Aug 15

roland-gaia-sh-01

Roland Gaia SH-01

INTRODUCTION

The GAIA SH-01 – another little gem from Roland. What is it? – Well the GAIA reminds me a little of a Jupiter 8 but looking so much “2010”. In essence it is a virtual analogue synth or rather three analogue synths in one. Roland have made a great decision on Colour. I don’t wish to sound like a girl, but it is amazing how many times you see Artists who have products made especially in white. Why? – Because they look so good on stage. Access did it with their “Limited Edition” Virus.

GAIA is a word from Greek Mythology meaning “Goddess of the Earth”. Well it certainly gives that impression when you first see this white keyboard with a black panel full of colourful lights and tweakable knobs to create powerful analogue sounds easily. All the controls are laid out for you in a very logical fashion. Roland have designed this instrument very much like it’s predecessors to be a fun and very inviting, pulling you in to make your own fat sounds. I think this is one of the nicest looking synths ever. I know we all have different tastes but I think Roland have just got the right balance of colour to make this instantly pleasing on the eye.

As soon as I looked at the layout of the Roland GAIA SH-01 Synth, I immeadiately thought of the Access Virus Ti Polar. Everything is laid out in front of you to tweak away in Real time but there are no menus to worry about and feedback is provided ingeniously by way of lights as to what you are adjusting. One of the main differences is that the Roland GAIA costs approximately a quarter of the cost of Access Virus Ti Polar. Whilst purists may argue that the GAIA does not have that classic Virus sound, it could equally be argued that it does however have that classic Roland sound. At this price level and in today’s market, Roland have put together a great looking and sounding, knob-twisting synth.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

When I first took it out of the box I was quite amazed at how light it felt. The Spec states it weighs 4.2 kg/9 lbs 5 oz but if I were to guess the weight, I would have definitely said less. It is small, compact and has 37 full size keys and it can even run on batteries for approximately 5 hours for total on the go fun. I have since discovered that the keyboard’s velocity response is turned off. It is in FIX mode which means that all the notes played have a fixed velocity. This can be changed easily to REAL mode by holding down the CANCEL/SHIFT button and then press the KEY/HOLD button. If the button is lit, it is in FIX mode. If the button is unlit, then it is REAL mode. Personally I would have done the complete opposite to this and have by default the mode as REAL and the light lit.

PRESETS

I headed straight for the presets like a boy on Christmas morning and started to work through them. As I quickly got to the end of only 64 sounds, a feeling of disapointment came over me as if to say “Is that it?” What I did not fully appreciate at this very early stage was that it had endless possibilities for sound creation and that creating a sound was extremely easy.  There are 64 presets across the 8 banks of 8 patches. These are non-rewritable, but you can change their sound to your hearts content and when you create an awesome sound for your next album track you can write this to one of the 64 User patches available. Although there is not one supplied, you can also save a further 64 patches to a USB flash drive. I really do like the preset patches and the fact that they are in the main created for Electro type music. However, this is not to say that this synth is not suitable for most genres of music. Musicians are continually crossing genres and combining acoustic with electronic sounds to produce new sound possibilities. The GAIA can produce massive sounds from Lush Sweeping Pads to Gritty Acid Leads and all that is in between. I found a Super Saw patch and in seconds, I was running an Arpeggiator, putting it on hold for hands-free tweaking, adjusting the Cutoff and the Resonance in the Filter Section and changing the effects instantly in Real Time at simple one-touch button pressing – proving that you don’t have to understand anything to be creative on this Synth. You simply need that child mentality that questions “What does this do?” and immediately turn it to find out.

LAYOUT AND CONTROLS

TONE SELECTION

It is not just the colour that Roland’s designers excelled themselves with here but the complete logical layout which is ideal for people new to synthesizers by providing them with an understanding of signal flow. In front of you is a simple Left to Right setup – Tone Selection, LFO, Oscillator, Filter, Amp and Effects. Starting at the far left with the Tone Selection; here you have three tones which have 2 buttons each. One of them is a “Select” button and the other an “On” button. You can edit tones one at a time or together by pressing and holding more than one tone selection button. You quickly realise here that what you have are three Synths and each one has its own LFO, Oscillator, Modulating LFO, Filter and Amplifier – I am really starting to like this.

