Roland’s continuing crusade to bring us a new take on the classics from its back catalogue continues with the System-8. Dave Gale takes a closer look at this new wolf in Jupiter’s clothing…
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Rumours and excitement about happenings at Roland have been building over the last couple of years, with some real surprises coming from the company that’s largely responsible for inventing the sound of dance music as we know it.
Apart from the obvious drum and squelch machines that we’ve seen already, many of us were hoping for some form of reissue of its classic polysynth line, namely the Jupiter and Juno series from the 80s – and just like a London bus, you wish for one, and two come along at once.
Designing the Future
The new flagship synthesiser from Roland is a delightfully multifaceted affair. On the one hand, we see a large redesign of the previously seen System 1/1m, fitting into a 49-note keyboard, which clearly has far more fascia real estate to play with than the earlier models, immediately making it more appealing and alluring, but while also keeping a sensible footprint. It’s of a similar size to the old JP-8000, mainly thanks to the four octaves, rather than the five sported by its Roland-polysynth forerunners.
The layout feels beautifully familiar, but somehow repetitive. The stark-looking white legend on the black background is very clear to read, but so similar across the board that it might have been a nice touch to differentiate between the various sections with some colour. Granted, once powered up, the green backlights guide your path, but given the roots to the older siblings, which used colour extensively and to great effect, it would have been a nice touch.
A case in point is that I kept reaching for the LFO, thinking that it was Oscillator One, but I guess it could be more down to my lack of familiarity and stupidity… This aside, the other major improvements over the previous system range are to do with the backlighting.
The garish green lights can be very bright, making it tricky to read the legends in dim lighting, so Roland has now initiated a dimming control, allowing the user to tone the brightness down, or even turn it off, although this might cause confusion when entering Plug-Out mode, but I have to say that toning it down makes it very easy to both use and see.
The ‘dancing lights’ can also now be switched off, so no longer do you have to feel like the Aira range is on display in a shop, which I always found a distraction when working with the other Airas. Roland has clearly listened to feedback from customers, and reacted, which is excellent news for all.
Moving to the actual sound of the synth, let’s first consider the System-8 synth engine. This is a very fully spec’d and modern-sounding synth, which appears to be largely the same as the System 1/1m engine, but in an updated form.
Beginning with the two mirrored oscillators, one of the criticisms I levelled at the 1m in my previous review was that Roland introduced additional waveforms to the oscillators, and you were left guessing what was where, as the legends didn’t match the fascia.
Up to a point, this is still the case, but thanks to the two-line LCD display, the selected wave flashes up, by way of confirmation. This is done via two variations; one matching the panel-based legend, but variation two introducing new and interesting options, such as ‘Vowel’ and ‘Cowbell’, the latter appearing to be a version of the tuned-fourth cowbell from the TR-808.
As this System-8 synth is very much in the modern arena, there are selections available for basic Saw and Square waves, and Super Saw/Square incarnations, which ramp and thicken as the ‘colour’ pot is turned. FM is also available, with independent modulation available on each oscillator.
Moving onwards, and another nice touch is the addition of an independent Sub Oscillator, which can be tuned to either match the pitch of the primary oscillators, or dropped by one or two octaves. Wave selection is possible, from either Sine or Triangle, both of which can be tweaked to introduce greater harmonic colour, but curiously, there is no square-wave option possible, leaving the user to make do with the reedy-sounding Triangle. It’s usable, but not a square.
The System-8 engine sounds very similar to those 1/1m older siblings; very modern, bright and brash, thanks to the reasonable collection of waves (particularly the ‘Super’ variety), but everything can be honed and toned to sound more in control and sympathetic. As one would expect, the Filter offers an equally full set of options, with a ‘sharp’ low-pass filter available in 12/18/24dB flavours, and the same available in high-pass mode (although there is a secondary HPF, which is more utilitarian and vanilla in flavour).
Possibly the most interesting enhancement in the filter is the addition of the variation control, which when moved to variation 2, opens up six Side-Band filters, which are designed to enhance and exaggerate the harmonics in a very harsh, almost metallic way. This works particularly well on the richer tonal sources, such as the Super-Saw, giving another level to work with – so much so, you could almost use another LPF to tame things.
