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Roland U-220 Rack Mount Sound Module (1989)
Review and Description
Roland U-220 Rack Mount Sound Module (1989) - Review and Description

Buying a Used Roland U-220

When buying a used Roland U-220 don't get carried away in a bidding war. Though these are still useful devices, the available tones are not nearly as good as what you will get on modern equipment. There are better value devices out there in terms of the number of available tones, number of simultaneous voices and general flexibility (like the XV3080).

If you are paying more than AUD $150 to $200 for a U220, then you are paying too much!

I would just add that at an upper price of AUD $200, the U-220 would want to be in very good condition. Quite a few U-220s offered for sale are really beaten up ex-hire units that realistically shouldn't fetch more than AUD $80 at best.

Shipping a U220 is also rather costly as these are a large item (single DIN 19" rackmount) with a weight just shy of 4.5 kg (nearly 10 lbs).

The considerable weight means that this unit needs to be packed really well for transport or the front plate will quite likely arrive bent well and truly out of shape (speaking from experience).

Roland U-220 RS-PCM Specifications

Sound Generator
  RS-PCM type
    (ReSynthesized PCM)
16 bit
4MB of ROM
2 Demo Songs
Rhythm Setups
128 Tones / Voices (Preset)
128 Timbres (Editable)
64 Patches (Editable)
4 (B2 to C7, 61 notes)
Multitimbral Parts
30 Notes / Voices
6 + Rhythm
DSP Chorus x 3
   Flanger / Short Delay
    Room / Hall / Delay
Output impedance: 1.2 kΩ
Front Panel
Controls VOLUME control knob
PART / INST <> buttons, CURSOR <> buttons
VALUE <> buttons
EXIT button, ENTER button, EDIT (REVERB) button
DATA (CHORUS) button, JUMP button, MARK button
PCM CARD Slots 2
PHONES Jack 6mm (1/4") Stereo
Phone Socket
MIDI MESSAGE Indicator Green LED (above Power Switch)
Flashes with Data Exchange
POWER Switch Push On/Off
Display 24 character, 21 Line LCD with backlight
Rear Panel  
MIDI Connectors Standard MIDI
Audio Output Terminals (6) MIX OUT L (Mono) / R
Power Consumption 20 Watts
Supply Voltage AC - 117V / 220V / 240V
Memory Battery Lithium CR2032
(Standard PC Battery)
5 years expected battery life
Physical Specs
Weight: 4.4 kg (9 lb 11 oz)
Dimensions: Width: 482mm (19")
Depth: 358mm (14-1/8")
Height: 45mm (1-3/4")
EIA - 1 U rack mount type
Originally Included Items:
  1 x Audio cable (2.5m)
  1 x MIDI cable (1m)
  Owner's manual
  Factory Settings
The Included MIDI cable Is for MIDI only.
It cannot be used for DIN SYNC or Audio.
Optional Items / Accessories:
  Sound Library
SN-U120 series
  Stereo headphone RH-100
  Audio cable PJ-t M
  MIDI / SYNC cable

Factory Preset Patch List
01 Acoust Piano 33 Soft Trumpet
02 Chorus Piano 34 Tromborn
03 E.Piano 35 Brass Section
04 Bright EP 36 Saxophone
05 Vibraphone 37 JP8.Brass
06 Marimba 38 Power Brass
07 Bell 39 Flute
08 Fanta Bell 40 Shakuhachi
09 A.Guitar 41 Fantasia
10 E.Guitar 42 Calliope
11 Heavy Guitar 43 Soundtrack
12 E.Organ 1 44 Atmosphere
13 E.Organ 3 45 Future Pad
14 E.Organ 7 46 Pomona
15 E.Organ 9 47 Melodigan
16 Mad Organ 48 Photogene
17 Strings 49 Endymion
18 Syn.Strings 50 Prelusion
19 JP8.Strings 51 Jupiters
20 Choir 52 Selene
21 Syn.Vox 1 53 Sacred Tree
22 Syn.Vox 2 54 Macho Lead
23 Syn.Choir 1 55 Lunar Lead
24 Syn.Choir 2 56 Harmonic Lead
25 Flanging Slap 57 Native Dance
26 Fretless Bass 58 Percs Hit
27 Synth Bass 7 59 Velo Combi
28 SynB-Bell Pad 60 Split Combi
29 A.Bass-PIano 61 Rotor Craft
30 Singing Piano 62 Emergency
31 Splits 63 Deepsea
32 Velo Trumpet 64 Catastrophe
Factory Preset Drum Sets
R-1 Standard Set R-3 Electric Set
R-2 Dry Set R-4 F.X. Set

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The 19" rack mount Roland U-220 RS-PCM Sound Module is derived from the Roland U-20 Keyboard  External Link , first released in 1989. The U-220 is also described by Roland as a "Multi-Timbral Synthesizer Module". The RS in the model name stands for Re-Synthesized, as the synthesizer engine can play back a modified version of stored PCM (Pulse Code Modulated) samples.

