It’s hard out there for a hardware synth. There are all these new-fangled soft synths, capable of producing radical sounds via easy-to-navigate on-screen interfaces. I have a very very short mental list of hardware synths that still matter to me for one reason or another – and the Roland V-Synth GT is one that keeps coming back. I had access to one temporarily for a review. It was like temporarily adopting a puppy. You try not to get too close to the thing, as you know you can’t keep it. The V-Synth is likely out of the budget of a lot of readers of this site, but it’s worth just knowing it’s there, and why it has become so beloved by sound design aficionados.

The V-Synth GT, itself a big upgrade from the original V-Synth, had a major software upgrade this summer that flew under a lot of people’s radar. But now as the days are getting shorter again and people are starting to think sound design, I hope we can give the V-Synth GT some attention as an instrument. It has inspired me even in my software work, just to see the perspective of the engineers at Roland and how the device is programmed.

First, a few notes about what the V-Synth GT is about – something I’m sure you’d like explained, given its US$3000 street price.

The experience of using the V-Synth is really different from a lot of the synths out there. You don’t get this sense of the excess of some of the workstations, the stuff you don’t need. You just get a whole bunch of toys for sound design, which combine in unusual ways that feel really playable but can also be warped to produce far-out results:

  • Its AP “Articulative Phrase” synthesis method is really unusual, mimicing the organic qualities of how instruments respond in attack, note transition, and tuning. That’s fascinating enough, but the ability to get at some of these AP principles and create hybrid instruments is what makes the GT worth using.
  • The COSM models of favorite vintage Roland gear are decent enough on their own, but the ability to combine them in semi-modular routings helps the GT shine.
  • You can manipulate audio on the device in some unique ways, with real-time pitch and tempo stretching of loops and phrases, which can then be resampled. Okay, sure, your copy of Ableton Live can do this, but the experience of doing it on hardware – alongside the other V-Synth synthesis features – is unique.
  • It samples external sources, which you can edit on the touchscreen, and routes external audio through onboard effects, including the Vocal Designer vocoder / voice modeler.
  • It has lots of control, from the easy-to-navigate color screen to D-Beam controller and the signature X/Y pad.

In other words, it’s really a Roland synth studio in a box. My 2007 review for Keyboard Magazine explains what all of this is like in practice.

From the software perspective, the V-Synth embodies a lot of what I admire about Roland. “Articulative Phrase” synthesis really isn’t a synthesis method in the conventional sense – it’s fair to say it’s a collection of tricks they’ve developed for making their instruments sound good. But coming from the hardware background, working in extreme memory constraints we no longer consider on computers, they’ve had to use tremendous economy with their sound designs. And rather than focusing on a “press a button” approach to sound, they’ve really built responsiveness and change into all of the onboard controllers, something that software sound programmers could, frankly, use.

So, that’s the V-Synth GT as released. But the V-Synth has gotten some significant updates, including 64-bit drivers for Windows and, most importantly, a massive 2.0 OS update.

2.0: More Sounds, More Sampling, More Sound Design

  • Import WAV and AIFF directly from USB key, making this more useful as a sample manipulator
  • More sounds: Two new sound sets, new patches combining the V-Synth’s various sound shaping abilities, and a third sound set that’s a collection of vintage analog synths from various makers – including the entire Roland back catalog
  • More sound design options: new arpeggiation styles, new step modulator templates, and effects ported from the Fantom G

Demo video from Roland, via Synthtopia:

Who’s Using It

I recently spoke to Roland’s Dan Krisher about the V-Synth. His thoughts:

There are many uses for the V-Synth GT, but the V-Synth GT has been exceptionally embraced by the sound design community.  For example, Richard Devine creates sample libraries, from drum loops to intricate soundscapes, and the V-Synth GT is one of his main tools.  The way the menus are built, it is very easy to get started making unique sounds right away.  Players aren’t limited to the sounds inside the V-Synth GT either—any instrument can be plugged directly into the V-Synth GT.  The instrument’s signal can be run through the GT’s synth AND effects engines.

