Since it was introduced last year, I’ve heard several professional keyboardists refer to the Roland System-8 as “the ultimate desert-island synth.” By combining models of iconic analog gear, a modern subtractive-synth engine, a vocoder, a powerful step-sequencer, and split and layering options, Roland has delivered a remarkably flexible polysynth with few compromises.
The Roland System-8 Plug-Out synthesizer is an 8-voice instrument that offers a surprising level of programmability within its ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) synth engine.
While the included Juno-106 and Jupiter-8 Plug-Out synths are worthy of their own master classes, this month I will dig into the System-8’s powerful AIRA synth, with its multiple oscillator, filter, and LFO options that can be mixed and matched in a manner that strongly evokes modular-synth rigs, but with the ability to save the results for future use.
Fig. 1. The System-8 oscillators currently offer two sets of waveforms that are grouped as Variations. Variation 2 offers six digital modes that cover everything from FM to vowel sounds.
The System-8 has two main oscillators and a sub-oscillator. Each of the main oscillators has two sets of audio sources, called Variations, that are assignable per oscillator (see Figure 1). But all three oscillators do tricks that go beyond traditional virtual analog synths, thanks to a Color knob that can significantly transform even the traditional waveforms. Here’s a summary for each type, grouped by Variation, along with a few tricks to inspire your creativity.
Variation 1 This is where you find the basic synth waveforms. But don’t take this list for granted, because many of the waveforms have notable aspects.
Sawtooth: The base shape is a classic sawtooth with a slope that’s ever so slightly rounded, giving it a tad more low-end than other synths. Turning the Color parameter introduces a comb-like component in the middle range until the value reaches its maximum, at which point it remains a sawtooth, but with the second harmonic (an octave above the fundamental) slightly emphasized. Accordingly, modulating the Color parameter introduces a slight flanging effect.
Pulse: This is the pulse wave we all know and love, implemented uni-directionally with a square wave at zero and thin pulse at maximum.
Triangle: At minimum, a standard triangle is generated. At maximum, there is a tiny, squeezed peak in the waveform that adds some high-frequency content by slightly emphasizing the even harmonics. Above 50% there’s a touch of the comb effect present in the sawtooth.
Multiwaves: The next three options offer multiwave versions of the three standard waveforms, and with these the Color knob increases detuning. The sweet spot for classic “supersaw” effects is between 40% and 60%.
Variation 2 First introduced in the System-1m (and as an update for the original System-1), the second set of oscillator waveforms is a grab bag of tonalities that include both modular-ish and straight-up digital options that greatly extend the timbral range of the instrument. It’s also worth mentioning that each oscillator can be set to a different variation independently: For example, you can use oscillator 1 for a classic analog tone while oscillator 2 handles the more exotic duties.
Noise Saw: This mode is reminiscent of a popular modular trick of using noise as a modulation source applied to a sawtooth. On its own, it adds a slight quiver and grunge to the sawtooth, which is useful for simulating the deterioration of vintage oscillators. Blended with a standard sawtooth on oscillator 2, the result is a dirty detuned effect that’s more aggressive than simply fine-tuning each oscillator a few cents in opposite directions.
Logic Operation: This mode provides logic gates like those found in modular rigs that apply OR, AND, NAND, and XOR functions. Here, it’s a cascaded circuit emulation based on square waves. When using this mode, check out these settings for the Color parameter: 24, 34, 42, 56, 67, 85, 98, 109, 127, 134, 152, 166, and 192. All of these values will deliver results that are more in-tune and manageable when combined with other oscillators.
FM: This mode introduces frequency modulation to a sine wave oscillator, with the Color knob sweeping the modulating frequency. This is useful when creating dissonant sounds. Up to a value of around 60, the initial results are a slightly richer sine wave. As you increase the intensity, the sidebands become harsher with the exception of the following settings (which still include some beating artifacts): 145, 168, 193, and 255.
FM + Sync: Not to be confused with actually adding hard sync via oscillator 2, this mode integrates sync directly into the oscillator FM. The result is a wide spectrum of harsh, in-your-face digital tones reminiscent of a single operator with an adjustable feedback loop. Since it stays in tune as it gets harsher, experiment with the Color knob to get a better feel for this mode.
Vowel: This mode replicates a bright sawtooth waveform transformed by a formant filter. The Color control shifts the filter characteristics through a range of vowel sounds.
Cowbell: This waveform is based on the same four frequencies as the original TR-808 cowbell. The Color knob controls the amp decay of the oscillator so it can be layered with other tones as a percussive effect.
In addition to simply setting a value, the Color parameter can be modulated from a wide range of sources, including the LFO, pitch envelope, filter envelope, amp envelope and—pay attention—audio rate modulation from oscillator 3, which expands the possibilities of each mode dramatically.
