ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE AIRA SYSTEM-1 PLUGOUT SYNTHESIZER
In 1973, Roland released the SH-1000 synthesizer that would set off a journey that continues to this day. Analog monosynths evolved into multi-oscillator modular synthesizers that shifted into the golden age of polyphonic analog synthesizers. The 80’s saw the birth of digital synthesizers with Roland pushing the envelope of digital synthesizer design that evolved into the successful AIRA range – instruments inspired by Roland’s legacy but utilising the technology of the future.
In the spirit of its predecessors (SYSTEM-100, SYSTEM-100M and SYSTEM-700), the SYSTEM-1 breaks new ground with remarkable flexibility. It’s the worlds first Plug-Out synth, which gives access to plug-in versions of legendary Roland synths that can be hosted in the SYSTEM-1 without a computer.
This Ultimate Guide to the AIRA SYSTEM-1 PLUG-OUT SYNTHESIZER breaks down each section of the synthesizer and shows you how to get the most out of your SYSTEM-1 on stage and in the studio.
Contributed by Hannah Lockwood for the Roland Australia Blog
TIP #1: CHOOSE ONE OF TWELVE OSCILLATOR WAVEFORMS TO CREATE A WORLD OF SOUNDS
TIP #2: MASTER OSCILLATOR MODULATION TO CREATE COMPLEX SYNTH TONES
TIP #3: MIX SOME DEPTH TO YOUR SOUND WITH SUB-BASS AND NOISE
TIP #4: CONTROL THE BRIGHTNESS OF YOUR SYNTH PATCH WITH THE MULTIMODE FILTER
TIP #5: USE THE AMP ENVELOPE TO SHAPE THE VOLUME OF EACH NOTE
TIP #6: CREATE SPACE AND TEXTURE WITH CRUSHER, REVERB AND DELAY
TIP #7: MASTER MOVEMENT WITH LFO MODULATION
TIP #8: ADD EXPRESSION TO YOUR NOTES WITH PITCH MODULATION
TIP #9: CREATE EVOLVING MELODIC AND RHYTHMIC PATTERNS WITH THE ARPEGGIATOR AND “SCATTER”
TIP #10: STEP BACK INTO ROLAND’S HISTORY AND “PLUG-OUT” AN ICONIC SYNTHESISER
TIP #11: SAVE, EDIT AND RECALL UP TO 128 KILLER SYNTH PATCHES
TIP #12: MIDI IS YOUR KEY TO MASTER YOUR SYNTH RIG
The SYSTEM-1 PLUG-OUT Synthesizer has two oscillators (OSC 1 and OSC 2) with each oscillator having 12 waveforms! This provides you with the ability to stack similar waveforms for a thick bass or lead, or combine different waveforms for different pitch ranges selected by the six-position OCTAVE (feet) knob.
The WAVE knob shows six waveforms on the SYSTEM-1 synthesizer; SAW, SQUARE and TRIANGLE are the traditional wave shapes used in most synthesizers. However, there are three unique waveforms with the same character as the first three waveforms with additional harmonics: SUPER-SAW, SUPER-SQUARE AND SUPER-TRIANGLE.
In the Version 1.2 System Update, the SYSTEM-1 gets six new waveforms for even more sounds to add to your arsenal. These new waveforms provide a great palette for creating modern electronic sounds that add to the classic six original waveforms.
The six new waveforms are:
- NOISE SAW: The Noise Saw takes the traditional sawtooth to another level with the introduction of noise giving a brighter, brassier sound with a fuller bass response when using LPF cutoff.
- LOGIC OPERATION: A logic operation refers to a gate signal, switched high or low (on or off) based on a mathematical function. There are a number of logic operations that you may have seen in modular synth world as OR, AND, NAND, XOR… there are many more. In synthesis, these gates provide a semi-random on/off signal for triggering envelopes or can mix signals, including oscillators, to create a unique complex waveform. This LOGIC OPERATION waveform in the SYSTEM-1 features a novel cascaded logic circuit that mixes multiple waveforms to create a special synth tone unique to this AIRA synthesizer.
- FREQUENCY MODULATION: There are a number of ways to control the pitch of an oscillator: one of which is by using another oscillator to modulate the frequency of another. You can use an LFO for vibrato effects or use an audio-rate oscillator for FREQUENCY MODULATION – also called FM.As the pitch of the modulating oscillator rises (i.e. frequency of the wave gets faster), a very complex waveform is produced which contains overtones normally not available from the original oscillator. These can be harmonic overtones that are great for deep basslines, or non-harmonic overtones that provide metallic, bell-like sounds. The SYSTEM-1 make this complex synthesis process easy with a range of sounds controlled by one knob: COLOR.
