It’s hard out there for a hardware synth. There are all these new-fangled soft synths, capable of producing radical sounds via easy-to-navigate on-screen interfaces. I have a very very short mental list of hardware synths that still matter to me for one reason or another – and the Roland V-Synth GT is one that keeps coming back. I had access to one temporarily for a review. It was like temporarily adopting a puppy. You try not to get too close to the thing, as you know you can’t keep it. The V-Synth is likely out of the budget of a lot of readers of this site, but it’s worth just knowing it’s there, and why it has become so beloved by sound design aficionados.

The V-Synth GT, itself a big upgrade from the original V-Synth, had a major software upgrade this summer that flew under a lot of people’s radar. But now as the days are getting shorter again and people are starting to think sound design, I hope we can give the V-Synth GT some attention as an instrument. It has inspired me even in my software work, just to see the perspective of the engineers at Roland and how the device is programmed.

First, a few notes about what the V-Synth GT is about – something I’m sure you’d like explained, given its US$3000 street price.

The experience of using the V-Synth is really different from a lot of the synths out there. You don’t get this sense of the excess of some of the workstations, the stuff you don’t need. You just get a whole bunch of toys for sound design, which combine in unusual ways that feel really playable but can also be warped to produce far-out results:

  • Its AP “Articulative Phrase” synthesis method is really unusual, mimicing the organic qualities of how instruments respond in attack, note transition, and tuning. That’s fascinating enough, but the ability to get at some of these AP principles and create hybrid instruments is what makes the GT worth using.
  • The COSM models of favorite vintage Roland gear are decent enough on their own, but the ability to combine them in semi-modular routings helps the GT shine.
  • You can manipulate audio on the device in some unique ways, with real-time pitch and tempo stretching of loops and phrases, which can then be resampled. Okay, sure, your copy of Ableton Live can do this, but the experience of doing it on hardware – alongside the other V-Synth synthesis features – is unique.
  • It samples external sources, which you can edit on the touchscreen, and routes external audio through onboard effects, including the Vocal Designer vocoder / voice modeler.
  • It has lots of control, from the easy-to-navigate color screen to D-Beam controller and the signature X/Y pad.

In other words, it’s really a Roland synth studio in a box. My 2007 review for Keyboard Magazine explains what all of this is like in practice.

From the software perspective, the V-Synth embodies a lot of what I admire about Roland. “Articulative Phrase” synthesis really isn’t a synthesis method in the conventional sense – it’s fair to say it’s a collection of tricks they’ve developed for making their instruments sound good. But coming from the hardware background, working in extreme memory constraints we no longer consider on computers, they’ve had to use tremendous economy with their sound designs. And rather than focusing on a “press a button” approach to sound, they’ve really built responsiveness and change into all of the onboard controllers, something that software sound programmers could, frankly, use.

So, that’s the V-Synth GT as released. But the V-Synth has gotten some significant updates, including 64-bit drivers for Windows and, most importantly, a massive 2.0 OS update.

2.0: More Sounds, More Sampling, More Sound Design

  • Import WAV and AIFF directly from USB key, making this more useful as a sample manipulator
  • More sounds: Two new sound sets, new patches combining the V-Synth’s various sound shaping abilities, and a third sound set that’s a collection of vintage analog synths from various makers – including the entire Roland back catalog
  • More sound design options: new arpeggiation styles, new step modulator templates, and effects ported from the Fantom G

Demo video from Roland, via Synthtopia:

Who’s Using It

I recently spoke to Roland’s Dan Krisher about the V-Synth. His thoughts:

There are many uses for the V-Synth GT, but the V-Synth GT has been exceptionally embraced by the sound design community.  For example, Richard Devine creates sample libraries, from drum loops to intricate soundscapes, and the V-Synth GT is one of his main tools.  The way the menus are built, it is very easy to get started making unique sounds right away.  Players aren’t limited to the sounds inside the V-Synth GT either—any instrument can be plugged directly into the V-Synth GT.  The instrument’s signal can be run through the GT’s synth AND effects engines.

Another popular use for the V-Synth GT is for people who are just looking for a huge-sounding synth to play live.  There are a wealth of real-time controllers such as the D-Beam and front-panel knobs, that allow you to tweak sound in real time.  The Vocal designer allows players to add to a vocal performance with harmonies on a whole different level than was possible before.

Now, of course, this is the usual spiel you get from hardware makers, but this is one of the cases in which my anecdotal experience with users backs up what he’s saying.

Dan also said that the 2.0 update really grew out of user feedback, which makes sense. The V-Synth GT doesn’t get as much attention as a lot of other synths out there – even Roland themselves tend to focus more on their Fantom and JUNO – but the V-Synth’s user base, both users of the original and the GT, is really fiercely loyal.

V-Synth GT Videos

There are some really quite amusing videos of the V-Synth GT out there. Now, don’t necessarily judge the sound of the synth from all of these videos – I was able to push it in ways that didn’t sound like conventional Roland synth sounds, too. (And no, I don’t know why some marketing videos – not the ones I’m listing here, but you know who you are – have to be so cheezy.)

Updated: To really get a sense of the extraordinary sounds that can come out of the V-Synth series, you need to watch the 2003 debut video of the original V-Synth at NAMM. Six years later, nothing in hardware has touched this. And keep in mind, the GT has added a lot of sonic tools that the original didn’t have, so imagine this going even further. (Thanks to James Y for finding this, and Roland, please let’s see more videos like this!)

Is there a word for ear-dropping? (And this is YouTube audio quality…)

Tatsuya Nishiwaki, hilariously, confesses he can’t resist turning the V-Synth into an electric guitar as he does other synths, and then parties like it’s 1989. That name will be familiar to fans of Japanese music – he’s a major keyboard player in Japan, along with working with some big names here Stateside, after starting as a founding member of the band PAZZ. (More videos, direct from Roland.)

The best place to get a sense of the V-Synth GT in action is to watch Jordan Rudess playing it:

Jordan Rudess V-Synth GT Demos, Roland Video Library

Rudess is a tremendously skilled player, but there is a certain conventional sound to Roland keyboards here and, perhaps even more so, in the other demos. You’ll just have to take my word for it that if you abuse some combinations of sounds, you can take the V-Synth in another direction. Here’s what the interface looks like, again via Synthtopia. Now just imagine turning knobs past the places you’re supposed to, and routing things wrong!

And, because we can laugh at what we love, one comic strip, drawn for the awesome blog Wire to the Ear by the site’s creator, Oliver Chesler:

Funny and true – but only if you’re just trying to sound like a Jupiter-8. The nice thing about the V-Synth is that it really can sound unlike anything else, once properly pushed out of its comfortable preset zone to its extremes.

V-Synth GT Users?

One V-Synth user talks about the synth’s ability to produce “wild sounds” and demonstrates some of his own creations on YouTube. He concludes – news to me – that “I do not understan why owners are selling them for $800.”

Umm… Actually, yeah. The V-Synth is really, really awful. You don’t want it. You want to sell it to me for $800, or even less. (Maybe these are users of the original upgrading to the GT, so desperate to get the new model they’re unloading the original dirt cheap?)

I really can imagine the V-Synth GT as a desert island hardware synth. I’m curious to hear from users of either the V-Synth or V-Synth GT. Got sound design techniques you’ve discovered? Raves – or rants – you’d like to pass along to Roland?

Let us know.

And yeah, I know – now that I’ve done this, we need someone to write a love ode to Kyma.

V-Synth GT [warning – Roland annoyingly makes their websites make lots of noise without asking]

2.0 Update Download