Roland continue to champion the cause of the guitar synthesist, refining their respected line of guitar synths in search of the best combination of facilities, usability and price. Paul White finds out whether they've got the balance right with the new GR30.
The MIDI guitar has always been fraught with technical difficulties. One of the main problems that beset the designers of MIDI guitar systems is the restricted speed of MIDI, which can affect how quickly sounds are triggered. Roland's recent instruments have largely side‑stepped that issue, by providing good on‑board sounds that are addressed directly from the processor, not via MIDI. Of course, a MIDI output is also available for driving external sound modules, but the reality of the situation is that tracking is both faster and more precise when you're using the internal sounds.
In the new GR30, Roland have built upon the ideas and techniques that made the low‑cost GR09 possible, and the result is a slightly cheaper unit that incorporates new sounds, new performance controls, automatic harmony generation and a really neat arpeggiator. Requiring either an optional Roland GK2A (or GK2) split pickup, or one of the few 'Roland‑ready' guitars on the market, the GR30 occupies the same shape of box as the older GR09 but is black rather than blue, and the control knobs carry different functions.
As you can see from the photograph, the control system is very simple, with just four pedals, four knobs and three buttons. As on the GR09, the GR30's display is simply a three‑character alphanumeric window, so you can't name your patches. This also means that you need the manual when programming new sounds, in order to find out what sound corresponds to each of the 384 Tones in the list. If you can memorise all these, you could probably clean up on The Generation Game, but believe me, the GR30 is far more fun than a cuddly toy and a fondue set!
Designed along the lines of a 'stomp box'‑type floor unit, the GR30 is powered by one of those irritating external PSUs and connects to the GK2A system via the provided multicore cable. The guitar's normal output may also be routed along the multicore to cut down on cabling, and this also provides the option of switching to guitar, synth, or both, from the GK2A. The guitar output may then be taken separately out of the GR30 or mixed with the synth sound. In the latter case, the guitar output may be used as an effects send to an external guitar processor; a separate jack is provided to return the effected signal to the GR30. MIDI In and Out connectors are present for sequencer users, and provision is made to connect an optional Bank Select switch and an expression pedal. The pedal may be programmed to do a number of different jobs, including changing the synth volume, tone, interval and arpeggio rate. The output from the GR30 is in stereo, though either jack can be used to plug in a pair of stereo headphones.
The first step is to attach the GK2A divided pickup to the guitar, as close to the bridge as possible, and spaced from the strings in accordance with the instructions. Several shims, bits of sticky‑backed plastic and Velcro are provided, though for a permanent job, screws and springs are also included. Once the pickup is in place, you need to go through a routine to set up the sensitivity of each string in turn, so that they are roughly equal in sensitivity. The row of LEDs to the left of the display serves multiple functions, including showing the string sensitivity, acting as a display for the on‑board tuner, and indicating the status of the Local Off, Effect Bypass, Arp/Harm, Gtr Env Follow and Edit modes.
The volume control regulates only the main mix output — the guitar output jack is unaffected. Certain functions (such as transpose and layering) can be programmed to operate on specific strings, and the String Select control allows independent selection of strings 1‑6, strings 5 and 6 together, or all strings. A button immediately to the right of the display puts the GR30 into Edit mode, and once you're there, the parameter to be edited is selected using the two large dials, and the value incremented or decremented using the plus/minus buttons to the far right of the display. All the edit functions are clearly printed around the control knobs, so there's no need to keep referring to the manual.
In normal play mode, the four pedals may be used to switch patches or to access the Wah, Pitch Glide, Hold and Arp/Harm on/off functions. There are two modes in which the pedals may operate, indicated by screening on the panel, and the current mode depends on the setting of the S1 and S2 switches on the guitar pickup system: S2 accesses Performance pedal mode, while S1 is used mainly for patch selection. Patches may also be incremented or decremented using the S1 and S2 buttons exclusively, and bank switching can be accomplished via an external footswitch. However, if the GR30 is set to select patches directly via S1 and S2, the pedals remain in Performance mode.
In all, there are 256 patches, arranged as 128 user patches and 128 factory patches. As supplied, the user patches are copies of the factory sounds. Because of the limited display capability, patches are designated as a letter followed by two digits corresponding to Group, Bank and Number. There are four patches (corresponding to the four pedals) in a Bank, and eight Banks in a Group.
Pedal 1 serves as a Wah controller in Performance mode, but, since it is a switch rather than a pedal, the wah effect operates on an envelope rather than under direct user control. Several preset options are available, which include a rate setting so that the wah occurs over a short period of time rather than abruptly. It is also possible to set Pedal 1 to bring in vibrato modulation instead of wah and, again, there are several preset mod types to choose from. Each of these choices is saved as part of the patch data, along with a parameter for playing response, the idea being that you could program specific patches to be suitable for finger‑picking, and others for plectrum work. Pedal 2 controls Pitch Glide, and the rate of glide is selectable. There are nine preset rise‑ and fall‑time patterns to choose from.
