Roland VS-2480: the portable digital studio grows up and gets serious – Reviews
The Roland VS-2480 is the most recent in a long line of desktop audio workstations that began with the VS-880. Like its predecessors, the VS-2480 packs a lot of firepower into a relatively small footprint. Primarily aimed at serious home recordists and VS-series owners looking to update their gear, it has a lot to offer recording professionals, as well. When you add the optional CD burner, the VS-2480 is an attractive, full-featured audio production tool that fits on a coffee table.
What sets the VS-2480 apart from previous incarnations is its sheer abundance of features, including 24 tracks with 16 virtual tracks each, 64 channels at mixdown, 17 motorized faders, and 24-bit recording at rates as high as 96 kHz. Among other attractions are a mouse for drag-and-drop editing, support for an external VGA display, and a pair of stereo multi-effects processors, with room for six more.
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
About two feet across and weighing less than 27 pounds, the VS-2480 is built for comfort and for speed. Eight XLR microphone inputs, 16 balanced 1/4-inch TRS mic/line inputs, and a dedicated unbalanced high-impedance instrument input are located on the top panel’s upper left (see Fig. 1). Each of 16 line inputs has a dedicated 20 dB pad switch and trim pot. Level knobs for the monitor send and two stereo headphone sends are just below the display’s contrast knob.
Each of the 16 motorized channel faders is positioned beneath a reassignable knob and two illuminated switches. A motorized master fader is to the right of the channel faders. Everything is well marked and clearly laid out, so once I understood the logic of the user interface, I could fly.
Transport, location, and editing functions are grouped on the unit’s lower-right side along with buttons to select menus for various global parameters, effects, and so on. A numeric keypad, cursor and zoom buttons, a row of function buttons, and two concentric data wheels labeled Time/Value and Shuttle are located in the same section. Above those, a large, bright high-resolution LCD is tilted for optimal viewing.
On the rear panel are ports for connections that tend to stay patched (see Fig. 2). Optical and coaxial S/PDIF and two proprietary Roland R-Bus ports provide digital I/O. You can connect computer peripherals to ports for the included mouse and an optional PS/2 ASCII keyboard as well as a VGA output for a remote video display. A SCSI port lets you connect an external CD burner or removable hard drive. Eight balanced 1/4-inch analog outputs are configured in pairs as master, aux A, aux B, and monitor. Additional ports are provided for MIDI In and Out/Thru, word-clock in, SMPTE in, a footswitch, and power.
As many as 200 Projects fit onto each 10 GB hard-drive partition. The maximum recording time depends on the sampling rate, word length, and other factors. If you need something larger than the standard 40 GB hard drive, you can pop in another IDE drive as large as 128 GB.
If you use any of Roland’s other VS-series products, you’ll be on familiar ground with the VS-2480. The basic level is the Project, comprising all the tracks, edits, routing maps, effects patches, markers, and Automix data for an individual song or a collection of songs. You can even import and export Projects back and forth between the VS-2480 and earlier VS-series machines.
You have a choice of techniques for almost every action, from patching to editing to mastering. Press dedicated buttons on the top panel, navigate through nested menus with cursor and function buttons, or simply use the mouse. Such flexibility allows you to adapt your personal style to operating the VS-2480.
Plugging a standard computer monitor in to the VGA port accesses the Information Display (see Fig. 3). You can view the onboard and external displays simultaneously. You can show the track-list and input levels on the external monitor–eliminating the need for an external meter bridge–as you view a different screen on the LCD. Unfortunately, not everything you see on the LCD appears on the external monitor; mouse and cursor actions, waveforms, and some screens are missing.
Conceptually, the VS-2480’s mixer has two halves: the input mixer and the track mixer. The input mixer handles 24 inputs from any combination of the 32 external analog and digital sources as well as from the 8 aux sends. As with most digital mixers, the 16 faders serve multiple functions.
