Roland AIRA System-1 Synth Review

Today I picked up the new Roland AIRA System-1 Synthesizer from my local Shimamura Music store here in Nagano-city, Japan. As everyone knows it’s a highly anticipated synth release and likely will be quite popular initially. I also have the TR-8, TB-3, and VT-3 which I’ve enjoyed very much. Thus I had every expectation that the Roland AIRA System-1 would deliver.

Please note that for the sake of this review, I’m not a huge EDM music fan, rather, I’m into the vintage analog 80’s sound being that I graduated from High School in 1986. I’m also VERY fortunate to have a sizable analog synth collection that includes the Roland SH-101, Juno, and JX series synths. I make this point to help everyone understand my initial impressions of the System-1. Also, I did NOT try out the System-1 in the store. I didn’t have time and I there was a waiting list to purchase it. This was a pre-order so I just walked out the door with it, but I knew I’d probably be keeping it regardless.

When I first turned on the Roland System-1 I actually was quite disappointed. I thought the presets where horrible and worse than most any other synth I had heard or even owned. The System-1 did not sound analog at all , rather in fact it sounded VERY digital in a nasty sort of way. So, I decided to put the System-1 in manual mode and create my own patches. That’s when things settled down a bit and I realized there was going to be light at the end of the tunnel. I should say that I felt the presets were mostly EDM “Electronic Dance Music” oriented and I mean 2014 EDM oriented and not the stuff I am accustomed to from the early 80’s on up. I expected EDM of course, but not that much and definitely not bad sounding. That’s subjective though and just my opinion, so if EDM is what you want than the System-1 “initially” may sound good to you. That’s ok!

I also found that when creating patches I got closer to the sounds I wanted by simply working with one OSC first and turning off OSC 2. For those that don’t program synths very often, this can be a good way to start out. Keep it simple and just work with one OSC and then later bring in OSC 2 when you know what you want or when you feel like experimenting more. Otherwise, you might find yourself frustrated and not getting at least the basic sounds you desire.

The LFO section is SUPERB! I love that stuff and it totally reminds me of the Korg Polysix that I have and play often. It’s so simple yet works beautifully. I found myself often comparing the System-1 to my recently acquired Novation Bass Station 2. I noticed right away that the filter, although smooth on the System-1, didn’t do as much as I expected like on the older Rolands, Bass Station, and some other vintage analogs I have. That could just be me, but for some reason there wasn’t much instant gratification in working the cutoff and resonance like on other synths. I will say thought that the filter is smooth and does work of course.

The envelopes are great and all of the sliders are a joy to use. I didn’t experience any problems and I was shape the sound I wanted easily with them.

I also didn’t much like the modulation wheel on the left side. I would have much rather liked a lever/stick or mod wheel found on vintage synths. Again, that might be because I’m used to older gear. The AIRA System-1 mod wheel just didn’t feel natural or easily accessible. It’s there for those that might wonder if a modulation wheel is on the System-1, but it’s personally not that appealing to me.

The keys are different as well, being more flat and slightly wider. However, in this case I rather liked the newly styled keys. They didn’t clack or make any unnecessary noise. They were easy to play fast on and they seemed pretty durable. I think this is a definite plus on the System-1.

Overall, once I started programming my own patches and kept things simple, I was able to feel more satisfied about my purchase. I should stress that I paid regular price for the AIRA System-1 and could very well just have written an article about justifying my purchase. To keep it real though, I must say that initially I am very underwhelmed by the Roland Aira System-1. It’s growing on me as I work with it, but it’s definitely no analog synth or even close to one at this point. I currently own two Roland SH-101 synths, I really don’t see how that new plugout is going to make that System-1 sound anything like my SH-101 synths. I’m really not convinced yet, but I will say it’s only my thoughts and I could perhaps be pleasantly surprised once the plugouts materialize. We’ll see.

