Technology

Roland VS-2480

With the VS-2480, Roland makes a concerted bid to define the current, state-of-the-art, integrated recording/mixing systems. It's an impressive showing, 2/01/2002 7:00 AM Eastern

With the VS-2480, Roland makes a concerted bid to define the current, state-of-the-art, integrated recording/mixing systems. It's an impressive showing, with a combination of features and functions that place the VS-2480 as close as anyone has gotten to the true “studio-in-a-box.”

OUT OF THE BOX

The VS-2480 ($4,495 MSRP, with internal 30GB hard drive and one VS8F-2 dual-effects processor card) combines 8/16-bus input and output mixers with an internal 24-track recorder/editor, extensive internal effects processing, 24-button phrase sampler, CD burner and mastering operations, with SMPTE and MIDI integration.

You can choose 24- or 16-bit operation; sample rates range from 32 to 96 kHz, with some reduction in the number of record/play channels at higher rates. The VS-2480 offers ample expansion opportunity. A mouse is included, and using it is recommended. An external VGA connector provides expanded views of the unit's major functions beyond what's on the onboard LCD. A standard PS-2 keyboard connector makes it much easier to adjust onscreen parameters, name songs and tracks, and more. The optional MB-24 meter bridge ($895) provides 24 channels of full-size, illuminated level monitoring, as well as locator information.

Additional input and output devices can be added to the 2480 via two R-BUS connectors on the rear panel, with word-clock input on a single BNC connector. R-BUS is Roland's proprietary, multichannel digital I/O and control bus, carrying up to eight channels of 24/96 audio on standard DB-25 connectors, along with track arming, record and other control information.

The 2480's dual R-BUS connectors can be used to connect the unit directly to other Roland products, including the VM-7000 digital mixer series, the XV-5080 128-voice synth/sampler module and the VSR-880 studio recorder module.

Optional external interfaces provide linkage to ADAT and Tascam DA Series recorders, or other devices that use ADAT or TDIF audio buses (DIF-AT, $395), 8-channel blocks of 24-bit analog input (with mic pre's and phantom power) and output (ADA-7000, $1,245 MSRP), and AES-EBU or S/PDIF I/O (AE-7000, $645).

The VS-2480 also includes a single-channel pair of coaxial S/PDIF input and output and a separate optical channel pair. Any combination of R-BUS and onboard S/PDIF I/O can be used, but total digital inputs cannot exceed 16 channels at a time, in addition to the 2480's 16 analog input channels.

The VS-2480 comes with a single VS8F-2 dual-effects processor card, offering two stereo (or four mono) effects, installed. Up to three additional VS8F-2 cards, at $395 MSRP each, can be installed for a maximum of eight stereo or 16 mono effects channels onboard.

The VS-2480 is delivered with a standard 30GB IDE hard drive. Disk space can be expanded using 3.5-inch IDE drives with 10ms or better access time. The unit supports project archiving to CD-RW or to SCSI Zip drive. The CD-RW recorder is an option, connected externally via SCSI. Roland offers, warrants and supports the VS-CDRII ($695) from QPS.

GETTING UNDER WAY

Getting the 2480 up and running is easy. If you have the CD-RW recorder, then it must be connected to the rear panel SCSI connector and powered on before starting up the main unit. If you've purchased VS8F-2 effects cards, then these will need to be installed before you begin.

All outputs are on ¼-inch TRS jacks, reference to +4 dBu in Balanced mode. If you are using the unit in stereo and relying on its internal effects and mastering functions, then only the two monitor outputs need to be connected. For mastering to external equipment, there are a pair of analog master outputs. Four analog aux outputs can be used as four single-channel sends or as two stereo pairs. All together, eight analog outputs are provided, with two headphone jacks with individual volume controls for record monitoring.

The 2480 provides 16 balanced or unbalanced analog inputs on ¼-inch TRS connectors, with 24-bit converters capable of running at up to 96 kHz. Eight of these are paralleled by upgraded, high-grade mic preamps on XLR connectors with phantom power capability. All inputs have a 20dB switchable pad and sensitivity controls with a 58dB range. The sixteenth input includes a hi-Z switch for guitar input.

All of the audio input and output assignments can be changed, using easy-to-read screens in the onboard LCD or the external VGA display. The 2480 provides ample flexibility in routing throughout, with easy storage and recall of patch settings, and a library of configurations for common applications.