Within the filter section, there’s a dedicated ADSR envelope specifically for filter control, along with envelope amount and velocity sensitivity. This is always welcome if you wish to have your keyboard velocities exaggerate the filter cutoff. What’s becoming clear here is that Roland has made everything pretty accessible. I’m not getting that feeling of ‘Shift-press’ that you so often find elsewhere, which is refreshing – and an indication of the real-time control of this synth.
There are other envelopes available, notably for amplitude, with a similar number of amount controls for velocity and tone, but there is also a more basic two-stage AD envelope, which is dedicated to pitch.
This is a useful addition, and thanks to a plus/minus attenuator, the envelope can be inverted easily enough. What’s curious here is that you can always use a third envelope to deploy to such duties as pitch, but it’s notable that within the Oscillator sections, it’s possible to draw modulation from a number of sources, which also include the filter and amplitude envelopes, as well as the simpler pitch envelope.
Again, it’s very well thought out to offer maximum flexibility, which is just want you want in a flagship synth.
While we’re talking about envelopes and oscillators again, there are a number of interesting and usable options available here, in the shape of Ring Mod and Sync; the latter begging for the pitch envelope to be used in that harsh Moog-like way.
Both oscillators have coarse and fine tuning available, and can be nicely nudged to get them to detune, although oddly, they don’t seem to be static in pitch – presumably because repeated notes cycle through the voices, which gives a nice sense of non-digital. There’s also a Cross Modulation control which will modulate the two oscillators together, and will come into play far more, once we enter the realm of the Plug-Out.
A glance at the back panel reveals some interesting additions, too. Apart from the obvious Stereo output, there is also a Stereo input, with a mono input which is switchable between Mic and Line input levels.
This feature is essentially for use with the Vocoder, which is activated by hitting the Vocoder button on the left of the fascia. Delving into the menus, I found a number of parameters for control of the vocoder, which helped to lessen the feedback from sibilance I experienced with levels that were too high in my monitoring. The stereo input would also make this ideal for vocoding a drum machine – a useful device for many artists, from Stevie Wonder to Royksopp.
Also lurking on the rear panel is an SD card slot, the primary purpose of which is for backing up the whole synth, which includes patch and system data. This is a modern-day version of the cassette-tape backup that Roland used many years ago, but without the possibility of tape stretch that used to plague the older system.
As well as the Stereo Audio output, the System-8 offers a full USB connection, supporting both MIDI and audio. The downloadable driver will need to be installed, but once in place, the System-8 will happily talk to your DAW in both MIDI and audio operation in both directions, making sequencing and audio recording a breeze.
In a very marked move to the retro, the back panel also reveals a rather handy CV&Gate output, along with the usual MIDI Ins and Outs. Roland has sensibly made these sockets mini-jack sized, in line with Eurorack (Oct/V), so grabbing a couple of cables, I hooked it up and started to use the System-8 Sequencer to trigger a synth voice within my Eurorack.
Not only is the Sequencer easy to use, but it’s accurate over 10 octaves, and my SE Oscillations had no trouble following the rise and fall of the sequencer, so immediately, I was salivating at the prospect of having a full-size keyboard controller for my Eurorack, which is something of a rarity in the marketplace.
Having the onboard sequencer to call upon is also a real coup in this scenario, made all the better by the fact that the sequencer responds very nicely to an incoming clock trigger. Beautifully exploiting the 16 illuminated buttons on the front panel, the Sequencer immediately kicks into 16-step mode, but offers up to 64 steps of polyphonic sequencing if required.
Placing this into ‘Real Time Rec’ mode immediately invites the inputting of notes by playing the keyboard, but the step input was equally easy to use thanks to the front panel, as steps light up in red to show where you are.
There are six buttons to help with sequencer transport and editing, although further copy-and-paste parameters are to be found in the menu depths, but there’s no doubt the immediacy of the 16 step buttons which illuminate when in play are exceptionally helpful. When not in sequencer mode, these buttons double as an easy way to recall patches, with another nod to the Jupiters and Junos.
Apart from other ubiquitous features, such as LFOs, it’s pretty much what you might expect from a fully functional synth, although I’d say that this has more to offer than many, and certainly in the sense that it’s all on show and instantly obtainable. One noticeable area which is very much available at the touch of a pot is the effects section. Often hidden away in the depths of the menu, the System-8 offers three effects, which largely fall into the categories reverb, delay/chorus and distortion.
