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Roland System 8

Virtual Analogue Synthesizer
Published October 2017
By Gordon Reid

Roland System 8

The System 8 may offer ‘plug-out’ recreations of Roland classics, but it’s also a versatile synthesizer with a character all of its own.

The AIRA System 1 was a great idea, but perhaps not aimed at professional keyboard players because its four-voice polyphony and 25-note keyboard placed obvious limitations on what they could do with it. This was a shame because musicians had been crying out for recreations of Roland’s classic synths and, in 2014, an instrument capable of hosting one of its ‘plug-out’ vintage monosynths was in principle a winner. The following year, Roland released three Boutique modules that further mined the company’s considerable legacy, recreating the look and feel of three classic polysynths: the Jupiter 8, Juno 106 and JX-3P. Unfortunately, these retained the four-voice limitation of the System 1, so you needed to buy two of each to play them like the original synths.

Now the company have responded with the System 8, which offers double the polyphony and, in addition to its own synth engine, no fewer than three slots capable of hosting Roland’s plug-outs and expansions. Originally, it was shipped with just a Jupiter 8 expansion, but this has since been joined by a hybrid Juno 60/106 expansion, both of which are included in the price. This leaves a third slot into which you can drop any of the current plug-outs although you can, of course, delete and replace the Jupe and the Juno if you are mad enough to want to do so. With appropriate polyphony and a full-size keyboard, it seems that Roland have responded to their fans and designed exactly what they’ve been requesting. But things can’t be that simple, can they?

First impressions

Taking the System 8 out of its box, I was amazed at how light it is, which is a consequence of its plastic chassis. I first encountered this on a Roland polysynth when I reviewed the Juno Stage, whereupon I was dubious about its robustness and longevity. But that instrument seems to have stood the test of time, so I’m not going to make any snap judgments about the System 8. I was also amazed at how small it is, which is a consequence of its 49-note keyboard. Arghh! Just as I thought that Roland had stopped hobbling their own products, I find that I still won’t be able to play the Jupiter and Juno expansions as I would the originals. Why? Life is already difficult enough without Roland adding unnecessary problems. Then there’s the issue of its end cheeks. When the review model arrived, it boasted aluminium cheeks reminiscent of the Jupiter 8. ‘Very nice’, I thought. Then I discovered that these (or wooden alternatives) cost £50 extra! ‘Not very nice’, I thought.

Switching the System 8 on, it appeared that someone had used the teleporter from The Fly with similarly scary results, fusing an otherwise conventional polysynth with the garish green illumination of the System 1. Since there’s now an option to dim or switch this off entirely, I did the latter because it was rather overpowering in my darkened studio. But later I learned that the illumination told me which knobs, sliders and buttons were active when I selected the expansion instruments or plug-out, so I had to switch it back on again, albeit nowhere near its maximum intensity. Whether I could have that much green glowing in my face at a gig would be another matter!

The control panel itself is densely packed but avoids feeling cluttered. A lot of space has been saved by omitting a modern screen, which may come as an unpleasant surprise to younger players who view any technology developed before the iPhone 5 as antediluvian. Nevertheless, the 16x2-character display is adequate because Roland have given physical controls to as many parameters as possible, resulting in just nine shallow menus, two of which are used for information only.

The System 8 Synth Engine

Much of the System 8’s native synth engine is based upon that of the latest System 1. Consequently, its two primary oscillators offer the same 12 waveforms as its predecessor, including the expected analogue waves, Roland’s ‘super-’ extensions of these, and six additional waves (a distorted sawtooth, ‘logic’, FM, FM+Sync, vowel and cowbell) that greatly extend the sonic palette on offer. The Color (not my spelling!) knob in each oscillator section allows you to vary the underlying waves in ways that range from PWM, to detune amount, to formant position, to FM depth. You can also modulate the Color using the LFO, any of the three contour generators and oscillator 3. Add cross-modulation, ring modulation, oscillator sync, and a dedicated bi-polar AD pitch contour (which is disconnected from osc 1 when sync is selected) and the range of initial timbres is exceptional.

