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Review and History of the Roland Fantom G
The History of the Fantom Line
Keyboard workstations have been around a while. While definitions will vary, I define a true workstation as a keyboard that is designed to do a full piece of instrumental music. So that will include 1) a large set of preset sounds covering many different types of music, 2) a sequencer, and 3) a sampler. There are only a few bona fide workstations on the mass market and they are often referred to as the "big 4". Yep, Korg M3 (and the Tritons), Motif , Kurzweil an, of course, the Fantoms. All four have their own ancestry that dates back to the days when MIDI was king. The Motif dates back through the EX7, EX5; the M3 goes back to the Trinity (and to the prototype Oasys). The Kurzweil K2600, perhaps the longest lived line travels back to the late 80s with the K2000. But in this article, we are going to look at the lineage of the today's Fantom G, it's family tree, so to speak.
The JV/XP Lineage
These include the JV 30/ JV 1080/ JV2080/ JV1010/ XP80/ XP60/ XP50/ XP30
The Fantom's sample playback synth engine can be traced back to what I will call the XP80 engine. The XP80 was the top of the line of several synths that had the same engine. This family of products included the JV1080, JV2080, JV1010 modules and the XP60, XP50, and XP30 synths. All of these synths were 16 channel multi-timbral. Usually the differences were centered around expansion slots, type of keyboard and display and number and type of outputs. For example, the low cost JV1010 had no keyboard, only 2 unbalanced outs, only a 2 character display, included the "Session" JV80 board and had one open JV30 slot. Oddly, one of the least expensive, the XP30, offered the most bang for the buck as it hardwired in the techno, orchestral and session JV80 boards and gave you one more open slot. Strangely on the XP80, the most expensive, the 4 expansion slots were empty. You had to pay more to get less!
The sound of these boards and modules were almost indistinguishable, and uniformly excellent. Many of the synth patches in these boards are also in the newest Fantoms.
The XV Lineage
XV88/ XV3080/ XV5050/ XV2020
The XV engine saw the introduction of the 64 MB SRX series expansion boards. This was mind-blowing as at the time most whole synths only had an 8 to 32 MB sample playback rom.
With the XV88 we see the D-Beam controller and 4 data sliders. The XV88 had 128 voices of polyphony and was expandable by 2 SRX boards and 2 JV80 boards. The "core" 64 mb rom was introduced with the XV series which was going to be standard through the Fantom S and X, though often reprogrammed with different presets.
Non of the synths above had sampling or loaded user samples yet. While Yamaha, Kurweil and Korg already were adding sampling to their flagships, Roland was lagging behind the group. Dedicated samplers from Akai and Emu were in their heyday, and it looked like Roland was going to sit on the side until...
The ability to load samples is finally grafted on to The XP80 engine in Roland's flagship module, the XV5080. The unit did not sample, per se, like a dedicated sampler. Instead it featured a SCSI port for loading samples from Roland and Akai sample CD Roms on an optional SCSI CD Rom player. This allowed the user to load custom sample material into the XV engine and tweak it with the XV's filters, effects, envelopes, etc. The XV5080 could take up to 128 MB of sample memory.
Otherwise The XV5080 had the same 64 MB Rom. It gave you a choice of 4 SRX cards or JV80 cards. When maxed with memory, and SRX cards, you had 512 MB of sampled material as sources for synth programs. The main competition for the XV5080 were the Triton and Kurzweil Rack synths. It was the XV5080 that set the stage for the later Fantom's sample engine. Even today a fully expanded XV5080 would be a tremendous value.
Above you see the first Fantom which had 64 voices 1,024 Patches (640 Preset, 128 User and 256 GM2 sounds), plus 29 rhythm sets. The Fantom was based on the XV-5080 sound engine, but had no sampling in its debut version. To me, the first Fantom seemed to be a glitzed up but stripped down version of the to-die-for XV5080. Note that Roland started caring more for the look and advertising appeal. (After all, naming your products two letters and 4 numbers was hardly evocative.) The Fantom at once conjured up a powerful, shadowy image. But no one was fooled by the sound. It was the same XV engine, that had evolved from the previous JV engine.
