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Monday, October 28, 2013

Roland SH09

Analogue Monosynth (Retro)


Reviews : Keyboard

PAUL WARD looks back through time to 1980, and considers the hidden strengths of one of Roland's more overlooked monosynths -- the SH09.

Whilst Roland's SH101, MC202 and TB303 seem to have risen to the status of 'classic' synths, the humble SH09, released in 1980, has often been regarded as a poor relation. Having used and abused all of these synths in the past, I have to say that this is not only unfair, but downright inaccurate! OK, the SH09 doesn't sport the sequencing capabilities of its stable-mates, but to be fair, it did precede them by a couple of years. More to the point, I think it unlikely that many of these machines are purchased primarily for their sequencers in any case. The main thing that sells them is their sound -- and what a sound!




For anyone new to analogue synthesis, an SH09 is an ideal introduction -- operation is about as simple as you're ever likely to experience in a synth of its era. But don't let that operational simplicity fool you into believing that the SH09 is inflexible, or sonically limited. Whilst you are unlikely to be able to achieve the complexities of sound offered by a wall full of Moog modular units, neither are you going to be stuck for a few off-the-wall sound effects or ambient textures.

The SH09 is a monophonic, single-oscillator synthesizer (although a sub-oscillator is available -- more on this in a moment), with a two and a half-octave, 32-note keyboard. In its day, this keyboard size was something of a limitation, but with the advent of MIDI/CV control, it's now less of a problem, since you can use a controller keyboard of any size.

The oscillator is capable of just four basic waveforms; sawtooth, square, pulse and noise, and the octave range is switchable between 32 and 2 feet. The pulse width (or 'mark/space ratio') of the square/pulse waveform can be set at a static value, or can be modulated by the Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO) -- a favourite 'thickening' trick for single-oscillator synths. Provision is also made for pitch modulation (vibrato) via the LFO.

The LFO, in keeping with the rest of the synth, is a simple affair, supplying square or sine waveforms. A feature from which many early synths could have benefited is the LFO delay control, which makes up somewhat for the lack of a mod wheel by gradually introducing modulation over a period of time. Another generous feature (which many other synths of the period lacked) is an LFO speed indicator in the form of a small red LED.

The mixer section offers level control of the oscillator, the external input and a sub-oscillator. The external input gives access to the SH09's filter (useful for giving an avant-garde treatment to vocals, or as a tool for removing hiss from a noisy source signal). The sub-oscillator can provide a square or pulse waveform set at an octave below the main oscillator's frequency, or a pulse waveform only, set at two octaves below the main frequency. Fans of Roland's other 'bleep-master' synths will be well aware of the benefits offered by sub-oscillators in creating those deep, squelchy bass lines. I am convinced that Roland must be responsible for the early demise of a great many bass speaker cones over the years!




Roland's analogue filters definitely have a 'sound'. They are relatively tame when compared to a Moog or ARP filter, but do nevertheless exhibit a certain 'musicality' that sets them apart from the opposition. The SH09 filter is no exception. In territories where the TB303, SH101 and MC202 are to be heard blooping and squeaking to the beat, the SH09 also treads confidently. Indeed, in my own experience, I have found that the SH09 sounds even warmer and more squelchy, although this is really a matter of personal taste. Alongside the usual cut-off and resonance controls (the filter will happily run on into self-oscillation) are the filter modulation options, specifically from the LFO and envelope generator.

The envelope generator is a full ADSR design (full for 1980, that is), and doubles up for both amplitude and filter modulation duties. Unusually for a synth of this stature, the envelope can also be pressed into service for pulse width modulation, which can create some delightfully 'twangy' sounds. You can even bypass the amplitude section entirely, and either hold the amp open (useful when tuning up, or generating sustained 'drones'), or control the amp from the keyboard gate signal. This latter feature leaves the envelope in control of just the filter, with the amp merely opening and closing as keys are played. This is far more useful than it might first appear, especially when programming bass lines, which rarely require any attack or release, but often need filter modulation to provide some movement in the sound. Low filter sustain values don't have to mean that the bass sound amplitude also dies away. This is a simple and effective way of circumventing some of the limitations of a single-envelope synth.




If the SH09 has a weakness, it's probably the limited range of real-time performance controls. The only performance feature as such is a single left/right bender lever to the left of the keyboard. Behind this are two sliders to enable the lever to control either pitch and/or filter cut-off. Setting a specific pitch-bend interval here is a bit hit-and-miss, though no worse than on many other synths of the era. Other than this lever, you're really down to tweaking the controls on the main panel. Introducing vibrato on the fly is a pain, since you have to take your hand off the pitch lever and hit the correct slider; not an easy task in the heat of the moment. The LFO delay can help with this, by introducing vibrato automatically, but it's not really the same as being in full control of the effect. Happily, modern technology can now help the SH09 -- a well-specified MIDI/CV converter can provide all the control options we know and love, such as aftertouch or mod wheel control. Unfortunately, you'd probably find that the cost of such a converter would buy two SH09s!




As ever, it's the end results that count. I doubt that the sounds from the SH09 would ever be described as 'searing' or 'fat', but they might very well elicit such adjectives as 'cheesey' or 'bleepy'. The sub-oscillator goes a long way towards making this synth an excellent bass provider, though it doesn't have the grit and thunder of the Moogs or Oberheims. All of those blippy-bleepy sequencing sounds are available, and the filter resonance is capable of reaching into areas where many synths refuse to tread. Delicate lead sounds are also a strong area for the SH09. Here lie oboes, flutes and clarinet sounds by the bucket-load. The very simplicity of the machine keeps the results clean and uncluttered, helping sounds to sit in a mix without swamping other instruments.

The best thing that I can say about my SH09 is that I use it -- a lot. It's not the kind of synth that is ever going to have analogue fans drooling or beating down the doors of second-hand shops, but it is a reliable little work-pony that deserves to be taken seriously alongside its more famous stable-mates. It's cute, cuddly and there's not an LCD in sight. What more could you ask for?

Published in SOS March 1995

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