Roland SC-55 Sound Canvas – Part 1
Given that there are plenty of resources available for most of the sound-generating gadgets discussed on this blog, one may wonder why I even bother. Well, there are a few reasons. I tend to run across various oddball models and think it’s worth getting the pictures and demos out there as a resource. Since you can pick many of these up for a few dollars, a quick overview and assessment by someone who’s actually got one sitting in their lap might be of use. Finally, since I’m a hardware geek I like to relate my own experiences and perspective with some of this gear.
This particular piece is one of my all-time favorites.
I mentioned my experience with the IBM PC Music Feature in the K1000 post. Basically, it was a Yamaha FB-01 on a chip. Early soundcards were primarily focused on gamers, and the IBM card was one of the few that you could actually make real music on.
In 1987 the actual FB-01 module, along with the Roland MT-32, were among the first dedicated stand-alone MIDI modules. With limited editing capability, they provided the user with a large assortment of good-quality sounds. But…
Although the concept was the same, these boxes were not interchangeable. Sounds were arranged differently, banks were numbered in different orders, and voice allocation was handled as each manufacturer decided. The initial MIDI standard described how data would be transmitted and received between devices. There were, however, no standards that described what should be done with that data. In 1991, the General MIDI standard changed that.
The MIDI Manufacturer’s association and the Japan MIDI Standards committee decided upon a specific set of voices that would be mapped to specific program locations on any keyboard or module that met the GM standard. There were also specifications for number of voices, polyphony, and many other items. The Roland SC-55 Sound Canvas was the first GM compatible device, released within hours of the official adoption of the GM standard. Not surprisingly, as Roland was one of the more vocal proponents of GM.
The SC-55 module generates sound using both PCM and a variation of Roland’s own LA (linear/additive) synthesis. For compatibility with existing games and other applications, there are also a bank of MT-32 voices. There are 317 instrument patches and 9 drum kits. It is 16-part multitimbral with 24-voice polyphony, and built-in reverb and chorus, individually selectable for each MIDI channel.
Along with the SC-55, Roland released the SB-55 Sound Brush, a basic MIDI sequencer/playback unit the same size and style as Sound Canvas. The two units could be rack mounted together as a complete composition and playback unit.
In addition to the various part controls, the front panel includes a headphone jack with volume control and a very handy front-panel MIDI-In jack. Rear interface consists of RCA L/R audio in & out, MIDI in, out, and thru, and the power jack.
I have yet to run across anyone who actual used it. Regardless of the intended function, the primary purpose of the remote seems to have been to get lost. I do still have mine, not through any particular care on my part but because I duct-taped it to the bottom of the unit.
There are limitations. Since this is in fact the first GM device, the specifications are spot-on. Many of the voices use more than one partial, cutting the 24-note polyphony down.
A common complaint is that the sounds seem “dull”. There is definitely a certain lack of high-end sparkle to many of the voices, but (as always) in a performance situation this is not that noticeable. Listening critically to each voice in isolation, there are other noticeable flaws. The decay times may seem unnatural, and there is some noise associated with several patches.
It should be kept in mind, however, that the unit was design to operate multitimbrally, and this is where it really shines. All of the voices blend together extremely well. The Yamaha TG-100, a relative GM contemporary of the Sound Canvas, has better drums, but files played back don’t seem as polished; some instruments seem out of place in the final mix.
I’ve found that when working with MIDI files in Sonar, I frequently have to reset the Sound Canvas, particularly when using any of the alternate sound banks (power on the unit while pressing Instrument Up and Down, and then Yes to initialize). If I switch songs, it doesn’t always respond properly to program change and the voices won’t change. It’s not a big deal.
There’s a little trick I’ve found with the guitar voices, admittedly some of the weaker ones present. The Steel Guitar has a nice attack and tone, but no bottom end. The Jazz Guitar is fuller, but the attack is mushy. Layering the two, with the Steel at about one-third higher volume, gives a very credible acoustic guitar tone. Of course, in doing so you lose a voice and a MIDI channel.
The 24-note polyphony has been cited as a limitation, but in 20+ years of using it I can recall exactly one time when I had to deal with audible drop-outs due to exceeding this limit. Nowadays, since you would most likely be using a DAW to record the parts it wouldn’t be a problem.
Even with all the higher-end virtual instruments and a plethora of physical hardware to choose from, this is still my go-to device for arranging new material and orchestrating existing pieces. The sounds all feel like home to me.
In part 2, we’ll take a look at some of the other versions of this well-loved box, and hear some demo songs.