Early thoughts on the Roland System 8

My name is Dave Gardner and I work for Roland as a product specialist in Red Dog Music. Last month I was lucky enough to hear and see the full range of new Roland products that are part of the “The Future Redefined” product launch.

As someone who loves synths and all things electronic, there was one product that I was looking forward to especially… I am proud to present a review of the Roland System 8! So, what is it exactly? Why is it so special and what on earth does it do? Read on my friends and I will reveal all!

In order to “Redefine the Future” let’s cast our mind back a little to February 2014. Roland wowed the world when they launched AIRA, an amazing, unique range of products. The TR8, TB3, VT3 and SYSTEM 1. These completely changed what it means to create an analogue modelling device thanks to a brand new and very important technology called ACB or Analogue Circuit Behaviour.

There’s many definitions for ACB flying about the web but let’s sum it up in a sentence because it’s central to the System 8 (and one or two other sneaky products) that are being launched as we speak.Roland System-8
“Analogue Circuit Behaviour models the individual components of analogue synthesisers so that, without compromise, the sound, behaviour and crucially, the character of analogue and classic instruments is created as you play”.

So now we’ve done our homework, let’s look at the Roland System 8 in a bit more detail starting with what it actually is!

The System 8 is a 49 key, eight voice polyphonic synthesiser containing Roland’s most advanced version of the ACB sound engine to date. Like a System 1 on steroids, it is a totally unique synth in its own right. New oscillators, controls and features, which we will look at later, all combine to make an excellent instrument capable of earth shattering sounds. In addition to this it can host 3 polyphonic “Plug Out” Synthesisers. You may remember that term from classic AIRA machines such as “SYSTEM 1” and “Son of System 1 – SYSTEM 1M”. Put simply, you can host 3 classic Roland Synthesisers inside the System 8 and the best part is…

You get a Jupiter 8 and a Juno 106, built in. FOR FREE!!

I’m just going to let you breathe that in for a second…

Roland System 8

Back in the room? Excellent, let’s talk about how it sounds starting with the oscillator section. There are 2 main oscillators each with 6 waveforms and two variations to choose from plus a third oscillator which generates a sine or a triangle wave and doubles as a sub oscillator. Additionally, there is a noise generator which produces white or pink noise. Each of these oscillators has several sources of modulation including, the LFOs, pitch, filter and amp envelope generators. With 8 note polyphony, there’s a great sonic palate to draw upon.

Thanks to ACB, the filter section is incredibly versatile. The filters are smooth and seamless without stepping or any evidence of digital artefacts. However, the coolest thing is that they can model different types of filter. For example, using the Plug Out, we can exactly model the distinctive filter of a Juno 106 or using the variations, get the side band filter out of the V-Synth. Unlike the System 1, the System 8 is velocity sensitive and the filter can be activated via velocity. During the performance I watched, the level of expression was amazing. Having all of these analogue sounds controlled and played in a unique way really opened my eyes (and ears!) to the vast potential of this synth.

blog-system8roland02The sound can be enhanced further, thanks to the effects section which includes specially modelled distortions, taken from the circuitry of the legendary Boss compact range. A modulation and delay section, gives you access to a range of delay, chorus, and other modulation effects bringing additional richness and warmth to any patch. Finally, the reverb and ambience section was particularly nice. The modelled reverbs and ambient effects bring a vastness to what is already a giant sounding synth. For want of a better term, they sound EPIC!

The additional polyphony on the System 8 really adds to the performance possibilities and this is especially cool because it can be utilised in some really interesting ways. Firstly, the synth can be split in two or layered. Two different patches can be played at any one time and crucially, it’s really easy to edit each of them quickly thanks to dedicated panel select buttons. The sequencer section is polyphonic as well and you can create up 64 note sequences. Sequences can be played forwards, backwards, alternatively, randomly and via key triggering. Once you’ve created your sequence, you can then play chords and control the key that the sequence is playing in! This is so useful for live performance, particularly if you are using other gear and have your hands full. Thirdly, the “Chord Memory” allows you to play chords by playing one key at a time. Different inversions and variations can be recalled easily and quickly. Ideal if you’re not a keyboard player.

