Part 1: The Roland D-50
Certain instruments can be claimed to have defined an era in music. In the 1980s, the Japanese synthesizer manufacturer, Roland created a unique-sounding digital synthesizer that was destined to appear on countless hit records, soundtracks and genres. Musically and sonically, it became synonymous with its era. I’ll describe the impact and widespread success of the instrument, in a later post, I will describe how I built one for myself.
The Roland D-50 arrived on the market in 1987 and sounded unlike any instrument that had preceded it. Using an ingenious combination of sampled PCM waveforms and digitally synthesized subtractive synthesis, the programming interface was far more user-friendly than expected for such a complex sound engine, made easier still by an optional ‘hands-on’ programming unit, the PG-1000, that provided individual switches and sliders for every parameter.
The digital synthesis calculation mathematics caused unexpected overtones and frequencies in the ‘partial’ constituents of the sounds. Roland’s engineers tried to remove the overtones until the sound designers realised that the harmonic structures of the overtones gave the D-50 its individual character, lending a unique warmth and ambience to the sounds.
It was the first synthesizer to feature on-board reverb, effects and other signal processing, giving it a quality and depth that other instruments could not produce without expensive outboard equipment. Enhancing the synth engine’s overtones, the reverb and effects made the D-50 sound neither ‘digital’ nor ‘analogue’, but ‘alive’ in ways that no other synthesizer was. It sounded ‘breathy’ and ‘organic’, synthesizing sounds that could be ethereal and hauntingly natural, yet utterly other-worldly. It could also sound funky and spectacularly dramatic, brassy and powerful. Part of its appeal was that its individual character could also blend perfectly with other instruments in a mix and sound integral to the arrangement, rather than a synthetic addition. It brought new flavours to every genre and musical style.
The D-50 was hugely successful; it defined the sounds of rock, pop, dance and ambient music of the late 1980s and 1990s. Its users included Jean-Michel Jarre, whose 1988 album ‘Revolutions’ was notable in its near-exclusive use of the D-50 in its instrumentation.
The most successful pop music producers of the 80s, Stock, Aitken, Waterman used the D-50 extensively in their hit singles for Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and Bananarama – the brass riffs and stabs in ‘Love In The First Degree’ were played on a D-50.
The D-50 was also adopted by film and TV music composers. The soundtrack of the TV series ‘Star Trek – The Next Generation’ featured chords played on the D-50 behind the orchestra to portray the mystery of outer space introducing Patrick Stewart’s iconic ‘Space: The Final Frontier…’ speech;
The sound of the Starship Enterprise’s beam transporter was made by a D-50.
Enya’s characteristic music was based on sounds of the D-50 accompanying multitracked arrangements of her vocals. It made her the richest British female performer in the music industry for many years.
The D-50 was the source of the sounds of early Techno music as exemplified by the artists Inner City and Technotronic.
The D-50’s influence on many forms of music was so great that it was honoured with a TEC award for Outstanding Technical Achievement in Musical Instrument Technology in 1988. D-50 users included Prince, Madonna, Sting, Michael Jackson, Gary Numan and many others, including me.
I bought a D-50 in 1987 and enjoyed playing and programming sounds for it. My D-50 was inspiring and always encouraged me to create new sounds and new music, to lose myself in another universe of sounds and bring something new and unique to every piece of music I was using it on. When I sold my recording studio in 1994, it was one of the assets that went with the studio. I missed it, and dreamed of having one again.
Roland followed up the D-50 with instruments that featured differently designed sound engines, but none of them had the unique character that marked the D-50 out as special. D-50s in good condition nowadays command high prices on the market, often in excess of £1000. When I sought to replace the D-50 I had sold years ago, I found a much cheaper and enjoyable way to do so.
Searching online marketplaces for the cheapest priced D-50, I discovered two examples that were offered for sale as ‘spares or repair’. One made a very glitchy distorted sound output and had a display that showed random characters and symbols. It had some damaged keys but looked otherwise physically intact. The other D-50 was advertised as sounding okay but many of the keys failed to play notes. Each of them was offered for sale by people who claimed not to know much about them, each was offered for sale for £15.
I am not an electronics engineer but for £30 the pair, I thought it was worth attempting to strip them down and see if I could make a single working D-50 from the best parts of the two. I contacted the sellers and the deals were done.
In Part 2 of this post, I will show you how my attempt at building a working D-50 for £30 went…
References: Roland.com (2017) D-50 30th Anniversary https://www.roland.com/uk/promos/d-50_30th_anniversary/
Jarre JM (2022) Jean-Michel Jarre https://jeanmicheljarre.com/
IMDB.com (2022) Star Trek – The Next Generation https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092455/
NAMM Foundation (2013) TEC Awards https://web.archive.org/web/20131204003235/https://www.tecawards.org/about.html