Another popular use for the V-Synth GT is for people who are just looking for a huge-sounding synth to play live.  There are a wealth of real-time controllers such as the D-Beam and front-panel knobs, that allow you to tweak sound in real time.  The Vocal designer allows players to add to a vocal performance with harmonies on a whole different level than was possible before.

Now, of course, this is the usual spiel you get from hardware makers, but this is one of the cases in which my anecdotal experience with users backs up what he’s saying.

Dan also said that the 2.0 update really grew out of user feedback, which makes sense. The V-Synth GT doesn’t get as much attention as a lot of other synths out there – even Roland themselves tend to focus more on their Fantom and JUNO – but the V-Synth’s user base, both users of the original and the GT, is really fiercely loyal.

V-Synth GT Videos

There are some really quite amusing videos of the V-Synth GT out there. Now, don’t necessarily judge the sound of the synth from all of these videos – I was able to push it in ways that didn’t sound like conventional Roland synth sounds, too. (And no, I don’t know why some marketing videos – not the ones I’m listing here, but you know who you are – have to be so cheezy.)

Updated: To really get a sense of the extraordinary sounds that can come out of the V-Synth series, you need to watch the 2003 debut video of the original V-Synth at NAMM. Six years later, nothing in hardware has touched this. And keep in mind, the GT has added a lot of sonic tools that the original didn’t have, so imagine this going even further. (Thanks to James Y for finding this, and Roland, please let’s see more videos like this!)

Is there a word for ear-dropping? (And this is YouTube audio quality…)

Tatsuya Nishiwaki, hilariously, confesses he can’t resist turning the V-Synth into an electric guitar as he does other synths, and then parties like it’s 1989. That name will be familiar to fans of Japanese music – he’s a major keyboard player in Japan, along with working with some big names here Stateside, after starting as a founding member of the band PAZZ. (More videos, direct from Roland.)

The best place to get a sense of the V-Synth GT in action is to watch Jordan Rudess playing it:

Jordan Rudess V-Synth GT Demos, Roland Video Library

Rudess is a tremendously skilled player, but there is a certain conventional sound to Roland keyboards here and, perhaps even more so, in the other demos. You’ll just have to take my word for it that if you abuse some combinations of sounds, you can take the V-Synth in another direction. Here’s what the interface looks like, again via Synthtopia. Now just imagine turning knobs past the places you’re supposed to, and routing things wrong!

And, because we can laugh at what we love, one comic strip, drawn for the awesome blog Wire to the Ear by the site’s creator, Oliver Chesler:

Funny and true – but only if you’re just trying to sound like a Jupiter-8. The nice thing about the V-Synth is that it really can sound unlike anything else, once properly pushed out of its comfortable preset zone to its extremes.

V-Synth GT Users?

One V-Synth user talks about the synth’s ability to produce “wild sounds” and demonstrates some of his own creations on YouTube. He concludes – news to me – that “I do not understan why owners are selling them for $800.”

Umm… Actually, yeah. The V-Synth is really, really awful. You don’t want it. You want to sell it to me for $800, or even less. (Maybe these are users of the original upgrading to the GT, so desperate to get the new model they’re unloading the original dirt cheap?)

I really can imagine the V-Synth GT as a desert island hardware synth. I’m curious to hear from users of either the V-Synth or V-Synth GT. Got sound design techniques you’ve discovered? Raves – or rants – you’d like to pass along to Roland?

Let us know.

And yeah, I know – now that I’ve done this, we need someone to write a love ode to Kyma.

V-Synth GT [warning – Roland annoyingly makes their websites make lots of noise without asking]

2.0 Update Download

  • http://www.richard-devine.com Richard Devine

    This is a wicked Synthesizer. I have gotten some totally unreal sounds with both the Original Vsynth and Vsynth Gt. Which I still use to this day. Its machine of extremes, can be lush or extremely bizarre. Serious machine!

  • James Y

    I love my V-Synth.