The third oscillator is named osc 3/sub osc and offers sine and triangle wave options that can be played in unison with, or either one or two octaves below, oscillator 1. Disappointingly, there’s no square-wave sub-oscillator option. A tuning knob adds another ±1 octave to this range (which can be useful when using it as a modulation source) and another Color knob allows you to waveshape the initial waves. However, there’s no way to disconnect osc 3 from the keyboard, which would have been a bonus.

As expected, you mix the outputs from the three oscillators (plus a white/pink noise source) before passing the result to a filter section that offers no fewer than 18 resonant filter modes. Having access to 12 self-oscillating LP and HP filters is great, but it’s the six side-band filters that intrigue me most. The sounds they sculpt can vary hugely depending upon the filter cutoff frequency, keyboard tracking, contouring and resonance, but because of the paucity of information Roland have provided, it’s hard to work out exactly what’s going on. It’s one of those situations when you just have to twiddle and see what happens. Fortunately, what happens is generally very, very good and, while the results are far removed from traditional analogue timbres, they inspired me to experiment, and the results were almost always interesting. There’s also a dedicated high-pass filter to thin things out when needed, which is frequently useful.

The filter section also includes a dedicated bi-polar, velocity sensitive ADSR contour generator. This is very snappy at the fast end of its operation, but the maximum times are not particular generous and my tests suggested a maximum attack of around 5s, decay of around 15s and release of around 25s.

Next comes the amplifier section, which offers a second velocity-sensitive ADSR contour generator plus a tone control that, contrary to the manual’s description, boosts upper frequencies when turned clockwise past 12 o’clock, and boosts lower frequencies when turned the other way.

Modulation is provided by a solitary LFO routed to the oscillator pitch, filter cutoff frequency and amplifier gain. It offers 18 waveforms, six of which are speed-modulated by a sine wave at a rate 1/32nd that of the LFO itself. There’s an optional fade-in for delayed vibrato and similar effects, plus key triggering, and the ability to trigger all three contour generators at the LFO rate. When I tested this, I obtained some unexpected results; these may have been bugs, but I rather liked them.

At the end of the signal path, you’ll find three effects sections in series. Each offers a choice of six effects: five distorters and a phaser in section 1; two delays, two choruses, a flanger and a chorus/delay in section 2; and six reverbs (the last of which is pitch-modulated) in section 3. Each section offers two knobs to affect the nature and depth of the effect, although addition parameters for some are available in the menus. While the System 8 is no Eventide, I found the effects to be more than adequate for the job.

The final sound generation section is a vocoder, which is easy to set up and use, although hampered by a huge oversight: the modulator signal (microphone or line-level audio) is available through quarter-inch jacks only. I have access to at least a dozen microphones, and not one of these uses quarter-inch connections, so the omission of an XLR connector is not what I would have expected on a synth that wants to be taken seriously. The carrier signal is provided by the System 8 itself, and will be the selected patch or, when a Performance (which we’ll come to shortly) is selected, your choice of the Upper Part, the Lower Part, or both. The vocoder’s parameters are accessed through menus, and these include the formant character, the ability to suppress or enhance consonants, and the balance, which can range from the direct sound only to the vocoded signal only, and anywhere between. I wasn’t surprised (or dismayed) to find that there’s no way to adjust the individual bands but, on a positive note, the inputs and vocoder have their own, dedicated delay/chorus and reverb sections as well as being able to access the three main effects sections. Since you can create analogue vocal ensembles using the System 8 synth engine, the possibilities for creative vocoding are intriguing, and further routing options — too many to describe here — make the audio input and the vocoder more powerful than you might imagine

.Although some users may prefer an extra octave, the System 8’s 49-note keyboard gives it a relatively compact size of 881 x 364 x 109mm.Although some users may prefer an extra octave, the System 8’s 49-note keyboard gives it a relatively compact size of 881 x 364 x 109mm.