Roland System 8

The new Roland System 8

Now, time to talk about Plug Out! As I mentioned previously, the System 8 allows you to host up to 3 of Roland’s Plug Out Synthesisers. Essentially, this means that classic Roland Synths like the SH101, SH2, Pro-Mars etc. have be recreated using ACB technology. These can then be ported onto the System 8 and activated, essentially turning it into one of these classic instruments. They System 8 has a Juno 106 and Jupiter 8 included in the price. They sound remarkable and behave just like the originals. This really is Analogue Circuit Behaviour in action. Every characteristic and behavioural nuance happens as you play and is enhanced by the System 8’s additional features like the sequencer, effects section and CV/Gate out. Look at how much an original Jupiter 8 sells for. I recently saw a broken one on ebay for £3000! For less than £1300 you get a Juno 106, a Jupiter 8 and a totally unique and devastatingly powerful System 8 Synthesiser.

I can’t wait for this to land in the UK. It is a game changing product for analogue modelling synths and who knows where the ACB and Plug Out technology will take us in the future. I will be getting my name down for one as soon as possible! I’ll be sure to keep you informed of any updates, developments and most importantly stock availability and demonstrations! Please feel free to contact me here at the Edinburgh branch if you have any questions or would like to pre-order.

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17 Responses to “Early thoughts on the Roland System 8”

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  1. John says:

    Hi Dave. I’ve been thinking of buying a JDXA for a while but now I’m confused. Roland now have two 49 key, polyphonic synths on the market (Yes, JDXA is a dig/analog crossover, I know) and I’m trying to understand a company launching two at a similar price point, promoting both as “The” synth to have.. I have to say, from what I’ve heard from the System 8 (on a youtube review), the sound of the JDXA is far warmer and its capabilities more extensive. Being able to buy it at £1400, it makes me think this System 8 should be perhaps even slightly sub £1000.
    So my question is this: Which one is the better synth in your view and why?
    Thanks.

    • Dave Gardner says:

      Hi John, That is an excellent question and one which I asked the development team last month. I also plan to do a comparison between the two synths in the future blog post. In the short term, here’s my take on it.

      Despite their similarities, the JDXA and System 8 are very different instruments. First of all, have a think about what you are buying the synth for. What kind of sounds do you want to be able to create? The JDXA has a different signal path and an analogue section. It’s digital section uses SuperNatural modelling to create the sounds, allowing you to combine modelled synth waveforms and acoustic instrument sounds with 64 notes of polyphony. There’s huge potential from the multi FX too.

      However, the system 8 is a bit more of a wild beast! It is designed to behave like older synths thanks to ACB. It has a more aggressive sound and also a different signal path as well. Plus it hosts the plug out synth, making it totally unique.

      In an ideal world, I’d have both! However, if I was torn, I’d think really carefully about what I want to achieve with the synth. How do I want to use it? Where will it fit in my set up? what sort of sounds do I want to produce? I personally want a system 8 because I love the AIRA range and it would compliment my set up more than a JDXA would. However, if I want a larger palette of sounds and actual analogue circuitry then the JDXA is more sensible option. Hope this helps. Feel free to contact me at the store for a demo

      • John says:

        Thanks for that Dave. JDXA it will be then. My take is that, while you say it is designed to behave like older synths, I am presuming you mean the old analog ones but, it is not analog and it sounds “colder” than the JDXA which, as you say, IS analog circuitry. Plus the larger palette of sounds and the best of both worlds. The only issue(s) I have right now with the JDXA is its shiny black surface (I prefer the System 1/8 surface) and, though not a deal breaker, the lack of drums/percussion ala JDXi. While I have to say, once more, the (currently) £100 difference between the two is a strange one. Bottom line however, is that synths have oscillators, filters, LFOs etc and, as you state, what one ultimately looks for is that large palette of sounds and one synth either gives you more or sounds better than another or vice versa. There is only so much you can do to make one synth significantly different than another. Sine wave, Square, triangle and Sawtooth. Is there any limitation on the JDXA interfacing with other AIRA products rather than using the System 8?
        Thanks again.

