Testing the Roland VB-99, and a comparison with the GR-33B



Mention the words “synth guitar” and the mind conjures up images of ‘80s techno bands and a George Jetson-inspired future that never quite arrived. But mention “synth bass,” and that’s another thing entirely. There is nothing second rate or cheesy about a solid, voltage-controlled oscillator-driven bass track. So why have bass players let keyboardists take the bottom end in so many top hits?

GR-33B

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In the early 1980s, after the success of the GR-300 guitar synthesizer, the Roland Corporation followed up with a lesser-known bass version, the GR-33B. The GR-33B addressed some of the shortcomings of the GR-300: it had an envelope generator with two presets, each with attack and decay controls. The filter on the GR-33B could be switched from the more dramatic –24 dB per octave sound associated with the Moog and Arp synths, to the softer –12 dB per octave sound of Oberheim synthesizers. The GR-33B envelopes could also be assigned to a voltage-controlled amplifier. And the GR-33B added something new to the LFO circuit: a nifty lag generator that could swell the vibrato in after a variable delay.

Like the GR-300, the GR-33B had excellent tracking, and the sawtooth waveform at the heart of its sound was satisfyingly aggressive. But the GR-33B never became the sound of “synth bass.” And the GR-33B only worked with two basses: the Roland G-33 and G-88. Both were reminiscent of a P-bass, and very similar to the Ibanez MC-800. This is not surprising, since all these basses were reportedly built in the popular Japanese Fuji Gen Gakki guitar factory.

Perhaps it was the limited bass selection, high cost, or the popularity of the ubiquitous Minimoog, but bass players continued to play second bass fiddle, as it were, to keyboard players, despite efforts by Roland, Peavey, Electro-Harmonix and others to update four string technology.

GR-33B Revived Via VB-99
Undaunted, Roland recently launched its latest bass synthesizer, the VB-99. Like the VG-99, the VB-99 is an updated version of an earlier system, in this case the Roland V-Bass. Modern Roland technology uses the GK-3B bass pickup, which easily fits to a variety of bass guitars, or third party piezo systems found in basses made by Brian Moore, Godin Guitars and others.

Hit page 2 for a comparison of the GR-33B and VB-99's GR-33B emulations with video...


Roland VB-99 vs Roland GR-33B

Like the VG-99, the VB-99 has an emulation of vintage Roland GR synth technology. But if bass players were expecting to find a clone of the GR-33B under the hood, they will instead find the same virtual GR-300 as found in the VG-99, only working in the bass register.

This might be disappointing for bass players who were looking for an exact clone of the only polyphonic analog synthesizer made just for them. On the other hand, when I compared the tracking and response time of the VB-99’s virtual GR-300 with the original GR-33B, the two synths were almost identical, with a response time in the 14-18 millisecond range. This surprised me, since the real GR-300 slightly outperformed the virtual GR-300 in the VG-99. This may have something to do with the qualities of tracking low frequencies, or perhaps the VB-99 has a slightly faster processor than the VG-99. And the VB-99 is even faster when emulating acoustic or electric bass sounds. In any case, the VB-99 certainly packs many buzzy, snarling synth bass sounds in its preset menu. And the flavor of its vintage GR-inspired synth engine matches the general sound of the GR-33B.

VB-99

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If you are a bass player who feels that people are just not paying enough attention to your musical brilliance, the VB-99 will certainly help you cut through the mix. And the VB-99 actually lets you layer three bass sounds together! Whereas the previous V-Bass had one sound, the VB-99 has two independent synth engines, plus a “Bass Direct” switch that adds the regular output of your bass to the blend. This is a great idea, and recognition of the performance difference between guitar and bass guitar. The Roland VG-99 guitar synth has almost no factory patches that use the regular output of the guitar, while the VB-99 has a switch to punch the direct bass sound right in the mix.

In fact, some of the best patches of the VB-99 work so well because they blend together two different bass sounds. Typically using one synth engine for a traditional warm, fat, low end sound, and the other engine for a bright synth element, or an octave shift effect that brings out clarity. And the VB-99 has dynamics capability to cross fade, or layer sounds, depending on how hard the notes are played.

