Deep-Fifty-Fifty

The Roland D-50 is a very popular synthesizer produced in 1987. I found one years ago in a pawn shop and have enjoyed it quite a bit since. Lately I’ve taken to learning a little bit about it so I can actually program the thing instead of relying on the stock patches (some of them cliché by now) to make my nights move along.

The unfortunate thing about the D-50 is that it is monotimbral, playing only 1 patch at a time. Fortunately, Roland designed the synthesis algorithm with two parts (operators) per patch: Upper and Lower. Each part can have a different sound. So in the right control mode, the synth can be split to play bitimbral sound controlled by two different MIDI channels.

Unfortunately, that increases the complexity of programming and makes the manual twice as thick. Fortunately, digital multitracking has made recording medium cheap and there’s no need to play two timbres at once. It’s not like I’m using it to perform on stage (where lugging a stack of synths can be costly). And, really, who wouldn’t want a more lush, thicker sound on a single track?

So tonight I learned some of those complexities, and how to configure the mode to “solo” (monotimbral, monophonic), how to correctly configure portamento so it glides between pitches (portamento on D-50 is weird in non-solo modes), and how to configure some of the basic parameters of a patch. This synth was designed in an era where technology was not cheap, and processing power, memory storage, and performance came at a high cost, monetarily and architecturally, so they had to make clever compromises for their end-users.

What resulted from my learning tonight was a really cool solo whistle sound, mostly square wave and a touch of sampled attack transient with some slippery chorus. A real sprightly sound. Check it out below (I call it “Whistler” and it’s a live, raw recording, so be kind):

I mean, this is really basic stuff I’m learning, baby steps. But I hope to learn more about the particulars of the parts, oscillators, filters, envelopes, etc., really soon. The more familiar I get with this synth, the more joy I’ll get out of it, and joy is where music comes from.

And, yes, in pure synth idiom, earlier I tried to play the solo keyboard part from Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man“, because I sometimes like clichés. Yep.

Published by Shawn

He's just this guy, you know?