The Arrival of the Roland D50 Synthesizer

Bob Leggitt | Thursday 17 July 2014
In 1986, Roland were getting comprehensively hammered in commercial terms by Yamaha and its almost cynically expanded range of FM (frequency Modulation) synthesizers.

How much would you like to spend, Sir?… £650? No probs, here’s a DX21… £350? Cool. Let me introduce you to the DX100…” No matter what the keyboard player’s budget, Yamaha had a nice, shiny DX-something-or-other to accommodate their needs – each one producing the trademark, glassy, digital sound of the moment. Roland, meanwhile, had failed to capture this pristine and clinical sound of the moment, and were still soldiering on with warmer and much more ‘synthy’ sounding synths – not the height of popularity as the second half of the ‘80s dawned. Indeed, even digital watch gurus Casio – whose keyboards were considered toys at the start of the decade – were laughing all the way to the bank at Roland’s expense with their sly retake on the Yamaha tone creation system, as employed in the CZ-101, CZ-1000 and CZ-5000.

Original UK advert for the Roland D50
Original UK advert for the Roland D50.

But all this competition wasn’t as indomitable as it seemed by the end of 1986. The Casio synths were no match, in my opinion, for the Yamahas, and were not particularly good value given the prices of their approximate Yamaha equivalents. I tried a CZ-101 back in the day and didn’t like it at all – could never understand the fuss. There were also signs that the DX bubble was ready to burst, with Yamaha extensively revamping the DX7, and secondhand prices finally starting to bomb. The market was now there for the taking. All it needed was one great new synth. Arriving in early 1987, that would be the Roland D50.

Whilst the Roland D50 has been credited as the mass market pioneer of S&S (the Samples plus Synthesis tone production system) there were precedents, and the S&S idea itself wasn’t new. Korg’s DW-8000 and DW-6000 had utilised micro-sampled waveforms as early as 1985, although their implementation was nowhere near as clever as Roland’s. The D50 did, however, pioneer a brilliant take on Sample and Synthesis called Linear Arithmetic, or LA. LA Synthesis did incorporate one-cycle, loopable sampled waveforms for use in the body of the tone, like the earlier Korgs, but the primary use of samples in LA, and the D50, was in the formation of the initial transients.

The Yamaha DX range had excelled at producing clearly defined transients. That’s what set the DXs apart from previous synths and defined the sought after, sophisticated sound of the ‘80s. But even a DX’s modulated sine waves couldn’t create a transient attack with the realism of a recorded sample, and that’s where the D50’s system was so clever. Severely limited storage capacity meant the samples had to be very economically used, and the economy of LA Synthesis was genuis. It allowed the samples to cover the territory nothing else could cover, and then filled out the body of the tone with Roland’s more typical filtered waves and/or one-cycle loops for substantial warmth and depth.

Dealing the final blow for Yamaha, the D50 hung onto Roland’s more user friendly interface. So, a step forward in sound, a release from the nightmare of Yamaha’s excruciating programming interface, and the icing on the cake, the Roland D50 undercut the DX7II on price. With the DX7II typically retailing at £1,499, and the D50 to be found on sale at around £1,350 (although its UK RRP was £1,445), Yamaha was finally in for a rough ride.

It’s a well known fact that the Roland D50 went to the top of the sales charts, and dug in its heels. In the first half of 1988 the D50’s nearest rival in UK sales was the Yamaha DX7S (a cheaper version of the updated legend), and the third best seller was the then new four-operator Yamaha DX11, which subsequently moved into second place. So Yamaha were still huge rivals, but they couldn’t touch the D50.

Whilst the Roland D50 was radical in its sound production methods, it wasn't anything like as radical sonically as the Yamaha DX range. The DX sythns took everything previous synths had been and threw it out of the window. The D50 moved the '80s sound forward, but it was a progression rather than a revolution. That said, though, 1987 was not the time for a revolution. The D50 got everything right and was a true instrument of its time.