Sonic LAB: Review Roland AIRA System-1 Part 1

Roland's new Plug-Out synth   25-Jun-14

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In preparation for the forthcoming announcement of the first Plug-Out model for the AIRA System-1 synth (June 29th), Roland kindly sent me a precious review unit. Keen to see what it has to offer I gave it the once over. This will be the first part of the review, in which I go through the basic functions. I'll aim to go deeper once the first Plug-out is made available to me.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I'll try to answer them.

Unfortunately, there was no manual and the firmware is still being revised, but the instrument is pretty much there. We know that the System-1 is a DSP model based synth using Roland's new Analog Circuit Behaviour - ACB (they love their acronyms!)

In it's native form (without a plug-out loaded) it's a 2 Osc subtractive synthesizer with Sub Osc (Tri wave) and noise source. The plug-outs are to be additional synth models that can be loaded into the System-1 and selected via a dedicated button.

Additionally it can operate as a four voice paraphonic synth, sharing the filter, envelopes (VCA, Pitch and Filter).

I should mention at the outset that the keyboard is a short travel type, not to everyone's taste but certainly playable. There is no velocity as the synth does not respond to velocity.


Basic waves are pretty bright, but also have plenty of bottom end. Shapes are Saw/Square/Tri/Multi Saw/Multi Sq/Multi Tri.

Each wave can be adjusted by a colour knob which affects the nature of each wave differently

Saw - single to double, Sq pulse width, Triangle - to a sort of pinched triangle, Multi Saw - detune, Multi Square - detune, Multi Tri - fold and detune. Colour can be modulated by pretty much anything, LFO, all three envs and the Sub Osc.

Osc 1 has a cross mod parameter and Osc 2 has Sync and Ring switches - between them you can create a bunch of bell and unusual tones.

Plenty of tonal variation and a large range from 64' to 2'. Osc 2 is the same and can be tuned +/- Octave. The sub Osc can be -1 or -2 oct and is a Triangle wave which makes a change from the usual square and provides some

Filter - we have a single 12/24dB low pass filter with full resonance plus an additional HPF - this is more like an EQ, resonance does not affect it. By turning the Mixer level of Osc, Sub or noise (pink/white) you add drive into the filter. Sonically it's not dissimilar to a classic Roland filter, say SH series with a nice warm smudge appearing when driving it via the mixer.

The single LFO has multi-waves with rates approaching audio rate, but not quite, there's also a fade time, plus separate amp/pitch/filter depth. I did find that even with 100% filter depth the filter was not fully opening, so the range appears to be somewhat limited. Additionally it's not possible to modulate only one Osc, pitch mod is across all Osc and the sub.


Simple Attack/Decay - hard wired to pitch, both +/-, but can be routed to Osc 1/2 colour too.

Filter Env ADSR +/- depth, Amp Env ADSR

Also in the Amp section, theres a Tone control - this little knob really affects the character of the synth, with what sounds like a tilt EQ - but is probably doing something more complex. Whatever it's doing it drastically affects the overall tone of the synth - turning left warms it up considerably and right gives it a more buzzy, skinnier sound. Additionally there's a Bit Crush effect which is pretty extreme.

Finally there's the effect section which adds a basic reverb - single knob - more/less  and a delay

with mix and time. They are basic and don't really do anything extreme,  but I must say I appreciate the inclusion of a delay.

I won't cover the MIDI/USB and Scatter/Arpeggiator functions in this part of the review.

System-1 is a reasonably capable synth with plenty of subtractive sonic capabilities. It's perhaps not as extreme some of the new breed of analogs - not much audio rate modulation, less extreme modulation, but it's perfectly capable of creating bass and leads and more modern, multi-wave detune type sounds. For the price, it's got to be a contender if you are looking for a first synthesizer - albeit it's not actually analog and of course, there's no CV/Gate integration.

It's definitely worth a look as a reasonably priced instrument with plenty of creative synthesis possible. As a self contained instrument with effects it's a great tool for sound exploration.

I'm looking forward to checking out the Plug-out models - that will be a separate review.

Aira System-1 is available at the end of this month (June 2014) priced at £495 / $599

The first Plug-out is available at the end of July and is expected to be of the SH-101.

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30 Comments... Comments are closed while we transition to Disqus

Peter K.    Said...

Wow, quite a nice sounding instrument. Love the sound and smoothness of the filter. The basic building blocks sound great, even if the modulation doesn't take you way into outer space...

25-Jun-14 06:36 AM

Kafka    Said...