Four buttons above the master fader access the input and track mixers in banks of 16 faders. When you switch banks, the motorized faders snap into position to confirm their settings. The track mixer handles 24 recorded tracks (each with 16 virtual tracks) and 8 aux returns. At mixdown, combining the input and track mixers provides 64 fully automatable inputs. Although none of the inputs has insert points per se, you can route the direct outs from eight channels and all eight aux buses to any analog or digital output or R-Bus port to connect outboard gear.
One remarkable feature is that the 16 pan knobs (one for each channel) double as a single assignable channel strip providing dynamics and five bands of EQ. Pressing the Parameter Edit button enables the channel-strip function. The knobs for channels 1 through 5 handle dynamics, and the remaining 11 knobs serve various EQ functions. The virtual channel strip makes real-time, hands-on tweaking a snap. When you press another switch, the same knobs become pots for the eight aux sends.
Select a channel or grab a knob to automatically bring up the comprehensive Channel View screen, letting you instantly confirm all applicable settings. Like most features, the default settings can be overridden or customized.
The VS-2480 supports surround mixing in three formats: 2 + 2 (two front and two rear speakers), 3 + 1 (left, right, and center speakers with a rear center speaker), and 3 + 3 + 1 (aka 5.1: left, right, and center front speakers, right and left rear speakers, and a subwoofer.)
ON THE JOB
The VS-2480 records as many as 16 tracks simultaneously–enough to capture most bands live–so I took it to a local church for a rehearsal session. Right away I appreciated the eight XLR inputs. With a vocal mic, two mics for the piano, and another for the guitarist’s cabinet, I still had enough inputs for a minimal drum-miking setup. For recording bass guitar, the high-impedance input eliminated the need for a direct box.
Signal routing is a snap. A single button brings up the Routing screen; alternate windows present patching information in diverse ways. As with most of the VS-2480’s user interface, varied approaches allow each user to find the most appropriate method for his or her style.
In the Routing screen, assigning inputs to tracks is quick and easy; simply hold down a track’s status button and navigate to one of the input banks, and then select the channel you want to assign it to. You can toggle phantom power for individual inputs in the Routing screen, but unfortunately, there’s no indicator light for phantom power.
As the band warmed up, I fiddled with EQ and dynamics parameters. I particularly enjoyed using Parameter View to quickly engage dynamics processing on all of the inputs. The VS-2480’s compression sounds good and affords ample control, providing the ability to assign any track as the key-in source.
A handy Take Management feature lets you record multiple takes and commit to them later. Locate points are arranged in 10 banks of 10 for a maximum 100 points. Thanks to ten dedicated buttons, you can quickly set locate points for later overdubs on the fly.
You can define as many as 999 markers. To set a marker, you can use the time-value wheel to maneuver to a precise time (expressed in hours, minutes, seconds, and frames) or bar:beat:tick (with 480 ticks per quarter note). Using the shuttle wheel’s accelerated audio scrubbing, I quickly set markers for pinpoint control of autopunch points.
You can reassign every channel knob and fader to control virtually any parameter and to send MIDI Control Change messages. Normally, channel pans double as aux-send level controls, but you can use faders for that task by toggling a switch in the Utility menu. To quickly adjust levels on individual headphone mixes, simply press Knob/Fader Assign and then one of the eight aux buttons; the faders instantly jump to their new levels, providing an easy-to-see reference.
Multiple clock sources are supported; they range from word-clock in and S/PDIF in and out to both ADAT and Tascam sync through an optional DIF-AT interface ($395). MMC, MTC, and SMPTE are supported for interfacing with sequencers, analog recorders, and video editors. To facilitate transfers of digital data, the VS-2480 can dither on the fly. Oddly, the dither menu contains nonstandard choices such as 17 and 23 bits.
A FISTFUL OF CHOICES
Probably the most confusing aspect of the VS-2480 concerns its recording modes. Instead of simply selecting a sampling rate and bit depth for a new Project, you’re faced with an array of abbreviations: MTP, MT1, M16, and so on; each abbreviation represents a method of writing data to the hard disk (see the sidebar, “Roland’s Recording Modes”). Some modes use Roland’s proprietary lossless data-compression coding, Roland Digital Audio Coding (R-DAC), to increase recording time. The recording modes offer sampling rates ranging from 32 kHz through 96 kHz.
