Luxury happens to be the key word for this review as, whilst we are all now well used to seeing the already incredibly popular AT-80S, with the Atelier AT-80SL Roland have started with an AT-80S and added ‘luxury’. I feel I must declare an interest by confessing to being one of the many owners of an AT-80S and, consequently, have an especial interest in this Newer product and was very keen to try out all of the new ingredients.
So, what’s different? Well, I suppose the first thing to note is that, on the face of it, nothing much at all seems to have changed. The ‘SL’ has exactly the same luxurious dark walnut cabinet, keyboard configuration (56 note upper, 76 lower, 20 pedals), speaker system (6 full range speakers plus a woofer for extra depth, totalling 240 watts output) and stop panel as the ‘S’ so, until you turn it on, the only way you can tell the difference is from one new stop label in the rhythm unit (the Disk button now says Disk/User) and the shiny metal plaque which says, in nice scroll, AT-80S Luxury.
Keeping the same layout means that existing Atelier owners will immediately feel at home with it. For owners new to a Roland instrument, you will quickly learn to navigate around the instrument, as the panel is clearly laid out and works on the very simple basis that if a stop tab is lit up, that sound is on! The voice stops, other than those for the bass, are set either side of a touch sensitive screen. I turned on the power and the first thing I saw was that the image on the colour touch screen has been changed. It is now possible to select a different background for the text, including a colourful sunset or some mountains, or elect to stick with a conventional coloured background. The main screen layout has changed (along with many others I discovered later on) and the thing that jumped out at me was the little box bearing the legend Digital H-Bars (Digital Harmonic Bars).
I had, for me, immediately discovered one of the most significant improvements that have been made. Push ‘DHB’ and the screen changes to show a full range of nine flute drawbars, in traditional order with 16’ followed by 5 1/3’, then 8’ through to 1’, with percussion stops, for both upper and lower manuals. The system used to adjust the bars, outside of traditional physical drawbars, is the best I have come across. The bars follow where you touch on the screen so, much as with the real thing, it is simple to grab a group of bars and pull them all up or down; an advantage here is that by just touching anywhere, the bar will go straight to that point, so full on or full off becomes very quick and easy. I would have to say that the actual tone of these flutes is not quite as rich as I would have liked but, nonetheless, they are very enjoyable to use and add a whole new dimension to the instrument. Remember that when I started playing concerts in the dark ages (1980) it was not uncommon to have to go and play an interesting and varied two hour concert on an instrument that had no sounds other than the drawbars.
The DHB section is a completely new one and, as such, adds an extra sound section to each keyboard, thereby giving us five on the upper and four on the lower: this makes for some even bigger sounds than before. One little gripe here is that if you don’t use the Hold facility, the screen reverts away to other things and the only way to get back to the bars is to turn the section quickly off and then on again. I do feel it wouldn’t have been any more difficult to give another icon on the screen that would have taken us to the bars without that little blip of having to lose their sound first, but perhaps that will come in a future free upgrade.
It is worth noting that no facilities or sounds have been lost in the upgrade; everything that was on the AT-80S is still there, just sometimes accessed in a slightly different, easier way and, in nearly every case, with more variations.
In my dictionary, one definition of ‘Luxury’ is “thing desirable for comfort or enjoyment but not indispensable.” Nowhere on this new organ does this more apply than in the voice sections. The AT-80SL has 421 voices, plus the harmonic bars (81 more than the old ‘S’); most of these are excellent and, between them cover just about every need imaginable. Whilst it could never be said that all of these additional sounds were at all necessary, many of them are certainly very nice to have. I think every sound family has had additions and, perhaps most significant, there are now more Active Expression (AEx) voices and a new variety of sounds called Ex voices. I’m not sure if the ‘Ex’ stands for Expressive or Excellent but either applies!
