Roland Cloud and Zenology prices compared

Zenology is a new plugin from Roland, part of Roland Cloud 2.5 – it’s pretty impressive…

After what feels like a year of incremental updates, and no progress on what Roland Cloud will offer previous Content Store customers, May 2020’s big update reveals some hope for the plugin collection.

Roland Cloud is, depending on your point of view, amazing value or a rather flaky collection of things that’s a little less polished than other plugin collections, but it is undeniably big. You have a choice of legendary, modern and sampled instruments – and many of the plugins are running the same ‘code’ as the Boutique and AIRA hardware synths use in the case of ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) or DCB (Digital… you get the idea) plugins.

Or, plug-outs – the VSTs/AUs are the same synth engines you can push to the System-1, System-1m and System-8; and yes, you get a virtual System-8 in the package – a £1,000 modern synthesizer.

Cloud 2.5 introduces new subscription levels and a new plugin – Zenology – that makes Roland’s sounds easier – and cheaper – than ever.

Good news for Roland Cloud customers!

What’s new in Roland Cloud 2.5

  • Lifetime subscription options for single plugins
  • Zenology software synth using ZEN-Core engine
  • In-app management of libraries for hardware
  • Refreshed user interface, new subsciption models

This is a really big update of Roland Cloud – much, much larger than implied by going from 2.4-something to 2.5. You can find out more and get a trial on Roland’s Cloud website.

For starters, there are now three levels of subscription. Core is $2.99/month or $29.99/year, Pro is $9.99 or $99.99, and Ultimate is aligned with existing Roland Cloud memberships at $19.99/month or $199.99 per year.

What happens to the previous loyalty programme here isn’t exactly clear, but then, the relationship between Roland Cloud’s ‘planned things’ and reality does seem to be a little elastic. I’m hopeful that now lifetime licences and licence keys have been added to the mix, old Content Store plugins will be permanently enabled for Cloud owners.

Roland Cloud price plans – May 2020

  • Free – just create a Roland Cloud membership. You get Zenology Lite, with the ability to use paid-licensed sound banks and patches, and an included 176 tones and 6 drum kits.
  • Core gives you 3,567 ZEN-Core tones (including Zen versions of SRX libraries, in essence) and 80 drum kits, library management. Zenology user data can be saved, and it includes a 30-day trial of Ultimate.
  • Pro gives you the Anthology, Flavr, Tera and Drum Studio plugins, Zenology Pro, patches and patterns, plus the Roland D-50 and TR-808 plugins.
  • Ultimate gives you everything. At least on your computer – the plug-out synths continue to plug-out to your compatible hardware, but the Zenology sample or patch libraries (seemingly $19.99 or $0.99 each respectively) need a lifetime licence to be shunted to hardware.

Lifetime subscriptions are perhaps, the most requested feature from long-time Cloud users, and the most obvious functional change for existing customers is a new library of ZEN-Core sounds – Fantom/Jupiter X patch banks – that are affordable to get on a lifetime licence, and continue to be playable with a ‘lite’ version of Zenology even if you’re not subscribing, apparently.

Synthwave bank for Roland synths and Zenology

The lifetime keys for patch libraries aren’t expensive; if you have the hardware to use the sounds on they’re necessary though even with a subscription, otherwise they’re restricted to the Zenology player.

Owners of the hardware will, undoubtedly, be looking forward to a more advanced editor, and Zenology Pro is expected to follow soon and add that functionality, as well as the scope to construct your own synthesizer patches using PCM, VA or modeled behaviours.

Zenology – 21st Century synth engine

Zenology is the big news, and it’s offered with 15 EXZ wave expansions, over 3,500 patches and essentially “the bulk of the JV/XV/SRX waveforms and sounds” for $29/year (or $2.99/month). It’s the sound engine found in the Jupter X, Fantom and RD-88 pianos, the core of Roland’s current strategy, and it’s really very good.

