Have Roland finally come up with a more affordable MIDI guitar for the masses? Paul White obviously thinks so...
Roland's new GR09 Guitar Synthesizer is largely based on the technology used in their flagship GR1, but though certain features have been cut down or omitted to improve user‑friendliness and to keep the price to a minimum, the basic quality of performance hasn't been compromised in any way. Being the fortunate owner of a GR1, I tried the two units side by side and found that the tracking capabilities of the GR09 were every bit as good as those of the GR1.
The GR09, as the photograph clearly shows, is very compact, very blue, and refreshingly simple in the control department. To make the unit work, you need a guitar fitted with a Roland GK2 or GK2A pickup system. The good news is that the GK2A is not only significantly less expensive than the original GK2, it's also much slimmer, and will fit between the bridge and pickup of most guitars — including my Paul Reed Smith, which I couldn't use with the GK2. A short link lead connects the guitar's conventional output to the GK2, which allows the guitar signal to pass down the GR1's multicore lead, to save having to play with two leads. The guitar signal may then be taken from a separate jack on the GR1 or mixed with the synth signal, depending on your preference. A three‑position switch on the GK2 control box, which is normally stuck to the guitar body by double‑sided sticky foam pads, allows the user to select synth only, guitar only or both.
Power for the GR1 comes from the inevitable adaptor; loathe them or ignore them, you can't like them! Physically, the synth unit is very light, but sensibly designed to stand up to stage use, with the display recessed and well out of harm's way. Unlike the GR1, the GR09 displays only numbers for the 128 on‑board patches, arranged into banks of four sounds. To change banks, it is necessary to hold down a button on the GK2 control box while using one of the two rightmost pedals to move up or down through the banks. The desired sound within that bank may then be accessed directly using one of the four pedals. As bank switching isn't easy while you're playing, it might make more sense to put all the patches for each song into a separate bank and do the necessary bank switching between songs.
Like the GR1, the GR09 has a built‑in synthesizer, though there is no sequencer, and the editing functions are more restricted. There are 180 basic sounds or tones in the system, largely based on those used in the GR1, and an additional 180 are available as an expander kit. A patch can comprise one or two tones, which may be balanced in level as required, and a choice of preset reverb and chorus effects may be added. Whereas the GR1 has editable effects, those provided here are all preset, but may be adjusted for level. The reverb section also contains some stereo delay treatments.
For patch editing, control is provided over attack, release and brightness, and you can also change the pitch of the tones to create octaves or parallel harmony effects. Different pitch offsets may be assigned to the tones on each string, so effects such as 12‑string guitar or bass accompaniment on the bottom two strings may be achieved, and the two tones may also be split to sound on different strings. Some of the factory patches have been set up to produce a change in tone when the guitar is played harder; typical examples are the flute, which gets more breathy as you play harder, and the bass guitar, which changes from a plucked to a pulled sound when you hit it hard.
Before playing the GR09 for the first time, the unit's sensitivity must be matched to the guitar pickup system. This is necessary because the signal strength depends not only on how hard you play, but also on exactly how far from the strings the GK2 pickup is mounted. This routine is very simple, and a row of five LEDs next to the display window function as a level meter in this mode. Each string is set up in turn so that when you pick hard, all the LEDs come on, but if the top LED turns red, the sensitivity should be reduced until it no longer does so. Each patch also has its own programmable 'Feel' parameter which relates to the way the instrument responds to picking dynamics. The guitar must also be tuned, and again help is at hand, with the row of LEDs doubling as a tuning indicator.
Some real‑life instruments respond to pitch bend, while others, such as the piano, don't. To emulate these characteristics, individual patches may be programmed to operate in Chromatic mode, where note bending has no effect until it exceeds one semitone, in which case the note will jump cleanly to the new pitch. This is a great help in keeping piano and organ patches authentic‑sounding but, like the GR1 when it is used in this mode, the GR09 is often too keen to retrigger when the fingers are lifted from the string in readiness to move to a new position. This can lead to open strings being inadvertently sounded and, though careful fingering helps, I can't help feeling that some sort of user‑programmable retriggering threshold would make life a lot easier. In normal mode, where string bending is followed by the synth, accidental retriggering is much less of a problem.
On the whole, the sounds that come programmed into the GR09 work well when played from a guitar, and the majority of them have a clearly defined attack to make guitar players feel comfortable. The set of basic tones from which new sounds can be built is roughly similar to those found in a GM instrument such as a Sound Canvas, though I must stress that this is not a GM instrument. The sound generation technology also appears to differ from that used in the Sound Canvas range and, as with the GR1, there is a little more audible background noise than you'd get from a Sound Canvas. Though this isn't serious, I feel more attention should have been paid to the quality of the internal sounds in both current GR models, simply because they both track and play best using their on‑board sounds. If you're a keyboard player, you can simply plug in a new module but, though the GR09 does work with external MIDI modules, the expander needs to be able to work in mono mode to follow string bending properly, and even then is unlikely to track quite as fast or as cleanly as the internal sounds, which don't have to go via MIDI.
