Roland have put elements of their two very different approaches to guitar synthesis in a single box. Could this be the best guitar synth ever?
Roland have been at the forefront of guitar synthesis since 1977, when they launched the all-analogue GR500. Today, their guitar synths are all digital, but what they have in common with their ancestor is that they require a pickup system that provides a separate signal for each string on the guitar. You had to use Roland guitars with the GR500 and some of the later models, but the current system allows you to fix a Roland GK hex pickup to your own guitar.
Roland use this same hex pickup to drive their COSM (Composite Object Sound Modelling) guitar- and amp-modelling VG-series processors, so it seemed inevitable that these two different guitar technologies would eventually be combined... and so they were. Roland's GR55 Guitar Synthesizer, announced at the January 2011 Winter NAMM show in California, is the first product to put both their PCM Synthesis and COSM Modelling technologies in a single floor unit. Roland also claim that the GR55 has significantly faster and more accurate pitch-tracking than their previous GR synths.
The GR55 is available with or without a GK pickup and mounting parts, which means that most guitars can be adapted to work with the system. Bassists can also use the GR55, by playing an instrument with a GK bass pickup fitted to it.
The GR55 features two independent synthesizer sound engines, each of which can access the same 910 voices, including pianos, organs, orchestral sounds, various synths and percussion. A useful degree of sound editing is possible, but this is far more basic than you'd expect from a keyboard synth: Roland clearly intend this product to be as unintimidating as possible.
A third sound source is provided by the COSM section, which offers amp and speaker modelling, guitar modelling, and a handful of more abstract sounds based on heavily processed versions of the guitar-string waveforms. Unlike the synth sounds, which require the string pitch to be tracked, COSM sounds have no latency or tracking issues, because they work directly on the string sound, but integral pitch-shifting means that it is possible to use alternative tunings or to emulate a 12-string guitar. A patch can comprise up to two synth sounds layered with one COSM sound.
Recognising that sometimes guitar and synth sounds require different types of amplification, it's possible to route the outputs of the GR in a number of useful ways. The rear panel of the unit has a stereo out on two jacks (Left only for mono) plus a separate guitar-out jack (which can carry both the conventional guitar signal and any of the COSM modelled sounds) and a headphone outlet. Setup options allow the output sound to be tailored for various sound replay systems, from standard guitar amps to full-range PA.
Effects may be added to each signal via a dedicated multi-effects processor, and there's global reverb, chorus, delay and EQ. A huge library of factory presets gives a pretty good idea of what this device is capable of, and editing these presets is pretty straightforward, thanks to a new 'EZ Edit' system and a decent-sized LCD window. Roland have also added a basic version of their looper technology, for creating layered recordings of up to 20 seconds when you're playing live.
The GR55 includes both MIDI In and Out sockets. Although the synth sounds can't be played via MIDI, the MIDI-interfacing capabilities make it easy to use the GR55 as a controller to drive soft synths from the guitar. However, it's important to note that Roland have developed their own system of triggering the internal synthesizer sounds that follows picking dynamics, strumming, string bending and so on. While many of these aspects of performance translate fairly well to MIDI, you may still find that the internal sounds respond better to normal guitar-playing techniques than do externally triggered sounds. It's also possible to use the MIDI Out connector as a V-link port. (V-Link is a protocol developed by Roland to allow musicians to control video devices. The video devices themselves must be V-Link compatible to use this feature).
Like the VG99, the GR55 functions as an audio/MIDI interface. It connects to the computer via a USB 2 port, but as yet there's no software sound editor, as there is for the VG99. Meanwhile, a good practical feature is the USB song player that facilitates the playback of WAV files from a conventional memory stick.
Power comes in via an external adaptor, while the GK pickup system attaches via the usual 13-pin DIN connector. All the connections are on the rear panel, including the audio outputs, USB port, MIDI I/O and the power input.
Physically, the GR55 is ruggedly built in a steel case, with an assignable pedal to the right that can be used to control up to nine parameters at a time, including wah and volume. There are four footswitches, three of which may be used to select patches or to operate the looper, and the fourth being a control ('CTL') switch, which can be assigned either to a global function or to control a specific parameter (or group of up to nine parameters) per patch. A typical use would be to activate the hold functions (see box), which offer numerous options regarding the way notes are held and how new notes can be played over the top. Holding down the first two switches together gets you into a bank-change mode, although banks can also be selected using the buttons on the GK pickup.
The number of controls is fairly small, so the panel doesn't seem at all daunting, and the large LCD window uses graphical icons that make navigation and adjustment intuitive.
Before getting onto the fun stuff, I should stress the importance of setting the pickup height and getting the GR55 settings right before you can start playing — because failure to do so will leave you with uneven triggering levels between strings. When you've told the machine what pickup system you have, how far it is from the bridge saddles and what scale your guitar is, there's a setup page that allows you — once you've set the pickup height as instructed — to adjust the sensitivity of each string. I found that the final balance had to be done by ear, though, as simply matching the meter reading across the six strings didn't get nearly close enough.
