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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gear Change: Roland DJ-70mkII

This is one of my current keyboards, alongside the CTS-2000. The Roland DJ-70mkII is the final product of the Roland S-series line of samplers, aimed at the strange 90s DJ-consumer market. It consists of the last of the proper S sampler line, the S-760, placed in a high-quality 3-octave keyboard with an enlarged version of the S-760 interface, as well as 8 buttons which can be assigned to samples, a fairly useless phrase sequencer, the usual Roland pitchbender/lfo combination, and a somewhat novel "DJ wheel" which allows you to do a sort of rudimentary scratching on the samples. In reality, the result is a strange combination of the S-760, minus the extra outputs and the video interface, with an Akai S-20, along with the 3-octave keyboard and the DJ wheel.

The keyboard is wonderful, though either as a matter of reaction to the total package or simply due to psychosomatic reaction it feels a little cheap. The interface is, from what I know of the S-760, essentially the same minus the output options (caveat: I've never used an S-760, but I've read a bit). It's extremely easy to create a basic sample, but somewhat odd for a former low-level Akai user such as myself to deal with the structure of patch creation. You can read up on it more on the various sites that explain the S-760, since it seems to be the same to me, and I just haven't had the inclination to explore it properly yet. For a Roland user, this keyboard would undoubtedly be a dream (if it had the outputs and the video interface).

The buttons up top seem superfluous given the keyboard, and the ability to assign any sample to a given key or span of keys, but I guess for the working DJ he may not want to have to worry about hitting the right key (even with gaffer tape?) at the right velocity in the heat of the moment, and would want to simply press a button to play a loop.

The DJ wheel seems to have been based on the ribbon controller on the Yamaha SU10 from a year or two prior to the release of the DJ-70mk1. The SU10 was one of the line of Yamaha MIDI music machines which included the MU5 and the well-received QY10 (and the rest of the QY series), with which it shared a form factor. It boasted a 47 second sampler (much less at higher bitrates/in stereo) in a piece of gear which was about the size of a VHS cassette and included a 4-track phrase sequencer as well as twelve non-velocity pads. It also featured the easiest sampling interface I have ever used, from Akai to Ensoniq to Roland or anyone else, though that may have been made easier by the limited memory space. The relevant side feature, though, was the ability to 'scratch' samples with the built-in ribbon sensor (only one I know of which transmits MIDI, I have to recc this thing again), which essentially chopped up the given sample into audibly small increments and allowed the user to 'scratch' them similar to how one would scratch a record, but in a horrid digital way.

This is what the DJ-70 DJ Wheel aimed to reproduce. The wheel is weighted, though not so much that it feels like the Technics deck which I imagine they were trying to emulate, and this doesn't affect the sound at all apparently, so the effect of weight feels cumbersome given the intent/implementation. Where in the Yamaha SU10 the scratch function was a novelty, the DJ70's wheel is a strangely cumbersome and useless feature which is only novel if one wishes to throw a sample out and listen to it spin down from high velocity. Even a non-weighted but better-implemented algorithm wheel function would have made this a desirable synthesizer. Which brings me to the reason why there are Mark I DJ-70s and Mark II Dj-70s.

When the DJ-70 was originally released in '96 or so, it was aimed at the DJ market with the hope that it would serve as a convenient replacement for the samplers which famously helped house & techno DJs as early as Park & Pickering at the Hacienda and would be priced well enough for current small-time DJs to afford it. The keyboard had 2MB RAM and no SCSI interface, so there was no way for buyers to expand the amount of time they had available in memory for samples beyond a few minutes, and no way of loading in samples aside from a floppy disk drive. It had the editing facilities of the superb S-760, but none of the expandability. Essentially, it was a completely useless product of a company which, I presume, was struggling with a leftover internal bureaucracy in order to find a way to approach the new music which their products had created. Akai had several similar products (the S01, as well as the S-20), as did Yamaha (SU10 among many others) and several other companies. Korg, rejuvenated by their failure in the mid-80s and the continuing success of their alterations to their M01 line, wound up creating the Electribe line with brilliant prescience. I'm digressing.

