A review of the Roland AT350C by Michael Wooldridge
The AT-350C is something I think the organ world has been needing for a while, a really top-notch, great sounding and versatile portable organ. Ever since the marvellous Roland Ateliers first appeared, many of us have said there should be a portable, or at least transportable, model available. At last, our wishes have been answered.
The main organ gives you the two keyboards, a 49-note Upper Manual and an extra long 64-note Lower Manual, along with all of the stops and controls. As you may be moving it around, the sizes of this could be important. It is 1250mm wide, 510mm deep and 190mm high (370mm high with the music desk in place) and weighs just 24.5kg, which is great.
I also selected the PK-7A, which is a rather smart unit giving a 20-note pedalboard complete with an expression pedal, which has two foot switches mounted on it, and also a foot switch to act as the piano damper pedal.
Roland decided to offer a very smart stand with the AT-350C called the KS-G8 and, this is very stylish and tones in well with the modern yet retro look and feel of the Combo. It is height adjustable, with the middle height option seeming to be just right for me. That said, whilst I really like the way it folds flat, it did seem a bit fiddly to set up, needing an allen key and a drum key (both provided) to initially erect it and for every time you wish to fold it away. These do both cleverly fix into the stand for transport, so you won’t ever arrive somewhere and find you can’t make the stand up for use, but I think if I were ever fortunate enough to tour the Roland Atelier Combo, I would probably use a less glamorous but slightly more practical stand for normal jobs and save the special Roland stand for special events, like if I ever get onto Britain’s Got Talent!
It is important to note that the AT-350C does not have any internal speakers at all, so you will need to also invest in some speakers or, as I am doing, play it through some I already have here. It can, of course, be used through a good quality Hi-Fi or through another instrument’s speakers or on headphones.
Whilst I do like instruments to have at least a small little monitor speaker of their own, the Combo is designed first and foremost for touring and leaving them out makes it more compact and, most important, lighter. That said, it is such excellent value for money that I think many will be purchased as superb home organs along with some of the now very smart, compact and reasonably priced speakers which are available. I chose the options I felt I would buy if I was able to tour with this new organ.
Having toured with my Roland for a few years now, and sometimes playing the larger console models AT800 and AT900 at festivals here and abroad, including for appearances coming up, I was very much looking forward to trying the AT-350C to see if it had the potential to upgrade my existing set-up. The big, big difference between the AT-350C and earlier Ateliers, as with all of the current range, is that it is blessed with Roland’s Harmonic Bars, which are proper drawbars, real ones that you can slide in and out to make great organ sounds instantly, using Roland’s Virtual Tonewheel Technology and, even more important, giving that really tactile ability to make subtle changes as you play. There are two complete sets of nine drawbars for the upper and lower manuals, with percussion, and then two for the pedals and one extra one to quickly control the volume of the Solo voice section. They deliver a very lively and exciting sound, come complete with variable overdrive to add a little distortion for some 60s styles, and also have vibrato and chorus in case you want to turn off the rotary speaker effect to turn the clock back to the real vintage sound.
I really enjoyed playing with the drawbars and occasional extra solo sound for quite a long time, just making great music without having to worry about setting things up in advance. It should be remembered that in days gone by, and still on the jazz scene, whole concerts and gigs are played on just drawbars alone, yet here they are as just a very small part of the many good things on offer.
The next major improvement to this range is to some of the voicing. I think probably through the newer amplification system, like with the flagship AT-900, the whole instrument has a keener, livelier sound, and this has for me a generally improving effect to all of the 243 voices. Roland have now included fifteen of their superb SuperNATURAL voices, which bring an extra dimension of realism both as solo instruments and also through their inclusion in some of the accompaniment Styles.The SuperNATURAL voices (denoted by the prefix ‘N.’ in the voice menu) include very expressive Tenor and Alto Saxes, a very realistic Marimba and a brilliant Spanish Flamenco Guitar. There is also an N. Violin which sadly, for me, didn’t live up to expectations, not sounding quite right to my ears when playing in jazz or classical styles. I tried it out with both Hot Canary and Meditation from Thaïs but ended up reverting back to the regular solo Violin from the main voice menu, which still sounds great anyway! Actually, one thing to watch here, it seems to me that the SuperNATURAL voices are all set at a louder volume level than the main voicing so, if swapping from one type to the other, it is necessary to adjust the volume, which is a shame.