The U-220 is NOT however able to sample new and/or external sounds, hence it is sometimes referred to as a ROMpler as opposed to a Sampler.

Important FYI:
Contrary to claims by some eBay sellers - There is currently NO Free Librarian or Editor software for the Roland U-110, U-20 and/or U-220. See Third Party Software for U-220 below. Also - of the two U-220s that I had, one is now defunct (as of early 2019) and I will not be replacing it.

Please visit Keith's web site for further in-depth info on the Roland U-20 Keyboard / U-220, patches and more.

Sample playback can however be quite effectively customized via ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) envelope editing and also by applying DSP (Digital Signal Processing) effects. PCM Sound Sample Cards for the U-20/U-220 with additional voices can still be readily purchased online.

The Roland U-220 is a very basic sound/synth module with virtually no frills. But that may in fact be an advantage because it does what it does VERY well.

In its day the U-220 retailed for well over $1,200. The Roland web site listed the last retail price at $1,095. The current value (depending on condition) is likely to be between AUD $100 to $150. At any more than AUD $200 and you're just not getting value for money (though some eBay sellers might strongly disagree ;-)

Roland U-220 RS-PCM Sound Module

Roland U-220 Front & Rear Panel PDF

Roland U-220 Documents, Info and Work Sheets:

Documents are PDF unless stated otherwise.
•  A compilation of Info (4 pages) - U-220 Preset Tones / Drum Map / Patches
•  Timbres Work Sheet (5 pages) - U-220 Work Sheet - Timbres (5 pages, 4 Timbres per page)
•  Patches Work Sheet (8 pages) - U-220 Work Sheet - Patches (8 pages, 1 Patch per page)
•  A list of available PCM Sound Library cards suitable for the U-110, U-20 and U-220

More Related Documents and Info available online:

Unfortunately the links below are to PDFs made from some rather quick and dirty scans. But I guess it's better than nothing ... at least for now.

From Keith at Llama Music:
    How to change the battery and more - U-20 / U110 / U220 Battery Replacement - Web Link External Link
    Factory Patches Booklet - Original U-220 Factory Patch Breakdown - link to PDF External Link
•  Local File - Roland U-220 RS-PCM Sound Module - Owners Manual PDF
•  Local File - Roland U-220 RS-PCM Sound Module - Service Manual PDF
•  From SynthMania - MP3 examples of Roland U-220 Factory Preset Patches & more External Link

Sounds / Samples / Voices (8/10)

The Roland U-220 RS-PCM Sound Module comes with 128 Voices/Tones, plus 4 Drum Kits and 64 ready to use Factory Preset Patches that are ... well ... very reminiscent of the 80's. If you are into retro or nostalgia you'll love the U-220.

The quality of the samples is generally very good to excellent, which is perhaps a lot better than expected, given this technology is now years old Calculated with JavaScript. The piano sound was (in it's day) considered exemplary. At first I thought some of the tones were lacking when compared to the Tones available on some newer equipment. However the drum sounds are really quite good and tones like the sax, brass section and flute grow on you with use. Weird, but I find I've come to like them as I've used them more.

While some of the Factory Preset Patches are really quite excellent ... many patches are rather ordinary. If nothing else, the preset patches demonstrate the potential available with the U-220 and show that it is definitely worth spending the time to be creative in designing your own patches.That is where the real power of the U-220 lies.

For my purposes the U-220 will serve mainly as a simple synth for use with the MIDI Guitar software. As such, patches will be designed accordingly. These will mostly be either atmospheric like the Future Pad (patch 45), to work behind finger picked chords ... or full-on 80's lead/synth sounds like Lunar Lead (patch 55). When it comes to synthesizer sounds the Roland U-220 can provide sounds that the Casio WK-7500 (with its 800 Tones) can't. This is due to the simple fact that you can layer six tones together at one time.

