Roland Aira System-1 reviewed

October 14, 2014

To say that Roland’s new Aira line has created a stir among synthesists and producers is like saying that Tesla Motors makes some pretty nifty electric cars. While there are a few purists who insist that the original TR-808, TR-909, and TB-303 are the only “legitimate” instruments, the majority of users—myself included—are thoroughly impressed with the Airas’ authenticity, modern amenities, and value. 

That said, I’m an analog fan to the Nth degree. My first synths were pre-MIDI analog affairs like the Realistic/Moog MG-1 and Korg Polysix – and my current studio includes examples of both modern revivalist synths and obscure oddities like the Yamaha SK-50D, Davolisint, and a pristine Roland SH-101 in fully working order.

So, while I’m enamored of the Aira TR-8 drum machine and TB-3 bass synth/sequencer reviewed back in May, I was reserving final judgment on the entire product line until I got my hands on the System-1. Recreating drum hits and acid bass lines is one thing, but delivering an accurate digital replica of a real analog synth has been the province of a select few hardware and software synths.

 

Design and Construction

 

As with the other Aira gear, the System-1 design is gloriously futuristic, with its Matrix-green backlit knobs and slim, wedge-like footprint. Whether in a darkened studio, dim DJ booth, or multi-tiered keyboard rig, its glowing presence will turn heads like no other synth on the market, especially when its “screen saver” kicks in.

Keeping the form factor compact and lightweight is a two-octave short-throw keyboard that eschews velocity sensitivity in favor of an extremely light action. Clearly, more than a few keyboardists are going to hate the feel, but I had no problems with it. Over the years, I’ve tended more toward lighter keyboards, as they facilitate faster riffing, but others may balk at that. 

Another controversial design decision is the System-1’s lack of traditional performance controllers. Instead of a pitch wheel or lever, Roland’s new spring-loaded “scatter” knob—a concentric affair that looks and feels exactly like the jog/shuttle wheel on video editing systems—doubles on pitch-bend duties. Instead of a large modulation button or wheel, there’s a chiclet-sized button. Keyboard action aside, these design decisions will definitely affect soloists looking to play lightning licks onstage. That said, other compact synths have made similar concessions, notably the Arturia MiniBrute’s tiny wheels on its front panel and M-Audio’s original O2 controller, which featured a similar keyboard action and small rubberized performance controls, yet remained a success throughout its run. Either way, it’s safe to say that for many users, the only real considerations will be the System-1’s sound and synthesis features.

Audio Examples

 



Architecture

 


Hardware design aside, the System-1’s approach to analog modeling is both innovative and extremely well thought out. Roland’s new “plug-out” technology allows the System-1 to load detailed models of classic analog synths in addition to its default native synth model, which also has a sound of its own. The first synth out of the chute is, appropriately, the SH-101 (CLICK HERE for our review) and if it’s any indication of Roland’s attention to detail, then the System-1 is going to remain viable and relevant for a long time to come.

The default synthesis engine is both comprehensive and polyphonic. This makes it extremely competitive when viewed in context of the current analog synth market, which is still largely focused on boutique monophonic synths. With its knob-per-function ergonomics and classic layout, the System-1 really feels like working with a proper analog unit, much like Roland’s Gaia SH-01, which for its time was a decent emulation of subtractive synthesis. But in the case of the Aira, Roland’s new Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) technology makes it orders of magnitude more authentic. The fact that it only operates at 96kHz internally dispenses with aliasing and adds noticeable transparency, to boot.

The general architecture of the default synth mode is a dual-oscillator affair with an additional sub-oscillator and noise generator, followed by highpass and resonant lowpass filters. For modulation, there are dedicated envelopes for pitch, filter, and amplifier, and a single LFO. This is pretty standard for Roland’s golden era of analog, notably the Jupiter-6 and Jupiter-8, as well as a nod to the ProMars. As part of my evaluation process, I took the System-1 to the popular Austin vintage synth boutique, Switched On Music, and even their staff was impressed with the overall character of the System-1, comparing it specifically to the Jupiters and Junos.

