If you're shopping for a great-sounding, versatile, yet inexpensive analog-style synthesizer, put the SH-201 near the top of your gotta check it out list.
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FIG. 1: The Roland SH-201 is an analog-modeling synth with 49 full-size, Velocity-sensing keys and enough knobs and switches to keep even the most hyperactive synthesist busy.

If you're shopping for a great-sounding, versatile, yet inexpensive analog-style synthesizer, put the SH-201 near the top of your “gotta check it out” list. This little monster would be ideal for aspiring keyboard players, performing DJs who need both keys and an external filter for processing mixes, and home-studio owners in search of a 1-box solution for computer audio I/O and MIDI master-keyboard chores.

The Web pages I checked, for both Roland and online retailers, neglect to mention how many notes of polyphony the SH-201 has. Given the modest price, I was wondering if it might be monophonic. But when I got it out of the box and plugged it in, I found that it's 10-note polyphonic — one note for each finger. Though not multitimbral, it can play two patches at once in Split or Dual mode.

The Physical Package

Don't be fooled by appearances: at first glance, the SH-201 looks and feels almost like a toy. It's extremely light, to the point where I'd worry about it tipping off of an unstable keyboard stand at a gig. The front panel is labeled in big, high-contrast letters, and although there are plenty of LEDs to show the current settings of switches, there's no LCD at all (see Fig. 1).

The 4-octave keyboard feels light and snappy. It senses Velocity but not Pressure. You can transpose its range up or down by up to three octaves using Octave switches. For left-hand control, Roland's standard pitch/mod paddle is augmented by its D-Beam sensor. The knobs are big and easy to grab, and they feel solid, not cheesy. Ditto for the sliders.

Given the absence of an LCD, Roland was obviously going for a 1-knob, 1-function panel layout, in which nothing is hidden. To a great extent, the company succeeded. The oscillators and LFOs (two of each) are selected using buttons that appear on graphical “file tabs,” allowing one set of controls to do double duty in each section. This arrangement is instantly understandable.

Some less commonly used functions are hidden, however. You'll need to read the manual to discover, for instance, how to adjust the Velocity sensing of a patch or set the keyboard to MIDI Local Off mode. These functions and a number of others are accessed from the front panel via button combinations.

Around the back, you'll find a strain-reliefed input for the lump-in-the-line power cord, stereo analog audio inputs (RCA phono, unfortunately), and a multipurpose pedal input (see Web Clip 1). You can attach either a footswitch or a sweep pedal. USB, MIDI, and a headphone output complete the connector complement.


There's no denying that the SH-201's voice architecture lacks some of the refinements of instruments costing three times as much. But it has all of the necessities and includes a surprising number of extras. The factory presets cover all of the usual analog-modeling bases, from cutting bass to ethereal pads by way of chimes and pulsing arpeggios. Overall, the SH-201 sounds rich and lively, with lots of presence. It can cut through on top of a dense drum track or fill in the spaces in a mix with subtle warmth.

The oscillator waveforms include the familiar analog shapes, as well as a multisawtooth for fat sounds and Roland's “feedback oscillator,” which can be swept for gritty metallic sounds. You can modulate the pulse width, multisaw detuning, and feedback-oscillator overtone using an LFO or the D-Beam controller. You can also use the D-Beam to modulate any parameter that is controlled by a knob on the panel.

Ring modulation and oscillator sync are included. By selecting the external audio input as the oscillator “waveform,” you can ring-modulate it from the other oscillator and process it through the voice filter and effects. One of the very few areas where I felt the SH-201 could be improved was the pitch-envelope depth. It maxes out at one octave, which is not enough for truly hair-raising synced oscillator sweeps.

The synth engine's resonant multimode filter may not be quite as fat sounding as the filters on high-end synths, but it's very good indeed. Depending on the patch, some stair-stepping will be audible when the cutoff knob is turned, as its data output is not being smoothed.

The LFOs provide a choice of seven waveshapes. Each LFO has two selectable destinations, not including panning, unfortunately. The SH-201 has stereo effects, but no dynamic panning. In addition to the programmed modulation routings, LFO 2 is always available for vibrato from the modulation paddle. When an LFO is synced to internal or external clock, its rate knob changes the rhythmic subdivision, but of course there's no data display to show what the setting is, only a blinking LED. So unless you have the editor software hooked up, you'll have to use your eyes and ears.

Additional LFO parameters are accessible only from the editor program. Here, you can set a fade-in time for each LFO or click on the Key Trigger button to set it to polyphonic operation. Other advanced parameters, such as LFO rate modulation, are not provided, however.

The effects section of the SH-201 is not fancy, but it's functional. The reverb and delay line each have only two controls — time and depth — from the front panel, and the overdrive has only an on/off button. The editor software enhances the picture considerably: the overdrive has an amount knob in software, and the delay line has seven parameters and can be used for stereo chorusing. The reverb has a generous 12 parameters, including predelay, density, diffusion, and so on. In Split and Dual modes, the upper and lower voices share the same effects.

Given the depth of the voicing possibilities, it comes as a surprise that the SH-201 can store only 32 factory and 32 user presets. You can create and save an unlimited number using the editor and librarian, however, so the shortage of onboard memory may not be an issue for many users.

