Roland AIRA SYSTEM-1 Plug-Out Synthesizer
By Mark Merlino |
When I had the pleasure of reviewing the initial release of the Roland AIRA series, there was one factor left out of the equation. I finally got my hands on that missing link, the AIRA SYSTEM-1 Plug Out Synthesizer. What exactly is a plug-out synthesizer? It’s Roland’s method of taking analog modeling further than ever before. Not only can the SYSTEM-1 stand alone as a fully capable hardware synthesizer, it also functions as a host for Roland-inspired virtual instruments that are designed to emulate some of their most legendary synths, instantly turning this new instrument into a Roland classic.
How, you ask? All you have to do is load one of the available “plug-out” soft synths into the SYSTEM-1 and you’ll have the ability to instantly switch between the internal sound engine and the virtual instrument that you loaded. Oh, and did I mention that you can do this with or without the SYSTEM-1 connected to your computer? This means you can take the loaded virtual instrument plug-out with you to your next live performance. I was able to play with the SH-101 plug-out at the time of this review, which sounded incredible, and there will be more on the way from Roland soon. I’m excited to see what’s next!
As mentioned, the SYSTEM-1 has no problem tackling internal synthesis through its two oscillators, 2- and 4-pole low-pass filter, independent high pass filter, onboard effects, and built-in arpeggiator with signature AIRA Scatter effect. There are 73 physical controls on the SYSTEM-1, allowing you to completely customize and design your own sounds ranging from lush pads, to soaring leads and bass patches…. And the sound? Well, just as the rest of the AIRA series, the SYSTEM-1 benefits significantly from Roland’s new Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) technology, which faithfully recreates analog circuits down to the finest details, creating an exceptionally warm and rich sound. Ok, so it sounds great, but how does it play? Well the 25 thin, short-action keys make this synth fun and fast, with a very pleasant response. All in all, the SYSTEM-1 looks great, sounds even better and is designed to work seamlessly with the other products in the AIRA series. In my opinion this is the heart of the AIRA system to which the limitations seem endless.
What you need to know
There are a total of four hardware instruments that make up the complete AIRA series: the TR-8, TB-3, VT-3 and the SYSTEM-1. The SYSTEM-1 can be synchronized for full integration with the entire AIRA series, creating a complete music performance system when joined together.
The SYSTEM-1 is a fully capable standalone hardware synthesizer that can also be used to host Roland-inspired virtual instruments, or “plug outs” that are digital emulations of classic Roland synthesizers.
There are 73 physical controls on the SYSTEM-1 that give you a full-range of sound designing possibilities through two main oscillators, a sub oscillator, noise control, filter section with low- and high-pass filters and ADSR envelope control, an amplifier section also with ADSR control, a pitch control section with attack and decay, digital reverb and delay effects, LFO section, and built-in arpeggiator.
Both oscillators have a choice between the standard Sawtooth, Square, and Triangle waveforms, but Roland has also added three additional versions of these (Super Saw, Super Square, and Super Triangle) each with multiple stacked waveforms that are slightly detuned from one another giving you a fatter and lusher sound. You can also adjust the modulation type, octaves, cross modulation, tuning, ring modulation, oscillator 1 and 2 sync, and a color control for each oscillator, which will sculpt the sound dependent on the type of waveform selected.
The Oscillator Mixing section lets you control the level of the two oscillators, as well as a sub oscillator with two octaves that will really beef-up the lower frequencies and a noise type selector and level control allowing you add artifacts that will add additional character.
The LFO section really gives your sound some movement and adds excitement. Choose from Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth, Square, Sample and Hold, and Random LFO waveforms to control pitch, filter, and amplitude all independently. There’s also different settings to control the rate of the LFO and a fade time control, which controls how long it takes to hear the LFO kick in after you press a key.
The filter section on the SYSTEM-1 is where you can really appreciate Roland’s ACB technology. The Low Pass Filter cutoff is incredibly smooth with no aliasing or stepping, which you won’t normally find with most digital filters. There’s also an independent high-pass filter and ADSR sliders to control the filter’s envelope.
The Amplitude section is pretty straightforward with an independent ADSR envelope control and a tone control that adjust the sound’s brightness. The added bonus here is the Crusher knob that modifies the tonal character by distorting the waveform resulting in some really mangled, bit-crushed digital effects. Just adjacent to the amplitude section is the effects section with reverb and delay control. I must say, just as with the AIRA TR-8 Rhythm Performer, the reverb sounds as full and luxurious as some analog reverb units I’ve used, yet another outstanding result of Roland’s ACB technology.
