Roland System-1m modular synth reviewed

September 17, 2015

Few product lines have lived up to their hype like Roland’s Aira series. Their TR-8 is currently redefining the sound of modern dance music with its vintage accuracy. The TB-3 has won over countless 303 aficionados. The MX-1 is an utterly unique take on live mixing. And the System-1 (reviewed Oct. ’14) has become a staple in both studios and live rigs in the year since its introduction. While it would’ve been easy for Roland to just kick back and release a rack-mount version of the System-1, they took careful notes on the ongoing renaissance of modular equipment and incorporated voltage control into the AIRA synthesis engine in a manner that’s both radical and evocative of their legacy as one of the original architects of modular gear. The System-1m isn’t just a rehash of what’s great about the keyboard version. It’s an entirely new ball game.

Hardware

Consisting of the front panel of the original System-1 with a slew of brightly lit 1/8" control voltage jacks festooning its top row, the System-1m can be used as a desktop wedge, a standard 3U rack synth, or integrated into existing Eurorack systems, which is a clever design feat. Better still, Roland included all of the accessories for each application, including rack ears and a Eurorack ribbon connector for power. This is a thoughtful touch, as several other manufactures like to charge extra for essentials like these, when frankly, the parts cost pennies to produce.

With so many connections on the front of the unit, the back panel is decidedly Spartan, consisting of the DC input for the included power supply, five-pin MIDI in and out, and stereo 1/4" outputs. For 19" rack users, Roland also included a second set of five-pin MIDI connections on the bottom of the unit (which faces the back of a standard rack). As a result, the whole package exudes an air of “intelligent design.”


Architecture

The System-1m is based on the same architecture as the original System-1 keyboard, which means it’s an extremely capable synthesizer, even without the addition of Roland’s innovative Plug-Out technology. In my original System-1 review, I covered the Aira synthesis tools in depth, but for those who don’t have the October 2014 issue handy, here’s a recap.

The default Aira model consists of two oscillators, a sub-oscillator, pink and white noise options, a resonant lowpass filter with an additional non-resonant highpass filter included, one LFO, and envelopes for the filter, amplifier, and pitch. At the end of the chain are a series of effects ranging from tone control to delay and reverb. In addition to monophonic and unison modes, it also operates as a four-voice polyphonic synth, which really adds to its value.

The oscillators are remarkably deep and full-featured, with six waveforms available on each, including saw, variable pulse and triangle, along with stacked and detuned versions of each. A “Color” knob serves multiple functions depending on the waveform. In pulse mode, it allows adjustment of the duty cycle, from square to very narrow rectangle waves. In saw and triangle modes, it adjusts the harmonic content of each in clever and musical ways. For the stacked options, it controls the depth and detuning for “super saw” type effects. Adding complexity to the color parameter is the ability to modulate its value via a wide array of sources, including the LFO, any of the three envelopes, and even the sub-oscillator, which offers some very unique timbral variations. As if that weren’t enough, there are options for cross-modulation, hard sync and ring mod. To be clear, these features give the Aira engine a massive range of tonal variety—and that’s just the oscillators.

The mixer section includes switches for selecting the sub-oscillator’s octave (either one or two octaves below oscillator 1) and the type of noise (pink or white). While it may not be immediately apparent, when the mixer volumes are set higher than 70 to 80 percent, a lovely bit of overdrive kicks in, adding to the oscillators’ already warm and thick sound.

The Aira filter section sounds fantastic and includes both two-pole and four-pole modes for the resonant lowpass filter, which can self-oscillate in an extremely credible manner—and not using just the usual added sine wave that tracks the frequency, as in other modeled analog synths. The inclusion of an additional highpass filter really allows users to tightly sculpt the frequency range of its sound. In fact, when I use my original System-1 in tracks, I often rely on the filter alone instead of adding EQ. It’s really that good.

As for modulation resources, the filter and amp envelopes are classic ADSRs with really snappy decay segments, while the pitch envelope is a simple attack-decay affair that does the trick for pitch sweeps, though I usually prefer to use it to modulate the oscillator’s color parameter for added animation.

Topping it all off are four deceptively simple integrated effects that really enhance the overall flavor of the System-1m sound. At first glance, the tone control appears to function like a simple bass-treble shelving EQ, but in practice serves to “tilt” the overall model in either warmer or brighter directions. The bit-crusher delivers that modern down-sampling effect that’s become so ubiquitous in today’s dance music scene. At the end of the chain, delay and reverb effects add a touch of final polish. The delay has a more analog feel, with warm lowpassed feedback, while the reverb’s texture straddles the line between a smooth plate and a spacious hall.

Plug-Out Technology

When the Aira line was first introduced in 2014, one of the most talked about features was Roland’s new Plug-Out technology. In a nutshell, these Plug-Out soft synths are note-perfect virtual versions of some of Roland’s most sought after vintage monosynths, like the SH-2, ProMars, and legendary SH-101 (shown), which is included with the System-1m package. What makes the Plug-Out technology so cool is the fact that each synth can be used either as a standard synth plug-in within your DAW of choice, or you can load it directly into the System-1 or 1m and use the hardware stand-alone—without bringing your computer—in live or studio situations. While a full review of each Plug-Out is beyond the scope of this article, let’s just say that in the context of a mixdown or live gig, any subtle differences between the software versions and the real thing are negligible. Roland really hit it out of the park with the digital versions of their classics and in the context of the new System-1m, the whole approach becomes even more impressive thanks to its new modular features.