Today however, I must say that the Roland AIRA is definitely not worth the money I paid for it. I bought it though and will give it a good run over the next month to see how it goes. I’m on the fence about whether I would recommend it to anyone really. It’s very digital sounding and to me, not in a good way if you are after that analog sound. The AIRA System-1 definitely needs time to be spent programming and trying new things with. That may very well be the most exciting thing to me about the Roland AIRA System-1. I am very anxious about seeing what other people will do with this new addition to the AIRA product line.

The Roland AIRA System-1 is fun to work with and also quite challenging if you are trying to get those old analog sounds. There is no issue if you are into the latest EDM sound as that should be quite easy to capture. I know that’s probably who it was made for so I’m not naive about that. I’m just not convinced on Day 1 here that the Roland AIRA System-1 will be able to travel back that far in time. If the Plugouts are good, then the System-1 may very well be worth it. We’ll see.

I’ll add more comments as I work more with the System-1. I’m definitely also looking forward to seeing what others do with the System-1 as well. I’m actually expecting a fair number of people to say the Roland AIRA System-1 is great but only to justify their rather expensive purchase…laugh. I should be able to sleep well tonight after my purchase, but it definitely took a couple of hours jamming to feel better about it. Tomorrow will be a new day!!

If you have any questions, please let me know and I’ll try to respond asap. Thanks!!

A few video notes:

1. All of the sounds are custom programmed patches for the System-1. I’m not using any presets.

2. I am using the Boss RC-300 to loop my drums and the System-1 bass line.

3. NO external effects were used on the System-1.

17 thoughts on “Roland AIRA System-1 Synth Review

  1. I live this video a little better than the one I posted previously which was a bit more raw. Both should give you a glimpse of some sounds that the System-1 can do.

  2. I’ve recently have been asked a few time if the patches I’m using in the video are presets. They are not in fact. I saved over them with custom patches after deciding I basically couldn’t do anything with them…laugh. I didn’t care for them much honestly and so I created some patches that fit more of my style of playing. I can say that the presets seemed to follow more of the EDM style that you hear nowadays. Really though, the System-1 is meant to strip down and create your own sounds. There are only 8 memory slots which is just fine for live use. The System-1 is actually very nice to tweak.

  3. Tony in London

    Hi Jim. A very interesting, thoughtful review. I’ve been wondering what you’d think of the new synth.

    I can never quite work out what Roland is trying to achieve. I’m not one of those who desperately wishes they would release a new version of the Jupiter 8, but it has to be said: Roland’s philosophy is hard to work out. I can’t understand the point behind Aira; it seems in one way like a half-hearted attempt to pull in modern analogue synth lovers. But it’s SO half-hearted, that can’t be the point. If they really wanted to show respect to their own heritage, they could produce some incredible synths.

    But instead, we get (amazing) monsters like the Jupiter 80 (which makes people angry, as they believe Jupiter should only be used for analogue synths – but that was never what Jupiter was about; the JP name is for Roland’s flagship, it’s most forward-thinking synths. That’s why the JP-8, JP-8000 and JP-80 really are “spiritually” linked; I truly understand what they’re doing with the JP/Jupiter badge). Those new Jupiters are something else. Wonderful beasts.

    We also get performance synths, like the Juno range, although I’m constantly perplexed at their choices there.

    With Aira and the System-1 you’ve reviewed here, I can’t see what they’re trying to achieve. I’m not gonna have a knee-jerk “OMG WTF Roland?” response, but as you’ve said in your review, the whole thing seems underwhelming. With the amount of computing power available cheaply these days, if Roland wanted to build a range of synths that allow us to “plug out” (I can’t get my head around that) classic synths, they could give us amazing stuff.

    They just don’t seem that committed to it. Maybe I’m missing something. What do you think Jim?

    I really don’t want to sneer – I’m not a Gearslutz type, who thinks Roland never got any better than the JP-8. I just feel like Roland misses the point so often.