Probably the most fun and instantly gratifying component of the SYSTEM-1 is the Pitch Bend/Scatter section. Here of course you’ll have access to standard pitch bend control, but the real gratification is in the built-in arpeggiator with the signature AIRA Scatter effect. Choose the type of arpeggio you want, and then morph and mangle it until your heart’s content. Choose from up to 10 different “scatter” effects each with its own characteristic way of affecting the arpeggiator.
The last, but one of the most important sections you’ll encounter, is the Model Select buttons. Here’s where you’ll discover the true meaning of “plug-out” synthesizer. In “SYSTEM-1” mode, the system runs off the keyboards internal sound engine, but when you select “PLUG-OUT” mode you have instant access to the plug-out virtual instrument you loaded into the SYSTEM-1. In this case I was able to try the SH-101 plug-out and it was impeccable. I don’t own an original SH-101, but I did some research online and found some sound samples for comparison and the plug-out version seems to be spot on. Once more I was able to switch between the SYSTEM-1 sound engine and the SH-101 virtual instrument right from the model select section without the keyboard attached to my computer. It’s like having two incredible Roland synthesizers built-into one unit.
The keyboard on the SYSTEM-1 has a unique feeling, different from any other synthesizer I’ve played before. They are thinner than standard-size keybeds, and in turn have a really short action that makes them very fast and a lot of fun for synth-style playing. They also have a really solid build quality with a very satisfying response, in fact all of the faders and controls on the SYSTEM-1 benefit from this same quality of construction.
You can choose to set the playing style of the SYSTEM-1 to monophonic for single note bass sounds, or polyphonic with up to four voices for lush pad chords. A little note, press the MONO button until it starts blinking and all of the audio will then play in unison mode for an even bigger, more powerful sound.
SYSTEM-1 can transport MIDI and audio data over USB to the computer, or it can be synchronized with other devices or the rest of the AIRA series via standard MIDI connections.
While the keys are not bred for classical piano compositions, the thin design and short action makes them exceptionally fun to play as a synthesizer allowing for fast, and creative leads and basslines. The other limitation here is that the keys do not transmit velocity MIDI data, and there’s no aftertouch.
Most people associate hardware instruments with analog components, but the SYSTEM-1 is completely digital, there are no analog circuits inside. However, the sound quality of Roland’s ACB technology is some of the best analog modeling I’ve heard, so in the instance of the AIRA series this really isn’t a compromise at all.
I would’ve liked to see more presets on the SYSTEM-1. There’s only 8 total available on the hardware. It would have been nice to see an additional bank of eight or more. The workaround here is that you can drag and drop any of the presets on the computer to any of the eight slots, so in the instance of the SH-101 plug-in you can essentially have up to 56 presets to choose from while you’re connected to the computer.
The SYSTEM-1 completes the Roland AIRA series and it is a major player for sure. I can think of many instances where the SYSTEM-1 would come into play both in the studio and in live performance environments, and it won’t sacrifice performance in either scenario. In the studio it is a sound designer’s best friend. Between the computer integration and the amount of control that’s offered, I was able to conjure up with some really amazing-sounding patches that would work well in a wide range of applications from electronic music production to soundscapes for film and TV media. On the road the SYSTEM-1 takes full advantage of the plug-out capability giving you access to two instruments in one, and it’s lightweight and compact so traveling is not a concern.
Roland has really set the bar high for digital analog modeling. The sound quality of their ACB technology is astonishing and it’s evident that they put a lot of time into replicating true analog circuitry. The SYSTEM-1 is just as warm and lush as some other hardware analog gear that I’ve used, and it’s expandability with the plug-out capability is something that will keep this synth a current piece in your studio or stage setup. Unlike some other keyboards in its price range, the SYSTEM-1 plays well and handles just as you would expect a Roland instrument to. While there are some analog purists out there who might be skeptical, I bet they would agree here that the SYSTEM-1 stands just fine on its own. Of course if you already own part of the AIRA series, then the SYSTEM-1 is a must have to complete your system!
Mark Merlino is a certified audio engineer, producer, DJ and sound designer. A graduate of SAE Institute in Miami, he has worked with a wide range of artists both in and out of the studio, including time on the road with Ms. Lauryn Hill during her world tour. With over 15 years of DJ and electronic music production experience, he has a firm grasp on the current trends in drum&bass, dubstep, house, hip-hop and many other styles. He is also a published copywriter for Musician’s Friend and Harmony Central, staying up-to-date with the latest music technology.