Regular Roland Cloud users will know that Roland’s circuit-accurate modeling is processor-intensive. ACB and DCB plugins can really hammer the Cubase ‘processor load’ bar even when idling, and on a typical laptop or ‘mature’ home studio setup you can really tell if you’ve got one loaded. My 2013 i5 iMac isn’t ‘slow’, but the System 8, D-50 and Jupter plugins consume up to a third of the processing power before any effects.

Roland Cloud Zenology sound pad

The ZEN-Core, and Zenology synth engine, is Roland’s answer. It models some aspects, and is more efficient, it allows the Jupiter Xm to be portable and battery-friendly; it allows modeled synth components to be shared between similar generations of Roland hardware even if one’s a stage piano and the other an over-the-top studio synth; rather than ACB, a more efficient approach, Analog Behavior Modeling, is used where appropriate. There’s some old thinking – emulations, PCM samples, and the familiar four-partials per patch (sorry, ‘Tone’) theory; it’s a soup-of-synthesis.

Core users get a very pleasing library of over 3,500 sounds to choose from – a quick scroll through the library shows a broad spectrum of classic and modern patches and a fast, responsive player that, while it can really push the processor loading when polyphony and effects are in play, settles down quickly. It’s a decent size of download, over 400Mb, but expansions are lightweight.

You’ll find the staples: Jupiter strings, SH-101 bleeps and yelps (and bass), D-50 lushness and bright tones without having to load the chunky retro ‘plug-out’ plugins, and there are the usual music-shop showroom jawdroppers that you know are too big for any complex composition, but help the keyboards win new owners day-in, day-out.

A drumkit in Zenology

Explore the library and you’ll find some amazing new sounds as well as the JV/XV staples; polyrhythmic sequencers, complex vocal/synth/bass interactions, orchestral staples. Given ZEN-Core’s origins, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this is a hefty-but-hardware-originated workstation’s engine without the multitimbrality or sequencing.

With so many sounds to browse, there’s a favourites and category system. It’s not as integrated or as sophisticated as Arturia’s Analog Lab, but it’s a world apart from the pop-up preset menus of most of Roland’s plugins.

Zenology patch browser

That’s actually not such a big deal. One of the most appealing aspects of Zenology is also one of its most infuriating; it sort of renders most of your favourite Cloud plugins obsolete by offering a quick set of similar-but-more-efficient versions of the same essential patch, with a faster browser and favourites, too.

Zen library for Jupter or Fantom - or Zenology

It’s also a LOT more efficient than the old setup (which is still part of Cloud, more near the end of the article). It’s roughly 400Mb, and that is both VST and AU versions; the internal waveform library is very roughly, 150Mb and each expansion (there are 15) around 80Mb – but only downloaded once.

To buy a lifetime licence for all the Zenology items (except, maybe, the presets included in Core and not Lite) would be $299, and those libraries are usable on the Jupiter X and RD-88 when bought.

Zenology – effect-ive multi-FX

After a few years, you forget that the moment your cheap first analogue synth really came alive was when you chained some reverb and delay to it – and so many modern synths since come with that built in that you take it for granted, or hoover-up VST effects like candy.

Zenology’s MFX tab reveals 11 post-processing categories, each filled with modern or modeled filters, phasers and effects. The final option is for some classic combinations – overdrive, amp sims, chorus+delay and so forth.

In fact, Zenology and a Core subscription is probably all most users need (or buy the lifetime licences for the patches you want). It’s a really nice, modern, unpretentious synth engine and ready to tackle any genre, like a truly modern JV-1080. Except, you can’t create your own tones and partials, yet. When you can, it will offer something akin to an updated XV with a new UI, rather than the forced-retronesss of the existing plugin.

My instinct here, as I watch the genuine analog(ue) simulated noise fade off on the SH-101 plugin, is that ACB/DCB goes too far for the vast majority of users. It’s accurate, but it’s simulating stuff that people without golden ears won’t miss, and that people with golden ears spend years perfecting techniques to eradicate – on the offchance that this was the mojo that made an analogue synth better than a VST.

Honestly, the people that care are now an older generation. Every generation of new musicians starts out accepting the sound of the instruments they have and gets creative, whether that’s a basswood cheap guitar, a Bontempi organ or a Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator.

