Test Drive: The Roland VS-880 Digital Studio Workstation

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I've been spoiled by scrub functions on five-figure workstations, so the VS-880's scrub was a small disappointment. Press the SCRUB button and use the TIME/VALUE wheel to scrub audio. Press the EDIT/SEL button of the track you wish to scrub. You can only hear one track at a time. Press the PREVIEW TO or PREVIEW FROM buttons to repeatedly playback audio to or from the current edit point. If you can cue audio on a pro CD player using the Search function, you can cue accurately on the VS-880. The TIME/VALUE wheel can be set to scrub in varying degrees of accuracy up to 1/100th of a frame. With 30 frames per second, that's 1/3000th of a second. The display makes an attempt at drawing an amplitude waveform using the tiny blocks of its low resolution screen, but it's not enough to replace using your ears to know when you're on the spot.

The VS-880 has 999 levels of undo and redo as long as the Song Optimize function has not been used. Press the UNDO button and the screen asks how many levels of undo to perform (it defaults to 1). Press the YES button to undo. Press SHIFT and UNDO to redo.

The features of the VS-880 seem to go on forever. Press the VARI PITCH button and the unit plays back at the preset Vari-Pitch speed. Press SHIFT and VARI PITCH to set the speed. Press the LOOP button to play back a section of audio repeatedly--useful when doing punch-ins or multiple dubs. Press the AUTO PUNCH button to engage the automatic punch-in/out function. Press the SCENE button to store and retrieve up to eight sets of mixer settings for each song. Use a MIDI sequencer to record fader movements, EQ adjustments and more, and playback the song data to perform automated mixing. A MIDI/DISK LED lights green when MIDI data is received and red when the disk drive is accessed. If you don't want to deal with stationary external SCSI drives, get the VS-880J with a built-in Iomega 1G Jaz drive. And did we mention portability? There are no monitors or rack-mount drives to carry around, and at just over eight pounds with the internal disk drive, this 8-track digital audio workstation can go anywhere.

It's almost hard to imagine this tiny box as the centerpiece of a big radio production studio, but it certainly is a major upgrade from an analog 8-track. The versatile mixer integrates nicely with external effects boxes, and the optional internal effects card is well worth the extra bucks. Editing on the VS-880 is a bit sluggish, especially when you're just getting used to the machine, but given the time, accurate edits are easily accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. The small display also takes some getting used to and requires positioning yourself to the unit as close as you would sit at a typewriter.

As I noticed these little shortcomings I kept on recalling the modest price of the VS-880, and the features consistently and heavily outweighed the negatives. If your station is a very budget conscious operation still in the analog multitrack world and won't go the big bucks for the Cadillac or the Mercedes brands, wave the VS-880 in front of them. They'll like it and so will you. If you're building that studio at home on that same tight budget, get a demo on this unit at your nearest musical instrument store. Even if money is not that big of an issue, the VS-880 packs a lot of DAW power and saves bucks for other toys.

Specs on the VS-880 include A/D conversion at 18-bit, 256x oversampling and D/A conversion at 18-bit, 8x oversampling. Internal processing on the mixer section is 24-bit. Frequency response is 10-22.6kHz at 48kHz sampling, 10-21kHz at 44.1kHz, and 10-15.5kHz at 32kHz sampling. THD is 0.08% or less and residual noise level is -91dB or less. The software version of the unit used for this review is version 1.05.

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