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September 24, 2010

Roland SH-01 Gaia Review

The SH-01 is Roland’s answer to the analog modeling synths market where low budget and ergonomics are not compatible. Let’s see what tradeoffs were made to combine ease of use and a competitive price.

Since the SH-1000 was launched in 1973, the SH series is without a doubt the most comprehensive among the whole product range of the Japanese manufacturer. Modern SH models are very different from their ancestors: they are programmable, digital, polyphonic, incorporate Midi, etc. Their name has more to do with a marketing concept than a sound concept. However, they focus mainly on direct-access controls and are meant to be immediate and easy-to-use instruments. Since the Nord Lead from 1995, the glorious times of modeling synths are way behind us. Japanese heavyweights have partially withdrawn into themselves while Americans don’t move forward anymore and Europeans try to amortize their R&D costs. The market became bipolar: at the top, the quiet kingdom of the Nord Lead, Virus, Origin, Accelerator, and Solaris that changes very slowly; at the bottom, the merciless world of cost killers like the Korg Micro & R3, Blofeld, SH-201, Miniak, etc. These instruments are often affordable but don’t provide the best ergonomics and manufacturing quality. With the SH-01 “Gaia,” Roland wants to enhance the ergonomics absent in budget products. Compromises had to be made. Were they wise decisions?

Easy Handling

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The SH-01 is a compact synth with a standard, velocity-sensitive, 37-note keyboard (three octaves). It is easy to transport and it runs on a power supply or batteries (the manufacturer says battery life is 4-5 hours). This summer, we took it along with a notebook to the sunny French beaches to test it while getting tanned. The black and white plastic housing isn’t as cheap as it seems. It seems to have some sort of reinforcement and it endured rough handling pretty well. The instrument is an invitation to tweaking. Its front panel is packed with clear, ergonomic and logically implemented control elements. Handling is easy with any synthesis form because you can understand the signal and modulation paths right away: D-Beam controller, LFO, oscillator, filter, amp, effects, etc. The 18 envelope sliders and 11 rotary controls recall the design of the prestigious Jupiter-8 or JP-8000. The rotary controls are not screwed down but they are well secured anyway. On the contrary, the sliders with plastic heads are fragile. It is very disappointing that in today’s modern digital era, controls only seem to to “jump,” because this limits their use in live performances.

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

A “Bank” key plus eight dedicated keys allow you to select the 2 x 64 ROM and RAM programs (RAM is for user presets). Editing arpeggios and sequences is harder because controls are reduced to their simplest expression. Many commands use key combinations using the shift button, and many functions are not written on the front panel, which is a serious design flaw in our eyes… To use the SH-01 in real time, you get an optical D-Bean controller you can assign to many synthesis parameters, a pitch+modulation joystick (typical of the manufacturer) and an assignable port for a foot controller. The unit offers some valuable direct performance controls: tap tempo, octave transpose and V-link for image/slide-show control with compatible devices. A “Manual” control allows reckless sound designers to start programming from the position of the physical control itself, or they can start by reseting all parameters all at once.

USB Gets the Place of Honor

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The rear panel makes a very good impression (except for the usual external power supply): stereo audio output and phones output on 1/4″ jacks, versatile assignable 1/4″ TRS input for a foot controller, Midi in/out, and a dual USB port. The USB ports allow you to connect the SH-01 to computers and storage devices, which is rather unusual for a device in this price range. Even better: the “Host” USB port allows bidirectional Midi and audio data transfer with a computer (drivers are provided on the CD-ROM) for direct audio recording into a host application without quality loss. It also allows you to route the audio mix of the host application to the SH-01 analog outputs. We chose this solution for the sound samples in this review… The device can also send the computer the audio signal feeding the stereo minijack on the front panel. This signal can be processed within the SH-01. You can mute it, attenuate it and cut frequencies according to three modes: high/mid frequencies (to suppress vocals and solo parts of a song, for example), low frequencies and full range. On the contrary, it is not possible to route the input signal to the internal filters and effects. (We are still wondering why the device has this frustrating limitation.)

