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  • Roland Interview: The Future Sound of Yesterday

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      Roland Corporation was established in 1972 in OSaka, Japan, and launched their first product line with the TR-33, TR-55, and TR-77 rhythm machines and a year later their first synthesizer the SH-1000. Over the years they have released many products in the synthesizer world. They've also been at the start of cutting edge technology for guitar synthesizers with a hexaphonic pickup while continuing non stop at developing their synthesizer and rhythm machine product lines.


      Today, Roland is leading synthesizer design with their new Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB), the technology behind the sound and feel of the AIRA and Boutique instruments, authentically re-creating Roland's past instruments utilizing calculation power of modern DSP. Analog Circuit Behavior not only sounds like the classic gear, but Roland worked with the original engineers of the classic gear who tried to move into places they originally wanted to go, but could not. The result is ACB technology that empowers the AIRA products to go beyond mere re-creation. 


      The first synthesizer instruments under the AIRA banner were the System 1 keyboard and the System 1m semi modular synthesizer rack. A major feature with the System 1, System 1m, and now the System 8 is the ability to host Plugouts. The Plugouts are software instruments similar to VST/AU plugins that can be directly loaded into the System 1/1m, and System 8 instruments, which adds the value of having two synths in one or in the System 8's case, up to 3 Plug-Outs. The Plug-Outs can also be run in a DAW enviornment on their own without the hardware. The Plug-Outs themselves are re-creations of Roland's past synthesizers like the SH101 and PROMARS. There's even a System 100 Plug-Out modeled after the highly prized modular synthesizer.

      For this interview we talked with Product Specialist, Jacob Watters from Roland Canada about many of the new synthesizers and instruments recently released.


      How does ACB technology translate from the old technology to the new technology?

      ACB is essentially the same sound as the original circuits. They take every single component into consideration, including all of the minor flaws and variations. This is part of what makes analog instruments sound so organic, and this is part of ACB.


      Does Roland test how “analog” the new units sound?

      Comparing the sound to the original analog circuits is part of the process when making an ACB synth. In fact, the final sound can be different depending on the condition of the original synth that the engineers test. This happened with the JU-06, and the engineers ended up changing to a second JUNO-106 because the first one did not sound as good. This fact highlights one of the difficulties with recreating old analog synths – even different units of the same model can sound very different from each other. 


      How is the character of the original machines preserved in the new ones?

      As previously mentioned, ACB takes care of preserving the sound of the originals. The rest of the character is preserved in the appearance and interface. They really look like small versions of the originals. Roland put effort into preserving the original interface, and even had custom knobs and buttons made for the new Boutique Series. Even the buttons on the TR-09 are slightly yellowed like an original TR-909 would look now.


      When a Plug-Out is transferred to an AIRA instrument, how do the on board controls, ie. knobs and sliders, correspond with the original's they are reproducing?

      All of the controls on the synths are backlit. When a PLUG-OUT is loaded, only the available controls will light up. For example, the SH-101 only has one oscillator. All of the controls for the second oscillator are not lit up when this PLUG-OUT is used.



      When playing an AIRA instrument standalone live, is the user able to edit controls or re-route a given knob, for instance, on the fly?

      With the exception of the AIRA Effector modules, the controls on AIRA devices are all preset and can’t be changed. With the modules, the four potentiometers on the front panel can be routed to any controls within the app.


      How are the controls mapped on a Plug-Out? Is the layout and controls the same as the original synths they are based on?

      The controls are mapped as close as possible to the original synths. There are a few exceptions or additions that are outlined in the PLUG-OUT manuals. There are also overlays for the SYSTEM-1 that show all of the controls for a specific PLUG-OUT.

      I have the System 1m in my rig and right off the chain when I learned about it and saw videos, it really does offers a sonic history of analog and digital synthesis as well as digital processing in a box. One of the coolest things I have found with my System 1m is the convenience of self oscillation. No external gear needed to make a big sound. From droning to LFO type melody sequences to sound effects. One can pull a lot out of one timbre not to mention options for controlling the sound with the CV ins and outs.

      An often overlooked feature of all the AIRA instruments is that they can also be a USB audio interface for a PC/MAC.  When the connections for audio and MIDI in the System 1 m show up in a given DAW, they can be a bit confusing to the user. Depending on which ASIO driver is used, such ASIO4ALL which allows the user to select more than one driver thus allowing the user to use more than one audio device in a DAW. 


      When using AIRA devices together, do you have any suggestions as to how one may connect and use them in that type of setup?

