V-Studio 700 is a complete and integrated digital recording
system-just add computer-that's designed around SONAR 8 (Tape Op #69), Cakewalk's flagship DAW, which is included with the complete V-Studio package. Also in the bundle is a full version of Rapture softsynth and Dimension Pro sampler, giving users two top-notch virtual instruments. The hardware comprises two Roland units-the VS-700R audio/MIDI interface and the VS-700C console controller-both made in Japan. Ever since Roland bought a majority stake in Cakewalk, they've been incorporating Cakewalk's software into their digital multitracking solutions, starting with the respected REAC live recording digital snake and mixer. V-Studio follows the same format, splitting the audio interface and mixer, although the V-Studio "mixer" is simply a control surface for the DAW software. Although the VS-700C console is capable of controlling all major DAWs via Mackie HUI emulation, it really shines when direct-connected to SONAR, providing most DAW functions at the click of a dedicated button or two. At the console's bottom left is the Access Panel with View and Utility commands on sixteen named buttons. The View buttons do exactly what they say, as do the Utility (or edit) buttons. There are also four Modifier buttons, which work like the Shift, Ctrl, etc. keys on a PC keyboard to expand the command list. In combination with the Jog/Shuttle wheel and its associated Cursor keys, I could easily navigate through a project, select tracks while zooming in and out, and edit tracks with simple button clicks. Cool. The process is fast and intuitive and gets faster the more one works with the VS-700C console. In comparison, using a mouse and keyboard (even with shortcuts) seems so... 20th Century. Switching from mouse to keyboard doesn't take that much time but does break up the creative flow in comparison to leaving your hands on a board. The VS-700C way of working feels natural and simply organic. In my makeshift B-Room when I had the system installed, I had to jam the console right up against the monitor, and initially, I thought that a touch screen would have made navigation easy, but after some use, I felt that the smooth implementation of the jog wheel and cursors was a lot more handy.
To the top left of the console is a Channel Strip with twelve rotary encoders. They control the four default EQs on each SONAR channel. At the touch of a backlit button, you can switch them to the sends for the selected track in SONAR. An LCD display along the top helps you from getting lost, showing the parameter name above and its value below in the two-line readout. The display also helps as you use the page buttons to jumpthroughtheparameters.Theserotariescanalsocontrol whichever effect or synth is displayed in SONAR at the touch of a third dedicated button, and SONAR automatically maps parameters. The extra rotaries are a great addition for getting down and dirty with editing EQ or softsynths, while leaving your audio or MIDI tracks/channels as they are. For channel control, use the two center sections which contain eight channel strips and a master fader. Each channel strip has its share of the LCD screens; an assignable rotary encoder that defaults to pan; level meter; buttons for mute, solo, record, and select; and a touch-sensitive, motorized fader. Eight faders might not seem enough, but you can move up or down one channel at a time or in banks of eight You can also lock a fader to a specific channel while banking through the remainder, although I tended to get lost with this feature. On a traditional mixing board (or controller with more faders), the instruments are spread out one channel at a time, you have a spatial sense of where they are, and they don't move on you. I found the
quickest solutions were to either number the tracks so the numbers showed up in the LCD, or just work via buses once I had the tracks balanced. Of course, more time spent on the console would help me keep track of which tracks were where. The touch-sensitive faders have a nice feel once the motor is engaged-not six-figure board good, but I never thought about them, either. More backlit, named buttons are used to select fader assignment to tracks, buses, or main. Above the ninth (Master) fader are still more buttons. I/O assigns the strips to control the VS-700R audio interface, while Flip switches the assigned Rotary function to the fader for more precise editing. To the right is the master section. No LCD parameter readout here, but there's a clock display that switches between SMPTE and Bars/Beats via-you guessed it-a dedicated button. There is a T-Bar controller too. (T-Bars aren't usually found on audio equipment but on video hardware or the Death Star.) It looks and feels impressive. It too can be assigned different functions via more buttons, although I mainly used it as an X-Ray fader. X-Ray in SONAR controls the transparency of plug-ins, turning them from completely invisible to solid and anything in between. The master section also includes a joystick for surround control, although it can't be re-assigned except to move those plug-in windows around if you don't want to fade them. (It is really too slack for synth work anyway.) Transport buttons round out the more traditional controller features. The VS-700C is heavier than it looks, even though it looks substantial. It looks good too, festooned as it is with faders, LCDs, knobs, and what not. More important than looks, it is fun to drive, and it provides the synergy from hardware specifically-designed for the software.
