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Roland D50 or D-50 vintage synthesizer

Roland D50 synthesizer - famous retro synth
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| @ 16 Sounds music production blog 16sounds.com

Roland D50 is a famous synth from 1987

The Roland D50 linear arithmetic synthesis synthesizer is a famous and unique retro synthesizer from 1987 is 33 years old i April 2020. Rolands first classic digital synthesizer with an impressive architecture for its age. Still an icon among synths.

The hardware

The hardware was sturdy build and the keyboard was ok though a bit spongy compared to other keyboards.

Today 33 years it is still a working unit. Aftertouch and some keys typically need cleaning or replacement but that goes for most vintage synths.

A vintage synth from 1987

D-50 is retro synth with its iconic buttons and green display

This retro Synthesizer has a trail of iconic albums for artists from the 80's.

Some famous Roland D-50 users and albums

  • Enya
    • Enya used a lot of D50 presets out og the box
    • Sail Away and over anything she ever did
  • Jean Michel Jarre
    • All over the revolutions album. Clever programing.
  • A defining Michael Jackson sound
  • Prince
  • Phil Collins
  • George Michael
  • New Order
  • Duran Duran

A D50 playlist on spotify

Famous D-50 sounds programmed by Eric Persing.

  • Fantasia
  • Staccato Heaven
    • This was an impressive patch back in 1987 making it stand out from any other synths back then.
  • Pizzagogo
  • Soundtrack
  • AcroStrings

The presets from this unit is also implemented in later Roland synths like:

  • JV2080
  • XV5080
  • VC-1 Card for V Synth and the XT version
  • Integra 7
  • System 8
  • Boutique D-05
  • Roland Cloud

what sounds does D50 do best

Velocity and aftertouch sensitivity is well build into to amp and filters for very expressive sounds. The amp- and filter envelopes can be modulated with velocity range and aftertouch. 

The D50 synthesizer is best for the following

  • Soft Strings
  • Pads
  • Attacky sounds played with Arpeggiator
  • Airy textures from outer space

The 80´s artist Enya used D-50 for its human like Ahh, Uhh, Ohh and pluck samples. The attack and airy top-end on ArcoStrings and Pizzagogo was her trademark.

D-50 Poll

Do you own or plan to buy a Roland D-50?
  • Yes
  • No
Click send to see the results

Programming D-50

The unit it self is not really suited for programming. Roland made an external programming unit named PG1000.

Software editors

Today there are several software editors for programming the unit from a computer though MIDI sends SysEx commands.

D-50 Librarian is a fine editor for programming D50 without a PG1000. D-50 Librarian makes it easy to understand and program. With a software, editor programming is fairly easy without an original PG1000 box.

Attack samples with PCM

The PCM oscillators have 49 attack samples and some loop samples for looping. A mix of string picks/plucks, breath, and human voices.  

Combined with the oscillators saw and square D-50 can produce interesting sounds with impact.

Oscillators

Roland D-50 has an Upper and a lower part with 2 oscillators on each that gives it 4 sound generators.

The 4 sound generators can be set to PCM, Saw, or Square.

Filters

It has 4 filters. One per oscillator but only when Saw or Square oscillators are selected.

Envelopes

Filter Enveloper

One filter envelope per part

PCM oscillator does not have filters and has no filter envelope

Great Filter envelopes with velocicty range and aftertouch
Librarian software. Roland D-50 Filter envelope with 6 Stages and velocity range.

With the filter envelope depth and velocity range the synth can do expressive sounds beyond the factory presets.

Amp Envelope

One amp envelope per part

All 4 oscillators have a 6 stage amp envelope.

LFOs

It has 3 LFOs for upper and 3 LFOs for the lower part. 6 LFOs in all were a lot in 1987.

3 LFOs for moving sounds and impact
D50 software editor. The 3 Roland D-50 LFOs with Waveform, sync, rate and delay time

In 1987 features like LFO sync to host or tempo-sync were not an option but it can be programmed manually.

Modulation

Velocity- and aftertouch modulation is interesting on this synth and can have a great impact on sounds. 3 LFOs per part makes it versatile for modulation filters and amp envelopes.

Effects

Chorus

Chorus list

  • Chorus 1
  • Chorus 2
  • Flanger 1
  • Flanger 2
  • Feedback Chorus
  • Tremolo
  • Chorus Tremolo
  • Dimension

It has one Chorus effect for upper, one for lower and one reverb for the whole sound.

The Reverb

The reverb is an 8 bit reverb with 32 presets. It was probably good in 1987 but a bit grainy for today standard. It has a D-50 character but can not compete with plugins like Valhalla DSP reverb and other reverb plugins.

D-50 Reverb list

  1. Small Hall
  2. Medium Hall
  3. Large Hall
  4. Chapel
  5. Box
  6. Small Metal Room
  7. Small Room
  8. Medium Room
  9. Medium Large Room
  10. Large Room
  11. Single Delay (102 ms)
  12. Cross Delay (180 ms)
  13. Cross Delay (223 ms)
  14. Cross Delay (140 - 296 ms)
  15. Short Gate (200 ms)
  16. Long Gate (480 ms)
  17. Bright Hall
  18. Large Cave
  19. Steel Pan
  20. Delay (248 ms)
  21. Delay (338 ms)
  22. Cross Delay (157 ms)
  23. Cross Delay (252 ms)
  24. Cross Delay (274 - 137 ms)
  25. Gate Reverb
  26. Reverse Gate (360 ms)
  27. Reverse Gate (480 ms)
  28. Slap Back 1
  29. Slap Back 2
  30. Slap Back 3
  31. Twisted Space
  32. Space

Using the Roland D-50 sampling ideas in modern synth plugins

The idea of using samples only for the attack part of the sound combined with synthesis or long/looped samples can be used in modern synthesizers and samplers like Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2, Arturia Pigments 2, Steinberg Padshop 2, Izotope Iris 2, Native Instruments Kontakt or Steinberg Halion 6.

The attack is a very defining part of a synth sound and especially in arpeggiated with a frequent note on the attack samples will play more.

You can sample your own attacks to use in interesting presets like the D-50 retro synth. Sounds like E Piano is basically an attack sound and a not pure sine wave.

Omnisphere 2

A synthesizer like Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 also has 4 parts and Hardware Integration to the real D-50 synthesizer.

Omnisphere 2 also has sample- or synth engines in the oscillators

Omnisphere 2 D50 sample or synth engine
Omnisphere 2 sample- or synth engine x 4 A,B,C,D

Padshop 2

Steinberg's Padshop 2 has 2 engines. A and B. A can be a short sample and be the body of the sound.

Pigments 2

Arturia Pigments 2 has a new sample engine making it useful for this. It has 2 engines and one can be a short sample for the attack part and one a longer or looped sample, analog- or wavetable engine. The sample engine has start end points making it perfect for finding good attack parts in short samples.