Roland’s new ‘Ex’ voices are really the cream of the crop in terms of quality and some of them strongly utilise the initial touch on the keyboard, which is now adjustable in level, to give a significant change in sound. Good examples of these include the Grand Piano which, although previously very good, now takes on more life; the sound brightens in much the same way as a real piano’s tone does when played more forcefully. The same applies to the Bright Piano, which is now a far fresher sound. Some of the brasses especially seem to benefit from the new sound technology as, on the Trumpet Shake, Trombone Solo and Super Tenor the timbre change is very worthwhile. One I couldn’t find much use for was the Ex Soft Timpani as this seemed to only have two levels, very soft or being banged loudly with a hammer but with no graduation in-between. This doesn’t matter much as there is an AEx Timpani Roll, which is far better!
There are now many more AEx voices, all working on the existing principal that the character of the sound changes when the expression pedal is opened further. For example, AEx Orchestral Brass gives just the French Horns at low volumes but, when opened up, adds in the Trumpets. The AEx Trumpet gives a much more muted sound at higher volumes. The AEx voice concept is very good but I still feel that to follow the lead of other manufacturers by making these timbre changes using Aftertouch would be far more useful. I can see no logic in the way that the whole backing orchestra and drummer have to get louder or softer just because I want the trumpet to sound different. On the subject of Aftertouch, this seems to have remained a pretty neglected feature, used only for relatively insignificant changes to the vibrato which, incidentally, is still barely adjustable: why oh why they don’t let users change their vibrato settings to give a personal style to the depth, speed or delay (as has been possible on other makes for 20 odd years) is beyond me.
Of the other ‘normal’ new sounds, the theatre organ section has benefited with new samples, including a very good Vox Humana and a Quint mixture which blends in well to give a nice shimmer or sleaze to sounds. There are even more human voices, including Luh, where with different touch they sing Luh and Lah, and Who, where the different touch gives Who and Wah!
A good Roland feature is that the majority of the panel voices can be relied upon to always give the same sound. For example, the Choir stop normally gives the ‘Classical’ choir or, when the Variation button is also illuminated, it gives ‘Jazz Scat’ – a group of superb jazz singers who give different intonation depending upon how hard you strike the keys. Similarly, the Trumpet stop gives ‘Trumpet’ or, with Variation on, a ‘Muted Trumpet’. By giving these sounds, and the vast majority of regularly required sounds such as Piano, Strings, Theatre Organ, Guitar and Flute, their own specific stop tab, there is no fear of selecting them and finding the tab has been programmed to be something you didn’t want at all! The other sounds are obtained by selecting the bottom right hand tab in any section, which is marked ‘Others’. Selecting this will bring up a voice display in the screen, showing the currently assigned voice. To select a new sound for the tab, you touch the red, voice family bar on the screen (organ, strings, brass, woodwind, percussion etc, etc) and this then takes you to pages of sounds that fall within the selected category. When you see the sound you require, touch it and then either re-touch the Others tab or play a note on the relevant keyboard and the sound is there.
Once you have become used to this system, it becomes very quick and easy. Your selection of sounds can then be saved into one of the 12 Registration Memory buttons located between the keyboards and, from there, onto floppy disk. If you are not sure about setting up your own sounds, especially at first, you will find the Quick Registration section a huge asset. Existing owners will note that the layout here has now changed so that all of the presets are arranged in family groups (rather like the existing sound sections) and there are now, an amazing 188 settings. Take a look at the screen picture and you will see these include such obvious titles as Classical, Jazz, Latin and Theatre Organ.
Unlike on the 80S, where selecting a quick registration heading gives two options at a time along with little descriptions, on the SL the heading produces a page with eight registrations to choose from, but none of those handy descriptions. Knowing that the section had been set up by that absolutely superb organist and Atelier Owners Club wizard, David Thomas, I headed straight for one of the completely new families, ‘United Kingdom’ to see what I could find.
