Roland D-110 - User review - Gearspace.com
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Roland D-110
3 3 out of 5, based on 1 Review

Here it is. The infamous, Mother of all Bad Gear. The final word is in! D-110 MEGA review!

4 weeks ago

Roland D-110 by The Dazzler

  • Sound Quality 3 out of 5
  • Ease of use N/A
  • Features 2 out of 5
  • Bang for buck 4 out of 5
  • Overall: 2.25
Roland D-110

Ubiquitous in the used market, the D-110 sells by the pound.
About €10/lb as of 2022.
This machine is a capable Synth, but it never tried to be one, nor did its manufacturer present it as such. Instead, Roland called it a 'sound module'. As if to say "It's best if you just play the presets on this one, son". At your first attempt to create a sound on this synth, the reason why is immediately clear. This machine punishes you for trying to go beyond its presets. It doesn't invite experimentation but intimidates you.

With an interface and menu architecture that has been called "confusing", "tricky", "convoluted", "bizzare", even lovingly by an Italian musician, "da suicidio" (makes you want to kill yourself). Don't be surprised if you lose track of a sound you created; you'd be lucky. If you aren't lucky, one wrong sequence of buttons and you lose an entire hour of work (yes, work).

But not all is doom and gloom. You can coax nice sounds out of it if you are patient....and stubborn...and smart....and stupid all at the same time.

It's pre-General MIDI but surprisingly, it's Control Change messages, sound and drum layout are similar to what later became standardized in GM. This just amounts to inconsistent terminology from one manufacturer to another, and willy nilly use on the D-110. 'RPC' instead of RPN. 'bank' is a group of eight sounds, which you are forced to step through in the same manner a chameleon walks. Eight of these form 'groups' designated A,B,C,i. The term 'timbre' in this machine means a sound's MIDI channel, and Socket Output instead of its characteristics.

- It seems Roland was notorious for horrible user manuals in the 80's. This is undoubtedly one of the most egregious examples. Filled with misspellings, caucophony, and general nonsense, it serves to obfuscate the already fiendishly difficult, amateurish, unprincipled interface design on this machine.

- Its Middle C is one octave higher than what is Middle C in any piece of gear today. I was told that Both Yamaha and Roland products at the time had this 'peculiarity'.

-It is the buggiest machine Roland ever produced*. (see footnotes) With no less than 50 bug fixes issued from '88 on.
If you buy this machine, you MUST buy and install the last ROM OS revision ver. 1.13. When I bought my D-110, it had OS ver. 1.10, a particularly disastrous OS update which rendered the D-110 a brick. About half of its features did not work. (This review references the D-110 at it's last OS update. Ver.1.13 c.a. '91 ). To see your version # Press and hold [ PART ▽ ], [ PARAMETER BANK ▽ ], and [ ENTER ] buttons while turning on the power

-There are no 'routing' options for the lone oscillator. By default it's a Vibrato effect. You gotta Macgyver this thing if you want tremolo or portamento. Ditto if you use a sequencer with this thing. Let's not even broach the subject of hanging notes, it feels unfair.

-No modulating a note after it rings out with CC messages here. Only the PBend and ModWheel modify active notes (and Pedals if you can figure it out).

You can use Sysex without delay, luckily.
No, you still can't modify an active sound (e.g. the filter) with Sysex. You have to retrigger the note.

-On Sysex: In "The Age of Information" there are surprisingly few educational resources for it on the internet. Sysex is SUPER complicated but rewarding only to certain personality types if you learn it and use it. And it's damn sure not a prerequisite to making good music. You can get more modern sounding machines (provided it's what you want) with superior design that are vastly easier to use at a similar price point (under €200) as of 2022.

Back to the bugs.
It got so bad that for a minute, I thought Roland in the 80's must've been a rag-tag also-ran outfit compared to Korg and Yamaha. Then, I realised I was the one buggin'. This was the era of the Jupiters, JXs. Junos and TRs and many other classics!

