A glance at the enlightening synth chronicle that Roland published earlier this year shows they haven't exactly been asleep at the wheel since the late '70s. There have been previous resurrection attempts of the early brands with the SH-201, Juno-GI and Jupiter-50/80—which, despite their monikers, were mostly rooted in 2000s-era Roland synth brains. The AIRA series seems to have really woken people up, though, likely because it's the first time that the Japanese gear lab really got serious about recapturing the sound of its analog flagships.
Starting with the SYSTEM-1 hardware, it's clear from the get-go that late-'70s Roland designs are a strong influence in the layout. With no screen, the SYSTEM-1 hides very few secrets behind the curtain. The signal flows from left to right, much like it did in those early synths—from two oscillators to the mixer (where noise and sub-oscillator can be added), with modulation via pitch envelope. From there, it's sent through the filters (one low-pass and one high-pass) and the amp section, which also houses a bitcrusher and a somewhat-ambiguous tone control. The signal finally ends up in the effects section, with reverb and delay offered to sweeten things up. I would have opted to swap the bitcrusher with a distortion, but Roland's choice here is in line with their attempts to maintain a modern edge to supplement the vintage foundation.
The SYSTEM-1 has other design choices that remind you that, despite the vintage sound engineering, this is indeed a synth rooted in Roland's futuristic vision. If the glowing green backlight on every control doesn't spell this out for you, the lack of a classic combination pitchbend/modwheel should solidify the point. In its place is a circular jog wheel that looks like an odd union of a rotary phone dialer and a combination lock. The outer jog wheel serves as a pitchbend control under normal circumstances, but when the arpeggiator is active it takes on the alternative duty of Scatter depth. The SYSTEM-1's flavor of Scatter—the proprietary effect found across the AIRA line—is somewhat different than the other units in that it's only active when the arpeggiator is on. When this is the case, the wheel affects the arp rate and a handful of other parameters. The selection of this is determined by the inner wheel, where you choose between ten Scatter types. Thankfully, the SYSTEM-1's knob-and-fader backlights serve to indicate which parameters are being affected by the different Scatter type options.
On the rear of the unit, you'll find the usual hardware synth fare: stereo 1/4-inch jacks for audio output, MIDI-in and -out, USB (for audio and MIDI) and a pair of pedal inputs that are hardwired to volume and sustain/hold. The biggest surprise here is the lack of audio input. It would be useful enough in standalone mode to be able to route external audio through the SYSTEM-1's nice filter and effects section, but when you step back and think about the SYSTEM-1 functioning as an audio interface (which it does if you want to use USB audio), this omission becomes even more pronounced.
With the latest version of the firmware (version 1.1) Roland added another reason to be thankful for that useful little USB jack. On top of audio, MIDI and PLUG-OUT, they also opened up the ability to backup and restore the SYSTEM-1's presets to a computer. This is a nice addition since there are a scant eight preset slots available on the unit. The process requires a special boot sequence on the SYSTEM-1 and mouse clicks on the computer, so this feature is probably limited to studio use for now—it's not exactly something you would want to do in the middle of a gig.
Interestingly, when you connect the SYSTEM-1 to a PLUG-OUT VST/AU instrument, you're treated to an entirely different experience when it comes to presets. You're still limited to eight slots for recall on the hardware itself, but the full library of presets within the plug-in can be sent back and forth to and from the hardware on demand, all without having to leave your DAW session. This is a much smoother workflow, and I wonder if and when Roland will give the standard SYSTEM-1 synth engine the same treatment.
Setting that difference aside, the SYSTEM-1 still feels like a capable synth, even without considering the PLUG-OUT options. The immediate controls and beefy sound left me much more impressed than I remember being with the modern Roland releases of the past couple of decades. When you add the PLUG-OUT options to the equation, it just becomes that much more attractive. I spent an unhealthy amount of time playing with the SH-101 PLUG-OUT and found it to be a very convincing recreation (with the notable exception of the famous SH-101 sequencer, which is rumored to be coming soon). My only hesitation with investing in the PLUG-OUT market at this point is the reliance on proprietary code for shuttling the PLUG-OUTs to the hardware. If Roland could migrate to a class-compliant driver, I think it would make everyone breathe a bit easier.
Ease of use: 4/5