Rather than try to use the U-220 for things it won't do well, the focus will be on getting the most out of what it does best ... combining Tones and Timbres into great sounding Patches.

Editing / Creating Patches

There are 128 basic Voices or Tones that can be used to build Timbres which can then be combined in various ways to build Patches. With each of the 64 Patches able to support 6 Parts (Timbres) plus Drums, there are a lot of sophisticated sound layering possibilities at your fingertips.

This is where the 30 note Polyphony will be very useful. Most current keyboards have 64 note Polyphony, which indicates how impressive the Roland U-220 was years ago.

For those new to MIDI, Polyphony determines how many notes can be played at the same time. It also makes it possible to provide up to six (6) tones to be Layered (played at the same time) in a Patch.

From a MIDI Guitar perspective this means that I can layer up to 5 Tones/Voices and still strum a 6 note chord (30 notes in total) and have each note sound without any being cut off.

Generally, when you exceed 30 notes, the newest note replaces the oldest. Exactly how this works though will depend on Voice Reserve settings (available for each timbre) that can give preference to specific tones, preventing the unnatural ending of certain notes. With Voice Reserve you can allocate the minimum number of notes (essentially note priority) to any of the Timbres in a patch to make sure that selected Timbres will always sound.

Editing (the Factory Presets) and/or creating new User Patches with the Roland U-220 is somewhat tedious, even daunting at first. During the time that you still need to constantly refer to the rather cryptic instructions in the Owner's Manual, it can be slow going.

In fairness though, this process is essentially a reasonably sophisticated form of programming, with many things to tweak. So a short but relatively steep learning curve is to be expected.

Programming does however get easier as you gain familiarity of the Operating System. It is the U-220's ability to Edit / Create / Save Patches that opens up some awesome sound creation possibilities. One drawback of the U-series is that there are no filters to tweak, so there are limits to its capabilities for use as a 'real' Synthesizer.

This is partially compensated for by the onboard DSP which allows Reverb and Chorus to be added to a Patch (simultaneously). This severely understates what is actually available.

The Reverb section provides:

The Chorus section can provide:

Some more features that I've come to like are:

Please Note - There is only memory for 64 Patches. So any new Patches will have to be saved over existing ones. If necessary, Copy/Save any Patches you wish to keep to a new memory location before over-writing them.

Sound Library - PCM Expansion Cards for the Roland U-220

The U-series set of Tones can also be expanded via the two provided slots for the SN-U110 and SN-MV30-S1 series of PCM Sound Library cards. The additional Tones can open up considerable possibilities for the Roland U-220. The cards are often available online, but are certainly not cheap. Buying three or four expansion cards (in the range of $25 to $55 each) may readily exceed the value of a used U-220. (Last retail price of these cards was $85 new.)

Given that there are newer machines available that will do the same or even a better job, you'd need to be fairly keen on using a Roland U-220 to justify the additional expense. I would recommend getting no more than two cards that could permanently occupy the available PCM card slots ... a financial compromise of sorts.

A list of available PCM Sound Library cards suitable for the U-110, U-20 and U-220

Ease of Use (6/10)

From a practical / physical perspective, using the Roland U-220 RS-PCM Sound Module is relatively straight forward when connecting to other equipment that uses standard MIDI DIN connectors. It is essentially a case of Plug'n'Play ... just how it should be.

Hooking the Roland U-220 up to newer USB MIDI gear however can be a little more complicated and potentially expensive. Though current software synths and some DAWs will most likely provide software support for this ageing hardware (you would need to check), this comes at a cost and won't help if you want to use the U-220 as a standalone device (e.g. as I do for use with the MIDI Guitar software).

Third Party Software

U20 and U220 Third Party MIDI and Librarian Software

I have expanded this section to save people from wasting bandwidth and time just to rediscover all the software that is still available online, but is either unsupported or simply no longer works with currently available operating systems.

The situation ...

While there was once a small collection of Free / Shareware, PC / Mac based MIDI applications (e.g. for Win 3, Win 95 and perhaps even Win XP) that could serve as Patch Librarians and more, these definitely won't run under Windows 7 or higher (not even with backward compatibility settings - like run as Win XP, etc.).

On the Don't Bother List, if you are running Win 7 or above are:

  • Roland U220 Librarian Program
    LIB220.EXE for Windows 3, that's right, a 16 bit pre Win 95 program.
    I can remember back when ... ok ... I won't go there ;-)

  • U20 / U220 Patch Editor v4.1
    May work on win XP or earlier

  • U-20_Patch-Reader
    Have tried to get this to happen, but does nothing for me (? needs JAVA ?)