So, I can't reason out the release of such a problematic and complicated machine at 1000 bucks in the 1980's by this company. Maybe Roland put the junior engineer team on this project to get their feet wet. Maybe Yamaha was on that ass with the FM license and they had to come up with something quick. Or maybe this was the birth of romplers and the concept of multi-timbrality and they were learning as they went along.

-Many people say the PG-10 hardware editor makes it worth it. As of 2022 it regularly goes for quadruple the price of the D-110 and is hard to find; as are the expansion cards. The non-Roland cards are even more rare and are also more expensive than the unit itself.

-It is entirely possible to program a Sysex-capable MIDI controller to control it's parameters*. Thus avoiding, the burn-inducing 'menu diving' and jumping straight into the fire... of table diving. You have to construct the commands yourself from the tables in the back of the manual, then write them in your MIDI controller. These tables are cryptic. Literally. They are encrypted. To crack the code you have to be able to do 2 digit division in your head. You have to get intimate with the hexadecimal system, and be able to mentally map numbers to rows and columns on a table. It took me a year to figure this out, while holding down a job. You, who are probably smarter than me, would probably employ less time (but most likely you'd probably just sell it).
Now, you can also just hook it up to your computer with a Sysex Librarian software launched and press Enter from the D-110's front panel after having navigated to the desired parameter. This sends the Sysex code you need straight to your computer screen. This woud, however, potentially necessitate learning a new piece of software and buying a real MIDI cable like the UM-ONE. Cheaper cables won't 'Dump' annd Load between the D-110 and the computer, however 1 sysex message, they will do. Oh, and for things like saving, copying and transferring settings within the D-110 remotely, there's no getting around deciphering the Sysex and constructing the message yourself, just in case you thought I was being obtuse.

-The D-110 defaults to MIDI channel 2 when turned on and ALWAYS reverts to Ch 2 when you navigate the menu. Everytime. The same goes for the Memory Protect setting, and the Output port (socket) settings. These three faults had me ready to send my D-110 crashing through my window and .....

-If you've got piano chops and thought you would be able to translate your pedaling skills to the D-110. Not gonna happen... easily. It recognizes Hold and Expression. Both pedals' correct (or intentionally incorrect) functionality are affected by parameter values of the currently active sound. You have to find which parameters and set them to the right values that allow your pedals to work as you intend. It's up to you to decide whether this is a limitation or a creative opportunity.

It is possible to make the Hold Pedal behave like a Sustain Pedal (Where each key press has a longer release that fades) but, you can't operate the expression pedal at the same time.
Depressing the Expression pedal may have effect immediately after the note(s) is pressed or up to 15 seconds afterwards and probably longer (or never) depending on where you set certain parameter values. You can selectively apply this design flaw to certain parts of your patch.
The most probable culprits are the Amplifier Envelope's ('TVA') Sustain stage, 'T3', 'T4' and/or 'L3' stage(s).

Herein lies the principle challenge, You have to familiarize yourself with the D-110's sonic character and internalize it's hellish architecture so as to approach it realistically and program with intent. (This may corrupt your heart and soul)

One of the keys to the safe is realizing:
- Most parameters have a specific range where they are audibly effective, usually around 60-90.
-The parameters have weird inter-dependencies, The effectiveness of some parameters depend on if some other, apparently unrelated, parameters are On or Off. (not the natural kind of inter-dependencies common to other complex synths, either. WEIRD inter-pdependencies)
-You have to memorize the 13 so-called 'structures'. The small screen refers to them numerically.
- While the Legend that you can create a patch with almost 2000 parameters is technically true, it just won't matter unless:
1. You know exactly what you are doing
2. You are intimately familiar with the pecularities (to put it nicely) of each parameter. (e.g. Pitch Envelope which has a range of 1-10 has no effect until you set it to 7 and up), in addition to the aforementioned inter-depencies.

- No way to tell if partials are On or muted or if they are pcm or synth (which in turn inform which parameters you attempt to manipulate). You have to either menu dive or program a controller whose visual feedback tells you this info.

A computer screen also gives visual feedback. There are myriad software which control this synth nicely. The best is Sean Luke's (user feijai) Edisyn. Second is Ipad's Coffeeshop and third is Dom's (user 'ibtl') D-110 Ctrlr Panel. No headbanging required..IF... you had the patience to learn the menu architecture. btw both guys are brilliant GS members.