A SMPTE timecode input jack provides for slaving the 2480 to video devices. The 2480 provides a good MIDI implementation, including tempo mapping and In/Out/Thru connectors.

I recommend taking the time to view the one-hour startup VHS video that comes with the system. The 2480 bundles a lot of power under a compact set of controls, and not everything is obvious.

THE CONTROL SURFACE

Apart from the analog sensitivity, pad and monitor volume controls, there are five principal groups of controls built into the 2480. These are the channel fader group, with 16 motorized channel faders plus single master fader, with buttons for direct selection of four different control pages (two for input faders and two for track faders). Each channel strip includes a channel and track select. Like most controls on the 2480, these serve additional purposes, controlling the phrase sample and auto-mix functions. Each channel strip also has a continuous rotation “virtual knob.” These can serve as pan controls, settings for the eight aux sends, or they can be used as a group to control the dynamics and EQ functions on a single channel.

Four conveniently grouped buttons allow you to switch the fader assignments between the input mixer faders (24 input channels and eight aux masters) and track mixer faders (24 plus eight effects returns). You quickly get used to using these four buttons, which also have shift functions. The faders being motorized, levels shift as one moves from page to page.

The LCD is the heart of control for the system. Its numerous, but well-organized, screens provide views of everything happening in the system. Using the mouse, you can adjust anything directly on the screen.

A sizable mass (I count 48) of identical buttons occupies the rest of the right-hand area of the control panel. These actually break down into logical groups. Designing a multilevel control system for something as complex and capable as the VS-2480 is a major challenge. I think the company has done well, but I think slightly wider spacing between groups of related buttons would have helped to clarify the logical groups that are shown.

Everything that appears in the LCD window (which is virtually everything) can also be controlled using the mouse. I did find it a little troublesome to find a place to work the mouse. (I was using a small table top.) Future VS products could benefit from the kind of touchpad cursor control that my laptop uses. I highly recommend the use of the external VGA display.

Finally, a standard P/S2 keyboard can be connected, and a footswitch jack on the rear can be assigned to alternate play/stop control, record, set marker, and next or previous functions for editing.

MIXER AND SYSTEM ARCHITECTURE

It helps to have a clear view of the options for interconnection inside the unit. The VGA display page serves as the system “patchbay.” The same information is available on the LCD, but it's distributed over multiple screens. In this view, you can see the functional units and how they interconnect.

All of the interconnections can be changed from the LCD view, using the cursor control keys and data-entry wheel. Analog and digital inputs can be connected to any input on the 24-channel input mixer. Signal inputs can be routed in parallel to any number of mixer inputs, but each mixer input can receive only a single signal input. Channel pairs can be linked for stereo inputs.

Each channel input on the input mixer provides 4-band parametric EQ and a flexible dynamics processor, as well as aux sends, stereo or surround panning, grouping, etc.

The outputs of each of the 24 input mixer channels can be routed to any one of the 24 hard disk recording channels. Mixer channels can be routed to a single record channel, where the signals are summed. Channel faders can be grouped, with up to 16 groups available.

Eight auxiliary sends can be linked in stereo pairs. Sends can be routed to the internal effects and/or to any analog or digital output. When Surround mode is activated, the number of aux sends is reduced by two or four, which can be a bit of a loss depending on what you are doing.

There are up to eight insert slots available per channel, direct to the effects processor. The direct outs can be routed to the effects, either pre or post fader, and can be used as an additional loop or insert effects, depending on whether the channel is “floated” from the mix bus or not. The direct outs can also be routed to any analog or digital output.

Outputs of the 24 record tracks are automatically routed to the 24 channel inputs of the track mixer. The track mixer channels duplicate the facilities of the input channel strips, with eight effects return masters where the input mixer has aux send masters. Effects return strips provide fade, pan, solo, mute and group, but not EQ or dynamics. The returns can be routed to direct outs if desired.

The outputs of the track mixer channels can be routed back to hard disk recorder inputs, with summing of as many channels as desired.

The VS-2480 offers full snapshot and dynamic mix automation. In Version 1.222, a single auto-mix data track exists for each project, but in Version 2.0 this is expanded to 10 separate mix versions available for a single project.

RECORDING AND EDITING

The 2480 provides for recording at a number of bit resolutions and sample rates, with options for linear PCM recording, near-lossless data packing and conventional lossy compression. One selects the sample rate (32, 44.2, 48, 64, 88.2 or 96 kHz) and Record mode (combination of bit depth and packing option) when starting a new project. Once selected, these cannot be changed.

