The rise and fall of the Sound Module
This Roland product doesn't get the accolades that it perhaps more deserves.
If you do a search, it will most likely be trashed by many.
Yes, by today's standards this device will most likely disappoint, but when put in perspective and looking at the zeitgeist of the era, one's opinion might sway a bit.
Take your pick
If there is one MIDI device on the second hand market in the Netherlands that is consistently readily available, this is THE number one and they go for stupidly cheap prices.
In The Netherlands at least, the U-220 was the rack-module equivalent of the DX-7, sold by the truck loads.
By today's standards this 1U rack mount unit is very limited when it comes to features, especially on the sound editing front.
One could only shape the sound through its single ADSR envelope, which Roland refers to as RS-PCM, with the RS standing for Re-Synthesis.
In today's world we would chuckle at labelling these minor changes to a sound as re-synthesis, but in 1989 this was a big deal, as only samplers were able to edit a sound to that extent.
I purchased the U-220 in the summer of 2013 and there must have been at least 6 for sale on any given day.
On average they would sell for 50-60 Euros.
The guy I bought it from said I could also have his Proteus for 50-euros, which was the U-220's main competitor in 1989.
I skipped on the offer of the Proteus.
The U-220 also included four expansion cards.
These cards provided different versions of the samples that were already on board.
Some of the cards that were included had samples of Horns, Organs and Guitars.
None of them sounded any better than the internals sounds, so I decided to try and sell them.
Someone offered 25-euros for the lot.
This meant that overall I had only paid 25-euros for the U-220, which is of course a ridiculously small amount of money for something that cost around 1900-guilders new.
With the vast amounts of sample libraries included with DAW's and other software packages these days, how on earth can the U-220 contribute to your arsenal?
Well, for me there were a couple of classic sounds in there that were worth the 25-euros.
The Muted Guitar, Fairlight ARR1, Shakuhashi, D-50 Fantasia and even the pianos are still worth revisiting (more about the piano later).
Then there is of course the nostalgia factor, if you are old enough to remember it.
You could debate over what model of synths were real trendsetters.
Not one model could have existed without another.
In my opinion the U-220 set the standard for a new and popular breed that would last for many years to come.
The PCM Sound Module had reached mature stage with the U-220 and its American friend the Emu Proteus.
It was the U-220 who delivered the goods in a slightly better way though, as the sounds that were trending at the time were all represented very well in the U-220.
Both modules were priced similarly..
The U-220 could be expanded through the use of PCM sound cards that would slot into the front of the unit.
Sound expansion was possible on the Proteus, albeit through a built in 4-mb expansion board.
The library of sounds that was available for the U-220’s was vast and put into categories.
One therefor had more specific options to choose from.
If you needed more brass sounds, you’d purchase the Trombone and Saxes card.
If you needed more drum sounds, you’d get the SN-U110-10 card.
There were 15 cards in total, although not cheap, it could breath new life into your U-220 if at any stage you felt the internal samples were starting to sound stale.
Like I mentioned earlier, there is always a model of synth that preceded it, but the U-220 is actually an improved version of a model that was suppose to already be as good as the U-220.
In 1988, when the Korg M1 impressively entered the Rompler market, Roland had to counter with something that would at least produce red-book standard samples, but as with any rush job errors are bound to be made.
The U-110 was also a single unit 19-inch module with 4-card slots, 30-voices and multitimbrality, for less than half the price of an M1.
It seemed like the perfect niche, as no one had yet released a PCM sample based module at that price.
If you couldn't afford an M1, the U-110 was the next best thing for sure.
Well, instead of it becoming a huge hit, the U-110 was soon found out to be a bit of a fraud.
The main reason for the U-110’s infamy was its poor quality DAC’s.
The digital converters were of such poor quality, that it was difficult not to notice it.
The hiss and digital artefacts coming from the outputs were so obvious, that this news travelled fast through synth land, causing the U-110 to soon be ignored.
Remember that DAT and ADAT machines were still not cheap and most home producers were recording to analog tape, which were also producing a substantial amount of hiss.
Adding that hiss and crackly noise of the U-110's outputs to your track was a major annoyance.
Roland soon released a keyboard version with better DAC's, which was the U-20.
Everyone agreed that Roland should have done this right on the U-110.
After hearing the U-20, U-110 users deemed their unit useless, especially when Roland decided to do a rack version of the U-20 and include better sounds as well.
Roland tried to make U-110 owners feel slightly better by omitting two card slots on the U-220, where the U-110 had a total of four.
However, it was too little too late.
Many ultimately traded in their U-110 for a U-220.
The Demo Song
The U-220 sold like hotcakes.
It pretty much sold itself.
Sales people didn’t even have to say anything.
This was because the U-110 & U-220 started another new trend, the “Demo Song”.
These ROM stored demos were incredibly slick, especially the ones done by Eric Persing, who was working for Roland at the time.
The ROM Demo became the norm and synths were starting to be solely judged on how good the demoes were.
For the first time sales people didn't have to know how to play in order to demonstrate a synth, all they had to do was press the ROM-play button and watch jaws drop.
The Sound Module soon became a staple in each home producer or keyboard player’s arsenal, as it provided a wide array of quality meat & veg sounds, but another relatively new standard was liberating to many.