Thanks Nick. I'm really impressed with the overall tonal quality of this synth. Maybe there are some hidden key press/jog wheel combinations that will increase reverb and delay length that didn't make it onto the rather spartan information leaflet that comes with the System-1.

25-Jun-14 06:53 AM

Nick B    Said...

yes that is possible, I didnt get any additional info or manual with this unit and I know that there are firmware revisions en route before final release, so who knows.

25-Jun-14 07:00 AM

Wah    Said...

Thanks for the review nick! =) cant wait for the plugout review. If its as good as they have been hyping it should be a winner.

For anyone interested the first sneak peak will be here

tomoro @ 7.oo GMT

25-Jun-14 07:31 AM

Dr.Filterstein    Said...

This a cheap, small and modified version of Gaia. The filter sounds like FA-6 and better than Gaia but with only one lfo,8 user-sounds and many other limitations system 1 will be the biggest flop in harware-business in 2014.

25-Jun-14 07:36 AM

Meneer Vincent    Said...

Thanks Nick for the review. I am not so impressed by the sounds so far but maybe I have to wait for the upcoming firmware.

25-Jun-14 09:21 AM


Thank you Sir Nicholas,

To me this synth says "great synth if you have never had a synth before and want to get to know subtractive synthesis." I can't see this as a real competitor in the gigging and studio world... I know that they have built the Aira series to be for the EDM crowd- but I can think of at least 5 synths that I would choose for EDM before this. It looks a little cheap. Sounds pretty ok and is glow in the dark. Dave Smith's PRO 2 is what a mono synth should look like in this day and age. The best of the analog world meets the advantages in the digital world. Aira seems a bit like a rehash of what technology looked like ten years ago...

I don't like being too critical, but this just had to be said.

25-Jun-14 11:33 AM


its hard to sell this with out the plug out, you can pick up a novation x station on ebay for under £200 that will do job like this. lets hope the plug out full fills its promise and they extend it to all the classic roland synths for a reasonable price.

25-Jun-14 02:01 PM

Jan    Said...

That blinking tempo led button is hellishly annoying... And no velocity sensitive keyboard? is it 1974 again?? Weird...

By the way, Nick, why are you (and also many others) so keen on people subscribing on YT as of late? is that the new currency? Do you get paid by the number of subscriptions?

25-Jun-14 02:33 PM

Nick B    Said...

Re tempo blink yes, axtually I thought on reflection that it would be good to have an LFO lrate light, but perhaps 50% on off rather than full on off.

Re YT subs - yes quite simply, more subscribers = figures that say - our video can be seen by up X people. But you dont get more $ per subs though. I

25-Jun-14 02:49 PM

al_bot    Said...

Thanks Nick!

I'll have to hear the plugout / SH sounds before getting this one.

So many choices at the $500 price point now.

25-Jun-14 03:29 PM

SayWhat?!    Said...

Does it sound Gaia-esque?

25-Jun-14 04:39 PM

Astro Spy    Said...

Nick, So, you can only offset the 2 oscillators by various octave intervals, plus/minus a semitone?

So besides not being able to do a wide sync sweep, you can't tune, say, a fifth or another musical interval? (As you can on the Bass Station II, Volca Keys, etc.)

25-Jun-14 04:54 PM

NIck B    Said...

No it turns out that you can, its just not obvious how to with out knowing (which I didnt - there was no manual) Press Ring and Sync, then twizzle the scatter wheel so yes it is absolutley possible to tune +/- octave in semitones plus the +/- detune knob.

25-Jun-14 05:03 PM

Astro Spy    Said...

Nick, good to know. As always, thanks for digging into the basics like oscillators and firing up the scope. I didn't know the System 1 could go supersonic! Looking forward to part 2.

25-Jun-14 05:50 PM

Kevin Nolan, Dublin.    Said...

Nick -

The VA Synth Tone engine in the JP80, JP50, Integra-7 and FA range has a dire problem - audible aliasing with PWM. It's so bad it renders PWM useless on those synths. Roland Japan are aware of it but so far do not intend rectifying it, despite emails to them. I'm a JP80 owner and I, among other JP80 owners, are disappointed with this.

Does this instrument suffer from the same problem? Could you please try out the PWM on this synth, without effects on, and from around C4 upwards you should hear aliasing at least as lout as the PWM eave itself, if it has the problem.

25-Jun-14 07:07 PM

Studio 139    Said...

Nice introduction to the synth, the plug-out models will have to be killer for me to look seriously at this. Just as a "base" unit, the basic sound is fine, but not inspiring. The oscillators lack character, despite the color and drive controls. In addition I am just not sold on the green and black color scheme. Thanks for the over-view.

