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RSG: Synthesizing a new vision

Roland Systems Group is building a portfolio of audio and video products that could find a home in broadcast, live and installation segments. RSG’s Peter Heath talks positioning and protocols with PSNEurope.

While Roland US attends the NAB show this year, Roland Systems Group will be found setting up stall in Hall 8.0 at the Frankfurt Messe. In fact, you could find a team from the Roland Corporation at any number of trade events these days; and it makes it by turns equally easy, or difficult, to place them in any one specific segment of this magazine.
Peter Heath (pictured), RSG sales and director at Roland UK, is particularly keen to point out where his company is positioned on the eve of these two important international expos. Let’s start with the branding then.

“We needed to find a common brand to go to market, and there were too many names – RSS, Edirol, RSG and Roland instruments,” says Heath. The RSS and Edirol were quietly discarded in January 2010, therefore, leaving just Roland Systems Group (RSG) for pro-audio/video equipment, and the classic Roland brand for everything else: instruments, synthesizers, virtual accordions (if that’s your thing). “I’m glad we made the changes,” he says.
RSG is a “huge part” of what Roland does, in terms of R&D and the future of the corporation; certainly, says, Heath if you compare the products being launched by RSG with the number of traditional music product debuts.
“Over the last months there’s been a flurry of video products – the V-40HD mixer/switcher and V-4EX mixer for instance – that have really hit the nail on the head, in terms of looking at the market, seeing what our competitors are doing, and finding an individual area where we can sell volume and provide solutions for people,” he remarks. “That’s been critically quite different to video products we’ve had in the past.
“The pro-audio and pro-video market sectors are driven by hardware – and because Roland Corporation is [principally] a hardware company, it makes perfect sense for us to be there, and to enhance the user’s experience and, hopefully, performance,” he adds. The marketplace for musical instruments is fairly flat for Roland says Heath, as the company doesn’t make acoustic instruments. But, he adds: “If you look at live performance… there’s an audio and a visual aspect. Roland founder, Mr Kakehashi, was always saying you can’t have one without the other, in order to provide the consumer with the full package. That’s why, to my knowledge, we’re the only company that comes to the market with a fairly comprehensive range of audio and video products.”
The M200i (pictured), launched just before Xmas, is the latest addition to the V-Mixing console line, and marks the first time Roland has ventured into iPad control. This will be one of RSG’s key showcases in Frankfurt. Of the M series of desks, Heath says: “To create a platform where musicians, and the people who support the music, can go out there with a small console, but still have all the integrity of a larger console, means they can go to a mixture of venues and do their thing.
“Live music has always been important, but these days it’s more important to the songwriter and the band – not just the ‘artist’ ­– because that’s the way they earn and make their money.”
Compact mixing is the theme here, and RSG has made a concerted effort to inform engineers as such. It’s a battle, though: “For us and other manufacturers,” acknowledges Heath. “Small can be as equally beautiful and functional as the big stuff”.
RSG devices have made a notable impression in the church and theatre market – but, it could be argued, touring systems are more rare. 
“Installations, yes,” agrees Heath. “The touring market is a harder one to crack, because there are many competitors and they tend to be larger format, while our largest desk is the 24-fader M-480. Some would argue that’s enough. But for [many] engineers, they want desks that have a longer heritage, or have more faders. Having said that, we’ve done an awful lot of events with M-480 or M-400 desks and digital snakes without any issues. But that’s with a newer generation of engineers… The older engineers want to stick to the things they know and like.”

… Which brings Roland full circle, he suggests. “…Because there are thousands of consoles out there that would benefit from the Digital Snake. So we will tell our Digital Snake story [still], because it’s still a valid.”
But while Heath and his RSG team extol the virtues of compact mixing, the ‘small footprint’ path is not the only way ahead. “We need the small, compact desks, but we need something different to what we have as flagship, that embraces feedback from the market…”
And that’s all he’ll say on the matter. But there’s another key point of understanding to conclude the interview. “We are a systems provider,” says Heath. “Installations into HoWs, for instance, where there is infrastructure for audio, we can fulfil that. We’re not a console manufacturer: we are ‘systems based’.”
From that humble Digital Snake, launched in 2006, RSG has indeed been able to build systems for users: consoles, personal monitoring, a dedicated high-spec recorder. But the real key, Heath emphasises, is REAC, or the Roland Ethernet Audio Communication technology: a point-to-point 24-bit/96kHz, low-latency digital audio transport for live sound use and commercial applications.
“When we came to the market, we were very well specified. And I still think REAC is ‘out there’ in terms of what it can do and how the musician can control it, or how they can release the engineer to control it. The R-1000 recorder, that was another niche for us because there weren’t many others [recorders] around with the functionality. And because it was all connected via REAC, we could add any functionality, because of our own protocol.”
But REAC has not been embraced by the wider community… in an era where users are seeking interoperability, that can’t be a good thing, can it?
“Here’s something different,” he suggests. “When Roland [with Sequential Circuits] invented MIDI, we gave it to everyone. The same as V-Link. With REAC, that wasn’t one to give away; and we weren’t in a position to license and sell it. Now, what it did, REAC set up a whole catalogue of people saying, so you can have a high-performing low-cost solution, maybe we need to think about that.”
Although RSG has the MADI Bridge – developed principally for control of the M-48 PM system – it has not signed up to be a partner with AVB, Dante or any other networking technology.
“What I can tell you is this,” reveals Heath. “There are new audio products [on the way], a different generation [of RSG products], of course they will still have REAC, but they will offer an openness that hasn’t been there before. “There is an acknowledgement, whichever protocol you are using, you need the ability to talk to other protocols seamlessly,” he states. “And I think we understand that now.”

Story: Dave Robinson