Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Roland Story

My first piece of synthesizer hardware ever was a Roland MC-505 “groovebox.” Then the first software I used was ReBirth, which emulated Roland hardware. Then the first real analog synthesizer I bought was a Roland SH-101. Roland made a big impression on me, and though I’ve traveled far and wide and bought/sold/traded a bunch of other equipment, I always come back to them. At the time of writing, I’ve owned a Roland System 100 model 101 keyboard, SH-101, MC-500, and I currently still own a Roland MC-202, TR-606, Juno 6, RS-09, a few weird things like an MT-32 and some Boss (Roland sub-group) half-rack effects. I'm not quite the Roland maniac that my friend Jacob is - though to be fair, nobody is! - but I'm pretty crazy about them.

I always loved the SH-101 - especially back when you could get them for $250 or so, they were the perfect all-around utility analog synth. The 101 was perfect to learn on - it’s a simple architecture, but one that’s versatile enough to go a long way and make a ton of different sounds, and the addition of an arpeggiator and onboard sequencer made it even more flexible in playing with other equipment. It’s also plastic, cute, and can run on batteries. As I got more into Roland equipment and learned about what equipment my favorite artists used, I realized that my ideal instrument would be their System 100m modular synthesizer - what I (incorrectly) thought of as a “modular SH-101” since it looked a lot like the 101 exploded into a modular format. Same color, similar sliders, same era and industrial design sensibility.

The following ten+ years found me trying to “fake” a Roland modular by buying a bunch of “close enough” substitutes - I even bought my modular in the “Roland System 700 lookalike” tolex cases. There were a lot of reasons that I never got that 100m - mainly money and never even really encountering one to purchase, even on eBay. Then, earlier this year, the golden opportunity arrived, and I ended up trading a good chunk of my equipment - including that 44-space DotCom modular system I had been trying to fake a Roland modular with - for my dream setup of an extensive System 100m, the controller keyboard, and an MC-4 sequencer.

It’s everything I ever wanted out of a synthesizer and more. The biggest surprise is that it’s not a “modular SH-101” like I had expected - it definitely sounds better, rawer, thicker, etc., more like the SH-09, but not as fat, unstable, wooly, and mushy as the original System 100 semimodular and its offspring like the SH-5 and 7. It’s right in the middle - bright and zappy while still being warm and thick. It’s an incredibly “pretty” sounding synth - not dark and aggressive like those that came before, and not manic melting plastic like those that came afterward. It’s the perfect median. Pulse-width modulation is fizzy, the portamento just bows and sings. Nothing else sounds like “that” Roland filter. Have I mentioned that I’m crazy about this thing?

The 100m strikes me as one of the most thoughtfully designed modular synthesizers I’ve ever used. Here’s a shameful confession - for someone that loves synthesizers as much as I do, I don’t actually like working with modulars all that much! Patching is slow, and even then you always have to patch to multiples first and then to CV mixers and next thing you know you’ve used 40 cables and 10 minutes just to get to a starting point you could have had by grabbing a decent monosynth like the SH-101 in the first place. The freedom that you gain in being able to patch anything to anything often doesn’t feel worth the effort - besides, you’ll just have to pull out all the cables and start over again for the next patch idea! It’s telling, then, that I love playing with the 100m because it’s been thoughtfully designed in a way that slices through much of that modular frustration.

To start with, all pitch and gate CV’s are normalled throughout the cabinets that hold the modules - they’re automatically distributed to all relevant parameters on the different modules through the same cable that gives them power. What this means is that when you plug a keyboard into the cabinet, the note pitch CV automatically gets sent to all oscillators and other things that can track pitch, like filter cutoff - no need to patch first to a multiple and then out from the multiple to all of those oscillators with a bunch of cables. Likewise, the gate signal automatically gets sent to all envelopes and LFO cycle reset - press one key on the keyboard and trigger all envelopes in your system at once without needing a single patch cable. Brilliant! The System 100m is not quite a “semi-modular” synth like the Arp 2600 or the Roland System 100 before it - it is still fully modular and cannot make sound without using at least one patch cable - but this approach borrows the best aspect of the semi-modular approach. In true modular fashion, any of those normalled connections can be broken with a patch cable or by simply decreasing the slider that applies them to the modules that they’re normalled to.