      Since they act as their own audio interface, the way that it is used is up to the end user and their intended use. Many of the devices have multiple inputs and outputs, so be sure to keep track of all the channels when creating an aggregate device.


      Looking at the System 1m and it's ability to remember the user patch cable connections, does the unit update itself in real time if you decide to change a connection or reroute a control setting?

      Yes, any changes made to a patch will happen in real time. Patch memory will remember if something was plugged into an input or not. Upon recalling that patch, any new input connections will be ignored and the led ring around the jack will flash. This can then be overwritten by unplugging and plugging in the cable.

      The System 8 PLUG-OUT Synthesizer, has recently been released. The System 8 is the first instrument to feature Roland's new second generation Analog Circuit Behavior engine with 3 oscillators and 8 voices of polyphony. Like its older siblings the System 1 Keyboard and System 1m semi-modular rack synthesizer, the System 8 is a knob and slider laden machine that supports 3 PLUG-OUT synthesizers with a 49 key keyboard. The System 8 unit also features CV/Gate outputs and a step sequencer for controlling retro gear or even a modular synthesizer. 


      I asked Roland to expand further on what it is and what’s new about ACB's second generation.

      The SYSTEM-8 is a synth that I am very excited about. Roland took all of the feedback that they received from the SYSTEM-1 and put it into this new instrument. It is literally the synth that everyone has asked for. This synth uses a new more powerful processor, and Roland was able to take advantage of that by improving both the PLUGOUTs and the core SYSTEM-8 synth engine. This means that the sound is even more similar to the original analog circuits. There is even a new CONDITION setting that allows the user to age the synth or make it more accurate and stable. Another cool addition is a SBF filter mode for the SYSTEM-8 engine. This is a unique filter that is borrowed from the V-SYNTH. It is capable of some interesting tones that can sound very similar to FM.



      Can the System 8 house up to 3 Plug-Outs at once?

      Yes, there are three PLUG-OUT slots in the SYSTEM-8. It comes with both the JUPITER-8 and JUNO-106 PLUG-OUTs. There is an SD card slot that allows for quick and easy swapping of different PLUG-OUTs.


      Does hosting the extra plugins on the System 8 take any DSP power away from the main synth?

      Hosting a PLUG-OUT doesn’t take away from DSP power. It just takes a PLUG-OUT slot in the memory of the synth. In fact, you can even run two PLUG-OUTs at once in Performance mode.


      How does the new "Condition" setting work on the System 8? Is altering the pitch part of it's processing?

      The effect of lowering the Condition setting is subtle. It does allow for the oscillators to drift a bit more, but it does more than that. It is like all of the components in every part of the synth have aged. The filter, envelopes and everything is a little less accurate and precise.

      Another new series of instruments recently released, is the Boutique Series like the TB-03 modern re-creation of the TB-303 and the TR-09 re-creation of the TR-909 drum machine.Both machines also use the second generation ACB engine.


      What differentiates the AIRA TB-3 from the Boutique TB-03 besides the Touch Panel interface on the AIRA TB-3?

      The TB-03 has improved ACB and more controls over the effects. It is for the musician that wants something as close to the TB-303 as possible. The TB-3 synthesizes a lot more sounds than the TB-03, and has a SCATTER control for adding variations to a sequence. It is for the musician that wants an instrument with more flexibility and live performance controls.




      Were modifications such as the ones made for the original TB-303 by third party developers like Devil Fish and Borg taken into consideration for the new Boutique series?

      I don’t know if those specific mods were investigated, but there were some additions based on how the originals were used. For example, it is very common for a TB-303 to be sent through external effect pedals. Considering this, Roland added three different types of overdrive and distortion and three different types of delay and reverb to the TB-03. There are also CV and gate outputs and a trigger input. Many people used the rim output on the TR-909 to clock external devices, so Roland added a trigger output next to the rim level on the TR-09.


      Is "SIMPLE MODE" the same as "STEP MODE"? 

      I don’t know what SIMPLE MODE is. The TB-03 has a new STEP MODE for its sequencer.This makes it operate in a similar manner to the TB-03  allowing all parameters to be entered at once. The ORIGINAL MODE requires separate passes in both PITCH and TIME modes.



      Aside from being digital, What can the TR-09 do that TR-909 original can't?

      The TR-09 acts as its own audio interface when connected to a computer. There are 4 audio channels that can have different instruments assigned to each of them.


      The TR-8 features the TR-909 sounds as well. Where does the TR-09 fit into someone's rig compared to that?

