Exploring the Roland D-50

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The Roland D-50 was released in 1987 and quickly replaced the Yamaha DX7 as the most popular synth on the market, going on to appear in countless pop songs and soundtracks, as well as defining the sound of the late 80s / early 90s era. The at-the-time revolutionary synthesizer used a complex new form of synthesis called ‘Linear Arithmetic’ synthesis, that combines real instrument samples with synthesised waveforms. The unit featured a joystick for easy sound manipulation, an onboard chorus effect and was the first synth to feature onboard reverb. It was revered by producers and composers for its ability to easily emulate real instruments and has many classic patches. Like the DX7, it went on to be described as one of those ‘hated’ keyboards, as it’s responsible for some very cheesy new-age sounds, as well as fake slap-basses. Nevertheless, it is still one of the most complex synthesizers ever made, it's sounds are incredible, and it is now making a comeback.

Architecture of a Synth

The D-50’s patches are made up of up to four different sounds, called partials, which can either be samples or a synthesised waveform. The samples themselves were tiny and comprised only the very beginning of a sound (the attack portion). By combining the attack portion of an instrument with a synthesised sustain part you could create convincing emulations of real sounds, for the time. The partials are grouped into two tones, upper and lower, which provides a way to layer different sounds in the same patch.

The partials could be layered in different ways to create different sounds, including modulating each other, similarly to the DX7. Routing was done by selecting one of seven possible structures, that included basic layering and ring modulation options. The synth also featured traditional synthesizer modulation options, with two envelopes and three LFO’s available for each partial, totalling a ridiculous eight envelopes and twelve LFO’s, allowing the programmer to create some truly complex sounds. The synth had the below diagram on it's surface, for easy reference when programming.

The D-50's structure options, including Ring Modulation, and Output routings, where the Upper and Lower tones can be routed through Reverb and to different outputs.

The D-50's structure options, including Ring Modulation, and Output routings, where the Upper and Lower tones can be routed through Reverb and to different outputs.

The D-50 has a unique Chase Play function that delays one of the tones, with the option to also repeat it, allowing for even more interesting results, such as delay effects or complex sequences. The joystick allowed easy switching between the upper and lower tones, for easy sound manipulation without having to dive into the menus. Deeper programming of the complex synth using the tiny LED screen was cumbersome, which is why the D-50 is most often recognised for its presets. Roland ended up releasing an external controller for the D-50, called the PG-1000, that made programming it much easier by allowing the users to control the parameters using faders. 

The Roland D Family

The D-50 was the first of the ‘D Series’ synths released by Roland and is still the most revered and sought after. Other related synths are:

  • D-550 - a rackmount version with no joystick or sliders. You either had to use the presets or get the external controller to edit the patches.
  • D-10 - a more affordable version of the D-50 with the same sound engine but a less refined sound due to having a different DAC and cheaper onboard effects. I’ve also heard the D-10 described as grittier and more lo-fi, and it can be found for a steal on second-hand sites.
  • D-110 - a rack-mounted version of the D-10.
  • D-20 - Similar to the D-10 but with an onboard sequencer that allowed for real-time recording.
  • D-5 - a scaled-down version of the D-10.
  • D-70 - the next step-up from the D-50, an attempt to compete with the then-popular Korg M1. Apparently, this synth has more in common with Roland’s U-series of keyboards than the D-50!
  • MT-32 - budget unit aimed at home users,  ended up being popular with video game publishers.
  • D-05 - modern boutique version released in 2017. Since the original D-50 was digital and used samples, the boutique version is theoretically the same, there are plenty of comparison videos online so you can draw your own conclusions!
  • D-50 Software Synthesizer - VST recreation plugin for use in DAW's, available on Roland Cloud. I'll use this one for the examples below.

The Classic D-50 Patches

Fantasia is the first patch that loads up on the D-50, and it's a beautiful patch made up of two separate parts: a twinkling bell sound and a soft pad that sustains beyond the initial bell hits. Most digital keyboards that came after the D-50 featured some version of this patch. Check out a demo of it below, where the synth bass is provided by the D-50's Synth Bass 2 patch.

Staccato Heaven is a classic late 80's pad sound, and you can hear it, or versions of it, in countless pop songs from the era. Here's what it sounds like:

DigitalNativeDance really shows off the D-50's ability to produce complex, evolving patches. You simply hold down a note and listen to the modulation evolve it. The chase function adds a tribal drumming effect, very cool!

Pizzagogo is probably the most immediately recognizable D-50 patch, famous for its use in the Enya song Erinoco Flow.

D-50 Songs

The Roland D-50 is all over Bad by Michael Jackson, which came out the same year as the D-50. Some great places to hear it in action are:

  • The organ solo in Bad
  • The Liberian Girl intro.
  • The bizarre sound that starts Dirty Diana.
  • Some of the fake slap-basses, such as Another Part of Me.
  • Most of the keys on Man in the Mirror:

Trevor Horn used the D-50 on the first few Seal albums for futuristic sounding ambient layers. It can be prominently heard on the track Violet, where the chords are played on the patch Soundtrack. This patches adds an interval of a 5th to any note played, and you can read more about how that works in this article, where I deconstructed a similar patch from the Roland JV-1080.

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My favourite song to make use of the D-50 is Phil Collin’s Another Day in Paradise, from 1989’s …But Seriously. The introduction definitely has a clear ‘D-50 sound’ to it, and the lead and strings of the main hook sounds like they may be the D-50 patches Metallic Lead and Ethnic Session.

Dial up the patch Spacious Sweep and you have a complex, resonant pad great for adding depth. Play some bass notes and you’ll find one of the most easily recognisable sounds, from the startup sound of the PlayStation 1! I’d hazard a guess that the D-50 was a favourite of video game composers who wanted to produce modern-sounding soundtracks on a budget.

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Another 90s childhood classic, the patch D-50 Voices was used by Danny Elfman to open the Simpsons Main Title Theme, another iconic piece of 90’s music.

The D-50 has also started to reappear in several modern songs, such as On The Level by Mac DeMarco and Call Me Up by HOMESHAKE. Both favour the D-50s piano sound, and the synths renewed popularity may be due to its inexpensiveness and ability to alter sounds more than the similar Yamaha DX7.

Further Reading

The D-50 Creative Book - A great Roland-produced guide to programming the D-50.

Owner's Manual - Opens with "The Roland D-50 is different from every other synthersizer". I'm not sure what I love more, the boldness or the typo on synthersizer.

D-50 Synthesizer Setups - great vintage music book by Hal Leonard, but a pretty heavy read considering it describes setting everything up just using the LED screen.

D-50 Famous Examples - more famous uses of the D-50 in popular music.

Reverb Roland D-50 Ableton Instrument Rack - a free Ableton instrument that uses Ableton's Sampler and Analog to emulate some classic D-50 sounds.