        • polysixx says:

          @John – Get the JD-XA mate. It’s by far the better, more complete and much better sounding synth. You have to realise firstly you are asking a sales rep (Dave) who isn’t going to give you a no-go to either of them as his job is sales (and Roland). Now, the system 8 is a fine synth, but it’s really not giving you anything sound wise you can’t get from software. That is a fact no matter how anyone twists it. The sound is merely “OK” to my ears, I’ve owned a lot of real analog old and new (moogs, DSI, Old beautiful Rolands etc) and no VA, no soft synth no digital has ever truly captured the sound, feel, response of real analog. ACB is just a buzzword, it’s no more complex than the most advanced softsynths (Diva etc) and even they don’t sound amazing next to real analog, not on the fastest PC in the world so a small CPU inside a “hardware synth” isn’t going to either.

          With that out of the way, on to the JD-XA which you seem clearly interested in and I think you are right in your assessment on it’s warmer, fuller, richer, deeper and punchier sound. It was curious to note Dave’s take on the XA negating how important and great the true analog engine is in the JD-XA, he almost made it sound like some stuffy old rompler, it is not, it’s a synth that will give you EVERYTHING and I mean EVERYTHING the software synths inside System 8 can give you (except for more than 4 notes of polyphony on the analog) but it actually sounds proper doing it. I think the system 8, and the previous mono plug-ins sound just as flat as most VAs/softsynths, while the JD-XA has become my favourite all round synthesizer of over 50 I’ve owned! That takes some doing.

          After I got the XA I sold off my Prophet 8, Moog sub 37, Juno 106, JX-3P and a couple of digitals, the XA does it all. It’s CLOSE to the old Junos/JX’s, it can get scarily close to the sub 37 but actually sounds better to me (8 stacked mono mode is a monster analog synth vs the mere 2+sub of the 37 and the DCO vs VCO barely matters in modern synths – the VCOs all sound quite static these days anyway). The JD-XA sounded the most musical of them all, it has far more range than Prophet 6 or OB-6, way more advanced spec vs those, much better control options/mapping, better modulation (3 LFOS inc the mod LFO which unlike system 8 can be left on with the extra wheels!). The list just goes on and on about why the JD-XA is completely undervalued vs the competition. With Prophet 6 now risen to £2400 it just makes the JD-XA even more of a bargain, esp as it can all but mimic most of what P6 can do anyway, inc dark menacing filtered drones with real bite and character, and unlike the DSI synths, it sounds very musical doing it, the DSI synths tend to sound quite harsh and unmusical in many cases no matter how you shape them.

          Back to System 8 vs JD-XA, I do feel it’s very wrong of Dave to tell you that System 8 is somehow ‘more aggressive’ or ‘wilder’ that is simply, utterly untrue. There is nothing inherent in the software engines of those emulations to make that so, on top of that because they ARE software they sound very weak/plastic/fake ESPECIALLY when getting aggressive with them! JD-XA sync sound is brilliant for example, but sounds very bad on the system 8 demos, system 8 has stepping on the osc freq sweep knob so you can’t manually sweep it smoothly to get ‘growl’ effects without it sound bad, the JD-XA is super smooth as it’s real analog and the controls are not stepped.

          The JD-XA can do super warm/fat jupiter style pads and leads, it can do moog-ish leads and bass, it’s very very punchy, more punchy than my Juno 106 was even! It’s up there with the Juno 60 on punch (fast rounded bass etc) and sounds very and completely analog while doing so (if you don’t drown it in effects of course). On system 8, it sounds… well, just like most soft synths, nice, cute but hardly the same feeling, emotion or depth. Please don’t listen to JD-XA nay-sayers, barely ANYONE inc reps have really understood what an amazing/powerful synth the JD-XA is and from Dave’s description I don’t think he has either, especially if he truly thinks any soft synth can get more aggressive than the 4 stacked 8 osc monster inside the JD-XA’s true analog engine with TRUE analog filters with proper, honest to goodness resonance response (inc a moog clone ladder filter on LPF2).

          Also, JD-XA has more modulation, it has more controls (wheels + roland stick) it has aftertouch, it has true analog which even at 4 voices is far far better than 8,12,16 fake analog voices that I can get any time out of a computer/soft synth. They will be releasing the Jupiter 8 / 106 as VSTis in due course and you’ll be able to, if you wish, use them exactly the same sound as system 8 (maybe minus FX) and control it brilliantly from the JD-XA which is a stunning software controller also!