This brings us to the second thing I really love about the system - the excellent legending on the modules! It’s very reminiscent of the Arp 2600. Roland went out of their way to illustrate the signal flow, the normalled connections both from the cabinet and within the module itself, and so on. It’s very easy to understand and be reminded of the signal flow of your patch and the options that you have. It feels scientific and like lab equipment in a way that’s incredibly appealing - but mostly it’s just really helpful and thoughtful (the word I keep coming back to about its design). In his memoir, I Believe In Music, Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi talks about the company creating the 100m in order to make modular synthesizers available to schools and students. It shows - I’ve never worked with a modular that’s more friendly to the user.

Another great and thoughtful design element is the inclusion of mixers on almost every module and attenuators on almost every input in the entire system - it really borders on overkill almost, but it’s so useful! Even a simple VCA or VCF module has three audio inputs, each with their own level slider, and then three CV inputs, each with their own attenuator slider. Madness! You don’t even really need dedicated CV mixer modules in one of these systems because any VCO, VCF, or VCA already has a three-input CV mixer built right into it. All of this adds up to fewer cables going all over the place and a quicker workflow. I love it. Speaking of cable management, multiples are built into the cabinets and kept out of the way, which keeps the cables going to and from them under control and out of the way. More than anything, I find myself using multiples so much less on the system because the automatic distribution of voltages and then all of the utility built into modules takes care of so much of what I would have relied on multiples for in the first place. Most System 100m modules pack in a ton of functionality - dual VCO’s, VCF’s, VCA’s, 2 envelopes + an LFO, or (my favorite) a ring modulator, sample and hold circuit, noise source, and LFO all in one place. There’s even an entire “voice module” that’s like an SH-09 shrunken into one module space - a VCO, VCF, VCA complete with all the normal features of those standalone modules. It’s not shocking that Roland was able to offer a “complete system” that was made of just three modules in a smaller cabinet.

Courtesy of Mild Slopes - read it!

There are tons of other thoughtful little features built into almost every parameter of every module, and I could spend all day listing them. One of my favorite tiny touches is the presence of LED’s on the VCF and VCA modules that light up to show that a signal is present even if you aren’t hearing it - why doesn’t EVERY modular have this!? Anyone who’s worked with a modular can remember countless times that they can’t figure out why they aren’t getting a sound when they should, and the frustrating moments of tracing every cable to figure out what went wrong.  There’s something reassuring about that little glowing green light - “All’s well over here! Maybe you just forgot to unmute that channel on your mixer or something?” At every turn, on every module, it just always feels like they’ve given you one more output, an extra LFO just in case you need it, a range selector switch for a signal you’d normally have to patch through an attenuator on another system, slew/lag built right into a function, etc. etc. etc. I always come back to that word - “thoughtful.”  

My system is crazily extensive - three cabinets, 5x VCO, 5x VCF, 5x VCA, 5x LFO, 2x Ring Mod/Sample and Hold/Noise Source, plus the less common analog sequencer and phase shifter/audio delay/gate delay modules. I can get entire arrangements going at once in realtime, especially when paired with the MC-4 sequencer, or I can go completely nuts and make one incredibly complex sound. I’ve heard rumors that the actual 808 and 909 sounds were prototyped by patching them on a System 700 and 100m, and whether or not it’s true, based on my experience it’s totally believable - everything about the behavior of the envelopes and the character of the filter goes very quickly to that territory. It’s everything I ever wanted out of a synth and a day has not passed that I haven’t turned it on and gotten lost in it.

Here's a little jam I came up with to conclude this article - this is all live out of the modular in realtime, no multitracking. On the album that I'm working on right now, I'm normally multitracking and often using the entire modular for just one sound, but this shows how much it can do just from a live "jamming" standpoint.