Jan 12

INTRODUCTION

I have often thought (and often said) that finding the right keyboard for performing ‘Live’ is difficult in as much you have to make some form of compromise between having a very playable instrument and the sounds you need. An option for you could be to choose a very playable piano such as the Casio Privia (that I recently reviewed) and use a sound module with it. The Roland Sonic Cell sound module has been around since 2007 but I have not had the chance to get my hands on one up until now, so I thought I would investigate and see how useful this little unit could be to the ‘Live’ performer in this circumstance.


OUT OF THE BOX

The Roland SonicCell is really three units in one; a sound module, an audio interface and a file player. As I took it out of the box, I expected to see a desktop unit divided into these three main areas but I did not. I often wonder what goes through the minds of the designers that are given this type of specification but obviously they have more important considerations than simply how user-friendly it is.

The unit weighs 1.2kg (just under 3lbs) and its size is 294mm x 175 x 55 which is a bit like the size of an A4 sheet of paper with the margins cut off. Surprisingly, the unit is divided into three sections, but half of the unit is devoted to the facility to add two SRX expansion boards. The other half on the right is then equally divided into two with the top half mainly housing the 128 x 64 dots organic EL graphic display and three display lights to show ‘USB Memory Access’, MIDI or USB Midi messages.

The lower half seems to house all the controls within a small area of 140mm x 75mm approximately. Here you have the main cursor/value data wheel that works extremely well with its push selection function. With this you can dial to the next item and simply push to select the item you have highlighted. This makes navigation very fast and easy. Apart from the data wheel there are just nine buttons which are MIDI Inst, USB Audio, Input, Part View, Effects, SMF/Audio player, Play/Pause, Menu and Exit.

TURN HER ON

OK so I have connected the SonicCell to my Piano and switched on. I seemed to be faced with a sequencer-looking screen showing 1-16 with the MIDI Inst button lit and it does not seem very obvious as to how I get to scroll through and hear the on-board sounds. A quick reference to the manual states that I need to press the ‘Part View’ button and voila, there are the sounds. Yes it is very easy and as I stated above the very functional data wheel makes the selection process a breeze.

There are 896 Preset Patches, plus another 256 General Midi 2 (GM2) presets. There are also 32 Rhythm Sets plus another 9 (GM2). To save your own patches you have space for 256 sounds and 32 Rhythm Sets. As well as the patches there also 64 Performance Patches available with room to save 64 of your own. Finding the Performance Patches again required the manual and I began to think that the inclusion of simple ‘Patch’ and ‘Performance buttons would have been a good idea.

SONIC CELL AS A SOUND MODULE

As a previous owner of a Fantom X rack, I was very familiar with the on-board sounds as the SonicCell is based on Roland’s Fantom range and has the same 128 voice polyphony but also has some additional waveforms made just for the Sonic Cell. You get many emulations of the real thing as you work your way through nearly 900 presets with a good selection of acoustic and electric pianos, strings and basses with some great velocity-switching etc. I found myself drawn to some of the new sounds like the Acoustic Piano Rich Grand which had a nice brightness about it to cut through the mix and the Drumkit Medley which has some great new waveforms.

The Fantom X was improved upon with the release of the Fantom G where the similar soundset was sharper and more defined than the Fantom X sounds. It makes me wonder whether or not Roland will at some point release an updated Sonic Cell. This is not to say that the SonicCell does not sound good, in fact far from it, but if you want to, you can edit the sounds and use the included editor software and/or enhance the sounds further with some of the great in-built effects. Alternatively you can select two expansion boards from SRX range to add genre-specific sound patches that you need.

You will also of course find a General MIDI bank (GM2) which provide you with 256 patches and 9 Rhythm Sets of the usual type of thing you get in a MIDI bank.

To get an instant idea of the sound quality, you can simply play the four demo songs included; ‘Welcome Back’, ‘Mach Juan’, ‘Big and Bold’ and ‘Human Sonic’.

