Not another USB keyboard controller. Yes, another USB keyboard controller. The A-500s is a 49-key minimalist USB keyboard from Roland (that happens to have the Cakewalk label written on it). Just one more piece of Roland’s ongoing identity crisis involving the integration of their computer music line with their more more traditional synthesizer based products. It seems like only yesterday that Roland was releasing computer interfaces and controllers under the name of Edirol. Then, all of a sudden, these same devices began to appear with the Cakewalk logo on them. Lately, these devices are coming out with “Roland” written on them. Has Roland finally accepted a future in which computer gear will stand side by side the rest of their products? It seems so.
The first thing I noticed about this controller is the strange shape of the box it comes in. This box is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s like a long square. The keyboard itself is packed nicely inside the box, along with a USB cable, a few software CDs, and the manual. One of the included CD’s is the driver installation disc and the other is a copy of Sonar LE along with a few additional plugins. The review unit (with the Cakewalk name) cost around $170 from Musicians Friend. Expect to pay around $200 for the current version with the Roland name on it though.
This keyboard is one of four in the current Roland lineup. The A-500s has the most basic features of the four and as a result, is also the least expensive. The defining characteristic of the A-500s is that it lacks the full-fledged control surface that the other models include. Other than the keys themselves, the only controls found on the A-500s are the proprietary Roland pitch/mod joystick, a small knob used mostly for data-entry, two buttons for transport functions (stop/play), and two 1/4” pedal inputs (one for a sustain and the other for expression). If you crave something more, any of the more expensive models in the line include a fully featured, yet somewhat miniaturized, control surface. This surface include 9 sliders, 9 knobs, a full 4-button sequencer transport control, an array of drum trigger pads, and an LCD for some additional clarity to what is going on. These more comprehensive models are available in 32-key, 49-key, and 61-key versions.
The setup is a simple process. But as usual, I figured out how to make it much more complicated than it actually was. This happened because I plugged in the usb connection before installing the drivers. Note to self, RTFM. If I had read the manual, I would have been enlightened to the fact that the drivers should be installed before attaching the keyboard via USB, not after. Apparently, if the keyboard is attached via USB before the drivers are installed, some sort of partial installation occurs. What I found out the hard way is that if this partial installation occurs, the real driver installation will not work properly. That is until the partial installation is uninstalled from the system. After I did this uninstall, the process according to the manual went smoothly. After the installation was complete, Cubase 5 booted up with the A-500s showing up as both a midi input and output.
First impressions of the overall feel of the controller is that it is of very high build quality. The unit has a solid feel which is quite unusual for a modern day USB keyboard controller. That’s nice, but a bigger concern for most potential buyers will be how the keys themselves feel. On the A-500s, the keys have a decent solid feel to them. They are smaller than they should be, with an action that leaves a little to be desired. But they don’t feel cheap, flimsy, or light like a lot of other controllers from companies like M-Audio and Alesis. The Roland keys seem to be on par with those that Novation uses in their controllers. However, Novation seems to have some quality control issues in the forms of clicks and clangs in their keys, whereas this Roland give the impression that things are a bit more under control in their factory. All of the keys of the review unit operated uniformly and consistently. In today’s low-end world, this alone is something to write about. But then again, this level of quality control is pretty typical of every Roland synth I’ve owned originating over the past three decades. Another interesting thing is that these keys are noticeably better than the keys on it’s precursor, the PCR released under the Edirol brand.
Though these keys could easily be considered acceptable when compared to the competition, they still fall short when compared to the keys of a real synthesizer such as a Motif, Fantom, or V-Synth. It’s like the keys on these more expensive synthesizers are an entirely different race than those found on pretty much all USB based keyboard controllers. On a high-end synth, the keys are often larger, heavier (though not weighted), and have a quicker response (ie. can be played faster). I find it mysterious that these higher-end keys have not made their way on to lower end USB keyboards. There is the issue of cost, but the difference would not be that much.
In addition to the keys, the other primary motivation for getting this controller will probably be it’s size. As mentioned earlier, out of the four models in the line, the A-500s is the only one without the additional control surface. This lack of controls results in a considerably reduced width. And this smaller width makes it that much more ideal for placing in tight confines like between an LCD monitor and a computer keyboard. Personally, the lack of a control surface for a smaller size is an acceptable trade-off, particularly since the knobs and sliders on the other Roland controllers are very small and cramped. At the same time though, I already have a full-sized control surface (the Evolution uc-33e) which has an array of sliders, knobs and buttons in a comfortable layout. With the combination of the uc-33e surface and the keys of the A-500s, I feel I have pretty much all I need. Having two specialized devices is almost always preferable to having one general device as well. The more modular, the better.
With the small size of the A-500s comes a pretty minimal layout. All of the controls are grouped together to the left of the keyboard. There are four buttons, each (or combinations of each) with various functions tied to them. The proprietary Roland pitch/mod joystick is found just below the row of buttons. Above the buttons is a non-LCD numeric display and next to that is a small encoder that is used for data-entry or as an assignable MIDI CC. This knob however is too small to be too excited about and probably of little use in a performance situation.