Other Facilities

In addition to as-yet unmentioned facilities such as octave shift, portamento, mono, unison and poly modes, a chord memory that stacks up to eight notes under one key, and an ‘ageing’ (analogue drift) parameter that you can set for every patch, the System 8 offers two additional sections that will appeal greatly to analogue synth aficionados.

The first is an arpeggiator with six up and down modes (but no random mode, which is a shame), six clock divisions for sync’ing to the internal clock or MIDI Clock, and key hold. You can also synchronise the arpeggiator, the LFO, the delay times of certain effects, and the sequencer, which is always welcome.

Ah yes, the sequencer. This is a 64-step, eight-note polyphonic device that’s also capable of sequencing up to four control operations per step. You can record in steps or in real-time and, when using the latter method, you can add notes or parameter changes while it loops until you reach the limit of what it’s capable of storing, at which point it starts to overwrite previous notes or changes. All of the usual features are present, including rests, ties, mutes, variable gate length, swing, various sync options and various playback modes. There are dedicated knobs and buttons on the panel for the basic recording, tweaking and playback operations, and a step editor is also provided via the menus.

Strangely, the sequencer doesn’t include a metronome, and you can’t transpose sequences just by pressing keys when playing back: you have to press the Edit/Disp button and a note simultaneously, which requires both hands and is a huge encumbrance when trying to play along to a sequence. In contrast, its ability to replay parameter changes while you play the keyboard is an interesting way of addressing the paucity of modulation options, and I also approve of its ability to play through the MIDI and CV/Gate outputs. Oh yes, and sequences are stored individually within each patch, which is always good news.

Expansions & Plug-outs

I don’t know whether the underlying ACB model for the Jupiter 8 expansion is the same as in the JP-08 but it seems likely, and it overcomes my greatest reservation regarding the Boutique modules; like the System 8 synth engine, it’s eight-voice polyphonic. This isn’t a minor point. I would have been very tempted to buy an eight-voice JP-08; I wasn’t tempted to buy two four-voice units.

I tested the expansion by placing my Jupiter 8 next to the System 8 and, while there were some inevitable differences in calibration and the maximum amounts of some parameters, I was able to duplicate the Jupe’s patches and Performances with a high degree of accuracy before spicing them up using velocity-sensitivity, the dual arpeggiators (here, complete with random mode), dual sequencers and effects to take them to places that no Jupiter 8 has ever experienced. Sure, the mapping of the original synth’s controls onto the System 8’s panel is a little clunky in places and, even using the crib-sheet, the expansion doesn’t feel as intuitive as the original, especially since some of the parameters are now found in menus. But, ultimately, I was able to recreate the sound — if not the experience — of the Jupiter 8, and I think that you would have to be a real fanatic to deny the accuracy with which it recreates the original.

Again, I don’t know whether the underlying model for the eight-voice Juno expansion is the same as the JU-06’s but, again, it seems likely and, again, it’s excellent. In almost every regard, it emulated my Juno 106 correctly, and I often found that I could make them sound indistinguishable from one another. Of course, the expansion reaches far beyond the original, with footages ranging from 64’ to 2’ (the Junos offered just 16’, 8’ and 4’) and, if requested, independent velocity-sensitive ADSR contours for the filter and the amplifier. These push the expansion into (and beyond) the territory previously occupied only by the sadly under-appreciated MKS7 Super Quartet, but it never feels like anything other than a Super-Juno, which is great.

Since slot 3 was occupied by the ProMars plug-out, I thought that it would be interesting to test this too. It’s nice but, of the three synths hosted by the review unit, it was the one that sounded least like the original. I did my best to recreate the ProMars’ 10 fixed presets (which are not provided in the factory sound set) and I got close, but the results were not identical.

