While the Roland System 1’s default synth model is impressive in itself, the biggest buzz is squarely on the SH-101 “plug-out” software. In a nutshell, when you buy a System-1, Roland also includes two additional pieces of software: an SH-101 plug-in that integrates directly with your DAW of choice, and an identical version that can be loaded into the System-1 hardware for portability, live use, and/or saving CPU cycles while working on a mix. While we’ve seen a few decent plug-in SH-101 emulations before, the idea of pushing a button and having a completely different synth in hardware is a very cool trick indeed.
Considering that the original SH-101 was Roland’s first affordable monosynth, its architecture is really quite simple. A single VCO feeds a 24db-per-octave resonant lowpass filter followed by a basic VCA. For modulation, there was one ADSR envelope that could also be applied to the filter and an LFO that could be routed to pitch and cutoff simultaneously.
Despite the simplicity of that structure, the SH-101 was capable of a lot of tonal variety thanks to its mixer section, which allowed both sawtooth and variable-width pulse waves to be blended with a flexible sub-oscillator and noise generator. Also worth mentioning is the LFO’s unique ability to modulate its destinations with noise, in addition to the usual triangle, square and sample-and-hold options.
Another hallmark of the SH-101’s character was the aggressive nature of the lowpass circuits, which had a chunky, in-your-face quality that made it cut through a mix beautifully. As a result, the SH-101 was a staple in early new wave tracks before graduating to its position as one of the definitive synths of the acid-house and drum-and-bass eras. Regardless of whether you’ve ever actually used a SH-101, you’ll immediately recognize its sound.
In Roland’s new Aira era, it’s obvious that the SH-101 plug-out will undergo extreme scrutiny, so Roland really took its time with the modeling of the unit and the results are truly remarkable. For the record, I have a mint SH-101 with only a whisper of crackle on some of the pots, so for my tests I put the two synths side-by-side and spent an afternoon creating identical sounds on each and recording the results, which you can hear at keyboardmag.com/october2014.
Even the original SH-101 panel functions are cleverly duplicated in the System-1. While the plug-in version includes graphics that are nearly identical to the original front panel, replicating the experience in hardware required some innovative tricks, notably turning off the knob LEDs for all inactive parameters so only the relevant options are lit. While this may confuse new users, fans of the original will immediately get it.
To duplicate the 101’s single oscillator and mixable waves, the plug-out relies on the System 1 mixer for most of the VCO duties, with oscillator 1’s controls governing octave and pulse width and nothing more, while oscillator 2’s knobs go completely dark. In the mixer, oscillator 1’s level controls the volume of the pulse/square wave and oscillator 2’s knob determines the volume of the sawtooth. The sub-oscillator and noise parameters remain in place and the end result is a nifty duplication of the SH-101’s approach to blending elements. Similarly, the filter’s highpass knob goes dark, as the 101 didn’t include that feature either. All in all, it’s a clever trick that makes perfect sense in a modern context.
Now, about the sound. In my opinion, the AIRA model of the SH-101 is about 90 percent accurate, which is saying a lot for a soft synth going head-to-head with the original hardware. It’s just as meaty, aggressive, and punchy as the analog version, with none of the headaches that come with caring for a vintage unit. What’s more, the plug-out version has a few extra features that were absent on its forebear, like dual envelopes and a few extra waveforms on the LFO, not to mention the added tone knob, bit-crusher, delay and reverb. Purists can simply skip those options, of course.
After using the System-1’s SH-101 emulation for a few weeks and enjoying its many conveniences, I began to wonder if I still needed my vintage SH-101—and that speaks volumes about its usefulness and authenticity. While I probably won’t ditch the original immediately, I will definitely rely more heavily on the plug-out, simply because it integrates more tightly with my rig and is a tad more flexible thanks to the extra envelope and tone control. Any minor differences in sound are purely academic. In the context of a full mix, this emulation is functionally identical to a real SH-101, but with a lot less fuss. Color me amazed.