Top Midi Synth Controller – The Roland A-800 Pro

Roland A800 Pro
Roland A800 Pro

Oh boy! What a wonderful synth controller the Roland A-800 Pro has turned out to be. I found the A-800 at the second hand music shop about three weeks ago. I was looking for a controller with good key action, LCD screen, and the ability to program sysex info. The Roland A-800 Pro has exceeded my expectations.

First I’ll talk about common problems with Synth Controllers I’ve had. Many controllers have really bad key action that either feels too stiff or cheap. More often than not, controllers also cannot program and send sysex commands. For older synthesizers, CC info only just doesn’t cut it. I know for soft synths and DAWs, sending CCs are adequate, but for hardware synths it just doesn’t work for me. I do a lot of sysex work on synths and need the ability to program a controller to send the commands I require for performance or patch creation. It’s amazing at how many great controllers out there do not have this functionality. Another common problem is that often controllers provide no indication about where you are at in the parameter range. You are often found twiddling a knob or slider blindly without having any readout of the value you are sending.

The Roland A-800 Pro seems to have all of the bases covered. The key feel and action is the best I’ve used or at least at the top. I think you’ll find very few negative comments on the keys of the A-800 Pro. Furthermore, the A-800 Pro is fantastic for programming sysex commands and switching templates back and forth on the fly. The packaged editing software is easy to use and even the manual explains well the checksum and variable input parameters necessary for most older synths. ( Note you will need the Midi Implementation Charts for your synth to get the exclusive data commands ). In addition, the LCD screen provides realtime info about what parameter you are sending and the value. Plus there are actual words or labels in the LCD and not just LED numbers or dots.

I have also found the number of knobs, sliders, buttons, and controls to be quite adequate. If you need more, you can change to another page or template easily and continue your edits. Space for labeling is provided on the front panel as well. I actually just created a simple paper layover for the A-800 using Photoshop and swap them when I change templates. This is done similarly with the Behringer BCR-2000. I actually have the Behringer which is also a great controller with sysex programming, but I found it to be a bit bulky and difficult to program. The Roland A-800 Pro is so much easier to work with and have begun moving all of my sysex and controlling duties to it.

Overall, I highly recommend the Roland A-800 Pro for an all around decent performing controller for hardware sound modules and synthesizers. I don’t use it for DAWs or Softsynths, but I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be a winner in that category as well. I’ve heard the Novation SL MkII is likely a good alternative, but it’s availability in the used music market in Japan is limited. I just happened to stumble upon the A-800 series and it’s been a perfect match with all of my hardware gear. The irony is that just when I’ve found a decent controller, I find out it’s now been discontinued in Japan. Go figure!

5 thoughts on “Top Midi Synth Controller – The Roland A-800 Pro

  1. Hi Jim – I’m a long-time reader, your site has been fascinating for someone like me, who loves older gear. I wondered if I could pick your brains for a moment. I’ve searched your articles and couldn’t find anything – apologies if I’ve missed it.

    I bought an old Roland MC-505. One of the buttons seems to be ‘stuck’ (not sure that’s the right word) – if you’re feeling generous, please have a look here – it shows what is wrong.

    Jim, I would be so grateful if you could just tell me one thing – in your experience, does that look fairly easily fixable? It seems to be that a contact is being made with one pot, the portamento one – but the macgine works fine most other times; as well as during ‘realtime erase’, sometimes during playback the LCD display won’t stop saying “portamento”, so clearly the porta pot seems to be contacting somehow. I’m hoping you’ll say “yeah if you take the back off and clean it, it’ll be fine in my experience”.

    Jim, it’s cool if you don’t want to respond. I’ve been trying to find out if it’s repairable, and you strike me as a man who is experienced enough to give good advice from a distance 🙂

    Thanks so much, and thanks for continuing to write such good content.

    1. Hello Tony,

      I took read your comments and took a look at your video. The problem is most likely dirty or defective pots or connections with the buttons inside. I have an MC-505 and have a faulty Cutoff knob. The fix is like you said. You will wave to remove the back of the MC-505 and possibly remove the PCB board with the problematic button. If you are lucky, the contacts and pots will allow you to shoot some deoxit or alcohol cleaner inside. However, in the case of the MC-505 knobs, you likely will have to desolder the pots and replace them. At least that’s what I have to do with the Cutoff knob. There also “could” be a dry solder and warming it up could help or even fix the problem. You next question is likely “Where can I find replacement pots, knobs, and buttons?” That I am unsure of at the moment as I’m currently looking for the specs. Rumor has it they are not easy to find, but we’ll see. I’ll update you shortly. Thanks! – Jim

      Note: Do you have any other issues with patch or parameter changing when using the inc/dec buttons? If you have button issues, it should be problematic across all parameters and functions. Not just one. Thanks!

      1. Hi Jim

        Jim thank you *so much* for being so generous with your time and knowledge. It really means a lot that the business has guys like you in it.

        You’ve given me hope, although the downside of the MC-505 is, there’s an awful lot of fiddling to get the back and board off – this picture is scary 🙂

        In answer to the question you asked at the end – I realised something yesterday when I was playing a track on the MC-505. Suddenly, the LCD display started displaying “portamento 48” then “portamento 49” then 48 then 49 then 50 then 49.

        Yup, it seems like it’s not the inc/dec buttons, it’s the portamento pot! Now, it’s *so* irregular, I can’t actually make it happen at will and so I can’t give an absolute statement about what is happening. But clearly, when I try to do realtime erase the portamento pot is “activating”.

        As you said, if it’s inc/dec that’s causing the problem, I should have other problems as well.

        Actually I do, but again it’s very specific. An EFX parameter (high gain, I think) sometimes pops up while I use inc/dec to adjust arpeggiator parameters, but it happens infreuquently, so I can’t guarantee what I’m saying.

        So it’s either inc/dec – but it’s acting very predictably (which shouldn’t happen if it’s the buttons doing it) – or it’s two different pots with the same trouble.

        Jim I want to thank you again – you have amassed a huge amount of knowledge and you clearly love the challenge of fixing “junk” gear – and I am truly grateful to you for spending time looking through my post and video.

        The most important thing is, from what you’ve said this seems repairable. Hopefully I can either have a play myself or find a good Roland repairer in London.

        Thanks Jim 🙂


  2. Pedro Jorge Monteiro

    Hi Jim, long time reader of your blog. Just to give a big +1 on this line of controllers – had the A500 Pro, best keys i ever seen in a controller, very light yet sturdy, easy to use, looked good – such a shame they discontinued it – i have to get one ASAP or start searching in the second hand market. Greetings from Estoril, Portugal


  3. Wayne

    Hi there,

    I bought the Roland A500 PRO today with all the cables power midi etc but have spent the past 7 hours trying to connect it to my iPad and MacBook but no luck at all getting it to work :/

    I’m taking it back in the morning if I can’t get it working and didn’t know if you had any ideas please

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s