Among the highlights of the product releases last week, Roland has a new virtual analog synth (the SH-01) and shoulder keyboard (AX-09) that look friendly and relatively affordable (especially once you account for street price, not list). They have that convergence of certain selling points that I think will make them popular – maybe not with everyone, but with enough people that you may soon be seeing them around. And that makes them worth a little further research.
I got to have a long conversation with Vince LaDuca of Roland US about the new gear, so we could answer some questions readers raised and talk about some of the technical details. Here’s what I came away with following that chat, starting with the SH-01.
GAIA SH-01 Synth
The most important message I got about the SH-01 was that this really does seem to be a new generation of synth from Roland. It’s not directly equivalent to the SH-201; it takes advantages of newer Roland tech in DSP and specifically in power savings. That’s what allows you to unplug the SH-01 and run it on 8 AA batteries for, according to Vince, somewhere around five hours.
Unlike the previous SH-201, too, the SH-01 has a rich set of great-sounding effects. (The effects section was, for me, the real weak point of the 201.)
Architecture: The SH-01’s virtual analog engine is indeed mono-timbral; it’s all on channel 1. You do get three virtual analog tones, though, so you can put together some fairly sophisticated patch designs. (Vince and I couldn’t think of a three-tone Roland synth, ever, but if you know of one, shout it out in comments.
There are some twists, though:
Oddly enough, the SH-01 packs a full-blown General MIDI+ sound chip for GM soundfile playback. (I can’t dream of ever wanting that, but I know there are folks out there who still play SMF files on GM banks.) So, that PCM engine responds on channels 2-16. You probably don’t care, but now you know. And if you’re wondering what that meant when you read the specs, you weren’t hallucinating.
You get two LFOs for each of the three tones. There’s also a separate, assignable LFO for modulation. There are additional modulation options accessible from the front panel, too. For instance, you can adjust panning depth modulation for both LFOs by holding down the shift key.
Between tones 1 + 2, you have the option of ring modulation and oscillator sync. So, combine the three tones and the modulation choices, and you have some pretty rich sonic options on a pretty cheap board – there are certain advantages to virtual analog.
What happens when you switch tones and adjust a knob? A couple of readers asked about this. Let’s imagine you move a parameter knob from three o’ clock to nine o’ clock, then switch from the first tone to the second tone. Once you touch the knob again and move it, it will jump to its new value for the second tone. To me, it’s probably the only reasonable compromise; you want the tactile feedback of knobs, but you wouldn’t want the complexity of waiting for a knob to pick up a value.
The good news, though: you can select multiple tones at once and adjust the parameter on all of them at the same time.
Preset storage: The SH-01 has 64 preset programs, plus 64 user programs onboard. That’s plenty for me, but since some readers asked, if you add a USB key, you get an additional 64 programs, for a total of 128 user programs (or a grand total of 192).
What about the audio in? Sadly (for me, at least), the external input features only a center cancel, not the ability to route audio into the synth for filtering or modulation. That means you get karaoke capabilities, but not the flexibility of using your hardware synth to modify audio input. On the other hand, there is a lovely toy KORG would like to sell you that will do the trick.
On a more positive note, the SH-01 does still function as a USB audio interface. That means, not only can you easily route the SH-01’s sounds into your computer via USB, but the external input, too – especially handy if you’ve got a Mac, which can aggregate multiple external audio interfaces.
Is there a VST plug-in, as on the SH-201? Nope, there’s not. But the SH-01 also reflects a more complete realization of the SH-201’s design philosophy. Whereas the SH-201 required diving into the software for some parameters, the SH-01 really does have absolutely everything accessible from the front panel.
What does the phrase recorder do for you? This is really one of the fun parts of this synth. You can record up to eight different types of knob movements, for recording things like rhythmic filter sweeps by performing them with your hands. I mentioned KORG, but I should also point out Roland has some tradition with this sort of feature, like the motion control functionality on previous JP-series synths.
Each phrase can include overdubs of different knobs, so you can add various modulations to a single patch, with a length up to eight bars. You can store up to eight phrases in total, with an additional eight possible via the USB key for a total of sixteen. They’re global, so the phrase will impact any preset.
Arpeggiator: The arpeggiator uses one of 64 preset patterns, all accessible from the front panel, and an arp is stored with each patch. There aren’t user patterns, however; if you want to store your own riff, you need to use the phrase recorder – and there aren’t that many slots. So, doing sophisticated patterns of your own isn’t really the focus of the SH-01, but for simple arpeggiator patterns, I expect the 64 presets will likely cover you.
