Roland have embraced the Eurorack format with their semi–modular System 1m and four Aira effects modules.
Marking the ongoing expansion of the Aira range, Roland have pushed ahead of their countrymen at Korg (not to mention most other large companies) by taking the plunge into Eurorack’s churning waters. Dominated by the bijou and the innovative, Eurorack is also a vibrant, expanding market that was bound to attract the attention of the industry’s big fish sooner or later.
If you recall, the original System 1 keyboard provided a four–voice modelled analogue synthesizer with the capability to load an alternate (so far monophonic) personality as a ‘plug–out’. At the time, the SH101 was given away as an example to get us in the plugging mood and there were mentions of Roland’s great modulars of the 1970s to intrigue us further. Finally we can see why. The next step, the System 1m, is a slender rack module as happy on the desktop as it is slotted into a Eurorack or 19–inch case. Its predecessor’s keys, arpeggiator and scatter function have been dropped in favour of patch points and a slightly higher price, giving us an ideal opportunity to check out the ACB technology in its new voltage–controlled setting.
Considering the size reduction (to a 3U 19–inch rack or 84hp in Euro–speak) the slimline System 1m is almost as tweakable as the System 1. In other words, it’s very tweakable indeed, with minimal multi-functionality to dampen your pleasure. Unless you were attached to the arpeggiator or scatter function, nothing of value has been sacrificed in order to squeeze down to rack dimensions. The reverb, delay and bit crusher are still present, a few knobs have shifted around and a patch selection encoder replaces the buttons previously used to access the eight patches. Happily, there are more memory slots available now for both machines — see the ‘Version 1.2’ section.
As before, the controls are backlit in green and there’s no way to reduce their intensity to prevent the System 1m from hogging the rack limelight. The recent JDXA had a ‘good taste’ setting (off) and the same option is long overdue on the Airas. Joining the green blaze are a number of LED–backlit mini–jacks in red and blue — and it’s these that really separate the 1m from the 1. The colours help distinguish audio (red) and control signals (blue), an idea familiar to users of Buchla and Serge systems. In software, the audio path is usually given the lion’s share of the available processing power in order to achieve higher sample rates and minimise aliasing and other digital giveaways. Such artifacts aren’t so blatantly damaging in signals used as modulation sources. When it comes to patching, the colour–coding can be regarded as purely informational: it imposes no limits on the connections you can make.
Joining the patch points, a new knob has appeared: Pitch/Gate. It seems a bit superfluous at the moment because its function is to trigger a note when no other connections are present. This is something you could easily rig up by routing the LFO’s output to the Gate input with one of the supplied patch cords. It does, however, give you the opportunity to instantly check out the aliasing in the very highest notes, in case you need reminding this is not an analogue synth.
Before we get started, it’s worth reading the System 1 review from October 2014 as, with the exceptions I’ve already mentioned, the two are functionally the same. This amounts to a four-voice synth based on Roland’s Analogue Circuit Behaviour technology. The origins of the simulated circuits aren’t given, but it’s a healthy collection comprising twin–oscillators (plus a sub and noise), with cross modulation, oscillator sync, ring modulation, a high–pass filter and a choice of low–pass filters. It also features ‘AIRA Link’ — the system that provides easy USB connection to the MX1 Mix Performer.
With all those gently glowing patch points, it seemed logical to plumb the System 1m into my Eurorack case. Even so, I’d recommend making a MIDI connection too and leaving the cable dangling out of the box (if at all possible). This is because, even if you plan an entirely CV–based experience, MIDI has its advantages. It supplies clock for the sync’ed delay and LFO, but is essential for remotely selecting programs or for playing the System 1m polyphonically.
Once you’ve made those CV and Gate connections, you lose the option to play in either unison or poly modes. This seems a shame since voice rotation is a cool extra ingredient when sequencing or soloing even if you’re only sending single notes. It’s possible to load a stored polyphonic patch from memory when in CV/Gate mode but it won’t trigger — and as a clue all the patch point backlighting goes off.
