AIRA, the lineup that now includes a bassline/sequencer, drum machine, synth, and vocal processor, has in just a few months changed the way a lot of people think about Roland. At Musikmesse in Frankfurt, it was clear that it represents a new direction for Roland, too. The AIRA lineup was displayed separately from the usual Roland booth on the main floor of hall 5 (devoted to pianos), upstairs in hall 5.1 alongside electronic and DJ products (“remix”). And there, crowds gathered to watch pounding dance performances.

Those first four AIRA units are just the beginning. Roland has created an entirely new team called the Roland Professional Group (RPG), and it’s these folks who have built AIRA. They’re not just thinking outside the usual Roland box; they’re physically in a different place. The rest of Roland is located in Hamamatsu, Japan; RPG has their own, hip office near Tokyo’s legendary Akihabara electronics district.

But if Roland is thinking of the future, they also seem to think re-connecting to the past is part of that future – literally. In the neighboring booth for ALEX4, the Berlin-based distributor run by Andreas Schneider (of Schneidersladen fame), Roland execs could be seen squeezing in to catch the latest analog gear.

And Roland was making little secret of showing a new sync box to as many people as they could. The hardware, with various labels blacked out, spent some time synchronizing gear in the AIRA demos, and also made the rounds to interested parties. (In fact, I almost couldn’t talk to anyone at Messe without them telling me Roland had been showing it to them – probably in part because I was hanging around analog builders.)

It’s too soon to know whether the Sync Box will ever see the light of day. It’s an early prototype, sporting some trademark AIRA green paint on the panel, but otherwise far from a finished product. But in another break from Roland tradition, here Roland seemed eager to collect feedback, and see what was necessary to make this box compatible with other gear.

The idea is this: the Sync Box has connections for USB, DIN, control voltage (gate), and MIDI. The controls are then dead-simple: a control on the front panel selects which sync source you want, and then you either slave the rest of your gear to that source, or sync everything to a tap tempo / tempo control with display on the unit. (There are some additional controls to sort out different compatibility issues with various analog gear.)

The upshot: you could combine any gear you like (AIRA or otherwise) with vintage 808s, or a new analog drum machine, or a modular, or your computer, or a combination. And Roland seemed interested in new and old gear as part of the equation; such a device would mean that a Roland-branded product could literally connect their newest and oldest products.

We’ll see where this leads. But there are two revelations here. One is, the RPG inside Roland is able to do things that Roland hadn’t been able to do before. Even if the company wanted to make something like the Sync Box, it might not be as easy to green-light (ahem) the project, let alone show it publicly long before it was done. Two, whatever Roland decides to do, the biggest industry players are taking analog equipment very seriously, following a path trailblazed by independent makers that weren’t on anyone’s radar even a couple of years ago.

(I should add – I’m not revealing any privileged information here. The Sync Box, the RPG, and the shift in industry direction were the talk of the entire show, inside and outside the Roland displays.)

In the meantime, you don’t have to wait for an AIRA to do this kind of sync. Koma Elektronik’s RH301 does DIN and CV and MIDI sync already (missing only USB, though that’s easy to resolve with a USB-MIDI interface). And the RH301 does more than just sync those devices: you can also use various divisions of time, and drive envelopes and LFOs. It solves the “how do I sync everything” question, but also gives you some opportunities to get creative with time. I’m hearing some AIRA owners are already snapping these up.

RH301 – Rhythm Work Station / Utility Tool

And that itself demonstrates what the big players could do for the business. Far from competing directly with boutique makers, they may actually help widen the space for those products.

And who knows; some AIRA owners today may wind up modular buyers tomorrow.