The System-8 Plug Out Synthesizer is the bold next step for Roland’s ACB (Analog Circuit Behaviour) technology. First pioneered in the earlier Aira and Boutique products, ACB has made quite a name for itself as an accurate digital method to recreate vintage instruments. According to Roland, every ACB model is the result of meticulously analyzing every single electronic component of an instrument and then modeling them in software. Then, when these virtual components are combined to recreate a virtual instrument, the end result should be so close to the original that it’s pretty much impossible to hear the difference.
Of course in the emotive world of synthesizer freaks and analogue purists these claims have been the subject of intense debate, which is reignited with every new product announcement in this range. In the meanwhile, if we look at the success of the Aira and Boutique products and the response from the customer base, it seems Roland has come a long way to actually substantiating those claims. ACB has proven itself as a worthwhile, useful technology and it’s here to stay.
The System-8 Plug Out Synthesizer is by far the most elaborate and biggest ACB based product so far, clearly positioning it as a mature stage/performance type flagship synthesizer rather than an entry level ‘dance toy’. Like the System-1 that came before, the System-8 can load ‘plug outs’. A plug out is an ACB model that turns the host synth in a completely different instrument.
The System-8 comes out of the box with 3 full-featured synthesizers on board, each with its own distinct and different character. It features the native System-8 engine, which is very close to the System-1 native synth in character and sound, but now with 8 voices and couple of extras like a more elaborate LFO section, a side-band filter and an improved effects section. There is also a step sequencer on board that can trigger notes as well as parameter changes.
Next to the native synth, there are 3 plug out slots that can contain various synthesizer emulations. Roland includes the Jupiter 8 and Juno 106 plug outs with the System-8. These emulations are about as close as you’ll get to the real thing without having to fork out premium prices for rare vintage synths, and save you the hassle and cost of maintaining them. The System-8 effects section and step sequencer are also available for use with these plug outs.
The last plug out slot is empty and can be used with the plug outs that have been released so far for the System-1 (SH-101, SH-2, ProMars, System 100), with more synth engines expected in the future, although Roland can not share any details of future plug outs at the moment.
Each synth engine/plug out slot can store up to 64 patches. Compared to most other VA synths, which offer hundreds if not thousands of memory slots this feels a bit stingy. There is no PC editor or librarian software available at the time of writing, although it’s possible to store and restore patches using an SD card.
A performance mode allows you to stack or split two different patches over the keyboard in various ways. The cool thing is that the patches can come from any of the available plug outs or the native synth, so it’s possible to combine Jupiter 8 strings with a Juno 106 bass sound at the same time for example.
Most things you’d expect on a modern performance synth are on board; a full size keyboard, a pitch bend/mod stick, an arpeggiator with all the usual options and plenty of knobs and faders to tweak your sound while playing. The choice for 49 keys is a bit of a shame, as the synth would have benefited from a larger amount of keys – especially in performance mode. The lack of aftertouch is also disappointing, but, according to Roland, a necessary compromise to keep the synth within the desired price range.
Unexpected but welcome additions are CV outputs, allowing the System-8 to be the centrepiece in a modular or vintage analogue environment. There’s also a vocoder available with limited controls but which provides decent results.
During the testing of this synth a few minor bugs were found but subsequently squashed in free OS updates. During the time of review, the System-8 went through 2 firmware revisions, which shows that Roland is still improving the product.
While the Aira logo is not on the box or in the documentation, the System-8 is very much in line with the previous products in the Aira range. Of course this means a return of the love-it-or-hate-it green LEDs on black plastic look, but also a well thought out, intuitive and user-friendly control panel with loads of knobs, buttons and faders and a minimum of menu diving. The green LED haters will be delighted to learn that the LEDs can not only be dimmed, but even completely turned off this time round.
Musicians used to working on traditional analogue subtractive synths will feel right at home on the System-8. The controls are laid out logically and, if you know what you’re doing, you probably won’t even need to check the manual unless you’re looking for some obscure semi-hidden functions. Skipping through the presets will give you a taste of the scope and possibilities, but the synth truly comes to life when you press the ‘Manual’ button – the synths engine immediately snaps to the current settings of the knobs and faders on the control panel and you can start dialling in your own sounds.
Like the older Aira devices, the System-8 feels a bit light and cheap, but at the same time it’s not an instrument that will break easily. As long as you’re not throwing the thing around it’s unlikely to spontaneously fall apart or self-combust. The low weight is also good news for stage musicians who don’t want to break their backs when lugging their equipment around. It’s a bit disappointing it uses an external power supply though.
The promise of buying a single synth and actually getting three of them seems to be good to be true. While the System-1 already featured the plug out architecture, to see and hear it in a full size poly synth is something else. It’s a very odd experience indeed to instantly switch between the System-8, Jupiter 8 and Juno 106 at will, pressing a key and hearing completely different characteristics.
The System-8 is a true chameleon that effortlessly switches between its various models, which will delight those looking for that kind of flexibility and might alienate others who will accuse the synth for not having a character of its own.
