Review: Roland A-500S Midi Keyboard Controller
The Roland A-500S, formerly marketed as Cakewalk A-500S, is a 49 note (four-octave) midi keyboard controller, retailing at around £139 in the UK. A quick scan of controller keyboards on the Internet shows that for a given price you can either have a keyboard with a few keys and many controls (knobs, sliders, buttons, pads etc.), or a greater number of keys and fewer controls. The A-500S falls into the latter category.
Both have advantages and disadvantages. If you like sculpting sounds by altering synthesizer parameters the extra knobs and sliders will come in useful. However, if your main focus is playing and recording preset instrumental sounds, then a greater number of keys is probably going to be more important than an abundance of controls.
The A-500S’s keyboard has full-size keys, perhaps not quite of the same quality as Roland’s more expensive synthesizer keyboards, but certainly good enough to inspire confidence. The keyboard is touch sensitive, with 12 velocity curves so that the ‘feel’ can be adjusted to taste. In the past I have experimented with various velocity curves on different keyboards but have always found the factory preset to be as good a setting as any, and the same is true for the A-500S. The touch sensitivity can also be turned off completely, making all the notes have the same velocity level irrespective of how hard they are pressed (useful for some styles of music and for people with very limited keyboard skills). This is done by setting a specific value, 0-127, in the key velocity mode.
To the left of the keyboard is a simple control panel with a seven-segment three-character LED display, a small dial, four buttons, and the pitch bend/modulation control, both parameters being operated by a single lever. The buttons and dial are also dual function, with some functions being accessed by pressing buttons in a certain series. For example, accessing the ‘panic’ function, which sends out All sounds off, All notes off, and Reset all controllers messages to all midi channels, requires the following steps:
1.Simultaneously hold down the [MIDI CH] and [PGM CHANGE] buttons (the two right buttons in the row of four);
2. Press the [PANIC] key (the third F on the keyboard);
3. Press [ENTER] (the first in the row of four buttons).
The manual clearly explains the proceedure for accessing all functions. One or two of probably the most frequently used functions are close at hand. For example, octave up or octave down shifts are achieved by the single touch of a button, and changing midi channel only requires pressing the [MIDI CH] button and rotating the VALUE knob to the desired midi channel (1-16), which is shown clearly in the LED display.
Because the LED window is only three characters long, it can only give a very cryptic display of anything other than numbers. This can become tiresome if you use many functions, but for users using only a limited number of functions it shouldn’t prove to be a problem.
On the side of the A-500S is a DC power input socket (for the optional AC adaptor), a three-way selector switch to select the power source – DC (adaptor or batteries), OFF, and USB – sockets for a USB cable, a hold pedal, an expression pedal, midi out, an Advanced Driver on/off switch, and a security key socket.
When connected to a computer, having the Advanced Driver switch off forces the keyboard to use the computer's own driver (Windows XP only). With the Advanced Driver on (recommended), the A-500S will use Roland’s own driver, provided it has been installed, which should give much better midi performance.
The Key socket, on the right, is to attach a security device if the keyboard is being used at institutions such as schools and universities.
Roland claim that the side panel connections give ‘streamlined routing’. I’m not sure if this is such a big advantage, and wouldn’t hesitate to buy a keyboard with all the sockets at the back if I preferred another keyboard’s features to the A-500S’s.
Although the A-500S doesn't have any of its own internal sounds, it comes with three instrument plug-ins and SONAR LE recording software. This means that all you need is a computer and you’re ready to start making music! However, for buyers new to computer recording it’s important to realise that the package on offer is no toy, and requires a certain amount of time to be spent studying the manuals in order to get the best out of the equipment. But even without the plug-ins and recording software, I feel the A-500S represents good value for money.
(I would like to affirm to the reader that I have no connection with Roland, and have received no payment or benefits from any source for writing this review. It is a true customer/user review.)