Roland Cloud Review: Let's Talk About These Synths

In keeping with the increasing shift to digital creative tools, Roland has chosen to port its hardware classics into the digital realm with their recent release of Roland Cloud.
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Introduction

When discussing legendary analog synth manufacturers, few names will come up more often than that of Roland, the purveyor of multiple wildly successful releases including the Juno 60 and 106, Jupiter 8, SH-101, 808, and 909—which have made the company an instrumental part of the sound of the last 30 years of recorded music in nearly every major genre from Pop to Hip-Hop.

Although elite producers who can afford hardware continue to lean on the Juno 106 and Roland's other models as much as ever, there's no denying that times have changed and the Pro Audio market has shifted; plugins and digital synths have become the de facto standard in home and project studios worldwide, with many producers achieving mainstream success before ever laying a finger on a true hardware synth.

In keeping with the increasing shift to digital creative tools, Roland has chosen to port its hardware classics into the digital realm with their recent release of Roland Cloud, a subscription-based cloud platform which delivers digital emulations of nearly every major synth Roland has ever made in VST and AU format, enabling their use in every major DAW aside from Pro Tools.

So how do the digital versions match up to their real-world analog counterparts? For the most part, in absolutely stunning detail; Roland Cloud is the most impressive and accurate attempt we've heard to date at bringing the magic of analog gear inside the box, albeit one that's can be limited by an onerous copy protection system. If you can stomach the required copy protection, however, you simply won't find a more powerful, analog-esque sound in the box in 2018.

Setup and First Impressions

First, you'll need to download the standalone Roland Cloud Manager app for Mac/PC from the Roland Cloud website and create a Roland Cloud account—Roland Cloud Manager acts as the unified installer, update, and authorization portal for all cloud products. A Roland Cloud subscription costs $19.99 per month or $215.40 annually (a 10% discount), and you receive permanent ownership of one Roland Cloud plugin for every 12 months you are an active subscriber. There's also a 30-day free trial available so you can try before you buy.

It's impossible to discuss subscription based plugins in 2018 without igniting a fierce debate amongst producers and engineers; some (like myself) feel that subscriptions and cloud-based plugins are desirable, whereas others dislike the idea of not owning a plugin outright. While I don't want to delve too deep into this debate here, I will say I only came to my current viewpoint on subscriptions as preferable after owning many plugins from high-end developers and trying to sell my licenses; in most cases, even plugins from top developers which remained secured via iLok or Syncrosoft (in other words, not devalued by piracy) could only resell for 25-35% of their initial value, making them a truly awful store of value (unlike most hardware). While it seems tempting to picture outright ownership as a right when you fork over $299 or so for a high-end plugin, this is rarely the case in reality; most developers will at some point need to either charge for major updates or roll the product into a new release to keep generating revenue down the road.

Setting up and installing Roland Cloud is easy enough—simply download Roland Cloud Manager, install the plugins you want to use, and fire up your DAW. Unfortunately, things get a bit more difficult here; despite the absolutely brilliant DSP work done by Roland's engineers in developing the Roland Cloud VST and AU plugins, they remain hobbled by a frustrating copy protection scheme. Roland Cloud plugins routinely need an internet connection to maintain authorization; while the Roland Cloud FAQ lists this connection period as once every 7 days, in practice it never felt this long, and it seems that just about every day I need to re-authorize the plugins in the middle of an Ableton Live session. Part of the issue here seems to be that Roland Cloud Manager will not re-authorize plugins in the background, despite being an always-on system extension with its own menu bar drop-down on Mac OS X; plugins must be opened and manually re-authorized every 7 days.

In addition to needing frequent online connections to maintain authorization, the authorization system itself could use some refinement; it does not offer an option to remember your password (Roland Cloud requires you to log in with your registered email and password each time you re-authorize the plugins), and the plugins begin to emit a very irritating digital noise after a few seconds of non-authorization. Once you get past the authorization issues, what's on offer here is absolutely brilliant—truly best in class in the software realm—but it's 2018 and usability is paramount for most working producers and musicians.

While we initially ran into several GUI issues with the initial builds of Roland Cloud (small and unpredictable rotary knobs, blurry synth GUI's), we have to credit the Roland team for their steady stream of updates—the recent May 2018 update has fixed the vast majority of our issues with the software from a design perspective. It does seem that Roland is continuing to invest in their cloud software suite, which is encouraging for prospective buyers.

As frustrating as some of these issues may be, I will be the first to admit that much of my annoyance with the copy protection scheme disappeared once I pressed a few notes on my keyboard; I really cannot stress enough how brilliant these synths sound. They are without equal as of April 2018. If you want the fat, warm, evolving sound of the Juno and Jupiter that you've heard on countless records over the past three decades, you've come to the right place.

