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.

SH-201

The 01′s predecessor SH-201 brought back the idea of putting control on the front panel, and became a pretty big hit as a result. The SH-01, though, is more compact, more accessible, and packs a bigger set of sound features, without requiring any functionality to be hidden behind a software editor. This time, it really is all on the front panel. Photo (CC-BY) Jonathan Sloan.

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.

AX-09

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.)

Roland’s “keytar” shoulder keyboards have taken on near-cult popularity. But it’s been a while since there was even a currently-shipping, sub-$1000 offering from the company. The Lucina brings that back. Photo (CC-BY) 20after4.

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.

Previously:

Roland Gets the Fun Back? Cheaper, Smaller Shoulder “Keytar” Keyboard, AX-09

Roland Gets the Fun Back, Pt. 2: SH-01 Synth

  • salamanderanagram

    by "virtual analog" do you mean, digitally controlled analog, or….?

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

    No, just modeled analog. "VA" usually is used in that way; anything digitally-controlled that has actual analog circuitry in it nonetheless will typically lay claim to being "real" analog. ;)

  • salamanderanagram

    figured as much, just checking.

  • http://www.dietervandoren.net dtr

    Glad you mentioned the Microkorg in the SH-01 post. Personally I can't get excited over it. Specs-wise it indeed doesn't do very much more than the Microkorg, the very first hardware synth I bought almost 10 years ago and which got replaced by an MS2000 later on. But perhaps that's also true for the new Korg's in that league, haven't been following it closely.

  • http://stretta.com stretta

    Roland's new, if Japanese-accented marketing thrust, "Better Life Through Music" is aimed outside of the traditional MI market, broadening their target to everyday people. It feels like the kind of campaign you'd use to sell Yamaha PSR keyboards through Best Buy and Costco. Unfortunately, these products are priced outside of that market.

    The products themselves are traditional, if excessively boring and uninspired MI fare, priced and sold through normal MI channels like Guitar Center – places where you'll never see the Stepford wife depicted in the video.

    The MI channel doesn't need another VA keyboard or keytar, and as far as I can tell, users aren't looking for them. Everyone I talk to is looking for real analog. I know it'll be expensive, but have they actually tried? Boutique outfits are doing very well, and no one has tried to apply the kind of economy of scale Roland is capable of.

    So, this whole thing is, to me, at least two levels off the mark. Production isn't making the right products for the MI market, and marketing isn't targeting the right market for the stuff they ARE making.

  • genjutsushi

    just checked the UK launch prices on a couple of sites.

    The AX09 is coming up as £469

    The SH01 is £489.

    Ok so the pound is weak at the moment so everyone in the UK is getting stuffed on imports, but with the Microkorg XL available for £339 street there is very little reason to spend another £100 for the AX09 despite being able to hang it off your neck. The SH01 looks a better bet though – not the cheapest monotimbral synth, but i too love the idea of a full 'no menu' synth workflow.

  • http://www.isle-of-avalon.co.uk gwenhwyfaer

    > Between tones 1 + 2, you have the option of ring modulation and oscillator synth

    …er, should that be oscillator sync?

  • http://www.isle-of-avalon.co.uk gwenhwyfaer

    I know the B-word is frowned upon in this blog, but if you want to hang something around your neck, you could probably do worse than one of these (and ignore the audio bit).

  • http://www.isle-of-avalon.co.uk gwenhwyfaer

    > Vince and I couldn’t think of a three-tone Roland synth, ever

    The D50 was arguably a 4-tone VA from Roland, complete with ring modulation and (grotesquely limited) sample playback.