Factory sounds occupy the first 64 patch locations, and on the review models, the remaining 64 contained duplicates of a basic piano patch. It's obviously intended that newly created sounds should be stored in this area, though there's nothing to prevent you editing the factory sounds or moving patches from one place to another.
Editing a patch is simply a matter of switching from Play to Edit mode and then using the two large rotary switches to select the parameter to be changed. The Plus/Minus buttons located in the display well are used to change values; the current value is shown by the numeric display. The String Select knob to the left of the front panel is used when editing parameters that may vary from one string to another, though there is an All position for use when all strings need to be edited together. The MIDI Mute setting on this switch sets the GR09 to Local Off mode.
The GR09 is configured to allow a fair degree of performance control via the pedals; switching the pedals into performance mode, using the buttons on the GK2 system, gives you instant access to pitch shift, modulation, and two forms of hold. Pitch shift can be set for both interval and rate (chosen from eight preset options) so that when the pedal is depressed, the pitch will glide to its designated value. When the pedal is released, the pitch will return. Pressing the modulation pedals brings in a deep vibrato, while Hold 1 allows you to freeze any currently playing synth sound, then solo over the top without triggering any new sounds. Hold 2 differs in that any notes not being played when the pedal is pressed may still be played as normal after the pedal has been depressed. This allows the user to solo over 'frozen' drones or chords that use only some of the strings.
A pedal input is provided, which accepts a Roland EV5 expression pedal, and this may be used to control one of seven possible parameters: Volume, Balance, Brightness, Wah Wah, Modulation Depth, Pitch Bend range, or Controller 16, which outputs controller information to an external synth module without affecting the GR09's internal sounds.
The GR09 responds in every way like the GR1; it tracks exceedingly quickly and follows the nuances of string bending very accurately indeed. Clumsy playing can cause occasional false triggering, especially in Chromatic mode, where there is a tendency for open strings to be triggered when notes are unfretted, but a slight cleaning up of playing technique usually sorts this out. On the whole, it's surprising what you can get away with, though fast rhythmic strumming isn't a good idea!
Pitch tracking is generally very stable, though I've found that most guitars have a couple of rogue notes that result in the pitch swooping up by an octave after the sound has been sustained for a short while. This is aggravated if the sound being played is an octave higher than the guitar pitch, no doubt due to the effects of acoustic feedback affecting the string vibration. On both my Strat and PRS, the offending notes seem to be the fifth fret on the fifth string and the fourth fret on the fourth string, but it all depends where the dead spots are on your guitar. If you're lucky, it might not happen at all, and experimenting with string gauge can sometimes help.
The GR09 provides all the essential facilities of the GR1 in a compact and easy to use form. You don't get a sequencer or a card slot, and the internal sounds no longer have the benefit of resonant filtering, but you do get a usable selection of sounds, simple editing of the most important parameters of those sounds, and a useful range of preset echo and chorus effects to add a little bit of life to them.
Playability is foremost when it comes to guitar synths, because it doesn't matter how good the sounds are if they don't track. In this respect, the GR09 does as well as any guitar synth I've ever played, and the old bugbear of delay on the bottom strings has been pretty much eliminated. It's true that clean playing works best — guitar synths don't like fancy harmonics or fast strumming — but normal playing techniques such as bends, hammers and slurs are followed with casual precision.
For the open‑minded guitarist, especially one who records, the GR09 can open up new and exciting avenues of musical exploration. Traditionally, guitarists tend to shy away from guitar synths and technology in general, but the GR09 is so friendly that even a non‑SOS reader could use one! If, like me, you're one of those guitar players who's moved into MIDI but is not primarily a keyboard player, you owe it to yourself to try out the GR09. With MIDI guitar synthesis this accessible and easy, there's no reason to deny yourself any longer. It's what your credit card's made for!
When playing a guitar synth, bear in mind that you have to play in a manner appropriate to the sound you're making; speed licks don't mix with slow‑attack brass and string pads. Ideally, you should play in the style of the instrument you're trying to emulate — for example, try playing arpeggios instead of strumming when you're using a piano patch.
To me, the real beauty of the guitar synth is that you can combine esoteric synth sounds with the sound of your own guitar; by adding a volume pedal, you can fade synth sounds in or out to create some very interesting effects. Though it is possible to sound something like a keyboard player, the fact that individual string bending is possible makes the guitar synth particularly expressive, and if you're adept with a tremolo arm, you can create really believable sax solos or fretless bass parts.
- Good basic sounds.
- Fast, accurate tracking.
- Low cost.
- Easy to use.
- Bank switching system a little clumsy.
- External PSU a nuisance in live performance.
A serious MIDI guitar synthesizer at an unprecedentedly low cost. The best Roland guitar synths have been blue and this one follows on in that great tradition!