No one can fault the D-50 — erm, “D-05” — for authenticity. Roland’s latest Boutique Series basically is a shrunk-down version of the original.

First, the D-50. The 1987 creation is about as mainstream as any synth, ever – a mainstay of pop and soundtracks, friendly and easy to please both in interface and sounds. And it’s fully digital, the epitome of the 80s digital keyboard. The actual sound generation method, though, is a tradeoff, one Roland confusing called “Linear Arithmetic synthesis.” Translation: “we use some maths, and make sounds by sticking things together.” (Not to be confused with “non-linear arithmetic,” which is how I tried to fail out of physics and calculus in high school. Doh!)

Basically, the D-50 uses a combination of small digital samples, which can either be on the attack or looped, and subtractive synthesis (which is now digital, not analog). So you get the bite of a sample, then something that sounds more like an analog synth. So you can’t complain about Roland going digital with this Boutique – the original was, too.

But Roland is offering some new jargon, in the tradition of Roland jargon: 2017’s D-05 has “Digital Circuit Behavior.”

That’s obviously meant as the corresponding term to the other Boutique’s “Analog Circuit Behavior.” But that’s a term used to describe modeling component-by-component variability of analog electronics. These components don’t always behave exactly the same way. Digital circuits and code is another animal. You can still do what Roland did with the analog originals, by going back to original specifications and even talking to original engineers. But you’re not modeling the behavior of circuits in that case, in the same way; you’re actually reproducing digital sounds, code, and exact specifications. (Digital circuits do vary, but the state of that variation at some point is what we call “broken.” It’s binary, literally.)

Anyway, we can translate “linear arithmetic” as “it’s digital and it uses samples and synthesis,” so we can say “Digital Circuit Behavior” translates to “it’s basically 1987 in a smaller box.”

So what is this thing, actually – and why would you want it?

Since there are lots of ways to get D-50 sounds, Roland weirdly has a high bar for authenticity – that is, there has to be a reason you’d go buy this as dedicated hardware. The answer to that: exact copies of physical controls, exact copies of sounds, and then enough extras to make it fun.

The D-05 appears to be as close to the D-50 as you can get, from the physical hardware to the engine beneath. So you get a joystick for navigation and morphing and the original D-50 controls. Underneath, the engine appears to be exactly the same as the original. Roland says they’ve included the original D-50 exact PCM samples and parameters.

As on the original, you also get chorus, reverb/delay, and EQ – presumably also the same as the original, though I need to check that. So while digital circuit “behavior” doesn’t really describe this, it looks as though the D-05 should be essentially the D-50’s original digital guts, repackaged.

A/B sound checks of D-50 to D-05 are probably a waste of time, in other words.

What’s new on the D-05? Well, apart from the smaller form factor, of course, you get some usual Boutique extras. There’s a 64-step polyphonic step sequencer with shuffle and gate, plus tempo and patch changes. And there’s a built-in arpeggiator. For people wanting late 80s sounds, then, this might actually be the Boutique to get, leaving vintage acid and synthesis to someone else.

As usual, Boutique also means USB bus power or battery operation, plus integrated USB audio and MIDI.

Would anyone want a D-50? Well, maybe. The D-50 is the sound of a lot of late 80s TV, film, and pop. And it wasn’t a bad idea – sample the attack, then synthesize the rest, for a particular sound.

I just doubt that the D-05 will see anywhere near the popularity of the Juno and Jupiter remakes, let alone the wildly popular 909, 808, 303, and now 101. If I had to buy two boxes write away, I’d opt TR-08 and SH-01A, no question, for playability, sonic distinctiveness, and interesting step sequencing possibilities. And I’ve been surprised at the utility I’ve gotten from my TB-03 in particular, starting with its step sequencer and delay.

Anyway, a few people guessed this was coming.

Now the challenge to Roland: use that convenient form factor to make something new, the way KORG did with the volca. (Case in point: finally got my hands on a volca kick, which repurposes the MS-20 filter to make a playable bass synth and kick drum instrument. Roland tried this with the A-01 and missed – and this is partly dependent not just on the manufacturer, but on us consumers to reward them for originality. So this is on all of us. But I do hope, uh, together we can make something happen.)

I’m keen, meanwhile, to get hands on the TR-08 and SH-01A. Vintage models can still be a great way of finding new sounds. Stay tuned.