We miss our analogue synths because it’s what we knew, what the bands we idolise play – but if those bands could have had noise-free, cheap, predictable instruments I suspect they, and their sound engineers, would have been over the moon. Zenology’s pretty damn cool.

The Legendary synthesizers in Roland Cloud

These modeled plugins are the reason to subscribe to Ultimate – they’re accurate, and while I’m sure there’s a load of nerdy caveats to throw in to the statement, they’re basically what you’re buying if you pick up the Boutique modern synthesizers or have got a System-8/1 with plug-outs loaded. Given they come straight from Roland, rather than being ‘close emulations’ from third-party developers, they’re not unreasonably priced as standalone models for the most part, either.

Analogue

  • Jupiter 8 – 1981 polyphonic analogue legend, basically. Eight-voice, plug-out to System-8, ACB modeled – $149
  • Juno 106 – 1984 six-voice polyphonic analogue classic, ACB modeled eight-voice plugin with plug-out to System-8 – $149
  • JX-3P – 1983, same engine as GR700 guitar synth, six-voice digital/analogue. Closely related to Juno. Eight-voice ACB modeled, Plug-out to System-8. $129
  • TB-303 – 1982, analogue squawkbox. Bass-line sequencer/synth that failed, then defined a genre long after production ended. Hardware mapped to TB-03 and TB-3. $149. Yes. Really.
  • Promars – analogue beast, monophonic dual VCO, dual-sub osc for bass from the deep. Modeled and rather lovely plug-out for System-1/1m and 8. $99 and worth every cent.
  • SH-101 – 1982, and it’s amazing what you can get out of one oscillator. Shame they forgot the step-sequencer – plug-out for System-1/1m as well, the first ACB synth. $99
  • SH-2 – 1978, two oscillators, one sub-oscillator, ACB modeled System-1/1m and System-8 plug-out. $99
  • System 100 – 1975, a semi-modular monophonic analogue, modeled and aimed at the System-1m originally. Plug-out for System 1/1m and 8 – $129

Digital

  • D-50 – 1987 polyphonic digital (LA-synthesis) synthesizer. Sample+Synth, distinctive and not readily available elsewhere. DCB modeled – $149 – included with ‘Pro’ subscription
  • JV-1080 – 1994 studio workhorse sample+synthsis machine, modeled but essentially a sample-playback box. $129. Though it is also, preset names aside, pretty much the XV-5080 plugin with a different skin, and technically not an accurate JV-1080…
  • XV-5080 – 2000 evolved JV-1080. Well-worn library, but new musicians will find it a well-trodden path, too. SRX expansions are XV-5080 based. $129
  • Sound Canvas VA. General MIDI on steroids. $69

Drum machines

  • TR-808 – 1980 genuinely legendary analogue drum machine, modeled. $149 – included with ‘Pro’ subscription
  • TR-909 – 1983 slightly-less-legendary PCM sample plus analogue drum machine, modeled – $149

AIRA synth engines in Roland Cloud

  • System-1 – the four-voice polyphonic virtual analogue built on ACB technology, and the first plug-out synth hardware, $99
  • System-8 – impressive eight-voice polyphonic virtual analogue. The hardware supports the larger plug-outs such as Jupiter 8, but it’s a decent synth engine in its own right. $129

When Roland released the concept of ACB and the distinctive green-and-black AIRA series, the System-1’s ability to emulate an SH-101, SH-2 or Promars in hardware, no computers needed, was very novel and very welcome.

Now there are real analogue recreations of some of those, and cheap ones at that, it’s less of a USP – but the System-1 is a 21st-century synth, and the plug-in has plenty to offer for $99. You can import presets and it benefits from the same additional waveforms added to the System 1 after launch, because it’s pretty much the same instrument sans hardware.

The real bargain has to be the System-8 plugin, though, at $129. This one is worth having, a powerful virtual analogue in essence, and one that holds its own as hardware in 2020. Much of the hardware’s appeal is in the emulations, but that means the System-8’s native sound is far too readily overlooked. It’s got huge potential for almost any electronic genre.