These elements are not shared – in fact, they all have their own specific areas, with dedicated pots for FX type, time/tone and level. This is such a useful feature, and for testing I was able to ensure that I was only listening to the guts of the synth, with no icing on top, which was important for where we are going next.
And so to what many will regard as the main event – the Plug-Outs – well actually, at this point in time, it’s singular. The major headline with the System-8 is that it has space for three Plug-Outs to be stored and used at the press of a button without the need to load in from a computer.
But at the time of review, the System-8 shipped with the new Jupiter-8 Plug-Out, with the promise of the Juno-106 Plug-Out due in Spring 2017. Both of these are included in the System-8 price.
So what are these Plug-Outs? In essence, they have previously been like conventional plug-ins that you might use in your DAW or standalone on your computer, but with the added bonus of being available to use within the original Roland System-1/1m, without the need for a computer, and certainly the older plug-outs will soon be available to be used within the System-8 in the same way. In this respect, you can really consider this a proper gigging synth, which will behave in a fully standalone manner.
So far, Roland has impressed us with ACB (Analog Circuit Behaviour) facsimiles of the SH-101, SH-2, Promars and System-100, all of which have been outstandingly accurate when compared to the originals. Now the System-8 brings the Jupiter-8 to life outside of the Boutique that we saw about a year ago, and in doing so, brings to market something that an enormous number of people have wanted to see for some time.
As for the Juno-106, that will be coming soon, along with updates for the original four Plug-Outs mentioned earlier. But what will be different in the System-8 environment is that the Jupiter-8 Plug-Out (and presumably the Juno 106 Plug-Out) will not be available in computer- or DAW-based plug-in formats.
This is apparently down to the complexity of the poly-based algorithm and voice count which current computers and DAW packages would not be able to process efficiently. Whether this will change remains to be seen, but in the meantime, we have a great new take on the Jupiter-8, with more classics to follow. Excited? Well, yes, actually.
So the first thing that I have to hold my hands up to is that I am a Jupiter-8 owner, and have been for the last 31 years. I bought it as a teenager when it was falling out of fashion, and it was my first synth, and as my wife often remarks, my first true love. There’s an element of truth here, as my Jupe and I have been on a long musical journey together, but it is becoming a rather middle-aged lady now, and the prospect of something a little more up-to-date is very enticing to stand alongside it, in case of catastrophic component failure.
Pressing the ‘Plug-Out 1’ button, the Jupiter-8 ACB Plug-Out immediately springs to life, and what’s the first Patch to appear? ‘Jupiter Strings’, of course – full of subtle pitch modulation and a hint of PWM, but with a smattering of FX thrown in for good measure. Well, there’s no doubting that it sounds like a Jupe, but my next plan was to stack the System-8 up against the Jupiter-8 and go right down to the bare bones.
Starting with the basic waveforms from each oscillator, and ensuring that all FX were off, I performed some A/B tests between synths. Apart from the fact that the filter on the System-8 seems to be a little wider open compared to my vintage machine, they sound absolutely identical, and I do mean identical.
To check that I wasn’t kidding myself, I invited an industry friend over to check this with me, and sure enough, we concurred completely that there was nothing between them, and this was right the way across the board; all waveforms, both oscillators.
Next to come under scrutiny was the filter, initially placed in 24dB mode, and to check I wasn’t mis-hearing anything, I used the filter envelope on both machines in order to hear a cutoff sweep, both with and without full resonance. The results were very interesting – the filter itself is again completely indistinguishable from the real thing, but what was interesting was the curve of the envelope.
Being careful to check that there was no third-party element at play here, the ramp of the System-8 was smoother and more linear, with the ramp of the Jupiter-8 being more exponential.
The resonance was again very accurate, but it’s that rise that didn’t sound quite the same; not a million miles away, but not quite the same. Having piqued my interest here, I examined the amplitude envelopes of both machines, to discover the same sort of findings.
In fact, the System-8 generally seems to have longer phases available within all ADR components, which is not entirely a surprise, as I imagine it was a conscious decision to give a little more to System-8 owners.
So having dissected the guts of the Jupiter Plug-Out, next on the cards was to construct a basic patch for comparison, and this was interesting again. The Jupiter, being the analogue beast that it is, has that glorious attribute of placing two oscillators together and hearing them phase immediately.
