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Roland SH-01A

Synthesizer
Published May 2018
By Gordon Reid

Roland SH-01A

Roland continue to mine their considerable legacy with another Boutique module, this time based on the simple but much-loved SH-101.

Dumbfounding the critics who questioned their very existence when they were launched, Roland’s Boutique synthesizers have caused quite a stir and sold in significant quantities. I reviewed the first three of these (the JX-03, JU-06 and JP-08) in 2015 and was, to a greater or lesser extent, impressed by all of them. It seems that I wasn’t alone; now that Roland have discontinued them, second-hand prices are around the original recommended retail prices. I then reviewed the VP-03 and, while I found some significant errors in its implementation, liked this too. Most recently, I reviewed the D-05, which I felt was excellent. So I was keen to get my hands on the SH-01A, not least because I like the SH-101 in an ‘ahh, cute!’ sort of way, and have long been a fan of its polyphonic cousin, the Juno 60. Since the new model promises to recreate the monosynth and offers some intriguing possibilities with respect to the polysynth, this looked like it could be another good ’un.

The Technology

The SH-01A looks like a miniature SH-101 until you place the two next to each other, at which point numerous differences become apparent. Nonetheless, the whole of the SH-101 control panel is present, although with a different layout to fit the rather constrained dimensions of the Boutique format. Of course, the large lettering that says VCO, VCF, and VCA is mere affectation because the SH-01A is digital, but I don’t give a damn what generates the sound as long as it sounds right. Other differences with respect to the SH-101 include the provision of the usual Boutique pitch-bend and modulation ribbons rather than the original’s left/right/push joystick, and the addition of a four-character screen with its associated Menu button and Value knob. But despite all of these changes, the SH-01A looks the part.

The Signal Path

The SH-101 was based on a single CEM3340 oscillator, and the SH-01A emulates this with a virtual analogue oscillator that simultaneously produces sawtooth, pulse and sub-oscillator waveforms. Like the original, you can alter the duty cycle of the pulse wave manually, modulate it using the LFO, or sweep it using the contour generator. Pitch modulation is also available using the LFO to create vibrato and FM effects. Where the two synths differ here is in the range of footages available; the SH-101 was limited to four octave ranges from 16’ to 2’, whereas the SH-01A adds 32’ and a super-deep (generally subsonic) 64’ range.

Next in the signal path, the Source Mixer offers four inputs: the oscillator’s sawtooth wave, pulse wave and sub-oscillator, plus noise, of which there are two types available: Original, and the much bluer Variation. This is also where you determine the nature of the sub, choosing from a square wave one octave down, a square wave two octaves down, or a pulse wave two octaves down. Once mixed, the signal then passes to the resonant 24dB/oct low-pass filter which, like the original IR3109 (also used in the Juno 6 and Juno 60) offers controls for the cutoff frequency, resonance, and the amounts by which the contour generator, LFO and keyboard CV affect the cutoff frequency. At its maximum, the keyboard tracking is precisely 100 percent, which means that you can play the self-oscillating filter as you would any other oscillator.

Finally, the signal passes to the amplifier, which offers just two switches as controls. The first of these determines how its gain is shaped — either as a rectangular on/off when you press and release a key, or by the contour generator. The second is the three-position switch found in the Env section on the original. This determines how the contour generator is triggered, using either the keyboard gate, or the gate and further keyboard triggers (multi-triggering), or the gate and the LFO as the trigger source. The contour generator itself is a no-frills ADSR which, when tested against the original, revealed a similar maximum attack time (the disappointing three seconds of the SH-101), slightly longer maximum decay and release, and slightly different decay and release curves. But I wouldn’t worry about the differences; I doubt that they will matter except in the most extreme cases.

Roland SH-01A front panel controls.

Modulation & Performance Controls

You’ll find the modulation controls to the left of the panel. These include the LFO, which on the SH-01A offers six waveforms rather than the original’s four (sawtooth and ramp waves have been added), plus three faders that control how the oscillator pitch and filter cutoff frequency respond to the pitch-bend ribbon, and by how much the oscillator pitch responds to the seventh LFO waveform, a sine wave whose amplitude is controlled by the modulation ribbon. The LFO (which, unfortunately, can’t be sync’ed to MIDI Clock) has two modes, Original and Advanced, the latter of which extends the maximum LFO speed up into the audio band. This allows you to create FM-type sounds and suggests all manner of interesting possibilities but, because the LFO doesn’t track the keyboard, isn’t anywhere near as useful as you might hope. Nonetheless, you’ll find uses for this if you like aggressive and often atonal sounds, especially if you use the LFO to modulate the filter cutoff frequency or to trigger the contour generator, which can create AM sidebands to further complicate the FM sidebands obtained by modulating the oscillator or self-oscillating filter.

