Ask any synth geek about Roland’s coolest old-school analog synths, and you’ll get an earful about the SH-101. This battery-powered gem from 1983 was a staple of both top-40 synth pop and the rave scene. Consisting of a single oscillator, lowpass filter, envelope, and LFO—with a step sequencer and arpeggiator thrown in for good measure—the SH-101 packed a lot of versatility into a slick little package. So when we saw the resemblance borne by Roland’s new Gaia SH-01, we were more than a little intrigued.
- Keyboard Video: Roland's Gaia demo at Keyboard HQ.
- Keyboard Video: Jordan Rudess and Richard Devine Gaia jam at Roland Keyz 'n' Beats Summit.
Appearance and Controls
Everyone who swung by my studio commented on how pretty the Gaia is. Enticing might be a better word for it, as the front panel is a panoply of sliders, knobs, and flashing lights that puts the majority of its synth parameters at your fingertips. In fact, it was only after 15 minutes of cheerful fiddling that we noticed the absence of any sort of LCD—and didn’t miss it one bit. The experience of whipping up patches on the Gaia is an absolute joy, even if you don’t have a ton of experience with analog gear. In fact, the Gaia is so direct and intuitive that it’s actually fantastic for learning the basics of subtractive synthesis. We wouldn’t be surprised if the Gaia found its way into music schools of all types.
It’s half correct to call the Gaia a three-oscillator virtual analog synth.More correctly, it’s three stacked one-oscillator synths—virtual SH-101s.Each layer is completely independent, consisting of an oscillator with seven waveforms (each with three variations), a multimode filter, amplifier section, and tempo-sync-able LFO with six waveforms. Unlike the classic SH-101, each section includes its own dedicated envelope, with ADSRs for the filter and amp, a simple attack-decay affair for oscillator pitch, and a fade (attack) time slider for LFO depth. In addition to these essentials, you can link the oscillators in layers 1 and 2 for sync and ring mod effects.
Switching between layers for editing purposes is done with a set of buttons to the left of the synth parameters. Layers can be toggled on or off independently, and you can select multiple layers at once. There’s even an easy-peasy Tone Copy button for moving settings from one layer to another.
Rounding out the Gaia’s sound design options, an effects section processes the summed output of all three layers. The effects are arranged serially, with distortions followed by modulation effects like flanger and phaser. From there, independent delay and reverb further fill out the sound and add ambience. You can have up to five effects active at once.
Live and Studio Features
When it comes to actually playing the Gaia, there are quite a few performance amenities to get things going in a live context. Classic Roland controllers like the combo bend-and-mod lever combine with more recent innovations like the D-Beam hands-free controller, which can be quickly assigned to pitch or volume, or with a bit of manual-reading and fiddling, effects and synth parameters. Like the SH-101, the Gaia includes an arpeggiator. In the Gaia, the arpeggiator sports 64 patterns as opposed to the SH-101’s three. What’s more, there’s a phrase recorder with eight slots for creating riffs and sequences from more than just notes. Parameter changes and controller moves are recorded along with key presses, and a phrase can be as long as eight measures. These phrases are quite handy for everything from dance loops to one-key jams.
Integrating the Gaia into an existing live or studio rig is a piece of cake slathered in some really tasty frosting. You can use standard MIDI and audio connections if you like things basic, or you can get all 21st century with its USB implementation. The Gaia can send audio and MIDI info to and from your DAW with a minimum of fuss. After installing the drivers, I had the Gaia seamlessly integrated into my Ableton Live rig within minutes. You can also use the Gaia as a simple audio interface, since its external audio inputs get sent over USB too.
Regular readers know that I’ve resumed my love affair with analog synths over the past few years. Sure, my studio includes a few digital hardware synths and a slew of software goodies, but my heart belongs to the chaos of freely flowing electrons. So, as pretty and powerful as the Gaia is, the bottom line is its sound. I was pleasantly surprised.
The factory preset bank is well rounded, and designed with an ear towards dance music. Since there’s no LCD, we’ll forego the usual list of patch names and descriptions. Ambient trance pads and pulsing leads are well represented, as are punchy basses, shimmering chimes, and everyone’s favorite: ’80s brass. The Gaia’s bit-crushing effect is put to great use in several patches, with a couple of synth/vocal stabs worthy of Daft Punk or Basement Jaxx. Overall, the material here really shows off what the Gaia can do, without being overwrought or flashy.
Professionally designed sounds are all well and good, especially in the showroom at your nearest music store, but with so many sliders and knobs screaming “Touch me!” it’s hard to stick with just the factory presets.