The System-8, being digital, doesn’t have the same immediacy in the sense that once two oscillators are open, they are very closely matched, so a small amount of fine detuning is necessary to get it to do that thing which a Jupe just does.
But once detuned, man, does it sound like a Jupiter-8 – it’s astonishing how much it sounds like a Jupiter-8. In a blind test, you simply would not be able to tell the difference, which brings me on to the strange feeling that was haunting me throughout these proceedings.
In fairness to this review, I spent a good week playing the System-8, in all ways, before coming to any conclusions, as I really wanted to give it a fair run for its money. I gradually found myself thinking that it didn’t sound like a Jupiter 8 because of the way that it felt to use.
For example, the Jupiter has a long-throw fader for the filter cutoff, yet the System-8 has a pot, and somehow this makes an intrinsic difference to the way that you perceive its sound. I’ve done the tests – it’s more like a Jupe than a Jupiter, yet my brain was telling me that it wasn’t the same…
I can’t explain any further than that, and this factor came into great play when it came to one of the flagship parameters on the original Jupiter, which is that of Cross Modulation. Roland’s answer to the SCI Poly Mod on the Prophet-5, this modulation turns Saws into harshness, and white noise into thunder.
When comparing the machines in the Cross Mod department, I had the same fader-versus-pot feeling, but then I also realised that the System-8/Jupiter oscillators would need to be slightly detuned in order to get them to grate, and sure enough, this was the magic ingredient needed to get it to work.
In an attempt to recreate the analogue nature of the Jupiter, Roland has introduced a clever parameter which is under the hood, but can be programmed at patch level, which is called ‘Condition’.
As you can probably guess, it’s a parameter that will give the System-8 an idea of what level of component degradation it has, and in doing so, will look after some of those detuning issues. It’s a digital concept and not prone to room temperature, but it’s a good compromise on a machine which is the closest thing you are going to get to a new Jupiter, anytime soon.
Looking elsewhere, Roland has included an Arpeggiator on this synth, which is just as well – I think there might have been a revolt if it hadn’t.
The Arpeggiator was omitted from the Boutique version, and much criticism was directed at Roland for this, mainly because it’s considered a part of the Jupe’s makeup and architecture. Many sounds have been created over the years with the arpeggiator, and the Plug-Out is faithful to the last, disregarding the on-fascia legend in favour of the original Jupiter concept, which flashes up on the LCD display.
There are modes for Up, Down, Up & Down and Random, along with a choice of one to four octaves. Strangely, the arpeggiator doesn’t seem to clock to the incoming trigger input, which seems a shame, and may be something that appears in a later software update. For now, clock-trigger syncing is being observed by the onboard sequencer.
In terms of memory allocation, there are 64 patch locations per synth section, so at the time of writing, I had 64 patches available for the System-8 side of the synth, and another 64 for the Jupiter-8. I think we can assume that a further two x 64 would become available, once Plug-Out two and three are in place, so that’s a sensible 256 patch locations onboard. Sequences are also stored at the patch level, which invites a level of integration into a patch: a very nice concept.
When it comes to voice assignment, there are also a tempting number of ‘original’ options available. In System-8 mode, Poly, Mono and Unison modes are all on offer, but in Jupiter Plug-Out mode, the original options are all available, namely Poly 1 & 2, Mono and Unison. Clearly, they all have their place, with Unison stacking all 16 oscillators for that Jupiter power, but requiring the detuning to make it blend.
I was delighted to see Poly 1 & 2 modes; Poly 1 being the de facto option for playing polyphonically, but with Poly 2 assigning the same voices from one chord to the next, meaning that glide will assume the same note formation, as it moves accordingly. Nice touch.
Another Jupiter-ism is that of the stacked or split keyboard, which – thanks to some dedicated buttons – will allow easy assignment of the layering or split capability. These ‘Performances’ are comprised of an Upper and Lower part, in yet another nod to the Jupe, each part being one of the aforementioned patches, and can be made up of any aspect of the entire synth, so the Upper voice could be a System-8 voice, whereas the Lower voice could be one of the Plug-Outs.
These are also easily stored, in another 64 locations, without infringing on the previous Patch locations. Access is as simple as toggling between ‘Patch’ and ‘Performance’ mode and both modes havetheir own dedicated buttons.