For classic PWM-like effects, stick with the LFO. For adding timbral sweeps, try the pitch envelope, as it allows you to keep the other two ADSRs free for their intended purposes. Applying oscillator 3 as an audio rate modulator reinforces the modular-like capabilities of the System-8 and is worthy of an entire evening of experimentation to get a feel for its effect on the various oscillator modes.
Oscillator 2 includes ring modulation and hardsync options, which behave as expected. But it is also worth noting that oscillator 1 includes a dedicated Cross Mod knob. According to the manual, this “modifies the OSC 1 frequency according to the OSC 2 waveform.” In practice, it behaves like FM applied to oscillator 1.
To examine it closely, set oscillator 2 to its lowest octave (64 feet), select a triangle wave, then turn its volume down in the mixer. From there, increase the value of Cross Mod on oscillator 1 slightly and you’ll hear a touch of vibrato that increases in speed as you play up the keyboard. At higher octave settings, Cross Mod adds dissonant, metallic-sounding sideband frequencies. It’s great for sound effects, especially when combined with ring modulation.
Though its range is tied to the octave of oscillator 1, thinking of the System-8’s “sub-oscillator” in traditional terms is a bit of a disservice. For starters, the octave and tuning knobs make it freely tunable over a nine-octave range (in conjunction with oscillator 1’s octave knob), meaning it’s also capable of intervals such as fifths. It can also be detuned, thanks to its parameter resolution of 10-cent increments over a two-octave range.
What’s more, its sine and triangle options include their own Color knob: This shifts the sine towards a rounded sawtooth direction, while the triangle (which, on an oscilloscope is more like a rounded square) can be “pinched” in a pulse-like manner.
And don’t forget: It’s assignable as a modulation source for the primary oscillators’ Color parameter.
Fig. 2. Filter Variation 2 includes six modes based on Roland’s iconic V-Synth.
The System-8’s filter section includes its own set of three variation modes, each with distinctive characteristics that cover both analog and digital territory (see Figure 2). In addition to keyboard tracking and a separate non-resonant highpass in the chain, the filter includes a dedicated ADSR (with negative modulation available) and adjustable velocity sensitivity applied to the cutoff (not the envelope amount, as some other synths do).
Variation 1 The first variation can operate in either resonant lowpass or highpass mode with options for 12dB, 18dB and 24dB/octave slopes for each. The 18dB/octave lowpass mode is a nod to the 303 filter and, while it’s not an actual replica, it’s terrific for acid basses with the resonance cranked.
Variation 2 The second filter variation is based on the “side-band” filter that originally appeared on another Roland icon, the V-Synth, with six different modes that have their own unique character. Savvy listeners will immediately recognize Variation 2’s filters as sophisticated comb-filter arrays that can be used for flanging effects.
Going a bit further, the upper three modes (SBF4, 5 and 6) don’t pass the input source(s) from the oscillator mixer, but instead use them as a type of exciter for the filter to generate its own tones, much like Karplus-Strong synthesis. With a bit of methodical experimentation, it can even deliver effects normally associated with physical modeling waveguides.
ProTip: If you set keyboard tracking to maximum and adjust the levels of multiple oscillators (at different octaves) and noise in real time, you can create otherworldly Indian tanpura-like droning effects, which sound spectacular through the System-8’s delay and reverb processors.
Variation 3 This mode is derived from the original System-1 and -1m and offers much more aggressive lowpass characteristics, reminiscent of the Roland ‘70s-era BA662A filter (notably from the SH-2). While these don’t include highpass options, there is an additional 18 dB/octave mode here that wasn’t present in the original.
Fig. 3. In addition to standard LFO tools, there are two Variations that offer modulation that is evocative of the flexibility provided by modular-synth rigs.
The System-8’s LFOs are powerful and very exotic. As with the filter and oscillators, the LFO includes several variations that allow it to do tricks that would be time-consuming to configure on other synths, even if they supported it. That said, the LFO can be applied in discretely varying amounts to up to five different destinations simultaneously—pitch, filter, amplifier, and each oscillator’s Color parameter. There’s also a Fade Time parameter for classic performance tricks such as delayed vibrato (see Figure 3).
Variation 1 This is the standard LFO configuration, with options for sine, triangle, rising sawtooth, square, sample-and-hold, and random. While these waveforms may seem obvious in their application, there are some details worth mentioning. For example, sample-and-hold and random are often interchangeable terms for the same waveform. But here, sample-and-hold is stepped and jumps instantly between random values, whereas random includes a lag that slides between each value, which is handy for re-creating R2D2-like sweeps and burbles. Additionally, for those who prefer downward sawtooth waveforms for Deadmau5-style pulsing chords, you can invert its depth and apply it to filter cutoff, with identical results.
