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Roland Gaia SH-01 review

Submitted by on June 24, 2010 – 9:59 am 3 Comments

A couple of days ago, Roland released the Gaia SH-01 with great fanfare. It’s basically a 37-note virtual analogue subtractive synthesizer aimed at the mid-market. It’s one of Roland’s knobbier synths recently, so we’ve decided to take a bit closer look.

As you can see, it’s got lots of faders (18), knobs (11) and backlit buttons (58!), with a layout that is definitely reminiscent of the vintage SH-series synths. Of course the D-beam goes on everything that Roland produces, so add one of those and a Roland-style pitch/Mod stick. It all adds up to a pretty great looking synth that screams “tweak me!”.

On the back, the Gaia SH-01 polysynth has MIDI in and out (but no thru), stereo outputs and a headphone jack. There’s also a stereo minijack input, used to mix external sound sources (like music to play along with or vocals, or a drum machine), and it even has some center-cancel capability to remove vocals (in a bit of a hit-and-miss sort of way) from source music.

There’s also a sustain pedal input, and a USB port to store all your sounds on an external USB stick. Nice. The USB port will also transfer audio data, allowing you to use the Gaia as a 2in/2out audio interface.

Synth engine
The synth engine is fairly straightforward, with a per-voice spec of a DADSR envelope generator, 1 oscillator 2 LFOs (Triangle,Sine, Saw up, Square, S/H, Random) and a multimode filter. Each patch can have up to 3 full voices layered, which packs a lot of synth power into the SH-01. You get a massive 64-note polyphony. I would love to have seen individual outs for each of the three voices, but I’m sure that would jack the price up.

The single oscillator gives you the option of Saw Up, Square, Pulse Width, Triangle, Sine, Noise and a Super Saw wave, with each option having 3 different variations (but no continuous variation between, say the square and pulse). You can also ring modulate or sync between voices if you use mono mode. The oscillators sound good, but don’t have a huge amount of character on their own.

The filter on the Gaia is actually pretty good sounding, with a musically useful resonance. You get the option of a lowpass, hipass, bandpass and a peaking filter. All of the filters are switchable between -12dB and -24dB. All of these filters on a synth 20 years ago would have been mind-blowing, but we almost take it for granted these days. The filter does have that typical Roland “bite”, but tends towards the polite end of things.

The D-BEAM can control the filters, and also many other parameters, all at the same time.

The effects are excellent, and have a good amount of edit-ability. Effects groups include a distortion/fuzz/bit crusher, phaser/flanger/pitch, delays, reverb and a bass boost. All in all, they are all quite use-able, and can add a bit of magic to the otherwise clean-sounding oscillators.

The SH-01’s arpeggiator and phrase recorder is a definite high point. You can record 8 different patterns (or custom arpeggios), which can be up to 8 bars each. It’ll sync to the LFO tempo and delays (!), plus it has a tap tempo option. The huge amount of arpeggio presents (64) can keep you busy for hours. You can even record an arpeggiated phrase into the phrase recorder.

The Roland Gaia SH-01 screams “fun”. It’ll even work on batteries (like the vintage SH-101). I’m so used to seeing budget synths with less and less real-time controls that it’s refreshing to see such a “real” synthesizer come from Roland. It doesn’t quite have the individuality and character like much more expensive the Nords or Virus, but it has a balanced, use-able, good sounding engine that you can use to create a huge variety of sounds. Considering the price, it’s a fantastic value.

One thing I found very strange was that it has a general midi soundbank. Do people still use those? I’m sure this feature added a little bit to the price, but for me, it actually takes away from my impression of the synth. “Real” synthesizers don’t have a GM set. Very strange.

The Roland Gaia SH-01 polysynth goes for around $650 and is available as of June 1. There are a lot of synths in this price category (Juno, Blofeld, Alesis Micron, etc), but I think Roland’s got a real contender here.

Here is Roland’s intro video, part 1 (parts 2 and 3 here and here):

Did you catch the System 100m and System 700 modulars in the background? Also some great footage of other vintage Rolands later on in the video.

Here’s a video review by sonicstate:

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