Roland D-5 Linear Synthesizer a Hidden Gem

Roland D-5 Synthesizer
Roland D-5 Synthesizer

There are not that many positive reviews out there or even info for that matter on the Roland D-5 which was released in 1989. Today I found a really nice one for $30 which included two manuals in Japanese and a Roland M-256E Ram Card. At first decided to pass on it. Later at home I later did some research and was very inspired by some of the Roland D-5’s functional features such as the Chase Delay, Arpeggiator, Harmonizer, and Chord Play effects. I was also intrigued by the fact that you cold also load up D-10, D-110, and D-20 sounds into the Roland D-5. Never mind the lack of effects or sequencer. These days I love to find old synthesizers with unique features, and the Roland D-5 seemed worthy of a second look so I went back to the store to give it a test run. About 15 minutes later, I was out the door clutching a hidden gem for sure. It’s not as great as my Roland D-50, but it sure packs a punch with some very interesting features.

First, I must reiterate what a couple of D-5 users have expressed on various forums I frequent. I agree 100% that the Roland D-5 is a synth that should be used primarily for adding sounds or features to your studio or rig but not recommended as any sort of main synth. The Roland D-5 is not a workstation but more so of a live synth or simply a great set of keys to lay down some interesting tracks with. The Roland D-5 is also a fantastic synth for electro and synthpop oriented music, but not for getting any sort of realistic sounds. If one is interested in starting a New Wave band in this new 20xx decade, then the Roland D-5 should fit the bill nicely. In fact one could even look upon it as a secret weapon that no other would dare touch… least that’s what I get from the other reviews I read. To me, one aspect of great music is being different. I say grab the Roland D-5 which nobody else dares to use and try to make something great with it. This could be said about any synth really but some more so than others. The D-5 seems to be that type of synth.

The Roland D-5 has 12-bit samples and 12-bit DAC’s that I really like. In my opinion, the Roland D-5 is much like the Yamaha DX7mkI. They both are 12-bit and they both have zero effects. You need to add effects which should be easy in this day and age. By no means am I suggesting the Roland D-5 is better than the DX7 nor do I wish to make a comparison here, but both require additional “flava” added to the sound otherwise they can be rather dry just on their own. With effects, the Roland D-5 sounds great. A few of my favorite preset sounds are A25 Tapped Piano, A27 Sweeten Piano, A33 Big Ol’ Brass, A41 Warm Str Fade, and A71 Melodic Koto. Again, you MUST think of the Roland D-5 as an electro oriented synthesizer and not some sort of Yamaha Motif “ish” realistic instrument. Sure there are a few realistic sounds, but most are very synthetic and wonderful to think of using for synthpop or electronic oriented music. Some say it’s stuck in the 80’s but that’s just cutting creativity short in my opinion. The Roland D-5 begs for creativity and it definitely has some interesting features to help out as I describe later on.

As a person who grew up in the 80’s, I am a big fan of that 1980’s New Wave sound and even that of the early 90’s. In fact as I mentioned the Roland D-5 was released in 1989 which was a great year for dance music. One of the interesting things I found out about the Roland D-5 is that many of the presents combined with some of the effects notably the chord play, give me sounds similar to the dance group 2 Unlimited which had the hit “Get Ready for this” in 1991. I find with some synths I migrate to playing a certain style of music simply due to the presets and functions they contain. I found myself playing A LOT of Rave style music on this Roland D-5. If you’re into 2 Unlimited, check out the Roland D-5 and you’ll know what I mean. ( Note that I have no idea what 2 Unlimited actually used for their hits. I’ve heard they used samples but I could easily get similar sounds with the Roland D-5 now. Cool! ).

The effect functions on the Roland D-5 are one of the main reasons why I bought it. The Chord Play is simply awesome. You hit the Chord Play button and with your left hand you finger a chord. With the right hand you play notes and this outputs chords with different root notes that you play with the right hand. Finger a C Major chord triad or play 5ths and then switch on Chord Play. Right there you will have something very close to 2 Unlimited if you use a SAW patch. Or, play diatonic tenths with the left hand ( stretch those fingers ) and then play the roots with the right hand and you’ll be getting that Lady Ga Ga, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha oriented sound. If you are learning to play the keys, you can also use the Chord Play Function as a learning tool to see how chords go together. Play some Minor 9ths and Major 9ths in the left hand. Then play some roots in the right and you’ll discover some outstanding chord progressions especially for getting that Neo Soul sound. Then turn off Chord Play and continue playing the chords with the left while you solo with the right. Great stuff!

