From Monosynths to Modulars, Junos to Jupiters; The History of Roland Synthesisers takes in some of the most famous synthesiser and drum sounds of all time…
The History of Roland Synthesizers
Last time on Japanese Giants, we looked at how Yamaha went from making reed organs to releasing some of the most important synths ever made. This time, let’s focus on the history of Roland. There’s a lot to uncover here.
In 1960, Osaka-based watch-repair technician Ikutaro Kakehashi founded Ace-Tone, a musical instrument company. After selling and then reselling Ace-Tone to larger companies, reducing Kakehashi to a shareholder in his own firm, he walked, starting Roland Corporation in 1972.
SH-1000: Roland Joins The Races
Roland’s first instrument proper was also its first synthesizer. The SH-1000 came out in 1973 and started a long line of SH products. Typical of Japanese synths of the time, it was meant to sit on top of an organ, with many of its controls to the left of the keyboard or even underneath it. Something like a combination of an ARP Pro Soloist and Moog Minimoog Model-D, it had both preset tabs as well as a manual section for dialling in your own sounds.
It was this manual section that probably prevented the SH-1000 from being a big hit in its home country (something Roland addressed for its follow-up, the SH-2000). Synthesizers were very new at the time and most musicians wanted preset sounds they could understand. For the adventurous user, however, the single-oscillator SH-1000 offered multiple oscillator feet that could be stacked (thanks to organ-style divide-down technology), a Moog-like Ladder filter, ADSR envelope and two LFOs plus both pink and white noise. Kudos to Kakehashi for taking a chance on synthesis this early in the game.
Systems 100, 100m and 700: The Modular History of Roland
Those hankering for serious synthesis options from Roland didn’t have to wait long. After the SH-3, SH-3A and SH-5 monosynths (1973 to 1975), 1976 saw the release of two monster systems, with a third out in 1979. And by systems, we do mean Systems with a capital S.
The first was the System-100, a component semi-modular monosynth package that, when completed, included the Model-101 keyboard synthesizer, Model-102 expander, Model-103 mixer with built-in spring reverb (so 1970s), the Model-104 step sequencer, and Model-109 speakers. Looking more like a spaceship control panel than a synth, and sounding absolutely massive, the System-100 is a real high watermark for Roland and analogue synthesizers in general.
But Roland was just getting started. That same year also saw the debut of the System-700, a full-on modular environment. A complete system included nine oscillators, a clutch of four filters, five VCAs, four envelopes, three LFOs, a mixer, a sequencer, and delay and phaser. With a price to rival luxury cars, few were sold, placing it securely in the “lifestyles of the rich and synthesist” camp.
Not done with modular, Roland returned to the System in 1979 with the System-100M, a rather more affordable (but still not cheap by any stretch of the imagination) cabinet synthesizer with a variety of available modules. These included the standard 112 dual oscillator, 121 dual filter, 130 dual VCA, 140 dual envelope and LFO, and 150 ring mod/noise/S&H units. There was also the 110, a combo VCO/VCF/VCA voice. Module releases continued through 1983, along with keyboards and powered cabinets. The System-100M remains sought after today thanks to its superb sound and functionality.
From the JP-4 to the Alpha 1: Jupiters and Junos
By the end of the 1970s, the times they were a-changing for synthesizers. Although Roland had consistently knocked it out of the park with a number of excellent releases, it was time to enter the polyphonic fray. The company would not only survive in this new world order, it would thrive. This marks a new chapter in the history of Roland.
Roland’s first proper poly (not counting string machines) was the four-voice Jupiter-4 (AKA the JP-4). Named after the king of the Roman gods, it was to become a name that Roland would use again and again to demarcate its flagship synth. However, with just a single oscillator per voice, a short four-octave keyboard and a top-of-the-organ design, the Jupiter-4 wasn’t quite kingly enough to compete with the big American boys.
The Jupiter-8, however, most definitely was. Unleashed in 1981, the eight-voice polybeast had everything the discerning synth fan could want, including two oscillators per voice, a switchable 12db/octave and 24dB/octave filter, oscillator sync and cross modulation. You could also split the keyboard, assigning different patches to upper and lower sections. But more than just the specs, the JP-8 was renowned for its sound—notably, the ability to sound good in any situation. It became a studio staple and ended up in more famous recording sessions than cocaine.
The Jupiter line continued with the Jupiter-6, an “affordable” Jupiter that later found favour with electronic dance music producers, and the MKS-80 Super Jupiter module. Pair the latter with its optional MPG80 programmer and you had yourself a world-beating analogue poly contained in a rackmount-sized box.
If Jupiter was the king, then Juno was the queen. Almost as famous as the Jupiters but more widely used thanks to a lower price point, the Juno series of six-voice polysynths commands the kind of loyalty and adulation usually reserved for feudal lords or K-pop bands. The first was 1982’s Juno-6 (followed swiftly the same year by the preset-capable Juno-60). The signal path was pure Roland simplicity: single oscillator, non-resonant highpass followed by a smooth 24dB/octave lowpass, single envelope and LFO, and luscious chorus. The big change though was in the oscillator: not a VCO but a DCO, a digitally-controlled oscillator. This put a chip into the oscillator circuit to precisely control the frequency, resulting in a clean and extremely stable sound.
Roland released additional instruments bearing the Juno name throughout the ‘80s, such as the MIDI-capable Juno-106, the hoover-heaving Alpha Juno 1 and 2 (both 1985), and the MKS-7 Super Quartet (1986), which had three Juno-106-like synth sections plus TR-707 drum sounds thrown in for good measure.
