Well, I, for one, have just about run out of metaphors from the history of vintage synthesis to introduce the latest in future-retro synth offerings from Roland. Instead of commenting on how Roland practically invented popular electronic music and burdening the SH-32 with the memory of its forefathers, I've decided to go Zen, roll without all of that and treat the SH-32 as if it were a brand-new product (which, of course, it is). After all, the only thing that modern physical-modeling synths have in common with crusty vintage gear is the sound. The rest — like unstable tuning, questionable construction and bloated prices — you don't want to know about.
WHAT IT ISN'T
First off, the SH-32 is not a Groovebox. It may look sort of like one and have drum sounds, but what keeps it forever out of the Groovebox clubhouse is that it has no proper sequencer. The SH does have a programmable 16×32-step arpeggiator (which, technically, is a sequencer), so you can get your sound moving, but it lacks hardcore editing power, such as pattern chaining, and a Song mode.
The SH-32 is a four-part multitimbral synth with built-in effects using a synthesis method that Roland calls Wave Acceleration Synthesis to deliver a total 32 voices. To you and me, Wave Acceleration Synthesis means that the SH-32 is not 100 percent analog-modeled. The waveforms — all 67 of them — in the two oscillators are samples, which is how Roland squeezes so many voices out of a synth in this price range; the SH-32's processor is not required to generate modeled waveforms. Each of the two oscillators features a suboctave generator and ring modulation, and oscillator 2 will sync to oscillator 1, but using the oscillator Sync function disables the Unison and Filter modes. Although the spec sheet touts 32 notes of polyphony, that number is based on patches using a single oscillator. Who wants to use a single oscillator when you have two of the buggers staring you in the face? Roland apparently feels the same way, because the vast majority of the internal patches use both oscillators, cutting the voice count down to 16. And that's nothing to sneeze at for a synth listing at $595.
Everything downstream from the oscillators is analog-modeled. The filter is on the resonant multimode tip and can be set as highpass, lowpass or bandpass. A peaking filter allows you to achieve envelope follower-type effects when modulated with the LFO. There are settings for 12 and 24dB slopes. The 12dB setting rips pretty good for all sorts of acid-flavored mutations, whereas the 24dB mode lets you explore the more intense side of things — it's great for sweeping from superlow thumps to tinnitus-inducing screeches. The filter section also includes its own four-stage ADSR envelope that can be inverted, as well as a key-follow slider for changing the filter's cutoff frequency with a keyboard.
A nicely outfitted dual-LFO section is present for modulating filter cutoff, oscillator pitch, pan and volume. The SH-32 provides seven waveforms for your modulation delight, including random, sample and hold, and an interesting trapezoid shape that has characteristics of both triangle and square waves. The LFO section can be synched to the internal arpeggiator and to external MIDI.
The Amp section is the final destination of the SH's signal train and includes ASDR controls for shaping the volume dynamics of the signal. Like the Filter section, there is a key-follow slider that chops the attack off more and more as you move higher on the keyboard.
All this good stuff is packed into a small desktop box with enough control sliders, knobs and light-up buttons to make your head spin a little. The SH-32 may look a bit complicated, but it's actually very well laid out and easy to navigate once you spend an hour or so getting friendly with the various multifunction knobs and buttons.
Flip through the factory presets (128 preset, 128 user memory), and you'll quickly figure out how the SH-32 sounds: punchy and huge. Just about any analog-type sounds can be found, from massive (and I mean massive) basses and lead sounds to minisequences and pads. If you don't like those, just start jacking the slider controls to dial in your own ideas. The Subsonic mode makes for blow-the-bins sub bass and will give your small near-field monitors a real spanking if you're not careful. The SH-32's pulse-width modulation feature and oscillators, which can be hard-synched, add up to superfat monophonic patches.
Four banks of drum and percussion sounds (two preset and two user) provide all sorts of thump and whack, from really nasty to old-school beatboxes. The vibe is definitely on the dance side of the border, so if you are looking for a box to score your next introspective shoe-gazer track, you might want to check out another synth — this sucker is built to bump.
Sounds are accessed in two modes, Patch and Performance. In Patch mode, you have access to single sounds and can add what Roland calls “analog feel,” which adds a bit of detuning to your patch to simulate the instability of old analog oscillators. Performance mode is where you can create four-part multitimbral performances (or three synth parts and a rhythm track). The coolest feature of Performance mode is the ability to “stack” all four parts to create mondo patches of doom.
EFFECTS AND ARPEGGIATOR
The SH-32 has two types of effects: reverb/delay and insert. Reverb/delay effects are just as their name implies and are applied overall to the main outputs. They are of good quality, and you get to hear them plenty on the factory performances. The insert effects can be applied to single patches alone and within a Performance setup. The insert effects offer their own reverbs and delays, which can be tempo-synched, as well as filter, distortion, flange, chorus and groove-type effects, such as Slicer, which creates a rhythmic gate effect based on tempo.
The Arpeggiator goes beyond the basic up and down types found on many synths and grooveboxes. The SH-32 offers 64 style patterns for pitched sounds and 64 for drum kits, and they can be 32 steps long. You can program your own styles directly from the front-panel buttons, or use an external sequencer to create and then load your styles into the SH-32 through MIDI. The arpeggiator can also play the built-in chord styles included in the SH-32 to create your own '80s synth-pop revival. The arpeggiator can also control the filter for trippy filter-stepped grooves.
DON'T GIVE UP ON HARDWARE YET
Lately, I have been so into native processing and virtual instruments that I've been selling off my hardware synths to pay for my new addiction. They're great for noodling around, but during a recent remix, I learned the hard way about the limitation of virtual instruments or, more accurately, my 500MHz Mac G4. After a couple of soft synths were patched in, the Mac began to choke under all the processor demand. I didn't have the time or tracks available to start bouncing stuff to disk and reimport them as audio tracks.
The SH-32 was a real lifesaver. I MIDI'd it to Digidesign Pro Tools and used it to fire off the extra synth parts I needed. The first thing I noticed about the SH-32 was how big and clean it sounded next to the virtual instruments — so much so that I had trouble getting the SH sounds to blend in with the virtual ones; it has that much punch. It sounded so good that I wound up replacing as many of the virtual instruments with sounds from the SH-32. I never had a problem with running out of polyphony, and needless to say, the SH-32 never had any problems with processor loading. I'm beginning to think it's a good idea to keep at least one hardware synth around until I get that dual gigahertz G4, and the SH-32 is a prime candidate.
All in all, the Roland SH-32 is from the well-behaved school of quasi-analog modeling. Its sampled waveforms buff the rougher sonic edges you might expect from a 100 percent, pure analog-modeling unit. But with massive polyphony and its performance stack function, the SH-32 is a clear winner in its class. The SH-32 is a sweet sound module for computer-based studios, as well as a great addition to a Groovebox whose sounds are beginning to get a bit long in the tooth.
Pros: Gobs of polyphony for the dough. Easy to use. Excellent effects and real-time control. Massive sound.
Cons: No audio input for processing external sounds.
Overall Rating: 4.5
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