Remember that though much of the aesthetic has been lost, the System-8 is the spiritual successor to the JP-8000 – a legend Roland has yet to reanimate in zombie software form.

Roland Plugin value

Buying a lifetime licence for a plugin varies depending on the instrument. Most Roland classics have been emulated (or cloned) elsewhere, or are sufficiently generic-analog that a good softsynth like u-He Diva can do anything they can do and more, but the Roland D-50 stands alone – and is $149 to buy outright, essentially putting the code of the D-05 boutique on your computer.

Most of the plugins vary in price according to complexity and power, but the TB-303 is up there with the Jupiter 8 and D-50…

A virtual 303. $149. Do you buy the plugin TB-303, download a free squarewave filtered squelch-noise sequencer that sounds like a 303, get an established third-party 303 plugin like AudioRealism ABL3, or buy a Behringer TD-3? I’m not sure Roland’s really been listening to users (or considering the wider market) entirely here…

303s aside, much of the modeled line-up for Roland Cloud really does justify the ‘Legendary’ title. Most of them are competitively priced, and the appeal of a D-50 or Jupiter 8 with accurate circuit-level modeling is pretty strong for $149; simpler instruments, such as the SH-101, cost less.

You should think very hard if you’re tempted by the XV5080, JV1080 or SRX plugins as a lifetime purchase though, particularly with Zenology’s refinements and extensive library – . More on that later…

Subscribing to Ultimate gets you all of these instruments – and you’d be subscribing for a decade to buy them all outright. If the loyalty programme does remain, Roland used to give a lifetime licence for one plugin of your choice for every full year of subscription.

Pro subscription: the legendary synths NOT emulated in Roland Cloud

  • Roland Alpha Juno – Anthology 1985
  • Roland JX-8P/SuperJX 10/MKS-70 – Anthology 1986
  • Roland D-50 – Anthology 1987 (why? There’s a plugin. It’s not 2.26Gb)
  • Roland D70 – Anthology 1990
  • Roland JD-800/990 – Anthology 1993 Vol 1/2/3
  • Roland JV-80 orchestral expansion – Anthology Orchestra 1/2/3/4
  • EP14 – electric piano, a small download but covered nicely in Zenology
  • A deep-sampled Grand Piano, a 70 year old guitar, and some acoustic drums…

A few of Roland’s most memorable keyboards slip through the cracks here – but they’re in the Anthology sample player instead. Given the appeal of instruments like the JD-800 was in the expansive control hardware, not the rompler-with-teeth sound engine that in computer terms, has long been surpassed, it’s understandable.But hey. Nostalgia…

Anthology is a big download of multisampled classics, but there’s no lifetime licence for it yet. It’s part of the Pro subscription, which will also introduce the ability to create patches from the ZEN-Core library and includes the 808 and D-50 plugins as well.

Yes, they are basically samples of synths playing samples by the time you’re into 1987-onwards – and the basic sound of most of those synths is on offer in plugins. Confused? I am…

Pro subscribers also get the Drum Studio/Acoustic One system, which is a good solid ‘real’ drumkit for your DAW, the weirdly chunky FLAVR system of ‘themed’ genre sounds, the Tera piano and Guitar (not, as the name suggests, a terabyte library, but at 2.0Gb enough to sit with the likes of The Grand).

Further expansions: SRX and ‘meet the hardware’

Staying up to date is pretty easy here – Zenology’s ZEN-Core ‘program’ is in essence what you get when you buy an up-to-date modern Roland synthesizer – specifically, the Jupiter X/m, the Fantom 6/7/8 or the RD-88 stage piano.