Mastering 24-bit (M24), Mastering 16-bit (M16), and CD Recording (CDR, which writes 16-bit interleaved stereo files) are the only three recording modes that don’t use R-DAC. All the remaining modes compress the data, but that’s not necessarily bad.
Familiar audio compression schemes such as MP3 and ATRAC (used on MiniDiscs) actually eliminate data. Such lossy compression uses algorithms to determine which audio data may not be audible at a given moment and filters out the unnecessary frequencies. Those types of compression might sound fine, but the bottom line is that once the data’s gone, it’s gone forever.
In contrast, Roland’s R-DAC is a lossless data-coding technology. In essence, R-DAC uses a form of shorthand to save space, supposedly with no loss of audio data. Roland states that in hundreds of blind tests, listeners could not distinguish between linear and R-DAC-encoded audio at MTP and MT1, the two highest-quality modes.
Naturally, I wanted to find out for myself. I set up a pair of microphones and recorded the same fingerpicked guitar piece in each of the seven modes. Using a 44.1 kHz sampling rate for each test, I took pains to play at the same relative intensity and maintain a consistent distance from the mics.
After repeated listening, I could not hear any differences between the linear modes and the two highest-quality R-DAC modes at 44.1 kHz. My big flattop sounded fantastic in the uncompressed M24 and the compressed MTP modes (both 24 bit), with a huge bottom and tons of shimmering highs. Sixteen-bit recordings made with and without data encoding sounded similar to tracks recorded directly to DAT.
I would not hesitate to use the MTP or MT1 modes for any but the most critical recording projects. Audio recorded using MTP mode is as good as any digital recording I have heard and better than many. Nonetheless, I appreciate the option to record without data coding.
I also checked out the M24 and MTP modes at 96 kHz. I was impressed by the presence and realism. It didn’t sound like a recording of my guitar; it sounded like my guitar. Again, my ears could not discern any difference between the linear and R-DAC recordings.
I could hear data-compression artifacts beginning with the MT2 mode. LV1 and LV2 yielded results comparable to a well-done MP3. Considering the size and economy of modern hard drives, I doubt that any but a handful of users need to use such extreme settings.
Roland effectively covered all the bases with the various recording modes. Although it is true that track counts are reduced in the linear modes, 16 tracks of uncompressed 24-bit audio at 48 kHz should satisfy just about anyone. At the highest sampling rates, the sound simply blew me away.
The primary difference between all-in-one desktop studios and computer-based digital audio workstations (DAWs) is probably ease of editing. There’s nothing better than grabbing a hunk of audio with a mouse and twisting it into shape. Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the VS-2480 supports drag-and-drop editing. Editing is confined to the onboard display, but the next upgrade is supposed to support editing in the VGA display.
Aside from drag and drop, you can edit by scrolling through menus with a mouse or cursor buttons or by using dedicated Track Edit buttons; each method has its advantages. I used them all, but the method I chose depended on what I was trying to accomplish.
On a live demo I was recording, the vocals needed help in one or two places, so I brought in the singer for overdubs. Because she had little experience with trying to match phrasing, projection, and tone, I recorded her singing fixes on a spare track. Then, I selected the best take, entered the VS-2480’s waveform view to precisely trim the phrase, and used the mouse to drag it over to the original track and replace the mistake.
A handy Arrange window manages playlist data for several tracks. I used it to seamlessly chop a solo without altering the original tracks, just in case the client changed her mind.
Editing on the VS-2480 is far easier than I’ve come to expect on a hardware workstation. The manual does a good job of explaining vital features. Again, alternative techniques for accomplishing a given task let you adapt the machine to your personal style instead of the other way around.