    I was reading back over the history of the Jupiter 8 and 6, and it was the same story even back then. With the success of the Jupiter 8, it was obvious what Roland should’ve done next. But instead, they released the Jupiter 6 which, while it’s an amazing synth, really missed out on so many possibilities.

    I’m worried that Roland is making the same mistake again.

    I am a true Roland fan. I want them to have endless success. I think Roland synths are, in the main, beautiful musical instruments. I’ve never got over my first experience of Roland synths, seeing Howard Jones in concert when I was 13, watching him play a Jupiter. I was allowed to play with a Juno 60 for a few hours when I was a kid. I have never forgotten how it felt to play with Roland synths, and to this day if I get the choice, I’ll always try to choose Roland over any other manufacturer. Even recently, I grabbed an MC-505 (I’m the guy who posted here about the dodgy pots on the MC-505 I’d just bought) and a JP-8000. I really wish it’d been given the name Jupiter 8000 (I don’t know why it didn’t get the name).

    So when I read your review of the System-1 and how you feel it’s not worth the money (right now), I feel sadness, because Roland has done so much to shape music in the late 20th and early 21st century, and I don’t want that to ever change.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful review Jim.

    All the best

    Tony in London.

    1. Hello Tony,

      Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed reading about your thoughts on Roland.

      I think Roland System-1 has potential as there are quite a few things to experiment and learn about it, but when I wrote the article above, I couldn’t help feel a bit disappointed. I think one major issue I had that I didn’t mention above is that for the same amount of money you can consider other alternatives that are actually quite good if not better. That bothered me a bit. I generally can find a Korg Polysix, Juno-106, JX3P, and even an SH-101 for around 5 to $600 if I am patient. I also found for example the Novation Analog Bass Station 2 to be quite useful in my studio and that was even less expensive than the System-1. The MiniBrute is even less and these are actual analogs!

      The other thing again is that I really enjoyed the TR-8, TB-3, and the VT-3 from Roland right out of the box. They pretty much nailed the sound, but above all the feeling and excitement of playing with those vintage instruments. The original System-1 I have no experience with and I’m not even sure if one can compare so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the new System-1. About the only thing I had to compare was the Roland SH-101 I use almost daily. Granted the SH-101 plugout is not yet available, but I still had a VERY hard time believing with the sound I was hearing that the Aira System-1 could or would be comparable to an SH-101. It’s just not there and personally don’t think it’s even close. Again, the sound may take an about face once the Plugout is released in July if correct.

      I will say again that when I worked with just one OSC, I was able to get more of the old school sound results I desired. That second OSC can really change things up and make sounds more in line with the current EDM sound. That actually “could” make the System-1 very worth while in that it could work well as a hybrid between synth styles. There is a lot to digest with the System-1 and by no means have I checked everything out, but at least when I turned it on and flipped through a couple of the presets I wanted to feel “WOW”, but it just wasn’t there…laugh.

      Finally, after spending $600 on the Aira System-1, I didn’t want to come across as a person merely trying to justify their purchase. I still think it’s a bit of money for what you get ( or I should say what I have found rummaging through old music shops in Japan. ). I’m starting to think about all of the other things I could have picked up instead…laugh.

      With that said, I do have hope for the System-1 and when others get their hands on one, I very much look forward to hearing their thoughts and opinions. The future of the Aira System-1 may be brighter than what my initial experience has made it out to be.

      I’ll be playing more with it this week and perhaps will have a chance to both put up more videos and write some additional comments. Thanks again!

      1. Tony in London

        Hi again Jim, thanks for your reply.

        Just to be clear, you absolutely did not come across as someone who was trying to justify spending the money.

        You were hoping to feel some magic, some delight, and you felt let down. That’s really the message that comes across. After all, that’s what we all want when we unpack a synth: the feeling of ‘oh wow, this machine is magical’.

