Boutique-sized synth with massive Minimoog-like sound
Tim Caswell has been deeply involved with Moog-style circuits for over 30 years. In fact, he was offered the Moog name and patent/copyright portfolio in 1978, but passed on it because the patents had expired by that time. Instead, he started a company called Studio Electronics. (Moog had been out of business for nearly a decade at that point.)
In the late ‘80s, Studio Electronics released a rackmount synth based on the Minimoog called the Midimoog/Midimini, which was followed by a more popular variation, the SE-1. Although it wasn’t intended to be a circuit-perfect clone of a Minimoog Model D, the SE-1 took the original’s elements and updated them, while maintaining the essence of the instrument—the vibe of its legendary filter and oscillators.
Fast forward to 2017: The Roland SE-02 ($499) Boutique-series synth, developed in collaboration with Studio Electronics, is a thoroughly modern take on Moog’s classic monosynth, yet is more portable and easier to keep within reach in a studio context.
The rear panel includes a mono output, a stereo headphone jack, an input for filtering external audio, MIDI I/O on DIN connectors, and a USB port. You’ll also find CV inputs for controlling pitch and filter-cutoff frequency, a gate input, and trigger I/O for the built-in sequencer. The analog jacks are 3.5mm in size; easily compatible with Eurorack gear. Overall, it is a generous complement of connections that increases the SE-02’s versatility.
Another cool feature is that the module stores 384 factory presets and provides 128 user-programmable slots. The factory presets cover a wide range of sounds, some of which are so impressive that new users could rely on them exclusively, with minimal tweaking.
As you would expect, the SE-02 has smaller knobs (and keys when mounted in the KM-25 keyboard unit) than the original Moog instrument. And unlike Roland’s other Boutique products, the SE-02 requires an AC adapter, because of its analog Volt-per-octave architecture.
Oscillators. The SE-02’s oscillators deliver the identical waveform options as a Minimoog, including preset pulse-widths. Sonically, they’re on the money in terms of sound.
But that’s where the comparison stops, because these oscillators have capabilities that were unattainable when the Model D was first created. For starters, the SE-02 has an ultra-fast tuning algorithm that measures the oscillators’ pitch across nine points and calibrates them accordingly. Moreover, oscillator 2 can be hard synced to oscillator 1, with bi-polar envelope control of oscillator 2’s pitch for sweeps, then mixed with oscillator 3 for additional reinforcement. Below the Glide knob is a switch for setting whether the lag time behaves linearly or exponentially.
In addition to the Mixer’s expected noise generator is a Feedback knob that replaces the Minimoog’s external-input volume, which can be used for creating unique distortion-like timbres.
The SE-02 adds powerful modulation capabilities, as well. The X-Mod panel gives you instant control over filter modulation from oscillator 2, pitch modulation of oscillator 2 from oscillator 3, and pulse-width modulation of oscillator 1 and 2 from oscillator 3. In the audio range, the modulation is useful for creating hard and nasty textures. However, all three oscillators can also be switched to Lo mode, so you to use them as LFOs. Additionally, the X-Mod modulation depth is adjustable from the mod wheel.
Filter. Studio Electronics’ Moog-based filter circuit, here, is in some ways an improvement over its previous instruments. According to Caswell, the gain structure going into the Filter from the Mixer has been optimized for warmth and aggression when the controls are maxed out. And you can really hear the difference, especially in conjunction with the Mixer’s Feedback knob.
The Emphasis (resonance) parameter still delivers that distinctive juiciness—crucial for those trademark bass sweeps and funky ‘70s riffs. Keyboard tracking uses the same 1/3 plus 2/3 approach as the Model D, with additional options for single or multiple triggering and invertible filter-envelope modulation. To my ear, the results yield a bit more presence than you get from a real Minimoog, and in a very good way.
Modulation. The SE-02 includes a dedicated LFO (with 9 waveforms, including hard and smoothed random shapes) and two Minimoog-style envelopes. All are digitally based. The envelopes have the famous snap and punch found on the Model D. A 3-position switch tailors the release time.
Keep in mind that the original Minimoog didn’t even have a dedicated LFO. Instead, you used oscillator 3 in low frequency mode for that task. So, in conjunction with the instrument’s new X-Mod tools, this dedicated, syncable LFO greatly expands the SE-02’s sound palette. It even offers 1-shot mode and the ability to repeatedly trigger the envelopes much like an ARP Odyssey.
As for destinations, the filter envelope can modulate both the filter-frequency cutoff and the pitch of oscillator 2, which is great for emulating horns and designing hard-sync sweeps. The LFO has separate knobs for pitch depth and cutoff, and a switch that governs MIDI synchronization for both the LFO and the onboard delay.
Sequencer. As with the other Boutique synths, the SE-02 has an integrated sequencer with front-panel controls that make programming one-bar sequences a breeze. But this sequencer has features that go beyond the previous models. For example, you can set gate time and glide on a per-step basis for 303-style sequences, and you can string together 16 patterns (with adjustable repeats for each) to create songs: This will be a hit with touring artists and DJs who incorporate the SE-02 into their setups.
Best of all, you can hold any step button and adjust its synth parameters, allowing you to create insanely complex timbral sequences. While this is available on other synths, it’s usually capped at a maximum of four parameters. Here, nearly every parameter can be sequenced.
With the possible exception of its size, the Roland SE-02 ticks all the boxes of what you could possibly want in a Minimoog-inspired synth. And, priced below $500, it’s a fraction of the cost of a vintage instrument.
Of course, the SE-02 is not an exact replica of a Model D, nor is it intended to be. If you want to know whether it’s better than the 1971 original, my answer is a definite yes. The SE-02 has a massive sound and captures the soul of a Minimoog, but adds features that fit today’s way of making music.
For more information, visit Roland.com.