There’s a bit of old-school cool too, in the shape of SRX expansions. These reflect the boards we used to pay a fair bit for (or hoped to find in used synths) and until Cloud came along, were sought-after (or forgotten) even though they were just another set of PCM samples. Things aren’t entirely as they seem, though…

  • Roland JV-1080 includes all the waveforms of XV-5080 with fewer presets, and 78 effects
  • Roland XV-5080 has a full set of waveforms and presets, and 78 effects
  • SRX expansions have a full set of XV waveforms, the SRX waveforms, and 78 effects, with just the SRX card presets

The SRX synthesizers are, in essence, the XV-5080 plugin with a given expansion library included. The graphics are different with relocated buttons, and the XV includes four direct controls for cutoff, resonance, attack and decay – but the edit screen is the same with the addition of the ‘Wave Group’ menu to select the internal sounds instead of the SRX expansion sounds. This is necessary – a lot of SRX or SR-JV patches used both internal and expansion waveforms.

You can save patches you’ve created, but preset banks from the XV or JV won’t load in SRX plugins… guess there must be something to identify which plugin the preset is for in the preset file…

Roland JV1080, XV5080 and SRX are the same basic plugin...

For nostalgia-freaks, these expansions are now $69 each, no searching on eBay and wondering if the seller’s wrapped them in static-cling while playing with a Tesla coil in their nylon PJs.

Does it need pointing out that the full Zenology library probably includes a fair number of reworked versions of these samples, in true LA/JV/XP/XV lineage-style?

Don’t buy the Roland XV-5080/JV-1080 or SRX plugins!

If you weren’t paying attention and just – reasonably – wanted to buy the classic Roland synths, you could end up paying 10x $69 for the SRX expansion cards, $129 for the JV-1080 because ‘1994 sounds’ and $129 for the XV-5080. That’s $948 to buy the same plugin code 12x over, and 12x the installation footprint for it too as each SRX is a whole new plugin.

Whereas the new expansions for Zenology are $19.99 ($299 to buy all 15)… and work in your hardware too…

Zenology essentially renders the virtual XV-5080, JV-1080 and SRX boards obsolete; as a reviewer, I really recommend that you don’t pay money for these plugins – and if you must, just buy the SRX with the presets you want most of all, as you’ve got access to all the JV/XV waveforms in it for almost half the expense.

Unless you specifically want a sound from a particular SRX and can’t find it in Zenology, I wouldn’t even download them as part of Ultimate subscription now – just get Zenology and the expansions, it’s faster to browse, has an easier-to-read, more efficient UI and different effects.

Zenology plus Vintage Synth, or SRX strings?

Expansions for Fantom, Jupiter X/m and RD-88

The hardware synths benefit from an easier way of getting expansions too, and they’re $19.99. Fantom owners seem to have access to them all with the subscription. Unlike the sound libraries, the $0.99 sound packs usually have around 30 new patches and a drum kit without any need for extra samples/models, and they’re a diverse set. You only need to pay for them if you want to use them on the hardware – they’re already included in Zenology.

What’s missing?

We’ve got… *counts on fingers* one… two… three… several… many…

We’ve got a LOT of sounds in Roland Cloud. Sixteen accurately-modeled classic instruments (and a comprehensive set of once-expensive expansion boards), plus gigabytes of samples of more old-school and modern instruments alike. They’re all nice and self-contained in their little modules.

What we haven’t got, even though Zenology makes more of a noise about it, is a set of iconic plugin Roland effects. It seems likely that this will be coming soon, given the new ZEN-Core-centric paradigm.

Oh, and Zenology Pro isn’t here yet. Just some tantalising icons hinting at multiple models and synth-building wonderment.

Roland Cloud – worth it.

Roland’s 2.5 update is a big deal, and it feels like the Roland Cloud concept and offering has matured – though there’s still a long way to go in terms of app/manager stability and polish, Zenology shows where the thinking is going (in terms of hardware and software integration) and it’s very promising, very Roland-of-the-early-90s rather than the slightly confusing 21st-century era of machines like the Jupiter 80.

Zenology is the star of the show now. It’s enough to make you question why you want all those lumpy old SRX plugins (oh, yeah. I wanted the real things and can’t have them…). For $29 a year, it’s a bit of a steal – and users now have the choice to buy lifetime licences for the excellent synth plugins if they don’t want to pay $19.99/month.