The Harmony function is awesome for working with Octaves, 5ths, or anything really. It’s very musical and like Chord Play can help you discover some great chord melodies. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s Rave and House music used a lot of those piano chord movements in songs. The Korg M1’s piano sound was instrumental with that sound. With the Roland D-5 it’s super simple to test out various progressions and it’s incredibly useful. There’s even a piano sound kind of similar to the M1 piano sound if you wish to crank out some 90’s oriented progressions. Chase is like a Midi delay and it works very well for adding spice. The D-5 Arpeggiator is also excellent and sounds can be edited while it’s playing. The arp can also be Midi’d out which is cool. Indeed the old D-5, D-110, D-20, and D-10 sounds can sound dated, but it’s with these additional features that you can breathe new life into them. Sure the D-20 sequencer also might be great, but I think I prefer the D-5 with it’s unique effect functionality.

Again, much like the Yamaha DX7, the Roland D-5 has a ton of sounds available around the internet. By adding effects you can achieve a very modern electro sound. The functions like Chase, Harmony, and Chord Play are not easily found on modern day synths. With today’s audio recording, looping, and multi-synth recording preferences, polyphony is not a problem because you can record in full each individual track easily. Like with my newly acquired M1, I just use Combi or Program mode and record each audio track on my Roland Fantom X7 for example beautifully. The Roland D-5 would work just fine too.

Whether you will like the Roland D-5 I think depends greatly on the type of music you like and how open minded you are to embracing something unique and different that my require some “thinking outside” the box to work well. The Roland D-5 is a very different synth than the D-50 and even the D-20, D-10, and D-110 for that matter. It’s a fantastic synth that could potentially be used in a manner that nobody ever dreamed of. Perhaps I’m stretching it a bit, but that’s ok. I’m musician who still likes to dream and the Roland D-5 thankfully has been a great new source of fun and inspiration. It’s just wonderful how cheap you can get these instruments nowadays to experiment and play around with. It’s truly inspiring.

Note that I use an Apple iBook G4 with Midi Quest XL for my Roland D-5 Editor and Librarian. It works great! I also had to replace the Roland D-5 CR-2032 battery which was very easy. You just need to remove the bottom screws and those on the back of the D-5. Lift off the bottom panel and remove the top circuit PCB board. directly underneath on the corner is the battery which pops out and can easily be replaced. Then fire up your editor and transfer the factory default patches easily found on the internet. It all works great. I should also note that I didn’t get any “Change Battery” message rather I had a few garbled tones. Once I fixed the battery and loaded the sounds again I was all set. Also contrary to some people, the D-5 I have has no troubles with the buttons. They all work and seem reasonably robust to me. The keys are great too. The Roland D-5 is in top notch condition now. Indicated by a sticker on the inside of my D-5, it says last serviced in 1991.

Here is an excellent video of a sequenced Roland D-10 found on Youtube. The sounds you hear are EXACTLY the same as what you can get out of the Roland D-5. The sound in this video is very 80’s which is what I really like. It captures that catchy synthpop vibe well.

24 thoughts on “Roland D-5 Linear Synthesizer a Hidden Gem

  1. Today I’ve been checking out some of the patches I have for the Roland D-5. I found quite a few across the internet in Yahoo Groups and on various websites. I also had some D-10/D-20/D-110 patches from Greytsounds and Voice Crystal as well. I looked at the ones from Patchman but at $60 I thought I’d pass. Way too expensive I think.

    One thing I noticed is that I often get a “Data mismatch” error when transferring sounds to the Roland D-5. The patches actually transfer just fine, but the names in some cases are messed up. I usually then create my own or open the sysex file and copy over the patch names. In some cases the panning and volume levels need to adjusted. Plus there are clicks or clipping noises in some of the patches. Likely the attack needs to be adjusted or something with the envelopes. I’m currently working on this.