For a test bass I bought a red Squier P-bass off of eBay for less than the cost of the GK-3B pickup, thinking I would need to drill some holes to get everything fitted. The GK-3B offers several ways to mount to a bass, and I was able to properly secure the whole rig with one strip of double-sided tape for the pickup element and a simple pressure adjustment to hold the GK-3B electronics module in place.

Broadly speaking, the bass sounds of the VB-99 fall into three categories: synth bass, electric bass, and upright bass. And the banks are laid out so that five similar sounds are grouped together. Using the VB-99 with the optional FC-300, you can step through banks until you reach say, acoustic basses, and then you have five or ten variations on that particular theme. And this is handy on the gig, when inadvertently going from “Warm Wood Bass” to “Pulse Dual Attack” could cause serious problems.

Hit page 3 for the VB-99 test with video...


VB-99 Patches with Mark Harris

VB-99 Testing the Patches
To evaluate using the VB-99 live, I recruited bassist Mark Harris, who does a wide-range of gigging in Los Angeles, and well as international touring with the band Venice. Initially, we checked out the VB-99 in a studio situation, and there was certainly quite a bit of “wow” factor. Mark immediately remarked that the tracking was excellent, but the VB-99 is more of an extreme signal processor, and does some heavy-duty DSP work on the raw string sound from the bass, rather than simply tracking the pitch of a note and triggering a sound.

We listened as the VB-99 reproduced a range of sounds from upright acoustic bass tones to grungy, prog-rock Rickenbacker bass, to over-the-top saturated lead guitar. Like all synthesizers, whether bass, guitar, or keyboard, part of the secret to success is knowing how to play to the sound. It may be novel to play a bass line from a Ramones tune with an upright bass patch, as I did, but if you want to convince somebody you have an acoustic bass, a walking bass line works much better.

On the gig the VB-99 was slightly less distinct. In this case, “the gig” was a noisy bar situation, always a place without much subtlety. We realized that maximizing the potential of the VB-99 might require something beyond a typical bass amp. A lot of the detail in the sound that was so obvious through studio monitors was lost with a bass amp. The VB-99 does have global settings that include line output, and amp output with and without a tweeter. But using a full-range system with little coloration, like a keyboard amp, seems to yield the best results.

To VB-99 or not to VB-99
Unlike guitar players with their vast expanse of floor adornments, bass players seem to do fine with (maybe) one pedal and a decent amp. In that case, it may be hard to justify the expense of a rig like the VB-99 and GK-3B. Not that justification has anything to do with buying cool new gear. But for the bass player in a demanding cover band situation, the VB-99 could easily be a lifesaver. Rather than a rack of basses, a player could focus on one or two premium instruments and use the VB-99 to recreate the necessary tones. And the VB-99 does more than just turn a Squier P-bass into a Les Paul, it also simulates a wide variety of amps, cabinets, mic’ing configurations, and just about every Boss effect ever made. Plus reverb and delay. Did I mention the unit has pitch-to-MIDI output as well?

Mostly, the VB-99 is still all about potential. While it’s certainly very cool to instantly switch from Music Man, to Upright, to SH-101 synth bass, the VB-99 easily suggests new techniques and approaches. I would love to see a solo bass set using only the VB-99 and a looper. After all, it only takes one imaginative player to write a killer riff with the VB-99 to change the way people think about “synth bass.”

The Roland GR-300 holds a unique position in the world of guitar synths. While the sonic potential of the GR-300 was limited, its incredibly fast and accurate tracking made


Return of a Legend
The Roland GR-300 holds a unique position in the world of guitar synths. While the sonic potential of the GR-300 was limited, its incredibly fast and accurate tracking made it the only guitar synthesizer to ever live up to the marketing hype. So naturally, Roland Corporation created quite a stir among guitar synth enthusiasts with the announcement that the new VG-99 would include a software emulation of the GR-300.

Recently, GR-300 modules have sold for close to $2000 on eBay, with complete systems featuring the G-303 controller selling for over $3000. This is well above the cost of a complete VG-99/FC-300/GK-3 rig, which made me wonder, would the VG-99/ GR-300 emulation compare with the original 1980 version?

What makes the GR-300 so special?
To appreciate the unique qualities of the GR- 300, let’s take a look at the unusual design of this early guitar synthesizer. Before the GR-300, most designers used a pitch-to-voltage circuit to generate a control voltage to drive a VCO, or voltage controlled oscillator. In other words, the guitar fretboard was basically substituting for a keyboard. This approach is much like today’s MIDI guitar synthesizers, which convert the pitch of a guitar string into a MIDI note.