On the SH-101, this is also where you’ll find the portamento controls, the octave transposition and the master volume knob. The SH-01A offers just the first two of these because, in common with other Boutique synths, its volume control is located on the rear panel, which is precisely where it shouldn’t be. The final knob is the Tune control, which has migrated to the bottom right of the SH-01A’s panel, perhaps because that’s the only place that Roland could find to fit it in.

The Arpeggiator & Sequencer

One of the most popular features on the SH-101 was its arpeggiator. While this offered only Up, Down, and Up/Down modes, it responded to the synth’s Hold function so you could take your fingers away to do other things, and you could transpose a held arpeggio in real-time while playing. Timing was provided by the LFO or the external clock input, and the ‘shapes’ of the resulting notes were determined by your choice of the trigger mode in the contour section. I was never greatly enamoured of this arpeggiator — the range was just the played notes and there was no random mode — but I accept that it complemented the simplicity of the rest of the synth. Consequently, I was pleased to find that Roland have taken the opportunity to extend its functionality on the SH-01A by adding a dedicated clock, clock scale and swing functions, plus one- and two-octave options. Furthermore, arpeggiator settings are stored on a patch-by-patch basis, which is very welcome.

The SH-101 also offered a single-track, 100-step sequencer. Used at its simplest level, you just pressed the Load button to initiate recording, played the notes that you wanted and then pressed it again to end recording. You then pressed Play to replay the sequence in an endless loop until you stopped it by pressing Play a second time. If you wanted to be a bit more sophisticated, you could add rests and ties using the Rest and Legato buttons respectively. As with the arpeggiator, timing was provided by the LFO or an external clock and, as before, you could transpose the sequence in real time. The SH-01A recreates this (which means that you can obtain some interesting effects using the LFO in its higher-frequency mode as the clock) and then adds the clock scale and swing functions already mentioned. So if you’re a fan of the original, you’re going to like this a lot. Better still, the sequencer offers 64 pattern memories. Given that the SH-101 could only hold the current sequence, this is a huge step forward, especially since you can recall SH-01A patterns ‘on the fly’ during playback, allowing you to construct songs in real time.

In Use

Like other Boutique modules, the SH-01A feels solid and robust, and you can slot it into a DK-01 dock or a K-25m keyboard controller, whereupon it will send the keyboard’s velocity even though it’s not able to respond to it. It will run on batteries should you not have a USB power source to hand, and it will play through the little speaker mounted in its base if nothing is plugged into its audio outputs. Unfortunately, there’s no provision for conventional DC power.

Setting it up and using it is simple if you intend to use it as you would an SH-101, although a little clunky when you start to access its extra facilities, which include the new noise and LFO modes, the MIDI, velocity, CV and clock parameters, and your selection from its 16 tuning scales. Take the LFO as an example. To select the wanted mode you have to press Menu, press a button to select the System menu, use the knob to select the menu item that you want, confirm this by pressing a button, use the knob again to adjust the parameter value, and then press Menu again to exit. To make matters worse, none of the procedures are annotated on the panel so, until you become au fait with them, you’re going to be referring to the crib sheet (I refuse to call two sides of A2 a manual) more than you would want.

Did we mention that, just like its forebear, the SH-01A comes in traditional grey, a fetching blue and a very jolly red? Did we mention that, just like its forebear, the SH-01A comes in traditional grey, a fetching blue and a very jolly red?

Having gotten to grips with this, it was now time to start comparing the SH-01A’s sound with that of the original. To do so, I set up my SH-101, placed the SH-01A and an Arturia AE ‘The Factory’ keyboard (chosen because it has the same 32-note F-to-C keyboard configuration) alongside it, and selected the SH-01A’s manual mode so that the sound reflected the control panel settings. Then I programmed. So here’s the bottom line... I know that I’m going to get torn to shreds by some readers for writing this but, if I overlooked the inevitable aliasing at the highest pitches, I was usually able to make the two synths sound indistinguishable from one another. From the simplest leads and basses, to orchestral sounds, to more complex sounds and effects, the SH-01A handled almost everything that my SH-101 could throw at it. For example, one of my favourite SH-101 sounds comprises noise and a touch of deep sub-oscillator passed through the self-oscillating filter tracking at 100 percent — it sounds much like the earliest tones to emerge from electronic music workshops in the 1950s — and I was delighted to find that I could recreate it on the SH-01A. Perhaps the only time that I failed to obtain an exact match was when using noise to modulate the filter. But even then, this was mostly a matter of scaling: finding the right settings for things such as the cutoff frequency, contour depth and modulation depth. OK, the slightly different contour shapes contributed to the difference, but for musical purposes the sounds were the same.

The SH-01A also has 64 patch memories. As delivered from the factory, the high proportion of bass patches within them says more about Roland’s perception of why you might be interested in an SH-01A than it does about the synth’s capabilities, but some of the sounds are very good; I particularly liked EuBass and, at the other end of the scale, Atimot Lead, which is straight out of 1950s sci-fi. Wormhole demonstrates how to use S&H in typical ’70s fashion, while Analog Kick will get you started on analogue drum sounds. There are many other good examples, but they are far from all-encompassing.

Behind the control panel on the SH-101 you’ll find a Hold on/off socket, an external clock input, and 3.5mm CV and gate output and input pairs. The SH-01A lacks the Hold input, but this isn’t a problem. Happily, it has the analogue Clock input, which worked perfectly when presented with a +10V trigger. It also has the CV and gate outputs (now found on the control panel) and, while I couldn’t find a specification for these (the Boutique documentation is, as always, woeful), I found that the CV scale is 1V/oct, and the gate generates a chunky voltage in excess of +10V. Unfortunately, the SH-01A lacks the CV and gate inputs, which means that you can’t control it directly from analogue synths. Given the lengths that Roland have taken to make it look and feel like an SH-101, this is disappointing. On a more positive note, the SH-01A acts as a MIDI/CV converter, and also passes received MIDI to its MIDI output.

All of which brings us to my experiments with the arpeggiator and sequencer, both of which output their notes simultaneously via the analogue and digital interfaces (meaning that, in addition to anything else that you might want to do with them, you can record their outputs as MIDI in your DAW). To begin, I connected the analogue outputs from the SH-01A to the SH-101, and its five-pin MIDI out to the MIDI in of a Moog Minitaur, then set an arpeggio running, whereupon all three synths played the pattern. Then, turning things on their head, I disconnected the CV and gate connections, instead directing the gate out from the SH-101 to the Ext Clock In of the SH-01A, created a lead line on the SH-101’s sequencer and a held a bass pattern arpeggio on the SH-01A, and pressed Play on the SH-101 to set them all running. Had I had a TR-08 or TR-09 to hand, I would have been in Technodreamland before I had the time to say ‘what, no melody?’. The SH-01A also sends control panel changes as MIDI CCs, and receives these from elsewhere, making it possible to automate performances. Unfortunately, it wasn’t practical to use the SH-01A to control the Minitaur’s parameters in this configuration because their MIDI CC maps are very different.

Voice Modes & Polyphony

Everything that we’ve discussed so far has assumed that the SH-01A is in its default monophonic mode, using just a single voice to imitate the SH-101. But it’s actually a four-voice synth that offers three further voice assignment modes (memorised on a patch-by-patch basis) to take advantage of its three additional voices.

The first of these is Unison, which stacks all four voices under a single key for increased depth. This is good, but the lack of detune and panning controls — whether physical or in the system settings — is surprising. Then there’s Chord mode, which allows you to configure any number of its voices into a chord that’s played at the appropriate pitch each time that you press a key. This may sound uninteresting, but it’s far from just a cheap way to play chords: it turns the SH-01A into a mighty four-oscillator-plus-four-sub-oscillator per voice monosynth. (The factory patch ‘5th Square Lead’ shows how you can use Chord mode to create a classic dual-oscillator sound.) You can’t adjust the oscillator levels and they all use the same settings for waveforms and so on, but this is still a great feature that takes the SH-01A into territories never dreamed of by an SH-101. Finally, there’s Poly mode, which allows you to play the SH-01A as a mono-timbral, four-voice polysynth.

In 1982, the SH-101 sat alongside the Juno 6 and the Juno 60 in Roland’s catalogue and, even though the monosynth had a VCO while the polysynths used DCOs, their similar voicings and their use of the same filter meant that many people thought of the Junos as polyphonic SH-101s. At the time, it would have been tricky to test this assumption because it would have entailed collecting six SH-101s and setting them up identically but, since the SH-01A is polyphonic, the comparison is now simple and I felt compelled to make it.

With the SH-01A now sitting next to my Juno 60, I tested all manner of sounds ranging from naked waveforms to massive filter sweeps, and they proved to be remarkably similar. I was able to recreate many Juno sounds on the SH-01A, including the organs that I used in the late 1980s, using the sub-oscillator, oscillator and self-oscillating filter to emulate the 16’, 8’ and 5-2/3’ drawbars of a Hammond organ, and then playing the results through a Leslie simulator. Sure, the scaling of the faders was different, but I was usually able to find the correct settings to emulate the sound of one synth on the other provided that I constrained myself to their common facilities. I also discovered by accident (because it’s not mentioned anywhere) that the SH-01A’s sequencer is four-voice polyphonic in Poly mode, and yet it retains its full 100 steps rather than dropping to 25 steps, which was another pleasant surprise.

All of this was great, but Poly mode shone a spotlight on two significant omissions on the SH-01A: no MIDI overflow, and no built-in effects. MIDI overflow was the way that Roland got around the four-voice limitation of the JX-03, JU-06 and JP-08, allowing you to cascade multiple units for increased polyphony, but the SH-01A lacks this. Perhaps more significantly, many other Boutiques have effects, ranging from generic choruses, delays and reverbs to emulations of specific effects, so I think that Roland would have done well to incorporate a chorus and a delay within the SH-01A. Perhaps the omission was a commercial decision, or maybe there’s insufficient processing power available but, either way, the SH-01A would have been a better instrument with them.

Another thing that the SH-01A lacks is velocity sensitivity. I know that neither the SH-101 nor the Juno 60 responded to this, so I’m not really complaining, but it seems odd that the SH-01A can send velocity messages without being able to respond to them. Finally, I have to mention the audible quantisation of the oscillator pitch and the filter cutoff frequency. On a single-oscillator instrument, this is less of an issue than it would be on a multi-oscillator synth because you’re not trying to program tiny amounts of detune between oscillators, but it nonetheless imposes some limitations, the most obvious of which is that manual pitch bends and filter sweeps are not smooth.

Conclusions

The synthesizer world can be a very confusing place. For years, aficionados have been demanding that Roland re-release instruments such as the SH-101, but when the company does so — albeit in a different form and with enhanced facilities — many of the same people seem intent on objecting. Fortunately, they’re wrong. Roland have managed to incorporate many valuable new facilities — enhanced voicing, Poly mode, the polyphonic sequencer, Chord mode, patch and sequencer memories, an improved arpeggiator, MIDI, audio over USB and more — while leaving the SH-01A’s essential 101-iness unscathed. You have to dig deep to find differences and, while there are edge cases — a slightly longer time constant here, a different scale factor there — I would be surprised if many could tell the difference between the two in a bedroom, let alone on stage or in a mix. Whether some people like it or not, the SH-01A is a fine synthesizer, and tremendous value when compared with the second-hand prices of its inspiration.  

The Rear Panel

Roland SH-01A rear panel connections.

The SH-01A has a simple rear panel centred on a 3.5mm audio output and a 3.5mm headphone socket. You can use stereo cables here, but left and right will carry the same audio — the SH-01A is strictly a single-channel device. To the right of these you’ll find a 3.5mm signal input, but you can’t filter and shape an external signal, nor even adjust its level; the synth passes it directly to the outputs. When I tested this using audio from the Mac that was powering the SH-01A, I obtained a hum, so you may need an external power supply to use this input.

MIDI In and Out are provided on five-pin DIN sockets. To the left, you’ll find the volume control and a micro-USB socket that carries both MIDI and audio, and finally the power on/off switch. There’s no socket for a conventional power supply, so you have to use USB power or batteries, which is less than ideal.

An SH-01A Editor

Although Roland haven’t released one, there’s now at least one editor available for the SH-01A. Costing less than a fiver, this runs as a VST and as a stand-alone application on the PC, and as a VST, AU and stand-alone application on the Mac. The GUI provides direct access to the System parameters, which is a big improvement, and adds an X/Y pad for controlling any assigned parameters. I haven’t tested it, so I can make no claims about its functionality or reliability but, at the price, it has to be worth trying. See: https://sh-01a-midi-editor.jimdo.com.

Backup & Restore

If you install the appropriate driver, connect the SH-01A to your Mac or PC via USB, and then switch it on while pressing the Menu button, the synth will appear on your computer as a removable drive containing two folders named Backup and Restore. The Backup folder contains two further folders named Patch and Pattern, and these hold the contents of the on-board patch memories and sequencer memories. You can make copies of these as backups, and load patches and sequences back into the SH-01A by dragging them into the Restore folder. It’s not as convenient as a conventional Librarian, but it does the job.

Published May 2018