The big news with the early Fantom was the 320 x 240 pixel graphic display. It looked like a little TV screen on the front panel. The Fantom also had Roland's onboard d-beam controller which allowed one to control the synth with hand movements, adding to its shadowy mystique. Under the hood we see the debut of the Fantom's pattern and phrase based sequencer. This type of sequencer allows for the looping of drum patterns, basslines and arpeggios. As hip hop took a strong hold on popular music, the shadowy Fantom was there to make the beat. The original Fantom (The FA-76) did not have sampling or any user sample playback facility.
The Fantom S (larger Pic)
The Fantom S marked the true arrival of the Fantom as a complete workstation. The "S" in the Fantom S stood for the sampling version. Finally real sampling is added and integrated nicely with the sequencer by way of the 16 rubberized drum pads. SRX capacity was increased to 4 boards and the JV80 board slots were removed.
The cool thing is the onboard drum pads, 16 total, along with hold and roll buttons for getting a DJ thing going. Not quite as good-feeling as pads on the MPC2000 (which are larger), but these worked quite well. You can assign the pads to a different midi channel so it is possible to record both drums and keys at the same time. You could assign sequences to the pads as well as samples.
Also revolutionary in the Fantom S was the ability to transfer samples both ways via USB to a computer, finally putting an end to the nightmare of SCSI.
I have a Fantom S-88 here in the TweakLab. As a synth, it is everything those using JVs and XVs could have ever wanted in a synth. Big screen for programming, huge library, monster sound palette. Maxed out with SRX cards and sample ram, very few synths today can touch it. It just goes to show how Roland, who started out behind the 8 ball in terms of sampling, leaped way ahead of the competition and the X and now the G will only further that lead.
The Fantom S and X and its Sounds
Here is where the Fantom truly began to shine, in the synthesis department. The Fantom S came with a 64 meg rom. The Fantom S had 640 factory patches in 5 banks plus a 256 patch GM2 bank and a 256 User Bank. You can have another 256 patch bank on the Card too. So we were way over 1000 patch locations without any SRX cards loaded. The Fantom X has a 128 MB Rom, and 3 additional banks of 128 presets. Remember loading and saving banks by sysex? While you could still do this if you wanted, USB transfer also worked with files that contain synth banks. While the Fantom can only access one specially named bank from the card, you could swap that as often as you like or keep several banks on there an rename the one you want to use.
The XV synthesis engine allows for 4 stereo voices per patch. Each voice has a left and right side and yes you can mix and match the left side of a cello with the right side of a viola for example. Nice. The patch structure follows the same basic flow as all Roland sample-playback synths, very straightforward. The filters are quite good sounding and velocity and controller settings are just where I like them. The Fantom comes with a patch editor and librarian software, but with the excellent graphics on the keyboard's screen, you might prefer doing it there.
View the Fantom X-88 (larger pic)
The Fantom X and S versions are similar. The newer X version has a full color display while the S version is monochrome. The color display was definitely nicer to look at, but the Fantom S's 320x240 pixels, four-shade LCD is not bad at all. The graphics on the X were much improved.
The synth engine is expanded on the Fantom X, with the provision of a 128MB rom to replace the 64 MB one. I am thinking they may have added another 64MB on top of the Fantom S 64MB as many patches are compatible. It is clear that Roland provided a new set of presets with the X version.
Physically, the 88 key versions are huge and heavy. On both the S and X there's 4 real time controller knobs that do triple duty, a D Beam controller, and a joystick controller that does both pitch and mod wheel duties.
One major difference between the S and X versions is that the X has better facilities for recording audio. A firmware and rom update added audio recording. Basically, this allowed you to use the units sample ram for linear audio recording. But to fully use the Fantom as an audio recorder, you'd have to add a mixer or at least a Mic preamp.
The Sequencer of the Fantom X and S
The Fantom's sequencer, which while it's not going to rival Cubase or Logic, is full featured, more so than the Motif and Triton sequencers in my opinion. Roland designed a tasteful GUI that combines a rudimentary arrange screen, piano roll editor, event list editor and 16 channel mixer which hooks directly into the effects editors and patch library. Its very nice how these play together.
Recording on the Fantom is easy. Find a patch, press sequencer, then the big red record button. Cursor down to the next track, set to channel 2, press the reset button, then record again. There's a good metronome and it will quantize as notes are being input if you want. You can also do loop (cycle) recording with adjustable punch in/out points and can filter out aftertouch data. Things get a little harder as the song gets more complex simply because you can only see 16 measures on the arrangement screen, which will scroll with the song position line.
