Sonic LAB: Roland GAIA SH01 PolySynth Review

Exclusive first review      29/03/10

No flash plug

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11:22 mins

So, Roland finally release a synth that IS actually a synth - one with knobs on and a rather SH series look - that's faders aplenty.
The GAIA (SH-01) sure looks nice enough with its white livery and black facia,  and there's there's plenty of hands on control:
18 Faders
11 knobs
58 backlit buttons
Mod/Pitch Wheel


Thats more than we've seen on an affordable Roland synth for quite some time. All I can say is - GREAT! (Probably) Lets take a closer look...


MIDI IO, Audio Stereo LR output, Phones, Stereo ext in (minijack), USB A and B-type connectors,sustain pedal.


Start Your Engines
The synth engine is a simple subtractive synthesizer with 2 LFOs, 1 OSC, multi-mode filter, ADSR amplitude envelope. Fairly straight forward stuff but then multiply that by THREE, and you have the GAIA - three independent synth engines (tones)- which can be layered together. In addition, there's a sync and ring modulation mode which uses the first two tones locked in mono mode.


LFO Waves
Tri,Sine, Saw up, Square, S/H, Rand
For more modulation, use the D-BEAM which can be mapped to a number of synth params (one at a time) both in either direction - increase or decrease value.


Osc Waves
Saw Up, Square, Pulse Width, Tri, Sine, Noise and Super Saw
Each wave has three variations for quite a selection of raw waveforms.


If you were expecting Access Virus quality, then think again, they aint the beefiest oscillators I've heard, but they are OK.

Multi-mode - Low Pass, Hi Pass, Band Pass and Peaking  all resonant with -12dB and -24dB switchable.

These are also okay, with plenty of resonance. They arent really rude, but will give you a good variation.

The final link in the chain is the effects unit, with five discrete effects groups: 
    •     distortion/fuzz/bit crash (I think that means crush), 
    •     flanger/phaser/pitch shift, 
    •     delay/panning delay, 
    •     reverb 
    •     bass boost. 

Each of the five effect groups are individually editable with two immediate controls, more using the shift key, each with bypass and finally master effects on/off.

These are pretty er, effective actually with a good quality throughout. Highlights for me being the distortions, flanger phaser and reverb. Can really elevate an ordinary sound into something more special.

Arpeggiator and Phrase Recorder
64 arpeggiator presets should keep you happy for a while, and if that's not enough there's also an 8 pattern phrase recorder, with each pattern able to record up to 8 bars of note, controller and front panel controls jointly or separately. The Tap Tempo sets the BPM for these as well as for the tempo syncable LFO speeds and delays. It is possible to record an arpeggio into the phrase recorder if you so wish.

External Examination
Finally, there's the minijack stereo in with separate level and mute control - this feeds the main output. You also get some centre cancel stuff if you want to have a go at pulling out a vocal from the incoming mix - a bit hit or miss I found. But if you had a little mixer hooked up you could feed whatever you want into this - a mic perhaps - which brings us to....

USB Me Baby
You can plug in a stick device for backing up of all your settings, and there's also a connection to the computer - not for an editor - why would you need that with all the controls? But for MIDI and Audio functions. Installing the driver (not class compliant) means you now have control of the GAIA via MIDI from your DAW and also you can use it as an audio interface - 2 in 2 out. Record your synth playing, and the external audio input - both audio streams feed the stereo input. You can then send all the audio out of your DAW back out through the GAIA LR output. Nice. Operates at 16bit 44kHz only.


WTF- General MIDI?
As well as the synth engine, Roland have stuck a bank of GM2 sounds inside, so you also have access to 15 channels of General MIDI - via USB or external MIDI input. Although this is nice, it does seem a bit weird to go so 'synth', and then stick this in there, I guess its one way to use up the massive 64 note polyphony the GAIA boasts.


Lost in Sound
I only had a short time with the GAIA, and I must admit even with an unmovable review deadline looming, I did waste an inordinate amount of time just messing about with it, which has got to be an endorsement of its ability to be tweaked and used like a 'proper' synth should. Sure its not quite up to the standard of some of the premium Virtual Analogs - like the Virus, but its way less costly and you can put batteries in it. Not since the SH-101 do I remember a battery powered synth from Roland (I may of course be wrong). What does puzzle me is the inclusion of the GM2 bank. This is the only way the synth can be used multi-timbrally. I would much rather have seen each of the 3 synths accessable on separate MIDI channels. The audio interface option is a great feature too, making it something you could really use with a laptop.


