Roland U-20 Synthesizer Review

Roland U20 RS PCM Keyboard
Roland U20 RS PCM Keyboard

Yesterday I posted an article about fixing the dead keys on my newly acquired Roland U-20. I got the synth for free and didn’t really know much about it. Today I spent the majority of the day playing around with the U-20 and it was quite frustrating to start primarily because of the manual and lack of “how-to” information on the web. The terminology Roland chose for the U-20 along with it’s terrible manual had me overlooking the most brilliant aspect of the Roland U-20. I just had to write a follow-up article because it has become apparent that most people I’ve encountered talking about the Roland U-20 have missed one hugely important detail. The Roland U-20 can be easily split and layered or both at the same time locally without using MIDI. Amazing!!

The Roland U-20 has four modes called KEYBOARD, SOUND, PART, and RHYTHM. This is where the confusion really starts. What the heck do these mean? The manual is not clear and it took me all day to figure out a VERY simple concept. The most important mode is the SOUND MODE. That should have been called “PATCH MODE”. Now inside this “PATCH MODE” you have 6 parts and 1 rhythm part. Instead of parts, lets call these LAYERS!! To create and use a layer, you need to set the MIDI channel to 1. This allows you to play the sound locally. If you now go to layer 2 ( part 2 ) you can set the Midi channel again to 1. You now will have two stacked sounds. Continue this on all parts and you effectively have created a 6 layer sound patch. Powerful!!! You can then set the key range for each layer and split the keyboard up to seven different sections including the rhythm part. Perhaps you want to create two splits with up to three layers assigned for each split. The level of each layer can be adjusted as well. In Korg lingo, a patch could also mean Combi or Combination.

Roland also at the next level has what they call Timbres and then Tones. To me, Timbres pretty much means voices with most synths nowadays. Tones are used to create the Timbres ( Voices ). The limitation here is you can only assign one tone for each voice. You can’t layer the tones or at least I haven’t figured that out yet. So, you can create two Timbres or Voices and then detune them when creating a layered patch as described above. Thus you can fatten up existing Timbres or voices if so desired. You also have ADSR control with each voice as well.

It’s funny when you search for Roland U-20 patches on the web, you pretty much only find the default factory patches. Why is that? Someone mentioned it was because the Roland U-20 was so easy to program so why post patches. Well yes, BUT only if you truly understand how to program the darn thing. I suspect most people do not understand the full concept of programming the Roland U-20. As a result, they are stuck with factory patches without a clue that there is so much more to the Roland U-20.

The first thing I did after I figured out the U-20 patch system, was to take the very first patch and rename it to something like “Layer_Split_01”. I then created three splits on the keyboard with two layers each. All of the layers were set to midi channel 1 and layer key limits were set accordingly. I then assigned a Timbre/Voice to each layer/part and voila I had a great performance patch. This just opened up a whole world with the Roland U-20. Again pretty amazing for such a cheap synth.

Now there is a catch to this. Both the Arp and Chord Memory affects all of the layers allocated to Midi Channel 1. You can’t split the Arp and have it play on the lower left of the keyboard while playing piano for example on the right. Chord memory is the same. So if you are going to layer up and split your U-20 with a complex patches like this you will have to likely forfeit using the Arp and Chord Memory unless you want it to affect the whole key range. You can set the arp to Midi channel two and assign it a layer to be played by an external midi device or sequencer. That is fine, but my aim here is to keep the synth in performance mode without tethering it up to a sequencer or secondary controller.

If you boost the release on any given layer you can effectively create a “hold” or “sustain” which is a very cool effect. You can sustain or hold string on a particular split while you play a bass line or piano chord over it.

Also, you can create velocity layers and trigger them by how hard you press the keys. This adds even more possibilities for dynamic playing in live performances with the U-20. The U-20 also allows for two U-110 PCM expansion cards to be inserted to increase the number of voices. This is cool too.

Here is an example of a patch I did that was really fun to play.

Lower Section of the keyboard I had two layers set to overlapping Synth Bass and Slap Bass.

The Middle Section had two layers set to overlapping Strings1 and Chorus Piano. I also added a third layer with about 7 keys of JP Brass to add some punch on there too.

The Upper Section had two layers set to synth bells and strings1 ( Same strings from the middle section just extended up to the upper area by setting the appropriate key limit ).

I honestly don’t think most people realize you can do this with the Roland U-20 locally and not just via midi.

