Perfect Keys for Blues/Rock/Funk
This is the keyboard I'd been waiting for for a very long time. It's a solid workhorse with all the basics a gigging keyboardist needs, right on top and close at hand. The dedicated organ, piano and synth sections make it easy to find the right sound at the right time, without digging through menus. If you play primarily organ and piano, especially blues, funk and rock, this may be the ideal board for you.
The organ section is top notch, and the drawbars make it really easy to dial in the perfect sound. The rotary simulation is awesome. One feature I really appreciate is that the slow/fast rotary switch can be routed to a pedal. Everything you need is right at your fingertips (or toetips). I have just one organ sound saved to registration that I use as a starting point. When I need something different, I simply dial in what I want, on the fly. It's amazingly easy.
I happen to love Roland piano patches, and this unit includes some of their best. My favorite is "GrandPianoV2", but I find I use "Rock Piano" a lot for uptempo blues and rock, as it really cuts through the mix. A few tweaks of the effects knobs can easily tailor the sound to fit any situation. The tone knob is a dream come true for getting just the right sound in a live setting. The electric pianos ("Vintage EP" for Rhodes, and "'60s E.Piano" for Wurly) are full-bodied and responsive. I like to add a little grit with just a tiny twist of overdrive. The clavinets especially benefit from a bit of EQ and FX. Try "Clav 1" with a dash of OD and compression for that "Trampled Under Foot" sound.
The synth section is designed for quick access to the best bread & butter sounds. The trade-off is that it's not as deep as a dedicated synth, like a Juno. There aren't hundreds of patches to scroll through. But you'll find mostly solid, useful sounds (with few exceptions). The strings and pads are excellent, as are many of the synth leads. There's a good variety of brass sections (I like "80's Brs 1"). Overall, I'm very pleased with Roland's selection of sounds here, however limited.
The magic of the VR-09 really happens when you put it all together. It's amazingly easy to split or layer sounds to instantly create lush, powerful combinations. Want to layer strings under your piano lead? Hold down the "piano" button and tap the "strings" button. Done. Wait, want to split them instead? Tap split. Done. Want to change the split point? Hold "split" and tap the note where you want the split. Done. It's a joy having so much versatility instantly available when inspiration strikes.
This brings me, however, to the VR-09's limitations.
When I got this keyboard, I was in a jam band that performed mostly blues, rock and funk. What I needed were meat-and-potato sounds, easily accessible. The VR-09 delivered in spades. We often take songs in unexpected directions, and the nimble versatility of the VR-09 makes it perfect for that situation. All the basics are right at my fingertips, so it's a snap to flow from song to song on the fly. It's the keyboard I'd always wanted, and the price was right.
Since then, however, I joined a second band that covers a lot of 80's and classic rock. Because that music is extremely synth-oriented, I found the VR-09 somewhat lacking in certain respects. The first issue I had is that it's limited to only one split or layer, for a total of two combined voices. One split doesn't cut it for the more produced tunes so prevalent in the 80's. Since the arrangements are tighter, there isn't as much need for improvised sound changes. I really needed something with more splits/layers and a wider variety of sounds, as well as an arpeggiator (curiously missing from the VR-09). If I had known I'd ever be playing in this kind of band, I might have opted for the Juno.
The VR-09 does have a few tricks, however, that have helped me adapt. One is the ability to create completely new sounds by connecting an iPad and using the VR-09 editor app. This allows you to get into the nitty gritty of synth tone production, saving your creations in user registration banks. Synth editing has a steep learning curve, but virtually any sound you can dream of can be produced. There are a couple "gotchas" worth mentioning. There's no straightforward way to save your tones, other than putting them in user banks. And once saved, it can get a little weird trying to use them in splits or layers. I've had to completely recreate a couple sounds to get them to sit where I wanted in splits. Not fun, but at least it's done (and safely backed up to USB flash memory). And of course, you must have an iPad to be able to do this. Gotchas aside, the power of being able to deeply edit tones like this should not be underestimated. Each sound has three oscillators, making some pretty complex tones possible. If you know what you need, and how to program it...there's no limit to what you can create.
Another very useful trick is the MFX (multi-effects) knob. This is basically a "catch all" control for whatever special effect you have loaded at the moment. Some of the effects include the basics like chorus, flange, tremolo and wah. Others can make creating the "right" sound surprisingly easy. For example, you can add a quick and easy sweep effect to strings or brass with "Small Phaser 2". Although lacking an arpeggiator, there's an effect called "Step Phaser" that can produce a somewhat similar effect. "Slicer" is like tremolo on steroids, making it a snap to recreate that "Won't Get Fooled Again" effect. Both of those can use tap tempo, so locking with the rest of the band is as easy as tapping your finger. The one shortcoming here is that you can only have one MFX loaded at a time. But since delay, reverb, OD, etc. are all on separate knobs, this isn't as limiting as it may sound.
There are a couple less obvious features I've found noteworthy. If you connect an external MIDI controller, you can choose to control either the VR-09's core sounds, or a built in GM bank. I haven't spent a lot of time auditioning the GM sounds, but they're all solid Roland quality. The GM synth is separate from the VR-09 tone banks, so this gives the instrument another possible level of application.
Secondly, the VR-09 can, itself, be used as a MIDI controller. I'm considering attaching an external synth for additional layering of tones. From what I've read, I wouldn't choose the VR-09 if all I needed was a MIDI controller. There are better options for that. But it's great to have the ability available, when I want it.
Overall, I have no regrets about choosing the Roland VR-09. Even though my situation has changed somewhat, I would have a very hard time parting with the VR-09 for its quick and easy versatility, and solid workhorse tones. If I had to choose just one keyboard to take to a jam, this would be it. No contest. It probably wouldn't be my first choice for heavily synth-oriented music, but when it comes to blues, funk, and good old rock and roll...the VR-09 has everything I need, and then some.