  • JSynthLib is a universal (multi-platform) MIDI synthesizer librarian / editor which requires JAVA to be installed. JSynthLib is a stalled Open Source project (still available from SourceForge.net) that was last updated in December of 2014.

    Sadly, the project is incomplete and Roland U series (including U-20 / U-220) functionality was never added. It's possible that JSynthLib could be resumed if someone were prepared to take over the project and programming.

    I don't normally run JAVA on any of my gear (for various and security reasons) so I've never managed to get this to work ... which apparently has been a commonly shared experience.

Things that are useful and will work with the U220 include:

Send SX - a small SYSX program from Bome  External Link  
SendSX_1.4.198.exe (Nov 2014)
Send SX works with Windows XP and higher, to send / retrieve SYSEX data from any MIDI device. Works fine with the Roland U20/U220.

And I also use and highly recommend BOME MIDI Translator. Though this is NOT librarian software.

Commercial MIDI Librarian Software

Some current commercial MIDI librarian software that supports the U20/U220 (e.g. Midi Quest from Sound Quest) may cost up to or more than twice as much as a preloved Roland U220 (depending on the Midi Quest program version purchased - the Pro version set me back AUD $635 inc. GST - a real headspinner. Fortunately I now also have other uses for that software).

That is definitely worth keeping in mind, before you rush out and buy one of these old Roland U series dinosaurs.

Game Over

I was investigating the possibility of writing my own librarian software ... however ... It's not like there is a huge demand and I already have no shortage of ongoing projects ;-)

Then I noticed that the last of my two U220s was sometimes no longer saving the edits I was making to patches - which essentially turns it into another 19" rackmount paperweight. So that's it for the U220 saga for me, I will be replacing them with something a decade or two newer.

Just FYI - I ended up getting the 2 RU Roland Integra7 and the 1 RU Roland XV-5050 to see which is better suited to my rig and MIDI control. Still not sure which one will be cut.

I have a Korg Kronos LS88 now, for when I need a real synth - it will eat pretty much anything Roland for breakfast and then ask where the desert is - admittedly though, I am still having trouble trying to train the LS88 to make me a cuppa first thing in the morning. But then, I also failed miserably trying to get my two cats to do that, hopeless little shits.

At some point all U-220 owners will be faced with the annoying problem of a dead or failing U-220 system memory battery. I have found a cheap but workable solution under Windows 7 for Restoring Roland U-220 Factory Preset Patches after replacing the battery.

Build Quality (9/10) - Durability & Reliability (9/10)

There are times when age is actually an advantage. This often appears to be the case when it comes to Build Quality and Durability. It's not so much a question of where it was made, but rather how it was made and in particular that old standard called 'Quality Control'. So after what is now years, how has the Roland U-220 held up?

Aside from the very few issues mentioned below, the Roland U-220 RS-PCM Sound Module is built like a tank. The chassis/case is steel, the Rack Mount points are reinforced, the circuit boards are good quality and well laid out (allowing for repairs or mods if required) ... and importantly, the power supply is more than adequate for the task.

The U-220 that I recently acquired had the following issues:

Of course it wasn't until I replaced said failing battery, that I found out that doing so causes a Total Loss of System Data (includes all User Data, Patches etc.). This now requires the system data to be reinstalled. Thanks to the ongoing evolution of technology, this process is no longer as straight forward as it once was.

At some point all U-220 owners will be faced with the annoying problem of a dead, failed or failing U-220 system memory battery. Keith at Llama Music has provided a useful battery replacement 'How To' page here - U-20 / U110 / U220 Battery Replacement - Web Link External Link

Some Additional Notes

Failed U-220 Battery
Once the CR 2032 battery has failed, any user patches will probably have been lost and the U-220 may well be rendered utterly unusable. At this point some people sell their U-220 as 'broken' or 'for parts'. Which is fair enough, since there is no way to test anything at all with the U-220 in this condition.

However, replacing the battery and performing a Factory Reset (which involves downloading the original factory Sysex file to the U-220), 'should' restore full operational capacity. But of course, there is no way to be sure until this has been tried, at which time any other failings may become apparent.

Under Windows XP you can literally play the factory Sysex.mid (yes, just a midi file) in Media Player and (as long as your MIDI connections are set up properly) the data will be reloaded into your U-220.