Smoothly combining patch memories and physical cables always presents a challenge and Roland’s approach is to store the state (connected or disconnected) of the inputs. If you load a patch from memory and there’s a physical connection already present, the connection will be ignored unless the patch expects it to be there. The socket blinks to alert you this is happening and should you wish to honour the connection, a quick re–insertion will do it. Naturally the System 1m has no idea what was on the other end of the cable, only that something was, and no attempt is made to keep track of the cables plugged into outputs. Therefore, and in common with modulars generally, getting the same sound back again may require written notes, photos, rigorous organisation — or luck.
Sitting amongst other patchable synths, the System 1m’s semi–modular status opens it up in ways impossible to its predecessor. The outputs of both oscillators, the LFO and the signal mixer are all available to pipe wherever you like, plus the sync output delivers a pulse wave from oscillator 1 regardless of the waveform selected. This is ideal for sync’ing external oscillators and in tests it worked beautifully with my Digisound modular, the Roland’s tuning lending a spooky level of stability to those crotchety old VCOs. The inverse is also possible. By feeding a pulse output from the Digisound to the System 1m’s sync input, suddenly I had a sloppy, wavering modelled analogue. Continuing to cross–patch the two synths, I fed the ACB oscillators through several analogue filters and was impressed by how well they blended in. I did miss having independent frequency inputs for each oscillator, but within the available space, the connectivity is otherwise well–chosen.
Making up for an omission of the original System 1, there’s now an external audio input which, if used, replaces the sub oscillator in the mixer. You can therefore process incoming signals with the filter and effects of the System 1m — but there’s more... If you recall from the earlier review, the sub oscillator can act as a modulation source for the ‘Color’ parameter. When the external input is brought into play, it becomes a means of imposing more extreme ‘Color’ modulation on either oscillator.
Four of the patch points warrant a quick explanation, specifically the ‘env’ inputs for pitch, filter and amp, plus the filter’s LFO input. When a jack is inserted into any of these, the internal routing is interrupted in favour of the external source, the amount of modulation still governed by the regular knob. You can therefore plug in a noise source to generate Minimoog–style pitch and filter burbles, a feat beyond the scope of the System 1. Similarly, you can now indulge in a spot of filter FM by routing either of the System 1m’s oscillators into one of the filter control inputs. The results of this audio–level modulation were surprisingly close to comparable patches on my analogue modular.
The free V1.2 upgrade for both the System 1 and 1m brought several much–appreciated enhancements. After performing a version check on the review model, I immediately upgraded it to the latest (V1.21). The process would have been slightly easier if I’d thought of it prior to racking because updating (and version–checking) requires a power–on while holding certain buttons — and the power switch is inaccessible once in a rack.
So what do you get? Well, vital functionality such as a master tune control and a user–variable pitch-bend amount for a start. Better, though, is the set of six extra waveforms and a memory bank expansion. Now, instead of just eight onboard patches you have a far more generous 64, arranged into eight banks. If you hoped to select these via MIDI, Roland haven’t made it particularly easy. Rather than simply make a selection using a standard program change, extra information is required, the specifics as yet undocumented.
Each of the new waveforms is accessed by using the six–way switch in combination with the Legato button. This ‘multi-functionality creep’ would feel slightly slicker if it was accompanied by some form of visual indication. Perhaps the green ring around the selector knob could go out, or flash, so you’d know the score as soon as a patch loads. If you can’t immediately tell, a quick spin of the ‘Color’ knob will reveal the differences by ear. The additional waveforms are as follows:
Logic Operation: a digital waveform of the cutting variety, brimming with bright, splashy harmonics. Within moments I’d used it to make a fair impression of a spoon hitting a drainpipe. When taken down a few octaves and the filter applied, it delivered convincing PPG–style basses.
FM: a series of FM–flavoured waveforms that start pure but, as you spin the Color knob, become more complex. With cross–modulation and a percussive envelope applied, you’re straight into DX log-drum territory.
FM & Sync: this combination offers a harsher set of digital noises that won’t appeal to the faint–hearted. The waveform becomes especially trashy with cross–modulation, making it an ideal starting point for lo–fi ‘games machine’ noises.
Vowel: a series of vowel shapes that morph smoothly over the travel of the Color knob. The results are clear, clean and suitable for polyphonic choral parts, especially if you set the LFO to gently sweep the formants.
