The first batch of System 500 modules closely followed the pattern laid down by the System 100M, but the newer modules tend to extend the facilities of the originals to a greater degree. Of these, I was particularly impressed with the 510 and I view the 555 as almost indispensable for serious use. Then there's the 505 filter module, which sounds lovely. I don't have an SH‑5 here for direct comparison, but I suspect that the 505 is a very close recreation of what is now considered to be one of Roland's finest filters. Even if it's not as close as I think, the 505 extends the System 500 very euphonically, and that's to be applauded.
Of course, you don't have to think of the System 500 in isolation; many potential users will consider adding its modules to existing Eurorack systems. If that interests you, there's no denying that their capabilities are impressive, not least because most modules contains either two of everything or a rich selection of disparate sub-modules. You want to play a pair of Roland oscillators through a Polivoks filter? An EMS oscillator through a pair of Roland filters? No problem; that's the power of the Eurorack concept. Nevertheless, I was able to resist the temptation to experiment in this way and, with just the nine System 500 modules in front of me I now experimented with more complex sounds than before. Again, I was impressed with the character of the System 500, which offers the same 'liquid' feel as many of the company's products from the late 1970s and early 1980s. So everything is rosy, yes? Well, no. There are some caveats...
I discovered early on that, because of its much shorter faders, it's rather harder to program sounds on the System 500 than it is on the 100M. Furthermore, while the ergonomics of the 100M were amongst the clearest of any modular synth, the System 500 modules cram as much (or sometimes more) functionality into the smaller Eurorack format, which isn't always a good thing. They are undeniably attractive but, once they're patched, it's almost impossible to reach some of the controls and, even when you do, it's far too easy to change the values of others accidentally. Then there are the positions of the legends. Are the three sockets adjacent to the Attack, Sustain and Release faders in the 540 related to those parameters? For a few moments I though that they might be, but they're not; they're the contour CV outputs. In similar vein, the output selection switches on the 505 are placed next to its inputs rather than its outputs, which is just another example of the sometimes strange layouts of these modules. Of course, you'll soon get to grips with what does what but, when you combine a spaghetti of patch leads with the densely packed controls on the System 500, what should be a pleasant creative experience can become fraught and frustrating.
This then brings me to the System 500's second limitation when compared with the 100M. In addition to providing the power for the installed modules, the 100M's cases and connectors provide bussing for the keyboard CV, gate and trigger inputs, thus making patching much cleaner and quicker. While the absence of this doesn't stop you achieving the results you want, it means that there's a greater number of cables involved, and it reduces the System 500's elegance when compared with the 100M. Internal bussing has been available on some Eurorack systems for many years, so it's a shame that it hasn't been implemented here.
Now we come to what I think is the biggest deficiency of the System 500 — albeit one that is easily overcome. The 191J case of my 100M offers no fewer than nine four-way multiples on its front panel (three of which combine quarter-inch and 3.5mm sockets) plus a pair of quarter-inch/3.5mm/phono busses. These again make patching simpler and more flexible, and simultaneously make it trivial to integrate a 100M with large-format modular synths. (For 190 owners, there was the — now very rare — 173 module that, in addition to four CV-controlled gates, offered six four-way multiples.) The System 500 in isolation offers none of these so if you want (say) to direct a keyboard CV to both the oscillators' pitches and the filters' cutoff frequencies... you can't. If you're thinking of buying a Complete Set or any other selection of System 500 modules, you need to budget for a bunch of multiples from elsewhere and find somewhere to put them.
Finally, while I have no complaints about the build quality of their electronics, I am a little concerned about the faders and manual trigger buttons on the System 500 modules. In short, they're a bit wobbly. This may be in the nature of the devices used, and I have heard no horror stories regarding failed modules, but I would have preferred that Roland/Malekko had invested in slightly more reassuring controls.
The System 500 comprises a sophisticated selection of Eurorack modules together with a stylish case. If you're happy to live with their shortcomings, they are great weapons to have in your armoury; lacking the bizarre graphics that sometimes try to excite lesser modules from elsewhere, they marry the functionality of the System 100M to the timeless visual style of the Roland System 700, and they can sound superb. Indeed, I found it almost impossible to obtain a bad sound from them and had I not disciplined myself I would have spent far too much time playing and rather too little writing this review. If you're interested in modular synthesis and you're a fan of the Roland sound that drove the electro-pop revolution and contributed to the emergence of EDM in all of its forms, the System 500 has nailed it.
|System 100 basics||(1979)||System 500 equivalent||Type||Released|
|112||Dual VCO||512||Dual VCO||2015|
|121||Dual VCF||521||Dual VCF||2015|
|130||Dual VCA||530||Dual VCA||2015|
|140||Dual Envelope/LFO||540||Dual Envelope/LFO||2015|
|150||RM/Noise/S&H/LFO||555||RM/Noise/ S&H /LFO/ 2 x Slew||2018|
|Additional Modules||(1980)||System 500 equivalent||Type||Released|
|131||Four-channel Mixer||531||Six-channel Mixer||2018|
|132||Dual CV/Audio Mixer||-||-||-|
|172||Phaser/ Delay/ Gate Delay||572||Phaser/ Delay/ Gate Delay/ LFO||2015|
|Additional Modules||(1983)||System 500 equivalent||Type||Released|
|165||Dual Portamento||-||* Included in the 555||n/a|
|173||Quad Gate/ Multiple||-||-||-|
Ignoring the possibilities of further new directions such as the 505 module, there's still room to expand the System 500 with modern‑day equivalents of the 100M's 132 Dual CV/Audio Mixer, 182 Sequencer, 173 Quad Gate/Multiple, and 174 Parametric EQ.
Of these, I can see the greatest clamour being for the 182 Sequencer, but not from me. There are numerous 16-step sequencers suitable for use with the System 500, and I think that users would obtain far more benefit from a relaunch of the 132 and, of course, the 173.
But whatever happens next, I hope that Roland persevere with the System 500 because its existing modules already add something different to the vast number of 'me too!' Eurorack modules available.
- System 500 Complete Set £1847$1999
- 505 Multimode Filter £369$349
- 510 VCO-VCF-VCA £417$399
- 512 VCO £360$325
- 521 VCF £360$325
- 530 VCA £360$300
- 531 Six‑channel Mixer £417$399
- 540 Two Env/LFO £360$325
- 555 Portamento, S&H, Noise £369$349
- 572 Phase Shifter/Delay/LFO £360$350
- E84 Eurorack Case £334$399
- The sound; it's classic Roland.
- The modules are very flexible; there's a lot going on in each.
- They look very smart — again, classic Roland.
- They add something different to the crowded Eurorack market.
- The controls and sockets are closely positioned, often making it hard to patch and adjust sounds.
- There are no multiples, and you're going to need some.
- There's no bussing for the keyboard CV or gate.
- There's no multi-triggering.
While System 500 and vintage 100M modules are similar, the differences between them are significant, with the modern system winning on most counts and the vintage one winning on a few others. The System 500 may not be perfect, but it nails the 'Roland sound' from the late '70s and early '80s.