      The TR-09 is for the musician that wants the same interface as the TR-909 and as close of sound to it as possible. The ACB has been improve in the TR-09 over that of the TR-8.



      We know ACB sounds like analog. Does the modeling allow the user to control sound in ways that traditional analog can't?

      Since the modelling is based on analog circuits, it is somewhat limited to what those original circuits could do. There are some exceptions though, like with added or effects or the additional waveforms in the SYSTEM-8.


      Will we see upgrades to the System 1 firmware based on advances in the System 8?

      The SYSTEM-8 uses a more advanced processor, so it isn’t possible to port everything down to the SYSTEM-1.


      This year we've seen the release of the System 500 modular synthesizer. Tell us a little about it and how it came about.

      The SYSTEM-500 is an intriguing project for Roland. They partnered with Malekko, an existing eurorack modular manufacturer. The modules are a mix of the SYSTEM-100m and SYSTEM-700 modules from the late 70’s and early 80’s. The modules sound amazing, with a very classic Roland tone. If you haven’t already done so, then you should visit your local store to check them out in person. For any Canadians reading this, you are welcome to visit our new Roland Inspiration Centres in Toronto and Vancouver. We have a bunch of Roland and BOSS gear on display for musicians to try out, including everything mentioned in this article.


      Is the focus of the 500 Series on Classic Analog Modules?

      Yes, they are based on a combination for the SYSTEM-100m and SYSTEM-700 modules. The last two digits of the SYSTEM-500 modules are the same as their SYSTEM-100m counterpart.

      Roland_SYSTEM_500_analog_modular_eruorack (1).jpg


      I noticed when reading about the modules that you get two of everything in a module. ie. The LFO module has two, the Oscillator module has two etc. Is that correct?

      That is true for the VCO, VCF and VCA modules. The envelope module has two envelopes and one LFO. However, the 572 effects module has one of each (phase shifter, delay, LFO and gate delay).


      Are there features or elements from the System 100 and 700 series implemented into the 500 series?

      The modules are based on the SYSTEM-100m and SYSTEM-700. This influenced what functions are included in each module. It also influenced the panel design and layout.


      The AIRA System 1m and the 500 Series, both being modular and can easily be connected via CV patch cabling, was there idea(s) that they might be used together?

      Interconnecting between various modules and semi-modular gear is one of the great things about modular synthesis. There was the idea that the SYSTEM-500 and SYSTEM-1m would be used both together and with many other modules, including ones by other manufacturers. That is why the eurorack modular standard was used – to play friendly with other modular gear.


      Do you have any recommended configurations for setting up the Series 500 Modules?

      The SYSTEM-500 Complete Kit comes with the modules arranged in numerical order. I like to swap the positions of the 531 (VCA) and 540 (EG/LFO) modules. This puts the envelopes and LFO in the middle between the VCF and VCA, making it easier to patch to both of them. {Conclusion}



      Did Roland take note of what a lot of the DIY musicians that took the older vintage Roland gear to landmark heights such as the various sub genres under the Techno banner?

      Yes, but not necessarily with it being specifically analog. Roland did look at how their classic instruments were being used, and then designed new instruments that were catered to these new styles and techniques. This is evident in the original AIRA line (TR-8, SYSTEM-1, TB-3).


      Looking back over the years to present day, how do you think the synth artists have changed?

      With electronic music, the creative potential of the artist is dictated by the instrument much more than with any other type of music. The artists that we consider pioneers were using very limited equipment, and some even built their own instruments. Part of the art was just being able to make electronic sounds. Now, however, any laptop can do more than an entire studio could just 20 years ago. This limitless potential has many effects, both good and bad. It makes electronic music production easier and more accessible, but that doesn’t mean that everyone making it has talent. However, it has freed the artist to focus more on composition and crafting their own sounds. I think that this is part of the reason that modular synthesis has had a revitalization – artists can now afford to spend more time patching and less time cueing up tape and pecking away at old MIDI sequencers.


      Encyclotronic would like to thank Roland for taking the time to talk with us about their new products. Be sure to check out the official sites linked below for the full details. Please feel free to share your comments and feedback in the comments below. Likewise, if you have these items. We would love to see / hear what you are doing with them. 

      AIRA Products - https://www.roland.com/us/categories/aira/plug-out_synthesizers/

      System 8 - https://www.roland.com/us/products/system-8/

      TR-8 Drum Machine - https://www.roland.com/us/products/tr-8/

      System 500 Modular - https://www.roland.com/global/products/system-500_complete_set/


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