The advantage of pitch-to-voltage systems, like pitch-to-MIDI systems, is that the guitar controller can be interfaced with similarly equipped gear. The ARP Avatar, for example, could be expanded with other ARP modules, or similar vintage synths. The GR-300 broke from this tradition, and used the output of the Roland hex pickup to directly drive the guitar synthesis process. It was a closed system, but what the GR-300 lacked in expansion and voicing options, it more than made up for in its remarkable ability to almost immediately translate fretboard actions into distinct synthesizer sounds.

While conventional analog synthesizers typically offer a variety of waveform outputs, the GR-300 has a unique sawtooth waveform not found on any other analog synthesizer. Because the cycle of the waveform from the hex pickup drives the synthesis process, Roland designers realized that lower notes would be much louder than higher notes. In fact, with each successive octave the waveform would lose half its amplitude. The solution was to simply chop off much of the top of the waveform, as this would keep all the notes at the same volume across the range of the guitar. This was certainly a brute-force approach, but this shifting sawtooth waveform gave the GR-300 a sound not found anywhere else. In the nineties, Roland sound designer Scott Summers sampled his own GR-300, and the unique GR-300 waveform started to show up in some new Roland guitar synthesizers. But sampling the GR-300 was clearly not the same experience as playing a GR-300.

Blue Box in a Silver Box
After much input from internet user groups, and perhaps after seeing the price of their venerable GR-300 soar in used gear markets, Roland promised to recreate the sound of the GR-300 inside the VG-99. Were they successful? Absolutely. After playing a GR-300 for years, it was quite disconcerting playing the VG-99/GR-300 emulation for the first time. The sound is all there, from the “spit” of the GR-300’s attack, to the characteristic breakup of the sawtooth waveform before the sound stops.

And Roland included all the features of a complete GR-300 rig, including pitch sweep controls, envelope filter modulation, LFO and even hex fuzz, a feature that was actually a part of the vintage guitar controller and not the GR-300 itself. When Roland claimed to completely emulate a GR-300 in the VG-99, they were serious. The new VG-99/ GR-300 has more creative options, along with the bells and whistles of modern technology: USB and coaxial digital outputs, and more effects than an entire eighties studio. For the critical tests, I plugged a Roland-Ready Fender Stratocaster into a converter/splitter so that I could play the VG-99 and GR-300 at the same time. Audio samples of these tests are available online, along with waveform photos and more info for the guitar geek.

Return of a Legend
Left: The VG-99 is the top waveform and the GR-300 is below. Notice the VG-99 has sharp edges to the waveform, and the GR-300 is slightly rounded. Right: The next photo shows both waveforms with 50 percent low-pass filter. As you roll-off the high end, the waveforms become identical.
VG-99 and GR-300 Under the Oscilloscope
When playing complex patches, the emulation of the GR-300 is virtually indistinguishable from the original. However, critically comparing the two synths side-by-side reveals a few minor flaws in the emulation. First, the waveform generated by the VG- 99 looks exactly like the diagram of the waveform found in the original Roland GR-300 patent application. But the actual GR-300 waveform lacks the crispness of the emulation, and has a very slight harmonic peak. Consequently, with the filters wide open on both synths, the VG-99 is perhaps a bit sharper and brighter in tone. However, once you start to close the -24 dB low pass filters down, the waveforms become nearly identical. Speaking of the filter, the emulation of the dramatic analog filter is also amazingly accurate, though the resonance is a bit more aggressive on the VG- 99 than it is on the original GR-300.

Emulating analog synthesizers in software actually presents some philosophical issues for designers. Do you slavishly recreate the sound of a 25-year-old synth, or do you recreate the sound of the synth as the original designers intended? And what is the sound of a GR-300? No doubt that after 25 years many of the components in my test GR-300 have lost their original electrical values. But since no one is building new GR-300s, this was the best test rig I could come up with.

