Roland Gaia SH-01 Review

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The Gaia''s three layers, selected with the Tone buttons at left, are programmed from a single panel of knobs and sliders. There''s no digital readout—your ears are your guide.

Unlike nearly every digital keyboard I''ve played, the Roland Gaia SH-01 has no text or numeric readout nor a screen of any kind. I immediately got so lost in turning knobs, moving sliders, and waving my hands around in front of the D-Beam that I didn''t notice this profound omission. This is indicative of Roland''s intentions with the Gaia: to build a synthesizer so engrossing to play and so slick for on-the-fly programming that patch names and menus become meaningless.

Like its popular ''80s predecessor, the SH-101, the Gaia is intuitively playable yet deeply tweakable. If it can find an audience, I think Roland will have a hit on their hands in the educational, portable, and professional markets.

The core of SH-01 is a simple structure that looks a lot like three stacked SH-101s, but it goes much deeper. Each of the three layered Tones has an LFO, an oscillator, a filter with ADSR envelope, and an amp section with ADSR envelope. The LFO, which has six waveshapes, will sync to tempo—either MIDI clock or tapped in with a Tap Tempo button that blinks in time with the current tempo. The LFO has dedicated depth sliders for routing it to oscillator pitch, filter frequency, and volume. There''s also a dedicated Fade Time slider to adjust how long the LFO takes to fade in to its full amplitude, a key element for wobbly baselines.

The oscillator has seven waveforms, each with three variations. It would be great to be able to sweep between waveforms to avoid jumps in tone, but that''s a small gripe. Overall, all of the waveforms sound authentic and cut nicely through a mix. (But I agree with some other reviewers that too many layers of just the Gaia in a mix can quickly get muddy.) You''ll find dedicated knobs for pitch (up or down two octaves) and detune, as well as a pitch envelope with attack, decay, and envelope-depth sliders. Dedicated sliders for pulse width and pulse-width modulation are enabled while the Pulse/PWM oscillator is selected. The Mod button allows Tones 1 and 2 to be combined in either oscillator-sync or ring-modulation mode for a thicker sound.

The filter is straightforward and sounds rather meaty for a digital keyboard, and it packs many features into a small front-panel footprint. There are five modes: lowpass, highpass, bandpass, PKG (peaking), and Bypass (which disables the filter section completely). A Slope button toggles between -12dB- and -24dB-per-octave roll-off. You''ll find dedicated knobs for cutoff, resonance, and key-follow, which causes the cutoff to follow pitch and is adjustable between -100 and +100 percent. The filter envelope has dedicated faders for attack, decay, sustain, and release. There''s a fifth for envelope depth, which again ranges from -100 to +100 percent (negative settings subtract the envelope value from the cutoff frequency). You can also make the filter respond to velocity by holding down the Shift button and turning the Cutoff knob to choose an amount.

The amplifier section is straightforward. It offers dedicated attack, decay, sustain, and release faders, as well as a level knob, which is the only way to balance the three Tones.

To the left of the four main synth sections you''ll see Select and On buttons for each of the three Tones. You use the Select button to choose which Tone you''ll be editing with the panel controls, either one at a time or in groups. I found it really gratifying to choose all three Tones and adjust their filters simultaneously and then switch back to just one to change it while the other two were stable. A convenient Tone Copy button lets you copy all the settings from one Tone to another with three button pushes: Press the Tone Copy button, then the Select button for the Tone you want to copy, and then Select the button for the Tone you want it copied to.

The three Tones are combined and sent to the Effects section, which holds 10 effects on four simultaneous chains. The first chain has Distortion, Fuzz, and Bit Crash; the second has Flanger, Phaser, and Pitch Shifter; the third has Delay and Panning Delay with optional tempo sync; and the fourth is a dedicated reverb. Each chain is limited to one effect at a time. A Low Boost effect lives outside the other chains. A dedicated Effect On/Off button disables all effects. Two knobs combine with the Shift button to control four parameters per effect, although memorizing which parameters they actually control is daunting. Dialing in specific effects can take some close listening. But the effects are fun to play and sound quite nice; the tempo-synched Panning Delay, in particular, is a big help for sound design.