CB: it’s a cowbell. And while your first reaction might be to cry ‘less cowbell’, its thin, nasal, odd–harmonic qualities can be worthwhile. And if you really want a TR808–style cowbell, a pretty close rendition can be found in the higher octaves.
All these extra waveforms take an already powerful and flexible synth into more manifestly digital territories — and why not! With 64 patch memories to fill you can add a complementary range of sparkly new sounds that were not possible before, whilst retaining all the modelled analogue goodness.
With the release of the System 1m, Roland’s other plug–outs were opened up for patching, offering the exciting prospect of semi–modular versions of classics such as the SH101 and ProMars. The documentation is sketchy right now, so it’s often a case of checking which patch points are lit up and trying them! For example, the ring modulator input remains active when the SH101 is loaded and both of its sync jacks appear to work exactly as they do on the System 1m!
All are available in VST, AU and plug–out formats but, unlike the original System 1, there’s no introductory offer of a freebie — not even the plug–out of the System 1 itself, which feels less than generous. One plug–out at a time can reside in your hardware, its controls mapped to it as closely as is possible. This works well in most cases, the exception being the System 100, Roland’s legendary semi–modular from 1975. The plug–out combines elements of the 101 keyboard and 102 expander, but sadly, a number of its modules and controls are only accessible with a mouse. Unless there’s a larger controller in the pipeline, you’re therefore nudged back towards computer interaction despite the implied freedom of those patch points.
It took me a while to get the plug–outs authorised — until I realised that the process only works (on Mac anyway) if you give your computer a name. I therefore cracked a bottle of champagne over my six-year-old Mac Pro and named it Dave. However, even though the activations completed successfully, the activation process continues to be invoked every time Logic boots. According to Roland, this is intentional, but as it needlessly slows down the startup process, I hope the decision isn’t set in stone. Imagine how long our DAWs would take to start if every soft synth did the same thing!
Rather than turn this review into a novella, I’ll stick to general observations rather than try and cover each plug–out in depth. Besides, I sold my SH2 and System 100 many years ago and have never owned a ProMars. The plug–outs ship with banks of presets and each has a recognisable GUI that can be scaled up to 200 percent, compensating in a few cases for rather titchy knobs. Each has sonic characteristics defined by the original architecture and rendered in software by the mysterious ACB. However, since all are models of Roland synths from a particular era it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are many tonal similarities.
Playing through the presets and tweaking the controls, I found them believably analogue and ‘Rolandish’ from the outset. Of course, if you do insist on revealing their digital nature, this can be accomplished by audio–level modulation, excessive resonance and by playing notes guaranteed to irritate bats. In typical use, only the most devout analogue worshippers will mind.
Flicking from one to the next proved to be an ineffective way of comparing the modelling of individual filters and oscillators, so as a test, I made four similar patches on the SH101, System 1, System 100 and ProMars (I never did manage to authorise the SH2). For simplicity I chose a single sawtooth oscillator, a snappy decay and set the filter resonance initially high. Then in Logic I made a basic sequence and recorded a series of filter sweeps, copying the same pattern amongst the plug–outs. There next followed a pleasant afternoon auditioning each at different resonance levels.
While hardly the most scientific of experiments, it confirmed to my satisfaction that there are genuine differences between the responses — it’s not just a copy and paste exercise. The blend of resonance and signal varied considerably, with the ProMars exhibiting the highest resonance and also the most obvious bass–robbing as the resonance is increased. The SH101 and System 100 vied for the accolade of deepest, fattest, wettest sweeps.
My least-pleasant discovery was that all were very steppy, in stark contrast to the smooth operation you hear when they’re plugged out to Roland’s hardware. Worse, there’s no MIDI Learn implemented, so mapping these to your favourite controller (like a regular soft synth) isn’t going to be a walk in the park, at least until Roland’s documentation reveals what all the CC numbers are!
I know I said I’d stick to generalities, but there was one amongst the collection I’d been particularly keen to get my hands on. The System 100 has probably the most creamy and seductive filter Roland ever gave to a synth and selling mine was one of my dumbest moments (which is saying something!). Although the filter shoot–out never delivered the goosebumps I’d been hoping for, time spent programming and playing the System 100 began to stir memories of the warmth and smoothness of the original. So even though it isn’t a totally convincing rendition it quickly became my favourite of the collection, aided by the fact that the usual crusher effect has been replaced by a phaser.
