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Roland AIRA Compact S-1 Tweak Synthesizer

Synthesizer Module By Robin Vincent
Published September 2023

Roland AIRA Compact S-1 Tweak Synthesizer

Roland’s SH‑101‑inspired S‑1 is a great‑sounding synth with surprising depth.

The Roland S‑1 Tweak Synth is the latest in the AIRA Compact range of fun and fiddly little synth boxes. It’s inspired by the classic SH‑101, and promises to have the same iconic vibe, although it looks nothing like it. Roland use the same Analog Circuit Behaviour (ACB) technology in the S‑1 as they do to build the plug‑in instrument emulations of their legendary gear, and it also forms the basis of the Boutique range of synthesizers. So, it’s probably right to say that the S‑1 is more like a fun‑sized version of the already petite SH‑01A Boutique. However, while it has the same engine and boost to four‑note polyphony as the SH‑01A, the S‑1 also has a few extra tricks up its sleeve.

First Impressions

I like the other boxes in the series, particularly the T‑8 Beat Machine, so I had high hopes for the S‑1. The form and layout are very similar to the T‑8. You’ve got a four‑digit display, and two and a half rows of small, trimmer‑style knobs. It has some buttons and the most miniature two‑octave keyboard I’ve ever seen, and it’s all wrapped up in a rechargeable plastic case no larger than a Korg Volca.

The knobs are fiddly, but that’s not uncommon, so it’s the sort of thing we put up with on good value, mobile little boxes. The white text on the black background is easy to see; however, there’s also text on the buttons, which is far more challenging to pick out. My 52‑year‑old eyes are not the best, but I had to use the torch on my phone to read the text on the black keys. Holding the Shift key illuminates all the buttons in orange, but they flash if they are not enabled so this is only partly helpful. It’s not terrible, I can work around it, but legibility is an important factor, and it’s going to eat into my enjoyment of this little machine. However, after a couple of minutes of playing with the S‑1, I was hooked; this is a delightful little synthesizer.

The Sound

The front‑panel synth architecture roughly follows the SH‑101/01A. It starts on the left with the modulator section featuring an LFO with rate knob and waveform selector, followed by a combined VCO/source mixer section with a six‑octave Range selector, an LFO depth control, and four level knobs controlling a pulse wave, sawtooth, sub‑oscillator and noise generator. Next is the filter section with cutoff, resonance, LFO and envelope depth. Beneath that is a full ADSR envelope. The LFO has the added waveforms from the SH‑01A, but other functions, such as PWM and sub‑oscillator octave, must be discovered via the Shift key.

It sounds very much like a decent analogue synthesizer, and Roland have nailed that SH‑101 tone, but you quickly find yourself going beyond that with the overlapping notes of polyphony and the impressive reverb and delay. The mix of waveforms is excellent, the sub fattens things out gorgeously, and the noise can widen the textures when used sparingly. The filter happily pushes into self‑oscillation and can run as a slightly untuneful oscillator. Just on the surface, there’s a lot to explore, especially once you’ve worked out how to enable the arpeggiator.

The mix of waveforms is excellent, the sub fattens things out gorgeously, and the noise can widen the textures when used sparingly.

Using the two‑octave keyboard is not quite as terrible as you’d imagine. I think it’s a better playing experience than the touch strip of a Volca or the buttons of a Cre8audio East Beast. It somehow manages to accommodate my fat fingers, and having just over two octaves really makes a difference when bashing out a tune. There’s no velocity on the keys, but then there wasn’t any on the original, and you can always plug in a MIDI keyboard for more...

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