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.

Also included was a credit-card size remote control. It duplicated the major front panel controls of the SC-55 and could also control the transport functions of the SB-55.

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.


Weekend Sale Find – 6/16/2012

Well, it’s sure not a MiniMoog. It also wasn’t a sale.

Casio CA-110. Another trash pick. Seriously, I don’t understand why people throw these out – give it to Goodwill, or find a school to donate it to.

Filthy, as usual. The photo was taken before I cleaned and tested it; at that point I didn’t know whether or not it worked.  It is indeed completely functional.

Despite the full-sized keys, it’s really just one of the myriad SA-series keyboards in a bigger package. It does sound a little better, by virtue of a larger speaker and slightly beefier amp. Sounds are okay – nothing to write home about. No MIDI, nothing but headphone and power jacks. If I’d seen it at a flea market, I would have passed it up. But “free” is always good.

It’s a good beginner’s keyboard, so I’ll either add it to my “to be sold” pile or donate it.



John Scalzi – “Redshirts” Book Tour – 6/6/2012

Certainly not a concert, but a great event nonetheless. Had the opportunity to attend a reading and books signing with John Scalzi, one of my (new) favorite authors. Normally, this is the type of thing I’d manage to talk myself out of going to, but I wasn’t able to muster up an argument against attending that I could believe.

Initially I’d planned to drive in, but there were two very good reasons not to. First, parking in that area of the city would’ve cost at least $18. And second, since the event was at 6:30 and I get out of work at 3, I would’ve had to kill at least three hours wandering around. I’m quite happy to do so with a friend, but without someone to bounce snark off of it would have been boring.

The train was $11 round trip, and didn’t take substantially longer than driving, particularly with the construction on the Platt bridge. I still had a bit of time to take a walk & grab a slice.

Where are the red shirts?!?

I got there around ten to six, bought my book on the way up, and grabbed one of the last chairs. The sixty or so people completely filled the small space. I could be wrong here, but I’m guessing that if anyone had stuck their head in and asked if someone knew anything about computers, at least fifty of the sixty heads would’ve turned. Two surprises: the crowd was much older than I would’ve expected, and the gender balance was backwards – more female than male.

We don’ need no stinkin’ mics!

Despite having tweeted he intended to show up in a blaze of laser light, no one was disappointed as quietly  walked out at exactly 6:30 to a solid ovation. Noting that we were the official first stop on this book tour, he began by reading Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” – a particular favorite of mine anyway, and made all the more poignant by the obvious emotion displayed during the reading. There were few dry eyes left at the end.

At this point, he gave the audience a choice – he could either read from “Redshirts”  or read parts of a new super-secret project. Yeah, a roomful of sci-fi geeks – “Oh please, read to us from the book we just bought”. Naturally, and to no one’s surprise, we went for the secret. He pointed out that on his last book tour, he’d spoken at 16 different locations to what amounted to hundreds of people, and not a single person had mentioned anything about that particular project. After swearing us to secrecy with a completely  ridiculous and funny oath, we had the privilege of hearing a chapter of the newest work. And no, I’m not telling!


The special guest previously hinted at turned out to be Paul Sabourin of the duo “Paul & Storm” and previously “DaVinci’s Notebook”. He took part in an absolutely hilarious reading based on the concepts in “Redshirts”.

“No, I will not lend you bus fare.”

The Q & A session was equally funny. His discussion of trying to write from the perspective of a 16-year-old girl for “Zoe’s Tale” had everyone rolling – hanging out with teen girls at the mall turns out to not be such a great idea. Who’da guessed?

One of the things I’d always wondered about had to do with plotting story arcs, and as it turned out he said that while the basic idea for a story may be in mind, when he starts to actually write he has no idea how it will end or how plot points will resolve themselves. “Old Man’s War” was written this way, and was never intended to be part of a series. This led to the problem of later books contradicting points made earlier, but he treats those as further opportunities instead of nuisances.

He also explained that he intentionally cultivates a likeable, approachable public persona but is very careful to keep his private life private. Despite that, I got the distinct feeling that if I lived next store I’d have no hesitation in asking to borrow his hedge trimmers.

Since I was up front, I was one of the first to get my book signed. I thought it was very cool that he incorporated things from the interactions into the signatures. In my case, I mentioned that I came across his work by accident.

Having missed the 8:08 train, I took some time to grab a frozen yogurt and talk a leisurely walk up to Market East. Apart from the fact that I can never remember which street the entrance to the station is on, it was uneventful & I got back home around 9:30.

All in all, a great evening, and I’m really glad I went!

Synth Price List – May 2012

Format is the same, for a change. Added a couple of new manufacturers and a bunch of new models. I have several manufacturers with just one or two models; I may add them primarily to use as filler to make the pages come out even.

As explained in a previous post, the Range column represents a range of prices based on the high and low to date, but also takes into account the volume of sales. If the range is really narrow, either the item is very popular or the prices are always pretty close. Wide ranges indicate either a big disparity between high and low or a small volume.