The System 100 plug–out has a few other extras too, such as a second LFO and a scratchy soft-sync implementation. Having never managed to track down a 102 expander in the wild, I can’t tell you whether this version of ‘weak sync’ rings true or not, but it’s weird and it’s fun, even if you can’t currently switch sync types directly from hardware. As I mentioned earlier, you will need the mouse more often with this than the others, and unless you have a remarkable memory, you might end up, as I did, running a USB cable into your computer for frequent double–checks of the GUI.
One issue I experienced when dealing with the System 1m’s patch points was that all the sounds supplied with each plug–out bank are assumed to be played by MIDI. This is absolutely fine, until you click the ‘plug–out’ button and transmit them to hardware. If you prefer using the CV/Gate inputs, you must re–plug then re–save every one of the 64 patches. This gets old pretty quickly and a better solution would be some kind of UI override so you could switch the lot in one go. I also noticed a high CPU demand when several plug–outs were merely idling — it’s as if all were competing for the same resources. Roland are aware of these performance issues so hopefully updates won’t be far away.
At this stage it still feels like early days for Roland’s plug–outs in their VST/AU form and while they don’t sound too shabby, none reaches the ‘alive–sounding’ realism of plug–ins such as U–he’s Diva or NI’s Monark.
The System 1m is more expensive than its keyboard counterpart, but those patch points offer more than adequate compensation for a missing keyboard and pitch–bender. Although it remains a semi–modular, there’s enough patching potential for hours of diversion — and the new oscillator waveforms and extra memories contribute hugely to the programming pleasures.
It’s a shame that CV operation and polyphony are mutually exclusive, but if you keep a MIDI cable connected, you can switch between modular experiments and exploiting the unison and four voice modes without too much hassle. Many of the most interesting Eurorack modules these days are completely digital and I can see the System 1m being warmly embraced despite the 84hp it grabs. However, it doesn’t blend in modestly with other modules and if you could turn off the knob and slider backlighting, I for one would appreciate it better.
There’s no free plug–out this time, but you do get Ableton Live Lite and the now–familiar Roland audio interface functionality thrown in. If you fancy checking out the range of classic plug–out synths, there are (time–limited) demos of all so you can discover which particular slice of nostalgia appeals the most. Just remember that they’re smoother once loaded into Roland’s own hardware.
In summing up, I’m reminded that I recently paid almost the price of the System 1m for a single Eurorack oscillator. This is a superb–sounding complete synth with effects, memories, patching and the option to load an alternate personality complete with its own set of patches. So whether it’s used stand–alone or in conjunction with a DAW, the System 1m seems like a Euro hit to me!
If the patch points aren’t of pressing interest, Roland’s own Boutique range or Yamaha’s Reface CS offer polyphonic modelled analogues for less cash. If it’s the semi–modular nature that catches your eye, the main competitor has to be Moog’s Mother 32 — its analogue oscillator and filter, plus sequencer and extensive patching, make it the one to beat. Otherwise, synths such as Doepfer’s Dark Energy II or the Dreadbox Erebus offer a mixture of analogue and patching at tempting prices.
To further cement Roland’s commitment to the Eurorack format, four Aira modules were tucked neatly away in the review box. Their bodies are plastic but with a metal face plate providing extra sturdiness. Each is 21hp wide and supplied with an external adapter and a Eurorack power cable, making them suitable for either Euro or free–standing operation. Following Roland’s recent trend, each can act as an audio interface, at 24–bit/96kHz resolution.
The 24–bit, high–resolution knobs are Moog–like, beautifully responsive and there’s not a green glow in sight. This is evidence, if needed, that Roland can still serve up a classic, timeless design when in the mood. If racked, the Micro–USB port is inaccessible, but for software configuration (on multiple platforms) there’s a rather wonderful — arguably better — solution anyway. The front panel of each module has a ‘Remote In’ mini–jack which, with a cable between it and a tablet’s headphone output, allows each unit to be thoroughly reprogrammed.
