AIRA, the lineup that now includes a bassline/sequencer, drum machine, synth, and vocal processor, has in just a few months changed the way a lot of people think about Roland. At Musikmesse in Frankfurt, it was clear that it represents a new direction for Roland, too. The AIRA lineup was displayed separately from the usual Roland booth on the main floor of hall 5 (devoted to pianos), upstairs in hall 5.1 alongside electronic and DJ products (“remix”). And there, crowds gathered to watch pounding dance performances.

Those first four AIRA units are just the beginning. Roland has created an entirely new team called the Roland Professional Group (RPG), and it’s these folks who have built AIRA. They’re not just thinking outside the usual Roland box; they’re physically in a different place. The rest of Roland is located in Hamamatsu, Japan; RPG has their own, hip office near Tokyo’s legendary Akihabara electronics district.

But if Roland is thinking of the future, they also seem to think re-connecting to the past is part of that future – literally. In the neighboring booth for ALEX4, the Berlin-based distributor run by Andreas Schneider (of Schneidersladen fame), Roland execs could be seen squeezing in to catch the latest analog gear.

And Roland was making little secret of showing a new sync box to as many people as they could. The hardware, with various labels blacked out, spent some time synchronizing gear in the AIRA demos, and also made the rounds to interested parties. (In fact, I almost couldn’t talk to anyone at Messe without them telling me Roland had been showing it to them – probably in part because I was hanging around analog builders.)

It’s too soon to know whether the Sync Box will ever see the light of day. It’s an early prototype, sporting some trademark AIRA green paint on the panel, but otherwise far from a finished product. But in another break from Roland tradition, here Roland seemed eager to collect feedback, and see what was necessary to make this box compatible with other gear.

The idea is this: the Sync Box has connections for USB, DIN, control voltage (gate), and MIDI. The controls are then dead-simple: a control on the front panel selects which sync source you want, and then you either slave the rest of your gear to that source, or sync everything to a tap tempo / tempo control with display on the unit. (There are some additional controls to sort out different compatibility issues with various analog gear.)

The upshot: you could combine any gear you like (AIRA or otherwise) with vintage 808s, or a new analog drum machine, or a modular, or your computer, or a combination. And Roland seemed interested in new and old gear as part of the equation; such a device would mean that a Roland-branded product could literally connect their newest and oldest products.

We’ll see where this leads. But there are two revelations here. One is, the RPG inside Roland is able to do things that Roland hadn’t been able to do before. Even if the company wanted to make something like the Sync Box, it might not be as easy to green-light (ahem) the project, let alone show it publicly long before it was done. Two, whatever Roland decides to do, the biggest industry players are taking analog equipment very seriously, following a path trailblazed by independent makers that weren’t on anyone’s radar even a couple of years ago.

(I should add – I’m not revealing any privileged information here. The Sync Box, the RPG, and the shift in industry direction were the talk of the entire show, inside and outside the Roland displays.)

In the meantime, you don’t have to wait for an AIRA to do this kind of sync. Koma Elektronik’s RH301 does DIN and CV and MIDI sync already (missing only USB, though that’s easy to resolve with a USB-MIDI interface). And the RH301 does more than just sync those devices: you can also use various divisions of time, and drive envelopes and LFOs. It solves the “how do I sync everything” question, but also gives you some opportunities to get creative with time. I’m hearing some AIRA owners are already snapping these up.

RH301 – Rhythm Work Station / Utility Tool

And that itself demonstrates what the big players could do for the business. Far from competing directly with boutique makers, they may actually help widen the space for those products.

And who knows; some AIRA owners today may wind up modular buyers tomorrow.

  • Nick Suda

    slowly, quietly chant it with me now: OSC… OSC… OSC… OSC…
    anywhere we can sneak it in keeps it from dying

    • Peter Kirn

      …doesn’t really solve *any* problems here. Which is an ongoing theme with OSC as currently spec’ed.

      Things need to demonstrate that they need to live. 😉 Even if you don’t like MIDI, it keeps doing that.

    • Mutis Mayfield

      Get the missing link?

  • Arne Van Petegem

    Doesn’t the Teenage Engineering OPlab have some of that functionality as well? Might not have the DIN sync though. Also hasn’t been released to the general public as far as I know. Love what I’ve seen from that KOMA box with the added LFO and ENV.

    • Peter Kirn

      A few interesting things if you can live without DIN onboard (or use an adapter)…

      This one, too – a pricey but brilliant box.

    • B.C. Thunderthud

      Do you know anything about this MIDI Bastl?
      Actually their whole lineup looks interesting but the cheap flexible sync box jumped out at me, kit is 25 Euro and looks configurable for a variety of formats.

    • KE4

      The Teenage Engineering Oplab does it all, including USB and DIN sync. It is available but notoriously sold out.

    • Arne Van Petegem

      I was waiting for it to come out but I guess I totally missed it then.

    • KE4

      They are still updating the hard- and software – so it is in production. Check their website store.

  • Lor Man

    Of all the new Roland products, the sync box is the most interesting to me and I would not think twice about picking it up if it was ~$100.

  • Nirun Sivaballers

    you guys should include this video!

    • Peter Kirn

      Ha! Yes, we should. Revised.

  • Patrick

    Is there a piece of hardware that memorizes pattern groups? Say you have an AIRA bass pattern, a sampler pattern, a drum machine pattern, and you want you them to change all at the same time without using a laptop?