In either case, it’s reasonable to assume that if you want to purchase something, seeing a price somewhere close to that range is a good thing.

Synth Prices – May 2012

Weekend Sale Finds – 6/3/2012

Didn’t actually do any yard sales or thrift stores this weekend. I did, however, stop at the Columbus Flea Market on the way to take a friend back home. Since I have several projects going right now, I really wasn’t looking to buy anything. But of course, any lost and lonely keyboards still tug at my heart – and my wallet.

Found two this time. A Casio CZ-230s synthesizer with stand, and a Casio MT-520. Both are a little beat up, but as usual the prices were way too good to pass up.

The CZ-230s is a bit of a rarity, and I’ll do a full-scale review later. It’s essentially a preset CZ-101 synthesizer, with built-in rhythms and limited editing capability. It’s also got strap pegs, so if I ever feel like completely nerding out I can dig out my cape,  put on a little Yes,  and keytar my way around the living room. Okay, that won’t be happening – but I could!

It’s missing one slider cap and one button, but is otherwise all there. The stand is actually quite cool, too. I haven’t run across one yet that can be adjusted to fit a mini keyboard.


The MT-520 is more common (in fact, I just realized I may have one already). This was a straight pity rescue. End of the day, tired seller, dusty little keyboard sitting in a pile of toys. I’ll clean it up, test it, and add it to the sale list.

Both of these were initially spotted by my eagle-eyed friend. Now, I’ve certainly had my share of unexpected finds, but lately the only credit I can take is for knowing what’s worth buying.  It’s good to know that when I go out with someone else there’s very little chance of anything sneaking by.

At current prices, both together would sell for around $140, with another $15 for the stand. Since I paid a very small fraction of that, I’m certainly not going to complain about having to clean ’em up a little.

A Tale of Two Polys

About a year ago I got a reasonably good deal on a Poly 61 and a Siel DK-600. Both were described as “working, but need TLC”. That turned out to be, at least in the case of the Korg, a bit on the charitable side. (The Siel is a future project.) Note that the picture above is not the unit in question – I really need to make more of an effort to take “before” pictures. Trust me, though, it was a mess.

Problems were, in no particular order:

  1. Half the keys were completely non-responsive.
  2. Most of the keys that did work only did so intermittently.
  3. Pressing down on the center of the keyboard caused the whole thing to go nuts – LEDs went random, the sound jumped all over the place. There was obviously a short somewhere.
  4. Most of the screws were missing.
  5. The battery was dead.
  6. A good bit of the plastic laminate on the case was gone, and the case itself looked as if it had been attacked by angry beavers.
  7. The joystick didn’t work.
  8. Although this wasn’t immediately apparent, the mylar ribbon cable that connects the two main boards was only being held in place by gravity and good wishes – it was cracked in several places.
  9. It was filthy.

It did, however, power on.  All the major parts were present; all the panel buttons and LEDs worked. It did make noise as long as you played very gently and managed to hit any of the few keys that functioned.   I added it to my “to be fixed one of these days” list & stuck it in the closet.

A couple of months later, I found another one on Ebay that had no bids on it. The case looked to be in good shape, but the seller said the keyboard didn’t seem to work and all the patches sounded the same (dead battery).  It was yet another as-is sale, as  they had no idea if anything else was wrong. So, I picked that one up too.

With two semi-functioning units my initial goal was to combine parts to come up with one working synth, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed like a really bad idea to trash a piece of vintage gear. So, I went with plan “B”.

Since I no longer have a wood shop, or even just the tools, making a new case wasn’t on the table. However, veneering the old one seemed just as good a choice.

Again in no particular order, here’s what I did

  1. Rebuilt the keyboard – I’ve done enough crappy Roland keyboards to have this down to a (tedious) science.
  2. Replaced the battery.
  3. Cleaned & re-aligned the joystick.
  4. Removed the ribbon cable and connectors, and replaced with regular wire. This was Not Fun – I had to solder both ends of something like forty wires to the headers on the logic boards.
  5. Replaced missing screws and standoffs.
  6. Removed the rest of the plastic veneer, repaired the damage to the case, and veneered with red oak.
  7. Cleaned all switches and pots.
  8. Reloaded the factory patches – which also verified the memory and tape interface work.

A couple of the presets seemed to be incorrect, but I chalked that up to the dodgy WAV file I had to use to restore the factory settings. Entering those patches manually took care of it.  The bottom line is that now I have one functional synth in a pretty sweet custom case.


And the other one? The electronics weren’t as bad. I replaced the battery and rebuilt the keyboard on that as well. The only thing not working is the arpeggiator.  Normally, I would be hesitant to dive into that level of repair, but based on the way it’s acting I know what the problem has to be – I just need to see if I can use the crappy schematics to find the chip that needs to be replaced.

Even if I sell it as-is, though,  I’m sure I can get at least $100 for it, which means I got the other one for a song. A squelchy, buzzy, pitch-bent, impersonal and oh-so-cool song.