THIS YEAR’S MODEL
The recorder ships with two stereo multi-effects processors. The review unit I received was loaded with three extra VS8F-2 boards ($395 each), providing 10 stereo or 20 mono effects. The effects are routed by default to auxes 1 through 8, but you can route them almost anywhere. You can configure any effect as an insert to any input channel or recorded track. At mixdown, placing a stereo effect (or two) across the master bus allows easy access to mastering tools such as EQ and dynamics.
Microphone modeling attempts to mimic the sonic characteristics of high-quality microphones, letting budget-conscious recordists make do with a limited mic cabinet. Mic modeling supports recording with the Roland DR-20 dynamic mic, AKG’s popular C 3000 B large-diaphragm condenser, and a few other well-known choices.
The reverbs, delays, chorus, and multi-effects chains for specific instruments are all excellent, though many presets were overdone. Also included is a full range of Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM) effects: amp simulations, speaker modeling, and even microphone modeling.
To test the mic modeling, I recorded an Appalachian dulcimer using a Shure SM57 and then scrolled through various presets on the VS-2480. Although the effect wouldn’t convince anyone that I had actually used an AKG 451 or a Neumann U 87, the modeling did subtly improve the track. Subsequent tests with condenser mics on both vocal and instrumental tracks yielded results that were even more pleasant. I was especially impressed with the improved sound of my dulcimer when I plugged its piezo pickup in to the VS-2480’s high-impedance input and selected Line-to-Microphone from the micmodeling presets.
Speaker modeling is another cool tool. Optimized for Roland’s DS-90A and DS-50A digital powered monitors, speaker modeling allows you to quickly check your mixes on a variety of virtual speakers without investing a lot of money. In addition to models of studio stalwarts, a collection of boom boxes and TV speakers is included. Although I do not have access to the Roland monitors, I felt confident that the modeling created a usable reference of what my mixes would sound like on other systems.
You can record and edit your own samples or import them from CDs or removable media into the VS-2480. By toggling a software switch visible in the Channel View screen, you can cause a channel’s Track Status button to function as a sampled-audio trigger called a Phrase Pad. Because the Phrase Pads trigger the first chunk of audio data on the track, virtually the only limitation to sample length is disk space.
You can play the Phrase Pads in real time, but they’re not Velocity sensitive. The real fun, however, starts when you access the Phrase Pad Sequencer. You can configure any of the 24 recorder tracks as sequencer tracks for the Phrase Pads. Phrase Pad sequencing supports both real-time and step entry, with or without quantization. After importing some loops from a CD, I could sketch out a complete song with just a few button presses-great for remixing. Sequenced tracks are fully editable. All of the channel’s EQ, dynamics, and effects routing remain active when you’re using the Phrase Pad Sequencer.
Although I own a dedicated control surface, I prefer mixing on the VS-2480 to using my own system; I can work faster on the VS-2480. Its faders, knobs, and switches feel significantly more responsive than my MIDI-based system, with one exception: there is a noticeable lag when unmuting a channel in real time.
Onboard automation extends across all input and track channels, sends, returns, and the master bus. You can write and edit dynamics, EQ, surround parameters, and effects patches with almost microscopic detail. Mix data appears on the display, where you can scale, trim, copy, and move it just like audio data. A selection of gradation curves helps to ease transitions between punch-ins and punch-outs. Automix also supports snapshot automation of mixer scenes.
I really appreciate Automix’s flexibility and control, but not everything is rosy. Mix information doesn’t flow with audio edits, and effects automation is limited to selecting patch changes. Making dynamic changes to effects parameters requires connecting a sequencer and sending MIDI controller data.
THE MASTERING ROOM
The Mastering Room is a screen that provides access to useful functions such as inserting effects across the master bus, bouncing tracks internally, and playing back master tracks. It is also the place to go when you want to perform CD-R operations.