A total of eight different recording modes are available. The M24 and M16 modes offer full linear PCM recording, but Roland recommends using the 24-bit “MTP” mode for most applications. In MTP mode, data is recorded using a proprietary audio data-packing scheme called “R-DAC.” R-DAC reduces the bit rate required for recording by a factor of approximately three, allowing for simultaneous recording of up to 16 tracks (with 24 playback) at a 48kHz sample rate.

At the 3-to-1 reduction ratios that Roland claims for R-DAC, a well-designed audio-packing scheme can be effectively lossless. For most signals, in fact, data will be returned with bit-for-bit accuracy. The use of 3-to-1 data packing in a high-end audio workstation is very appropriate.

Roland also offers MT1 and MT2 data-packing modes for 16-bit recording, though it isn't clear just how these compare to the 24-bit MTP mode. Two modes of steeper data compression, perceptually coded and subject to fidelity limits, are recommended for live recording applications when one is concerned about running out of space. Finally, CDR mode offers a direct capture to CD disc image, for efficiency in assembling CD compilations.

As sample rates, bit depth and data density go up, there are trade-offs in the number of channels that can be recorded at once. Up to 48 kHz, one can record 16 tracks at once in every mode except 24-bit linear PCM. Above 48 kHz, the number of simultaneous channels begins to fall off, even when R-DAC is used.

Actual recording on the 2480 is extremely simple (as long as you remember the distinction between the input and track mixer pages): arm the track or tracks to be recording, press Record, followed by Play. The 2480 provides good facilities for dropping in markers during recording and supports manual and auto-punch, including loop recording. For each record track, there are 16 virtual tracks (“V-Tracks”) for recording and editing.

The VS-2480 features two major editing constructs. “Phrase” editing defines stand-alone chunks of audio that can be inserted anywhere or triggered on-the-fly. This method is well-adapted for loop-based production. “Region” editing provides the stock sorts of cut-copy-paste editing that we've become accustomed to in computer-based DAWs.

Editing functions are based around the multitrack bar display and can be performed using the mouse, a set of dedicated track edit buttons or menu commands. The VS-2480 offers a waveform display view, limited to a single track at a time. In the software version I had for most of the display period (1.222), the waveform display appears only in the LCD screen.

The VS-2480 does not offer any crossfade control, and the waveform display is comparatively rudimentary. The Phrase editing functions are a delight for creative audio assembly, but the system lacks the features associated with fine-grain music editing.

EFFECTS AND SIGNAL PROCESSING

The stock VS-2480 provides a high-quality stereo reverb/effects processor, with spaces to install three more. Each processor has two input channels, and depending on the effect algorithm, may be used to process two signals independently for eight stereo or 16 mono effects channels maximum.

Each effects processor offers 36 different effects algorithms and 250 preset patches, including three kinds of reverb, four delay algorithms, two choruses and four phasers, a 2-channel compressor/limiter and three kinds of EQ.

There are multi-effects algorithms for guitar and vocals, each of which places seven or eight individual effects in a chain for a “virtual pedal board.” Three algorithms marry Roland's RSS 3-D sound process with delay and chorus functions. Two vocoders are available, and a low-fi (grunge processor), vocal canceler and a hum canceler fall into the “gimme” category.

Other processing functions include microphone modeling, speaker modeling (with recommendation of using Roland's DS-90 powered monitor with digital input) and a mastering toolkit.

The quality of processing is very good. I had no occasion to feel constrained by the fidelity of results, even with processes used in-line. Roland has been a mainstay and innovator in chorusing, tape delay and vocoders, and the versions in the VS8F-2 processor maintain those high standards, but I have to admit that reverb is one area where I like variety. And while Roland offers a wonderful array of processing functions, a disadvantage that a hardware-based integrated DAW such as the VS-2480 has in today's market is that it inherently cannot partake of the excitement going on in processing plug-ins.

PHRASE SAMPLING/SEQUENCING

The VS-2480's track status buttons can also serve as trigger buttons to play tracks, or portions of tracks as samples. Phrase Sampling mode operates straightforwardly, with each track status button starting immediate playback of the corresponding track. Virtual tracks make it easy to set up phrase samples without disturbing an entire track.

Phrase play has three modes: gate, in which play continues only while the button is held; trigger, which toggles play on and off with each press; and one-shot, which plays the whole track through from the head, restarting if the pad is tapped again. An onboard sequencer supports step and real-time recording, as well as quantizing.