          There are quite a few other areas that JD-XA surpasses System 8 in, but to shift System 8 people will speak of certain in-engine features that really don’t matter that much when we are talking about software. System 8 is just a handy way of having an ok/decent soft synth in a box without needing a computer, it’ll be worth nothing on the used market in a couple of years.

          JD-XA, a real analog (and digital that isn’t just typical VA but a very high quality SN *synth* engine – not acoustic as Dave wrongly pointed out thats on the integra not in the XA this one focuses only on synth sounds with a bare few non synth sounds included thankfully it’s a synth not a rompler), will be highly sought after as the real analog, and totally unique crossover synth it is (again the ability to get wild is through the roof thanks to that crossover – if you start modulating analog oscs with digital waveforms then on through real analog filters you are going to get far wilder and far nicer to the ears then any software/system 8 is going to give you and that’s a fact – they may get wild but they WILL sound flat, harsh, shrill – JD-XA’s real analog is close to Andromeda A6 leve for goodness sake, it can and will do wild but it can and will do warm, soft, retro, vintage too).

          Sorry if this is a lot of text and hopefully they will allow my post and not worry about it hurting System 8 sales, but I have to post this truth where I see people asking. The XA is misunderstood enough as it is but in time people will realise the unique synth they had on their hands and want to buy it for high prices on ebay, not so the system 8 (just look at everyone dumping the softsynth “botiques” and system 1s on ebay already!). JD-XA is a ‘for life’ synth that will grow with you, it surpases the sound and capabilities of synths twice its price and is a great analog engine. The system 8 and cute little fun toy versions of past glories (boutiques) are aimed at transient buyers who buy everything but are never happy or never really give any time to actually programming/learning. YOU sound like you know exactly why you want XA, and believe me it IS warmer, richer, punchier than any VA or software, I’ve compared it to many many synths, hardware and software, inc the system 1 mono plugs outs (they sound very uninspiring next to the JD-XA’s analog).

          I do like digital synths but only classy ones that do something other than mimic analog for the sake of it (and fail). I’m talking beautiful sound design classics like JD-800, V-Synth, Alesis Ion etc. The latter is a VA of course but it’s a special synth because of how it sounds and what it does, not because it can mimic a Jupiter 8 or try to. System 8 and the plugs are just photographs of the real thing. Buy characterful digital if you must, but for real analog feel, sound and vibe, always buy real analog! I’ve been through years of trying the next best thing to ultimately realise nothing beats a real juno 106, jupiter, moog or even JD-XA (which IS a valid analog itself).

          Hope this helps you and other readers. And yes the price difference between the two is silly. The System 8 should be sub £1000 at least. The JD-XA is 10 x the synth for just £150 more? lol. Bare in mind this is launch price, S8 will drop I guess to £899 within a year. Get JD-XA, learn it, and use it well and it’ll reward you, as it has me, daily for a long time now with new songs, ideas, hundreds of “wild” and retro sounds and all of them of the utmost sound quality.

          p.s article sounds like a standard sales pitch.

        • polysixx says:

          Oh and btw, concerning the shiny surface, no problem Roland are about to offer overlay covers that stick on under the slider knobs etc and give you a matt lexan style finish.

          Also if you do get a JD-XA, please please please ignore the vast majority of the presets. NONE of them hint at the power within and are a big cause of the misconception (esp as people buy one and do videos of it using just the presets) they sound quite bad actually.

          When you program it yourself, from an INIT patch, start out basic like a juno, bring in another osc, detune them, stick a little chorus on in the FX to add width and boom, there’s you already great sounding analog. Then you have an entire world of options to play with to make any sound you can imagine!

          Good luck!

  2. polysixx says:

    “Look at how much an original Jupiter 8 sells for. I recently saw a broken one on ebay for £3000! For less than £1300 you get a Juno 106, a Jupiter 8 ”

    That’s a bit misleading really, you are not “getting” a juno 106 nor a jupiter 8 at all. you are getting a quite pale imitation of real analog. Furthermore you are NOT going to be owning the classic, real unit, that is a large part of the resale value and price (as well as stunning, beautiful and always on point sound). This “you get a X synth Y Synth” has to stop really, it’s borderline criminal to write it in such a way that those who are not as clued up may genuinely think they have somehow put the ACTUAL real analog engines of those beautiful synths inside the System 8. And to suggest that software versions of them, are them, is likewise misleading. They really do not sound like them in very important ways, but they can make sounds “similar” to them, sure. They are not them. That is an always will be a fact.

