When Roland’s new AIRA System-1 synth was introduced, there was a lot of talk about Roland’s commitment to delivering a series of software emulations of some of its most coveted vintage synths that could then be ported into the System-1 for live use sans computer. In my original review (Oct. ’14), I analyzed Roland’s first “plug-out”—a spot-on re-creation of the classic SH-101—and was really impressed with the potential of this approach. For live players, the System-1 provides an impressive alternative to gigging with vintage gear.
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Just a few months after the SH-101 plug-out, Roland has delivered a virtual version of the decidedly more obscure SH-2 synth. Although I’ve never owned an SH-2, I’ve used them in the studio. While the SH-101’s slightly plastic sound has made it a workhorse in the dance music era, the SH-2 has a distinctly aggressive synth-pop vibe, more akin to Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. It also excels at greasy funk basses, especially with the resonance up a touch.
The SH-2’s architecture is a bit deeper than the 101’s, which gives it more sonic flexibility. Whereas the 101 is a single-oscillator affair, with sub-oscillator for added low-end chutzpah, the SH-2 sports two oscillators. These are detunable over a fairly wide range, but like the original, there’s no option for hard sync. In a departure from the original, Roland has taken several liberties with the new SH-2 plug-out design. These new amenities make the SH-2 a lot more flexible as a synth, while remaining faithful to the overall sound of the original.
Like the software version, the original SH-2 oscillators offered saw, square, and variable pulse waves on each oscillator, with oscillator 1 also including a sine wave generator (a bit of a rarity in itself) and oscillator 2 offering a noise mode. On the Plug-Out, the noise generator is present but the sine wave is gone. For most users this will be trivial, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.
As for enhancements, the SH-2 Plug-Out is brimming with features that the original lacked. For starters, there’s now a dedicated ADSR for the filter cutoff. What’s more, each oscillator’s pulse width can be modulated independently from a much wider range of sources, including either envelope, the LFO, the sub-oscillator, or the classic SH-2 auto-bend feature (a simple pitch envelope that slides up or down into each note). This adds a lot of range to the oscillators’ character, especially when the sub-oscillator’s audio rate modulation is in effect.
Other upgrades include a few more waveforms on the LFO, a few subtle changes to the envelope modes, and the inclusion of the System-1’s effects and arpeggiator. The effects may not be a big deal in a DAW environment, but in a live setting they’re extremely handy.
I tested both the plug-in and System-1 plug-out versions of the SH-2 and, naturally, they sounded identical. Again, there’s something about this synth that has more girth and swagger than many other synths from that era. Like Moogs of the same vintage, the filter is a four-pole affair, but the resonance is decidedly more in-your-face than a Moog’s, as cranking it will dramatically minimize the lower harmonics. It also self-oscillates beautifully, which is lovely for noise patches when the keyboard tracking and cutoff are tuned correctly.
All in all, I was blown away by the SH-2’s assertive character and impressive depth as an analog emulation, and I stand firm on my original assessment that these digital re-creations can go toe-to-toe with proper analog gear. If this is how Roland plans to move forward with its System-1 products, I can’t wait to hear the next one!
Breathtaking re-creation of original Roland SH-2 sound. Faithfully recaptures analog character. Improvements include a new filter envelope and advanced PWM. Can be used as either soft synth or loaded into System-1 as an alternate tone generator.
Software plug-in is a little CPU-heavy.
Stunning emulation of a vintage rarity.
$145 ($95 for System-1 owners) street