Hands-On Review:Big muscle frees up your gray matter

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By Jenna Freeman

It would be an overstatement to call me a technophobe. But most of the pro-level keyboards out there ask too much. In order to change parameters and edit patches, songs, and rhythms—to get the most out of the machine—I too often find myself mired in manuals and mucking about in layers of menus so arcane and complex I have to take notes just to remember where I am.


Roland Fantom 76-Key WorkstationThis kind of thing is fine if you have some basic nerd jones to work out. But if, like me, you just want to make music, it's a general pain in the posterior. You often end up simply settling for the presets. Now Roland has finally introduced a keyboard that's incredibly powerful and doesn't drown your muse in technodrivel.



Manual schmanual
Pulling the Fantom out of the box, I was dazzled by its brushed titanium-gray finish and sleek design. Then my heart sank at the sight of the thick manual, which I immediately determined to do without as long as possible. The 53/4", polychrome, backlit LCD looked promising. A list of preset "Favorite Sounds" appeared across the bottom of the screen. I punched the button corresponding to "Rock It" and proceeded to get deeply sucked into an arpeggiated jam with a really cool distorted guitar sound for the lead.

The action of the semi-weighted, velocity sensitive keyboard with aftertouch was springy and firm but not at all cumbersome. It made my fingers really want to fly. The assignable D-Beam was a fun feature. It made me feel like some kind of wizard waving my hand over the thing. But since I really liked the feeling of the pitch/mod lever, I ended up sticking with it.


The interface proved to be amazingly intuitive and simple to use, with 3-D imagery that made it very easy to distinguish different levels and functions. It was two days before I ever opened the manual (which proved to be not so intimidating after all).


A profusion of heavenly voices
A few obvious button taps got me to a truly humongous list of patches. A tap of the "Ctg" (category) button divided the list up by type of instrument. There were 1,024 patches in all. I could hear an appropriate riff for each instrument with one push of a button, but I still spent hours just listening to patches. To judge a synth, I always head for the acoustic piano sounds first. That's where the Fantom won my heart. The acoustic sound was really natural and full, with no cheesy attempts to fatten it up electronically. It was double sampled for hard and soft key strikes, and the decay looped seamlessly.

Of the other samples, I was most taken with the Distorted Guitar and Synth FX patch sets, where I could really hear the power of the XV-5080-based sound engine. Throughout all the patches, I was most impressed with the use of velocity sensitivity and aftertouch for enhancing highlights.



Click to EnlargeHave it your way

Frankly, I was so overwhelmed by the vast array of usable patches it might be years before I would ever want to tweak them. But it turned out to be incredibly easy. A totally accessible bunch of screens laid out all the dynamics. Using the cursor keys, I just highlighted the parameter I wanted to change and scrolled through the values with the jog wheel. The coolest screen was the schematic of the effects routing, where I could change the levels and values right on the diagram.




The range of effects types was astounding. I had precision control over all the parameters on tons of great effects from subtle reverbs to wild distortion and flanging, and even COSM amp models. They all produced studio-quality sound that ran through 24-bit D/A converters for phenomenal fidelity.


Don't mess around, lay it down
The Fantom makes excellent use of its 16-part multitimbrality with preset and user instrument configurations that let you set up a full band on screen, complete with volume, pan, out, chorus, and reverb controls for each instrument. I was able to get a handle on this vast section of possibilities without any reference to the manual.


I picked one of the preset "bands," quantized to eighth notes, set up an eight-bar loop—all on one straightforward screen—and started recording parts. The recording buttons for the sequencer looked and worked just like a cassette recorder. In three minutes I was listening to a five-part MIDI sequence I'd just created. It was way too easy. I was seriously jazzed.


Prepare to be blown away
As I delved further into the Fantom, I found only more depths to plumb. But never were the depths murky. Rather, I was continually stimulated by vistas of new possibilities opening with every new menu and screen. Advanced features like realtime phrase sequencing on the sequencer, lots of arpeggiator variations and parameter controls, and great expandability make the Fantom a true heavyweight. But it handles with the lightest of touches. It is without question the best keyboard I've played for making serious music with no technical impediments.



Features & Specs



  • 76-key workstation integrates performance and composition
  • XV-5080-based synth engine
  • 64 voices
  • 16 multitimbral parts
  • 1,024 patches (640 preset, 128 user & 256 GM2 sounds)
  • 41 rhythm sets
  • Variable arpeggiator and rhythm generator with realtime controls
  • D-Beam light-sensing controller
  • Large, angled LCD with soft keys
  • 24-bit chorus and reverb
  • 92 24-bit multi-effects
  • Expandable via 2 SRX & one SV-JV80-Series expansion boards
  • 24-bit DA converters
  • S/PDIF digital ours
  • Brushed metal chassis with 31/2" floppy drive