Creating the master tracks is a breeze. I selected one of the preset Mastering Tool Kit effects chains containing a well-thought-out selection of equalizers, frequency-based dynamics, and other enhancement tools. By default, the stereo mixdown tracks are recorded to virtual track 16 on tracks 23 and 24, but you can select any open virtual track. To facilitate CD burning, I chose CDR mode to create an interleaved pair of tracks, but the VS-2480 will burn CDs from any pair of 44.1 kHz tracks; the VS-2480 dithers the signal when lowering bit depth.
After mastering several other songs, I was ready to compile a playlist and burn a CD. I had to read the manual several times to learn where to begin. The manual is generally quite good, but the CD-burning section needs work. Most unfortunately, the VS-2480 supports only the optional VS-CDR11 CD recorder ($750). It’s a fine unit that works well with any Mac or PC that has a SCSI interface, but I can’t imagine why Roland doesn’t support any third-party drives.
Because I had recorded each song as a separate Project, I was left with two choices: write the tracks one at a time using Track-at-Once recording or create a new Project, import stereo master tracks from the original Projects, and edit the phrases together, dropping CD markers at the start of each song. Although time-consuming, the latter approach proved easier to take than to describe. After completing those tasks, I simply selected Disc-at-Once recording and created a fully compliant Red Book master CD for professional duplication.
By the way, you can also convert phrases and tracks to WAV files and burn them to CD for remote editing. Likewise, you can import WAV files and use them in any Project.
THE WELL-TEMPERED STUDIO
The VS-2480 is a serious tool for the experienced recordist. It offers plenty of tracks for all but the biggest projects, and if the need arises, you can chain together multiple VS-2480s. Although some users might be put off by Roland’s R-DAC coding scheme, I could hear no loss in audio quality in the MTP and MT1 modes; besides, bypassing R-DAC is simple. Features such as drag-and-drop editing, the Phrase Pad sequencer, and ports for an ASCII keyboard and a VGA monitor blur the lines between a hardware recorder and a computer-based DAW. I’d much rather work on the VS-2480 than my own computer-based setup for tracking and mixing, and that’s saying a lot.
The VS-2480’s excellent mixer provides ample inputs and outputs for most situations. Adding a pair of ADA-7000s ($1,295) brings the total to 24 mic preamps, more than any other digital mixer in the VS-2480’s class. No digital mixer is completely userfriendly, but the VS-2480 comes close. Although the learning curve is substantial, it’s not bad considering all the features and the depth of control that the VS-2480 offers.
My wish list is short. Assembling a playlist for CD burning is awkward and needs improvement. I’d prefer a hardware switch and status light for phantom power. In a one-room studio such as mine, the fan noise can be a hindrance. I’d also like to see support for third-party CD burners.
The VS-2480’s feature set makes the unit a serious contender in the battle of the DAWs. Roland states that by the time you read this, the external VGA display will show mouse and cursor actions, including waveform views. When you add the CD burner and options such as additional effects cards, the VS-2480 isn’t cheap, but it is a solid value. With so many thoughtful features, the VS-2480 is an outstanding remote recording rig. If you’re looking for a serious all-in-one recording tool, you would be wise to consider the Roland VS-2480.
Mark Nelson dreams of packing his studio into a shoe box. He lives in southern Oregon and divides his time between performing, recording and playing with the dog. Thanks to Lori Jo Larsen and her excellent band for their help.
Channels 24 inputs, 24 tracks, 16 aux returns
(all available simultaneously at mixdown)
Faders 16 channel, 1 stereo master (60 mm, motorized)
Analog Inputs (8) XLR balanced mic; (16) balanced 1/4″ TRS
mic/line; (1) unbalanced 1/4″ high impedance
Analog Outputs (2) balanced 1/4″ TRS master; (2) balanced
1/4″ TRS monitor; (2) balanced 1/4″ TRS aux A;
(2) balanced 1/4″ TRS aux B; (2) 1/4″ stereo
Digital I/O (1 pr.) RCA S/PDIF; (1 pr.) optical S/PDIF;
(2) DB-25 R-Bus
Dynamics Processors compressor/expander x 24 inputs + 24 tracks
EQ 4-band parametric, single-band filter
x 24 inputs + 24 tracks
Effects Processors 2 stereo multi-effects; expandable to 8 stereo
Sampling Rate 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz
ADCs/DACs 16-bit, 24-bit
Internal Processing 56-bit
Scene Memory 100 (10 x 10 banks)
Hard Drive 40 GB 3.5″ IDE standard; expandable to
128 GB maximum
Songs 200 max. per 10 GB partition
Song Size 10 GB max.