The New Fantom G
The current version of the Fantom was introduced at Winter Namm 2008 and is now in the stores. It no longer features SRX expansion boards but has a 256 MB Rom, which is supposed to include the best material from the SRX series. You can expand the Fantom G with two ARX expansion boards. The display is 8.5 in wide color LCD with the ability to use a mouse to navigate it. Other convenient features include combo XLR and TRS connector, phantom power for condenser mics, Hi-Z input for guitar and bass, and line input. So you don't need a mixer or a preamp to record audio on the G.
USB functions are improved and supports audio as well as MIDI. You can use USB to connect to software editors and to USB memory devices for backing up your data.
Roland simplified the terminology with the G. Instead of
Patch, Mixer and Layer/Split mode, the G calls them Single, Studio and Live Mode.
To fully use the large display, the Fantom G's sequencer was revamped. The sequencer in the Fantom G now includes 24 audio tracks in addition to 128 MIDI tracks. If recording track at a time, the Fantom G could easily work as your multi-track recorder and MIDI sequencer. There is no hard drive though. You can install up to 512MB (32MB pre-installed) of memory for samples and audio tracks. That's about 108 minutes of mono tracks/samples at 16bit/44.1. You can store these on USB mass storage devices. The idea here is to buy some ram (optional) to bring the G up to 544 MB, then as you add your own tracks and samples save to a USB memory stick.
Screenshot of the Fantom G's Display (click to enlarge)
Sounds on the G: 1,664 presets plus 256 GM2 sounds. 64 kits and 9 GM2 kits. Lets do the math. That's 1,993 different keymaps to select from. You can create 512 unique patches and 64 kits in User memory so lets up that number to 2,569. Now we are talking.
The FX engine is quite impressive on the Fantom G. Finally you can have up to 22 FX routings in multi timbral mode, far exceeding the competition. Each sound has a PFX (patch multi FX) that works even in multi timbral mode. Compare that to the Fantom S with 3 insert FX, 2 global effects and a mastering compressor. We've come a long way, G! (Sorry, had to do that).
I played the 88 key version of the Fantom G and was surprised at the board's responsiveness. My Fantom S has a sluggish heavy action in comparison. The G felt lighter, and much faster. Naturally it has velocity and aftertouch
Expanding your G
Roland says "Each ARX board is a synth itself, powered by Roland’s proprietary SuperNATURAL sound technology for organic, emotional expression. Optimized effects and custom graphic interfaces are exclusive to each ARX board. ARX allows you to create unique instruments with the highest-quality sounds and organic control." For the ARX-01 Drums, you can craft the drum the way you want, including shell depth, muffling. Many of the parameters available on Roland's V-drums are available.
On the ARX-02, the Electric Piano Expansion board, one gets different amp model and can control the position of the pickup.
I am reminded how on the Oasys, Korg included models of the Korg MS20. One wonders how many ARX boards will be coming out and if 2 slots are going to be enough. Time will tell, but my guess would be that if the G is a hit, Roland will find a way to get us more ARX boards in our studio.
Fantom Comparison Chart
Unique Features to the Fantom Line
The thing that distinguishes the Fantoms from the Motif and Triton/M3 is the interface and the pads. The pads have many functions. They are amazingly flexible and well implemented. You can put single samples on them, whole drum patterns on them, individual drum hits, or my favorite, you can put full 16 channel sequences on each pad. Or you can mix it all up, have a bunch of sampled phrases, some drum hits, some sequences, some drum patterns. Then when you are ready play the whole song on the pads as your record the whole shot in Song mode.
The pads work well both in Song and Pattern modes. Both modes are 16 way multi timbral. You can overdub patterns with drums, basslines, strings, whatever you want. You can place patterns in Songs. Whatever you place on the pads is available in both modes
You can use the dynamic pads much like a drum machine. It comes with preset patterns and you can roll your own. You can drop in patterns into the sequencer tracks or place a set of patterns on the pads or record them and change patterns in real time. You can also record in real time of course, then edit in the piano roll editor to get it perfected. Those with drum machine skills will like this; and those with sequencer mapping skills will also like the approach here.
The pads give the Fantom song creation possibilities like the MPC series of samplers has. You can assign your own samples to the pads or assign drum kits or other instruments.
