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|Author: BK Toh|
Date of review: 05-October-2000
Type Of Review: Soundcards
In my book, Roland has always been synonymous with great sounding synthesisers, as evident in the original Sound Canvas devices. Over the years, they have produced some spectacular professional synthesisers, and it is great to see them return to rejuvenate the Sound Canvas series with two new fantastic sound modules: the SC-8820 and the SC-8850.
On paper, these two modules seem pretty alike, and I thought it would be interesting to compare the two devices side and side and alongside a contemporary soundcard like the Sound Blaster Live, to see if it made sense for me and for our readers to upgrade.
The two new entrants to the Sound Canvas family
The SC-8820 and SC-8850 share just about the same instrument set, with over 1,600 instruments. A nice feature they both share is the ability to switch to the instrument sets of the older Sound Canvas series so that MIDI files designed to play on the older modules would sound exactly the way they were programmed to do.
Both units are designed primarily as PC/MAC USB devices and in my tests on PCs, work really well in this mode, allowing you access to all the features. They can also use the standard PC/MAC serial ports, or standard MIDI cables, if that is your preference.
The SC-8820 is designed for use alongside PCs and the sparse front panel attests to that. Many of the controls are only available through software on the PC. The beauty of this design is that it requires very little power and can be powered by a bus powered USB port! It really comes into its own when partnered with a notebook. One of the main problems with notebooks was that they lacked game/MIDI ports. With the SC-8820, it is no longer a problem, and you can even use the SC-8820 to provide MIDI in/out ports for the notebook! In addition, the unit is incredibly light and compact, and fits easily into my notebook bag, and does not require a separate power supply when hooked up using most USB ports.
The bigger brother, the SC-8850, on the other hand, is designed for those who seek something more flexible. The front panel controls provide a simple way for you to gain access into the innards of the module and tweak it to your heartís desire. It is just as at home partnered with a PC as it is with a MIDI controller keyboard like the PC-300. In addition, it also provides 128-voice polyphony, twice that offered by the SC-8820. This allows you to create sounds almost symphonic in quality by layering different samples together.
I downloaded a whole suite of soundfonts for my SB Live ranging from 15MB to over 60MB just to see how good the quality could be, and then compared them against the Roland Sound Canvas modules, but each time, the Roland modules just sounded much more alive and warmer. You can audition some of the MP3 recordings I made to form your own conclusion. I have also provided some short MIDI clips that I downloaded off Usenet to see how they sound on your own machine so you can decide if it is worth the upgrade.
Sure, you could always create or download soundfonts on the SB Live that sound just right for you, but the overall balance and relative volume of each instruments can be a real pain to fix, as I found out in these tests. What the SB Live Soundfont offers is the flexibility to record and create your own unique sounds, something that the Roland could not do.
However, if you are interested in standard instruments, and even a few fairly esoteric ones, Roland has probably got all of them, and more to spare from the entire collection of over 1,600 instruments.
Some instruments, such as the strings, still sound a little cheesy but that is symptomatic of almost all synthesisers I have come across, and the ones here are some of the better ones I have heard, and can still sound convincing if used sparingly.
It is much harder to distinguish between the the SC-8820 and SC-8850. For the most part, both sound pretty much alike, and one would choose the SC-8820 for its portability and the SC-8850 for the brute force and the whole 128-voice polyphony, if that were an issue for you.
The SC-8850 also uses more voices for some of the instruments to create a fuller sound, such as with the pianos and the strings. This can make a subtle but appreciable difference. Some of the piano sounds rival those found in dedicated piano modules and it is great that Roland has seen fit to include them here in a General MIDI module. This is not to say that the SC-8820 sounds are bad; merely that the stereo-sampled ones in the SC-8850 are better.
You canít really go wrong with either of these MIDI modules. If you are even remotely interested in MIDI composition on your PC, you owe it to yourself to listen to these two units. They may be pricey, but the overall results just speak for themselves. If you are interested in a portable unit for all round real-time performances, the SC-8820 is a great companion. Its compact size and USB-power gives it a real niche. If you want a unit for a home workstation and need great piano samples, the Roland SC-8850 is the one for you.
Truly, this earns our Performance at ANY Price Award!
For the full review, click here.