Physical Tracks 24
Virtual Tracks 16 per physical track
Simultaneous Record/ 16/24 max.
Markers/Locate Points 1000/100 per song
Undo/Redo Levels 999/1
Trigger Pads 24
Playback 24 mono voices
Max. Playback Time 24 hr.
Sequencer 24 tracks
Display 320 x 240-pixel, backlit LCD
MIDI Ports In, Out/Thru
Peripheral Ports (1) mini DB-15 640 x 480 VGA out;
(1) 6-pin DIN PS/2 mouse; (1) 6-pin
ASCII keyboard DIN; (1) DB-25 SCSI
Additional Ports (1)BNC word-clock input; (1) RCA SMPTE input;
(1) 1/4″ footswitch input
Dimensions 24.48″ (W) x 5.45″ (H) x 20.50″ (D)
Weight 26.5 lb.
RELATED ARTICLE: ROLAND’S RECORDING MODES
The VS-2480 records at several bit depths and sampling rates using varying amounts of R-DAC data coding. Here’s an overview of the recording modes:
Master 24-bit (M24) records linear (non-data-compressed) audio with a 24-bit word at different sampling rates. Selecting M24 mode cuts down the number of recording and playback tracks to 16; at sampling rates of 64 kHz and higher, the VS-2480 functions as an 8-track recorder.
Multi Track Pro (MTP) is the default mode. Audio is recorded at 24 bits using R-DAC coding. This mode provides approximately three times the recording time as M24.
CD Recording (CDR) records linear data as 16-bit interleaved stereo files. Surprisingly for a mode dedicated to CD burning, you may choose any sampling rate. The VS-2480 functions in this mode as a 16-track recorder at 48 kHz and below and as an 8-track recorder at rates above 64 kHz. Only 44.1 kHz files may be burned to CD using the SCSI port; audio can be exported as WAV files for remote editing and sampling rate conversion.
Master 16-bit (M16), like M24, is for audio purists reluctant to move their data through Roland’s coding scheme. Track counts vary as with the M24 and CDR modes, giving you 8 or 16, depending on the sampling rate.
Multi Track 1 (MT1) records 16-bit audio at various sampling rates using R-DAC. This mode provides approximately twice as much recording time as the M16 mode.
Multi Track 2 (MT2) records 16-bit audio at assorted sampling rates with R-DAC coding and some data compression, for approximately three times the recording time as M16.
The final two modes, Live 1 (LV1) and Live 2 (LV2), use even greater amounts of data compression for greatly extended recording times. They’re intended for recording live, archiving rehearsals, and other situations in which audio fidelity is less important than the sheer length of the recording.
MTP, MT1, MT2, LV1, and LV2 modes all feature 16 tracks of simultaneous recording and 24 tracks of playback at sampling rates of 48 kHz and below. Above 64 kHz, the number of available simultaneous recording tracks is reduced to 8 and the number of playback tracks to 12.
digital audio workstation
EASE OF USE 3.5
AUDIO QUALITY 4.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent sound. Plenty of inputs. Flexible routing. Motorized faders. Mouse and VGA monitor support. Drag-and-drop editing. Multiple sampling rates and word lengths. Onboard sampling and sequencing.
CONS: CD-burning functions confusing. Onboard a automation doesn’t extend to effects parameters. No status light for phantom power. Obtrusive fan noise. Only one (expensive) CD recorder supported.
COPYRIGHT 2002 PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. All rights reserved.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group