With the Juno DI priced very simillarly, I do feel that it could perhaps be a tad less expensive by comparison  - although I guess expensive isnt really a fair word to use for such a lot of synth. Top marks to Roland for creating something so synthy AND affordable.


$739 USD RRP
Around £500 UK - TBC



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26 Comments...  Post a comment    original story

Hey Nick...Thx for the review !

After seeing diff kinds of Gaia shows here, Messe or Rolands YT site its still open to me if there is any velocity sensitivity, maybe aftertouch and how its controlled / assingned? Cya, Red !

29-Mar-10 06:13 AM

Nick B    Said...

Ah okay, apologies it was done under a very strict deadline - no aftertouch, but yes to velocity. There are a number of deeper assignments and modulation possibilities accessible using the shift function. It is possible to control the amount of Filter and or Amplitude depth via velocity.

29-Mar-10 06:19 AM

RedWalks    Said...

Ahh thx for the quick answer ! On Rolands YT page theres a lot polarisation about it ! So this was the secret of lasts podcasts guess was the mopho kb... Cya,Red!

29-Mar-10 06:37 AM

Kevin Nolan, Dublin    Said...

Thanks for the review - really informative. Agree it would be great if the three parts were accessible on separate midi channels.

Slightly disagree with your comparison of the oscillators with ‘phat’ Virus TI as a benchmark. The Virus, as great as it is, is a particular sound and not more versatile than other VA’s – it can too often sound too phat and sometimes you want less.

Surely a comparison with other Roland vintage synths, for example that Jupiter 6 leaning against the wall in your studio, would have been equally valid?? To my ears the GAIA sounds just as valid as any other analogue or VA synth. Actually, the GAIA reminds me of my Juno106 in its bright appearance and ease of use, and my JD800 which gives 4 tones editable from the control panel in similar vein to the GAIA.

But thanks for the comprehensive review – very informative overall – I just pre-ordered one from DV.

29-Mar-10 08:54 AM

Marc    Said...

Thank you Nick for the review. This synth sounds great for the price and it's a bit unfair to have as a benchmark the ACCESS Virus TI not only the sound but also the price difference.

Does the SH-01 boutton and sliders feel better than those on the SH-201? And how is the keybed feel (quality)?

Thank you

29-Mar-10 10:58 AM

Nick B    Said...

Marc, yes you are right about the Access, but I was just talking raw waves here as a way to give an impression.

Keys and sliders feel okay - again not the most expensive, but not the cheapest either - they presumably have to do something to keep to the price point, I have not played the 201 so I cant say,

29-Mar-10 11:09 AM

mysticradio    Said...

YAMAHA ROLAND AND KORG have to start innovating. They seem to be focused on piano innovations but not so much on synths. We need synths that are HYBRIDS and you can use VST'S in a hardware keyboard etc......i mean.... ARTURIA has done it with their vst's Why can the big three come up with a hybrid of hardware vst player with a keyboard.

29-Mar-10 12:04 PM

Pom    Said...

Thanks for the review Nick, it's cleared up a lot of misconceptions. I was wondering a few additional things, though. Firstly, does the filter really get disabled when engaging oscillator sync and ring mod, or does that only happen for tone 2 (since it is now routed to tone 1)? Also, you mention deeper assignments and modulation possibilities available under "shift" - could you describe those in greater depth?

Thanks again!

29-Mar-10 12:26 PM

Marc JX8P    Said...

Excellent review and a great little synth that looks to be a great tool to perform with and tweak sounds without going into menus and such. Very nice!

29-Mar-10 12:34 PM

Nick B    Said...

Pom, I will try, but sadly the keyboard has left the building,I'll post a link to the preliminary manual.

Mystic - it would be nice to have ore innovation, but in this economic climate you aint going to get people putting a ton of R&D money into something that might not sell enough to cover costs/turn a profit etc. I mean Arturia costs at least $2000 right - and this er, doesnt. And I wonder how many Origins are selling

29-Mar-10 01:02 PM

DBM    Said...

Nick , Is there a unison detune for poly or mono modes ? Seams like that would be a very big missed opportunity if not .

29-Mar-10 01:33 PM

Nick B    Said...