Oscillators. The System-1’s oscillators feature both analog and digital amenities that cover a massive range of sonic territory. In addition to the standard analog trinity of saw, pulse, and triangle options, there are multi-stacked “super” variants on all three, so they can also generate modern EDM sounds such as massive chords. As with other Roland synths, there’s a Color knob for each waveform option. In the case of the classic pulse wave, this knob dials in the width of the cycle. For sawtooth and triangle, the effect is distinctly different while still feeling circuit-based. Sweeping the sawtooth wave results in a subtle phase-like effect, while cranking the triangle wave to maximum adds a narrow peak to the actual waveform, resulting in added high frequencies. On all of the “super” waves, the color knob increases the depth and detuning of the effect.

In addition to waveform selection, the oscillators also include some classic Roland flourishes, like cross-modulation (bi-directional FM for the nerds out there), ring modulation, and sync. Also found on the original Jupiters, the Cross-Mod knob is a fantastic way to add harshness and dissonance to the oscillators and in the System-1’s model, the result has a warmth that I wasn’t expecting. Ring mod performs as expected with wide oscillator tunings and triangle waves generating its trademark metallic effect. 

That said, hard sync exposed a couple of unexpected wrinkles in the System-1’s performance. For starters, oscillator 2’s tune knob operates over a limited range, optimized for detuning applications. In order to access its coarse tuning mode—critical for classic sync effects as well as generating musical intervals—you have to hold down the sync and ring mod buttons, then set the interval via the Scatter knob. While this is easy enough to remember, it definitely disrupts the Zen flow of the front panel’s other features. What’s more, the pitch envelope affects both oscillators simultaneously, so sweeping the pitch of the second oscillator while synced to the first is impossible. Granted, this could be easily added in a future firmware update, so here’s hoping Roland gives this further consideration.

With the features out of the way, let’s discuss the sound of the oscillators in use. Specifically, do they really sound analog? The short answer is a confident “yes.” I compared the Roland’s standard oscillators to every other synth in my rig and on their own, they sounded every bit as crisp, present, and deep as the true analog units. The real test came when I used two oscillators simultaneously. On every one of my real analog synths, there’s a miniscule amount of drift and phasing, even when both oscillators are precisely tuned. In the Roland, that same drift was fully present. Let’s be candid here: Adding a tiny bit of random LFO to one or both oscillators will accomplish the same effect, but the fact that Roland’s oscillators already sound fantastic individually makes this trick sound especially convincing, whatever its actual source.

Mixer. The System-1 mixer is worthy of its own assessment. In addition to the mix of oscillators 1 and 2, it also includes octave and volume adjustment for the sub-oscillator, as well as level and color for the noise generator. The sub oscillator is especially nice, as it generates a triangle wave instead of the usual square and can be set either one or two octaves below oscillator 1. The noise generator sounded great in both pink and white modes and when played polyphonically, the noise got progressively louder for each additional note without changing pitch or adding phase. This is a very obscure test, to be sure, but it tells you a little bit about Roland’s modeling decisions, as several classic polysynths relied on a single noise generator for all voices, resulting in the same overall noise level regardless of the number of voices playing.


As for the mixer itself, it’s another area where Roland’s ACB technology really shines, thanks to the way each element distorts when its level rises above 70 percent or so. For example, if you raise any of the oscillators’ volumes beyond around two o’clock, they start to clip in an extremely organic manner, feeling a tad rounder in the mids. When viewed on my oscilloscope plug-in, the tops of the waveforms were nicely rounded, as opposed to simply chopped off. In the case of the noise generator, this introduced a slight tonal variation depending on whether either of the two oscillators was included in the mix, however quietly. There’s more than simple summing going on here and the results were decidedly un-digital, taken as a whole.

Filter. The standard System-1 filter is a fine affair with what appears to be a touch of drift, like the oscillators. It’s smooth and warm, and the resonance will self-oscillate with that trademark sine wave we all know and love. There’s also a non-resonant highpass filter (another hallmark of Roland design), which is really nice for thinning out strings and pads.

Nonetheless, the filter feels a trifle under-modeled compared to the loving attention to detail in the oscillators and mixer. This is largely because the slopes don’t quite behave in a perfectly analog manner. For example, when switching between from four-pole to two-pole mode on a proper analog synth—e.g., any of the current Dave Smith products—there’s an obvious boost of fizziness and a softening of the resonance. The differences between System-1 modes aren’t as clearly defined. To be clear, there are subtle character changes, but in a proper analog circuit the filter pinches slightly when switching to four-pole mode, emphasizing the resonance dramatically and rolling off more highs due to the steeper slope. I’m guessing all of this is because the standard System-1 model is polyphonic and uses more CPU than the flawless filter recreation in the SH-101 plug-out synth.