    Here's my rant to Roland. Why did you discontinue upgrades, cards, etc for the original V-Synth – basically telling everyone who purchased your flagship synth that they now have to spend another $3000 on the new flagship synth! Why? Why can't you upgrade the arpeggiator models on the old vsynth architecture to match the new gt arpeggiators? Why not at a V-Card for the new AP synthesis – so some of us didn't feel left out in the cold.

    -James

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Richard: Yeah, absolutely well said – and I appreciate that all the more so having heard what you've done with it. ;)

    @James: There may be a specific technical answer to that; I'll inquire. I believe the internal architecture on the GT is quite different; that's my recollection from when I talked to them about it in 2007.

  • peabo

    not to knock the synth, because ive never played with one, but those rudess videos (especially the closing one) are the most ridiculous and hilariously cheesy synth demos ive ever seen, and it doesnt even make the synth sound good. who are they marketing to?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @peabo Yeah, I actually wish I could get some of the more out-there sounds out there on video; even Jordan Rudess does things that definitely don't sound like those videos. I think bigger manufacturers in general (not just Roland) seem to miss that a lot of people – not just crazy experimental people, but musicians in general – like to hear unusual sounds. They seem to get back to these presets we've heard before.

  • James Y

    @Peabo and Peter Kirn,

    The original demo from the namm where they introduced the thing blows away any demo for the instrument i've seen since. I wonder if I still have that DVD at home, and if I do…who knows, maybe you'll see a youtube clip of it soon….

    -James

  • James Y

    Here it is

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFKa3XpezNs
    namm 2003 V-Synth being introduced….

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Thanks, James! Yeah, that's more like it. :) And a lot of the features on the GT sound even better.

  • http://xfader.com regend

    What a coincidence! I was looking through my Keyboard Mag 2008 review of this synth this weekend…googled the price…it's out of my budget but someday would love to create sounds with it. the demo videos aren't appealing to sound designers and those that use synths to create non traditional sounds.

  • http://www.nk-e.com George

    The VSynth is an amazing piece of kit. I too hope that they consider updating the earlier models….

    About the sounds in the majority of the videos…

    I was blown away by the V-Synth "version 1" presets. Within the year that it debuted, I bought an XT (the rack version). Now it either came with a different set of sounds from the V-Synth kbd, or I upgraded the OS and was "gifted" with a new set of sounds. Either way, I found that the lovely, not-so-run-of-the-mill sounds I had fallen for had been replaced with a lot more 'leads, keys, basses, and drums'. I was disappointed to say the least.

    I think I even recall seeing a Roland video from that next NAMM show where the demo dude was saying something like "These keys do more than the 'weird' sounds you've heard before, listen to this…!" and then proceeded to play some conventional synth madness.

    It was also around that time that I remember reading that Roland had tried to "mainstream" the preset sounds in the VSynth a bit more to broaden its appeal in stores.

    I don't know. So many manufacturers do this…Is it that folks aren't interested in hearing unusual sounds or is it that the sales people often don't know what to do with a sound if its not 'leads, keys, basses, and drums' (and therefore don't demo the instrument)?

  • James Y

    @George

    I think the answer is the latter. (as a salesperson for 2 years of my life selling audio gear I can attest to this – the keyboard people at our store didn't know how to sell this / couldn't to the people walking in looking for a juno style keyboard, or a motif style keybaord) The salespeople usually aren't trying to sell this type of powerful keyboard to the every day user. Those people DONT want to program their own sounds….so this was their way to say "see, this can do normal stuff too" even if that is NOT the reason they made it…

  • http://www.cloudmover.net Z

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-HwHWDZ_54

    It's a beautiful machine that I think will take years for anyone to fully grasp.

    A synth like the V-Synth needs a champion. An artist who can show, over time, what can be done with it. Peter Gabriel, Trevor Horn, etc. did it with the Fairlight, Eno and his DX7, Vangelis and his CS-80…

    The only guy, that I know of, doing really interesting V-Synth work is Richard Barbieri from Porcupine Tree. Can anyone think of someone else?