  • http://landersmusic.com Wax Rabit

    Hey pete,

    I think it looks pretty cool! It always urks me tho, the shitty presets they use in the videos, website etc.. Cant they see that about 2% of musos are looking for those crap 90's trance sounds? But on the upside, i think it looks sexy, easy to use, and really in sticking with what the sh series is about. I have an sh 201 (which is wicked), and ive got 101 software.. (to be honest i have a lot of roland synths, soft and hard) so yeah just wanted to say i think it looks cool, i also have a microkorg aswell and they are completely different sound. but the price range is kinda comparable.. Good on ya roland, just give the arse to the japeneese techno boffin who thinks 90's synth sounds are still in vouge! ha ha ha

  • http://landersmusic.com Wax Rabit

    @ gwenhwyfaer

    I work in a music shop and i run the hi tech section, and i just sold "one of those things…" lol to some unlucky sucker. It had been here for months! They really are just awefull! I wont go into it here, but all you have to feel is the shallow touch keyboard and thats enough to send me running to the hills! aghhhhhhh!

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

    @gwenhwyfaer:

    * corrected oscillator sync

    * Behringer – well, except then *any* keyboard you could wear around your neck by adding a strap. The difference is having something playable at the neck.

    * D50, yep, 4-tone… but no *3-tone* specifically.

  • aaron

    Still overly not impressed by the SH-01 as a V/A.. go back 10 years to Korg's MS-2000 or even their own JP8080 – and you have a synth with 4 seperate oscillators (not including noise). 2 Stacked with 4 freely routable LFO's and many many more waveforms available. And at least a limited form of multi-timbrality.

    What is mildly impressive is the battery power and the multieffects, which in use I suspect will shorten the battery life at a faster pace.

    To give it some credit, if nothing else.. the sh-01 seems poised to take the stand (for the moment) as the most powerful battery powered mini-synth. Over the likes the miniAK and the MicroKorg. Which is a pretty strong market sector to attack.. so it seems a pretty good move.

    I do like the design factor, its definitly much mroe appealing in that regard that then previous Roland attempts (which have been few and ill-concieved the past several years (sh32 anyone? no? dont blame you)).

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

    @Aaron: oh, the idea is definitely not synthesis depth; it's intended to be something relatively simple that keeps everything accessible on the front panel and runs on batteries. It's not meant to be an MS2000, for sure – and the MS hides a lot of its functionality. I wouldn't mind seeing a box like the JP8080 again, though.

    As far as I know, adding effects does *not* decrease battery life. I can check on that.

    I mean, 10 years ago you had fewer options in soft synths, and less power to run soft synths at the same time. So it seems natural that at least some hardware synths would try to sell their relative simplicity. And, heck, once you go to the depth of the synths you're mentioning, why not go to software and have freely-routable semi-modulars?

    On the other hand, the fact that you're raising this criticism says to me that maybe you'd like that kind of *hardware* synth — which is fair. It'd be a different market that the SH-01, though.

  • Vehical Driver

    dtr:

    I think the exciting thing about the SH-01 isn't the synth engine, which is about as mundane as they get… rather, that it has all synthesis parameters right on the keyboard, set up in a very ergonomic way.

  • keats'

    "Anyway, I dare someone to strap some accelerometer control to this [AX-09], too."

    Yup, I bet a Wiimote strapped on the back of a "keytar" would allow for some real Guitar Hero action! (I'm serious, though. It'd be sweet.)

  • Jonathan

    I love the resurgence of keytars! :)

    Go Roland!

  • aaron

    @peter, don't see how it's a different market… it's the same price range and market that brought the microkorg and micron which has led to synths such as the SH01. As for V/A vs. Plug-ins, Mac vs. PC, Intel vs. AMD, I don't play around in those type of pointless arguments… everything is fair game and to each his own.

    BTW, I havent seen you cover the newly released and fully working Bliptronome kit. Mine arrives tomorrow, you guys should head back to that topic soon and give it some coverage. 110$'s for a working arduinome? Killer. Wil Lindsay has done a fantastic job.. hope to post some video soon.