25-Jun-14 07:13 PM

Garak    Said...

I think I've seen so much basic intro to the synth, I now just need to hear get a real work out as only Nick knows how. The tone knob is really interesting for me, the audio at the end of the review really gave me some idea of what the thing can do.

25-Jun-14 10:26 PM

sickntwistedbeats    Said...

ok first it is not a plug out synth you cant just make a name up and hope people will just buy it, it is just a closed system sampling synth ,which is really annoying as roland will be the only company adding to this synths sounds,wish people would stop lying to consumers

26-Jun-14 09:49 AM

sickntwistedbeats    Said...

still rambling on,but my point is this ,if a plug in is by definition made by various companies and works in your daw then by definition a plug out synth is various companies making new sounds for your synth ,but this is not the case as far as im aware the system is locked from third parties

26-Jun-14 10:02 AM

Mark    Said...

Nick, Can you install multiple plug-outs to work on the System-1 unplugged from the computer, or can you only install and use them one at a time?

Also interested in the level of aliasing you get, particularly on PWM.

Good Review ! Thanks

26-Jun-14 11:05 AM

karmasoniq    Said...

Any word of a patch librarian?

26-Jun-14 11:40 AM

Woo    Said...

"This a cheap, small and modified version of Gaia"

Actually, it's the same price as the Gaia, although periodically you can get the Gaia on sale for $100 less.

26-Jun-14 08:21 PM

LagrangeAudio    Said...

To my uneducated ears it does sound good no question BUT no better than my Gaia in my opinion, and the Gaia in many respects is a deeper instrument than this. So, as I think someone has already pointed out, it will be the plug-out synths that will be the difference.

27-Jun-14 08:58 AM

rez_leaza    Said...

It looks so pretty, but I think the possibilites are underwhelming. Why can this synth do less than my Korg Prophecy I bought almost 20 years ago (unfair comparison, perhaps...)? And only 1 LFO? Plus: missing multimode capabilities in a VA synth nowadays is dissappointing...

27-Jun-14 09:12 AM

brandon    Said...

The prophecy is mono and makes speaker damaging digutal clipping sounds.I have the korg z 1. I just heard the sh 101 plug out and it does sound very mc 202 is long gone but this aira looks worth having.

28-Jun-14 03:06 AM

Polyphonic    Said...

Is it truly paraphonic? I cannot believe it is.

30-Jun-14 03:18 PM

Audesi    Said...

I just got mine. I can hear audible aliasing in the filter while sweeping with the resonance near high. I made sure the volume was low enough. I would have thought by now that modern digital algorithms and DSP chips could fix these kind of issues.

01-Jul-14 04:07 PM

Dustin    Said...

No velocity sensitivity (and no means to set velocity to modulate stuff, one of my favorite things), and limited fact "limited" is just the best term to describe this thing. With RAM and CPU power so cheap, why put these artificial limits on gear like this? Especially with the prevalence of controllers and VST. I guess their "plug-out" idea is an answer to VST, will probably be a solid recreation but I can't help but be underwhelmed. For a digital synth, you could do better with all sorts of old models. The MS2000 even.

05-Jul-14 09:32 AM

OSCar F    Said...

Having laid my hands on a prototype some months back I must say that for some reason the video's don't do the audio quality justice. It sounds better than a GAIA by a long shot, better than a DSI Mopho to these ears also (which may be sacrilege to some) so I apologize in advance. The envelopes are incredibly snappy and it is possible to get into SH-9 / SH-2 sonic territory sound wise with the standard System 1 engine. It also has some major bottom end for a digital synth, a huge amount actually and is a very good bass synth. If you know your synthesis I'd ignore the 8 patches and just dial sounds in manually but I wouldn't think it would be hard to create an iPad app that worked like a patch librarian to get around the memory issues on board. The unit I used was fine for PWM but I felt it needed work on the sync sounds and the filter resonance had that odd detached quality at high settings (it didn't gel with the cut-off in the way an analog filter does). That said it seems problematic on many digital synths I have used. I sold my JD990, D550 and JV1080 to purchase an Integra 7 a while back and the SN-S engine more than covers lost ground for me on those and has been a good investment. I'd suggest trying one out first in person but wish it was $100 less in Canada (it isn't in my honest opinion a $640 CDN + tax synth) but it does marry rather well with the TR8 (if that is your thing. I'd like to see something more comprehensive with the part 2 review Nick as I thought this part 1 review sold it a bit short and wasn't as in depth as other reviews have been.

05-Jul-14 01:43 PM

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