Review: Roland AIRA System-8

December 22, 2016

Since I added the AIRA System-1 to my rig in 2014, it’s become a workhorse for both remixes and film/TV work. In fact, I rely on the SH-101 Plug-Out more than I use my real one. Frankly, it’s just more convenient and the Plug-Out sounds every bit as convincing in a mix. The core AIRA synth sounds fantastic, too. And the subtle mixer overdrive and convincing filter response give a presence that lets it go toe-to-toe with my analog collection.

Thanks to those qualities and the runaway success of the Boutique product line, it didn’t take an oracle to see that Roland would eventually unveil a full-size version that offered polyphonic Plug-Out synths.

The System-8 is covered with knobs and faders and includes a huge X0X-style sequencer that’s a breeze to program. As for synthesis tools, it has dual multimode oscillators, a noise generator, a sub-oscillator, extensive filtering, three envelopes, and an LFO. At the end of the chain are more sophisticated versions of the System-1 effects, including distortion, delay/chorus and reverb. An integrated vocoder and arpeggiator are also present.

Fig. 1: The Jupiter-8 Plug-Out synth is included in the System-8, with the Juno-106 available shortly.
As a virtual analog synth, these features alone would be impressive, but the System-8 has three memory slots for expanding the instrument with Plug-out soft synths. The first slot ships pre-loaded with a stunning Jupiter-8 emulation, first seen on the Boutique series (see Figure 1). A Juno-106 is in the works for 2017, as are compatible versions of the System-1 monophonic Plug-Outs. (The Juno-106 Plug-Out will be free for early adopters of the System-8.)

Oscillators

The System-8’s oscillators, identical to those in the System-1, offer sawtooth, pulse and triangle waves in both traditional and “super” versions. The color knob modifies the standard waveforms, creating subtle variations on saw and triangle, as well as classic pulse-width functionality. On the “super” waves, it increases the detuning depth. Each oscillator’s color parameter can be modulated by the LFO, envelopes, or oscillator 3 to create wild FM effects.

The Variation parameter provides easy access to additional waveforms introduced in the System-1 v1.2 update. These add options for FM, vowel and a one-shot based on the TR-808 cowbell. Additional functions include a white/pink noise generator, cross-mod (bi-directional FM), ring mod and hard sync.

Oscillator 3 can function as a sub-oscillator, and its sine and triangle waves can be modified using the color knob. It has a tuning range of ±1200 cents, making it useful for creating complexity when oscillator 3 is used as a modulation source.

Filters and Modulation

The filter offers keyboard tracking, velocity sensitivity, and a 4-stage envelope with bi-directional modulation depth. And in addition to 2-and 4-pole resonant lowpass options (with a separate highpass cutoff as a nod to the Jupiter and Juno), you get a 3-pole mode for the lowpass and three resonant highpass modes with the same slopes. This extends the System-8’s range of timbre options, even before you hit the variation knob that shifts it into “side-band” mode—terrific for pseudo-flanging effects and hard electro sounds.

The LFO is a powerhouse, thanks to its variation knob. In standard mode you get all the classic waveforms, with three bi-polar controls for pitch, filter and amp, as well as a switch for retriggering on every key event. You can also have the LFO trigger the envelopes for old-school pulsing effects.

However, the variation knob takes this LFO into innovative territory. Variation 2 creates a dual-LFO effect with the second LFO’s rate set five octaves lower than the main one. The result is an LFO that speeds up and slows down in accordance with the selected waveform.

Variation 3 is a resonant pulse wave with a selectable resonant frequency. Imagine an alternating square wave, where each side of its cycle includes a rapid sine-wave flutter at the extremes. It’s a sound you’d hear from a well-stocked modular rig and the inclusion here may provide a clue as to Roland’s future intentions for the System-8 architecture.

Effects and Vocoder

While the original System-1 included a bit-crusher, delay and reverb at the end of its chain, the System-8’s implementation is much more extensive, with separate modules for distortion (including a phaser option, interestingly), delay/chorus, and reverb.

The distortion section provides four types—from overdrive to fuzz—and includes a bit-crusher option. The delay/chorus has a lovely, watery ensemble and a nice emulation of Roland’s JC-120-style chorus. The reverbs include a Dimension D inspired “Ambi” setting, some modulated spaces, and a lush plate.