I have been using the word "Trend" quite a bit already and it seems funny that so many trends occurred around the same time, which is hard to imagine in this day and age, where trends happen a lot less frequent.
Well, as the 80's were an extremely hedonistic era, trends were happening in quick succession with many trends even happening concurrently.
We now take new features on gear for granted and often wonder what the fuss is all about, but in the 80's new features were highly impactful and not taken lightly.
One of those features was the ability for a synth to assign multiple sounds to separate MIDI channels, so sounds could be sequenced separately.
This was somewhat the case with Bi-timbral synths, like the Super-JX, DX-7II and D-50.
In 1984 the first affordable multitimbral synth was the Sequential Sixtrak.
The 6-voices could each have a different sound and be recorded onto a separate track using the internal sequencer.
However, transmitting the voices separately via the MIDI out was not yet possible.
In 1986 Ensoniq released the ESQ-1, a multitimbral synth that could play different sounds simultaneously over different MIDI channels, allowing one to compose an entire arrangement.
The ESQ-1 was only using synthesizer type sounds, not samples of real instruments, let alone a bank of drum sounds.
With software sequencers gaining more popularity by that stage, vastly improving on features and especially storage issues, it was important that multitimbrality would become a standard feature on all synths.
Late 1987 Roland released the first ever affordable multitimbral sound module, the MT-32.
Based on the D-50's LA synthesis engine, the MT-32 was more slimmed down and added a bank of drum sounds.
I will write my next blog on the MT-32, so watch this space.
Another measure that a synth in 1989 was judges by, was the quality of its Piano.
If the piano didn't convince, the entire unit would suffer for it.
It's no coincidence that the piano is still the default boot-up sound on digital synths to this day.
This is perhaps another reason why the U-220 sold better than the Proteus, because Emu had not put a very convincing sounding piano sample in there.
The U-220 piano had sparkle and punch, which stood out in the dance oriented productions of the day.
Even when you hear that sound now, you will be surprised at how well it holds up for something that is almost 30-years old.
Where can you hear the U-220?
There was a Dutch group in 1990 by the name of Ten Sharp, who used the U-220 exclusively on their album Below the Waterline.
The single that came off that album, “You”, was a massive hit all over Europe and abashedly featured the piano.
Even Tom Coster, Jazz-Fusion keyboardist with Vital Information, didn't shy away from using the U-220 piano, even on the actual album recordings, for which you would expect a Jazz player to use a real piano.
The muted guitar sound is another classic, which can be heard on "Benefit of The Doubt" by Pebbles, produced by Babyface and L.A. Reid.
The muted-guitar sound consists of two samples, a dampened note and a plucked note, which uses key-switching through velocity to select between the two.
The U-110 & U-220 have produced quite a number of offspring.
Its DNA can be found in many models of Roland synths that followed, so its significance extends further beyond what we have covered so far.
Many of the sounds were passed on to the JV series of synths and even the D-70 and JD-990 used a few of the famed samples.
Roland made a budget line of modules under the name of Soundcanvas, which also sounded very much like it used the U-series of sounds.
The U-220 is possibly the most bear-bone PCM sound module that you can find out there.
Don't expect amazing evolving patches with loads of effects.
There was no way of adding modulation to sounds either.
It wasn't even possible to combine sounds, unless you did this through your sequencer.
There's a single ASDR envelope, but forget about a Filter.
There's a decent Reverb and Chorus effect on board, but this would apply to the entire unit.
The individual outputs on the back allowed you to route sounds to their own effects on a mixer.
The sounds definitely have their own character.
Even though the samples are spect to the red-book standard (CD quality), Roland would have used some data compression algorithm to squeeze the sounds into the small memory blocks available then.
Engineers at Roland would have also applied recording techniques to maximise optimum sound quality for the short samples, so they could pick the best that would work across the entire keyboard, without sounding unrealistic.
Nowadays samples are not limited to time anymore.
Even though the DAC's (digital to Analog Converters) were improved from the U-110 to the U-220, this was still early stages in the digital converter developments, so this would also have added to the sound character.
Anti-aliasing filtering was applied as well, which can mostly be heard when playing samples in the lower registers.
One could use this to their advantages as well, creating Depeche Mode type of textures.
Even though this module is very limited and outdated, I still think it’s somewhat of a legend in its own right.
You may think to yourself, why should I get this thing?
Well, I would say that it's a great way of getting an idea of where the Rompler story began.
You will get a taste of what it was like in 1989 to own one of these.
Challenge yourself in producing a track with solely a U-220, so you might appreciate what is available to us now.
Some sounds will definitely still be usable in modern productions, if you use them creatively.
You might even make some sort of Retrowave type of music, in which the U-220 can provide you with some typical late 80's style sounds.
Yes, it was not the first Rompler, that would probably fall to the Kurzweil K-250, but the U-220 was definitely one of the first affordable Romplers that set the bar really high, so I consider it a fairly significant piece of technology.
Depending on how many were sold in your particular country, prices may vary, but chances are that you can pick one up for very little money.
The MIDI Sound-Module days are gone.
Few to none are being made today.
Manufacturers have stopped making modules of their workstations, because people use their laptops as sound modules these days.
If you delve into the yesteryears of the sound-module, you will be amazed at how many models were produced throughout the 90's and naughties.
It would take a while to list them all here.
The U-220 was at the forefront of this revolution and so it deserves to be agknowledged as such.