    Indeed all of these patches appear interchangeable but it may require some tweaking here and there.

    Here is a great video I discovered on Youtube about Roland D series Tone / Patch editing Basics.

  2. I just picked up the following D5 Patch sets off Ebay from Greytsounds. They are excellent and I highly recommend them. They load up and sound great on the Roland D-5.

    (Banks D101-103 contain 128 performances, D104 contains 64 tones+sequencing templates.)

    D101 – “Dance Mix” includes an array of useful sounds and textures often associated with R&B (vintage & modern) and hip-hop music styles. Individual tones/patches range from sampled instrument emulations to popular analog themes. Sounds include brass instruments, basses, organs, pianos, guitars, clavs, analog synths, drums/percussion and sound effects. Also included are some rap textures and drum kits.

    D102 – “Digital Synths” includes an array of useful sounds and textures which emulate the popular breathy sound of the popular D-50 L/A synthesizer. Individual tones/patches range from solo instruments, movie type pads, basses, bells and sound effects. Also included are pianos, brass, strings and some percussion. Sounds include “Choir 1,” “DigiVoice,” “Husky Foxes,” “9 gisyz,” “Z HARP,” “Fretless LA BASZ,” “FatZo Solo” and more.

    D103 – “New Age” contains a vast supply of textural, mood-inducing sounds that are useful in all new age and film applications or anything that needs that extra touch of atmosphere and evocative ambience. Individual patches range from sampled instrument emulations to popular analog themes and Fairlight/PPG type sounds. Also included are soundtrack, drum, percussion and special effect sounds. Sounds include “Breathy Rhodes,” “Latin Feeling,” “Landing,” “FlutoSparkle,” “Marshlands,” “Toy Piano,” “Spirits” and many more.

    D104 – “Multi-Timbral Artist” is a special multi-timbral sequencing bank filled with cutting-edge material. Each of the 64 tones included here stand on their own as complete sounds (none of them are “halves” of other patches). In addition to convincing acoustic and electric pianos, guitars, organs, basses and lead sounds, we’ve included special effects sounds, rap drum kits and even some “wave-vector”-type sounds to round out this package.

  3. Today I managed to write several Control Maps for the Roland PCR-300 for controlling all of the Roland D-5 Patch and Tone parameters. It’s simply awesome how much control over tweaking the sounds there is with the PCR-300. I now don’t need to get a Roland PG-10 as the PCR-300 will now do everything and I can even tailor the sliders, knobs, and buttons to what I actually need the most. It took me a little while to figure out how to program the sysex strings and create the Control Maps, but it all works fantastic. I’m even creating Control Maps for the Roland D-110 Sound module which I also have.

    I think tweaking all the parameters live definitely breathes new life into these older synths. I currently have a PCR-800 and PCR-300 by Roland. These are some of the best controllers I’ve ever seen for programming sysex information. There are Control Maps already available for the Roland MKS-50 (PG-300) and Roland D-50 (PG-1000) which completely controls the Roland D-50. I now don’t need the PG-1000 nor the PG-300!! You can save a ton of money by programming your own sysex controller messages.

    Specifically on the Roland D-5 you can’t trigger the arpeggiator from a controller keyboard like the PCR-300, BUT, you can control “HOLD” and “ARP” on and off. Chase, Harmony, and Chord Play along with the Arp effect are local only with regards to triggering. So, I simply play the D5 and get a nice arpeggio going. I then use the PCR-300 controller to HOLD the arpeggio in place. I can then tweak the sounds and even get some pretty good acid sounds going like the Roland TB-303. Imagine a Roland D-5 with sliders and knobs controlling all the parameters. That’s what the PCR-300 can do and it’s quite fun. The PCR Series controllers have been discontinued so you might be able to find some good deals on them. Check it out!

    Roland D-5 Synth Controller Roland PCR-300

  4. Jeroen

    Hello Jim. Interesting and inspiring website. I have read your comment about the PRC-300 controller sending sysex to the D5. I am wondering if this is only works for “on-off” type of commands.

    I tried to control de Roland S760 sampler with my PCR-300 for filter and resonance control, and attack and release. I tracked the codes from Sounddiver and put them in the PCR, but the PCR doesn’t send consistent values, no matter what I tried. Roland sysex is complex, with the checksum code at the end.