Although the documentation doesn’t specify the number of bands it has, my ears tell me the built-in vocoder is at least an eight-band model—possibly higher—because it’s quite intelligible. Set up is easy and requires just a few button presses. Unfortunately, the mic input accepts only 1/4" plugs, rather than supporting XLR connectors, like you’ll find on the new VP-03.

Although there aren’t many front-panel control to tweak for the vocoder, I discovered a nifty formant-shifting parameter in the System menus, as well as a highpass tool for emphasizing consonants. All in all, the vocoder is a solid performer.

Arpeggiator and Sequencer

In ARIA mode, the options for the arpeggiator are not particularly extensive—up, down and up/down modes are available in either one-or two-octave flavors. As this is a Roland product, I was hoping for a random mode, as they basically pioneered this option on the Jupiter-4. So, while standard AIRA mode doesn’t offer this, it is available in a Plug-Out synth, as we’ll see in a moment.

Nonetheless, the System-8 sequencer is an absolute gem. If you’ve used any of the Boutique modules, you’ll instantly be familiar with its X0X-style row of sixteen tabs that chase along as the sequence plays. But unlike the Boutiques, the System-8’s front panel includes dedicated buttons for step record, real-time record, rests, ties and a some editing functions, making it almost too easy to whip up dance-floor-ready riffs.

It’s also fantastic as a parameter modulation tool, especially for rhythmic step-sequences. Just hold down a step button and turn the desired knob. When you lift the key, the sequence advances to the next step and awaits new input. Within a few minutes, I created stepped-filter sequences worthy of Depeche Mode’s first two albums.

Plug-Out

The System-8 has three plug-out slots for future expansion and comes stock with the Jupiter-8 installed. This is the same model as the Boutique JP-08 and sounds identical, but with eight voices instead of four. What’s more, the Jupiter-8 Plug-Out’s arpeggiator includes the random mode I mentioned earlier.

For my review of the Boutique synths last year, I took the units to Austin’s Switched On Music vintage-synth shop and recorded head-to-head comparisons against the originals with stunning results. Having just completed a film/TV library of retro tracks that rely heavily on vintage gear and the Boutiques, I can attest that Roland’s approach to modeling its iconic synths is an absolute success. The Jupiter-8 mode sounds 99% like an original, with the 1% difference attributed to subtle variations between each unit’s aging process. Heck, even two Jupiters will sound slightly different from each other after 35 years. So, unless you want to live with the vague anxiety of inevitable repairs and maintenance, you’ll probably be just as blown away as I was by the Plug-Out version.

Speaking of the nuances of aging gear, Roland added a Condition parameter, which you’ll find within the System menu. Increasing its value adds subtle tuning and filter variations to each voice played, like you’d get from a true vintage synth. It may seem like a gimmick to some, but when it comes to nailing the idiosyncrasies of analog, it’s an impressive detail.

At this time, the System-8 isn’t compatible with the System-1 Plug-Outs. However, Roland plans to address this in 2017. Even so, having the Jupiter-8 included in the System-8 package out-of-the-box is an amazing value.

Performance

While the Boutiques and System-1 leaned more toward studio applications and DJ rigs, the System-8 is an absolute dream for live keyboardists. The velocity-sensitive action is standard for a synth of this type, with traditional full-size keys instead of the System-1’s flattened action. As for real-time performance control, there are dedicated sliders for both pitch and filter depth on the old-school Roland horizontal paddle/bender.

Another feature that gigging players will love is split/dual keyboard mode. It could mean that you’ll need one less synth on the road, considering that both layers and splits can access different Plug-Outs, arpeggiators, sequences, and vocoding. There’s even an option to send CV/gate voltages from a specific keyboard range.

Over and Out

Offering a comprehensive feature set combined with impeccable re-creations of iconic analog gear, it’s almost impossible to find any faults with the System-8 other than the lack of an XLR input for microphones. Overall, the synth is positively breathtaking as both a studio workhorse and a stage instrument.

Snap Judgment

PROS AIRA synth engine. Bundled with Jupiter-8 Plug-Out. Intuitive XOX-style sequencer and arpeggiator. Split and layered performances can integrate multiple synthesis models. Integrated vocoder and effects. CV/gate outputs.

CONS Microphone input is a 1/4” TRS jack, rather than an XLR or combo jack.

Bottom Line

The ultimate AIRA/Boutique hybrid.

$1,499 street
roland.com
 

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