Roland System-8, Powerful Synthesizer With A Lot Of Untapped Potential

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Roland System-8, a strong ACB-based digital Synthesizer in which the full potential was not fully used. I took a closer look at the critical points.

In 2016 Roland enriched the Synthesizer market with the System-8, an 8-voice polyphonic digital Synthesizer based on the ACB technology. The engine is very classic and is mainly a further development of the System-1 engine. The developers raised it to the next level with more features and vo Three oscillators with a variety of classic and more harmonic-rich waveforms, sub-oscillator via the third OSC, juicy filter, two envelopes, up to 2 LFOs, effects, polyphonic sequencer, and more.

In addition to the fixed engine, the System-8 is capable of exchanging the engine at the touch of a button. The so-called Plugout functionality initially introduced in the System-1 synth extends the sound spectrum of the synth enormously. Here in full polyphony for the first time. Thus, the S8 is not only a modern virtual analog synth that can sound very futuristic in places, it is also an instrument packed with top-notch vintage Synthesizer emulations.

Roland System-8

Roland System-8

The System-8 has been on the market for 5 years and it has made it into many studios. With the last Juno-60 Plugout update, it is more up-to-date than it has been for a long time. Besides the many praises for Roland’s innovative DSP work, there is also regular criticism from Synthesizer enthusiasts in forums/social media. Above all, they accuse Roland of not having used the full potential of the concept.

Well, this is not a detailed review of it but a slightly different view on this Synthesizer. I want to show what could have been done better and what could be improved via software updates.

8 Voice Limitation

The System-8 is not a voice monster at all. 8 voices are rather few for a DSP-based synth, considering that other digital synthesizers can easily handle 32 or 64 voices. Since the ACB engine runs at a very high resolution, it also needs a lot of DSP power to calculate this in real-time. This voice limitation seems to have been Roland’s calculation. The YouTuber Markus Fuller completely dismantled the S8 in 2017.

In his detailed “teardown” video, he highlighted that the voice card has gaps that are not filled with chips. More precisely, Roland provided chip slots, but they were not filled in the final release. This could be a sign that Roland may have decided on fewer voices at the last minute.

Roland System-8 potential.

To this day, it is not known whether there were technical problems or financial reasons why these gaps were not filled with chips. Imagine a circuit board full of custom Roland DSP chips. Which System-8 would we have in our studios? One with 16 or 32 voices, more splits, and an even higher resolution. More DSP power would certainly have suited the S8 and would have raised the idea of the engine to another level.

Jupiter X/Xm The Spiritual Successor

5 years later we have the successor with the Jupiter X / XM. These have more voices, use the new ZEN Core engine, and do without ACB completely. To me, there are small but fine tonal differences between the two. In my young ears, the System-8 with its 8 voices sounds fatter, crisper and rounder than the new Jupiter series. Opinions differ here but it’s fact that the ACB technology runs at a higher resolution. ZenCore can achieve up to 256 voices (32x more than S8) thanks to a DSP-friendly, lower resolution engine based on pure synthesis and PCM samples.

Yes, there is a “successor”, this sounds top, for me, the System-8 remains a hardware synth that plays in its own league thanks to its high-resolution engine. However, much more would have been possible with more DSP power. Technically, it would certainly not have been great witchcraft to raise the S8 to 16 voices of pure digital Roland goodness. The market would be ready for the next generation S8.

We Need Polyphonic System-1 Plugout Versions

One of the big highlights of the Roland System-8 is the Plugout technology. This lets you save up to three authentic emulations of classic synthesizers in the hardware and activate them at the push of a button. This celebrated its premiere in the System-1 Synthesizer back in 2014. The green, alien-looking Synthesizer has 4 voices instead of 8 and only handles monophonic Plugouts (SH-101, SH-2, Promars …). Good, you can also easily integrated them into the S8 hardware. However, these do not benefit from the polyphonic engine. A shame in my opinion.

Like its analog models, these top-notch sounding emulations are only playable in monophonic. Funny when you consider that Roland uses the ACB engine again in the SH-01A Boutique Synthesizer but with four voices of polyphony. So why not in the System-8? There are enough voices and certainly also power to realize polyphonic versions of the SH-101, SH-2, Promars, or the modular System-100 Plugouts. It would be a big thing, even if they would only handle 4 voices.

With the latest JX-3P and Juno-60 updates, they recently showed us that the Plugout technology is not yet abandonware. So we can still hope that Roland decides to equip them with polyphony.

No Aftertouch!

One problem that is discussed again and again is the lack of aftertouch in the keybed. Yes, an almost 1500€ synth shipped without aftertouch. A super affordable M-Audio Oxygen Pro for around 200€ has both installed. Modal Electronics even installs Fatar keybeds with aftertouch in its 600€ DSP synths. ASM goes several steps further and offers its powerful 8-voice Hydrasynth with a polyphonic aftertouch keyboard and for less money.