    Could you please tell me if you are able to send dynamic sysex values to the D5 with the PCR, like -63 to +63, or 0 to 127?

    Sounddiver send proper codes to the S760, but I want to use my gear without a computer, my sequencer is a setup of two Kawai Q-80’s and a Roland MC50, synced.

    thanks & bye,


    1. Hi Jeroen,

      Yes, you can definitely send dynamic sysex values to the D5 with the PCR. You need to have a DT parameter after the checksum. Here is the PG-300 for the MKS-50 for example.

      F0 41 36 0n 23 20 01 06 DT F7

      You will notice the “DT” there which controls the dynamic portion -63 to +63 or 0 to 127. These values you set in the PCR Editor Software depending on what parameter you are programming. I don’t have my D5 template handy, but you can see with the PG-300. I have no problems at all controlling dynamic values for the Roland D5.

      If you have any troubles, please let me know.


      1. Jeroen

        Okee, thanks! Checking other Roland templates is an eye-opener, I will check the templates for MKS-50 and PG-300 for examples, maybe then I will see the light…. I really do hope I can create my own template for the S760 with some backwards engineering. Great sampler, but I need more dynamic control. Controlling the S760 with midi CC codes is very limited. It should be possible to assign the modulation wheel to cutoff control but I can’t get it to work in performance mode.

        Programming sysex code for the PCR is a combination of the right data type (0 to 4) and insert point for the dynamic value, and two codes for checksum calculation (beginning and insert point). I have spent a lot of time to crack the code, no real success yet. Will try one more time.. 🙂

        Minor problem is that the Kawai Q-80 doesn’t send incoming sysex commands thru, although it will record, and play sysex code. So if I finally can control the S760 with the PCR, I have to change my setup 🙂

  5. Hi Jim, great website! Very informative.

    I’ve also recently bought a Roland D-110 and plan to make an Edirol PCR control map for it this week. I also have a Yamaha V50 that a recently picked up very cheap on Yahoo auctions – I love how stuff that’s in perfect condition gets sold as ジャンク. Do you know if it’s possible to do live patch editing over sysex on this synth? There doesn’t seem to me much in the way of CC control for it.


    1. Hi Edward,

      Indeed it’s amazing how ( at least in Japan ) goods classified as “Junk” are merely items “Sold As Is”. At Hard Off for example which is the store I mostly frequent, they have a 3-6 month guarantee on their used products. If they can’t give that guarantee then they label it as “Junk”. By our English definition, this stuff is far from Junk and I ( As you probably do to Edward ) feel fortunate to be in Japan during this wave of “second-hand” product frame of mind. For example, today I just picked up a used Korg Z3 Guitar Synth module from the 80’s that works perfectly for $10 bucks ONLY because it was missing the guitar pickup connector. Amazing! In the States where I’m from, they’d slap a hefty price on that product regardless because the customer might actually have the pickup at home like I did. I like the fact that in Japan they seem to want to move their stuff in and out the door quickly. It makes it exciting to go in each week knowing your may be in for some nifty surprises. They do sit on some stuff for a while but I think that is because they really don’t realize they are asking too much. Again in the States, I feel the store owners will actually sit on their merchandise knowing full well there will always someone out there that will pay premium for something if they REALLY want it. The Japanese mindset may catch up with the American second hand experience which is why I’m picking up stuff now while I can. I have a feeling with more Hard Off and other stores popping up that the days of cheap stuff at used stores in Japan may be numbered.

      The Roland D-110 and Yamaha V-50 can be controlled and manipulated using Sysex messages. CC controlling may be limited and often is but sysex can usually mirror anything CC related. I use an Edirol PCR series controller which allows me to dial in specific systex messages and create templates to manipulate these older devices. Not all current controllers allow you to do this. I find the Edirol PCR series to be excellent for custom programming. Unless the musical devices specifically cannot be externally controlled by sysex or nrpn messages, the PCR should be able to control anything you desire. The only tricky point is nailing down the correct sysex string that needs to be entered into the PCR. I actually use MidiQuest for this because it captures effectively realtime messages when when you edit any of the parameters on the keyboard. I then look at the sysex message it captures and use that for programming the PCR. I’ve done a lot of work with that and it’s getting easier. Those Sysex and Hex values in the back of the manuals are not always clear. If you have any further questions, please let me know anytime.