In Use

If you're looking for a single synth which has appeared on more records than any other dating back to the late 80's, the Roland Juno 60 (and it's successor, the Juno 106) will probably beat out any challengers; I didn't realize just how many staple sounds that I'd been hearing for decades came from the Juno family until I used one myself for the first time a few years ago. Juno's excel at almost any kind of sound design you throw at them: they're capable of gorgeous synth pads, bright and punchy leads, and absolutely enormous bass sounds—and that's not to mention their stunning Chorus effect, which is often cited as the best chorus mode available in any synth, analog or digital. While much of the tone and 'magic' that comes from hardware boils down to the output stage and what you're sending a hardware synth into (ideally a high-end preamp, DI, or compressor/EQ), the Roland Cloud Juno 106 is as close to anything I've ever heard recreating the magical sound of these hardware units, bar none. The Roland Cloud Juno 106 has, with few exceptions, become my go-to source for bass sounds in every mix I've done in 2018, and frankly most other software synths sound weak next to it; sending the 106 signal out of Ableton Live, into my Moog Ladder Filter 500 series units, and back in through my UAD Apollo's Unison Preamps (typically using the UAD Neve 1073 Unison Preamp with a healthy amount of drive) sounds spot on and just like the real thing.

The Roland Jupiter 8, while not quite as ubiquitous as the Juno 106, is nevertheless a staple of countless hit records spanning the 1980's to today; featuring 8 voices of powerful true analog polyphony, the Jupiter is an absolute beast for epic chord leads, pads, and just about any other synth sound you can dream up. Roland has done a similarly stellar job recreating the sound of the Jupiter, which has found its way into nearly every track I've made since I started testing Roland Cloud. Something important to understand here is that these are not digital adaptations of legendary synths—there aren't additional features, knobs (aside from the Aging and Tuning knobs which emulate various states of maintenance), or sliders—only what was there on the real thing.

As legendary as both the Juno and Jupiter synths are, the Roland name will forever be synonymous with two iconic drum machines that have quite literally defined the sound of House, Hip-Hop, and Pop music; the 808 and 909. Roland recently unveiled its exclusive digital recreations of these legendary machines as part of the Roland Cloud 1.4 Update released earlier in 2018. While many competitors have tried to emulate the famed sound of these two hardware pieces, we trust Roland to do it better than anyone else; we talked to some of the Roland team at NAMM in January and were thrilled to hear that some of the same engineers who worked on the original hardware units (same for the Juno and Jupiter) were involved in the coding and development of Roland Cloud.

Roland's intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the 808 and 909 is on full display in both of their Roland Cloud recreations; these are the fattest, punchiest, most authentic 808 and 909 plugins I've ever tried. If you've been relying on the same tired sample pack of 808 WAV one-shots, we highly recommend you give Roland Cloud's 808 a try—there's no substitute for the amount of tweak-ability these plugins can offer. While some of the same UI issues are present in the 808 and 909 emulations, they simply sound too good to pass up in my opinion.

Roland Cloud continues to grow even as this review heads for publication, with spot-on emulations of the D-50, JV-1080, and other iconic Roland instruments recently added to the library. We'd recommend you give them all a try, as an individual breakdown of each is beyond the scope of this review; expect to pleasantly surprised, as I was with the JV-1080—having never used the hardware piece, I had underestimated the utility of many of its built-in sounds for both Electronic and Hip-Hop music.

We've already given ample attention to Roland Cloud's shortcomings, and we'd highly recommend you try the 30-day free trial before subscribing so you can see if the software fits into your workflow. Having met the Roland team in person, I don't doubt they have a high degree of commitment to making the Roland Cloud product better over time, and I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they will get some of these initial growing pains sorted out. If they can, they will have what in my mind is an unbeatable creative tool for Electronic and Hip-Hop producers, with sound quality and analog vibe that surpass anything we've heard in the box to date.

In Conclusion/Recommended For

We'd recommend Roland Cloud to any producer looking to get a piece of the legendary Roland analog sound, albeit with some workflow elements that could be improved; it's impossible to overstate just how good these synths sound. If you're willing to embrace the subscription model (there is no outright purchase option available) and some copy protection inconveniences, you will be rewarded with a level of sound quality that's unmatched by other software options.

8.5/10

Pros

  • The most convincing analog sound we've heard in the box.
  • Spot-on recreations of the Juno, Jupiter, 808, 909, and more.
  • Easy updates via Roland Cloud Manager

Cons

  • Roland Cloud manager is always on
  • Authorization is inconvenient

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