Roland definitely put the red pencil in the wrong place. On the one hand, it seems less attractive for professional keyboard players who would like to play their sounds as expressively as possible. Without aftertouch, they can only play it one dimensionally. On the other, they limit the possibilities of their own engine. It’s like driving a Ferrari powered by a low-budget engine. Please no more high-priced synths without AT in the future. It’s uncool in 2021. This makes your customers happy and avoids such articles. It doesn’t cost a lot more and you make your community happy.

Updates?!

With the last JX-3P and Juno-60 synthesizers, Roland has shown that the innovative Plugout platform has not yet given up. However, users have been waiting a long time for an update of the System 8 engine. Small updates which guarantee new operation system compatibility (Apple Big Sure) are still being delivered, thanks, but there are no new features.

I often want the same massive support that Novation offers its older products at Roland. Unfortunately, they often drop their older products too quickly by no longer offering, regular updates. A nice example is the super-powerful AIRA Eurorack module series. Programmable with an app on Win, Mac, Android, and iOS however, the latter two have not worked for a long time. No updates on the horizon and how long the app will run on the desktop is also a matter of time.

Final Thoughts

With the System-8, Roland has developed a hardware Synthesizer that sounds versatile and fat even almost 5 years after its introduction. Classic analog-inspired sounds with the Plugouts Juno-106, Juno-60, Jupiter-8…or more experimental with the System-8 engine. There is a lot of power under the hood. In addition, System-8 offers an interface that is very hands-on and inspiring. Most of the synthesis parameters are not hidden behind deep menus but are tangible. As you know it on analog synthesizers.

However, one misses the special love that Roland didn’t give the System-8. I mean the love that makes an instrument perfect. There is a lot of potential in this almost 5-year-old Synthesizer and a lot that was not taken up and implemented by Roland in the development. No aftertouch, 8 voice limitation although there are slots on the PCBs, System-1 Plugouts in mono (SH-101, Promars…)… These are points that would round off the concept of the System-8 better and would upgrade it significantly.

Where is ACB Technology headed in the near future? Do we see a System 8S or 16 with more features, voices…? I would be delighted if Roland would continue to offer ACB-based flagship synths in addition to its Zen Core series. These still sound fantastic and it would be a shame if they slowly disappear from the market like the V-Synth back in the days, which was probably the most innovative Roland synth to me.

More information here: Roland 

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8 Comments

  1. Some other additions this System 8 should benefit from:

    – allow the use of a second, independent LFO. If not per voice, then at least one additional global LFO. In the use interface it should be fairly easy to control the second one; you use all the same buttons as for LFO1, but you hold the Shift to control LFO2.

    – additional memory. 64 programs per plug-out model is quite limited. The best way forward is that Performance Mode would have its own memories, instead of referencing the ones from Path mode, with all risks involved. That would triple the memory positions available on the System 8. And memory should be no issue here.

    If indeed the processor capacity is limiting the amount of voices, I wonder if voice allocation couldn’t be made more flexible as well.
    – For instance in unison mode, allow how many voices are being assigned, like on an OB-6. You’d get fatter sounds, without loosing all polyphony.
    – Other example: allow the disengagement of oscillator 2 and/or 3. In return, this could raise the amount of voices. Maybe we could then reach 10, 12 or 16 voice polyphony. Imagine what that would do to the use in Dual Performances!

    – Pressing shift and ‘fine tune’ or ‘tune’ simultaneously should control a voice pitch spread to fatten up unison.

    – Why not improve the vintage or age parameter, and have it create a spread on pitch of OSC, Filter and spread on envelope times simultaneously, as on the vintage knob of the new Prophet 5? And have it controlled via Shift + Pitch Env potmeter?

    That could attract a new audience to this amazingly sounding synth.

  2. This also had weirdly short keys. The fulcrum point is closer to the key tip. This made it awkward to play for experienced keyboardist.

  3. there is a fairly gross error in the analysis: the 3 empty chips that can be seen on the bottom of the card have the size of the Spansion S29GL01GS10TFI02 flash memories and subsequent models that Roland has been using for many years and which are also present in old Fantom, Integra, New fantom, AX Edge , mc-101, ..etc, etc.
    that pinout is incompatible with the BMCs which are the SOCs that Roland uses for sound synthesis
    Therefore the board was designed to be used in hypothetical other synths that need Flash for the PCM ROM samples.

    • thanks for your input, I’m not an engineer, sorry, but I based it on the video by Markus Fuller. It’s more to give room of a potential successor of the System-8 than going in the tech maths 🙂

      • 🙂 Roland currently hasn’t used the System-8 CPU card which has 3 BMC chips anymore; Fantom currently uses a matherboard with 4 BMC chips and the various Jupiter-x / xm, Ax Edge, MC101,.. all have a single BMC chip + Flash memory variable from model to model.
        We will see in the future 🙂

  4. Made entirely of plastic and widely acknowledged as one of the most ugly synths of all time. I’d suggest dimming the studio so you don’t have to look at it, but then there’s those awful green lights.

  5. “Yes, an almost 1500€ synth shipped without aftertouch. A super affordable Arturia KeyLab Essential for around 200€ has both installed.”

    The Keylab Essential does not have a keybed with aftertouch.

    • sorry two websites had different, I rectified it, M-Audio Oxygen Pro 49 has aftertouch and cost around 200€

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