Output of phrase sampling is routed through the track mixer, where it can be effected with the full range of dynamics, EQ and time/frequency effects. If one desires, the 2480 can operate as a live performance tool with significant capabilities.

MASTERING, IMPORT/EXPORT AND PROJECT ARCHIVING

The 2480 supports mastering directly to CD-RW or tape. The system can exchange audio files with other devices by import and export of .WAV files. Entire projects, including editing and mixing information, can be archived on CD-RW or Zip cartridges.

One can mix down directly to an external device, but at least for 2-channel mastering Roland recommends capturing the mix to hard disk, then using the device's editing and processing resources to create an optimized master. The channel dynamics and EQ processing certainly can benefit mastering, but Roland also includes a dedicated “Mastering Toolkit,” which provides a processing chain with simple 4-band EQ and bass cut/enhancer, 3-band compressor/expander and a limiter. I wouldn't want to compete with Bernie Grundman with this setup, but it's certainly going to help make masters that can approach the professional ideal.

In the “Mastering Room” environment, you define track markers, disc name, etc. The 2480 allows for compilation of multiple cuts as regions or as combined projects.

There is no capability for sample-rate conversion; I'm a great believer in future-proofing a project by recording to the highest standard available. It would be really useful if Roland were to add an out-of-real-time, sample-rate conversion feature in future updates. Output of high-res/high-sample rate audio to DVD-Video and/or DVD-Audio would also be useful, although the software issues go beyond simple mastering, as some form of simple authoring would have to be incorporated. Likewise, encoding to AC-3, DTS and/or MLP would greatly enhance the power of the device for producing masters for market, but these items may not be feasible within the present architecture.

YOU'RE SURROUNDED

The 2480 supports surround output in 2/2 (quad), 3/1 (Dolby Surround) and 3/2 with LFE (5.1). The Surround mode is activated and selected from the LCD Utility screen.

The 2480 provides multichannel surround outputs by borrowing channels from the auxiliary sends. The sends that are diverted are lost to use as effect loops, which is sort of unfortunate. In 5.1 mode, only two auxiliary sends are left. One can counter somewhat by using inserts and the eight “direct” outputs, but it isn't the same.

By default, the system routes the surround outputs to a portion of the eight analog multi-outputs. Panning to the surround outputs is controlled by the mouse via a 2-D graphic display, or by setting individual pan, depth, center blend and LFE send controls. For my money, take the mouse! An optional channel strip controller ($695) has knobs for all channel strip functions and a joystick for surround.

As noted before, the 2480 has a great complement of effects, but none of these are set up for surround. The loss of auxiliary sends in Surround mode also tends to limit what one can achieve in effects processing when surround is activated.

VERSION 2.0

Toward the end of the review period, I got a look at an alpha version of the 2.0 operating system, which is expected to be released by the time you see this review. In Version 1.222, no cursor is available on the VGA screen, or any highlights to indicate what parameters are being addressed by the value knob, forcing the use of the LCD to set parameters. In V. 2.0, full operation of the system from the VGA screen and mouse is possible. This will be a major step forward, and Roland is to be applauded for aggressive ongoing maintenance of the VS-2480's control system.

Version 2.0 also addresses a complaint that I had about the display of effects setting in the VGA output: In V. 1.222, they aren't displayed, but this is corrected as part of Version 2.0's commitment to full remote control. Also in Version 2.0, the mouse can be used for internal patching and routing, waveforms will be displayed on the external VGA, and a fade-in and fade-out function will be added to the phrase sampler.

FINAL WORDS

Among today's fully integrated hardware workstations, the Roland VS-2480 leads the pack. Its combination of 24 channels, high-resolution options, editing, mixing, signal processing and mastering is unmatched by any other single-box system. The VS-2480 has a well-organized and efficient user interface and control surface. What deficiencies I experienced in the reviewed version are explicitly addressed in the forthcoming Version 2.0 operating system. Roland's aggressive program of system updates, as well as extensive support and training resources, are strong arguments in favor of the product.

A fully integrated proprietary hardware system such as the VS-2480 does have some limitations as compared to open, software-based systems when it comes to software plug-ins. The advantages of system stability, ruggedness and the convenience of a dedicated control surface will outweigh that consideration in many, but not all, applications. If you're in the market for a self-contained unit that can do high-end multitrack recording and music production, then the VS-2480 is simply the one to get.

Roland Corporation U.S., 5100 S. Eastern Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90091; 323/390-3700; www.rolandus.com.