Roland realized that the DJ-70mkI was completely outdated even by their W30 from 1989, so they updated it as the DJ-70mkII. The mark II included all the features of the mark I, plus a SCSI interface, standard, as well as standard SIMM expansion slots for up to 32MB RAM (it turns off the internal RAM when there is a full 32MB installed). At the time, this still wasn't worth the $1800 pricetag for the DJ-70mkII alone, not to mention the $300 or so it would have cost to max out the RAM and another $250 on top of that for a Zip drive or some Magneto-Optical alternative. Especially not when the S-760 cost about $2200 with the video/digital IO expansion, full RAM, and the standard SCSI & extra four individual outputs. The cost of a cheap second-hand 5-octave MIDI keyboard and a SCSI device unquestionably made the S-760 the better deal as an all-in-one home studio sampler at the time.

At the time, that is. Now, a fully expanded S-760 will usually fetch prices above $250, and the added cost of a MIDI controller plus a mixer and all the stuff you'd normally have had to buy with it in the 90s will set you back at least another $300 in order to use it with a modern PC-based Logic studio. The DJ-70mkII goes for around $125, and the cost of a Zip drive + disks and 2 sticks of 16MB SIMM RAM (if it's even necessary) will bring that up to around $160. Add in a cheap stereo USB Audio interface for another $35 and a USB/MIDI cable for $15, and you've got a hardware sampler plus a MIDI controller which easily outclasses most of the similarly priced 3-octave USB MIDI controller keyboards. Use Logic for sequencing and mixing and the DJ-70mkII becomes a very attractive option for anyone looking to add a bit of hardware to their studio, or add an inexpensive yet extremely powerful sampler to their existent studio.

I've taken to using mine as the sole piece of audio equipment (plus a hardware sequencer) at live performances, since it can handle dozens of samples in memory, and the process of switching between songs becomes as easy as hitting the +1 button on the performance edit menu and hitting play on the sequencer. Anyone who has had to deal with the nightmare of setting up several MIDI keyboards in between bands (or god forbid, CV/gate), the prospect of a single keyboard which will do everything you need and takes about five or ten minutes to set up and go becomes very attractive.

Another point in favor of the DJ-70 series in general is that it has the same spectacular filters sported by the Roland S-series from the S-50 onwards. They're a sort of digital emulation of traditional analog filtering (IE not hard to grasp for anyone who knows Subtractive synths), but they rip. They're nearly capable of self-oscillating resonance, but the sweeps are really where they shine. Literally, they tend to be very bright, but at the same time Roland's samplers have always been known for their unparalleled bass reproduction. The filters are HPF/BPF/LPF switchable, so you can use the HPF with high resonance to give bass hits some real boom, or do the big LPF breakbeat sweeps to do builds and breakdowns, and it can all be automated and controlled via MIDI.

The feature which struck me as most interesting, and the only one I've yet to figure out, is the ability to beatmatch samples to MIDI clock. In theory, this should allow you to sample in a looped beat, and then match it with the internal timestretch to MIDI clock in real time, which was essentially the only major feature of the DJ-70 series that actually made it seem like a fairly good product for a DJ to buy in retrospect. You wouldn't have to worry about matching your sample loops with the track you're spinning, you'd just match the click track off a MIDI sequencer or tap tempo input, and you could create live remixes from your own sample library while mixing in and out of other records/CDs. I haven't quite gotten a handle on it yet, but given the 600+ second maximum sample time of a fully expanded mkII, plus a SCSI sample library and a basic hardware sequencer with half a dozen pre-recorded multi-timbral sequences, you could theoretically run an entire DJ set off of this sampler alone.

The DJ-70mkII is certainly worth a look, but it's best suited to someone with a laptop-based sequencing setup due to the incredible automation possibilities and the output limitations as compared to the S-760. Give the mkI a pass, but if you spot a mkII in good shape for under $150 and you'd like a small keyboard version of the S-50 with a much better interface, it's certainly worth a buy.

1 comment:

  1. Get a s760 or a s750 with the monitor and mouse.Let them share a scsi drive.Do your editing on the rack module.