip disks for storage, which at the time was a revelation, but now things have moved on and with the recent crash in the price flash ROM technology Roland has taken advantage. Instead of the Zip drive, there is now a PCMCIA slot in the back where you can plug in a memory card reader, into which a flash memory card can be inserted. Roland recommends Compact Flash, which is what I plumped for, but theoretically any format can be used. There is also a USB port which can be used to hook up to a PC to allow data transfer and management. Roland has tightened up the quality of the database system for monitoring the files which are stored on external memory, something that will comfort G-1000 users who have lost all references to their MIDI files through careless copying of Zip disk based data. Handily at a time when 3.5 floppies are heading for extinction in the PC world, Roland have provided a 3.5 FDD on the G-70 since so many of us still use floppy-based data for MIDI files.
Not a lot has changed here to be honest over the G-1000, with most of the old features carried over, but at long last Microscope editing (Event Editing) has now been included in the 16-track sequencer, and the whole thing is 100 times more easier to use with the larger display. The Style Converter facility has also been carried across from the older keyboard.
With the second OS release, Roland have included a natty Guitar Mode which allows the user to simulate the playing of a real rhythm guitar using the keyboard. Rolands now familiar D-Beam controller now makes an appearance (it first appeared on the G-1000s speakered sibling the EM-2000), and it can be used for triggering style control, real-time effects modulation and the triggering of sound effects.
Roland have certainly done their homework with the G-70. Where the G-1000 was strong, the new machine is even stronger. The new user interface is a revelation, and the sound quality has been raised markedly. Its few weaknesses have been addressed, and when combined with the Vocal Harmonist, Drawbar Organ and Cover facilities the G-70s #2299 asking price is a bargain compared to Korgs frankly hideously overpriced PA-1X Pro (at nearly #2700). The price of ex-demonstrator G-70s still struggles to go below the #2000 mark, a year ago since its launch, compared to the now heavily discounted Korg. One criticism that I still have of the G-70 is its size and weight. Surely it wouldnt have been too much trouble to produce a 5-octave version as it stands this brute weighs an additional 2kg over the G-1000 already a heavy beast tipping the scales at 20kg. Overall the G-70 is the creme de la creme of auto-accompaniment workstations, and Roland can be proud that they have reclaimed their throne.