- FM + SYNC: This waveform combines the same synthesis method as above, Frequency Modulation, but applies uses oscillator sync with the FM oscillator to produce a more harmonic waveform. Waveform synchronization, or “sync”, is a process of modulating a high frequency waveform to generate a thick, aggressive harmonic synth tone. Combined with FM, it can produce a range of harmonics when sweeped for build-ups and crescendos.
- VOWEL: This formant waveform uses a series of waveforms and complex filtering to mimic the human voice. The COLOR knob sweeps through a series of vowel-like modulations from “A” to “U” of each oscillator. Modulating the COLOR knob with an envelope or LFO via the MOD switch creates some expressive and interesting synth-voices.
- COWBELL: The cowbell has become an iconic drum machine sound courtesy of the Roland TR-808. This metallic waveform is also now part of the twelve oscillator waveshapes in the SYSTEM-1 synthesizer. This unique tone now has a suite of controls; add delay and long release for cowbell/pad like sounds or use a snappy amplifier envelope with an arpeggio for a pitched percussive line that you can match, or syncopate, with your rhythm track.
To access the six additional waveforms, hold down the [LEGATO] button and turn the OSC 1 or OSC 2 knob.
The shape of the waveform is a foundation in which you build your synth tone. Modulating, or creating movement of the waveform, provides an evolution of the synth tone by adding and subtracting harmonics. Shallow depth of modulation creates subtle, expressive variations whereas large modulation depth creates aggressive, dissonant tones. Using one, or a number of modulation types, allows you to shape the sound that you want.
Detuning is a technique where you change the pitch of one oscillator relative to another. This can be done by a few cents, sharp or flat, to create a thicker, chorus-like sound. Or spread the tuning out to a harmonic interval (fifths are a good starting point). This is a favourite synth technique with saw waves for an iconic detuned lead tone.
PULSE WIDTH MODULATION (PWM)
Each waveform has a shape that repeats with each cycle. The symmetry or “width” of this shape is a source of modulation, with an envelope or LFO, with square/pulse waveforms a classic combination. This is Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) however; waveform width modulation can yield interesting textures for a number of different shapes.
The source and rate of modulation is important in mastering this synth technique. Slow sinewave sweeps can add subtle dynamic movement to a drone or a S&H LFO can produce a randomized evolving tone synced to tempo.
The COLOR knob in the SYSTEM-1 controls the depth of the width modulation with different modulation sources. These include LFO, any of three envelopes (PITCH, FILTER and AMP) or SUB OSC.
Cross-modulation is a technique where two (or more) oscillators modulate each other. The output of one oscillator modulates the pitch of a second, which in turn modulates the first. This bi-directional modulation creates a complex waveform that can reach dissonance very quickly.
The ring modulator is a circuit that “multiplies” the frequencies of OSC 1 and OSC 2, creating an output signal result that contains no original input frequencies. The output contains the sum and difference of the input signals, which produces “sidebands” resulting in a complex harmonic sound that greatly differs from the original.
To access the coarse tuning mode for oscillator 2, hold down [SYNC] and [RING MOD], then set the interval using the SCATTER [TYPE] dial.
OSCILLATOR SYNCHRONIZATION (SYNC)
Sync involves using one oscillator to “reset” another oscillator, shifting the waveshape cycle to zero. This reset in turn creates a new waveform, with new peaks (or added harmonics), that provides a characteristic “ripping” or “tearing” sync tone. When the oscillator sync is lit, OSC 2 is slaved to OSC 1, while the Pitch Envelope moves to the slave oscillator.
The mixer section of the SYSTEM-1 not only blends OSC 1 and OSC 2 to create the right sound mix but it also has two additional sound sources to add some dimension to your patch.
The SUB-OSCILLATOR has two pitch options: -1 octave or -2 octave below OSC 1, which is set using the OSC TYPE button. The sub-octave is a triangle waveform and is most commonly used to fill out the bottom-end of a patch.
The NOISE source has a level control and [NOISE TYPE] where you can choose between pink or white. This sound source is useful for percussive sounds especially when using a series of gates from a sequencer.
The Voltage Controlled Filter (VCF) in the SYSTEM-1 has two modes to control the brightness of the synth sound. Mastering a number of controls gives you a range of expression on the timbre of your patch and is a skill that synthesists spend years perfecting.
