December 7, 2012

The Roland Synth Story – Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College

Well, it is unfortunate that I wasn't in the UK while this Roland Synth Story thing was going on but luckily Mild Slopes has a corespondent over there, Samuel Hunt. Sam was kind enough to take some photos and write up a lovely article about the experience. Thanks so much Sam!  Here it is:

A bitingly chilly night in London blessed Roland UK on their 2nd night of a 3 day UK tour. The 28th of November 2012 marked the evening Roland UK dug into it's deepest and dustiest closets to bring Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College some truly outstanding vintage hardware.

As I entered the college building, a spiral staircase lead to a wonderful range of instruments which were available to play. Here, before the presentation, I finally got to try out the legendary TR-808. One thing that always amazes me when I physically see Vintage Roland gear for the first time, is the shear size of them. The TR-808 was so much bigger than I was anticipating, but the 909 stunned me the most. It's only an inch or so smaller (lengthways) than the SH-101! It just makes me think what could be going on behind the pretty faces of these huge drum machines.

The main piece of equipment I was looking forward to seeing/playing wasn't there, which was quite disappointing. Though the advertisements for the event stated a Jupiter 4 would be present, only the 6 and 8 models were to be seen (which is not a bad thing). Maybe Roland's was broken, seeing as the SH-1000 that was nobly sat between 2 newer, digital keyboards was pretty beaten up...

The electronics available to play in the foyer were a mixture of older and newer gear, the Roland: TR-808, Jupiter 50, Gaia SH-01, D50, SH-1000, Juno 60, V Synth GT, Jupiter 6, JP 8000, JX-8P with PG800 Sequencer, JD800 and Integra 7 Sound Module/rack unit.

After I had finished exploring the older products on offer I proceeded to the lecture theatre, where more Roland goodies were stationed.

The equipment on the stage (From Left to right):

Roland: TR-909, a grey SH-101, Juno 106, TB-303, TR-727, Jupiter 8, Jupiter 80 with 2 ipad virtual-control surfaces, a system 700 Lab with 701a keyboard, Doepfer Dark Time sequencer and a Line 6 M9 stomp box effects modeller.

The lecture was presented by Sean Montgomery, Roland's senior Products Manager for the UK. The evening was based around the time line of Roland products, starting from the very beginning, when Ikutaro Kakehashi started Ace Electronic Industries Inc.

The most important and groundbreaking machines were featured in the timeline, a presentation that spanned more than 40 years ofroland instruments. I think it was a little sad they only briefly touched on the SH model line, and the RS products didn't get mentioned. However lot's of little pieces of information I never knew cropped up about various models. A very interesting one was said about the SH-101, apparently it is a monophonic version of the Juno 60. I was very surprised at this because I would never had said the 101 sounds like the 60. I've tried to achieve the sorts of sounds my 101 is capable of on the Juno 60, and it's just not possible. But I think this could be an example of the beauty of Roland's older instruments, were they have designed a machine to sound like or behave like a currently existing instrument, and instead of it actually sounding or behaving like they intended, something new and beautifully unintended was born. Another notable example of this is the TB-303.

Interesting fact #2: The Jupiter 4 was designed as an organ top synthesizer. Who knew!

Interesting short clips were shown throughout the timeline. The SH-1000 had a very short video of being used on the now-defunct English television programme Blue Peter. A very grainy and pulsing video demonstrated the preset flute sound found on this instrument. It was hauntingly nice.

When the timeline reached the System 700, Richard Barbieri (from the bands Porcupine Tree and Japan) took to the stage and briefly ran through the process of making a sound on his System 700 lab. He created some truly lunar and otherworldly sounds from this dark machine, I thought the 700 was going to be close in sound to a system 100m, but now I don't think this is true.

Gareth Bowen was next to step to the stage once the evening reached the Jupiter 8 mark. He quickly demonstrated the famous brass and pad sounds that apparently many people strive for. One of the outputs was broken, and halfway through a progression the synth came booming through the speakers and nearly took the crowds heads off. He was a brilliant player, and after a little research, I found he spent 9 years playing piano in Buckingham Palace!

After the vintage Jupiter saga, Graham Massey from 808 state and Jody Wisternoff of Way Out West performed an impromptu collaboration and demonstration of the Roland SH-101, TB-303, Juno 106, TR-909 and 727. Everything was synched up to each other and the outcome was a very heavy acidy-dance track. I wouldn't say I was a fan of this kind of electronic music, and this was the first time i'd heard of 808 state, Way Out West and Japan for that matter. But these musicians swear by Rolandinstruments and glided around their unique interfaces with natural ease. I admired this. The TB-303 bassline was programmed within seconds by Jody, and from what I understand, that is very impressive.

Interesting fact #3: Graham pointed out an overlooked function of the 909. It has a sequencer built into it. A separate and very simple sequencer for an external instrument that can be used along side the drum sequencer. This is a great tool if you wanted to simply and quickly add a bassline underneath a newly created drum beat, or it could save you from buying a separate sequencer depending on how you write/perform.

The Roland timeline of products went through the 90's, 2000's and up to today. The finale was a masterful version of the James Bond theme performed by Gareth on the Jupiter 80 and Jupiter 8, which was nice to see them up against each other. When he was comparing 'exact' sounds on each model I felt the Jupiter 8 was more endearing and characteristic, but that's not to say the Jupiter 80 didn't sound great. It uses some very interesting technology so it can recreate natural behaviours of acoustic instruments such as violins and brass. The trumpet emulation could have fooled anyone in the room, it was extremely life-like. Sean mentionedRoland being under fire for naming the instrument the Jupiter 80, but he explained it is not a reincarnation of any Jupiter instrument, though it can behave very similar to them.

The night rounded off with a question and answer session to the guest performers and Roland UK team. Most questions were uninteresting to me, a lot of specific queries on certain 808 State albums and so forth. Though an Irish fellow asked the last question, one that sparked an interesting response. He asked Sean Montgomery if Roland would ever make any of their old gear again. He joked and tried to avoid the question, but honestly admitted that they will not. Roland has many beliefs, and one is that they always head forward with their musical instruments, and not step back. Sean explained Mr Kakehashi feels strongly about this, and as he is still alive, 'it' wouldn't happen. I feel this was taken by many people in the audience as an extremely subtle hint, though I could be wrong. Who knows what could happen in the distant future? Would it be a good thing if 'it' did happen?

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