I liked the SH-201 when released – the accessible front panel of that synth, which exposes synth parameters as physical knobs, made it fun to use, and sure enough, a lot of folks snapped them up. But likable as it was, the SH-201 somehow lost some of the spirit of the SH-101 its name suggested, partly because it’s so, well, big. It was neither as compact nor as logically laid out as the original.

Enter Roland’s new SH-01, and exhibit B that this year, Roland is listening. It’s a small but playable-looking, fun-packed little synth keyboard. And while the front panel on the SH-201 made some questionable decisions deviating from the wisdom of the SH-101, the Gaia SH-01 actually does take some of the best of its predecessor. The front panel it even organized the same way: from left to right, you control modulation, oscillators, and amplitude envelope. The SH-01 replaces the awkward controls to the left of the 101’s keyboard with a standard Roland pitch/mod paddle, and adds newer features like easy preset access, D-Beam, and an effects section.

The specs:

  • 37 full-size keys (no tiny keys as on certain KORG models)
  • Three virtual-analog engines, each with dedicated oscillator, filter, amp, envelope, and LFO, plus 64 polyphonic voices. (Yep, this is a digital synth, not a retro analog offering.)
  • Multi-effects: reverb, distortion, fuzz, bit crash, flanger, phaser, pitch shifter, low boost, delay with panning, and tempo sync. Layer up to five simultaneously, which is about all you’d want. (I believe those are actually now the COSM effects, but I’m double checking.)
  • External audio input and USB connection for playback – but, really, you can’t run the external input through the effects section? It’s just for playing along?
  • Arpeggiator, phrase recorder and independent controller playback – taking a page from the success of the entry-level KORG gear, for sure.
  • Less than 10 lbs.

Availability: May.
Pricing: US$799 suggested retail.

Taken together, I think Roland has a worthy rival to some of KORG’s gear at around the same price point. And it looks like a no-brainer to choose this over the larger SH-201. I love the panel layout; I think it just comes down to sound. And it’s a little sad that they couldn’t nail the sub-$500 price that made the original microKORG such a big hit, even if that would have meant cutting some corner. The folks I know at Roland have had a blast playing with it. And yes, that means something – just because you work for a company doesn’t mean you always enjoy it. I do look forward to trying it out. Keyboards like this are very often what get people hooked on synthesis and electronic music, and you’ll also find one or two sneaking into some high-end, celebrity studios for their playability factor.

Last question: why is it called GAIA? I don’t know. (Makes me think of Paia.)

More photos, plus Roland’s official videos:

Click for full-sized image of the back.

GAIA SH-01 Product Page [Roland US]

Official videos (happily, not nearly as awkward as the apparently self-satirizing AX-09 vids):

  • A tad pricey for a mono-timbral VA. But it has to be said, this is tempting. Typical Roland though, looks like there's one glaring drawback: 8×8 selection buttons means only 64 sounds at once? No display? Would a dot-matrix with preset up/down buttons have been SO much more expensive??

  • mp

    Seems like a nice little synth – love the logical layout.

    Btw Casimir, it's tri-timbral.

  • Stuart

    Lack of multitimbrality aside (it's only multitimbral if it can respond to multiple MIDI channels). This looks great. If it sounds good and is fun to program who cares about the lack of more modern features. No one puts the Juno down for not being multitimbral or for not having a "proper" display.

    That said it would have been cool if there were a little more in the way of cross patching between layers.

  • Thanks for the correction mp, I suppose that means three parts with one osc each? That's the litmus test of any synth ( especially VAs): how good the oscs sound by themselves…

  • Adrian A

    Looks very similar to my JP-8000. Not bad. They seem to have dropped the VSTi integration from the SH-201…

    Too bad considering this synth might actually be WORTH having such integration.

    Whatever. Its a nice evolution, but they are still trailing behind KORG in terms of innovation.

  • Vehical Driver

    Why the limited number of oscillator waveforms? One of the great things about virtual analog is that you could pack in thousands of single-cycle waves, in addition to the sine, sawtooth, etc.?

  • Jake

    I can see one issue straight away: absolute controls for nearly all the parameters. Unless they get the pick up modes spot on (which i'd be very surprised given the inherent issues with any form of pick up system) then there's going to be issues with value jumping etc when switching to adjust another oscillator…

  • Aaron

    most ppl actually prefer pots instead of encoders for value editing, see the redo the prophet `08 for example due to mass complaints about the encoders.

  • deamras

    Could buy it with a vst integration and ability to process external audio. Mopho keyboard with such layout would be a dream.

  • Jake

    @ Aaron,

    I know that people prefer pots in many situations, hell I do when they're 1:1 mapped, but looking at this the absolute pots and faders operate on a 1:3 basis which 'could' have an impact on live tweaking etc. Also when programming patches into this people are going to have to be careful as when you switch oscillators all the faders and pots are going to be in the wrong place. Given that there's no visual feedback in relation to settings its going to be a little trial and error when it comes to trying to find where they're actually set which could be frustrating/an issue with finely tuned patches…

  • ed

    yawn…. seems like moog, virus, dave smith, nord are really the only synths i would ever even consider..save your money! using software synths are way cooler anyhow..( you can get just as fat sounds out of soft synths)

  • Polite

    Jake – if you are tweaking it live, surely you will already have an idea of any jumping it's going to do from practicing. You can compensate for it or just make it part of your sound.

    Ed – I don't sit there and play with my soft synths like I do my hardware synths. Yes soft synths are cheaper, generally more powerful, and sound just as good, but they aren't as fun to use.

  • How does this compare to the Korg R3?

  • ed

    @polite with live i have endless options especially with max..hardware is fun but its has limitations..would love to have a moog though

  • Jonathan

    Too expensive for today's market.

  • HEXnibble

    The only thing I like about it is the accessible front panel. It seems intuitive and fun to play with. But it's still too big for my needs. It would be perfect in my eyes if it had the same form factor as the microKontrol with 37 mini-keys but with this front panel controls. Oh, and it should be sub-$500 for me to even consider it.

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