The VCF gives you a choice of LPF (controlled via TYPE [slope], CUTOFF and RESO) and HPF (CUTOFF only). High RESONANCE settings boost the signal around the CUTOFF frequency. At full RESONANCE, the boost is with so much emphasis that the VCF can produce its own sine wave like tone. This can be used to great effect in layering a pitched tone from the VCF on top of melody/sequencer lines.
An ADSR envelope is another way to control the brightness by modulating the CUTOFF FREQUENCY. The [ENV] knob controls the depth of inverted (-) and non-inverted (+) envelope shapes. The ADSR sliders allow you to shape the filter’s response to the incoming signal and enables you to manipulate the characteristics of the filter’s cutoff and resonance response. Try a slow attack for a sound that gradually rises the cutoff frequency over time.
The [KEY] knob (KEYBOARD FOLLOW) uses the pitch of the notes to control the CUTOFF FREQUENCY. When turning the knob towards the right, the CUTOFF frequency becomes higher with the higher notes and lower with the lower notes when turned left.
Every instrument, from mallet-based xylophones to the bowed strings of a violin have a characteristic “shape” to its volume when played. Studying the attack, decay and release of different sounds will give you an idea of how to use an amp ADSR envelope to shape the volume of each note/chord played on the SYSTEM-1 synthesizer.
An envelope requires a TRIGGER or GATE signal to begin the ADSR cycle. In the SYSTEM-1 synthesizer, each time a key is pressed (or note played on the arpeggiator), a GATE signal is sent to the amp envelope. When the key is down, the GATE is on and the ATTACK, DECAY and SUSTAIN phase of the ADSR shapes the amplifier volume. When the key is released, the GATE is off and the RELEASE phase of the ADSR finishes the volume modulation.
The SYSTEM-1 synthesizer contains three effects to provide space and texture to your synth patch. The CRUSHER creates a textured effect from digital bit-depth/sample-rate reduction. This effect allows for tuning to emphasise certain harmonics in a melody or can be taken to the extreme for complete disharmonic destruction.
The spatial effects of REVERB and DELAY make all the difference to a synthesizer patch. The large stereo hall reverb and clean delay are great for adding width to a chord pad or for syncopated delay repeats on an arpeggio. Resonator-type effects are on hand with short delay times, and long delay time adds that extra level of expression to lead synth lines.
As in Tip #2, the LFO of the SYSTEM-1 is great for modulating the width of the oscillator waveform for dynamic tone shifts. However, the LFO can modulate multiple parameters simultaneously and understanding how the LFO adds expression to your patch is key to mastering synthesis.
The LFO has six waveforms available with a wide RATE range that goes up into audio-rate to create tones reminiscent of ring-modulation & FM synthesis. The LFO waveforms include:
- Sample & Hold
- Random (smooth S&H)
Modulation of OSC 1 and OSC 2, VCF and VCA via the LFO allows for PITCH (vibrato), FILTER (cutoff sweep) and AMP (tremolo) effects, or a combination of each. Turning the PITCH, FILTER or AMP knob to the right controls the depth of modulation. Turning the knob to the left uses an inverted LFO waveform with depth increasing at the knob’s minimum. Using a mix of inverted and standard LFO modulation adds another dimension to the movement of your patch.
The SYSTEM-1 synthesizer has many features to give your notes some pitch movement. Envelopes, pitch wheel, portamento are just a few functions and techniques to master to add your own style to your sound.
Portamento creates a smooth change in pitch between one key and the next key played. The [PORTAMENTO] knob adjusts the time required for the pitch change. Legato provides further control over “pitch glide”. The [LEGATO] button applies portamento only when you play legato (i.e., when you press the next key before releasing the previous key). Using a combination of the two provides expressive pitch control with your playing.
When activating legato mode, the amp and filter sections perform monophonically but still maintain four-voice polyphony. In mono and unison modes, the envelopes are not retriggered
Another method to alter the pitch whilst playing is by using the PITCH ENVELOPE. Pressing any key/s triggers the attack-decay envelope. When turning the [ENV] knob toward the right, the pitch initially becomes higher and then returns to the pitch of the pressed key. To the left, the pitch drops, then returns to the initial pitch. The ATTACK and DECAY sliders shape the depth of modulation.
The PITCH BEND jog shuttle provides control over pitch expression with your left-hand while playing. The jog shuttle has a centre-position with no pitch modulation – turned to the right increases the pitch and to the left, decreases pitch.
