Roland Gaia SH-01 Review

Talking about Roland’s infamous supersaw you might have a hard time finding dance music producers who did not hear about it. Besides, who can imagine the band Scooter without an HP + JP on stage? However, Roland seems to like a regular re-wrap of the supersaw synth line – which is why we got our hands on the new Roland Gaia SH-01, just to see if this synth can still create the magic feeling of the good old JP era, and hopefully some more…

At first glance…

Let’s start with the very obvious while/after unboxing. The Gaia is a light-weighted synthesizer that can also run on batteries. The synthesis architecture is simple and directly accessible via the front panel controls. Considering the price, manufacturing quality is surprisingly good, no comparison to the former SH-201. It’s quite sad Roland didn’t build in a velocity sensitive keyboard: every note is triggered at full velocity (127). Besides that, starting up the synth is simple plug’n’play – we’re ready to experience its sound!

Integrating the Gaia into your setup…

Before sharing some sound impressions we should talk about Gaia’s connectivity – how does it integrate into live gigs and studio work? Simple and easy: install the driver (available for all common windows and mac OS), connect the synth via USB, fire up your sequencer – and you’re done. Really sadly, there’s no editor available to date which would simplify patch creation and saving. Hopefully the Roland guys will work on that, shouldn’t be too hard to modify the SH-201 editor to run with Gaia? Nice in terms of production: once connected to your sequencer, you (temporarily) select Gaia to be the active soundcard, play live or playback a midi – and record this to an audio track. Done. Recording audio (24 bit) via Gaia’s usb port works like a charm!

USB: midi and audio recording…

Now you might ask: why can’t Access do what Roland obviously can? Too many times we heard about the virus TI recording issues… Well, at first we have to admit that nowadays also the virus recording works mostly fine. However, there’s probably a difference between a “real” VA synth like virus TI, that has to calculate the whole synthesis pathway, and a probably sample-/ waveform based synth like Gaia. Who would sell a real 64-voice calculating unit for such a low price? Why can’t we regulate the supersaw spread? Why is there a choice between different versions of simple oscillator forms like a sine? All this may point once more into the direction that Gaia is an at least partially waveform-/ sample-based synth.

Beam me up, D-Beam!

Personally, a really big shot is the D-Beam technology. You can control loudness, filter cutoff, effect strength, lfo rate and much more by moving your hand up and down – this is just pure fun when using the Gaia live, like for manual sidechaining of pads or totally crazy synth shots. Talking of the fun part: besides the D-Beam you can record short phrases and apply them maybe as a background pattern to any patch. Moreover, you can connect your MP3 player and thereby add your Gaia sound to the actual song. You can even eliminate the center part of the song, probably to get rid of vocals or bass/kick; however, as modern vocals and quite some basses are nicely distributed in the stereo field, not just placed in the center, this technology might not work so well. Still, it’s all about fun…

I want SOUND…

Maybe it’s time to finally talk about the sound qualities and synthesis versatility of the Gaia. First of all, this is definitely a bread & butter synth for dance music, with typical VA waveforms (saw, sine, pulse, square, triangle) plus a noise generator – and of course the famous supersaw. For each waveform you can choose a few variations, probably Roland sampled some dirty versions of the raw waves to spice up a pretty normal sound engine so far. However, especially for someone new to VA synthesis, the Gaia can be the optimal choice: you get lots of sound creation possibilities at nice quality. Moreover, you quickly understand how VA synthesis works and can tweak your sound at various stages, thickening the patch by layering up to 3 oscillators, each of them offering all waveforms.

The built-in effects are definitely worth a mention: you can distort your sound using either a bitcrusher, a fuzzy or more common distortion effect; you may choose between phaser, flanger or pitchshift and finally add delay and a taste of reverb. A “boost” function puts more body to the sound, if desired. Overall, the effect quality is nice, even the reverb doesn’t sound bad at all. Still, only limited parameters are accessible, such as effect amount and flanger speed or reverb room size. However, for live purposes the effects do another great job, especially together with the D-Beam. JP-series fans will of course miss the chorus…

What about the factory presets? Yep, a question many of you might ask, and, regarding the “budget audience” this synth aims at, also a pretty important one. Well, let’s just say there are loads of normal patches – standard basses, pads, supersaw dance leads and typically wide fat pads thereof, some plucks, arpeggios and bad distorted synth sounds. You may find a few experimental ones, too – but the rest is up to you: get creative! Still, talking of dance music, those factory presets might be a good starting point to create your own patches.

Whooop!