Since there was no crib-sheet available, I spent some time working out how Roland had mapped the original synth’s parameters to the panel, and how they had been extended. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with what I found. For example, adding individual mix level controls for the two oscillators, the sub-oscillator and the noise felt strange; on the original, oscillator 2 is either on or off, as are the sub-oscillator and the noise. Often, it’s a monosynth’s limitations that define it as much as its capabilities, and additions like this made the plug-out feel, um... different. By this point, I was struggling to see the point of loading it into the System 8. As a plug-in, it’s probably great, but the System 8’s own engine in monophonic mode is a much more powerful synth offering all of these features and much more. Consequently, I would use the third slot for something else, and by this point in the review I was beginning to formulate some ideas about what this could be.

Performance Mode

Like some vintage Rolands, the System 8 is bi-timbral, and a Performance therefore comprises two patches — known as the Upper and Lower Parts — that you can choose freely from all four synth engines (if installed). Happily, the patches are imported into the Performance complete with their sequences as well as their arpeggiator and chord data, which is excellent, although not their effects, which isn’t. You can tell a Performance to play either of the Upper or Lower sequences or both and, if you choose both, the only parameters that appear to be common are the first step, the last step, and the on/off status.

You can of course determine the level of each Part as well as its key range and transposition, so you can create splits, layers, partial layers and empty ranges of notes (which can be useful when using the System 8 to control other sound sources). Other parameters allow you to determine how the Performance handles audio presented to the audio inputs, how it accesses the vocoder, how it provides data to the MIDI, USB and CV/Gate outputs, and more. Unfortunately, you can’t edit a Part within a Performance and the save the results, which is a pain if you’re trying to balance the elements of a composite sound. I hope that this will be corrected in an update.

Appraisal

My views regarding the System 8’s keyboard are never going to change; four-octaves of shorter keys than expected isn’t appropriate on an instrument that emulates two of the most desirable five-octave synths ever built. Equally disappointing is the omission of aftertouch. You could argue that would this be inappropriate for a vintage emulation, but you would be wrong; Roland first provided pressure-sensitivity on a synth in 1973. Then there’s the polyphony. Eight voices are the bare minimum for what this synth is trying to achieve, and 16 would be far better, particularly in Performance mode. Come on chaps, if you’re going to build a flagship synth, for heaven’s sake build a flagship synth! Or is there a 76-note, pressure-sensitive, 16-voice ‘pro’ version in development? Or even a stackable desktop version offering aftertouch over MIDI? Either might be preferable.

But once we’re past the limitations, we come to the good stuff. Although the System 8 is aimed at fans of vintage analogue synthesizers, I rather like its own synth engine. It can sound large and imposing, or subtle, or delicate, and thanks to its variation waveforms and side-band filters, its palette extends far beyond what I had expected. Agreed, there’s a tiny amount of aliasing at the very highest frequencies, but you have to hunt for it. Also, while you can’t compare it to modern synths and workstations with half a dozen LFOs and contour generators feeding a huge modulation matrix, why would you want to? The System 8’s limited capabilities are consistent with its vintage paradigm and, if Roland had added many more facilities, it might have stopped feeling like a vintage synth, and started to feel more like a modern synth with some vintage sounds.

As for the expansions and plug-outs, I’m going to stick my neck out here, confident that I’m going to be pilloried on the online synth forums. But here goes... If you’re after the sounds of a Jupe or Juno, you no longer need to risk buying a vintage synth with 30 or more years on the clock, a worn keyboard, scratchy pots and dodgy capacitors because, if you can live with its limitations, the System 8 does a remarkable job of emulating them. Sure, there are differences but, if your primary motive is making music, I don’t think that they’re going to matter. If your primary motive is to find and complain about those differences, I don’t think that we own our synthesizers for the same reasons. I remember in 1982 or thereabouts dreaming about a Roland polysynth that I could play like a piano, and which sounded like it was played through a couple of hyper-expensive AMS effects units, so no-one will convince me that the System 8 is in any way deficient for providing this. And then there’s the price... You do the maths.