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The other “Media” USB port is conceived for connecting external storage units, (like a USB key) to save and exchange user data (programs, patterns). But there is a fly in the ointment: on the one hand, the USB key can only hold 64 programs + 8 patterns (i.e. some kilobytes) regardless of the memory size of the key. What a waste! On the other hand, a “hot connection” is not possible, which means that you have to power off the device before disconnecting/connecting. No comments… Finally, we have to mention that the SH-01 cannot be USB powered, in spite of its minimum power requirements (9 V – 600 mA), which could be perfectly supplied through the USB port.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Mixed Impressions

In the end, the SH-01 left us with mixed impressions. This affordable standalone instrument is easy to use, includes a real dynamic keyboard and is more sturdy than it seems. With its numerous controls and not very versatile signal path, it was clearly conceived for beginners. However we don’t quite understand why so much DSP power is wasted with three fully independent signals instead of letting them interact. The same applies to the very generous polyphony in detriment of multimbrality for the VA section, and to the three multimode filters and five effect DSPs which can’t be assigned to the external signal source. USB provides you deluxe bidirectional audio transfer but a lousy management of mass storage units. The sound is less controlled than on the 1997 JP-8000. It shows an overall lack of consistency and punch, and tends to become aggressive as soon as high frequencies are not cut. Its very attractive price makes the SH-01 a great instrument to discover subtractive sound synthesis without risks.

Advantages:

  • Attractive price
  • Battery operation
  • Compact size
  • Easy handling
  • Audio & Midi over USB
  • Full-size dynamic keys
  • Generous polyphony
  • Effects section

Drawbacks:

  • Sound is not very consistent and it tends to be aggressive
  • VA section is monotimbral
  • Mono in sync mode
  • Very limited modulation possibilities
  • Very basic arpeggiator/sequencer
  • No external audio signal processing
  • Silkscreen does not mention shift functions
  • USB storage unit management
  • OS could be greatly improved
  • Rather toyish PCM

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Roland Gaia Review

March 31, 2010

Best of Musikmesse 2010: The Top 11

They came to Frankfurt, Germany, showed their stuff, we looked, touched and video taped. Now with everybody back home, it’s time to make sense of the best gear presented at Musikmesse 2010.

Wrapping up a trade show like Musikmesse is no easy feat.  The editorial purpose here is not to declare that such and such product is the best, because as we all know it’s comparing apples to oranges in most cases.  For us here at Audiofanzine is it an opportunity to give a congratulatory nod to the products that we felt stood out in the crowd and did something for us.

Audiofanzine’s Top 11 picks from Musikmesse 2010 is presented in no particular order.

1.  RME Babyface:

Equipped with 192 kHz AD- and DA-converters and two microphone preamps the bus-powered Babyface uses the USB 2.0 high-speed bus and has been optimized under Windows and Mac OS. The Babyface combines analog circuit design with AD/DA converter chips of the latest generation. On top RME’s SteadyClock is designed to ensure an AD- and DA-conversion. Both digitally controlled preamps provide individually switchable 48V phantom power.  The Interface allows to record multiple channels and it’s still very simple setup. It is very small and actually fits in a laptop bag. Most other small interfaces are a lot bigger…

2.  Line 6 Variax James Tyler:

james tylerThis new line of guitars is designed to ”deliver the feel of the finest boutique instruments and the optimal tonal performance of Line 6 guitar modeling technology,” the company says.

Variax guitars are designed to reproduce the sounds of a collection of 25 vintage electric and acoustic instruments, and a dozen custom tunings. The modeled instruments include solid-body, semi-hollow guitars and hollow-body electrics with a variety of pickup configurations, six- and twelve-string acoustics, and other guitar-related instruments including a resonator, banjo, and an electric sitar.  This new line of guitars will be available in three styles, said to reflect the designs of James Tyler in each curve, component and control.

3.  Roland GAIA SH-01:

roland gaiaThe triple-stacked engine of this synthesizer features a “fun, friendly and inviting” designed to attract first-timers, according to Roland. The signal flow is said to be simple to grasp, with logically arranged knobs, sliders, and buttons.

This instrument is designed for music students, songwriters, session players, and live performers of all styles and skill levels and features, among others:

  • Three virtual analog engines onboard, each with a dedicated oscillator, filter, amplifier, envelope, and LFO
  • Layer up to five simultaneous effects, including distortion, flanger, delay, reverb, low boost, and more
  • 64-voice polyphony for massive sounds without note drop-out

To see the rest of the Top 11 from Musikmesse please see: Best of Musikmesse 2010

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