I know that a lot of folks will want to immediately compare the SH-01 to KORG’s offerings in the same price range, as this is a segment most closely associated in people’s minds with KORG. I’m a fan of the R3 and microKORG lines. The easiest comparison: if you love vocoders and mics, obviously, the SH-01 isn’t going to be your first choice. Beyond that, though, it’s nice to see some real competition in this area, and I hope to take a closer look when these things ship. Suffice to say, KORG and Roland are different makers with different philosophies, sounds, and design traits, so the two never come out as exactly comparable. (I don’t think either KORG or Roland can beat the value and quirky personality of the original microKORG, given that you can pick one up for under $300 lightly used, but for a beefier synth with larger keys, comparing the R3 and SH-01 seems absolutely fair.) And yes, for a little more, you also have offerings like Dave Smith to consider, too.
One thing I pledge not to do: no abstract arguments about software versus hardware. You already know what you want. The days of this being a religious battle are long over; everyone I know now uses software, and nearly all of them have at least one hardware synth around.
The AX-09 actually attracted more attention on CDM and via our Twitter fans and such, making it one of the big stories of last week. I suspect the reason is that, unlike the SH-01, the AX-09 has some real appeal to computer synth lovers, as a controller. Note that Roland is also giving products names and not just numbers, so as the SH-01 is the “GAIA” (hello, Earth mother!), the AX-09 is a “Lucina.” (Not to be confused with the Chevy Lumina.)
Before we get to that, though, I’ll give Roland a chance to talk about the internal sounds, for those who do want to use its internal synth bank. Vince tells me the Lucina really is a “high-quality synth,” short of the breadth and depth of the flagship shoulder-mounted AX-Synth, but still with a range of usable synth, acoustic, and piano sounds similar to those you’d find in Roland’s JUNO or Fantom lines. The “special” tone bank deserves special attention, says Vince, who describes the poly synth patch as “pretty amazing – it’s on the level of the AX-Synth.”
You can even do some light editing of presets, with front-panel access to patch level, reverb, cutoff, resonance, attack, and decay.
The AX-Synth does far more, with four-tone-structure sounds, a full-blown software editor, and real effects. But then, for some of us, again, the real appeal of the AX-09 is getting a keyboard specifically designed to be played from your shoulder that costs roughly half of what the AX-Synth does, so we can play our computer instruments.
If that’s the goal, you do get some rich controller options on the AX-09. The modulation bar can send modulation messages, hold, or a combination of the two. There’s an assignable touch controller. The D-Beam infrared sensor can control touchless manipulation of a variety of parameters, including aftertouch, modulation, and portamento. (Vince started reading off Control Change numbers 7, 10, 11, 64, 65, 66, 71, 72, 74… yeah, you can definitely send MIDI messages with this thing.)
One thing you can’t do is control aftertouch from the keybed; Vince said they decided not to do that because they felt it was too hard to manipulate a full range when playing in a shoulder position. At least one CDM reader has argued with that in comments, but I can see an argument for leaving it out. Anyway, I dare someone to strap some accelerometer control to this thing, too.
Some folks have questioned even the AX-09’s price, partly I suspect because they aren’t interested in the internal sounds. But I will say, I’m pretty pleased with the quality of Roland’s keybeds, all of which the company manufactures themselves (rather than contracting out to someone else). I’ll reserve judgment until I get a hands-on with one of these units. Yes, you could conceivably attach a strap to an existing keyboard, but having it laid out in a way that anticipates use on your shoulder has appeal.
And there is something about a shoulder keyboard, for all they have been derided.
“There’s something different about being kinetic with your performance,” says Vince.
What about some of those goofy videos?
Okay, if you’re wondering about Roland’s marketing, there is something nice that they’re working on. Vince described the push of Roland’s marketing campaign and the “better life through music” slogan is getting more people to play, getting them to play earlier in life, and getting them to play together.
And whatever is going on with those videos, that’s an idea I can absolutely endorse. My sense is, that story is ultimately told not by marketing but by the people who buy – or don’t buy – the gear. If the gear is designed properly and priced right and it gets into people’s hands, you’ll see people discovering music with this gear.
Side note: Roland US helpfully sent along the US video, but it seems to still be the same thing, minus the Japanese charm. I understand what they’re doing, and the video is on message, but … well, I generally don’t like promotional videos. I half expect someone to jump out and exclaim, “Kids totally rule!! Radical!”) I’m sticking to the fan-made vids.
In fact, in a case studio of how good Roland’s customers are at selling the Roland gear, see this Michael Jackson medley by music nerd YouTube (and Britain’s Got Talent) sensation Brett Domino. (Of course, I do wonder if Roland covertly had something to do with the band’s abrupt change from their all-Yamaha setup.)
And yes, I still want “Better Life Through Music” t-shirts. Cool kids will totally rip them up, wear a tie over top, and big boots with spiked heels, very punk.