There is a mono mode, but it didnt sound like a true unison mono mode to me, you can detune the oscilators and also use the Super Saw for some largess, but that is only for the Super saw which is a kind of simulated detune affect.

When I get back to the office tomorrow I will post the manual

29-Mar-10 04:29 PM

JesseJ    Said...

Good review again Nick!

Join the SH-01 Facebook group here:

29-Mar-10 06:14 PM

Peter Kadar    Said...

I like the sliders and knobs... particularly the sliders for the envelope controls. So much more intuitive. Reminds me of my trusty 106.

29-Mar-10 09:29 PM

Donki Pong    Said...

Nick, how is the sound quality (fatness, character) overal or of certain sounds (supersaw leads, pads)? is it comparable to Roland JP series? what would you personaly choose a JP8000 or GAIA?

30-Mar-10 08:22 AM

steve gilbert    Said...

so how does it compare to a dave smith tetra, juno 106, microkorgxl and jupiter 8 for analogue or virtual analogue soundwise?

what's it's focus in your opninion, pads and's it for basses? can i match up to a tetra, mopho or a dark energy?

31-Mar-10 08:29 AM

Eric    Said...

It's strange that you don't mention the SH201, Nick. This is obviously an SH201 in a new box with a few extra features.

(thanks for the great reviews, by the way!)

31-Mar-10 10:53 AM

Laurent    Said...

Not sure Eric..... Filter seems better. DOes anyone else have any opinion on this subject ?

31-Mar-10 08:35 PM

Benedict Johnson    Said...

I've enjoyed following the lineage of the Korg synth-engines through their various legions of products (since such is their eagerness to plaster MMT across every piece of promotional literature). I noticed with interest that the new Akai Miniak and MPC5000 use the same engine as the Alesis Micron. Roland have chosen not to draw attention to the actual engine that drives the GAIA, let alone mention it's ancestors. The clue is probably in the name, but nevertheless it does appear like Roland wants us to regard it as a whole new synth, not just a repackaged SH101.

It's non-regulation design is absurdly cool and appears to have all the essentials plus that weird 8-slot phrase recorder (which looks potentially useful depending on how phrases can be saved).

Usually my attitude with any keyboard is "I wish it did less and did it better" but with the GAIA, I think I just wish the oscillators were up to Nick's standards (...then they're good enough for me!) then we'd have something that can rival Korg's portable synth market. Instead what we have is another 'beginners' machine like the Juno DI. However, I imagine most beginners start with software nowadays, so maybe the whole notion of a beginner's synth is an antiquated concept?

02-Apr-10 06:18 AM

Benedict Johnson    Said...

I just heard on an another video that the GAIA uses the synth-engine from the V-Synth.

02-Apr-10 06:31 PM

Ted    Said...

Benedict Johnson - I too am a little curious why the engine and/or sound quality is not getting promoted. The Alesis Ion came out in 2003 and had a dual multi-filter section that had absolutely no stairstepping, even when in full self-oscillation and tweaked by a painfully slow turn of the cutoff knob. Hows does the Gaia sound when puched like that? Plus, no vocoder, no modulation matrix or virtual patching... Does look sharp and have the polyphony only an octopus could ever dent...

08-Apr-10 01:41 PM

dalas v    Said...

A note on "64 voices": I'm pretty sure if you use 3 OSCs and 3 "engines" on a patch, that's 9 "voices" per note played. When viewed this way, 64 voices is still quite a lot, but Nick's comment about being able to hold down every key on the keyboard is mistaken.

03-May-10 08:27 PM

DBM    Said...

So Nick did we ever figure out if there was to be any voice allocation settings ie : how many if any voices can be set in detune ? I ask again because you stated this was a prototype and not a ready to ship unit . Thanks .

21-May-10 06:26 PM

Benedict Johnson    Said...

I played one today. Significantly less impressive than the Microkorg XL

04-Sep-10 12:21 AM

ome    Said...

I have a question, want everyone help me. How do you change the tempo on the Gaia so that its BPM equals to other instruments' track (so that they can be in sync)? Thank you ^__^

03-Nov-10 02:11 AM

Nick B    Said...

I dont have the unit anymore, but I'm pretty sure that you just set the clock to external, and send MIDI clock to it from another unit - say from your DAW or Groovebox

03-Nov-10 03:38 AM

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