OCTAVE SHIFT BUTTONS
The OCTAVE [DOWN] [UP] button shifts the range of the keyboard in steps of one octave. The button is lit for the one octave setting; the button is blinking for the 2 octave setting, and blinks faster for the 3 octave setting. If you press the [DOWN] [UP] buttons simultaneously, the keyboard will return to its normal pitch range.
- The SCATTER LEDs (1–10) indicate the amount of transposition (1–11). (LEDs 10 and 1 light simultaneously to indicate 11.)
- All unlit (OFF) when turned to the far left
The [MOD] button, next to the OCTAVE buttons, triggers pitch modulation (vibrato) when held. By holding down the [MOD] button and operating the LFO section, you can adjust the MOD depth. The [FADE TIME] knob sets the amount of time until the vibrato kicks in, and [RATE] allows you to adjust the speed of the swell.
The SYSTEM-1 features an Arpeggiator with six different ARP types – Up, Down, and Up + Down, each across 1 or 2 octaves. There are also six different steps from 1/4 – 1/16T, which will divide your arpeggio pattern by varying clock divisions. Try a variety of ARP TYPE and ARP STEP combinations to find the right pattern for your sound!
SCATTER THOSE ARPS!
The SCATTER function allows you to rephrase the arpeggio pattern being played by changing the response of certain parameters of the arpeggiator. The SCATTER dial hosts 10 different SCATTER types and each one will affect your pattern in new and interesting ways!
Each SCATTER mode affects a different combination of parameters to produce your one arpeggio with a range of variations. When the [ARPEGGIO] button is activated (and the inner SCATTER dial (1-10) is set), the outer jog wheel becomes a depth control for the SCATTER type. When the wheel is at 12 o’clock, no SCATTER will be applied to the Arpeggio pattern. Turning the outer wheel left (- negative) or right (+ positive) applies TEN different stages of depth to the pattern. All of the affected parameters flash when in use, while the unaffected parameters remain lit only. As more depth is applied, these parameters become more intense and otherworldly.
Mastering the SCATTER function on the SYSTEM-1 is a sure way to get the most out the synth. Practice using the wheel as a subtle or extreme performance element for a live set, or use it to add character and complexity to a composition. These experiments will take you to places you would never have envisioned.
Through the new PLUG-OUT technology, the SYSTEM-1 can control and host software reproductions of legendary Roland synthesizers. To access the PLUG-OUT mode, simple press the [PLUG-OUT] button on the SYSTEM-1. All controls that do not relate to that particular PLUG-OUT will “black out” making it easier to shape your PLUG-OUT sounds.
The SH-101 PLUG-OUT is a contemporary recreation of the iconic SH-101 synthesiser. ACB (Analogue Circuit Behaviour) technology faithfully reproduces both the sound and behaviour of the original synth. The PLUG-OUT software gives you the freedom of hardware gear alongside the reliability and the flexibility of software. You now get the sound of the original SH-101, with more control and additional features like the reverb, chorus, delay, and bit crusher effects, which were not present in the original design. You can use these effects to take the SH-101 sound into new and unchartered places.
If you are using multiple versions of the SH-101 VST in your DAW, you can use the variety of coloured skins to differentiate between the individual sounds.
The SYSTEM-100 PLUG-OUT is a modern reproduction of the classic 1975 semi-modular monosynth. This software synthesizer perfectly integrates into the SYSTEM-1 hardware. In the software, connecting cables between the patch points enables you to alter the signal path and modulate various parameters. The new Pin Routing Matrix provides a visual representation of the connections, making it easier and quicker to patch away.
Discover the other PLUG-OUTS like the PROMARS and SH-2 HERE.
[SOUNDS OF THE ROLAND SOFTWARE SYNTHESIZERS]
The [MANUAL] button provides a start point from which you can create new patches. If you are the type to avoid presets, this is the where you should begin! It can be particularly handy for live performance, if you want to create a new patch on the fly. To set the Manual start point, first ensure that the [MANUAL] button is lit, and then start to create and shape your sound.
You can then save your custom sound to a new user bank, by holding down the corresponding memory button (1-8).
The SYSTEM-1 has eight banks, with eight presets in each bank, allowing you to store up to 64 patches! To access these banks, hold the [SYSTEM-1] button and then select a User Bank from 1-8. Your selected bank will quickly flash and once the [SYSTEM-1] button is released, you are able to use memory buttons 1-8 to select a preset.