LFO

You then come to the LFO section (edged in blue). This section will modulate the sound and you can select from six wave types – (triangle, sine, sawtooth, square, (sample and hold) and random) by simply pressing the Shape button. You can also adjust the rate or speed of the oscillator. By turning the knob to the right will make the modulation faster, and turning it to the left will make the modulation slower. I noticed that as I moved it, the indicator above the “Rate” knob blinks in synchronization with the LFO speed – that is handy. You can also Tempo Sync the LFO. LFO can be applied in different ways – To the “Pitch” to achieve that nice vibrato effect – To the “Volume” for a bit of a tremolo – To the “Filter” for some cool Wah Wah sounds and to the “Pan” for that Auto Pan madness. For the Auto Pan, you need to use the Shift key in conjunction with the “Amp Depth”

SOUND GENERATOR SECTION

OK now we move onto the Sound Generator Section which is subdivided into three. Here you will see an Oscillator, Filter and Amplifier sections (edged in orange).Roland start off by saying that there are three elements to sound – Pitch, Brightness and Volume and that they have arranged them on the panel in this order to make the sound-creating possibilities easy. PITCH = OSCILLATOR, BRIGHTNESS = FILTER and VOLUME = AMPLIFIER. This can all be found in Roland’s excellent 16 page guidebook to get you started. The instructions are simple and clear and well presented. It has a front page with the title “ENJOY CREATING SOUNDS WITH YOUR SYNTHESIZER”. The first couple of pages explain the controls and it then moves on to how to play sounds/patches, how to create a Bass sound, playing an Arpeggiated Synth Bass sound, how to create a Pad Sound, how to save the patch created, how to create Wind and a Distorted Guitar Sound and finally examples of creating sounds.

OSCILLATOR SECTION

As we have said, the Oscillator determines the sound’s pitch. The pitch is determined by the speed at which a waveform repeats. In this section you select a waveform to form the basis of a sound and you can choose from seven wave-types each with three variations (giving a total of 21). These are of very high quality and are more than enough for most needs. The seven types are – SQUARE WAVE, PULSE / PWM, TRIANGLE WAVE, SINE WAVE, NOISE and SUPER SAW. I really like what Roland have done with the variations as these provide subtle harmonic differences. Remembering that you can apply changes in the Oscillator section differently to each of the tones, I created some very good sounds by applying varying amounts of Pitch and Detune to the tones by use of the Master Tune knobs. You want Fat? – Well you can achieve it. You also get a MOD button so that you can combine tones 1 and 2 and create more complex sounds. For Square Wave selections, there are two sliders – The PWM Slider specifies the amount of modulation applied to Pulse Width and The PW Slider specifies the width of the upper portion of the square wave. Lastly in this section you can think about Pitch envelope and adjust attack and decay times as well as the depth as to how much the Pitch Envelope will affect the Depth. Again you don’t need to understand all of this, just get moving and twisting until you hear something you like. You will learn from what you are hearing and how these changes affect the sound.

FILTER SECTION

This moves us onto the Filter (The DJ’s favorite bit) and determines the sound’s brightness. It has a simple layout starting with a Mode button to select the type of filter – LOW PASS, HIGH PASS, BAND PASS and PEAKING FILTER and you can apply two slopes, 12dB per octave and 24dB per octave. There are three knobs to control Cut-Off, Resonance and the useful Key Follow knob (to make the filter cutoff frequency vary according to the key you play). Below this are five sliders for ADSR and Envelope Depth. I think these filters are excellent and great fun. I put the Arpeggio button on and the hold key for hands free and in real time I produced fast filter sweeps, taking my pattern down from a deep low-fi bass up to a crisp high resonance – magic.

THE AMP SECTION

The Amp section is there to give separate volume control to each of the three tones. You should not ignore this basic control. When you are using all 3 tones it is surprising how the sound changes due to you lowering or raising the volume. It is just like a mixer and one sound coming through louder than another can make a significant difference.  Alongside this you have an ADSR which can give many characteristics to shape a sound so that you can produce short sharp percussive sounds to very slow dreamy pads and everything your creative mind can find in-between.