All of the connectors are located on the side panel. There’s a USB connector, a MIDI out port, an expression pedal jack, a sustain pedal jack, a multi-function on/off switch, and an enhanced MIDI mode switch. Having all of the jacks on the side instead of the back panel is an unusual choice, but it’s a good idea that lets the keyboard be placed in tight spots like between a monitor and a computer keyboard. All in all, the layout and design works. It’s functional and looks pretty good.
Roland has historically jammed more features into more synthesizers than all other feature-jamming synthesizer manufacturers combined. I would imagine the manual for the A-500s to be about 10-12 pages. Sorry but that’s not how Roland does things. The manual is 50+ pages. Though most of these features will probably never be used by most people, it’s nice to see a company that takes pride in what they do and obviously pays attention to the details. But alot of these features will go unnoticed by most users.
There are however a few features that will probably be noticed. For example, the ability to change the function of the MIDI out port and changing the velocity curve. The MIDI output only needs changing to the non-default mode if you plan on using the A-500s as a standalone controller for sending MIDI to a hardware module. Running the A-500s in standalone like this however will require the PSB-1U power supply ($30) since it will not be connected to a computer and thus not receive any power via USB. The other useful option is the ability to change the velocity curve response. For those unfamiliar with velocity curves, these are how the MIDI data output relates to how hard the keys are pressed. For example, if a key is pressed lightly, the MIDI velocity value sent out along with the note value would be very low, perhaps something around “10”. On the other hand, if the key is pressed hard, the velocity output value may reach the maximum of “127”. The purpose of the velocity curve is to alter this velocity output by processing the velocity of the original key press through a transfer function (similar to how compression works in the audio world). The default velocity curve seemed to work ok for me though. If it doesn’t for you, a few simple button presses will allow a new curve to be selected.
How to make it better:
This keyboard controller is ok. It’s actually better than most. But with just a few tweaks in the design, it could be much better. First on the list is to make the tiny keys into full-size ones with a better action. Why these small keys are even on here in the first place is mind boggling. For just a few more dollars in production cost (maybe $10-$15 added to retail), Roland could include some nice full size keys similar to the Fantom or V-Synth. Next up is an upgrade to the two button sequencer transport control. The current setup is better than nothing, but a full four button transport would make a lot more sense. At the very least, common sense thinking could re-arrange the current buttons as a stop/start toggle and a record toggle combination instead of the discrete stop and play buttons that they currently are. Of course these buttons can be re-mapped in a sequencer, but it’s a pain that could have been easily avoided. Finally, with regard to the transport controls, if there were four, it would make sense to move them to the narrow space above the keys. This placement could also allow the sequencer buttons to act as trigger buttons for a live performance situation as well.
The control knob itself also has a few issues and can be improved too. It needs to be larger and there needs to be more of them. The unused area just above the keys again seems to be a perfect place for this new addition. Just like better keys, adding a few re-designed knobs could have been easily incorporated with little added cost. The difference however would have been substantial, adding significant value for the user. Along with the row of knobs, a tri-mode toggle button could also be incorporated to create two additional rows of virtual controls (similar to the Motif and many other modern synthesizer UI’s). With a toggle addition, the user could easily and quickly switch the knobs from filter controls to envelope controls to effects (or whatever he/she desires to be mapped to the control numbers).
Above is roughly what the A-500s redesign would look like. The model name has been updated to A-550 to reflect the new design. The keys and sides of the case have been elongated for a playing experience similar to higher end workstation synthesizers. Additional knobs, a switch, and full transport control has also been added along the top of the case just above the keyboard. The pitch/mod joystick has been slightly re-centered and a touch strip control has been incorporated below the joystick to make use of the new real estate added by elongating the case. Though it can’t be seen in the photo, the small blinking light in the LCD that indicates data output has also been permanently turned off in the firmware because it’s annoying, unnecessary, and just shouldn’t be there to begin with. Unlike the A-500s, the A-550 is a serious keyboard controller that I think many would happily pay an additional $50-$75 for.
After the redesign, it’s easy to see the shortcomings of the current A-500s. These shortcomings most likely stem from having little input in the design phase from real musicians. Nothing new here. Fortunately, the A-500s still gets the job done. There does however seem to be a marketing flaw in the current instrument as it exists at the top end of the bottom end. Most musicians on the hunt for low-end gear will go for the $100 M-Audio or Alesis budget keyboard controllers. It takes someone with a little experience to really understand what they are getting for the additional $100 the A500s costs. This same person however is likely to be in a situation where spending $300-400 on a controller is not a problem. When looked at this way, the market segment for a high-end computer based keyboard controller is probably a better bet than shooting for the high end of the low end such as where the A500s exists.
Roland is the historical leader in hardware synthesizer design. This puts them in prime position to produce a keyboard controller with features that makes sense to serious computer musicians. Roland did however miss the boat on the computer music market. Companies like M-Audio and Novation swept right in and became the leaders in this niche. Instead of taking market share, Roland held onto their now old-fashioned notion that a musical instrument exists as hardware only. The result is that they are now playing catch up with those other companies who innovated early on and aggressively marketed to the computer music market. To get back in the game, Roland needs to create something that gets noticed. A product that not only caters to the computer musician but understands what this group wants and needs in a controller. This could be something as simple as adding Fantom keys to one of their existing controllers. Or it could be as complex as incorporating a Fantom-Lite sound engine that streams over USB (maybe even with Variphrase sampling). Where there is a will, there is a way, and Roland no doubt has the resources to get back in the game.