Side note: You’d be forgiven for failing to notice, but Roland Cloud offered the same D-50 model (apparently, or something like it) as a plug-in, and even the term “Digital Circuit Behavior.” That’s available as a plug-in:

D-50 Linear Synthesizer

Outside Roland, some soundware makers have also recreated D-50 sounds, of course – minus the Roland name.

  • Tony Scharf

    Roland just gonna keep humping this concept, aren’t they?

    • Jaybeeg

      People have been demanding reissues of vintage synths and Roland has done a good job of taking their iconic instruments and re-releasing them. I bought several of the boutique instruments for less than $500 and they’re awesome little boxes that sell for about the same price as a single eurorack module.

      I’m pleased to finally see a Boutique instrument with more than 4 voice polyphony, although Roland missed the chance to improve the D-50’s UI with a larger graphic display and perhaps some sliders for quick parameter tweaks.

      • Cory

        Seriously! Take a look at the reface dx – yamaha remade the dx100, but instead of staying true to the original, they re-worked the interface to make it 10x more intuitive and usable.

        But then you can’t call it a “faithful reproduction” I guess… they kinda paint themselves into a corner with the boutique re-issues – if they change anything it’s not true to the original, but a better screen and some light re-thinking of the interface would make it a MUCH stronger product.

        • Gunboat_Diplo

          except the DX reface, which i have and love despite the fact that it is absolutely not tweakable on stage.

    • R__W

      it’s a good concept

    • Hey, they spent years cramming somewhat thoughtless vintage presets into anything, without much reflection. I for one welcome our new Roland. 😉

  • I love my JP-08, and never owned a D50 but loved the sounds (own a JV-880 module from early 90s) … so I am actually considering this!

  • R__W

    By doing it as an FPGA the ‘digital circuit behavior’ is similar to the way they’ve done the analog boutiques.

    • Yeah, as far as hardware, though… it’s still confusing. 🙂

  • Nagasaki Nightrider

    Wow. That looks about as fun to use as your average freeware softsynth plugin. It certainly has the same number of physical knobs.

    • Yeah, maybe too authentic in this case. It’s got the same amount of control as the original… but that one didn’t have much control, either.

      • Nagasaki Nightrider

        I understand that people are keen to get their hands on new, affordable little things that look and sort of sound like older, expensive or unavailable things, but the control panel design here exemplifies what went wrong with usability/playability in 80’s synth design. Another victim of the data entry-method was the Korg Poly 800. Sounded great and also had a joystick. Making sounds on it, however, was not fun.

        Sonically, the D05 could turn out to be the synth in the boutique line that sounds the closest to the original. If I ever need a small, cheap and lush-sounding digital preset box that I never want to create my own sounds for, maybe I’ll trade someone an old lawnmower or something for one of these on Craigslist.

  • As an 80’s/90’s digital synth fanatic, this is the first of the boutique series I’m actually interested in.

  • marco satiwan

    Is Roland’s intellectual property being liquidated or something?

  • Cory

    Having briefly owned an a-o1, I can say with confidence that it was a miss on so many levels – none of which were the consumer’s fault.

    It was sorely underpowered in terms of what it could do. You got a monophonic 8bit synth with a half baked sequencer, suited only to 303 style use, and four knobs and two sliders to use as a “control surface”.

    If they had just a little more work developing the sequencer to make it more full featured, maybe a mod tracker type of thing, or just given it polyphony so you could build a full track with it… I would have kept and loved it.

  • Polite Society

    They do get bonus points for having Legowelt in their presentation video.

  • StanleyBrothers

    They had such a good opportunity here to build the programmer right in to the front panel, just like they did with the jx3p. Roland… we appreciate that you are trying, but you are so consistently disappointing on so many fronts.

    • StanleyBrothers

      Ok, looking at the pg-1000 programmer it really isn’t possible in this boutique format… but why are we so dedicated to this tiny box… can’t we make one a little bigger instead of wasting everyone’s time with a lackluster product?

  • Gatsby’sPool

    You mention that there a lot of ways to get the D-50 sound. What are they? I know there’s the plug-in linked at the bottom, but that’s only available via their subscription package which I’m not interested in.

  • Max

    Actually sounds more interesting than the usual filtered saw and pulse.
    Im so bored of that.

  • poopoo

    The D-50 on V-Synth was much nicer and had loads of controls. Also you could plug in an original PG1000 proggrammer.