Roland Fantom Fa-76
Korg's Triton has dominated the workstation synth market for several years, but the past 12 months have seen challenges to this position firstly from Yamaha, with their Motif, and now from Roland. Does this Fantom have what it takes?
With the introduction of last year's XV5080 module, Roland further refined their vision of the ultimate S+S (ie. sample‑based) studio workhorse. This synthesizer bundled together some of the finest sounds and effects Roland have yet produced: the pick of the JD, JV, XP and XV series. Adding the ability to replay samples in Roland, Akai, WAV and AIFF format was another welcome step forward.
As a long‑time owner of Roland's earlier top workstation, the XP80, I watched with interest for what would come next and was, therefore, delighted when offered the chance to review the Roland Fantom. Despite its name, the Fantom is neither shadowy, dark nor mysterious. Instead, it's a sturdy, no‑nonsense music workstation brimming full of quality sounds and featuring a 64‑voice multitimbral synth based on XV‑Series architecture. It boasts a built‑in D‑Beam controller, an arpeggiator and drum pattern generator, plus a large screen, a classy 76‑note keyboard and onboard effects featuring 24‑bit reverb, chorus and 90 multi‑effects algorithms (including COSM amp models and RSS 3D processing).
Running my hand over the brushed titanium surface, I was struck by the almost military appearance of the FA76. In its sleek, rounded metal frame there is more than a hint of Terminator‑style android or grim Russian submarine. Happily, under that cold surface beats the Roland heart we know so well — but can they repackage it one more time and turn up a winner? This is the bit where we say 'let's find out'...
Prior to receiving the review model, I had already encountered a Fantom in a music store in Denmark (no, not Denmark Street... Denmark the country). As I knew little about it at the time, I assumed that it offered a Triton or Trinity‑like touch screen. Perhaps I had been enjoying the pleasures of Copenhagen rather too much but, after I had prodded it enthusiastically (but unsuccessfully) for quite some time, a sales assistant materialised and guided me gently, but firmly, away. In my defence, I should say that, even though I now know this is just an 'ordinary' display, I still have to hold back the urge to touch it, such is the impact the 320x240 screen makes.
Underneath the display, and slightly wider than the screen itself, there is a row of eight soft keys. As they do not line up exactly with their onscreen graphical counterparts, it takes a little while before you hit the right one reliably every time. Thin grooves in the raised plastic panel surrounding the screen help a little in guiding your fingers to the correct key. The manual describes how the display has a finite lifespan so Roland have wisely provided a backlight‑saver function. Once this is activated, the screen goes dark when the synth is not in use for a specified time, springing back into life when you start to play, tweak, or when MIDI is received.
- Display: 320x240‑pixel backlit LCD.
- Controls: D‑Beam; programmable knobs (x4); programmable buttons; combined mod lever/pitch‑bend.
- Maximum Polyphony: 64 voices.
- Wave Memory: 64Mb (1,083 waveforms).
- Wave Expansion (SR‑JV type): one slot.
- Wave Expansion (SRX Series) two slots.
- Preset Memory: 640 Patches (banks A‑E) plus 256 General MIDI 2 (GM2) Patches; 16 Rhythm sets (plus nine GM2 sets); 16 Multitimbres; 64 Performances.
- User Memory: 128 Patches; 16 Rhythm Sets; 16 Multitimbres; 64 Performances.
- Effects: 90 types of multi‑effects in Patch mode; up to three different multi‑effects (selectable from 50 types) can be used simultaneously in Performance/Multitimbral mode; global Chorus (two types); global Reverb (four types); global EQ (two‑band on each of four outputs).
- Sequencer: 16 tracks; one song only in internal memory; capacity 120,000 notes; maximum 9,998 measures; 480 ppqn resolution; MRC Pro and Standard MIDI File type 0 and 1 Song‑import facility.
- Arpeggiator: 88 Styles.
- Preset Rhythm: 50 Styles, 12 Patterns.
- Weight: 14.8kg.
The Mode button presents on‑screen options to select Patch, Multitimbre or Performance modes. It's not quite as instant as the dedicated buttons on the XP80, but pride in the Fantom's screen has obviously led Roland to base everything around it. In fairness, it's still pretty speedy and intuitive.
In Patch Mode, the four‑tone structure remains at the root of Roland's architecture, although each tone can use two waves now, to accomodate stereo sources. I don't propose to say much here about the Fantom's S+S synthesis. This is not laziness on my part; it simply reflects the fact that Roland continue to rely on their well‑tested S+S techniques, and haven't changed anything in terms of the programming architecture of the synth for a while. For the best recent explanation of how it all hangs together, see the XV3080 review from SOS July 2000. To be fair, Roland can feel justified in repackaging the same engine for some time to come, as there are so many patches around, and it seems that most people do prefer to use what already exists. I wonder just how many JV1080 owners do program their own sounds?
Given that the biggest single stride forward is the implementation of stereo waveforms for each tone, it is surprising that the majority of the Fantom's onboard waves are rendered in traditional mono — especially as those waves that are in stereo seem more spectacularly 'alive'.
In Performance mode, up to 16 patches can be layered or split by key position. There are a number of ways to specify note priority and voice reserve too: features designed to make those 64 notes of polyphony go as far as possible, which are often omitted from modern multitimbral instruments. I would have liked an easy way to define velocity zones. Instead, Roland have implemented a 'velocity offset' function that is far less intuitive when layering different patches.
When in Performance mode, the Fantom does a good job as a master keyboard controller, whether for internal sounds or external modules (or both simultaneously). You can transmit Bank Select, Program Change, volume and pan information, define how each part will respond to MIDI Controllers, and so on. It's comprehensive enough without being over‑engineered.
Finally, for simple multitimbral use, up to 16 patches can be set to seperate MIDI channels in Multitimbre mode, which is ideal for sequencing.