The N. Cello really makes up for the N. Violin as it is beautiful, really delivering the sorrowful nuances of sound offered by a top soloist. The N. Harmonica is another highlight. There is an N. Trombone which is a fabulous voice. In the lower registers it delivers a really warm sound with a gentle vibrato, very Tommy Dorsey, but move up a couple of octaves and it becomes the most superb Flugel Horn sound! There are eight Active Expression (AEx) voices. You may remember these from the previous Atelier range. They are sounds that change as you open the expression pedal. Probably the most used is the AEx Piano & Strings, which gives just the piano when the expression is closed and gradually adds in the warmth of the strings as you open it up. You can do exactly the same based on the Electric Piano.
AEx Pipe organ works very much like a crescendo pedal on a pipe organ, adding stops into the registration as you open it. With the expression pedal closed you hear just some small diapason sounds but as you increase the expression it builds and builds to a full cathedral organ. This is very useful and gives a huge contrast so easily. With full expression, the AEx Strings add an extra octave and the AEx Brass adds in the Trumpets to the rest of the ensemble.
In all, I think AEx is a really great feature that all of us, myself included, have probably so far under- used and should include in more of our registrations. The other voicing is all of the high standard that we have come to expect on a Roland. I think it is worth noting that the AT-350C does include a small selection of the fabulous Theatre Organ sounds we’ve heard on the larger instruments, though it is a shame that they haven’t put in one of the very full Theatre Organ combinations to go with the very romantic Tibias provided.
This model also has what I consider to be two of their very best voices, ones where Roland lead the field, the Shake Trumpet and, most especially, the fabulous singing voices in Jazz Scat, providing different singing sounds depending upon how you play. As is the way with nearly every keyboard and organ, the voices are available one at a time in each sound section.
The Atelier Combo, on top of the traditional Harmonic Flute Bars (Drawbars) for both manuals and pedals, has Solo, Orchestral and Organ sections for the Upper, a Lower voice section and a Pedal voice section. You can use the Solo voice section as either a Monophonic section to provide a lead instrument or as a Polyphonic section to play chords. It can be played where it starts out, on the Upper Manual, or can be moved to provide a handy third keyboard as a split section to the right hand end of the Lower Manual, or can be used across the entire Lower Manual, giving 2 sections each for Upper and Lower, plus the drawbars. I would liked to have seen another dedicated Lower voice section, to give three Upper and Two Lower before we added in the drawbars, but you can’t have everything, especially at this very low price point.
When playing the Combo, I found that I kept using the Lower and Bass Drawbars along with the orchestral voices to give a general warm organ backing sound far more than I would have expected. This is no bad thing, as I thought it sounded really nice, but it did remind me how much the particular instrument we choose to play can effect how we play and this, in turn, can often inspire us to be more creative in our playing. Once you have set up registrations you like, you can save them to one of the eight memory pistons between the keys. It is your choice whether to have them recall the rhythm and transposer settings or not. There is an extra piston marked ‘Manual’ which I have on my existing Atelier and have never used. It is like a floating memory, which always remembers which sounds you had on when you were last in Manual ready for your return there from one of the other memories. It doesn’t store once the organ is turned off, always returning to a fairly pleasing organ sound, and nor can you send a preset to it, so I’ve never found it of much use at all.
Now a big improvement has been made. You can assign this button to instead be a Load Next piston, as found on the big Ateliers, and meaning that each time you press it, it loads the next full set of registrations from your USB memory stick. You can also assign one of the footswitches to do the same thing but I think having it here between the keyboards is ideal.
