Review: Roland Aira System-1 synthesizer

The dawn of the plug-out synth

The dawn of the plug-out synth

WHEN ROLAND introduced its Aira line of ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) models a few months ago, it was pretty clear that, while they are compelling modern options, the TR-8 drum machine and TB-3 bassline synth were not meant to be the same phenomena as their precursors, the TR-808, TR-909, and TB-303.

However, the hotly anticipated System-1 Plug-Out Synthesizer is truly a new breed of synth. As a 4-voice polyphonic hardware synth, the System-1 uses the same ACB technology as the other Airas to produce a dizzying array of beautiful synth timbres, all quickly programmable from its 73 physical controls.

Yet to make it twice as nice, the System-1 can load a compatible softsynth plug-in, which Roland refers to as a Plug-Out, from your computer. That allows you to take the entire softsynth with you and play it on the System-1 with no computer connected. The first in a reputed series of Plug-Outs is bundled with the System-1—the SH-101 soft synth, a faithful re-creation of the classic SH-101 analog monosynth from the ’80s.

Fig. 1. Everything you need to modify a sound is immediately available on the front panel. When you twist the Scatter dial to vary the arpeggio, the System-1’s green LED backlights blink to show you which, if any, parameters have changed.The Hard Facts As a standalone hardware synth, the System-1 more than holds its own. Its emulation of analog synthesis is easy to grasp for anyone with a modicum of synth experience, yet with physical controls for every editable trait, you can quickly achieve enormous varieties of sounds (see Figure 1).

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Two oscillators with sub-oscillator, noise, and mixer join with sections for a single LFO, lowpass and highpass filters, amp, and effects (reverb, delay, bit-crusher). The addition of a pitch envelope, portamento, and monophonic Unison mode make the System-1 incredibly effective for crafting distinctive synth leads for up-to-the-minute dance music genres. The flexible oscillator sections give you six waveforms with Color control, six tunings, ring mod, and oscillator sync. It also lets you modulate the oscillators using the LFO, sub-oscillator, or any of the envelopes.

System-1 excels at the gamut of analog synth sounds—smooth or crunchy basses, pads, screaming filter leads, bell/chime tones, and all manner of noisy and belchy sound effects. The problem is that it’s so fun and fast to program new sounds, but there are only eight onboard preset slots to save to. You can backup and restore patches over USB, but that can really staunch the creative flow. In addition, the keyboard only sends full velocity level and does not offer Aftertouch.

Just as important to the Sytem-1 is its arpeggiator, which offers six arpeggio patterns (Type) and six arpeggio note values (Step). Then, for the combinations of arpeggio Type and Step, the Scatter dial plays 10 different phrase variations, each with ten levels of depth. Now you have a synthesizer that you can get lost in performing live riffs. Engage the Key Hold and Arpeggio buttons, tap in a chord, and then go sick varying the arpeggio and Scatter settings, effects, filters, LFO, and oscillators.

The Soft Sell Roland’s Plug-Out SH-101 soft synth (AU, VST3) works just like a normal plug-in in host software, with the added twist that the System-1 syncs to it as a MIDI controller (see Figure 2). (I had trouble using SH-101 V.1.0.0 in Ableton Live and Cubase Elements; it didn’t show up in the plug-in list. However, Roland said it was an isolated problem that it is working on. The plug-in worked perfectly for me in Native Instruments Maschine 2 and Reaper.) When connected to the SH-101, System-1’s green lighting shows you the available controls for the software. That gives you the advantages of a plug-in with the immediate control of hardware.

Figs. 2a and 2b. The SH-101 Plug-Out synth shown with the SH-101 control layout (in blue) and with the System-1 control layout (in gray).

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Not only that, but the SH-101 sounds impeccable. Roland nailed the emulation here. It remains a monosynth in software form with much the same functionality as the original, except for a few additions, such as effects. I own a vintage SH-101, and the software version captures all the hallmarks of its signature sound—the slow, buttery-smooth portamento; the shrieking filter; the exquisite flange of its pulse-width modulation; mechanical whirring sounds; ghostly overtones; and one of the most convincing re-creations of that elusive analog warmth that I’ve heard.

The soft synth has two banks of patches—100 pre-programmed presets and 28 empty slots. Banks of 64 patches can be exported as a file and then imported again. The first eight patches in a bank are the ones that output to the System-1 hardware when you “Plug-Out.” Just click the Plug-Out button on the software, and it loads into the System-1. You can now disconnect the System-1 and effectively play the SH-101 as a hardware synth. Patches you edit can be loaded back into the software. When Roland comes out with other Plug-Outs, the System-1 will still only be able to host one Plug-Out synth at a time. Fortunately, this first one is a good one.

Fig 3. The System-1 provides stereo audio outputs and the headphone output on 1/4" jacks. The MIDI Out port can be set to MIDI Thru when you’re using the System-1 with the Roland Aira TB-3.A Kiss and Hug to X0X While the concept, technology, and styling of the System-1 match the other Roland Aira units, there isn’t much interaction between the units to exploit, other than syncing them up for live performance. Connecting the TR-8 MIDI Out to the System-1 MIDI In will sync the two together. You can then set the System-1’s MIDI Out to act as a MIDI Thru and then connect and sync the TB-3 to approximate an old-school Roland “X0X” dream rig for live performance (see Figure 3).

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In my book, the System-1 tops the Aira line so far. It can mimic sounds of the past but still feels every bit a modern synth. Moreover, the Plug-Out concept means that Roland can make the System-1 as expandable as it chooses by releasing additional Plug-Out soft synths.

Markkus Rovito drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools and Charged Electric Vehicles.


STRENGTHS: Essentially two synths in one— both of them great-sounding—with System-1 and Plug-Out modes. Excellent control layout for crafting sounds quickly. Giant lead sounds in Unison mode. Included SH-101 software captures and embellishes on the original. Ten types of Scatter modes give new life to the arpeggiator.

LIMITATIONS: Only eight presets available from the hardware in System-1 or Plug-Out modes. Keyboard only sends full velocity level and no Aftertouch. SH-101 V1.0.0 still had some problems loading in certain DAWs.


Make Mine Modern: Tips for Tweaking the System-1

The System-1 may have taken some of its look, feel, and inspiration from analog monosynths of old, but it has some new tricks up its sleeve that can produce devastatingly thick basses and lead synth sounds. Start by engaging Unison mode with the Mono button so that all four voices stack up onto one note. Then set both oscillators to one of the Sawtooth wave 2, Square wave 2, or Triangle wave 2 settings—which seem to have some kind of secret-sauce, wave-coupling going on— but don’t put both oscillators on the same wave type. Now fiddle with the Cross Mod knob under Osc 1 for some added crunchy complexity. If it starts to get too thick— and it might—hit the Sync button under Osc 2 to tighten up the sound into a sharper buzzsaw.

For sounds that are a little more disorienting but reminiscent of The Knife, Air, or any number of EDM celebri-DJs, keep Unison on and turn the Portamento up a quarter or a third of the way. Then also experiment with the Pitch envelope by turning its knob some amount to the right and set a shortish attack and a longer decay.

To save your patch, hold a numbered preset button down until all the preset buttons flash.