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.