Here we go with some examples directly from the Gaia. We used factory presets only and recorded via the Gaia USB, no additional processing/mastering except a smooth limiter. Please note that any melody used here is for demo purposes only and might be copyrighted.

Demo Roland Gaia SH-01

We need to talk…

Let’s switch to the uncomfortable part. Playing a G3 with a naked supersaw oscillator and then comparing the sound to an A3, you will recognize a drop in brilliance, like applying a highcut. The effect is also well audible at G2/A2, below and above it more and more vanishes. We could not reproduce this effect on a JP8000; so far, Roland Japan talks of “internal patented specifications that are typical for the supersaw”. Especially after comparison with a JP8000 we don’t see this point, for us it’s much more likely the consequence of wack sampling. In the sound demo below you may also notice that a JP8000 supersaw sounds a bit more smooth and clear than a Gaia supersaw…

This issue goes even further. Each oscillator offers 3 variations, and at least one of them is most likely having a similar issue, but a bit more randomly. Playing one note after another, over the whole 3-octave keyboard range, the oscillator chosen does not behave the same! This is not only annoying, it’s also clear proof that Gaia uses samples to create the oscillators. Below we sum up where we experienced the problems:

  • Saw (“red LED”)
  • Pulse (standard)
  • PW (standard)
  • Triangle (“red LED)
  • Supersaw (all 3 variants)

We discussed a lot with other experts about this, however, there are already some cases where users admire a plugin for being very cpu-friendly despite a great sound: and the reason behind that is the use of wavetables instead of calculating real oscillations. Not only due to this, the best explanation for these issues is an at least partially wavetable-based synthesis engine. Whatever the real reason for this behavior is, Roland will hopefully fix this issue soon.

Don’t get us wrong: this holds true for a single, naked oscillator – and regarding the price, the overall sound of Gaia together with all the effects is still nice and playing the synth is lots of fun! Really working with the Gaia you will layer sounds, apply a filter, effects and everything – and, most importantly, you will play many notes at a time. This is why you probably won’t even notice these problems. Hence, going for bigroom electronic music or music production paying attention to the little details, you might find this really annoying. Below you can listen to this issue. You first hear supersaw G3>pitchbend to A3, then a directly played A3. After that, you hear the same done on a JP8000.

Supersaw Bug Roland Gaia SH-01

Summary

Well, let’s sum up what we get for around 700 bucks. A well built, at least partially sample-/ waveform based VA synthesizer with high polyphony, all classical waveforms + supersaw, available for all 3 oscillators, and 1 overall lfo (way too less for many sound designers). Together with the effect section (distortion, flanger/phaser/pitchshifter, delay, reverb), sound quality is pretty nice; still, a clear drawback is the issue that quite some oscillator forms are sampled at bad quality – which comes into play as soon as you get into detailled sound design. We would recommend this synth to all who need a budget, robust, versatile live synth, to all who are new to VA synthesis, and maybe to people who are still in love with the supersaw and want to “touch it” instead of using sample libraries available.
Note: Since a while, Roland offers also a editor software for Gaia SH-01 – roland.com/sh-sh01

More information: roland.com (approx. 700.00 $)

Sound Quality - 70%
Features - 80%
Value for Money - 90%

Summary: We would recommend this synth to all who need a budget, robust, versatile live synth, to all who are new to VA synthesis, and maybe to people who are still in love with the supersaw and want to “touch it” instead of using sample libraries available.

80%

Pretty nice!


Published on July 7th, 2012

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  • ChrisNYC

    Excellent review! Please more of them :)

  • Jimmy

    The keyboard *is* velocity sensitive, which you quickly discover if you read the manual.
    To enable vel sens, press Shift+Key Hold so that the button becomes unlit. Then use Shift+Cutoff and Shift+Amp level to specify how keyboard dynamics should affect filter cutoff and amp level.

    There are actually quite a few “hidden” parameters that become available when you engage the Shift key, with no hint on the front panel. It pays off to read the chapter “Advanced Operation” in the full manual.

  • liam

    The Gaia keyboard is velocity sensitive- it just comes with it switched off for some reason. Hold shift and key hold to activate it.

    It might be worth checking some of the other bits in this article as well- particularly the stuff around sampling rather than digital modelling? I don’t know- it’s just that if such a basic error was made, perhaps the inner workings of the synth might be a little beyond the reviewer?

    I actually just got this synth- and it is so easy to use- and I don’t know about most people but I would use this synth to create new sounds rather than emulate the sounds of others… so no issues about not being able to recreate ‘famous’ dance sounds around a super saw…

    it would be nice to be able to plug my rhodes into the ‘signal chain’, but a secondhand microkorg with keys too small for human hands is probably good for that.


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