The GR-20 ($695) is Roland's most recent contribution to guitar synthesis. Housed in a compact floor unit, it offers a strong enticement for guitarists to jump into the MIDI pool. The package includes everything but the guitar: a GK-3 divided pickup; a 13-pin cable; and the GR-20, which serves as MIDI converter, sound source, and foot controller. The front panel's three areas are for patch selection, setup and programming, and the pedals. The Bank knob quickly selects from ten preset and one user bank. Scroll with the Value knob to change the Patch number shown in the display.
The Roland GR-20 guitar synthesizer is a complete package for MIDI guitarists, providing a synth module, a pickup, and even a cable-everything you need except the guitar.
Pick and Choose
On the front panel, color coding indicates the function of two rows of buttons. The upper buttons deal with global parameters such as output level, pickup-switch functions, patch mapping, and MIDI channel. The lower buttons edit Patch-specific parameters such as filter cutoff and resonance, transposition, and Play Feel, which gives you six preset Velocity curves to suit your playing style. Below the buttons are knobs controlling attack and release rates, chorus depth, delay or reverb depth, and overall Patch level. Patches contain additional effects such as distortion, tremolo, and overdrive, but those parameters are not accessible. You can store edits to any of the 99 user locations.
The Value knob, pedal, and display functions change depending on the current task. For example, selecting the GK Sens button lets you adjust the GR-20's sensitivity relative to the pickup's output. Consequently, the display indicates the string and its sensitivity level. The Expression pedal can be set to control volume, pitch bend, filter, or effects levels. Buttons to the left of the expression pedal activate the tuner; select the pedal's function, hold functions, and glide type; write edits to user memory; and exit Edit mode. Likewise, the Glide and Hold pedals have contextual functions. Pressing both simultaneously engages tuning, or you can use the pedal to enter parameter values, thus avoiding the need to squat when you want to make adjustments. You can also use the GK-3's two switches to edit parameter values or Patches.
The rear panel sports MIDI In and Out ports, a power switch, a transformer-in-the-middle power connection, and a jack to connect the 13-pin cable from the pickup. Left and right outputs, an output for the guitar signal only, and a pair of Mix-In jacks for outboard processors are on unbalanced ¼-inch jacks. The left output accommodates stereo headphones. You also get a strain-relief power-cable hook and a slot for a security lock.
Batches of Patches
For any controller with a built-in sound source, the quality of the onboard sounds is paramount — kudos to Roland's sound-design team. Most of the sounds are extremely playable, and quite a few standouts grace the sound set. I usually avoid sampled saxophone patches, but Moody Sax is imbued with a delayed, natural-sounding vibrato. You have enough time to play realistic legato lines and faster passages before the onset of vibrato, which fades in naturally for lengthier notes. Pads are lush and animated. Not surprisingly, the least effective sounds are the acoustic guitars, many of which suffer from grainy-sounding decay stages. Electric guitars fare better, and the electric sitar is quite nice. Although it seems a tad quaint that the GR-20 provides “vintage” guitar-synth tones, old-school guitar synthesists should be pleased. I had tremendous fun with splits that had sampled loops in the lower strings and an instrument voice in the upper strings; engaging the Hold pedal lets you play over the loops.
The GR-20's 48-note polyphonic synth tracks very smoothly. When controlling an external device, tracking is a bit slower, but it's still faster and more accurate than the GR-20's recent siblings. If you play cleanly, so will the GR-20. Because pitch bends are fixed at 24 semitones, you have to set your synth to match that range. A menu offering preset bend ranges (like the GI-10 has) would be welcome. Although the instrument supports 6-channel transmission (in Mono Mode), the synth is not multitimbral, so plan on another sound source or two for sequencing.
The GK-3 pickup design adapts to guitars with differing bridge shapes and string spacing. Its inclusion helps make the purchase of the GR-20 easier if you're undecided about guitar synthesis.
The GR-20 excels as a live adjunct to a guitar rig. As a sequencing tool, it is slightly hampered by being monotimbral and by its inflexible pitch-bend range. Nonetheless, its convenience, simplicity, and playability, as well as its high-quality sounds and entry-level price, should appeal to novices and professionals alike.
Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 4
Roland Corporation U.S.