Straight Facts:
-There is only one synth sound and the D-110 only has two wave forms [sqr/saw]
-The three envelopes aren't uniform and are rather complicated 5 or 6 stage affairs. They must be memorized.
-You can't hear anything out of the Headphone Jack unless the output is set to Mix.
-You can't use socket outputs 5 and 6 if the (very subtle) reverb is set to On for some reason.
-There is no clear reason why some parameters go to a 100 and others 99 and others still to 30.
-If you create a sophisticated, full patch, any small change WILL require saving it three times, in three different places... INSIDE this synth.
-You CAN create an approximation of a sine wave sound if you know synthesis.
-You can create light or dark tones, interweaving pads and skying tones.
-The drums are pure 80's goodness.
-The multiple outputs offer an exciting opportunity to use your D110 with a mixer and apply subtle effects to individual parts, or tones or theoretically blend your patches with finer detail.

Is it worth it? Only if you possess all the aforementioned qualities and have the type of personality that takes pleasure in (sadism) solving hard problems almost as much as making music.

You might like this machine if you think it's neat that someone employs a decade's worth of skill, $10,000 worth of tools and a month of their life to restore a heavily damaged, rusted, discarded yet not-so-common object from a dumpsite; and made a Youtube video about it.
You might like it if you get a stiffy about Lo-fi (real lo-fi, the kind you can't do anything about, not artificial lo-fi) as in harsh sounds, aliasing and artifacts and a sometimes audible noise floor. Also if you possess considerable mixing skills and piano chops.
You might like it if you think it's a good thing if artists sometimes work within limits, If you were ever a 'power user' in anything and enjoy taking things to their limits, or if you like ROMplers in general.


-I read on a French site's forums that, besides the interface that "for sure was designed by a psychopath", the presets are "to be avoided unless you are producing music for porn".

Well, Technically, he's not wrong. But therein lies the true value of the Roland D-110 for the culturally astute and there also lies the magic of the D-110 in the hands of a true artist. The 80's never really went out of style, (and neither did pubic hair).
I find this machine's presets and sonic capabilities adapted to snippets of 80's Elevator music, Lounge music, telephone 'On-Hold' music,and if you really must ...80's p*rn, which you can transform into any one of the new and cool types of music; Synthwave, Chillwave, and if inclined, resample and collage into Vaporwave. Or simply Eurodisco synthpop, Electro, Freestyle, Ambient Techno, IDM and to a lesser extent Rap, R&B. and if you are a genius, modern pop music. (it's possible)

I still occasionally lose patches and get confused/lost in the labyrythine menu structure. On a couple of occasions I have burst out with laughter, suddenly conscious of my genuine trepidation at performing a 'risky manouvre' from the front panel of my D-110. A couple more of those and the concerned missus might ask me to speak to the psychologist again. I won't know what to say...

If the Yamaha FS1R (another famously difficult synth) were Di Modica's Wall Street Bull, The Roland D-110 is a bicycle seat and handlebars in comparison...put together by Pablo Picasso, which is an even higher expression of artistic genius. If the former requires sheer brainpower to bend it to your will, the latter requires cunning and doggedness to make beauty out of limitations that are not just user unfriendliness but what appears to be engineering inexperience by the D-110 team, which if you're like me, in that you bought the D-110 and never gave up on it, we believe that making beautiful art from scraps is a worthy pursuit and I salute you.


**Doepfer Drehbank
Yamaha RS 7000
Behringer BCR 2000, BCF 2000
Kenton Control Freak
Emu Launchpad
Peavey PC1600X
Novation SL mkii, X-Station, Remote Zero
MidiQuest XL
Special mention: MID-OX!

Attached Files

Electro Pop.wav (7.23 MB, 155 views)

The BeatsMaster.wav (12.23 MB, 159 views)

Nakamoto.wav (7.45 MB, 175 views)

80's Porno music.wav (4.58 MB, 122 views)

Spiral Arms.wav (6.15 MB, 125 views)


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