Finally another huge question was how do you save all this? The answer is you have to press the “data” button and set SOUND to write. Then write the SOUND into an Internal slot or on your memory card. I use a memory card so that I can keep my internal SOUNDS stock for backup. ( For now at least ).

The Roland U-20 is actually an amazing synth for the money. It’s two weakest points are the bad contact keys and horrible manual. If you can get the keys fixed and wrap your head around the patch creation process by chucking the manual, I think you’ll find a hidden gem with the Roland U-20. There are tons of patches to be created with this synth and many of the tones were not carried over into later products I’ve heard. Indeed the Roland U-20 is a rompler, but it can be layered and split to create some exciting performance patches that I suspect most don’t know about thanks to the cryptic manual.

The attached Roland U-20 Editor screenshot below is from MidiQuestXL which gives you a visual of the patch parameters I tried to outline. If you think in terms of layers and not midi parts, it becomes easier to understand. EnjoY!!

Roland U-20 Synthesizer
Roland U-20 Synthesizer
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10 thoughts on “Roland U-20 Synthesizer Review

  1. Ammen Shinti

    Do you have any info on the Korg T series the floppy drives going dead and what floppy drive should I use to replace it?

  2. AlenK

    Nice find. Many people don’t realize the potential for creating new sounds by stacking parts of a multi-timbral instrument. You might be interested to know that Casio’s XW-P1 synth has a dedicated mode call Hex Layer that allows doing what you describe using up to six PCM sounds, with the bonus of a tone control (simple low-pass filter) for each layer (IIRC the U20 doesn’t have any filtering at all) as well as real-time slider control of the relative volumes of the layers. In addition, the XW’s “Performance” mode allows stacking or splitting three additional PCM sounds across the keyboard, with control of which “zone” the arpeggiator and phrase playback are active on. Mind you, unlike your U20 a retailer isn’t likely to stuff an XW into your bag for free!

  3. Ricardo

    I have to agree with you that the U-family is being dumped nowadays.
    Here in Europe, I’ve seen U-110 and U-220’s (the sound modules of the U-20 you got hands on) being sold for 25-40 euros.
    And so I got the hands on a U-220 with an Organs expansion sound card.
    Like you, I searched the web up-side-down for some customized patches, and couldn’t find any. Until I posted a question or a Roland forum, and someone p.m.’d me a big collection of sysex for this machine, but only really useful if you have all optional sound card expansions.
    I guess that most users didn’t went on editing the beast, because the target user for this product was the musician/producer looking for a box-of-good-roland-sounds to expand his rack. If you go on editing, there are some editing options, but:
    – the resolution
    – the range
    – the painful understanding of the roland menu structure
    … well … it does not pay off (really, it sucks). It’s just not a synth.
    Still it sounds really good, the rack version has individual outputs so you can further do some post-processing. I played it for some months, till the day I got my hands on a SY77 🙂

    1. Hi Ricardo,
      I’m getting ready to premier a new U-20 Homepage on April 3rd. Any chance of getting that collection of U-20 Patches so I can pop them on the Patches download page for everyone to enjoy? Thanks!

      1. Ricardo

        Sure, If I find them back between all my files. Post the link of your U-20 Homepage here and I’ll drop your U-20 site a visit. From there sure I’ll find your email or something else to share those patches to. Cheers!

  4. Mark

    I was about to sell both my Roland U-20 (with working keys!) and the U-220 module until I read this post.
    Thank you very much Jim for sharing your insights with the U-20.
    Will be holding on to both to get more and interesting sounds out of. 😉

    1. Great info here. I use jimatwood.wordpress.com often when troubleshooting issues with my vintage gear. Always informative!

      Re: U-20 Patch Editing, I have added a brief but informative article at the U-20 HOMEPAGE about layering titled “Effective Memory Allocation For The Roland U‑20. How to program up to 192 splits and layers on a stock U‑20”. You can find it on the UTILITIES page at;
      http://llamamusic.com/u20/u-20.html

  5. Tony Harris

    Great article on the U-20. I’ve been using mine for years in the studio, and as a controller, and more recently onstage. I sussed out how to make a ‘stereo’ piano (or anything) by splitting the keyboard into six parts and panning them, and for the first time discovered how to make a piano/string layer. If I make a split keyboard (e.g. piano/organ) I would normally have a low piano and a high organ. Could I then transpose the organ section down an octave or two so that it covers the same range? Thanks. Tony.

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