You can read more reviews like this, along with Tony’s productions at his personal site -> Tony Long Music.
ROLAND SONICCELL - INTRODUCTION
I have often thought (and often said) that finding the right keyboard for performing 'live' is difficult in as much as you have to make some form of compromise between having a very playable instrument and having the sounds you need. Therefore, a realistic solution 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 SonicCell sound module has been around since 2007 but I have not had the chance to get my hands on one until now, so I thought I would investigate and see how useful this little unit could be to the live performer.
ROLAND SONICCELL - 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 this wasn't how the SonicCell was laid out. I often wonder what goes through the minds of the designers that are given this type of task, but obviously they have more important considerations than simply how user-friendly it is.
The SonicCell weighs 1.2kg (just under 3lbs) and its size is 294mm x 175 x 55, which is about 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 in two, with the top half housing the 128 x 64 organic EL graphic display, three display lights to show 'USB Memory Access', MIDI or USB Midi messages, and the lower half housing all the controls within a small area of approximately 140mm x 75mm. This is also where you find the main cursor/value data wheel, which I have to admit works extremely well with its push selection function. This means that you can dial to the next item and then simply push to select the item you have highlighted, making navigation very fast and easy. Apart from the data wheel there are just nine buttons labelled 'MIDI Inst', 'USB Audio', 'Input', 'Part View', 'Effects', 'SMF/Audio player', 'Play/Pause', 'Menu' and 'Exit'.
ROLAND SONICCELL - TURN HER ON
OK, so I have connected the SonicCell to my Piano and switched it on. I was then faced with a sequencer-looking screen showing '1-16'. The 'MIDI Inst' button was also lit, but it was not very obvious how I could 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 once you know how and as I stated above, the very functional data wheel makes the selection process a breeze.
There are 896 Preset Patches in the SonicCell, plus another 256 General Midi 2 (GM2) presets. There are also 32 Rhythm Sets plus another 9 (GM2). The SonicCell also gives you space for 256 sounds and 32 Rhythm Sets, allowing you to save your own patches for future use. Plus, the SonicCell also gives you 64 Performance Patches with room to save an additional 64 of your own.
However, 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.
ROLAND SONICCELL - AS A SOUND MODULE
As a previous owner of a Fantom X rack, I was very familiar with the on-board sounds. This is because the SonicCell is based on Roland's Fantom range and has the same 128 voice polyphony, although it does also features a number of additional waveforms as well. 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. However, 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 ever release an updated SonicCell. This is not to say that the SonicCell in its current form does not sound good though... far from it! In fact, even if you find that some of the sounds aren't quite what you want, you can edit them with the included software editor or add some of the great in-built effects. Alternatively, you can select two expansion boards from the SRX range to add genre-specific sound patches and bolster your sonic arsenal.
You will also of course find a General MIDI bank (GM2) which provide you with 256 patches and 9 Rhythm Sets. 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'!
ROLAND SONICCELL - EFFECTS
Amongst the controls is an 'Effects' button and pressing it gives you instant access to the multi-purpose effects of the SonicCell. 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 (consisting 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 do not slap more of these effects on the presets to give them more of the immediate 'Wow' factor.
As well as the 78 multi-purpose effects, the SonicCell 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 labeled as 'MFX1', 'MFX2', and 'MFX3'. In Patch mode, you can use one multi-effect. The Effects units are Chorus, Reverb and a Mastering effect, which is applied to the final output of the SonicCell and is essentially a stereo compressor/limiter with independent high, mid, and low bands. Each of these units can be assigned to a part or a channel.
The SonicCell gives you 3 types Chorus (01 Chorus, 02 Delay and 03 GM2 Chorus) and 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 SonicCell 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; and MIX - which mixes the signal from the computer and module if it is connected via USB.
ROLAND SONICCELL - AUDIO INTERFACE AND FILE PLAYER
Probably the best feature of the SonicCell is its easy integration with a computer. All you need to do is to install the included driver software on your computer and then run a USB cable between the port on the back of the SonicCell and your computer. This facility provides you with many options, from acting as an Audio Interface (with stereo line inputs, an XLR input and a 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. What is also extremely useful here is that the SonicCell is a high-spec audio interface with sound quality up to 24-bit, 96 kHz. If your Wav files are saved at this quality, then the crisp quality of the sound is awesome! Well done Roland!
The use of the Set List feature on a PC makes this a breeze because you can drag and drop files on your computer into the Set List and when you are finished, transfer this to the SonicCell for playing live. This means that you don't have to worry about trying to set it up using the SonicCell's small LCD and you also have no need to take your PC or Laptop on stage. However, it is a bit of a shame that there is not a compartment 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 instantly), which is perfect for this situation. I think that the hardest thing for 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 in 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 1 formats. I tried to find out how many songs/MIDI files you can have with SonicCell. It seems that providing you have the latest SonicCell system version 1.20 loaded, you can have up to 99 SONGS/MIDI Files 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 the SonicCell to your PC via the on-board effects processors.
ROLAND SONICCELL - CONNECTIONS
Going from left to right at the back, firstly you have a Security Slot for a Kensington lock, which is a nice addition. Then you have a USB 1 and a USB 2 connector to connect to your computer and to insert a USB stick. Then you have MIDI Out and In connections, 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 or a Mono Mic input for a Dynamic or Condenser Mic. Just note that when used with a Condenser Mic you will need to go to the Input Screen to turn on the Phantom Power. Lastly are the Right and Left/Mono output quarter inch sockets, the small power On/Off switch and the DC 9 V (AC Adaptor) Input.
On the front of the SomicCell 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 SonicCell's power off, then on again.
Next is a tiny volume wheel, which is really annoyingly difficult to adjust in poor lighting, such as 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 mini-jack headphone socket, which I am glad to say is rightly placed at the front.
ROLAND SONICCELL - SOFTWARE APPLICATIONS INCLUDED
As an added bonus, you get a free copy of three different software applications with your SonicCell including an excellent DAW in 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 already own a DAW and works well with its own company's hardware, very much like Yamaha and Cubase today. I also think they have done a great job with the SonicCell Editor as 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 included SonicCell Librarian is a database application, designed to enable the management of all SonicCell parameter files on your computer. If you select 'Acquire all data from SonicCell User Area', all patches stored in the Sonic Cell 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 SonicCell 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.
ROLAND SONICCELL - ACCESSORIES AND USEFUL OPTIONS
The Roland SonicCell 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.
However, there are also three optional extras available that I think are excellent for SonicCell owners. The BKT-S is a desktop stand that you can angle for easier vision and access to the controls. The PDS-10 is a floor stand that is invaluable for live use. Finally, the CB-SP1 is a purpose-built carrying case with all of the necessary compartments for the SonicCell and its accessories.
ROLAND SONICCELL - SUMMARY
Excluding a couple of minor niggles, I think the SonicCell has a great deal going for it, especially 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 doesn't have the 'Wow' factor that most of us 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.
For more information on the Roland SonicCell or its options, click the relevant link below or call us on 01202 597180: