Roland’s SH‑4d is an ambitious amalgam of synth and sequencer in a battery‑powered box.
The SH‑4d is a mash‑up: a four‑part tabletop synth with a drum machine thrown in, plus an onboard sequencer and effects. I can’t shove it squarely into one of the usual categories, but I’d say it lays its picnic blanket on the synthy side of the synth/groovebox fence. Although it’s Rolandy in design, and makes a lot of very Rolandy sounds, you feel the influence from multi‑engine desktop boxes like the Elektrons, Teenage Engineering’s OP‑1 or Arturia’s MiniFreak.
The SH‑4d is slightly out on its own in the Roland line‑up. Although it’s somewhat like a re‑worked Jupiter‑Xm, it’s not a native ZEN‑Core device: the sound engines are apparently made from ZEN building blocks, but they’re simplified (thank goodness) and can’t load ZEN‑Core sounds. The rhythm section uses digital synthesis, but it’s not the same as on the TR‑8S. And the SH‑101 and Juno‑106 synth modules are new, despite Roland having multiple other emulations of these in ZEN, Boutique and plug‑in forms.
The SH‑4d packs a wealth of controls onto a roughly foot‑wide unit. Along with the baggable size, portability is supported by USB‑C power and a battery port for four AAs. The USB connection can transport multi‑channel audio for each Part when connected to a computer. The panel has the same screen and button cluster as the Jupiter‑Xm, with a button strip for sequencing, Part/Pattern selection and numerous Shift functions. Along the bottom is a ‘keyboard’ comprising non‑velocity‑sensitive buttons.
As a synth the SH‑4d is conceptually similar to the Arturia MiniFreak that we recently had on test, in that various synth types can be swapped into the main oscillator block, where a set of controls take on different functions for each engine. Everything on the right‑hand side — filters, modulators and effects — behaves the same for each synth type. The difference from the Freak is that the SH‑4d has four fully independent Parts, plus the fifth rhythm Part, each channel of which gets full use of the panel controls. There’s a total of 60 voices in the shared polyphony pot, which should cover most situations.
There’s no Project concept on the unit, instead you work inside Patterns like on a drum machine or groovebox. As well as sequence data, Patterns store the settings for the five Parts and the effects, just like the Scenes on the modern Jupiters. This means you can seamlessly recall complete setup states for the whole device. Pattern launching during playback is always queued (instant takeover never seems to be a thing on Roland devices). Rather than lumping all the data within the Pattern, Parts point to instrument patch slots in a central pool. The downside to this is that when you save a Pattern you’re prompted to save out each Part to a slot, naming each. It’s horrible and could be massively improved with some shortcuts and auto‑naming. At least on subsequent saves you can choose to overwrite everything.
Each of SH‑4d’s four synth Parts can run one of 11 synth models (detailed in the ‘Synths In The Box’ box). The first knob in the osc section always selects the model; the other controls adapt to fit the available parameters. The default model is simply called SH‑4d, and is a four‑oscillator virtual analogue affair. The four oscillator waveforms are shown on the display and the two encoders below are used to focus one at time and dial through wave types. The sliders act as a mixer for the oscillator layers.
All the usual wave shapes are available, as well as various hybrids, a supersaw and a modulating ‘Juno’ saw. Each oscillator can be tuned separately via the second osc encoder. The last encoder sets pulse‑width modulation per oscillator, a mapping shared by many of the models. Shift with this encoder sets the pulse‑width position. Shifted parameters can’t really be reached with one hand, so it’s hard to tweak these while playing notes. Further oscillator controls are accessed by hitting Enter to reach a standard Roland select‑and‑set list on the display. For the SH‑4d synth model, the menu has an option to sync osc 1‑2 or 3‑4, apply ‘Fatness’ to each, and adjust detuning for the supersaw. The Fat process introduces some kind of pleasing saturation or shaping with a one‑octave subharmonic component.
After the oscillator comes the filter section, which provides a useful 6dB/octave high‑pass filter in addition to the main multi‑mode filter. The filter offers 24dB/oct high‑pass, 12dB/oct band‑pass and 24dB/oct low‑pass modes. The filter has a wet, whistley resonance that’s nice when tracking the keyboard but doesn’t quite self resonate. It’s inherently clean but has a Drive control to grunge things up. A dedicated ADSR envelope is provided in the same section. The single filter model makes do for all the synth types, so although there are 101 and Juno emulations they are partial recreations. To be fair, though, while the Jupiters have an extra two filter models to choose from, neither of these emulate Roland circuits.
VCA‑wise you get ADSR envelope controls (which can be switched to ADR for one‑shots) with level and pan. Below this is the LFO section, which has dedicated knobs for type, rate and fade‑in, then amount knobs for applying the modulation to pitch, filter and level. More LFO parameters are found in one of the quick shortcut menus. Further modulation is catered for via a matrix editor. This provides patching of up to four sources to four destinations each. Sources are MIDI CC inputs, the LFO and envelopes, velocity, pitch/mod wheels and MIDI note. These can be configured from the screen, or there’s also a Learn mode where you wiggle your chosen source and destination.
Let’s look at the generously stocked effects before we dive into the drum machine that lives in Part 5. There are three send effects: reverb, chorus and delay, each with a variety of models to choose from. Each Part also has an insert Tone effect, chosen from a list that is again familiar from other Roland grooveboxes and synths. Highlights are the CE‑1 chorus, and of course the Juno chorus, which you can pair up with the Juno‑106 synth engine for that authentic creamy sound.
If that’s not enough, there’s a global master effect slot that sits on the whole mix. This can be used for fattening up or otherwise processing your whole mix, or you could use it creatively for real‑time performance with a filter, flanger, etc. You can drop the effect in and out by tapping the Type encoder. One more thing! Each part has its own EQ, and there’s a global mix EQ and compressor alongside the mix effect. Despite all this, I was disappointed that the SH‑4d doesn’t have dedicated beat effects like Scatter or Step Loop. These make a world of difference for performing or spicing up a composition.
Part 5 on the SH‑4d is a drum machine, with kits that fill all 26 of the trigger buttons. Each sound can blend two sources from a pool of nearly 500 starting points. About 40 or so of these are cycling waveforms that you can use to synthesize sounds from the ground up, while the rest are PCM samples that cover the range of classic Roland drum machines and a fair bit more besides. You can’t load your own samples.
Each layer can be grunged up with frequency cross‑modulation, with the same four flavours as found on some of the synth modes. The combined sound can then be pitch modded with an envelope and depth set on the sliders. Each channel has its own filter and filter envelope. While the extra HPF and Drive stages aren’t included, this is more than you get on some dedicated drum machines I’ve tested lately. Amp envelopes are as per the synths, but the LFO and mod matrix are not available in the rhythm part. Reverb, chorus and delay sends are per‑channel, and there’s a single Tone effect that the whole kit runs through, with the option to bypass on a channel‑by‑channel basis.
To go with the five sound Parts the SH‑4d has five independent tracks of polyphonic sequencing, with up to 64 steps in each Pattern. Tracks can have different lengths, directions and speeds, although 1/8th notes is the longest a step can be for some reason. You can choose from all three classic sequencing methods. Live recording mode captures what you play, and includes any live parameter tweaking you perform. Sadly everything is hard quantised and there’s no concept of micro timing to move things off the beat, although there is per‑part shuffle.
TR Record is your classic Roland drum machine mode: you hold notes and tap a step on the 16‑button strip, or for drums, select a sound then enter triggers. You can also enter ties. Step Input mode is the familiar 101‑style method of entering notes while playback is stopped, with the sequencer advancing each time you pick a note or rest. A nice touch here is that you can select the step where you want to start entering notes. Finally, as well as the sequencer each part has its own arpeggiator which you can record into the sequencer if you wish.
Live recording is the easiest way to get stuff in, especially if you have an external keyboard connected, but it’s hampered by a few missing features. First, there’s no metronome so you’ll need to drop some hats into the drum track. Second, there’s no count‑in. This wouldn’t be the end of the world except that for Patterns longer than a bar there’s no indication of where you are in the overall loop. If you tap the Page key you see the page position briefly on the screen, otherwise you’re guessing. I ended up with several Patterns where my loop started on bar 3... And while I’m asking for improvements, can we choose a default Pattern length instead of needing to manually extend each Part’s sequence before recording?
Sequence steps can hold up to eight notes and four motion parameters. You can have more than four different parameters sequenced in your Part, but not overlapping. When a fifth motion is recorded or entered on a step, the oldest bit of automation gets pushed out of the bed. Holding a step brings up the editor screen where you can adjust notes, velocities and gate lengths, and also add probability and sub‑steps (ratchets). You can’t hold and edit multiple notes at once.
To construct longer compositions requires multiple Patterns. There’s no chaining or song mode. Patterns are triggered manually, after which they come in on the next bar. Duplicating an existing Pattern is a workflow that needs some tidying up. You copy the Pattern, switch to a new slot, stop playback, then paste (you can also copy Parts, steps, or a range of steps). Then you have to remember to Write (save) the duplicate Pattern or it will be lost when you change to another. This means going through the multiple steps of choosing whether to overwrite or save out each Part again.
A final word on sequencing goes to the Visual Arpeggio, a feature that you could easily miss as it’s tucked away in the system menu. This is a suite of five sequencing toys or curiosities, reminiscent of the esoteric sequencing modes in the OP‑1. There are three bouncing ball variations where notes are triggered by animated pucks bouncing on a tiltable surface, careening around a box, or batted back and forth in a recreation of Pong. Then there’s an Etch‑a‑Sketch style piano roll, and last and best is Orbit, where modulation is tied to tiny orbiting bodies around a planet. These could be useful for making random generative music, and they are certainly fun to play with. The problem is that they are only active while you have the Visual Arpeggio screen open, and can’t be recorded.
Let’s have a look why I think the SH‑4d would make a fantastic live synth, even if it’s not as well equipped for groovebox duties as some of its Aira siblings. First the good. If you tap Pattern the unit moves into a persistent Pattern select mode, where you can cue up Patterns from the screen or the step buttons. In this state you also get mixer control of the five parts via the sliders and last osc encoder. If you hold Pattern instead, the step and note buttons momentarily switch to mutes for the five Parts and all the individual drum channels. A further ‘mission control’ style view pins the mute controls and mixer, and adds central access to all Parts’ panning and effects sends.
The other thing that you’d really appreciate when performing are all those hands on controls. Of course, like any multi‑timbral synth, when you change Parts the panel becomes out of step with the patch. There are Direct and Catch modes for how knobs take over parameters; I’d love to see a smooth scale mode. There’s excellent MIDI implementation, with all controls able to both follow and generate CC data. You can address each part independently from different MIDI channels, and there’s a Control channel which follows the focus on the unit. This was something missing initially on the MC‑707 so it’s great to see it implemented from the start here.
As for the missing pieces, I’ve already mentioned some: no instant Pattern takeover or Step Loop/Scatter effects to provide fills and transitions, and no chaining/song structure. Another invaluable live performance operation common on many modern boxes is Pattern reload, which gives you an instant way to return to a known snapshot after any amount of wild breakdown or build‑up knob twiddling. That’s not possible here. And last on my wishlist would be live sequence transposing.
A Roland character still shines through: during the review I turned into a synthwave and ’80s film soundtrack factory.
The SH‑4d is a clever idea. Roland have taken core parts of the modern Jupiters, like the Xm, and packaged them into a sexy desktop synth‑cum‑groovebox. Most significantly, they’ve simplified everything so that synth and drum programming is fast and hands‑on, with minimal menu diving. Sonically there’s a lot to get your teeth into: a couple of versatile virtual analogue polys, those classic 101 and 106 modes, FM, wavetable, PCM and several other unusual and interesting engines to explore. Even with these diverse elements, a Roland character still shines through: during the review I turned into a synthwave and ’80s film soundtrack factory.
The sequencing is powerful, if not as well spec’ed as Roland’s dedicated grooveboxes and drum machines. The lack of unquantised sequencing is probably why my results naturally steered toward synth‑pop and dance and away from, say, hip‑hop or lo‑fi. I had some other gripes around sticky workflows, but Roland have a good track record for tidying things up over time.
It’s great to see Roland playing with a lot of new ideas here, and while not all land, the SH‑4d has turned out to be a great little synth that could fill a number of roles. I really enjoyed using it both as a portable synth sketchpad on my lap and a multi‑timbral synth module connected to my master keyboard. It could also make a good companion to a laptop, taking advantage of the USB audio and MIDI connectivity to serve as sound module, MIDI controller and audio interface.
Synths In The Box
- SH‑4d: A general‑purpose, four oscillator polysynth with multiple oscillator modes including a supersaw.
- SH‑3D: Swaps one of the oscillators for an extra LFO.
- SYNC: Dual‑oscillator sync with variable waveform and envelope mod.
- SH‑101: Classic Roland sound with slider interface that mixes the wave shapes.
- JUNO‑106: This one picks LFO and PWM for the sliders, relegating oscillator mix to on/off via the buttons, which seems a strange choice, but it still sounds fantastic, especially when paired with the Juno chorus effect.
- CROSS FM: Two‑oscillator FM engine with multiple wave shapes, PWM and a mod envelope.
- RING: Fascinating ring‑mod‑based synth with extra cross‑mod, wave‑shaping and source mixing.
- WAVETABLE: Simple but really useful wavetable synth, with 32 tables and manual, LFO and envelope position mod.
- CHORD: Choose from a range of chords and voicings. With a bit of fiddling you can sequence different progressions.
- DRAWING: Create custom waveforms with a combination of encoder and slider control.
- PCM: Blend up to four PCM sample‑based waves for classic Roland sound module vibes.
In Favour Of D‑Motion?
One of the quirky features of the SH‑4d, along with the Visual Arpeggio, is the D‑Motion modulation controller. This uses an internal accelerometer to translate pitch and roll tilting of the unit into modulation. This is not an inherently bad idea — for example, the motion mod on the OP‑1 is excellent, being so sensitive and responsive that you can achieve aftertouch levels of expressiveness with it. Not so here. Despite fiddling with the Gravity and Sensitivity settings on the SH‑4d it’s slow and clumsy and I couldn’t get any useful results. A regular mod touchstrip would have been way better.
- Four multi‑mode polysynths in one compact unit.
- And a drum machine.
- Multi‑channel USB audio.
- No Step Loop or Scatter effects.
- No unquantised recording or micro‑timing.
- Some operations, like saving, are clumsy.
More knobs and fewer menus! A great‑sounding portable synth workstation with loads to explore.