The Computer Connection

If you're just getting started in the world of computer-based recording, you may be delighted to learn that the SH-201, a USB cable, and a basic digital audio and MIDI recording and editing package are all you need to produce music (other than monitors or headphones, of course). The SH-201 comes with a CD-ROM that contains ASIO audio drivers for Windows, and it's also compatible with Intel Mac audio.

There are at least three scenarios in which you may want to use the SH-201 with a computer. First, it can be your audio interface: analog audio arriving at the SH-201's external inputs can be recorded into an audio track. The SH-201 operates strictly at 44.1 kHz but can sample at 16-bit or 24-bit. You can also record the sounds generated by the synth itself onto an audio track for subsequent mixing.

Second, the computer's audio output can be processed through the SH-201's external audio filter, which has cutoff and resonance knobs and a couple of mode buttons. The output of this filter is then passed on directly to the SH-201's analog audio outputs. This hookup allows you to run a laptop at a gig, for instance, and manipulate the sound of the laptop from filter knobs in real time. As an alternative, the computer's audio can be routed through the voice filter and effects.

The same options are available for processing external analog audio in real time. There's even a center-cancel button for impromptu karaoke sessions.

Third, if you're using the SH-201 as a tone module for MIDI sequencing, you can load its editor program as a pseudo VSTi plug-in. This lets you edit a sound as part of your song file and have the sound be reloaded (including any edits) the next time you load the song. It's not a complete VSTi implementation, because the editor's knobs can't be automated as VSTi controls. But knob moves can be recorded as MIDI data from the front panel, so that isn't a big issue.

The method for getting the editor to show up in a Windows sequencer is buried in the Quick Start information on the CD and is hard to find. Using Steinberg Cubase, I had to copy the editor's DLL file manually into the Cubase VST Plugins folder, because the editor's installer didn't take care of this. (Adding the default folder to Cubase's list of places to look for plug-ins also works.)

Editor and Librarian

The editor software has a clean, easily understood design (see Fig. 2). It also allows you to edit numerous parameters that are not accessible from the hardware's front panel or that are accessible only via button combinations and possibly a quick trip to the manual.

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FIG. 2: The included software editor for the SH-201 provides access to a number of parameters not available from the instrument''s front panel. Its amenities include a MIDI Message data field (upper right), which shows the System Exclusive or Control Change message being sent for each edit. These messages can be copied and pasted into your sequencer.

The added LFO and effects parameters were mentioned earlier. In addition, you can name your patches, set the keyboard-split point, set pitch-bend depth, balance the levels of the lower and upper tones in a dual or split preset, pan the tones separately, reassign the mod paddle so that it controls LFO depth for some destination other than pitch, and more. The biggest benefit of using the software is that it provides graphical editing of arpeggio patterns.

The librarian is not integrated with the editor. Both can be run at once, but after making changes in one, you'll need to click on a button or two to get them back in sync with one another and with the hardware unit. This is annoying, but again, not a big deal. Don't look for advanced database functions in the librarian. You can add comments to patches and copy them from one bank to another, but not much else.

Arpeggiator and Recorder

From the SH-201's front panel, you can turn the arpeggiator on or off, change the tempo, and select any of 32 preset factory patterns. After launching the editor, you can freely edit the patterns in a graphical display (see Fig. 3). Patterns are polyphonic and can be up to 32 steps long. Velocity and duration can be edited for each note.

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FIG. 3: Notes can be entered and edited graphically in the arpeggiator page in the SH-201''s editor program.

What's especially cool is that if you select a normal arpeggio mode, such as up/down, the pattern will be interpreted by choosing the nearest note from the phrase. Though this feature is difficult to describe in words, it lets you create pulsing chord patterns and arpeggios that have a few chords thrown in (see Web Clip 2).

The phrase recorder has no interface in the editor. It can record up to eight measures of notes and/or knob gestures and then loop them for playback. Eight phrase memories are provided; these are global to the SH-201, not stored per patch. A metronome beeps quite loudly during recording, so you won't want to record phrases on the fly during a performance. But storing a few knob-only phrases ahead of time and recalling them at a gig would be a great way to produce complex sonic changes while you play, as if by magic.

The manual doesn't explain how to erase a previously recorded phrase, but it turns out there are two ways to do it: you can hold down the Cancel button while in Record mode and keep it held down for the entire length of the phrase, or you can change the phrase length before starting to record. Entering Record mode without changing the length gives you overdub recording. Unfortunately, cool phrases can't be archived externally using the librarian software.

As a synthesizer, the SH-201 is not revolutionary in its design. It sounds terrific, but so do a lot of other keyboards. (To be fair, most of them are more expensive.) What sets the SH-201 apart are its easy-to-play front panel, the near-seamless integration with a computer, and the ability to run external audio through its filters in live performance.

Given the depth of its voice programming, the fact that only 32 user memory slots are available is a sticking point. But realistically, 32 may be enough for a live set, and the included computer editor and librarian will let you design and store sound banks until the cows come home. Don't be fooled by the price, the lightweight chassis, or the nonsexy graphics on the panel. The SH-201 is an amazing value and a wonderful analog-modeling keyboard.

When he's not writing about music technology in his PC-based home studio, Jim Aikin plays cello, writes interactive fiction, and wishes there were more hours in a day and more years in a lifetime.



analog-modeling synthesizer



PROS: Sounds terrific. Provides computer audio I/O. Real-time processing of external audio. Friendly panel layout. Cool arpeggiator.

CONS: Onboard patch memory is skimpy. Some parameters can be edited only with the included software.