Synth Price List – April 2012

Still busy as heck. I have a bunch of posts lined up, but reality intrudes. This, however, I can do in my sporadic bits of free time.

List continues to grow, and the format’s been tweaked again. There is a new column called Range. This is based on the average year-to-date, but also factors in the volume of sales and the high and low prices for that particular item. So basically, it shows a realistic idea of what you can expect to pay for a particular piece of equipment.  A wide range indicates either a low sales volume or a large discrepancy between high and low prices – sometimes, both. I think it’s marginally more useful than just an average price.

Also, a given item has to have at least three recorded sales to be added to the list, so there’s been some adjustments in what’s on the final list.

The only additional item I’d like to add at some point is an indication of how common or uncommon something is. I have the formula worked out, but need the time to add it.  It’ll happen…eventually.

For now, enjoy.

Synth Prices – Apr 2012

Synth Price List – March 2012

Commentary to come later, but for the moment here’s the list. As usual, it’s grown a little.

Synth Prices – March 2012

Weekend Sale Finds

Not earth-shaking (certainly not in the same league as finding a Korg X5D in the trash) but kinda cool nonetheless. Picked this up last weekend, at one of the first yard sales of the season. My hunting partner of the day spied this as soon as we walked up the driveway.

Perfect condition, works fine, box is in good shape, but it’s missing one of the styrofoam endpieces (edit – both of them are there, they were just crammed into one end of the box).  No manual or adapter, either, but for the whopping $2 it cost I’m not complaining (current average sale price is $46).

I have another one that I’d picked up last year, but it’s not in as good shape. The older one will be sold, and this one is getting  added to the permanent collection.

And this weekend, at a thrift store…

Completely complete right down to the warranty card. Box is a wee bit beat up, but c’mon – it’s 32 years old! Everything else is minty fresh; the manual doesn’t appear to have been opened.  This one’s also going into the permanent collection.

So, a good start to the season. It’s nice to know that even as I’m selling some of the pieces I don’t use or necessarily want, that there are still lovely things out there for really good prices, provided you know which rocks to look under.  Which is made much easier if you normally shop with  someone (as I do) who happens to be a great rock-turner.

Thomas Dolby at World Cafe Live -3/24/2012

Ever have the experience of hearing an artist’s new album, disliking it, and then finding that it grows on you?
“Map of the Floating Cities”, Thomas Dolby’s first album since 1992’s “Astronauts and Heretics”, is one of those. I had previously heard the “Amerikana” and “Oceanea” EPs, and wasn’t terribly impressed. The first seemed too forced – “Hey! Look at me! I’m a Brit relating the American Experience!” and the second, too mellow and bland.

On further reflection, though, it’s all good music, just different. Which after twenty years is probably to be expected. I find it amusing that the WikiPedia entry for the album lists it as “New Wave” – apart from stylistic issues, can that even really be considered a genre any more?

This was the third time I’ve seen Dolby at World Cafe in Philly, and the third or fourth time eating there as well.  I’ve found the food to be surprisingly good.  Dinner was roasted salmon with lentils, parsnips, and butternut squash. The only minor disappointment was that the peanut butter pie I’d had previously wasn’t on the dessert menu.

The opening act was the bluegrass duo of Aaron Jonah Lewis and Ben Belcher. During the main part of the show, Lewis came back on stage and played several numbers with Dolby.

Set list:

Commercial Breakup
One of Our Submarines
The Flat Earth
Evil Twin Brother
Road to Reno
The Toad Lickers
I Love You Goodbye
Love is a Loaded Pistol
My Brain Is Like a Sieve
Europa and the Pirate Twins
She Blinded Me With Science
Spice Train
Silk Pyjamas

Although this crowd in particular would not have been overly disappointed to have “Science” omitted – and replaced with “Windpower”  – he still played it with enthusiasm, noting that it had been very good to him.


All of the arrangements of the older songs were very well done, in that they were different enough to make them interesting to hear (and probably perform, as well) yet similar enough for the hardcore fans.  Even with sampled drums and guitar synthesis, having those sounds played by live musicians  made a big difference.

He seems to have largely evolved away from the mad scientist persona adopted earlier in his career, into a sort of retro-futuristic visionary. His Time Capsule (a very cool Steampunk-esqe trailer) allowed up to three people to record a thirty-second Message to the Future, which were compiled and added to his YouTube channel (It is to be hoped that there will be people around to view them someday.) Our group did wait while one of our friends recorded a message, but the rest of us declined.

In talking about it afterwards, we realized that even though we’re huge fans, at this point we’ve seem him three times in the same venue in four years, so it’ll be  a while before we have a compelling need to see him again. This was driven home after the show – one friend had gotten an autograph and mentioned that there weren’t a lot of people waiting; the rest of us decided not to bother going back in. Since I already have several signed items, adding to my little shrine seemed egregious.

All in all, a great show, and well worth the time.