Oh boy! What a wonderful synth controller the Roland A-800 Pro has turned out to be. I found the A-800 at the second hand music shop about three weeks ago. I was looking for a controller with good key action, LCD screen, and the ability to program sysex info. The Roland A-800 Pro has exceeded my expectations.
First I’ll talk about common problems with Synth Controllers I’ve had. Many controllers have really bad key action that either feels too stiff or cheap. More often than not, controllers also cannot program and send sysex commands. For older synthesizers, CC info only just doesn’t cut it. I know for soft synths and DAWs, sending CCs are adequate, but for hardware synths it just doesn’t work for me. I do a lot of sysex work on synths and need the ability to program a controller to send the commands I require for performance or patch creation. It’s amazing at how many great controllers out there do not have this functionality. Another common problem is that often controllers provide no indication about where you are at in the parameter range. You are often found twiddling a knob or slider blindly without having any readout of the value you are sending.
The Roland A-800 Pro seems to have all of the bases covered. The key feel and action is the best I’ve used or at least at the top. I think you’ll find very few negative comments on the keys of the A-800 Pro. Furthermore, the A-800 Pro is fantastic for programming sysex commands and switching templates back and forth on the fly. The packaged editing software is easy to use and even the manual explains well the checksum and variable input parameters necessary for most older synths. ( Note you will need the Midi Implementation Charts for your synth to get the exclusive data commands ). In addition, the LCD screen provides realtime info about what parameter you are sending and the value. Plus there are actual words or labels in the LCD and not just LED numbers or dots.
I have also found the number of knobs, sliders, buttons, and controls to be quite adequate. If you need more, you can change to another page or template easily and continue your edits. Space for labeling is provided on the front panel as well. I actually just created a simple paper layover for the A-800 using Photoshop and swap them when I change templates. This is done similarly with the Behringer BCR-2000. I actually have the Behringer which is also a great controller with sysex programming, but I found it to be a bit bulky and difficult to program. The Roland A-800 Pro is so much easier to work with and have begun moving all of my sysex and controlling duties to it.
Overall, I highly recommend the Roland A-800 Pro for an all around decent performing controller for hardware sound modules and synthesizers. I don’t use it for DAWs or Softsynths, but I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be a winner in that category as well. I’ve heard the Novation SL MkII is likely a good alternative, but it’s availability in the used music market in Japan is limited. I just happened to stumble upon the A-800 series and it’s been a perfect match with all of my hardware gear. The irony is that just when I’ve found a decent controller, I find out it’s now been discontinued in Japan. Go figure!