        I think that goes back to what I’m asking: what is Roland’s philosophy here? Let’s say they want to recreate the ambience and feeling people had when they bought original mono Roland gear. OK, I can buy that – well, imagine you bought an SH-101 back when it was new. Imagine taking it out of the box. Would you have felt underwhelmed the way you did when opening the System-1?

        You mentioned that you could buy most of these vintage synths for a similar price to the System-1 if you were patient. Roland surely knows this – I would really love to understand what Roland’s aim is here. Do you have a hunch about their “mission” with System-1?

        I guess maybe the machine itself is going to have to teach you how it wants to be used. For example, two recent models in the SH series – the SH-201 and the SH-01 Gaia – are both “kick-ass synths that teach you how to construct sounds”. That’s how they want to be used. They want you to pick them up and just play. It’s written all over them. You can’t help but truly experiment on an SH-201. It needs you to do it!

        So what does the System-1 want us to do? I heard someone say it was the perfect size for throwing in a rucksack and taking out on the road. So maybe it really is just a hardware version of a plug-in synth – maybe that’s all it is. Tonight, it’s gonna be an SH-101, tomorrow it’s gonna be a Roland ProMars synth. It’s a chameleon (and if I’ve understood this right, if certain features weren’t available on the original synth, when you turn the System-1 into that synth, that part of the System-1 will not light up).

        The problem is, as much as you don’t want it to look like you’re trying to justify the expenditure, it *does* need justifying, if the system is simply a chameleon, if it is to become a different synth each day. It’s not enough just to be “a machine that can change what it is” – it needs more than that. Maybe.

        Like I said, I think maybe the System-1 is going to have to teach you how it wants you to use it.

        I suppose the most interesting thing here is how differently you feel about the other Aira models you’ve got. After all, the TR-8 is the equivalent of the System-1 but in drum machine format, right? The sounds are brilliant, and you love it.

        So what’s the difference between your love of the TR-8 and your feelings towards the System-1? Is it “just” because it’s “easier” to pick up a drum machine and roll with it, or do we have higher expectations when it comes to synths?

        Yours is the most interesting review I’ve read Jim, which is why I’m replying to it. You’re a normal guy who lives for music, and you NEED to be passionate about the keys you play. If Roland hasn’t put a big smile on your face with the System-1, that’s a problem.

        What do you think needs to happen for you to feel happy, for you to feel that System-1 has “magic”? It’s really interesting that you’ve had the most fun and felt the most passion when restricting yourself to one OSC – I found that fascinating. Maybe that’s where the magic is – going back to way people used to make sounds in the early 1980s and squeeze that kind of performance out of it.

        PS in London right now, they are launching the SH-101 plug-out.

      2. Thanks for the comments and questions.

        To understand my thoughts, I need to reiterate that I originally grew up in the United States until I took off for Japan in 1993. Since that time I’ve spent 21 years in Japan. So I can certainly reflect on the times of growing up in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s in the States, but then it’s ALL Japan from there. Note I graduated from High School in 1986.

        With that said, I really believe that Roland caters quite a bit to the Japanese market FIRST, then later the international one. Yes, they “may” get the idea to reissue the TR-808 due to popular international demand, but in what manner is largely determined by the Japanese market and likely Japanese mindset. I worked in a Japanese company with 100% Japanese management for almost 10 years. I understand to a degree how the Japanese company operates. Why Roland did this or that, I largely reflect using my experience in a Japanese company rather than what’s happening internationally or in the States.

        Here are some important RULES for Japanese companies and markets.

        1. The product MUST BE SMALL! This is so true with everything here. It has to be mini, portable, small, and convenient. Those are all big buzz words in the Japanese business market. I think all of the Aira products fit the size requirement well for Japan.

        2. Keyword EARTH!! Japanese people and businesses love Earth colors and tones. If the AIRA wasn’t green, it probably would have been white, brown, or yellowish orange. They chose green which is very ECO image oriented, earthy, and natural. What the Japanese like in color is “in my opinion” radically different than that internationally. The color choices people make are very interesting here.

