The Big 5
There have been many innovations and there are still new ones being added, but some innovations have had a massive impact, changing the bearings of what came next.
In my lifetime I have experienced only 5 of those major breakthroughs.
I call them The Big-5
One can easily add a few more innovative breakthroughs to that list, but there is a reason why these particular instruments make that list for me.
Not only were they innovative milestones, they were also major commercial successes and they have withstood the test of time.
The D-50 was definitely a major breakthrough that was a huge success and is still popular today.
A new era
Before the D-50 everyone was trying to overthrow the success of the Yamaha DX-7.
Either companies were trying to capitalise on the success of the DX, or they were trying to find a niche in the market.
Korg tried something different with the DW-8000, using wavetables and so did the Prophet-VS.
Roland were no exception either, with the JX-8P and the JX-10 both suspiciously resembling the design of the DX, but still using traditional analog synthesis.
Every single synth released after the DX showed obvious signs of mimicry.
This only added to the success of the DX7, as this silly mimicry made the DX more credible.
Unfortunately for Yamaha, this incredible run of success came to a halt in 1987, also partly to their own doing.
At the big trade shows earlier in that year, both Yamaha and Roland introduced their new flagship synths.
Yamaha showed off their new super DX, in the shape of the DX-7II, which merely was a souped up DX-7, with a different but similar look and a hefty price tag.
Yes, it had some great new features and a cleaner sound, but it wasn’t earth shatteringly new.
Roland was lucky in a sense that it had drawn the right card at the right time with their D-50.
The D-50 wasn’t really introducing a radically new way of generating sound, it was in fact combining technologies that were already commonplace.
One of those technologies was Sampling.
Albeit still costly, as memory chips were taking their time to come down in price, it had become easier to integrate samples.
Roland did that in a very clever way, by only using the start bit of a sample and extending the rest of the sound using traditional synthesis.
By using a sample of a marimba being struck and the sustain portion of the sound being continued by an oscillator, the illusion of a more realistic sound was presented.
This simple, yet effective idea quickly caught people’s attention, but was not immediately adopted, not until a few decades later.
Was that it?
The combination of synthesis and samples wasn’t all that the D-50 can be credited for.
There was another first that led to its success and became a standard in synths.
By 1986 keyboard players were adding synths and modules to their rigs to achieve the big sounds created on records. This was achieved through the use of MIDI, as synth sounds could be combined and played from the one panel. This layering consequently had to be reproduced on stage, thus forcing keyboard players to bring more synths. Not only that, another trend that had become the norm was the heavy use of reverb. As a gigging musician you had to bring a reverb unit as well and program it differently for each patch.
Roland had addressed this issue, by adding a built-in effects processor to the D-50. Not the greatest quality, but it sufficed and each patch could be programmed with both a reverb, delay or chorus effect. The amalgamation of using samples, with 2-oscillators, a Dual-mode and an effects processor, resulted in a sound that was never heard before, which was very welcomed in a world where 90% of radio hits featured the DX-7.
This new breeze gently swept everything else that came before it away and a new era had begun, hence why the D-50 played such an important role in the history of keyboard instruments.
In general it’s concluded that the arrival of the digital synthesizer made analog synths obsolete, but this conclusion needs some further explaining.
Up until the arrival of the D-50, analog synths were still widely used. Perhaps not live, but definitely in the studio. The D-50 was in my view the final nail in the coffin of the analogs, because the D-50 introduced such a radically different sound, that also resembled analog in many ways. Finally keyboard players were presented with a sound that complimented their DX-7. Before the D-50 there wasn’t really a synth that was worth replacing their old analogs. The DX-7 definitely was the start to the end of analogs, but wasn’t solely responsible for the analog demise, because the DX could not do warm brass and pads.
The D-50’s qualities also gave substance to its weakness. Because the factory presets were so outstanding, no one really bothered creating new sounds. Roland provided the obligatory programmer option (PG-1000), but even that was puzzling to use. Roland also decided to connect it via MIDI, instead of having a dedicated connector as with previous programmers. This forced you to daisy-chain the synth to your sequencer. The D-50 already suffered from latency, as its processor wasn’t able to handle the computing that was required to deal with the multiple engines.
Because the factory presets were so good, these sounds were used by everyone and everywhere. As with anything that rampantly shoots to fame, interest soon depletes.
The OK Chorale, Fantasia, Living Calliope, Staccato Heaven, DigitalNativeDance, Arco Strings and Shakuhachi patches were exhausted in Pop, but continued to be used in Soul, R&B and Jazz Fusion.
The poly synth had become a disposable item and when Korg took centre stage with the M1 in 1988, which was like a D-50 on steroids, the race was run and phenomenons like the DX-7, D-50 and M1 haven’t occurred since.
Back to 1987
My first encounter with the Roland D-50 was at MIDI Town in Hilversum the Netherlands, in May 1987. This new shop wanted to attract people on their opening day and asked Roland if they could get the first D-50 in the Benelux. Roland gave them the only D-50 available and it drew many customers to the shop that day. Every single person that came in was absolutely gobsmacked. Remember, this was 1987, when you would have absolutely no idea what a synth would sound like until you played it in the shop.
The price of the D-50 was 3900-guilders, which was a good price, considering the DX-7 had a price of 4800-guilders during its 4-year reign.
The D-50’s impression inevitably created long waiting lists and D-50’s were unobtainable for months to come. Back then logistics and import regulations would have slowed availability as well.