The Shape of Things To Come
We have to bear in mind that at this point, we’ve pretty solidly been discussing the System-8 synth engine and the Jupiter-8 Plug-Out, but this in only half the story. Coming in Spring 2017, the Juno-106 Plug-Out will be available and will be free to all System-8 owners –and if it’s anything like as good as the Jupiter-8 Plug-Out, and the other preceding Plug-Outs that we’ve seen from Roland, it’s going to be very good indeed.
I’m guessing that, unlike the Juno-106, this will have access to an arpeggiator, which is something the 6/60 made use of, but was omitted from the 106 in favour of portamento – this would be an immediate bonus.
But also, having three Plug-Out slots means that other Roland recreations can be stored and used at will. All of these Plug-Outs are amazingly good, but I’m particularly excited at the prospect of using the SH-2 Plug-Out, which has become something of a ‘go-to’ synth for my production work, and having the delicious back-lit user interface to work some magic with is very appealing indeed.
Unfortunately, at the time of review, the older Plug-Outs weren’t ready to be installed, so we’re having to wait for an update in order for this to happen, which I imagine won’t be too far away. But just think for a moment! This is a brand-new synth with the possibility of having three vintage classics installed permanently, or swapped around, as the user desires. I’ve got my hopes raised at the prospect of other Roland classics making their way to the System-8 ACB range.
Thanks to the Plug-Out capability, this does rather leave the System-8 out on its own, so let’s consider what other similar synths are available, at the same sort of price point.
An often overlooked machine is the Nord Lead A1, which is one of the latest incarnations of the Lead series, which has long been the flagship synth line from this quality Swedish brand. It’s an analogue modelling synth, so it shares some similarities with the System 8, but if you have a real hankering for an analogue poly, you might want to look out for the Behringer DM12.
Rumoured to be at a price point of under £1,000, this 12-note analogue synth is set to lead the charge in the resurgent interest in affordable analogue polysynths. Initial interest has been great, with good reason… We tried one of the prototype models, back in the summer, and were really impressed by the overall concept and design, and it sounded pretty tasty, too, so we’re looking forward to reviewing one very soon.
Do I Really Need This?
Well, who wouldn’t like a sensibly priced polysynth which is packed full of versatility? What I really like about the System-8 is that it can appeal to so many, for different reasons. If you want something that sounds modern and is full of timbral richness in the shape to SuperSaws et al, you’ve got it, along with a sharp filter which will cut through a mix like a knife.
However, if you want something that can be more considered, the Jupiter-8 Plug-Out will not disappoint.
But if you then take into account the flexibility of the Plug-Out system, and the things that are yet to come (like the Juno 106 Plug-Out) you’ve got a pretty future-proof synth. Add into the equation the notion that it can also act as a good MIDI controller keyboard, and allows control of many aspects of analogue and Eurorack, and you’ve got a hell of a package.
The Final Reckoning
When I first got my hands on the System-8, I felt like the cat that had got the cream, which is always dangerous, as it might not live up to my heightened expectations. Well at first, I was a bit sceptical, but that was largely down to the learning curve of establishing how this machine really works.
Is it fair to say it’s the new Jupiter-8? Well, not really, because they’re different beasts. The Jupiter-8 would be prohibitively expensive to make in the current age, and this is an excellent take on the Jupe’s ideal, taking advantage of everything that modern technology has to offer.
At first, I was slightly underwhelmed by the Jupiter Plug-Out; but then I spent some time working with it, learning how to use it effectively and really getting some great sounds out of it.
This is not a shortcoming, it’s a symptom of an age where we don’t sit down and learn how a synth works properly anymore, which is exactly what I had to do with my own Jupiter for the first six months of ownership.
Above all, you have to enter into a contract with the System-8/Jupiter Plug-Out combo, understanding that it’s a digital recreation, and because of this, it’s best to introduce some variants into proceedings, which would not have been the case with the original, thanks to the unpredictability of the analogue circuitry. If you get past this notion, you’ll be richly rewarded.
The System-8 has been really great to use and is a very powerful and well-equipped pro-level synthesiser. If you heard it on a track, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t a Jupe, but with all the additional features, it’s a powerful creation, just like the original was.
Roland System-8 – Key Features
● Full-size 49-key synthesiser
● Eight-note polyphonic
● Onboard synth including three Plug-Out slots
● Jupiter-8 and Juno -106 Plug-Outs included
● MIDI, USB and CV/Gate
● Arpeggiator, Sequencer and Vocoder built in