    /backtotopic

  • http://www.eatyone.com EATYone

    I hope that the SH01 is less buggy than the SH-201 and do not need a factory reset every 10 minutes…

  • David Prouty

    Can we start getting back to the software topics please. Hardware's great we all need and use it …. operating systems check we use those also … But I want to know and hear more about the unusual software not so0 much the new over hyped tablet thing of the month. I liked the SunVox article.

  • Rusman

    Hey peoples,

    GAIA is not "true" VA synths, it's VA-rompler (like roland sh-32). His OSC based on ROM. When you turn on OCS sync, his filters going off and the synth became a monofonic as old SH-32.

    "SHxx" is code name in the series od synts that used rom-based oscilators.

  • Metal Gear Solid

    With a name like that, it's definitely aimed at the Trance crowd, and like all the latest Roland and Korg products, build quality seems a tad too much on the consumer side (i.e. PSRs and Casiotones.) If only these were made of the same kind of plastic as the old SH-101s (which have survived years of abuse and resale)! It seems that nowadays if you want a synth made of metal, you have to buy boutique stuff.

  • http://www.isle-of-avalon.co.uk gwenhwyfaer

    MGS: or a Blofeld – they're metal-cased.

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  • Hey sam

    I wonder if it's true VA like the Nord lead etc.?

    Does it sound better?

  • http://www.isle-of-avalon.co.uk gwenhwyfaer

    Define "true VA"?

  • http://www.highculturelowclass.com/ hclc

    When will this be in music stores (Germany)? So I can hear it before I judge it.

  • http://shaneking.com shane

    So if aftertouch is too hard to use on the AX-9 and AX-Synth, why doesn't the SH-01 have it? Glaring omission to me.

  • Polite

    SH-01 is something that appeals to me just because everything is right there. I really hate menus on synths, because inevitably, the parameters I want to fiddle with the most are both buried somewhere with no way to make them accessible other than mapping them to midi controllers, and there is never a nice way to map all the ones you want in a logical manner.

    The thing that doesn't make sense to me is that they knocked an octave off the keyboard. for a synth that is supposed to be all there, three octaves is pretty abysmal. That's how many octaves my r3 has, and it's only got a handful of knobs on it.

    I'll still give it a shot when my local shop gets it in.

  • Damon

    Semi Dis Connected Reference Points:

    > I guess the 2 pools are can you grind out a picture perfect set of instantly usable club quality sounds, or can you dig in and extract new and unusual sounds for more experimental music.

    > I'm of the second pool, and I hope the SH-01 has some sort of quirky and unique quality and character that defies the feature set.

    > The AX-09 looks like a mass bulk buy for education music class synth designed for 30 kids in a classroom 5 days a week.

    > It does not matter how bad it looks, it matters how bAD it sounds.

    > Note to Self: Old M-Audio Oxygene 8 + Waldorf Blowfeld Desk + Duct Tape = Way Fly Cool Jam Rig…

    > These days, all the gear has so much going for it that the difference between 1 and the other is less about features and more about flavor or personality.

    > I want that piece of gear cause it can do all that or I want that piece of gear cause it is the only one that does that.

    > Shall I complain now and be pleasantly surprised later or sell it like crazy and hope it does not let me down?

    > Gear by big powerful companies is better cause it is very well engineered and supported. Trusted and True.

    > Gear by severely impractical boutique companies is better cause you get something unique and less processed for easy mass consumption. Genuine and Pure and keeping it real.

    > Does this synth make my image look phat?

    > Software sucks and totally rocks!

    Blessings,

    Thinking of Something to Say, Damon

  • Hey sam

    gwenhwyfaer: I ask this because I look at some VA synths like Nord lead/rack for instance and I see although it has no on board effects, less oscillators etc. even the Rack version is more expensive than the SH-01 (which has a keyboard). Thus I ask myself maybe the synthesis is different.

    (Acctually I had this question regarding the Nord and the blofeld and I understood that the blofeld is more DIGITAL SOUNDING)

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