Pedal 3 functions as a Hold pedal, so that any notes sounding will continue to do so until the pedal is released. This is great for long Floydian intros where you play and hold a Gm string pad, then doodle over it with the regular guitar sound for 10 minutes or so. There are several Hold options, allowing you to hold both tones, just one of the tones, only the lower two strings, and so on. If the arpeggiator is being used, the Hold function operates according to the way the arpeggiator patch has been set up — for more on this, see the 'Take Note: GR30 Arpeggiator' box.
The fourth pedal switches the harmony or arpeggiator function on or off (if it is included in the current patch). It's also possible to call up the tuner function using a combination of pedal and pickup switch presses, providing the GR30 isn't in 'Patch Inc/Dec by S1/S2' mode.
The internal patch effects are based on chorus and reverb, though there are 18 different reverb types to chose from, and 25 chorus types with variations that stray into the realms of delay, flanging and special effects.
Each of the patches in the GR30 can be built up from either one or two Tones chosen from a list of 384; the degree of sound editing available is very limited. The two Tones can be adjusted independently for attack, release and brightness, arpeggiator or harmony functions can be set, and the pedal functions can be defined on a 'per‑patch' basis. Effects can be added, though these comprise fairly conventional reverb and chorus‑type treatments, and there's an option for a parameter of the sound to change with the guitar level envelope. The dynamic response of the guitar synth can be set to hard, soft, tapping, no dynamics, finger style or normal. Both volume and brightness can be made to follow the guitar envelope, if required.
Various 'Patch Common' parameters may also be set, including volume and an arpeggiator or harmony effect, and there's provision to specify the MIDI Send To and Receive From settings of an external device. Also part of the patch are independent transpose options for the two Tones, the balance between the two Tones, and the relative pan positions of the two Tones. Normally the synth sounds will follow string bending and hammering, but a Chromatic mode is available for emulating instruments that normally stay fixed in pitch, such as the piano or organ.
Edited patches may be saved to any desired user location; user patch locations may be exchanged, and patch data may be bulk‑dumped via MIDI SysEx, for storage in a sequencer or MIDI data filer.
Tracking is still the prime concern with MIDI synths and, when it's using its internal sounds, the GR30 is about as good as it gets. Unless your playing is excessively messy, tracking is both fast and accurate, though just occasionally you'll catch a string with the side of your thumb and be greeted by a ricochetting whine as the synth tracks the rogue harmonic instead of the note you thought you'd played! There is some delay on the lower strings, but not enough to put you off playing fast bass lines — something that wasn't true just a few years back. In fact, unless you play very quickly, you probably won't notice the delay at all.
Strumming is followed with surprising accuracy, but only if you strum at a slow or moderate rate — the 'Pinball Wizard' intro is a definite non‑starter! Trilling also works up to a point, but as you approach 'Just One Cornetto' speed, the system starts to miss notes, due to its inability to discriminate between successive pick strokes. Also very impressive is the accurate way in which vibrato‑arm gymnastics are tracked, though all of these wonderful attributes are compromised to some extent when the outside world of plodding old MIDI gets involved. If you're working with a sequencer, you really do have to play cleanly and moderately. A further tip is to sit well away from the computer monitor, because the divided pickup is affected by interference in exactly the same way as a regular guitar pickup. The difference is that you don't hear the interference — you just experience its effects as the tracking accuracy takes a turn for the worse!
Chromatic mode works exceedingly well on organ or piano sounds, but as the system is designed to re‑trigger whenever it sees a new pitch (from a hammer‑on, for example), you have to be very careful how you lift your fingers off the strings, otherwise this is interpreted as a pull‑off and the open string triggers. Perhaps a switchable option to ignore pull‑offs to open strings would be useful for clumsy sods like me! Another feature I'd like to see is the ability to add vibrato to only the last note picked, rather than to all six strings. This is a trick I used to use with my old Roland GR500, which was linked to an external monosynth with a vib depth pedal fitted. However, the ability to follow the guitar envelope for volume or brightness is really most useful, and helps emulate some of the hybrid guitar/synth sounds possible from the old GR300.
The sounds for the basic Tones have been chosen largely to complement the electric guitar style of playing, with lots of piano, guitar, organ, bass and synth lead‑type patches. There's also the usual set of brass, reed, strings and choir sounds, as well as many very effective pads, a few world sounds, and a few dance‑orientated sounds. Sound effects are kept to a merciful minimum, and there's a good range of gentle, New‑Agey washes, tinkly bells and ethereal voices. Though editing is limited, by layering these sounds, changing their envelope characteristics and adjusting their brightness, you can get a huge tonal range. The quality isn't bad either — about on a par with a decently‑specified GM module, but without the GM sound set.