Rack 'm up
Roland and other companies would always release a rack-version of their synths about 6-months later. The reasons for this might be because components had to be fitted in a much smaller chassis. As the keyboard version had priority, the design of a condensed version would require more time.
Roland traditionally called each rack version an MKS (Mother Keyboard System), but for the first time they decided to double the first digit of the model number for the rack version.
The only differences between the D-50 and D-550, is that the Vector joystick was omitted and the rack version had a blue back-lid display. Other than that it's identical.
My main keyboards in 1989 were the DX7 and the Jupiter-6. The latter was too big and heavy to carry to band rehearsals and gigs. I needed an alternative for the JP6’s sound and decided to place an ad in Music Maker magazine. WTB an MKS-70, Matrix-6R or Matrix-1000. Someone immediately offered their MKS-70 and PG-800 and soon after that I had the chance to buy a Matrix-6R for a very attractive price as well. I loved the MKS-70, as it was used by one of my favourite keyboard players Russel Ferrante. It was the perfect replacement for the JP6. The Matrix-6 turned out to be most disappointing.
Two-weeks after I had given the Matrix-6R a try, I had a conversation with another customer at a store. He told me he was looking for a Matrix-6R. The sales person overheard me telling the guy that I had one and that I wasn’t too pleased with it. The sales person knew that I had my eyes on the D-550 which had just been traded in. He asked the other customer how much he wanted to spend on a Matrix-6R and the guy offered a good price. The sales guy then turned to me and said, if you sell him your M6R, we'll do a good price on the D-550? I immediately jumped at the offer. While the other customer waited in the shop, I drove home to pick up the Oberheim.
I now had the ultimate Fusion keyboard rig, with the DX-7II, P-330, MKS-70 and the D-550.
Some people at the time asked me why I chose the combination of DX-7II and D-550, instead of a D-50 with a TX-802, since the TX was multi-timbral, which was another huge feature that had become the norm. The reason why I could never have the D-50 as my main keyboard was the KEYBED. To me the keybed on the D-50 is its Achilles tendon. For Fusion type playing it was important to have great key-action, which the DX was absolutely unbeatable for. Still to this day no other keybed plays as good as that of the DX7. This keybed was also used on the Korg M1, 01/W, Trinity, as Yamaha took Korg under its wings for a few years. I have services these keybeds. They weigh more that the synth itself, as the keys are stuffed with led. The D-50's keybed feels very stiff and the keys return too quickly, because the gauges of the springs are too rigid. It does however make the instrument much lighter.
Possibly the first album that notably featured the D-50 was Michael Jackson's "Bad". This was because Eric Persing (now famous for Spectrasonics) was working for Roland. He had spent a lot of time with the D-50 prototype, providing those many classic presets. Eric was called in with the D-50 to program sounds for the album.
The D-50 was used on a lot of Fusion albums late 80's early 90's.
Check out these albums:
Steps Ahead - NYC.
Omar Hakim - Rhythm Deep
Yellowjackets - Politics
George Duke - Snapshot
Ricky Peterson - Night Watch
Miles Davis - Amandla
Mezzoforte - Playing For Time
Since Roland introduced the Boutique D05 in 2017, there has been somewhat of a growing interest in original D-50/550’s. This has caused 2nd hand prices to increase a little. Why would one pay moire for a miniature reissue if the original can be bought for less? I have not yet had the chance to compare the D-50 to the Boutique D05, but from comparison videos I could hear a difference in fullness and the low-end.
I own a D-50 as well. Some say that even they sound slightly different, due to the two having different output stages.
Perhaps one day I’ll do a comparison.
We are now living in a time where the market is completely swamped with analog synthesizers, either true analog, physically modelled, sampled or a combination of…..
It will be difficult, not impossible, to have an ensemble with only guitar players, but there’s only so much you can do.
To make something spectrally more interesting you would have to replace one guitar player with something that sounds radically different, such as a saxophone.
There is nothing else that sounds like a saxophone, the instrument has a completely unique sound.
The same can be said about the D-50.
There is not even one other synthesizer that remotely sounds similar.
Because the D-50 is made up of different elements, combined with a particular quality of fidelity (call it poor if you like), it would be strange to even want to achieve that with newer technology.
The technology that was available in 1987 and the ideas that the designers had at Roland, forced them to become creative with these limitations.
The result was that these primitive technologies amounted to an experimental type design that happened to work really well.
Other companies, including Roland themselves, would not see the logic in continuing to develop new ideas with limited means, especially when new technology was improving so much and most of all getting cheaper. Hence why things became more polished, thus less enticing, so people slowly started looking for those qualities again.
Analog synths were rediscovered early 90’s, because that’s exactly what analog offered, limitations and idiosyncrasies.
The D-50 had all those desirable imperfections as well, but it was Digital, something that soon started to become a dirty word.
I could never get enough of the OK Chorale, Fantasia, Living Calliope, Staccato Heaven, DigitalNativeDance, Arco Strings and Shakuhachi sounds, because these sounds are totally brilliant and unparalleled. My favourite D-50 sounds are I-45 Flutish Brass and I-37 Soundtrack.
Just like the Hammond, Clavinet, Wurlitzer and Rhodes sound can never be bettered, the sound of the D-50 can never be surpassed.
If you want to get acquainted with the sound of the D-50, but you don’t want to commit yourself to buying a real one or a Boutique D05, Roland have a cloud-based version that you can trial for free for 1-month. The D-50 works particularly well if you are after plucky and etherial sounds.