Roland Fantom 8 by Chromalord
Roland has updated their Fantom line by introducing their latest version (2019) simply called "Fantom" followed by the octave count: 6,7, or 8.
In this instance, I am reviewing the Fantom 8 (88 Key)
If a Korg Kronos, a V-Piano, and a Jupiter 80 had a baby, their offspring would be close to the new Fantom. It is due to the somewhat similar design/purpose to the Kronos I will be making periodic comparisons.
As this is a first write-up, I just got the unit the same day I am writing this review. I have not dealt with the sequencer or sampler, YET.
If you buy from a retailer, it most likely will be boxed by the around the factory box. Roland in particular does not box their stuff very well, and the Fantom is no exception. It had a piece of cheap styrofoam on either end (both of which cracked) and a minimal support in the middle. Had Sweetwater not added their box, I'm fairly certain the unit would have been damaged.
IMO,The unit is very attractive. It has a wide inlaid red band that goes around the sides and the back as one continuous insert . The panel is a texturized material that easily shows marks and smudges but easily wipes off as well, yet it doesn't look very resilient against aggressive use. There are two open spaces on either end of the main panel large enough to put a mouse, or a small qwerty kybd, but I would highly recommend a non stick pad to protect the panel. There is one screen; a decent-sized color touch-screen that works well and has very legible text and graphics, but there is nothing fancy here. By comparison, the Kronos has FAR more detailed graphics. There are plenty of knobs, buttons and sliders with pretty lights.
I have 2 main gripes in this section:(1) The key-bed is situated unusually high in the chassis, and the unit is thick in the front to begin with as the shape is more rectangular and less "wedge". The large display does not tilt towards you, something to think about when you select a stand. This key bed placement makes the Fantom too high to play on typical keyboard stands that do not have height adjustments. A Bench with adjustable height is also highly recommended, a regular chair or drum throne will not provide a comfortable playing height. (2) The Fantom 8 is HEAVY by today's standard. In the box, the shipping weight read 80 pounds, so allowing 10-pounds for the boxes, manual, and power cable, it reasonable to assess the actual weight to be about 70-pounds.
There are plenty of hook-up options:
XLR main outs, balanced inputs for sampling. MIDI i/ox2/t, 3 USB device ports, USB hosting, 8 assignable TRS jacks, CV i/o, jacks for 3-damper assembly, 3 variable pedals, regular damper, and foot-switch.
Complaint: headphone jack is in back, no separate volume control for headphones, no mirrored jack in the front where it SHOULD be. The unit is simply too large for a rear headphone jack.
The unit's power-up time is much faster than a Kronos, about 35 seconds.
You MUST grasp the architecture of the Fantom before you can attempt to have any fun with it. Although the unit is logically laid-out and very intuitive (much more than the Kronos or Montage) you still need to understand their language. At the core you have partials which make up a tone, the tones are arranged in a zone, zones are placed in a scene. A scene is what you would use for multi-timbral purposes or for stacking multiple patches to build a mammoth sound. The unit has 256 note polyphony, and the V-piano has unlimited polyphony as it is not sample-based. Unless I have missed something obvious, there is no direct, front-level way to audition patches(tones) so, if you were to hit the "Piano" bank and start scrolling, you would NOT be auditioning all of the piano tones in the fantom. There are 16 named preset banks , similar to the Jupiter-80, which on 1st glance seems kind of semi-pro, but its good they are there, as there are no other way to define the sound library, there is not much of a search engine, and there is no way to display large lists of patch names on the screen for easy location. All of the data controls are unidirectional. If you don't select the right page and mode, yet instead, simply change patches (tones) via the Named preset buttons, you are only scrolling thru tones assigned within a given scene, i.e., you won't find many sounds this way!
The Roland website claims there are 3500 "sounds" in the Fantom, which is misleading. I have not located more than 1,930 Tones, so I am left to assume the remaining sounds are individual partials that may be found in tones like a drum kit or FX. Also misleading is their assertion there are 90 Drum kits, well, there are but they're not all different, many are duplicates or are kits that are identical except the kick and snare. All of the Roland drum machines are here, vintage and new. As well as the sounds from the JV, SRX, and “Natural” libraries. Most kicks and snares have excellent fidelity, toms are ok, some of the percussion is good, the Roland-based kits are well represented, but the rest of the sounds like cymbals, brushes, and hats are mediocre at best. There's no excuse for this, memory cost nothing, and units like the Kronos have the equivalent of 4 PCs for less money.
As this IS a work-station, there are a lot of utility sounds: horns, strings, basses, organs, choirs, etc. Some are excellent, some are less than inspiring. If you are not a V-piano fan, the Fantom is probably not for you. You would be better off with a Kronos, and save a $1,000. Personally, I love the V-piano and the A/B comparison I did LIVE with the Kronos had me digging the fidelity of the Fantom a bit more. The Fantom has FAR better electric pianos, basses, and choirs. There are a few Clavinets in the Fantom which are superior, but there are more examples in the Kronos. Roland has greatly improved the fidelity of their organs but their Leslie simulators are terrible and the sliders don't double as drawbars. The Pipe organ is VERY nice. The brass ensemble bank is very nice in the Fantom, but there is no tones of shakes, falloff, doits, or SFZ, a real shame. There are lots of cool choir and scat patches. Strings are better than average. Tons of wild sound-FX!
One of the key strengths of the Fantom is analog modeling section and the hundreds of gorgeous pads. You can build synthetic sounds from scratch and stack them in insane amounts, each stored with different ambient FX. I don't know of any analog modeler that sounds better.
While the FX are not as intricate as the Kronos, they all sound very nice: smooth reverbs, echoes, chorusing, phasing, distortion etc, totally print-worthy.
The Motional Pad:
Perhaps the most interesting/unique feature of the Fantom is the Motional Pad implementation which allows the sweeping of 4 Scenes in various patterns. There is a fine example of this on youtube. With careful planning, the sonic capabilities of this is pretty amazing!
The Drum pads are very sturdy and responsive, and have multiple functions other than triggering drum sounds, like trigger notes, samples, sequences, scenes, etc. The large screen has 6 soft knobs and there are navigational arrows to quickly guide you around the screen. Like the Kronos, the control bank situated to the left of the screen has 8 sliders, knobs, and buttons which can be set to perform many different functions.
The live controls are plentiful: the standard Roland push-pull lever, plus rubber-coated pitch and mod wheels, plus 2 assignable switches. In the same area i controls for portamento, octave switching, chord memory, arpeggio, and transpose.
Lastly, the Fantom is supposedly a DAW controller, but a far as I can tell it only works on PC-based DAWs and only a couple at the time of this review.
The Fantom is a fine unit, Roland's most ambitious to date. Without a doubt its the best SOUNDING unit they have ever made as a complete self-contained entity. The V-Piano and the Analog banks are the true stars. While this workstation does some things better than Kronos, it comes up short in others. In brief, the Kronos comes more from an intellectual programmers basis, the Fantom is far more intuitive and simpler. Would I recommend Kronos owners making the switch? That's very hard to say, my only advice would be to check it out in person.