The arpeggiator is most welcome, not only for electro‑pop applications, but also for dance and ambient effects. It's very easy to use (unless you want to enter really fancy rhythmic stuff), and it sounds utterly convincing. The harmony generator is also a wonderful addition (see Harmony Angel: GR30 Harmonist' box) though, as always, you have to be careful to pick a harmony style that will work with what you're playing. You can also come unstuck if you wander too far from the main key or use oddball scales.
Both the Wah and the Glide are genuinely useful real‑time functions, and I particularly like some of the softer, fatter Wah options that allow you to create very analogue‑sounding filter sweeps, which work particularly well on rich pad sounds. Better still, some of the Wah options include an automatic triggered sweep, with which you can interact, using the footswitch. The Modulation option is part of the Wah menu, but I couldn't find any way to change the vibrato delay time, rate or depth, which is slightly limiting. Even so, the default values are generally useful. Compared with the GR09, the GR30 is far better suited to live performance.
At around the same price as a half‑decent effects unit or MIDI synth module, the GR30 is excellent value and works as well as any guitar synth I've heard, if you stick to the internal sounds. The arpeggiator, real‑time controls and harmony functions work brilliantly, the operating system is so simple that anyone can knock up unique patches, and the tracking is both fast and positive. As mentioned earlier, tracking isn't quite so bullet‑proof when you're dealing with external MIDI gear or sequencers, and for sequencing you need to have the option to be able to record on six different MIDI channels at the same time. Poly mode is very limiting (see 'MIDI' box).
The only real criticisms are in areas that could only be improved by increasing the price or the complexity of operation, or both. I'd like a better display with an edit grid, and the ability to name patches; a little more modulation flexibility, and a built‑in expression pedal — but then I'd also like to win the lottery, live forever and have to keep putting the phone down on Pamela Anderson! They say you get what you pay for, but in the case of the GR30 you get an awful lot for very little outlay, even when you add on the extra hundred quid or so for a GK2A pickup system.
Once the exclusive tool of the keyboard synthesist, the arpeggiator has finally made the transition to the guitar synth. The GR30's arpeggiator is a very impressive and powerful tool whose effect may be applied selectively to either or both tones, or to an external MIDI source. A different arpeggio setting may be saved for each patch. All the factory patches have arpeggio settings, even if the arpeggiator is not in use, or when the the harmony function is in use instead. The Hold pedal can be used to keep arpeggios going, even when the guitar strings have stopped vibrating, or you can use Hold to allow you to add new notes to an existing arpeggio. There's also a latching Hold option and a couple of other less obvious tricks to try out.
Arpeggio data is entered by picking the strings in the order in which you'd like the arpeggio to run. The arpeggio tempo may be either set manually (there's a tap tempo function available for this), or derived from an external source of MIDI clock (from a drum machine or sequencer). The duration of the arpeggiated notes may be adjusted, and there's also a kind of grid input mode, where very complicated arpeggios (including multiple strings being played on one step) can be entered to simulate traditional finger picking. This is a trifle tedious, as there's no visible grid and so everything is entered in a kind of blind step‑time. It's not really reasonable to expect a fancy display on an instrument of this price, but I'd like to see a slightly more up‑market model with a better display, so that this sort of function could be used more intuitively. It would also be very nice to be able to name patches, as you can on the more expensive GR1.
A real‑time arpeggio entry mode is provided in addition to the step‑time mode, and though it's quite often difficult to play a MIDI guitar arpeggio accurately in real time, you can prepare an arpeggio pattern in your sequencer, sync it to the GR30, then record the data in real time. This partly mitigates the lack of a grid display, though it's my guess that most users will stick to fairly straightforward synth‑type arpeggios, which are a doddle to enter directly from the strings in step time.
Like the vast majority of guitar synthesizers, the GR30 allocates a separate MIDI channel to each string (Mono mode) to allow independent string‑bending; the MIDI bend range would normally be set to 12 semitones rather than the two or three usually adopted by keyboard players. This is necessary not only to accommodate bends, but also to provide sufficient range for hammers and slides.
MIDI data may be sent on any six consecutive MIDI channels. It's also possible to send all the data on a single MIDI channel (Poly mode), but this precludes the use of many guitar‑specific playing techniques. Patch Change and Bank Change messages can be sent and received, and it's even possible to set different Program Change messages for each string.
The harmonist can work on either or both Tones, or on an external synth, just as the arpeggiator does. The user can select any major or minor key, and the GR30 will automatically work out and play a musically‑correct harmony — providing you don't stray out of key. If you want to do fancy key changes during a song, you can use a pedal to switch from major to minor, and external MIDI notes may be used to set a different key in real time. The way in which the harmony is constructed depends on the harmony style chosen, and there are 12 possible intervals from which to choose, as well as a diminished option.
- Fast, positive tracking.
- Inexpensive for what it offers.
- Easy to use.
- Arpeggiator, harmony and real‑time effects make this a performer's dream.
- Rudimentary display with no patch naming.
- Limited modulation options.
One of the most affordable and playable guitar synths yet.