The first four settings are traditional Celtic sounds, beginning with Bagpipes, which sets up the whole instrument, upper, lower, bass and rhythm, ready to imagine you are walking along the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle playing Scotland the Brave to the accompaniment of the massed band and drums in the Castle Esplanade down below. Also here is that most English of sounds, the brass band; four registrations called Brassed Off, Soft Brass, Bring Up Basses and Grand Finale: the latter adding a snare drum on the lower and crash cymbal on the pedals to make it ideal for the ending of marches. There are some enjoyable new ballad registrations with sounds suitable for Richard Clayderman and Kenny Gee melodies, plus the addition of the Shadows and some 60s organ sounds for A Whiter Shade Of Pale.
A big improvement to the Quick Registration section is that now you can change from one registration to another whilst a rhythm is playing without the rhythm pattern altering. This makes these preset sounds much, much more useful than on the earlier models.
Whilst on the subject of preset sounds, there is an in-built Music Assistant, which now offers four total organ presets for each of a huge 400 song titles. I say titles but, actually, that’s being more than generous. The titles are hidden in cryptic clues which, in some cases, I am sure would baffle Times crossword addicts and even give Inspector Morse trouble! Some are obvious enough, ‘3⁄4 Tennessee’ is obviously The Tennessee Waltz; ‘Amazing Gospel’ gives a fabulous intro to play drawbar organ sounds for Amazing Grace; ‘Marching Mice’ is the Mickey Mouse March. How about ‘Doll and Monster’? It took me a while to realise I should be playing Beauty and The Beast. ‘Day B4 Today’ is a very obtuse way of saying Yesterday and, as for ‘Dans Chaque Faubourg Au Paris’, well, languages were never my strongpoint: all I can tell you is that it is something French with lots of accordions involved!
There are now 222 Styles, 50 more than on the ‘S’. All of the original ones are still here but even they mostly sound quite different, as all of the drum rhythm parts have been recorded by a real live drummer using a Roland electronic drum kit. This gives a much more live sound and feel than the previously, mostly acceptable, computer programmed rhythms and has the effect of making the overall sound more exciting. Because they have really been played by a human, unlike on so many products, there are now none of the patterns which would be physically impossible to play by anyone other than an octopus! Despite this, the eight variations available (Original and Variation versions of Basic, Advanced 1, Advanced 2 and Full) often seem to make a more worthwhile change than previously.
Amongst the rhythms, I particularly appreciated the New Cha Cha with its authentic Cowbell sound and the Slow Waltz which has some very nice touches along the way. Of course, in real life it is unusual to enjoy the way a drummer plays every rhythm and there are some here which I do not think have improved.
If you’re not sure which Style to select, you can touch the magnifying glass to call up the new Style Search feature. Here you can search for styles alphabetically By Name or, more use, By Condition. Selecting the latter option, you enter on the screen whether you want a slow, fast or medium tempo, how many beats a bar you want, what groove and what genre (dance, classical, country, ballad etc). Having entered the parameters, it will produce a list of any rhythm styles that match up.
AT LAST! After many years of waiting, it is now possible to use Rhythm Customise to edit the rhythms on the Atelier and to then save them as user patterns. Having been associated with hugely flexible Yamaha products for many years, I have seriously missed this option since I moved on to Roland at Christmas time. It is not that you will always want to make major changes to rhythms but that, now and then, it is nice to make them really fit your music by just moving a snare drum or adding a cymbal crash. The Step-Time procedure they have come up with is fairly straightforward and shows you each beat of the music and which instruments are playing on it. You can move the sounds in the pattern, alter their volume or change them altogether. It is also possible to start from scratch to create your own pattern but, of course, this takes a little more imagination.
If you are into using or creating MIDI files and recordings, the sequencer seems simple to operate and now uses coloured bars to show what is or isn’t playing. I mentioned right at the start of this review that the layout of the main screen had changed from the one I have at home. As I worked with the instrument, I found that many of the screens are now much simpler and quicker to navigate than on earlier models. It is particularly good that lots of menus can be accessed directly from where you are, rather than having to keep going back to the main menu and starting again.
If you feel you would like some musical Luxury in your life, the AT-80SL is for you. With its huge range of sounds, now including drawbars, it makes a wonderful sound and is straightforward to use.