Also of concern is the amplitude envelope. The decay of a sustained note using the VG- 99/GR-300 closely followed the actual decay of the unprocessed Strat sound. However, in the GR-300 the sound was a bit more compressed, holding at a fairly steady level before abruptly dropping off. The GR- 300, both real and emulated, does have a compression switch, but I had this turned off for these tests. For moderate to fast playing, you cannot hear the difference, but one of the pleasures of playing a GR-300 is hearing a low note sustain for twenty or thirty seconds before fading out. In the sustained audio samples, the VG-99/GR-300 always fades out before the original GR-300 does.

Return of a Legend
The Roland VG-99
While the GR-300 barely takes three milliseconds to respond, the VG-99/GR-300 took about 23 milliseconds on average. But the delay in the VG-99/GR-300 is different from the dreaded delay players experience in working with pitch-to-MIDI systems. The delay in the VG-99 is about the same with the lowest note on the guitar as it is with the highest note. MIDI tracking systems typically track higher notes faster than lower notes. This behavior indicates to me that the VG-99 delay represents the amount of processing in the VG-99 required to model the analog signal path of the GR-300. Many synthesizers actually work within the 20 to 25 millisecond range, which is comparable to the time it takes sound to travel 20 to 25 feet. And since the delay is consistent, it is easier to adjust to than the ever-varying MIDI delay. Impressively, the tracking of the VG-99/GR- 300 is every bit as good as the GR-300. Players used to the glitching, dead notes and false triggering of MIDI guitar synthesizers will be blown away by the GR-300 emulation in the VG-99. Just like the original GR-300, you do not need to change your playing style: hammer-ons, harmonics, muting, everything works here. It would not be accurate to say the VG-99/GR-300 has better tracking than typical guitar synths, since no “tracking” is really involved. The string vibration drives the process, and there is no invisible electronic bean counter trying to name the note you just played.

A minor note: the VG-99/GR-300 does not specifically mimic the “string select” feature found in the original GR-300. There are three modes of operation in the GR-300. Mode one is hex fuzz only, mode two is a combination of hex fuzz and synth sound, and mode three is synthesizer only. Pat Metheny, for example, only uses his GR-300 in mode three for lead voice. On the original GR-300 you can turn individual strings on and off, but only in mode three. The VG-99/GR-300 does not have this feature in the GR-300 section, but provides a way to switch individual strings on and off through the guitar modeling parameters.

The VG-99/GR-300 certainly recreates the analog fatness and vibe of the original GR-300. Perhaps Roland engineers had an advantage modeling the GR-300. Software emulations often suffer from being too perfect: the oscillators work too precisely, and the MIDI-based keyboard tracking generates perfectly intonated pitches. The VG-99/GR- 300 readily recreates the human quality of the original GR-300 synth, because any flaws in the Roland GK guitar controller are reproduced. The subtle difference between playing the same note on a wound or unwound string is heard, as is the inherent intonation compromises found in any guitar fretboard. It is these subtle differences that make the sound of the GR-300, real or virtual, more complex and interesting to the human ear than typical synthesizers. Unlike most synths, playing the same note twice does not create the exact same sound.

And now for Version 2.0?
My quibbles with the GR-300 emulation are really pretty small. For most GR-300 players, the VG-99 is well worth the money, since you can now keep your pricey vintage gear at home. Also, the VG-99 offers something the GR-300 never had: presets. Players pretty much had to stick to one sound, since there was no way to store and recall settings. Connect the FC-300 to the VG-99, and you can easily changes patches and recreate the octave shifts that are an essential part of the drama of any GR-300 solo. The VG-99 also lets the user assign more than one function to pressing a footswitch or moving a pedal. So hitting the CTL 1 switch can simultaneously change octaves, engage filter modulation and tweak the final output equalizer.

The VG-99 is software based, so there is always the possibility that Roland engineers will address the envelope issue in a future version, but even if that day never comes, I am truly impressed with the work that Roland put into the GR-300 emulation on the VG-99. Unlike most software vintage synthesizers that can exist solely in a CPU, the VG-99, like the GR-300, requires input from the real world to start its engines. And the dual-channel VG-99 will let you actually play two GR- 300s at the same time. Just try to track down the equivalent vintage gear to do that: two GR-300s, a super-rare Roland US-2 splitter, and three of the 24-pin cables. With prices steadily creeping higher and higher in the vintage market, you might be able to afford a new car for the same money!

With the VG-99 now providing my GR-300 tones, my elderly GR-300 is getting some well-deserved rest. Everything old, it seems, is new again.




Roland
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