    Unfortunately, I don't think the current state of Pop or R&B music rewards the experimentation that a synth like the V-Synth can provide. I can't even imagine a V-Synth on the next Timbaland track, for example…

  • Chris

    I was going to drop a comment straight after reading the front page to say "It's my desert island synth". Glad it's someone else's too!

    I used to sell synths for a living, and although I only sold a couple, I was always jealous of the new v-synth owners as they left the shop. I couldn't afford one on staff discount, and I still can't afford one now :(

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Z: Well, I think Richard Devine counts as a champion. ;)

    But it sounds to me like what you're really asking for is a resurgence in keyboardists. I can get behind that.

  • http://www.myspace.com/tooltablist Mudo

    Hi Peter and community…

    I re-purchased one of my two before-sold Roland VariOS and I have an J-8, 303 and variphrase…

    (I sold my vc-2 and d50 cards and found one is so difficult nowadays)

    I think GT is a beast and variphrasing for basslines or chopping samples is the BEST tool for Hip Hop ever, don't substemite them.

    Timbaland maybe use it or not but if they try, they will want. Sure.

    In addition… I don't understand why Roland with something like numark… doesn't make a "perfect turntable" with pitch and time (like mc909).

    I would like work for roland and give my ideas, people will be crazy with some of them.

    Think on these turntable…

  • http://www.wiretotheear.com/ Oliver Chesler

    Funny… I was reading your post because I actually have a secret desire for a V-Synth then saw the comic… thanks for the "reprint" I need to make a few more of those. Just last week I was at Sam Ash in NYC playing with the V and it def has something to it. FYI they had new Little Phattys for $799… not sure why… maybe they are closing doors sooner than later?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Oliver, I got a note from someone else selling the Little Phatty – *not* Sam Ash. It's very possible that's what the invoice price is; it's not uncommon to have margins that large in MI. And these things often don't move out of inventory very fast, so those margins may be somewhat justified. But I don't know what's going on.

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  • http://www.jimstout.tv Jim Stout

    Thanks for the props Roland!

  • BirdFLU

    I gave up on Roland synths after 1985. The V-Synth just sounded like more of the same hype. Long story shory, I got a V-synth XT and I will never give it up. One thing I don't hear mentioned about the V-Synths is that the interface is amazing and well thought out. It is SOOO easy to whip up a patch on it. But if you want to go into some detailed or bizarre patches, you can easily go there too. For me, the UI is what makes all the crazy sounds possible and makes the V-Synth a keeper.

  • Michael Coelho

    Funny, I was just looking at Roland's V-Synth web page yesterday. After playing with software synths for a while, I've been yearning for knobs. I picked up a Little Phatty for $879.00 from a prominent online retailer two weeks ago along with the Moogerfooger CP-251 and MF-107 and have had a lot of fun with them. Inspired by YouTube live recreations of Vangelis's Blade Runner music, I started setting up all of the controllers and keyboards that I have. I have a Yamaha M-08 that I bought so that my daughter could practice her piano lessons. It has some nice sounds, but is not an advanced synth engine. The Nord Wave and Roland V-Synth seem to really excel in the sound design area, but I wonder what they can do that Abelton coupled with NI Komplete 5 and Kore can't do? I've also found the Arturia 10 year collection pricing to be very attractive. Hardware or software? I'm having a tough time deciding which direction to go in.

  • Amanda

    Soft synths are affordable and great tools, but there will always be something more fulfilling about the hands-on musical instrument experience for me.

  • http://torley.com Torley

    So — I wonder why there haven't been more attempts at emulating V-Synth in software? (Not fair to directly compare to, say, another Roland product like the TB-303's vaunted and oft-imitated history, but…) Is part of it due to the unique controllers? Then again, I had a dream there was a D-beam-ish device made by Korg, called the nanoBEAM. I always love when esoteric methods of expression hit the consumer market, as shown by iPhone multitouch. And I keep hoping breath controllers will be more mass-market, too — there's that AKAI EWI USB for $200-something.