Since the Windows version of the Aira Customizer insisted on IE10, I concentrated on the iOS app (free from the App Store) and was immediately hooked by its look and operation. For no very good reason, I thought it might have been a pain to use, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The app is fantastic. It comes with 15 (so far) sub–modules that can be dragged in, internally connected and the results squirted into your hardware. This simple act changes a whole module’s personality in a few seconds and reminded me slightly of the Nord Modular editor, but was far easier to use. The changes are stored until you overwrite them, making each one of these little boxes way more powerful than it appears.
Each module has twin inputs and outputs, offering either dual-mono or stereo operation. The CV inputs respond to a range of –10 to +10 V and there are volume controls, CV attenuators and CV access to every expected parameter, leaving no doubt that Roland mean business. In no particular order...
Scooper: borrowed from the Aira Scatter function, this is a looper/loop mangler that captures phrases of up to 10 seconds. I was grateful for the manual’s detailed explanation of the scatter-type knob. Apparently it ‘adjusts the type of scatter’ — so now we know! Fortunately, the best modular secrets are found by experimentation and even if you hadn’t played with another in the Aira range, it’s quickly evident that scatter shuffles parts of the loop around, reverses some sections, swaps steps and mucks about with the gate time and repeats. I’m fairly sure I heard rate reduction in there too. The effect on your audio isn’t quite instant Autechre, but it’s in that ballpark.
I found it fairly easy to get neat loops manually, but if pressing the button on time is an ordeal, the Sync/Trig button can be controlled remotely, eg. from a sequencer. With pitch–shifting and filtering too, this is the Aira module you’ll turn to for totally messing up any signal, even before adding extra weirdness via the Customizer app. The filter operates as a high–pass from 12 o’clock clockwise and in low-pass mode in the opposite direction.
Bitrazer: provides stereo bit and sample-rate reduction to nastify your input. The built–in filter will smooth the results, or trim the bottom end if you flip it from low– to high–pass mode. Both the filter type and bypass can be toggled via their respective trigger inputs. Dropping down the bit value too far can totally kill your audio — a potentially useful means of switching between crunching and chopping out chunks of a loop with a step-sequencer. Finally, while it’s unlikely to lure anyone away from their Oto Biscuit, the Bitrazer does become far more interesting when you add extra filters, ring modulators and LFOs in the app.
Demora: a delay module with a range of between 20 microseconds and 10 seconds. Or, if you fire up the Customizer, it becomes a flanger, a chorus, a screwed–up ring-modulated delay and more. CV control is provided for the delay time, feedback, width and wet/dry balance, and if you modulate the time with an LFO, Demora delivers smooth, high-quality pitch–swept delays. If you patch in a filter, the impression of an analogue delay is enhanced still further. Width is the amount of ping–pong between the two outputs.
It’s even possible to sync the delays to an incoming USB MIDI clock. To try this, I connected a Sequentix Cirklon’s USB output to my iPad. The Customizer app then translated the clock source and allowed me to select the division required — it worked a treat! You’re also given external switching of the delay’s hold and bypass functions. Hold works similarly to the wonderful old Boss DE200 delay in that held loops slow down and drop in pitch as you lengthen the delay time.
Torcido: provides distortion, tube simulation and tonal adjustment. The distortion is full and ballsy — just the thing to turn a System 1m bass line into an overdriven TB303. It’s even more effective when given more to work with, such as a polyphonic source. The tube warmth control turns the otherwise hard, brittle output into something organic and strangely satisfying.
You’ll quickly learn to be careful with the Lo Boost though — it seriously pumps up the bass end. Using the distortion, tube and tone controls Torcido already delivers more tonal control than you’d expect, but it can be taken to the next level by connecting the Customizer and dragging in a spot of ring mod or sample and hold.
£219 each including VAT.
There are two sets of MIDI ports, top and rear, giving maximum flexibility for desktop use or the two racking options. For Eurorack purposes, a set of screws and a neat power cable are included, and a regular 19–inch rack adapter and wall wart are present too, covering all the bases.
The rear panel has a USB socket and full–sized audio outputs — these are duplicated on the front panel where the outputs are reduced to 3.5mm. Even so, the instrument isn’t stereo, nor is the delay. However, if you plan to use the System 1m as an audio interface, having two outputs makes sense.