The Drum and Style sections have also much improved since I bought my Atelier only a few years ago. The drums have a more realistic sound, using seventeen different drum kits to provide just the right sound for the 210 Rhythms provided. Each Rhythm has four Variations of Pattern, plus automatic Fill-Ins as you move between them, and there are four variations of Intro and Ending, moving from short one bar ones through to some quite entertaining long ones.
Thinking of the many Drum Kits, there is also the Drums/FX section to give manual drums and sounds over the entire Lower Manual. Perhaps more useful is the Manual Percussion section, which provides seven different sets of percussion sounds for just the bottom 15 notes, leaving the 49 notes from Tenor C available on the Lower Manual for normal use. Do visit these, as besides giving Tympani and Cymbals for finales, there are Asian drums and, best of all, Voice Phrases, which give choirboys and monks singing a range of major and minor cadences of Amen and Alleluia, plus groups cheering out Hey and Woooo! Obviously, these can’t be used too often but are superb when used well.
Something I basically never use on my AT-15 is the Arranger section, which provides the musical element of the Styles based upon our chords to fit in with the drum patterns. On the old range, I didn’t really take to the Styles all that much but here, on the AT-350C, they are much improved so much more useful. With my space for this review rapidly running out, it is difficult to know which of the many good ones to highlight! Perhaps I will mention the Traditional Big Band, as this shows how they now build so nicely. At Variation (V) 1 it gives a gentle strumming Guitar with a bit of tinkly Piano. V2 adds a little syncopated Saxophone. V3 builds the Drums and Sax and V4 is really swinging with some nice brass added. It is at all times though a really useable backing, which enhances rather than dominates.
As another example, let’s run through the Sunshine Pop, which has to have been set up with You Are The Sunshine Of My Life in mind, as it is absolutely ideal for it. This uses one of the more modern sounding drum kits and, if you start off with the long Intro, gives a beautiful solo from Stevie Wonder on his Harmonica. The Style Variations start with a basic, gentle Electric Piano and then gradually add in more and more Strings, with a lovely soaring sound from them in V4. Use the long Ending and Stevie is there again to round it all off for you!
There are four One Touch Programs for each of the 210 Styles. These provide complete registration set-ups and all the ones I tried seemed to work well and to give a good mix of sounds. There are great sets in the Country family, for example Country Twang with Guitars and Repeating Banjos, or how about the Organ ballad, which sets up great Pop and Rock Organ voices, including Roland’s clever Rock Organ which has a slow Leslie effect when played lightly and a raucous fast Leslie effect when played more forcefully, ideal for George Harrisons melody, Something.
You can also access preset registrations by song title using the Music Assistant. This has, “over 240,” song titles, some slightly concealed by strong clue names, again each with four variations. A couple of good examples are Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which builds from a solo Clarinet through to full Strings and then Full Orchestra and What Will I Do (for What’ll I Do) which gives a nice Waltz Style with melody on Vibraphone, Accordions and Strings.
Other features we’ve run out of time to properly look at include Roland’s D Beam controller, which here I find most use to add a big cymbal roll at the wave of a hand. Harmony Intelligence, the Roland equivalent of the old AOC/MOC type systems that play a chord on the Upper when you just play a single note melody, is here improved to provide eighteen types, some including sounds to deliver Harp, Jazz Scat, Big Band and Strings. V-Link can be used to provide switching information for an accompanying slide show and there is a recorder to record your music internally or to make WAV files on your USB Stick that you can then transfer to your PC and burn on to CD. In conclusion, I must say that I think the Roland Atelier Combo AT-350C is a fabulous and versatile instrument with a great look and a superb, exciting sound. It certainly makes a musical leap forward from the previous range. Although mainly designed for use in the professional music world, I think many of them will become cherished home organs.
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