My first experiments with the Gaia were focused on a side-by-side comparison with the original SH-101 (see “Virtual vs. Analog 101” below, and scroll to the bottom for A-B audio examples). From there, I started digging deeper into the features that separated the two, with a focus on whipping up sounds that were focused less on dance music and more on new wave and synth pop. One of the first things I discovered is that the Gaia can absolutely nail the Polymoog “Vox Humana” patch that launched Gary Numan’s hit, “Cars.”
Speaking of Cars, the Gaia’s ability to intermodulate layers 1 and 2 make it easy to whip up the hard sync patches the band of the same name made famous. Fans of Duran Duran will appreciate the random arpeggiator functions. Used with a percussive square wave patch, I was able to get quite a solid approximation of the percolating Jupiter-8 that anchored both “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf.” [CLICK HERE to learn how to recreate the “Wolf ” arpeggio on Arturia Jupiter-8V. From our May ’10 issue.—Ed.] Further experimentation yielded sounds that evoked ’80s hits by the Human League, Simple Minds, OMD, and early Depeche Mode. If you’re looking for that retro sound, the Gaia truly delivers.
With a bunch of patches in place, it was time to do a bit of recording via USB. Again, this is about as painless as it gets. I quickly programmed some simple one-bar sequences, and with a few mouse clicks, rendered the results as audio tracks within Ableton Live. Everything worked perfectly.
One bit of advice for integrating the Gaia into your studio: While it’s tempting to rely on the Gaia for all your virtual analog needs, it’s best to save it for one or two tracks in a mix and blend it with your other hardware or soft synths. Although the Gaia has a distinctive presence, using it for every part resulted in a mix that sounded a tad blurry.This is by no means an insult, as I’ve heard the same thing happen with other synths.
As an analog synth purist, the Gaia took me by surprise. That’s not to say it replaces my SH-101 or some of the newer analog modules in my arsenal, but it really does have a zesty flavor all its own. It’s quite nice for pads, supporting parts, and thick leads. I heartily recommend it for gigging, especially in an indie or nu-disco band. Most importantly, if you crave the instant gratification of virtual analog synthesis with lots of knobs, and you don’t have a lot of cash, the Gaia serves up heaping helpings of polyphony, effects, and overall sound-making power for a price that’s low by any standard, and almost unheard of among real or virtual analog synths—a Key Buy if ever there was one.
PROS Solid virtual analog emulation of SH-101, times three. Knobs and faders for almost every parameter make it easy to learn synthesis. Integrated multi-effects. Doubles as a USB audio interface. Battery or AC powered.Major bang for buck.
CONS Not as punchy or raw as original SH-101. Keys don’t sense aftertouch.
CONCEPT Virtual analog synth with three layers, each based on Roland’s classic SH-101 synth, with effects, arpeggiator, and phrase recording.
POLYPHONY 64 voices.
AUDIO INTERFACE RESOLUTION 24-bit/44.1kHz.
SYNTH ENGINE Three layers, each with an oscillator, multimode filter, amp, and LFO, with envelopes for each element.
INTERFACING USB MIDI and audio. 5-pin MIDI in and out. Separate USB port for a memory stick for storing patches and phrases.
W x D x H 27.2" x 12.5" x 3.9"
WEIGHT 9 lbs. 5 oz.
Approx. street: $700
Virtual vs. Analog 101
Playing the Gaia side by side with an original SH-101 yielded interesting and surprising results. I used a single Gaia layer with no effects—this is closest to the SH-101’s signal path. Overall, the sound of the Gaia was comparable to that of the analog original with one crucial—and slightly subjective—distinction: The SH-101 has a presence and impact that its virtual version can’t quite replicate. After all, on a true analog synth, every note is slightly different in subtle ways, thanks to minute inconsistencies in waveform cycles. The ear senses this as a complex, organic quality. What’s more, real analog envelopes have a punch that the virtual domain still can’t quite nail. Even with one oscillator, the 101 is just plain thick.
On the other hand, the original 101 is a strictly monophonic affair with one layer and no effects. Switching on the Gaia’s amenities, like additional layers and effects, resulted in dense, modern pads and comping sounds that vintage gear—even coveted polysynths like the Jupiters—can’t replicate without lots of additional processing. The question is whether you want a single synth with all the trimmings, or that extra rawness that only a real analog box delivers.
Audio Examples: All audio examples play identical lines on the Gaia first, then the SH-101. Only one single-oscillator layer on the Gaia is used, since this is closest to the original SH-101's architecture.