Variation 2 This is a dual LFO configured for a classic modulation trick: Increasing and decreasing the speed of the LFO with a second LFO’s sine or triangle wave. Here, the waveform options are the same as Variation 1, with the LFO rate being modulated by a triangle/sine LFO five octaves lower. As a result, increases in LFO rate are applied equally to both, following that relationship. While this mode is certainly exotic and lends itself mostly to sound effects, you should also experiment with it in conjunction with oscillator Color and shape as it’s a lovely timbral effect.
Variation 3 The manual states that this is a pulse waveform with resonance, and that may be one way to achieve the same effect with a modular. But if you set the LFO rate to its minimum, you’ll hear that it is actually a sine wave with its depth modulated by a separate sawtooth. The end result is a repeating burst, or “pulse,” of modulation, with LFO frequency governing the rate of the bursts and the waveform selector determining the speed of the modulation within each burst.
The System-8 includes dedicated envelopes for pitch, filter and amp. The pitch envelope is a simple AD affair, which is fine for all but the most esoteric applications. As mentioned above, any of the envelopes can also be applied as a modulator for oscillator 1 and 2’s Color parameter.
Additionally, all three envelopes can be triggered simultaneously from the LFO for creating rhythmic and pulsed effects. This is a feature that SH-101 fans will immediately recognize.
CUSTOMIZE YOUR EFFECTS
Each of the three effects sections includes six types of processing that can be lightly customized using dedicated knobs for Tone, Time and Level. Although the factory assignments for the Tone and Time knobs are thoughtfully implemented, this is one area where a little menu diving will yeild a surprisingly deep degree of customization, and a place where you can further personalize your System-8 patches
To explore the wide range of options available for each effect, press the Menu button, scroll to Patch Effects, press Enter, then use the scroll buttons to move through each parameter set using the value knob to make adjustments. These adjustments can then be saved with your patch, if desired.
The Vocoder also includes a few parameters for fine-tuning formant and consonant behavior that are accessed using a slightly different approach. In this case, begin by pressing the Menu button, then scroll to Patch Effects, press Enter, and then use the scroll buttons to move through the parameter options.
ProTip: While the vocoder mic input is monophonic and uses the left channel exclusively, you can skip the vocoder and use both inputs for instruments or drum machines. This allows the System-8 to double as an audio interface, with the ability to apply the delay and reverb effects to the signal. In fact, if you’re using a second synth in a small live or studio rig, you could run it into the System-8 and skip a secondary mixer.
Fig. 4. While the sequencer is ideal for X0X-style note sequences, it can also be used to modulate four front-panel parameters, allowing you to create radical timbral patterns.
The System-8 sequencer is straightforward to use for playing notes, but it’s even better for automating parameters. Use it to control up to four front-panel parameters, including each module’s Variation knob (see Figure 4).
For really powerful animated textures, skip the note-entry and, instead, sequence the Color and filter parameters. Then play the sequences as you perform in real time. Because each sequence is saved as part of a patch, it is a great way to go further with your sound designing than using the LFOs.
In addition to its audio interface functions, the System-8 is a team player when it comes to working with vintage and modular gear, thanks to its CV/gate outputs. These adhere to the volt-per-octave standard common with Eurorack and Fracrack synths, and they can be configured in a variety of useful ways with a little menu diving.
In addition to simply transmitting voltages from the keyboard in Patch mode, you can also assign them to either side of a split keyboard and save the setup with a specific performance. What’s more, you can send data from the step sequencer to control modular gear, as well as use the System-8 as a MIDI-to-CV converter using MIDI note data from either the USB or DIN input.
KNOW YOUR CONDITION
At the top level of the menu-driven options is a parameter called Condition that simulates the sound of aging analog circuits. Roland isn’t clear about how it works, and there are no definitive Internet discussions on it, but it definitely does something to make the sound more organic in a decidedly analog way.
You can get a better understanding of its effect by selecting a Condition value of either -127 or +127, setting both oscillators to sawtooth with no detuning and equal levels in the mixer, dialing in a filter cutoff of 50% and resonance level of 75%, and making sure there is no velocity modulation on the amp or filter. From there, play the same note over and over, holding it for a while each time. Notice how each repetition sounds slightly different. The result is a simulation of the sound of cycling through a set of decaying voice cards on a 35-year-old synth.
But forget about the emulation aspects of this parameter and explore how it affects patches that you find lifeless or artificial sounding. Dialing in the right amount of Condition is a great way to further personalize the sounds in your System-8.
Producer Francis Prève has been designing synthesizer presets professionally since 2000. You can check out his new soundware company at symplesound.com.