Under Windows 7 and up, it all gets more complicated and the easiest and most reliable method I've come across, is to get a small app from Bome called SendSX  External Link   This makes sending and receiving sysex data about as simple as it gets. It means that in future you can also download and save your patches (without paying $500+ for a universal patch editor). (Just FYI - SendSX works on Win XP as well.)

Dim U-220 LCD Display
Also worth noting. Make sure that the LCD display backlight can still achieve full brightness. These displays are hard enough to read when they are working properly.

Please note that this is not a setting like the display sharpness. A failing (dim) display will mean a costly repair / replacement (or mounting an LED USB powered light or similar, close to the display). Once the display backlight is gone, it will be very difficult to read without some auxiliary lighting.

Buying a U-220 For Parts
Almost a pointless exercise, given that there are very few separate parts inside the box. Most of the business happens on the Main-board.
There are:

Having purchased a second (and knowingly faulty) U-220 online, I have some experience with the U-220 innards. The device was purchased with a dim display which I thought would be a relatively simple repair. However I was never able to track down the actual cause of the dim display fault.

One day (more than a year later) I noticed that it was behaving as if the battery was dead. However the battery wasn't dead. Anyway, soon thereafter it failed completely and I still have no clue as to why, given that the power supply seems to be functioning properly. Just thought I'd mention that for the D.I.Y. bargain hunters out there ;-)

My First unit has now also started to fail (sometimes won't save edits) - these U220s won't be replaced.

Unless you have a spare U-220 or can pick up a dead unit for next to nothing, repairs are probably not a very realistic option, as any professional repairs are likely to cost more than the value of the device. That's part of the joy of owning/buying 'old stuff' (just ask my X-wife ;-)

Review Ratings:

Questions and Comments for this page are now closed

Page Rating
  Excellent 34
  Very Good 4
  Useful 0
  Not Useful 0
  TOTAL 38

Your Comments:

181014 - (Excellent) Thank you for the resource. I bought one of these on shopgoodwill.com because I love the 80s / early 90s sounds it has. They said it powered on, so I'll find out soon enough if it works fully....

Editor's Note: Thanks for the note. Always somewhat of a risk purchasing gear that is years old. One of my two U-220s has finally failed and probably won't be resurrected again. I'm thinking a Roland XV-5050 might be a nice 1RU replacement in my rack - anyway, good luck!

181014 - (Excellent) Very thorough. Am attempting to resurrect the little XXXX after removing the battery.
Editor's Note: ;-) well worth the effort, and thanks.

180827 - (Very Good) Very good and would even be better if this is updated to Windows 10 and a link to an updated video or tutorial page. I own both units (U-20 and U-220) and their respective manuals so i can scan these or process them in Word, and export to PDF for better legibility.

Editor's Note: I'm not actually sure what you mean by ‘updated to Windows 10’. The original Roland U220 LIBRARIAN PROGRAM was written for Windows 3 (pre Win95). The U-20-220_Editor_setup41 may be dated after that but testing revealed that neither software will run on Win XP, let alone anything later. So Win 10 is simply not going to happen. My Roland PCR300 has the same problem, no Win 7/8/10 drivers.

There are current and rather expensive third party software options available that can act as librarians for an extensive range of 'ancient' devices (including most things Roland), but I simply don't have a spare $300+ to see whether they will or won't actually work with a U220. I actually control my two U220s (and everything else MIDI) using BOME MIDI Translator. While that will run nicely under Win 10, it’s not a librarian. It does however let me map controls from say the PCR300 (or any other devices) to U220 functions. This sometimes requires some experimentation to get it right, but it can prove very useful. Particularly when one needs to control multiple devices with a single patch change or control fader (e.g. using the Behringer FCB1010 Midi Foot Controller).

Thanks for mentioning the User and Service Manuals, it appears the links were broken. I have the original (somewhat shitty) PDF copies that Roland once provided, and those are now hooked up. If you can provide a better copy of the manual, that would be greatly appreciated. But seriously, it’s not like there is a great demand. Thanks for taking the time to write. I don’t have the time myself to constantly go over pages and check for out-dated links, so having that mentioned is appreciated.

P.S. I have so many things on my to-do list, that a video tutorial by me on the quirks of the Roland U220 won't happen in this lifetime.

161105 - (Excellent) Thanks!.
Editor's Note: Your welcome ;-)

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