The saved PLUG-OUT also has eight banks of eight presets giving you a total of 128 monophonic and polyphonic sounds available at a press of a button. However only one PLUG-OUT can be saved onto the SYSTEM-1 at a time so choose wisely!
The SYSTEM-1 Software Synthesizer acts as both a DAW plug-in and librarian to create, save and get patches.
Take a patch from the SYSTEM-1 Software Synthesizer, and with your SYSTEM-1 connected in your DAW, press EXPORT. Once you have exported the patch from your computer to your SYSTEM-1, you are able to unplug the synth from the computer and the plug-in becomes a completely functional hardware synth.
When the SYSTEM-1 is attached by USB, the PLUG-OUT becomes a traditional plug-in within your DAW. The SYSTEM-1 hardware now acts as a controller, with the audio signal routing to your DAW. You are also able to use the software synth as a regular VST in your DAW, without the hardware.
Using the SYSTEM-1 Software Synthesizer as a Librarian allows you to build a library of sounds using the software and load them into the SYSTEM-1. To save a patch into your computer, connect it to the SYSTEM-1 via USB. Open the SYSTEM-1 software and press [GET] to load in the active patch from your SYSTEM-1. You can then save this patch to your Library, by selecting an empty slot and pressing [WRITE]. To send a patch from your Library to the SYSTEM-1, select the patch in your Library, select the desired memory slot on the SYSTEM-1 and click [SEND].
ALWAYS REMEMBER TO BACKUP!
To backup and restore data, hold down the [ARPEGGIO] button and turn the power on. Then connect your computer to the SYSTEM-1’s USB port via a USB cable. The drive that appears on your computer will contain two folders – BACKUP and RESTORE. To backup data from the SYSTEM-1, copy the SYSTEM-1 memory files from the BACKUP folder onto your computer. If a PLUG-OUT is loaded, there will be the additional PLUG-OUT files in the backup directory. To restore data, copy the SYSTEM-1 memory files from your computer to the ‘RESTORE’ folder.
Getting your SYSTEM-1 to control other pieces of your synth setup, control your DAW and keep in sync with other instruments is possible through MIDI. Use the settings below to make your life easier, in the studio and on stage.
To access the MIDI control options of the SYSTEM-1, hold down the [SYSTEM-1] and the [PLUG-OUT] buttons and turn the [TYPE] dial.
- When LED dial 2 is blinking the device is set to Local On, which allows the SYSTEM-1 to produce sound through any operation, including external MIDI messages.
- When LED dial 1 is blinking, the device is set to Local off, which produces sound only through external MIDI message.
- You are also able to set your SYSTEM-1 to operate only as a MIDI controller when LED dial 3 is blinking. This means that the SYSTEM-1 will not produce any sound and will only output MIDI information.
You can synchronise the SYSTEM-1 to the MIDI Clock of another external device through the MIDI IN of the SYSTEM-1. Alternatively, you can use the SYSTEM-1 as the Master Clock, from which you can sync external gear.
To set the MIDI Clock, hold down the [SYSTEM-1] button while you power on the device. If memory button  is unlit, the Internal setting is activated. This means the SYSTEM-1 will operate at its own specified tempo, and prevents the device from synchronising to other external devices.
When button  is lit, the SYSTEM-1’s tempo will automatically sync to any USB or MIDI Clock input. If there are active inputs in both, the USB will take priority over the MIDI input. Press the [ARPEGGIO] button to save these MIDI settings.
The SYSTEM-1 is capable of MIDI Thru and this is set with button . As you do when setting the MIDI clock, you access this setting by holding down the [SYSTEM-1] button whilst powering on the device. When button  is lit, ON is activated, and the information received from the MIDI IN will be retransmitted from the MIDI Thru. MIDI Thru OFF is indicated by button  being unlit. This setting will not re-transmit MIDI data.
NOW RECORD THAT MIDI!
Connecting the SYSTEM-1 to a computer via USB enables you to record MIDI information into your DAW. Furthermore, you are able to send recorded MIDI data from your DAW into the SYSTEM-1 interface.
To set the MIDI transmit/receive channel, hold down the [SYSTEM-1] button whilst turning on the device. The SCATTER LEDs represent the MIDI channel number and the TYPE dial sets the MIDI channel. When LED 1 is lit, the device’s MIDI channel is set to 1. To set channels 11-16, continue to turn the [TYPE] dial, until LEDs 10 and 1-6 are simultaneously alight.
When all LEDs are lit, the device is set to OMNI mode. In this mode, all MIDI messages are active across all channels (1-16). The MIDI transmit channel will default to 1.