System-1 Review – A hands-on look at the Roland synth
The System-1 is one of several AIRA (pronounced ‘EYE-RA’) products in the range released by Roland Music Corporation about 18 months ago.
At the time this new range was announced there were four different types of gear available; the TB-3, TR-8, VT-3 and the System-1. The TB-3 and TR-8 have been the most talked about simply because they are the virtual-analog equivalents of the legendary TB-303 bassline synth and TR808/909 drum machines, which were undoubtedly the most influential pieces of hardware to shape dance music.
The System-1 however is also an instrument that harks back to Roland’s legacy synthesizers and is unique in that it is more than just a replication of one single synth from the good old days.
For those who remember the Roland SH-101, the new System-1, albeit a lot flashier and modern looking, has a similar feel to it. The SH-101 was quite a sought after piece of gear and even today it no doubt could fetch a pretty penny among synth enthusiasts. What made it the ‘go-to’ synth for many producers is that it simplicity lent itself toward using in a live environment both due to the preset sounds and the basic controls. The System-1 certainly continues this ethos with a layout that is remarkably straight forward. In fact you only get 8 presets; yes that’s right… 8 presets. But as a starting point these 8 are enough to create a lot more. Each sound covers a slightly different synth ‘need’ – for example you get a vocal sound, a buzzing lead, a pad, a massive lead bass sound, a swirling distorted sound, another bass (more rounded and even), a real analogue sounding lead and also a more aggressive lead.
The keyboard is something of a surprise and if there is going to be one possible bone of contention this may be it for some. The keys are extremely flat and have very little distance to press them down. They’re also not velocity sensitive and take some getting used to.
But as a compact unit – it is super light and the dimensions make it easily transportable plus it won’t take up too much space in your studio either – the System-1 has a lot more going for it than the slightly weird keyboard. Did I mention the lights? It lights up really nicely too.
The Roland System-1 can be used in several different ways.
Firstly it is a standalone synthesizer. It has its own sound engine, effects and a small bank of presets. These are based, I believe, on the System-100 from the seventies, hence the name.
The System-1 is also the hardware controller to operate the software synths available from Roland. When used like this it is like any midi controller, except of course the System-1 is natively mapped to the soft-synth. It can also be mapped and used to control any other soft-synth in your DAW should you wish to map it yourself.
Lastly the System-1 can be used in Plug-Out mode. This mode is kind of like the two options above rolled into one. You get to control one of the Roland soft-synths, but in plug-out mode this is loaded onto the System-1 and can thus be used standalone.
The Plug-Out Technology
Roland’s plug-out technology seems so simple it’s almost genius. Traditional modern hardware synths are able to be updated with new soundbanks but with the System-1 Roland have taken this to a much more usable level. There is a range of soft-synths designed by Roland which, as explained earlier, can be natively controlled by the System-1. But with the simple push of a button you can actually load the entire soft-synth onto the physical device, unplug it from your DAW and use it as a standalone. So now those same sounds you’ve been using to craft your new track can actually be taken with you on the synth itself and played out live!
The only way to describe the sound on the Promars is massive and lethal. The depth of sound on the waveforms is really impressive…”
The System-1 comes with the SH-101 plug-out and this already is what makes the synth an appealing piece of gear. As I mentioned before, the SH-101 was a regular request on tech riders in the late nineties and early 2000’s thanks to its ease of use but also because it boasted some seriously deep basses and searing leads that were particularly useful for playing over the top of one’s LIVE set. According to Vintage Synth it was popular with many top acts including the likes of Orbital, Future Sound of London, The Prodigy, Eat Static, Aphex Twin, Astral Projection, the Chemical Brothers, Boards of Canada and many more.
Both the lead sounds and the basses are really top notch on the SH-101 software version and with the added effects on the System-1 you get even more out of these sounds than the original.
There are also two other plug-out soft-synths that can be purchased via their website; the SH-2 and the Promars.
Both these soft-synths (or Plug-out synths) replicate vintage gear and whilst I’m no expert on the originals here’s my impressions of them;
The SH-2 sounds remarkably vintage and organic. The sounds are phat and flexible and for those who have an affection for typical 80’s synth sounds (the phat ones with depth, not those horrible wafer thin Casio-type sounds) the SH-2 excels at these. But to be honest I managed everything from a warm pad to a raspy lead to a bell-like tinkle.
The Promars is the latest software synth addition. According to Vintage Synth it was used by artists such as Vangelis, Spandau Ballet, Add N To (X), Jethro Tull, and Depeche Mode back in the day. The only way to describe the sound on the Promars is massive and lethal. The depth of sound on the waveforms is really impressive and where the SH-2 feels more like the type of synth to use when playing along with more conventional instruments, the Promars will offer you a host of otherworldly alternatives for some real sci-fi soundscapes.
Hardware synths may be a bit of a hard sell these days with the proliferation of plugins and software synthesizers but this is where Roland has attempted to offer the best of both worlds with the System-1.
The fact that they have, and no doubt will continue to add, more software synth replications of their legacy gear with such authenticity plus the added advantage of the modern effects that are included means there is a genuine growth path when you own a System-1. Tactile equipment to program on and a tactile instrument to play on are certainly added advantages to owning a synth like this, although the one negative is the spongy, non-velocity sensitive keyboard which offers very little in the way of feel – and I’m not even a proper keyboardist.
But the actual synth engine itself, the add-on soft-synths and the plug-out feature are all top notch and for under R 10K (currently) online this is an instrument I’d love to have in my studio.
Notably it can also be used as a midi keyboard and as a 24bit 96kHz soundcard when connected to your DAW.
Expect to pay:
R 12,995 (SRP)