      1. Thanks for the quick reply. I’m also a fan of Hard Off.

        I’m glad to know its possible with the V50 too. I think I’ve got good information for the D-110’s sysex codes so I’ll start with that one.

  6. Hi Jim, me again.

    I’ve spent most of the day trying to get the PCR control map for my D-110 working without much luck. I can record individual Sysex messages and play them back into the synth using my PCR, but they aren’t dynamic. I’ve tried putting DT before the final F7 but I’m just getting checksum errors every time. Do you have any pointers that could help me out?

    Thanks for your time,


  7. floyd burney

    …Mr. Atwood. Thanks are in order for posting this info. I have one of these (acquired it in a trade) I’m a guitar player primarily & was looking for a keyboard to use with my Nano-piano to use on tunes that guitar can’t handle…..I found that several keys don’t work but when midi-ed up to another board all the notes (internals) work fine. I’ve been looking for sound cards that work with this but seem hard to find…I noticed that there are D-series boards like the D-10’s & D110’s that appear to use the same style card but wasn’t sure if they read with this board. Again, I’m a guitar player & just chord on the keys, I don’t solo, so I didn’t want something that had an involved learning curve, I know what sounds I want & how I want to use them (think van halen & the way he uses it to fill big gaps in a 3 piece) piano-B3,strings mix….I was about to toss this but shelved it instead untill I came across your post…Thanks again !!

    1. Mark


      I am copied what I posted on VSE to pose as a question for all if that is OK.

      I am trying to get my D5 up and running again.

      Cause I like these synths’s!

      Re: Fun with my Roland D5

      Postby markustg » Sun Nov 18, 2012 7:25 pm
      Long story longer.

      I now have a Roland D-20 as well (same synth engine, same patches, just has a disk drive, internal power and a sequencer, and it works great!).

      However, now I’m on a quest to fix that stupid D5.

      I have the D20 and the D5 hooked up midi in to out, and out to in (handshake)

      I go through the proper data dump ALL procedure on the D20 to send ALL to the D5. Both are on Midi Exclu unit # 17.

      “Data dump” is toggeled “on” on both D20 and D5.

      When I try Handshake they both stay in “waiting mode”.

      When I try one way the D20 says sending, the D5 says loading but after 1 minute or so the D20 ends sending and the D5 stops saying loading and says data mismatch.

      Sounds remain unchanged. Exactly like this link.

      (When I move the bender full up the sounds get clear, when the benders is in the middle or left they stay warbled).

      Any ideas where I am going wrong?

  8. AlenK

    Jim, you’ll be happy to know that the D-5’s DAC is actually 16-bit according to the service notes. The samples could be 12-bit, there’s no way to know from the schematic (just because the PCM ROM has an 8-bit wide data path means nothing). They certainly sound better than 8-bit but not as good as 16-bit. Even if they are stored as 8-bit (as some sources claim) they could well be stored commanded (logarithmic) or differentially. In any case they don’t sound half as bad as some detractors claim. The only downside is that they can’t be filtered, which makes them sound very distinctive.

  9. I was looking at Roland D-110 and into the manual. I cannot find anything about “Chase Delay, Arpeggiator, Harmonizer, and Chord Play effects” there 😦

  10. esaruoho

    I have the D-5 on loan from a friend. I neglected to try it out cos I thought maybe it’s just annoying. I plugged it in and was pleasantly surprised. Just a few questions, though.

    1- Does anyone know if there is a D-5 Logic Environment, or a publicly available SYSEX template for regular midicontrollers to control the D-5 with?

    2- And, if you’re in Multi-mode, is it possible to control the filters of all of the multitimbral instruments including the drums?

    3- Is there a way to globally map all drums to Right or Left Panning? Or do you have to pan them one at a time? I’m trying to find a way of panning while being in the multi-mode but am finding that I simply don’t know where to look.

    4- Can these drum pan settings then be saved?