If you have more than one GK-equipped guitar, you can save setups (up to a maximum of 10) for them separately. The instructions are very clear, so if you follow them to the letter before you start to play, you shouldn't run into problems. Other parameters allow you to adjust the string response to your own playing style.
To make finding the appropriate sound more straightforward, there are dedicated buttons for 'Lead', 'Rhythm', and 'Other' preset patches, in addition to a 'User' button section where you store your own patches or edited versions of the factory patches, with 99 user banks available. A data dial surrounded by a four-way cursor pad is used in conjunction with 'Page', 'Enter' and 'Exit' buttons for basic navigation, while the EZ Edit function allows very basic 'wetter/drier', 'warmer/brighter' editing to a patch if you don't want to go deeper.
On the COSM front, there's a good cross-section of very plausible guitar and amp sounds, from jangly 12-strings to throaty humbuckers, going through a cranked stack. To be fair, many competing products offer a similar degree of amp-simulation realism, but where COSM scores highly is in its ability to model the guitar and pickup selection, as well as offering alternate tunings.
I wasn't as impressed by the more abstract guitar sounds (which Roland call HRM, or Harmonic Restructure Modelling) as I was by the ones built into my VG99, though. I got the feeling that Roland had decided to leave most of the more 'non-guitar' stuff to the synth section. For me, that's the wrong way to go, as the sounds modelled directly from the guitar strings always feel much more 'connected' and, as I said earlier, there are never any tracking issues. I'd much prefer to see COSM developed to the point where we no longer need to rely on sample-based synthesis. Taking the comparison between the GR55 and the VG99 further, the latter has dual COSM engines and a hugely expressive D-Beam controller, which can also be used to 'freeze' COSM sounds. The VG55 has only a single COSM engine, and there's no freeze function.
On the synth side, the sounds seem to have progressed little since the GR33. Current keyboard synths often come loaded with lavish multisamples and many velocity layers, so what's on offer here feels a little dated by comparison. On the plus side, though, the strings and organs are excellent, as are the flutes and French horns, many being taken from Roland's JV expansion library. I felt the more abstract synth sounds were rather unadventurous, but with over 900 sounds to work your way through, and with opportunities for layering, there's still more than enough scope for the typical guitar player.
The improvement in tracking speed over earlier models is definitely noticeable, particularly when it comes to the initial delay (or lack of it!), though you still get the odd squeal and warble if you apply conventional guitar-playing techniques, such as digging in to accentuate harmonics. Adopting a clean, non-fancy playing style really helps, but it can take some conscious effort, especially for very exposed sounds such as piano. The multi-effects processor can be applied to the two synth voices, or to the entire patch. Chorus, delay, reverb and EQ are always available separately for overall patch processing.
Hitting the 'Edit' button allows you to select the basic elemental sounds that underly the patch (Roland call these 'Tones'), and you can also opt to blend in some sound from your guitar's conventional pickup, which connects to the GK pickup controller on your guitar via a short patch cable. There are pages for deciding which parameters to assign to the pedal and CTL switch, and the behaviour of the Hold function, when in use, can be specified per patch (see box for more).
If you're expecting the GR55 to be a VG99 with a GR33 grafted on, you'll probably be disappointed, but if, instead, you regard the GR55 as an enhanced version of the 'player friendly' GR20, you'll be much more impressed.
The inclusion of COSM modelling alongside a wide range of GR20-style synth sounds, with noticeably better tracking, makes for a fun playing experience, whether you're gigging or in the studio. Not only does this open up a world of synth and modelled amp sounds from a single floor unit, but the ability to blend the two often yields results that are more impressive than the sum of the parts.
Despite the fact that the sounds themselves would probably be considered a little staid by most keyboard players, and that the editing is relatively basic, Roland have struck a good balance with the GR55. They know that the majority of guitar players like plug-and-play simplicity — which is why there are so many presets, and they've had to keep the editing as simple as possible — but they've still offered enough scope to allow the creation of new sounds by those who prefer to dig a little deeper. On the whole, I think they've done a pretty good job, while keeping the price attractive... though life would be even easier if they came up with a software patch editor.
You could buy a Roland VG99, a GR33, and a GK splitter box to produce similar results, but this is the only product that does it all.
While the GR55 lacks the VG99's 'Freeze' function, which allows infinite sustain of the COSM sounds, the synth sounds can be 'held' in four different ways, and the Hold mode can be stored with the patch. The user can set whether the CTL control switch has a latching or momentary operation, and it's also possible to select Hold On or Off for each of the two synth voices, so you can hold just one of the parts if you like. The four modes are as follows.
Mode 1: This holds any notes you played before depressing the pedal, but notes playing after you pressed the pedal are also held. If they are played on the same string as a note already held, the previously held note ceases to sound and the new one takes its place.
Mode 2: This holds any notes you played before depressing the pedal, but notes playing after you pressed the pedal do not sound. This is ideal if you want to hold a chord and then play regular guitar over the top.
Mode 3: This holds any notes you played before depressing the pedal. Notes playing after you pressed the pedal sound but will not be held.
Mode 4: This holds any notes you played before depressing the pedal, but notes playing after you pressed the pedal are also held, if they are played on the same string as a note already held.