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Historical Artifacts: Roland D-50

Geary Yelton

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Historical Artifacts: Roland D-50

Roland’s first digital synthesizer changed the sound of the late 20th century.

By 1987, Yamaha’s DX7 had been the most popular synthesizer on Earth for four years running, both in terms of sales and its impact on popular music. In June of that year, in an effort to compete with Yamaha, Roland introduced their first all-digital synth, the D-50. Its architecture was much easier for musicians to comprehend and program than the DX7’s 6-operator FM synthesis, and the D-50’s distinctive sound quickly found favor everywhere. The new instrument employed an innovative type of synthesis called linear arithmetic (LA), combining PCM sample playback with algorithmically generated waveforms.

Simply put, LA synthesis grafts very short samples of attack transients and textures onto analog-type waveforms. Samples had to be short because RAM chips were so much more expensive in 1987 than just a few years later. LA synthesis also depends heavily on effects processing. On the D-50, effects include 32 types of reverb and delay, 8 types of chorus, and parametric EQ. Although some synths could apply onboard effects to their outputs, the D-50 was the first to make effects an integral part of every patch. The result is an instrument that produces remarkably crisp and striking timbres that had a huge influence on the sound of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

The D-50 is 16-note polyphonic, though most patches layer their voices, cutting polyphony in half. Programming the instrument requires that you select parameters using front-panel buttons and change their values using increment/decrement buttons and a joystick, with visual feedback shown in a backlit, 80-character LCD. The D-50 remained in production for four years, and its sounds and functionality continue today on instruments such as Roland Cloud D-50 and the Boutique D-05.

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