The Fantom Sampler
The Fantom's "Skip Back Sampling" is an incredible tool. Its perfect for recording a phrase or resampling whatever is going on in your Fantom and assigning to the pads.
It's newness is the Fantom's strength and perhaps its weakness. It's what it does not have that is important--SCSI! The Fantom has a new USB sample transfer scheme which is revolutionary and simplifying the chore of getting sounds into the box of ivories. This makes the sampling process incredibly easy. Gone are the hard drives and dedicated CD rom devices. Instead, the Fantom S uses Smart Media cards up to 128 megs as storage and as the medium of transferring samples to the computer. You connect by USB and open the card's directory on your PC or Mac. There you can drop in samples or copy them to your computer's hard drive. The newer Fantom X allows you to use PC cards and Compact Flash cards for even greater storage.
But all is not perfect. One thing the older SCSI workstations and even Roland's own XV5080 sound module did is they imported Akai and other formats of sample CD roms. The Fantom can't do this, and while it can import any sample you want in .WAV or .AIF format, it cannot load the presets that tie the samples together as multisample instruments. Yep, you have to program the instruments from scratch if you want to do that. What you can do easily is assign samples to the 16 dynamic pads or to the keyboard. This means that this is probably not the sampler you want if you are building sampled pianos. It's more for the rip and ready type sampling of phrases, hits, beats and stabs that are popular these days. The feature called "skip back sampling" is well designed for this. Just get a few interesting sounds going either by playing by hand or in the sequencer or connected to the audio inputs and press the cool-looking illuminated blue button. Your sample is recorded and a screen asks you whether you want to assign it to a pad or the keyboard. Its playable instantly. And it sounds really true. It's this feature that makes the Fantom unique
The SRX cards for the Fantom S and X
Lets not forget that your SRX cards are not going to work in the Fantom G.
Each expansion board is 64 megs and each has a different number of waveforms, patches, performances and kits. For example, the Supreme Dance Card adds 312 presets and 34 drum kits while others, like Symphonique Strings, only add 128 patches but have longer higher quality waveforms. By the time I max the Fantom out we'll be around 2000 or so which is a huge palette of sounds. And, they are well-organized, thanks to the thoughtfully laid out librarian functions. It's so good that I may end up turning off program changes on my computer sequencer and selecting patches from the Fantom itself.
Many of the SRX cards are a compilation of the presents and samples off the previous JV-80 cards. For example, SRX-09 "World Collection" includes waves from SR-JV80-05/14/17/18. The Complete Orchestra has all waveforms from SR-JV80-02/13/16 and select waves from SR-JV80-07. Others like Symphoniqe strings and Big Brass are newer.
So which SRX cards to get? Hey, its going to depend. My choices: The Complete Orchestra is great. Especially if you are wanting a modern pop orchestra sound. Has tons of hits as well as solos and ensembles. Symphonique Strings is wonderful--but only if you are writing string sections. You get a string ensemble in many different articulations--its all ensemble strings!
The World Collection is pretty amazing. More presets than the others. Supreme Dance rounds out my 4 slots. Has some interesting brass hits and stuff you can drop on a track, some cool kits and nasty analog synth emulations, all hyped up as one would expect. If you are into the SRX thing, note that the Fantom XR (rack) has 6 slots compared to 4 on the Fantom X.
The Fantom works well in all the sequencers I've tried. Getting all those patchnames in the sequencer is always a trick, but thanks to the dedicated Fantom site at www.fantomized.info you can find patch scripts for Sonar, Logic and Cubase and Nuendo.
Wrapping it up
Ok, I've traced the Fantom back to its early synths. You should be able to see how powerful of a synthesizer it is. You should also be noting that at its core the Fantom still has remnants of the earliest JV engine.
Perhaps most perplexing is why Roland would remove the SRX expansion boards from the Fantom G. As a Fantom S owner, I was hoping for more SRX slots, so if I were to replace my Fantom S with a G, I'd actually lose a lot of sounds. Yet the ARX expansion options hold a lot of promise. Having an onboard equivalent of the Roland V Drum library is pretty awesome.
Great Fantom support Links
Roland Fantom Support Documents There's some great tutorials you can read online. While these are written for the Fantom X, Fantom S users will also benefit.
Fantomized.info The worldwide Community of Fantom S/X Users. You'll find sequencer templates, patch banks, free samples, online tutorials, and a well run discussion board. A great website!
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