Sonic LAB: Review Roland AIRA System-1 Part 1

Roland's new Plug-Out synth      25/06/14

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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.

Oscillators

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.

Envelopes

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.

Conclusion
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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