    5- I see that the Manual Drums can be switched around (replaced with other drums from the complete selection of drums), but how do you save these – and is there only “really” one drum-preset on the D-5? Are these things lost, just like the pan, when the machine powers off?

    6- I’ve read that it is possible to use any ol’ controller to send SYSEX to this? If so, how does one read the D-5 manual for SYSEX in such a way that one can map, say, filters, to one set of 8 knobs.. Or does everyone use SoundDiver/SoundQuest editors?

    7- Is there some way of finding out the major/minor differences between the ROM v1.00 and ROM v1.03? Is it, in your opinion, worth updating, or does it bring some unforeseen issues..?

    8- Is there a freeware D-5 editor for OS X?

    9- Can Arpeggio-outputting-by-midi be toggled On/Off? And what about Harmony / Chord Play Midi output?

    I think this is a hidden gem, as much as I think the Korg 03R/W is a hidden gem – if you do the work, if you pan the materials, if you process them through effects, you’ve got a nice sound palette to mess around with.

    I’m currently getting the D-5 physical editor repaired, it will hopefully come back with a brighter screen, so totally looking forward to taking that out to control it and program some patches.

    1. esaruoho

      Well, I got the PG-10 back with a ultra-bright screen and it’s lovely to actually see what’s on the screen. Just tweaked the filters of a sound and this is actually quite decent for acidy sounds. I’m still a bit lost with the editor.

      I wound up using the MidiQuest11Pro to set all drums to Hard-Left, however, even with Memory Protect Off, if I then boot up the D-5, the drums default back to “wherever Roland wants them”.

      Still wondering if this can be controlled via CC, like the D-2.

      P.S. Also got the D5 ROM updated to the newest version – in addition to that ultra-bright screen replacement, thanks to Soitinvelho here in Finland 🙂

  11. Andy

    Hi. I just purchased a D5 for 99p! It needs attention (kinda obvious) but it is a working synth. I will let you know what is/ isnt working as soon as I get a chance to give it a thorough going over. Are parts easy to source?

    1. Andy

      Ok so there are a few buttons missing, Other than that she is in mint condition. I have managed to source some of the buttons, need one double and one single, but it really doesnt matter, this synth is AWESOME!

  12. Hi. Nice blog post about this old machine. It was my first keyboard. I bought it to learn to play piano on it and did not understand the sounds could be edited at all. So I thought it was pretty boring and swapped it for another synth. Maybe I should get one again and see if I can make better use of it today.

  13. erik

    Nice article about the D5!
    I’ve had my D5 for about 25 years and it really is a bit of a hidden gem as a cheap alternative of the D50. As a synthesizer it’s really versatile and I’ve made a huge number of patches for it over the years.

    The filters are not as extreme and dynamic as in other synths (forget about extreme resonance), and in fact you could say there are actually all sorts of issues with the dynamics of the synthesizer. For example the velocity response is not great (you have to learn to play it rather gently to make it sound good), and if you take things too far the digital distortion you might get is horrid.
    I’m kind of missing portamento too for an instrument like this.

    I can see how people could be turned of by it, because it’s obviously a bit of an acquired taste.
    Many presets sound super gimmicky and dated today (and not in a good way).
    It’s also not a ‘real’ analog synth, and you actually get lots of digital aliasing that you’ll just have to learn to love (and abuse 🙂
    But I suppose that goes for all Roland’s L/A synths.

    But if you take it for what it is and really dig into the possibilities of the synth, it’s a treasure trove of creativity.
    The way you can combine the voices, get crazy with the ring modulator, tinker with envelopes and filters until it’s just right, you can get really fat and dirty and funky with it.
    It’s great for getting those 80’s Prince kind of dirty sounds if you put some effort in, but it’s also great for warm pads.
    I even got a semi-decent rhodes-like sound out of it after a lot of tinkering (hint: use the ringmodulator for subtly simulating the low-end growl. Of course it’ll never sound like a real rhodes, but still rather nice in its own right).

    Anyway, it has also proven to be a really durable machine. After 25 years, having used it a lot in gigs, mine is still going strong! I actually still use it sometimes; there’s something about it that makes me go back to it time and again because the sound just ‘works’ with one my bands in particular.

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