SH-101, MC-202, TB-303: The Numbered History of Roland
For dance music producers, few instruments get the heart rate up like the numbers series, the x0x machines, that Roland released in the 1980s. As we’re focusing on synths and not drum machines, we’ll skip the higher-numbered entries (sorry 606, 707, 808 and 909) and go straight to the sequential first, the SH-101.
You may recall that Roland’s first synth was the SH-1000. The SH moniker is a go-to for Roland, one that still continues to this day. One of the most famous is the SH-101, a monosynth from 1982 that was popular first with synth poppers and later with techno heads. Small and plastic and released in a number of different fun colours (collect ‘em all!), the SH-101 is the kind of instrument that sounds much better than it has any right to. The simplicity of the signal path (single VCO oscillator, usual filter, single VCA and LFO) works in its favour, resulting in a sound that is clean yet powerful. Thanks to its sub oscillator options and onboard digital sequencer, it’s especially capable in the bass department.
Speaking of sequencers, in 1983 Roland chopped the keys off an SH-101, added some Casio-like keyboard buttons, and called it the MC-202. While not as popular as the 101, if you needed an extra acid box, you could do a lot worse.
Everybody Needs a 303
Speaking of acid. Few failures have been as successful as the TB-303. First shipped in 1981 and discontinued a few years later, this mini monosynth/sequencer package was famously intended to be used as the bassline accompaniment for practising guitarists (ideally paired with the lookalike TR-606 drum machine). However, it was even more famously adopted by dance music producers in Chicago looking for cheap gear. By focusing on its ridiculously tweakable sound and slide/accent sequencer quirks, it made the perfect psychedelic bassline generator.
D-50 and JD-800: The LA Synthesis Era
As Olivia Newton-John didn’t sing, “Let’s get digital.” Yamaha’s DX7 changed everything with its FM synthesis and other manufacturers were left scrambling, working their R&D departments into the ground to find something that could compete. For Roland, the answer lay down a different digital road than Yamaha: sampled sound.
Sampling was nothing new in the late ‘80s. Fairlight had the first big sampling hit with its CMI way back in 1979, and Roland itself debuted its first sampler, the S-50, in 1986. The company took this know-how, combined it with a nascent kind of virtual analogue to create Linear Arithmetic (LA) Synthesis and packed it inside 1987’s D-50. This sleek, black machine could create new and unheard sounds with striking realism. The key was the attack portion of the sound, which came courtesy of a short PCM sample. It was a massive hit and blew Yamaha’s FM endeavours out of the water, establishing a new era in the history of Roland.
Roland would continue to refine LA Synthesis over the next few years with its zenith being the JD-800. Designed by engineers hungry to bring back real-time control, 1991’s JD-800 was absolutely festooned with sliders. All digital, it featured a similar combination of transient samples and VA synthesis that you could stack in up to four layers (or play separately via MIDI). It also featured a multi-effects section that was pretty comprehensive for the time. Aside from some big-name musicians and producers, however, the high price kept many musicians away.
JP-8000: No One Super Saw This Coming
Roland continued with advancements in sample and synthesis, with the JV series particularly popular. But in the midst of the PCM party in 1997, the company released an instrument that had an unexpectedly big impact: the JP-8000. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and from our 21st-century vantage point, it’s easy to see that the JP-8000 was a long time coming. With analogue-fetishising dance music becoming more and more mainstream, and physical modelling technology leading directly to virtual analogue synthesis, the time was ripe for a more digital take on vintage-style synthesis.
With 12dB and 24dB/octave multimode filters (digital of course), chorus and delay (also digital), and plenty of hands-on controls, it fit the bill perfectly. But it was one of its digital oscillator waves, the Super Saw, that made the JP-8000 a must-have instrument for trance and other big-room dance music producers. Achieved by stacking detuned sawtooth waves, it sounded gargantuan and has become a standard sound in its own right.
Aira, Boutique and ZEN-Core: Updating, Miniaturizing and Digitizing the History of Roland
As with other manufacturers, much of Roland’s modern output has revolved around reinterpreting older instruments for a modern age. This has seen the company take many of its classics, such as the TB-303, and re-release them in both the dance-music-focused Aira range and miniaturized Boutique line. Analog purists consistently bemoan this digital reinvention but it hasn’t seemed to hurt the company’s bottom line.
Roland has also embraced plugins, converting many of its most famous instruments into soft synths to use in DAWs. This lineup now also includes Zenology, an original plugin that is part of what Roland calls ZEN-Core, a synthesis ecosystem that encompasses software and hardware ranging from the Jupiter-X and Jupiter-Xm, the Juno-X, the Fantom line, MC-101 and MC-707, and more.
The most recent synth from Roland, 2023’s SH-4d, continues the SH line 50 years after it debuted. With emulations of oscillators from the Juno-106 and SH-101, plus PCM samples taken from the JV and XV series, as well as new virtual analogue, FM and wavetable engines, it encapsulates a little bit of everything Roland synthesizer, past, present and future.
Roland Cloud Zenology Pro Download
There was a lot more that we wanted to cover in our history of Roland but with so many releases, there was no way we could get it all. Which of your favourite Roland synthesizers did we omit? Let us know in the comments!
More about Roland:
- Roland SH-1000: Matrixsynth
- Roland System-100: Wikipedia
- Roland Jupiter-8: Wikipedia
- Roland Juno-60: Wikipedia
- Roland SH-101: Wikipedia
- Roland TB-303: Roland
- Roland D-50: Wikipedia
- Roland JP-8000: Wikipedia
- Roland Aira lineup: Roland
- Roland SH-4d: Roland