Like the original Aira products and unlike the Boutique series, the System-8 uses an internal samplerate of 96khz and a 24 bits resolution for the best possible sound quality without any observable digital artefacts or aliasing. This is further aided by the introduction of 24 bits MIDI resolution on the filter cutoff, velocity and pitchbend, allowing far more increments per parameter for precise control and the ability to modify the sound without any stepping. The sound quality of all three engines is excellent – the sounds are bright and can be harsh (especially on the unashamed digital sounding System-8 engine) or buttery smooth on the more mellow Juno 106 patches.
There seems to be a certain imbalance between the levels of the various presets though; some seem noticeably louder than others, and when using the ‘level’ knob it’s quite easy to distort sounds in a rather unpleasant and harsh digital way. This won’t be a problem in a studio environment, but be careful when you take your System-8 on stage.
The Jupiter 8 and Juno 106 recreations are as good as you can expect them to be; the increased fidelity and voice count compared to the already highly acclaimed Boutique versions brings them even closer to the originals. In fact, unless you’re armed with an oscilloscope and bat-like hearing skills, it’ll be difficult to discriminate between the original and the ACB replication in a blind A/B test. Add the crowd noise when you’re on the stage or the other elements in a normal mix in a studio and even that edge will most likely disappear. Bottom line: if you want a Jupiter 8 or Juno 106, there’s nothing that comes closer apart from the ever rarer, ever more expensive and harder to maintain originals.
The native System-8 synth is also great fun to play with. It’s a far more modern sounding synth which mainly excels in its oscillators featuring the traditional tri, saw and square waves but also the classic Roland Supersaw as well as varieties like the Supersquare (which could be considered to be the signature sound of the System-1 and System-8) and Supertri. In the variations oscillator bank there’s some oddities like vowel and 808 cowbell waveforms that can produce interesting results. A subosc can add some considerable low end for nice, fat bass sounds. The side-band filter can add some strange metallic noises.
When it comes to modulation, things get a bit more limited. While it’s expected for the Jupiter 8 and Juno 106 plug outs to be stuck in the 80s, modern sound designers have come to expect a bit more of modern VA synths than what the System-8 native synth has on offer. The modulation capabilities are limited, there is no proper modulation matrix and there’s only one proper LFO available. There are some dual-LFO FM style modes available, but at the end of the day it’s only a single modulation source. While oscillator 3/subosc can be used as modulator, it’s no replacement for a proper routable extra LFO. Envelopes are also limited; it’s possible to use the available envelopes as modulation sources, but as they’re already hardwired to other functionality the use is limited.
While sound designers will still have plenty of options to explore when using the step sequencer and the limitations and oddities creatively, the possibilities for modulating and shaping sounds feel unnecessarily restricted considering the vast amount of DSP power available. The lack of aftertouch is an unfortunate omission in this regard – just the ability to link key pressure to a filter cutoff could make a huge difference in making the synth sound far more expressive and organic. While Roland suggests using an expression pedal for this purpose, there is nothing as immediate as actually hearing the sound change while you’re pressing the keys you’re playing.
The effect section is a nice addition and is split up in three parts – distortion, delay/chorus and reverb. While the effects are useable and can add some depth to sounds when used sparingly, they’re not really a match for professional effects processors or plugins. It’s a nice touch that the effects can be used on both the native synth as the plug outs, and when using the chorus on the Juno 106 plug out it will even produce the signature noise.
The Roland System-8 Plug Out Synthesizer is a generous package featuring great emulations of some of the best analogue poly synths ever made, as well as a good native synth with its own character and a distinct, modern sound. Operating the unit and tweaking sounds is a joy due to the intuitive layout and many controls available. The synth itself is light but sturdy, and has a fantastic, intuitive interface. You’ll feel right at home creating and tweaking sounds, and great results can be obtained without ever going in the menu. 24 bits MIDI resolution on some of the controls add further precision and smoothness, while the 96khz/24 bits synthesis engine delivers top notch sounds.
At the same time, there’s the feeling that Roland has stopped just short of greatness when engineering the System-8. The keyboard is OK, but nothing to write home about. There is no aftertouch, which is disappointing on a 2017 performance synth. Despite several hours of use, the pitch/modulation stick still doesn’t feel exactly right despite its increased 24 bits resolution. The inclusion of only a single LFO (although OSC 3 can also be used as modulator), no dedicated modulation envelopes, low amount of patch slots and sparse modulation options may limit the appeal for sound designers.
However, musicians looking for the classic Roland sound as well as an affordable, intuitive and good sounding poly synth will not be disappointed. The amount of synth(s) you get for your money is nothing short of stunning, and this synth is very much recommended for those who are yearning for that classic 80s analogue Roland sound but don’t want the hassle and costs of buying, owning, transporting and/or maintaining vintage synths.
And, as new synths can literally be added at the touch of a button by uploading new ACB models, the possibilities are pretty much endless. Let’s hope Roland has some cool classics or maybe even brand new ACB models waiting in the wings to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world… We can’t wait to hear them!