        3. TRADITIONAL – The young kids in Japan are far more traditional or perhaps conservative in the realm of music than those abroad. The ideal band is still firmly rooted in what I call “The Beatles” style of performing. You have one or two guitarists, one singer, one drummer, and one bassist. The synth player is optional and usually an outsider. This is very true in Junior High and High Schools around Japan. Also it’s important to note that classical piano is taught to most kids and many do not ever leave that genre of music, especially in the keyboard or piano department. Thus most young kids really don’t crave that TR-808, TB-303, VT-3, or System-1 sound. In fact, believe it or not, there has been an original System-1 in beautiful shape at a used music store just down the street from where I live. It’s been there for nearly five years now with zero bites. The shop owner says he can’t sell it. There’s no interest.

        4. Accessories. The Japanese LOVE, and I mean LOVE accessories. If you buy the TR-8, the System-1 becomes something sort of like an accessory. You have to have the whole set and everything that goes along with it. The sales tactics in Japan fit the AIRA system well. My biggest surprise here is that it took so long for the System-1 to be released. I’m sure many who purchased the first three items in Japan most definitely would have bought the System-1.

        5. DJ DJ DJ!!! – This is who I think the AIRA complete system is targeted towards in Japan. It’s the DJ. One reason is that in every music store around Nagano-city, the AIRA products are firmly placed in the DJ section and not the synthesizer section. Why? In Japan, you are either a pro synth player or a beginner. There really is no in between. So if the music shop caters to beginners, they will have synths that reflect that. If you are around central Tokyo in a huge store, then likely everything will be pro. Strange, but that’s how I see it. In the States, there is more of a mixture of gear available for all levels in any particular store. No way, are the Japan music stores going to put the AIRA stuff next to any entry level synths. So it goes into the DJ area where it’s all pretty much pro only.

        The DJ industry is big in Japan. I think Roland will sell more AIRA units to DJ wannabe’s than to regular musicians. Internationally, I’m not quite sure the primary target, although I’m not surprised at all that Roland is already geared up and targeting the DJ crowd. That’s just an extension of what they are doing in Japan. For those into Nostalgia and Analog, it’s probably just a bonus for Roland. I should also quickly note that nobody I know here in Japan craves analog to the degree that international musicians do. The Japanese are happy campers with digital. No problem at all. That’s probably one reason why Roland hasn’t released anything in the analog department, nor has Yamaha. Interestingly enough, Korg doesn’t seem to bother Roland or Yamaha either. If you are a beginning piano player, kids and parents choose Yamaha all the way. They don’t even think about it. If you are a pro musician and want to be cool on stage, then it’s Roland all the way.

        The kids here think Roland is the best. On most variety shows right now you can see people traveling around and playing the Roland FA-06. Korg just does not register much nowadays with the Japanese kids like it did in the past with the M1 and Triton. Sure the Electribes are cool, but I only see those in the second hand shops which by the way mostly has Korg for inventory. People keep their Yamaha and Roland synths, but are quick to ditch their Korg gear. That’s just what I see month to month here in Japan. I’d be curious if others in other parts of Japan see anything similar or different.

        I could probably go on and on here, but I’ll end here for now. You can see that if one starts to understand Japan and how people think here, then some of the decisions that Roland, Yamaha, and Korg make become much more sensible. ( At least to the Japanese, but perhaps not to the international folks…laugh ).

        Interesting topic for discussion. Thanks again!!