In a well-thought-out move, the VS-700C console does have two headphone outputs and a DI input, but these only work in conjunction with the VS-700R interface. Although the two hardware units were designed to work together, they can be bought and used separately. When used together, the VS-700C passes control messages through a propriety cable to the VS-700R. If you use a different interface, there is a USB connection for stand-alone mode. The VS-700R utilizes USB 2.0 for audio and MIDI communication with the computer as well as for the companion VS-700C's control information. Once you load the software, two cables link the entire system to your computer. Other than the drivers on my balky A-Room computer, I had no problems with the USB link on my Win XP desktop in my B-Room and my Vista laptop. I was skeptical of audio over USB at first, but it proved to be solid and achieved good latency even on a single-core machine. As FireWire is looking less prevalent, USB is a better long-term bet. The VS-700R works fine as tabletop unit; however, all the connectersareontherear,andyou'llwanttobeabletosee the front clearly since indicator lights assure you all is well in connection-land and segmented LEDs monitor input levels. Rack ears are also included for a more permanent installation. The unit has fourteen analog outputs set up as ten channels and four monitors. This initially confused me, as I assumed the Main and Sub monitors passed the same stereo signal for different sets of monitors. My error. They are individual outs so you can use the Subs for hardware stemming, summing, or anything else you might need and still have the Mains for monitoring. There are no inserts, but the outputs are all balanced as are the inputs. The eight inputs are on separate mic and line connections. The mic preamps have software control over level, pad, polarity, and low-cut filter. In fact, all control and routing is done with software, except for a single front knob for the sample rate. A stand-alone app takes care of the settings, which of course are mapped to the VS-700C console when in I/O mode. The analog inputs also include a DSP-based compressor per channel. You can control the settings the old-fashioned, mousy way-or use the VS-700C controls. Unlike analog ones, digital compressors can't control the signal level before conversion, and one singer I recorded went from bellow to scream and caused some digital hash until I reset levels. Otherwise, the compressors worked fine on loud signals, including drums, guitars, and some funky bass. The supported digital I/O formats include one each for stereo AES/EBU and stereo coax S/PDIF, as well as SMUX-compatible ADAT. Unfortunately, only one pair of the stereo digital inputs is available at a time, and the same signal is passed to both stereo digital outs. As you go up in sample-rate (44.1 to 192 kHz), you lose I/O channels, but that is the nature of many digital beasts. Roland also adds a built-in version of their Fantom synth with the interface. This acts and is controlled like a VSTi on-screen, but since it is DSP-based, it doesn't cost CPU cycles in the host computer. Fantom VS will either be useful or useless, depending on your needs. Even the most dogmatically acoustic studio can use a rompler (sampled-waveform synth) at some point; however, most studios will already have a favored synth, and SONAR includes two top-notch softsynths. Fantom should probably be an option, like Roland's ARX synth-on-a-chip, which can be fitted into a slot in the top of the VS-700R. But if you crave Roland synths, you have both Fantom and ARX, and if you need more channels of synth or I/O, you can stack two pimped-out VS-700R units on the USB connection.
After features and price, the next question (or maybe the first) is, "How does it sound?" In a word, "Good"; or in two words, "Very good." The sound is clean and open, providing plenty of air around the recordings. I was lucky to be comping a band for mastering and had a mix from my trusty old PreSonus FirePod, a bunch of in-the-studio SSL/Apogee recordings, and a new song we did on the V-Studio. Although I was surprised how well the FirePod stood up, the V-Studio was closer to the "real" studio. A visiting engineer commented on the midrange and how the high-hats were clearer than in the FirePod recording. That was partly due to Roland's superior converters but also because I had used the FirePod with good analog compressors and some gooey transformers which didn't make it into the B-Room. That just goes to show that what you put into a converter is usually more important than the converter itself, so the VS-700R won't hold you back sonically. The unit has a fan, although it isn't as loud as most computer fans but is something to be aware of if you record in the control room. The preamps are good too, having 65 dB of clean gain in single-dB increments. This beats the pants off of too many integrated preamps which bunch up the gain in the last fraction of the knob travel. The high gain allowed me to back singers off the mic like in a pro studio, diminishing proximity effect if the vocalist overworks the mic. That makes getting a good performance easier and the mixing oh-so-much-more pleasant. While the preamps don't provide vintage color or that bigger-than-life sound, they are up to snuff, and the line inputs give access to outboard gear without coloration.
If your time is money, the VS-700C controller can save you both. Besides, it looks better and is more fun to use than a mouse, making you feel like you're working on music, not a computer. The VS-700R interface is a solid piece of gear, though a bit pricey because of the non-optional inclusion of Fantom VS. Of course, it is a cost-effective way to have a Roland synth (or two). The two units work fine separately, but in combination, they make a synergistic system that includes just about everything a project studio needs-right at your fingertips. ($4195 street complete, $1995 VS-700R only, $2495 VS-700C only, $445 ARX add-in; www.cakewalk.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.