Even so, this filter is still a strong contender for best analog emulation in a digital hardware synth, with that distinctly buttery Roland vibe. There’s even a hidden paraphonic feature that I discovered while kicking the tires: If you switch the portamento to legato mode, the amp and filter sections perform monophonically while maintaining four-voice polyphony. I grinned when I stumbled upon that.

Modulation. As for envelopes, the System-1 includes three, one each for filter, amp and pitch – and all of them include the snappy decay response that makes Roland’s original analogs so coveted. While the pitch envelope is strictly an attack-decay affair, it’s capable of being inverted for slightly different effects and its only caveat is the previously mentioned omission of single oscillator pitch modulation, which is necessary for getting the most out of the sync, ring mod, and cross-mod features.

The System-1 LFO has a timeless vibe as well, with the standard array of sine, triangle, sawtooth, square, and sample-and-hold options, as well as a “random” mode, which softens the sharp sample-and-hold transitions and is great for R2D2-like pitch whistles. It can be simultaneously routed to filter, amp and pitch in discretely varying amounts and also sports a fade time parameter for delayed vibrato. I’ve noticed a few reviewers complain that it wasn’t capable of audio rate modulation, but with ring mod and cross-mod options on the oscillators, this seems like splitting hairs.

Effects. The System-1 also includes a small selection of onboard effects for adding further polish to your sounds. In the amplifier section, there’s a bit-crusher and a Tone knob for fine-tuning the output before it hits the time-based effects. While the bit-crusher is pretty standard, the Tone knob delivered some surprising results. At first glance, it appears to be a simple bass/treble boost, but in practice it tilts the character of the entire analog model. Tilt it toward lows and the synth takes on a Moog-ish character. Subtly boost the highs and it gets a Korg-like shimmer. In practice, this knob gives the System-1 a good deal more tonal range than I originally expected and is absolutely wonderful.

The delay is a monaural effect with a bit of lowpass rolloff on the feedback loop to give it a slightly warmer, tape-like sound that I really liked. The reverb effect is governed by a single knob combining both decay and wet/dry balance. Interestingly, the reverb model pairs beautifully with the overall sound of the synth engine, coming off smooth and plate-like, almost like an old Alesis MIDIverb. There’s something about its flavor that I really dug in context. It may not be flexible or detailed, but it sits nicely with the overall sound of this keyboard. 

Arpeggiator. The arpeggiator section is where Roland inserted their AIRA-centric “scatter” functions. If you leave the scatter parameters alone, it works like a standard up, down, up/down affair, but twist the knob while the arpeggiator is active and it stutters and syncopates in some nicely musical ways. What’s more, several scatter modes also affect additional parameters like filter cutoff, which takes its arpeggiations down decidedly modern pathways. The only catch was that the arpeggiator sometimes lost sync if I was locked to my DAW’s tempo and got too crazy with the scatter knob while playing live. 


Conclusions


I admit that I turned my electron microscope up to 11 while evaluating the Aira System-1. With all the hype surrounding its release, this felt necessary, especially considering that this synth will go head-to-head with a lot of real analog competition. My final verdict? I’m absolutely blown away by what Roland has accomplished here. Filter quibbles aside, the Aira System-1 sounds better than several of my favorite analog instruments—and coming from a purist, that’s heresy. Every classic analog patch I threw at it sounded astonishingly legitimate. There were even a few vintage sounds that the Roland nailed where the others failed. So I moved some gear around and cleared space in my immediate work area, and the System-1 now lives by my side in the studio. I’ve even moved my trusty vintage SH-101 to a corner of the room. The only question remaining is how long it will actually stay there. After all, it’s worth a pretty penny on eBay these days.

 

PROS

Remarkably accurate emulation of analog circuits. Included SH-101 emulation nails the original sound. Oscillator and filter drift complete the illusion of analog. Tone knob gives the overall emulation more sonic range. Scatter functions breathe new life into arpeggiator modes.

CONS

Pitch envelope always affects both oscillators. Filter curves are a bit off. Keyboard is not velocity-sensitive.

Bottom Line

Believe the hype.

$599 street | rolandus.com
 

 

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