SONIC CELL EFFECTS

Amongst the controls is an Effects button so as you press it you instantly have access to the multi-purpose effects. Again the cursor / value dial is very fast and effective for making adjustments to the 78 different effect types including some 3D effects. These 78 are sensibly ordered in groups with 10 Filters, 12 Modulations, 12 types of Chorus, 8 Dynamics, 13 Delays, 5 Low-Fi, 3 Pitch, 2 Reverbs, 12 Combinations which consist of two or more different effects connected in series and 1 Sympathetic Resonance Piano effect. I tried changing a few sounds with various multi-effects and was quite surprised by how much the sound was lifted and enhanced. It made me wonder why Roland did not do this and have more of the “Wow” factor immediately users started to listen to the presets.

As well as the 78 multi-purpose effects, the Sonic Cell has built-in effect units, and you can independently edit each unit’s settings. In Performance mode, all three types of multi-effect can be used simultaneously. You will find these as MFX1, MFX2, and MFX3. In Patch mode, you can use one multi-effect. These Effects units are Chorus, Reverb and there is a Mastering effect which is really a stereo compressor (limiter) with independent high, mid, and low ranges that is applied to the final output of the Sonic Cell. Each of these units can be assigned to a part or a channel.

There are 3 types Chorus (01 Chorus, 02 Delay and 03 GM2 Chorus), 5 types of Reverb ( 01 Reverb, 02 SRV Room, 03 SRV Hall, 04 SRV Plate and 05 GM2 Reverb. 01 Reverb has 8 types (Room 1 & 2, Stage 1 & 2, Hall 1 & 2, Delay and Pan-Delay) and 6 types of Mastering Input Effects which can be applied to the Sonic Cell input signal (Equalizer, Enhancer, Compressor, Limiter, Noise Suppressor and Centre Canceller).

There also seems to be three types of output; MFX – which is to include the effects; OUT – which outputs without effects; MIX – which mixes the signal from the computer and module if this is connected via USB.

SONIC CELL AS AN AUDIO INTERFACE AND A FILE PLAYER

Probably the best feature of the Sonic Cell is its integration with a computer. At the rear, there is a USB port to connect and you just need to do a quick install of the included driver software. This facility provides you with many options, from acting as an Audio Interface (with stereo line inputs, an XLR input and an Hi-Z input for Mic and Guitar), having the facility of a Software Editor to edit the Fantom Sounds on a large screen, being able to use Roland Fantom X sounds in your favourite DAW as a VST Soft Synth, but probably best of all, being able to save your work as AIFF, WAV, MP3 or SMF to a USB Stick to playback ‘Live’ and play over the top. What is also extremely useful here is that the Sonic Cell is a high-spec audio interface with sound quality up to 24-bit, 96 kHz. If the Wav files are saved at this instead of reducing them to the usual 16 bit CD quality sound, then the crisp quality of the sound live is going to be awesome – I think I love this bit, well done Roland.

The use of the Set List on a PC makes this a breeze because you can drag and drop files on your PC into the Set List and when you are finished, transfer this to the SonicCell for ‘Live’ playing. So you don’t have to worry about trying to set it up using SonicCell’s small LCD and you also have no need to take your PC or Laptop on stage. It is a shame there is not one of those hidden compartments to hide a connected USB stick like the ones you find on some of the Roland keyboards such as the Roland Juno Gi. I personally think that this incredibly simple but brilliant idea should be incorporated into every Synth, Piano and sound module.

I did a test to see how a MIDI file sounded as a live backing track. First of all, I would like to say that I liked the fact that my SMF file loaded extremely quickly (almost instant) which is perfect for this situation. I think that the hardest thing to getting a good sounding backing track is getting the mix level of each instrument right. This may mean that you will need to do some additional work on your MIDI file on your DAW to ensure that the mix sounds how you want it to sound in your live setup. I was reading on the Korg Kronos forum recently, of how people were complaining that the drums on their ‘Combination’ patches were too loud in the mix. I actually thought that they were just right, which just goes to show that everyone has their own preference on how they wish certain instruments to stand out in the mix.

The MIDI file player provides compatibility with the both SMF 0 and 1formats. I tried to find out how many songs/midi files you can have with Sonic Cell. It seems that providing you have the latest SonicCell system version 1.20 loaded, you can have up to 99 SONGS/MIDIFiles in the Root Directory and up to 399 Playlist Libraries containing up to 399 SONGS/MIDI files in total. You can also record sounds directly through Sonic Cell to your PC and via the on-board effects processors.