    @Z You hit the personality nail on the head. I originally heard of "keytars" because of Jan Hammer. On-stage, a memorable face and sound. Someone who iconically totes the V-Synth is going to inspire lots of people to ask, "What's that?" and maybe get one. Just like fashion-followers who dote after the latest handbags.

    BTW, I'm totally LOLing (not just typing the acronym) because Vangelis + CS80 got me inspired yesterday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuYEDD4t3u8

    I doth appreciate Richard Devine's testimonials, and have collected some of his and BT's here. If you have more, please add them to: http://torley.com/endorsements

    @Michael We've some shared interests. I got Ableton Live AND Komplete + Kore. I didn't get Arturia's 10-yr. thang but I heart Analog Factory. It's working and playing very well for me thus far… :)

  • lilith

    I don't live near a Sam Ash anymore, but it always seemed to me that they would be blowing out discontinued products early. I got an AN200 and DX200 for $200 each that way. also a CS2x I later sold.

    last week, GC was selling the LP for $1000 I think

  • Michael Coelho

    @Torley I think a lot of the appeal of the V-Synth are the controllers that it provides. I love your concept for a Nanobeam. I've also got the Kore 2 controller. I've enjoyed your videos on YouTube… keep them coming. I've got some cash budgeted for further purchases in the near future, but it's hard to decide which way to go. The V-Synth and the Nord Wave are both very appealing, as is the Virus TI. Modular analog? Not that I really need any of them, but I do love lots of knobs and blinky lights!

  • http://www.chromedecay.org Bill Van Loo

    @James Y – thanks for posting that video of the VSynth original demo. Hearing that drum loop through the sideband filter made me think immediately of Ableton Live's Resonator plugin. I may have to try using that for turning enharmonic material into more melodic stuff.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  • http://torley.com Torley

    @Michael Coelho Thanks for watching my vids! I've been looking at the hardware synths that come out but they don't hold the same allure for me now that I can do so much in software — integrated concepts like the Virus TI (and Access has recently undergone an Apple-like site redesign) are pretty neat but given my uses, I'd prefer to invest in controllers that can warp my desktop computer-based sounds. I recall turning off the lights on my first studio and it was like a synth mini-Xmas tree!

    @Bill Van Loo I heart Resonator + Corpus for pitching a drum loop and tuning it to various chord progressions to fill a nice, precise bit of the freq. spectrum, even in subtle amounts!

  • Ryan Mortimer

    Thank you for using Andez's name with his photos.

    Feel free to use any photos of the gear in and around my studio that have been shot by either Andez or myself.

  • http://www.jimstout.tv Jim Stout

    It's funny. When I showed Roland the demo I wanted to do at the NAMM show in 2003 they didn't want me showing the sound design aspect of the V-Synth. I had the to argue with them to let me do the "car crash" effect. They wanted to keep it as a "Musical Instrument"

  • Xeno

    I bought a V-Synth GT for $1300 + $25 S&H on eBay, a floor demo model. Excellent condition. If you snipe around, you can get em very cheap– and they're DEFINITELY worth it! =D

  • leMel

    This is one of the most underrated synths of all time. I'm convinced that at some point it will become a coveted classic. The XT seems to have a bottomless bag of tricks. Even the typically half-hearted Roland memory management scheme doesn't dissuade me: it's still made of pure win. I'm glad they've stuck with V thru 2.0, XT and GT…wonder how it's paying off for them? Profitably, I hope. Anyone have thoughts on the V-Producer software? Probably the one thing I'd change are those ugly UI screens…they look like a bastardized Windows 3.1! Maybe someone will JJOS a nice modern-looking teenage engineering UI for us. This synth deserves better.

  • raphus

    I sold the original V-Synth because I couldn't get reliably smooth loops on sustaining sounds with it. (Drum loops with bits of silend in them were OK, but I don't use those much.) I'd get a smooth-sounding loop, encode it, and bam–a pop or glitch at the loop point. Can anyone tell me if this has gotten better with the GT? Does it do crossfade looping? Thanks in advance for your help!

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