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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Pitch envelope always affects both oscillators. Filter curves are a bit off. Keyboard is not velocity-sensitive.
Believe the hype.
$599 street | rolandus.com