CONNECTIONS ON THE SONIC CELL

Going from left to right at the back, firstly you have a Security Slot for a Kensington lock which is a nice addition, then a USB 1 and a USB 2 connector to connect to your PC and to insert a USB stick. Then you have MIDI Out and In, followed by the Input / Output section which has an Input Level knob, a quarter inch Line Input (Right) socket, followed by a Multi-Input socket with a three-way switch to select between a Line Input (Left or Mono), A Guitar Input Mono or a Mono Mic input for a Dynamic or Condenser Mic. When used with a Condenser Mic you need to go to the Input Screen to turn on the Phantom Power. Lastly are the Right and Left/Mono output quarter inch sockets and the small power On/Off switch and DC 9 V (AC Adaptor) Input.

Around the front you have a Sampling Rate Switch which specifies the sampling rate used to record or play back audio data. You can select from Sampling Rates of either 44.1, 48 or 96 kHz and obviously you will need to match the sampling rate setting of the software you’re using. After changing this setting, you will need to turn the Sonic Cell’s power off, then on again.

Next is a tiny volume wheel, which is really annoyingly difficult to adjust in poor lighting like a dark stage. Again, I feel they could have done better here. I think there could have been a good size knob or wheel for the Volume on the top right section next to UCD. The indicator lights could have been put under the LCD. Lastly there is the stereo min-jack headphone socket which I am glad to say is rightly placed at the front.

SOFTWARE APPLICATIONS INCLUDED

As an added bonus, you get a free copy of three different software applications with your Sonic Cell including an excellent DAW – Cakewalk’s Sonar LE recording software, a plug-in style sound patch editor and librarian, and a Playlist Editor application that allows you to create playback lists of WAV/AIFF/MP3 files or Standard MIDI files for your live performances.

Sonar’s LE Daw is a great bonus if you do not own a DAW and works well with its own company’s hardware very much like Yamaha and Cubase today. I also think they have made a great job with the SonicCell Editor. It behaves in a similar way to a Soft Synth. You can edit your 16-part multi-timbral sounds and there is very little drain on your computer’s resources.

The SonicCell Librarian included is a database application designed to enable the management of all Sonic Cell parameter files on your computer. If you select ‘Acquire all data from SonicCell User Area’, all patches stored in the SonicCell user area will be copied to the main window where you can perform utility tasks such as changing the name of the item, assigning items to categories, and putting items in order. To create Playlists you need to use the Playlist editor as you cannot create playlists on the Sonic Cell itself. The included CD has the driver software as well as the Editor, Librarian and the Playlist Editor and for each of these three, there are individual pdf manuals to assist you.

ACCESSORIES AND USEFUL OPTIONS

The Sonic Cell comes with a Start-up Guide and a Manual, a CD containing the Sound Editor, Librarian, Playlist Editor and USB Driver. Another CD with SONAR LE, a Wrench to install expansion boards, an AC Adaptor (PSB-1U) and a Power Cord USB Cable.

There are three optional extras available that I think are excellent for SonicCell owners:- The BKT-S, which is a desktop stand which you can angle for easier vision and access to the controls. The PDS-10, which is a floor stand invaluable for ‘Live’ use.The CB-SP1 which is a purpose-built carrying case with all of the necessary compartments for the SonicCell and its accessories.

SUMMARY

Excluding a couple of minor niggles; I think the SonicCell has a great deal going for it for the ‘Live’ performer. It is very portable and has all those great Fantom X sounds, 2 expansion slots, full integration with a computer, Multi-purpose inputs, Phantom power, audio and midi playback from a USB stick and fast access to some great multi-effects. It can be used as a virtual backing band and you can simply create a playlist of your songs or backing tracks with the software Playlist Editor and then transfer the playlist to a USB stick. It does not have the ‘Wow’ factor that we all quite often seek today, but it is an extremely reliable and useful piece of kit with a good sound base that you can edit to your heart’s content.

Absolute Music

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