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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Roland SK88 Pro Sound Canvas

Desktop Keyboard

Reviews : Keyboard

For those who want to fit an entire MIDI studio on a desktop, Roland have produced a baby keyboard stuffed with their Sound Canvas GM/GS sounds. Paul White clears space by his computer for the SK88 Pro.

Roland's SK88 Pro combines a 32-part, 64-voice multitimbral GM/GS sound source with a three-octave keyboard fitted with Roland's own combined mod/bend lever. The primary use of this instrument is as part of a desktop music system -- the other main requirement being a MIDI sequencer -- but apart from its restricted keyboard size, the SK88 is a fully specified device based on the high-quality sound set used in Roland's SC880 high-end Sound Canvas module. The real-time control features of this instrument are better than for most desktop keyboards, with three knobs and one slider linked directly to parameter control. The knobs can be stepped through different sets of functions allowing access to 14 different sound and effect parameters during performance, three of which may be assigned by the user. Possible destinations which may be selected for real-time control via the Control slider include Velocity, Aftertouch, Modulation, Expression, Volume and any desired Control Change message. Depending on the Local on/off status, the Control data will either affect both the internal sounds and the outgoing MIDI stream or just the MIDI output. It's also possible to use a sustain pedal and volume pedal with the SK88 Pro, the latter of which may be assigned to control other MIDI functions if required.

The SK88 Pro appears to be based on exactly the same sound engine as the SC880 module reviewed in the September '98 issue of SOS. This delivers three sets of 128 Capital GM tones (taken from the SC55, 88 and 880) plus a large number of GS variation tones, totalling 1,117 in all. On top of that there are 42 rhythm sets and a flexible effects section based on 64 types of insert effect (connected in series), plus System effects comprising eight reverbs, 10 types of delay and 2-band parametric equalisation. Sound parameters such as vibrato, filter and envelope can be controlled directly from the front-panel knobs and there are 256 user locations in which to store edited sounds. The large screen, like the SC880's, makes much use of icons to make operation more friendly. Given the extent of the similarity between this instrument and the SC880, I'll refer you back to that review rather than repeat all the fine detail of the sound-generating section here.

32-part, 64-voice architecture.
Plenty of genuinely good sounds and drum kits.
Mac and PC interface built in.
Dual MIDI Ins.
Simple real-time sound editing.
Short keyboard is limiting.
Some aspect of the operating system can still be confusing.
A very serious desktop music keyboard with a wealth of quality sounds, easy editability and good interfacing capabilities.

The SK88 Pro has two MIDI Ins, to accommodate the two sets of 16 MIDI channels required to access the 32-part polyphony from an external sequencer. Alternatively, you can plug the instrument directly into the serial interface of a Mac or PC to bypass the need for an external/card MIDI interface. A slide switch on the left end of the unit selects between PC1 (31.25 kbit/sec), PC2 (38.4 kbit/sec), Mac or MIDI interfacing. Also tucked away on the left of the unit is the power-adaptor input, a pair of audio input phonos with their own volume control (allowing external sounds to be mixed with the SK88 Pro output), and two separate sets of audio outputs on phonos. It's even possible to treat the SK88 as two more or less independent sound modules by selecting Double module mode, the advantage being that the two virtual modules can be set up with different System effects.

With 32-part multitimbrality, number of outputs will always be a compromise. Having internal effects makes up for it to an extent, and Roland have arranged things so that sounds routed to Output 2 are heard without effects, which helps if you wish to use external effects instead on some parts. A mini headphone jack is also provided.

The front-panel control surface is relatively uncluttered, with just four buttons plus the Volume slider, the Control slider and the bend/mod lever to the left of the keyboard. The keys are for Function, Local (On/Off) and Octave Shift up or down. When the Function key is held down, the first octave of the keyboard may be used to select Velocity, Aftertouch, Modulation, Expression, Volume, Pan and Assign.

All the remaining controls are located above the keyboard and are divided into two sections, the leftmost of which comprises buttons relating to Instrument, Level, Pan, Reverb, Chorus, Key Shift and MIDI Channel. To the right in the Edit Palette section are the three assignable control knobs and a pair of buttons that determine the function of the knobs. The parameter sets that may be accessed via these knobs are Vib Rate/Vib Depth/Vib Delay, Filter Cutoff/Resonance, Attack/Decay/ Release, EFX Type/Parameter/Value, or three user-assignable functions.

The Sounds

Not only are the basic sounds generally very good, but the real-time controls also make it easy to create your own variations without having to delve into a complex editing system. In addition to the largely predictable GM sounds, there are also some very nice synth patches and a varied selection of drum kits. Each Tone has eight editable key parameters: Vibrato Rate, Vibrato Depth, Vibrato Delay, Filter Cutoff Frequency, Resonance, Attack, Decay and Release, and once edited, Tones can be saved in one of the 256 user memories. Though this may not seem very flexible, the immediacy of editing more than makes up for any shortcomings.

A Patch is defined as one or more Tones combined with effects, and Patches may include keyboard splits as well as layers. There are 128 factory Patches with a further 128 user Patch memories.

Tones and Rhythm sets may be combined to form a multitimbral Performance. Eight of the Performances are Presets and eight more are user programmable. There are two types of effect: System effects, which are added to all parts, but at user adjustable levels, and multi-effects, which are applied only to specific parts.


It would be a mistake to dismiss the SK88 Pro as being unsophisticated because of its Sound Canvas heritage. Though the heart of the instrument is based on GM/GS sounds, the quality of these sounds is pretty good, and the easy way in which they can be edited encourages the user to experiment rather than simply use the presets. Previous Sound Canvas users should also find some pleasant surprises in the additional Variation sounds, particularly the excellent orchestral palette, the vintage synth patches and the generous range of drum sounds. The effects are also good, though it can be confusing setting them up to work within a Performance.

Another potentially confusing area is the Sound Palette real-time control area, because if you change one patch within a part -- for example, by lengthening the envelope -- then step through to a different patch, the revised envelope settings apply to that part also. Surely it would make more sense to have the changes take effect only on the patch you were originally editing?


As with the SC880, there is an inevitable Roland Sound Canvas flavour to the SK88's sound set, but with the huge range of variations and reasonably easy editing it's not difficult to create sounds that fall well outside the GM/GS remit. The resonant filters are particularly useful in this respect. Even though the number of editable Tone parameters is fairly small, the sounds are still enormously malleable, and of course you can use the real-time controls to make changes during a performance -- something that techno composers should appreciate. Having 32-part multitimbrality is also welcome, though I'm not convinced that 64-voice polyphony is enough to really make use of this, especially as patches using multiple Tones reduce the polyphony accordingly.

Overall, the SK88 Pro is a very serious desktop instrument, the only real limitation of which is its three-octave keyboard. The clear user interface and sensible control layout is also to be admired, and the range of really good sounds that can be coaxed from this little instrument shows just how far the Sound Canvas concept has come since its inception. 

Published in SOS April 1999

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