EFFECTS

The last Section is my all time favorite – the Effects section (edged in white). I wish every Synth’s effects section looked like this. This is just so quick and accessible – absolutely brilliant. It has five built-in effects that can be layered: Distortion, Flanger, Delay, Reverb and Low Boost. Under Distortion you have Fuzz and Bit Crash alternatives and under Flanger you have Phaser and Pitch Shifter. Delay comes in two flavours, one with panning. Dedicated control knobs are provided for tweaking the effects in real time. I have many favorites here, but the Silky Reberb is near the top of my list. Stacking these effects up really gives you what you are after and you don’t have to worry about any processing problems. By quick touch-button pressing you can give your new sound a Low-Boost, Reverb, Tempo- Sync’d Panning Delay, Pitch-Shifter and Distortion all stacked on top of each other and you have to knobs to control the amount of effect applied.

I think this a good time to mention the Shift Key. The more you use the GAIA; you will find that not all operations are by moving a single button, knob or slider. For example to intialise a Patch you hold the SHIFT key down and press the WRITE button. There are 64 Arpeggio patterns to access. In order to get to the next bank of 8, you need to hold the SHIFT key down and press a bank number 1-8. The best one is the Amp Depth control in the LFO section which is also a Tone-Pan modulation control when used with the SHIFT key. So if you think there is something that there should be a button for, the chances are there is, and it needs the Shift key holding down in the first place.

SAVING PATCHES

Saving Patches to the User area is so simple and so fast that I just did it with no need of the manual. That’s what I call user-friendly. A small problem is that you won’t know what you have saved where. From a live use point of view this could be annoying and you would need a set list with (Bank C patch 7) for example next to the song.

Right so that is the main sound creating sections, now we have everything else. First off you have Roland’s familiar items – DBEAM (to control Pitch, Volume and Effects) and V-LINK. There are dedicated buttons for TAP TEMPO, playing in MONO or POLY, TONE COPY, USB MEMORY PATCHES, PORTOMENTO, a button to run the 64 ARPEGGIO patterns, a HOLD button for hands-free playing, TRANSPOSE (to move the pitch up six semitones and down 5 semitones), OCTAVE  (to move the keyboard up and down three octaves), SELECT and SAVE PATCHES  and RECORD PHRASES (which lets you record, play back and even play over your own recorded Phrases. The movements of the knobs and sliders are also captured) and there is a COMBINED PITCH BENDER and MODULATION CONTROLLER.

CONNECTIONS

From a connection point of view, you have a Headphones Jack, Left and Right Output Jacks, an Expression Pedal Jack. MIDI  IN and OUT, a USB Computer Connector for streaming audio and  transmitting and receiving MIDI data and a USB Memory Connector. The GAIA EXT input allows for connection and playback of external audio sources like an MP3 player so you can jam along with your favourite songs or use it to play back backing tracks. These are so handy for practice sessions or using in a live environment. The interesting bit here is that the audio that is coming in can be manipulated with three Center Cancel modes, which let you eliminate pre-recorded vocals, guitar, or bass – well done Roland.

SAVING TO USB

I was a little disappointed with the USB saving facility. You can only store 64 patches and 8 phrases. Whilst I would like something similar to the project files that the Fantom and V-Synth have, I had to come to terms with the fact that there is no LCD screen. It just seems that it leaves a great waste of space on each USB stick. It is hard to get anything less than 1 GB nowadays. There must be a better way here, lets hope Roland implement an improvement in the future. I did a check on my USB drive after saving my creations and funny enough it shows it as F:\ROLAND\SH01\SH01_PAT.SVD (Fantom-G Librarian Document). Someone on the forums apparently tested this and it does not work with the Fantom Librarian. Perhaps because it is an SVD file, my computer associates it with a Fantom G.

I was however very impressed by the Polyphony here. Normally in the past Polyphony amounts have been low and very anoying. Roland have achieved 64 notes of polyphony so I was able to play massive sounds without experiencing any note drop-outs. To achieve this amount in a Virtual Analogue Modeling Synth like this must mean that Roland are getting something special from the chip technology inside.

CONCLUSIONS

Although there is a lot to read here I think that I have only touched the surface of this little beastie. However the learning curve is fast, you just need to get your hands dirty and get stuck in there. Use the manual only as a reference and not to do your initial training with.  Before you know where you are, you will be making those famous sounds from bands like CARS,  DURAN DURAN, GARY NEWMAN and OMD and if you want, you can add in that 2010 flavour. I thoroughly recommend this Synth for Live Use, Studio Use and generally taking it everywhere with you in Roland’s convenient keyboard case. Currently you cannot buy a Synth that has this much sound-making power and facilities for such a low price. I don’t feel as if I need say anymore except shout – “Just Go and Buy One Now!”

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