Version 1.2

Of special note to both original owners of the System-1 and newcomers to the Aira line is version 1.2 of these synths’ firmware, which is far more than a simple compatibility upgrade, adding several really valuable new features to the series. For starters, the upgrade increases the number of onboard presets from eight to 64, which addresses one of the only shortcomings of the original System-1 software.

In addition, it adds six more waveforms to each of the oscillators: Noise Saw, Logic Operation (based on a square wave), FM, FM + Sync, Vowel, and CB. All of these new waveform options are extremely exotic, with Logic Operation, FM, and FM + Sync veering into hard, gritty territory. Noise Saw is exactly what you’d expect, consisting of a sawtooth wave with a bit of added noise modulation, whereas Vowel is a handy formant waveform that has a more analog texture than most soft synths. Finally, CB is reminiscent of the classic TR-808 cowbell sound, but a lot thinner and somewhat percussive at low “color” settings. If you’re an owner of the original System-1, go download this update immediately, as it’s like getting a brand new synth for free. I’m really happy to see Roland adding new features and growing the architecture, as it confirms their devotion to the entire Aira line-up.


Modular Enhancements

While the synthesis architecture and Plug-Out functionality of the System-1m alone is worth its $599 street price, the biggest news is Roland’s deep plunge into the waters of voltage control and modular synthesis, especially in the context of a synth with a digital heart. Scratching the surface, there are CV and gate inputs with a trim function that allows you to fine-tune the voltage scaling so as to improve compatibility with other modular gear. Additionally, there’s an external audio input for routing signals though the filter, amp, and effects section with volume control via the sub-oscillator’s mixer knob. That’s all well and good, and a great way to get started if you’re a newcomer. but it’s also just the beginning.

For voltage modulation inputs, there are jacks for filter envelope, pitch envelope, amp envelope, and filter LFO. These labels can be a wee bit confusing if you’re used to standard modular terminology, as they’re really just control voltage inputs for modulating each section, with the terms “envelope” and “LFO” referring to the corresponding amount knobs for scaling the input voltage. For example, I ran the LFO output from my Korg MS-20 into the filter envelope voltage input and it delivered the expected wah-wah effect, with adjustable depth via the filter’s envelope depth knob. There’s also a ring-mod input that bypasses the System-1m’s default oscillator 1 routing, allowing you to add ring mod to oscillator 2 via an external voltage source. Finally, there are in and out jacks for oscillator sync as well.

On the output side, there are jacks for LFO, oscillator 1, oscillator 2, mixer output, filter envelope and amp envelope. For the LFO and envelope outputs, the results are self-explanatory, as they allow you to apply those modulation voltages to other gear. The oscillator and mixer outputs are another story entirely, offering the ability to route the System-1m’s unique oscillator options into your modular rig. For those who don’t yet have a collection of external modules, you can still create some decidedly extreme modular sounds with just the System-1m itself. For example, routing the output of oscillator 2 into the filter envelope input allows you to create complex filter FM effects that are especially impressive in conjunction with the “super” waveforms, which add ghostly noise-like artifacts to the results. Another cool trick is to route the entire mixer output into the ring-mod input and then apply cross-modulation.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that the same modular options are available with all of the Plug-Out synths as well (depending on their own features, like number of oscillators and such). So, if you’ve ever fantasized about what a modular-ized SH-101 or ProMars might sound like, your dreams just came true.

As a whole, the System-1m really invites exploration and experimentation regardless of your skill level. It’s modular, after all. You can’t really “break” it, though it’s certainly possible to shred your speakers—or your eardrums!


Conclusions

The original System-1 has become a mainstay in my studio rig, appearing on nearly every track and remix I’ve done since it arrived in 2014. Sonically, the Aira engine is a monster, especially with the new options included with the version 1.2 update. And it goes without saying that the 1m’s addition of voltage control increases the power of the System-1 by an order of magnitude, even if this wünderbox is just the initial starting point for your modular addiction. Then there’s the whole Plug-Out schema, providing access to pristine emulations of Roland’s greatest hits, but with rack-mount portability, hardware stability, and unprecedented modular connectivity. All in all, the System-1m is an extraordinary achievement for Roland – and at $599 it’s an extraordinary bargain.

 
PROS

Rich and authentic-sounding analog modeling engine. Extensive modular routing options. Plug-out technology allows classic Roland soft synth models to be integrated with the modular features. Firmware version 1.2 includes new waveform options for the oscillators. Eurorack compatible. Included rack ears.


CONS

Many secondary functions require tricky key combinations, which can be a tad confusing at first.


Bottom Line

An absolutely genius marriage of virtual analog synthesis, exportable soft synth models, and modular flexibility.

$799 list | $599 street

rolandus.com

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