Back in ancient times, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and manufacturers couldn’t agree on clock synchronization standards, there was a sizeable market for “sync boxes” to get everyone’s drum machines marching in lock step. Then MIDI came along and made that a thing of the past—until vintage gear and voltage control became all the rage with a new generation of keyboardists and producers. Between the modular gear, MIDI drum machines, analog grooveboxes, and Roland’s new Aira series, things were starting to get messy again.
Fortunately, the designers at Roland took notice, reanimated their old SBX-80 sync box with a ton of modern features, and christened the unit the SBX-1. The primary purpose of the SBX-1 is to serve as a mediator between today’s array of sync standards, but Roland took things a step further and included four voltage-based outputs that allow users to do all kinds of nifty tricks with their newfangled modular gear. There’s a lot of power in this little box, making it worthy of a very close look.
In the 1980s, DIN Sync was Roland’s proprietary method for sending clock and start/stop information between their drum machines and sequencers, most notably the TB-303 and MSQ series.
While you no longer see DIN sync on anything but vintage Roland gear, there are enough working units out there to warrant its inclusion here. I have a few friends in Austin, Texas who own qualifying beatboxes, so I was able to test the DIN features with a buddy’s TR-606 and everything worked as advertised, with negligible slippage. We ran it for nearly 30 minutes straight and all was splendid. At one point, my DJ ears might have detected a whisper of kick flamming after about 20 minutes, but with a tap of the SBX’s Sync button everything was seamlessly locked again—and it’s worth noting that the culprit could have been the 30 year old TR-606, not the SBX-1.
If you’re feeling particularly retro, you can even use the DIN sync input as your master clock, so slaving MIDI grooveboxes (or Aira machines) to a vintage TR-808 is another option. Personally, I think that’s a tad ambitious in the 21st century, but without a doubt there are some die-hards who will make great use of this feature.
One of the SBX-1’s selling points is its ability to sync multiple Aira units to a single computer—or even to the SBX itself as the clock source—so naturally, I spent some time testing it with my beloved TR-8 and TB-3. It would have been an absolute shocker if they didn’t snap into place, so naturally they did.
The SB-1 also works as a standard USB MIDI interface, in case you need additional ports for controlling your hardware synths. Since many audio interfaces only include a single MIDI output, this is extremely handy for eliminating the dreaded MIDI thru cascade effect.
The SBX sports four 1/8" mini jacks for interfacing with voltage-based analog gear. There’s a CV out, gate out (switchable between positive and negative polarity), a “bend” out that’s tied to the pitch-bend wheel, and an aux output that can be used for either modulation wheel, velocity, or as an additional trigger out.
I tested these voltage control outputs on both my (new) Tom Oberheim SEM and vintage SH-101 without a hitch. Both synths performed flawlessly, which put a big smile on my face. That said, the SBX-1 doesn’t support the Hertz-per-volt standard, only the more common volt-per-octave standard, so several vintage Korg and Yamaha synths aren’t invited to this party. (Maybe that could change with a software update at some point?) Even so, the new Korg Volcas played nicely with the SBX when using it strictly as a trigger source or via MIDI. What’s more, you can apply shuffle to the Volcas’ triggers, adding some lovely swing to their groove.
If you’ve been following my recent Dance how-to columns, you’ll be pleased to know that the SBX-1’s aux output is perfectly suited to doing magic tricks in conjunction with track automation. Just select the modulation wheel as its input and send the voltage to whatever parameter in your modular synth strikes your fancy, then draw in your automation curves in your DAW. It’s also great for controlling filter cutoff via velocity, for pseudo step-sequencing effects.
After spending a weekend kicking the tires on the SBX-1, I became rather fond of it as a studio accessory, despite its $500 price tag. Granted, it’s not the kind of item you’ll need if you’re working in a MIDI-only or software-centric environment. But for keyboardists who have racked up a collection of voltage controlled gear, or who want a no-nonsense solution for syncing up older grooveboxes with new Airas without the need for a computer—the SBX-1 may be exactly what your rig needs.
Accurate sync across MIDI, DIN, and voltage trigger standards. The SBX-1 can serve as a master clock for hardware-based rigs. Four voltage outputs allow integration with vintage or modular gear. USB integration for use with DAWs.
No support for the Hertz-per-volt standard. A bit pricey.
A modern way to bridge vintage synth protocols with MIDI, USB, and software.
$599 list | $499 street