  4. thanks tim for that interesting review! have all the other aira-devices as well and im waiting for the system-1 to be available in the uk. but as you said, its more like for “modern” edm stuff. im not into modern edm. love the analog-sounds of the 70s and 80s and i really thought they will set a “new” level for virtual analog synths with the system-1, but they clearly didnt. not sure now, if its worth the 500 pounds for me, but i definetely have to check it out in “real” in a shop, before i spend the money on that. also its fairly new and maybe the situation will get better with their plugout-technology…

    1. Yes, I highly recommend testing it out in the shop. I would also expect that you’ll have to program some sounds on it too because the presets “may” turn you off a bit as they did with me. I believe the purpose of the presets was to display some of the functionality of the System-1 and as EDM is pretty popular lately I understand the engineers would program more for that style. It’s becoming a nice machine, but I didn’t expect to have to work so hard to get it to sound less digital. The good news is that there are parameters and options on the System-1 to help with that. Like I mentioned above, I’m going to be very interested to hear how others feel when they test or buy the System-1. I’m just an early adopter, so I’d recommend again checking it out in the store. Thanks for the comment.

  5. heres my first impressions of the system-1, which i originally posted on facebook:

    “something strange has landed”…finally bought my Aira System-1 yesterday and had a bit of a play with it yesterday/this morning! After reading these rather disappointing reviews, that appeared this week on the net, i decided to give it a go and tested it in my local shop. Not surprisingly it didnt disappoint me at all! At home i was playing around with it and i was still not disappointed. ok it sounded different to my, lets say, Nord-Lead 2, but overall i liked it. what i didnt like was this tiny bit of distortion in the sound, that made it sound rather “digital” than “warm analog”. this morning ive therefor decided to do a more “in-depth-Analysis” of the System-1 with my oscilloscope and here are the results: The 2nd Picture shows the reason for the distortion. Its simply the “Oscillator-Level”! It sounds alright up to the “2o’clock-position”. Above that it cuts the waveform off, which is known as “distortion”! So if you want it to sound analog, simply leave the “Oscillator-Level” in the middle-Position or slightly higher.
    The 3rd Picture is interesting as well! It shows you all the Super-Waveforms. Whereat “Start” means a snapshot with the lowest amplitude and “End” is a snapshot from where it modulates to over the time. the time for one cycle is about 14 seconds and i didnt found out (yet), where to adjust it. But anyway with these “Super”-Waveforms you get really interesting modulated sounds. By using 2 Oscillators AND the Sub-Oscillator you get a nice spectrum of sounds, that would be impossible to generate even with a Nord-Lead 2! For String-Sounds in particular you get “Wavetable”-like sounds, that remind me on my JD990 or my Wavestation. dont forget to watch the oscillator-level! 😀
    And finally the 3rd Picture shows you the Self-Oscillation of the Filter. As usual on Analog-Filters, the filter will (or should) generate a Sine-Wave at maximum resonance. All Oscillators should be switched off for that. As you can see it behaves like an analog-filter and most important it sounds like an analog-filter as well! The only problem, that i noticed is, that you shouldnt use the “Filter-Cutoff” up to the maximum level. as you can see in the picture at maximum Filter-Cutoff-Frequency the frequency drops all of the sudden. Ive never seen that behavior on any analog-filter! dont know, if this is planned from the Roland-Engineers, but i think it is the same as with the oscillator-distortion, so it will be planned. Will keep the “special-behavior” in mind, when programming my sounds.
    Overall im happy so far with the System-1. Ok, still have to wait another month til i can get the 1st PlugOut-Synth, but yes i like it and i believe with its PlugOut-Technology it could become a real fork for impressive sounds…

    Picture1 – My System-1:
    Picture2 – Oscillator-Distortion:
    Picture3 – Super-Waveforms:
    Picture4- Filter-SelfOscillation:

  6. johann

    hi! after installing the plug out , does it mean you will have access to 16 patches in total? ( 8 from the system 1 plus 8 from the plug out ?) thank you!

  7. Malachy

    Hi, great review! Have you had a chance to use the SH-101 plug out yet? It’d be interesting to know if that addresses some of the shortcomings you’ve found with the bare bones System-1.

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