Nonetheless, there are still a few things that could be improved, including the dearth of patch memories. Each engine has just 64 of these, and the instrument as a whole has just 64 Performance memories, which is curmudgeonly. Would it have been too much to provide a modern quota? Also, there’s no computer-based editor/librarian, which would be a useful addition. Perhaps Roland are working on this — time will tell. Finally, there’s the documentation, which is poor. Nowhere could I find explicit descriptions of things such as the variation waveforms and how the Color parameter affects them, nor of the side-band filters. There are also errors. For example, “selects the source that is modulated by the Color knob” actually means, “selects the source that will modulate the parameter controlled by the Color knob, which depends upon the waveform selected”. Unless you’re happy to live in the land of Serendipity, you’re going to want better manuals than this.

Conclusions

In retrospect, it was perhaps inevitable that Roland would repackage its polyphonic ACB synths this way. Sure, the System 8’s own synth engine offers three oscillators per voice, multiple filter types, powerful effects and much more, and could be considered to be an enhanced Jupiter 8, which in turn (chorus effect and chronology notwithstanding) could be considered in many ways to be an enhanced Juno, which in turn was a cut-down but polyphonic version of the SH101. Nonetheless, there were sonic differences between each of these, often exaggerated by the differences in their layouts, which caused players to approach them in different ways — and so it is with the System 8. Mind you, I’m not sure that this was Roland’s reasoning when the company were designing it. Far more people will consider buying the System 8 because of its Jupiter and Juno expansions than would have done so without them, and if a JX-03-based expansion synth and a debugged expansion of the VP-03 were to appear, it might start to look irresistible to any Roland aficionado who hasn’t been crippled by the pointless analogue vs digital debate.

So there we have it. It’s made of plastic, it has an external power supply, it has questionable aesthetics, its keyboard is at least an octave too short, it lacks aftertouch, it lacks an XLR microphone input and its documentation is poor. But great sounds just pour out of it. Which of these is more important? You decide.

The Rear Panel

Roland System 8 rear panel.

Alongside its stereo, analogue audio outputs and headphone output, you’ll find stereo analogue audio inputs with their associated mic/line switch, all using quarter-inch sockets. Next to these, the System 8 offers a CV and Gate output pair on 3.5mm sockets. The menus allow you to determine the 0V reference note for the CV and then tune and scale the voltage; the latter generates a +10V Gate so that you can play an external monosynth or other device in the usual fashion. You can select any or all of the following to generate the CV: the lower Part, the upper Part, or both; the step sequencer attached to the lower or upper Part; the notes generated on a given MIDI or USB/MIDI channel; or the notes generated on all of the MIDI or USB/MIDI channels. You can also even determine the pitch-bend range and the portamento parameters for the CV separately from those of the internal synth engines.

Moving to the left, you’ll find a Trigger In for synchronising the internal sequencer to external click sources, and then the sustain and expression pedal inputs.

To the left of the panel you’ll find an SD Card socket for backing up the whole memory or individual patches and performances. You can also select multiple patches or performances and save these as a single file, which could be ideal when saving projects such as live sets or albums. However, you can’t save expansion synths and plug-outs to the card, which is a shame.

Next, you’ll find MIDI on five-pin DIN (in and out, with a ‘soft’ thru available via the menus) and a USB socket that carries both MIDI and out-bound, high-resolution digital audio. MIDI CCs are transmitted when editing sounds, and these can be played back to the synth for automation. Although the CCs generated by each control are fixed, they make it possible to use the System 8 as a basic, two-zone MIDI controller. Roland should add a menu to customise the CCs sent, which would make it far more attractive in this role.

The final socket is for an external 9V DC power supply. Unfortunately, this accepts a barrel connector, not a locking plug. For me, this moves the System 8 yet further away from the professional arena.

Plug-outs & Other Animals

Roland invented the term ‘plug-out’ to describe a piece of software that you can run as a plug-in on a Mac- or PC-based host, but which you can also send out to a piece of the company’s AIRA hardware and then run independently. But the company have now become inconsistent in their use of the term because, although the System 8 offers three plug-out slots, the first two of these are occupied by instruments that are not available as plug-ins. This could change (and I hope that it does) but, for the moment, using the term ‘plug-out’ is confusing so, throughout this review, I have called the Jupe and the Juno what they are — expansions.

Published October 2017