The effects output volume is controlled by the Output knob at the bottom right of the front panel. For modulation control you get a Pitch Bend/Modulation stick and a D-Beam, which I find offers significant potential for expressive control. You can easily assign it to volume, pitch, or effects. To choose a new assignment just hold down the Effects/Assign button while you turn a knob or a slider; the D-Beam will immediately control that parameter. It is a simple and effective way to keep the D-Beam relevant no matter what sound you''re using, and it''s one of my favorite features that Roland synths offer (see Web Clip 1).

You''ll find a few other convenient performance features given dedicated controls on the lower left of the panel. Those include Octave/Transpose buttons, buttons for toggling between monophonic and polyphonic usage, a very useful Key Hold button for when a long release isn''t enough, and a portamento control.

The Gaia is equipped with a powerful arpeggiator that syncs to tempo (MIDI or tap), and you can switch on-the-fly between 64 preset patterns. It''s fun to switch patterns while using the Key Hold button, although switching patterns requires an awkward combination of button pushes (see Web Clip 2). The patterns themselves are well programmed and organized into eight banks of eight.

You can''t create your own arpeggio patterns, but as a substitute you get a Phrase Recorder for recording a sequence of MIDI notes or knob tweaks against the tempo (again, MIDI or Tap). It''s not a Looper, and creating a Phrase on the fly is difficult (though not impossible). You''ll find 64 available Phrase locations waiting to be filled up with ideas that you can use with whatever Tone you''ve chosen. You can switch phrases during playback, but it requires another awkward button combination. Although both the arpeggiator and the Phrase Recorder are useful, one or two extra buttons would greatly improve playability.

Patches are saved in eight banks of eight (see Web Clip 3). There are 64 preset patches, 64 user patches, and 64 patches accessible from a USB memory bank if attached. It''s a simple process to surf them using the Preset Patch, User Patch, and Bank buttons. Writing the current sound to a patch is just as easy; there is even a helpful Write Protect feature for protecting those all-important patches from accidental overwriting.

You can save and recall patches and phrases on a USB storage device, and a second USB connection on the back allows the Gaia to exchange audio and MIDI with your host computer (Mac/Win). The tone quality of the computer''s mix when auditioned through the Gaia is slightly lower than with my dedicated interfaces, but probably better than most computers'' built-in audio. The recording quality of the Gaia''s sound when recorded to a DAW through the USB connection is pristine.

To make things even better, the Gaia will run on eight AA rechargeable batteries. I did some untethered recording on my deck in the sun, and it worked perfectly. I found it rather liberating to work using only my laptop, the Gaia, and headphones. The manual says you can expect five hours of normal usage from fully charged batteries, but that using the USB connection will lower that to about four hours. Fortunately, there is an automatic power-saving mode that is disabled by default, but you can easily turn it on and customize the wait time.

A convenient external 1⁄8-inch jack on the front panel lets you stream audio through the Gaia''s output, and its Center Cancel feature lets you create quick karaoke mixes. Another cool function, called Manual, makes the current sound reflect the actual position of all knobs, buttons, and sliders. Of course, being a Roland device, the Gaia sports V-Link integration for synchronization with other Roland V-Link-enabled devices.

Keyboardists looking for a quality analog-style synth with a solid mix of programmability and playability, and amateurs wanting to learn about subtractive synthesis while playing and singing along with their favorite music will find something to love about the Gaia. It is a flexible and powerful synth that really puts the focus back on the player. It makes you use your ears and understand the means by which it creates sounds. With any luck, it will help inspire more producers and synth players to go beyond patch names and presets and get back into tweaking sliders and listening to the results.

Asher Fulero is a pianist/keyboardist and tech-savvy electronic music producer with a long résumé, endorsements from Moog and Nord, and three new releases in 2010.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Gaia SH-01 product page.