  3. polysixx says:

    Lastly, do bear in mind when asking these questions to sales people the JD-XA has already had it’s “reduction” after launch so there is far less profit in selling one of those to a customer compared to the new, highly marked up system 8. If someone can steer you to buy system 8 over JD-XA they stand to make a lot higher profit until maybe a year from now when they reduce the price of the System 8 to the same margins they are currently getting on the JD-XA.

    Sorry if the sales guy doesn’t like my posts but I can’t help standing up for synth fans AND consumers. And I have a lot of experience in synths and a very good understanding of how sales and marketing works.

    It’s simple, 909 day and all of its products are created by a marketing angle. JD-XA was created from a passion angle by the ‘real’ synth division in Roland. It’s a big company and the system 8/aria team are not the V-Synth/JD-XA/D-50/Jupiter 8 team. That pretty much tells you what you need to know concerning choices.

    I’ve had all those flagship roland synths, jupiter 8, jx-10, D-50, JD-800, JP-8000 (not exactly flagship though), V-Synth and now JD-XA. I’ve still got JD-800 and V-synth and of course JD-XA. Those synths are the TRUE synths, they are not the fantom romplers, they are not the groovebox/marketing division aimed at baseball hatted millennials. If you want a real synth get the JD-XA.

    • John says:

      Hi Polysixx and thanks for the in depth reply and comments. I agree with you entirely while I also understood who I was asking the questions from (no disrespect to Dave there). I’m very well aware of sales/marketing and profit margins etc ;-). Dave and the sales guys are put in difficult positions with this kind of thing and, to an extent, I wanted to see how he’d handle it. Considering the “limitations” he has (due to working for Roland), I thought he did OK.
      But yes, to try and market a plug out software based synth as having true representations of Jupiters and Junos etc does s disservice to those instruments while it just is deceptive marketing.
      I had been told through a comment on youtube that Roland were introducing overlays for the JDXA. Not sure when but I’ll wait until available before buying. There is no doubt in my mind it is a marvellous synth and powerful – just get a little tired of watching Scott Tibbs playing his “I got something cool to show ya!” piece. lol
      Do you have a youtube channel where I can hear some of your stuff?
      Thanks again.

      • Greg says:

        I Own a Roland JD-XA and great headphones, monitors etc. I used to own a Jupiter 8 and Polysix for many years (still regret selling them).
        My ears go into meltdown when I mess about with the analogue side of the JD XA, it has so much to offer with each mono synth path, its huge alone – all 4 independent synths at once, seq some or all or poly stack and get 4 voices the same settings with 4 patches to change sounds relating to the individual settings of each of the 4 parts .
        The warm powerful sound snappy filters ENV and LFO’s (how many lfos, I count 3 per voice) and smooth changes when using all controls, larger than life sound to my VSTi stuff (fast Core i7 stacks of RAM, SSD drives and RME and Steinberg DA).
        Gives my Jupiter 80 a little slap on its big stacked sounds keeping up sonically with 1 voice on the JD, although I love my JP80 its one powerhouse I wont ever give up.
        One last point, the digital side and CROSSOVER. Yes that also sounds great (its SN after all), its powerful and when both the analogue side and SN, all the EQ and effects on offer get in the mix – The System 8 is absolutely a poor cousin (by Name only ‘Roland’)
        Ive heard demos on all in HD to try to hear what the System 8 sounds like compared and have to say it DOES sound cold and I can hear stepping (guess that’s why they have a couple of “hi res” knobs LOL)
        Go JD-XA unless they come out with a 6 or 8 voice JD soon.
        I hope this helps (almost a rant on the system 8, the layout is awesome, if it was analogue with its JP8 esc layout, i’d be saving right now!) and if it had the plug out side on top they would have sold out

  4. Alexio says:

    I am an analog snob. I think the Roland plug out pro Mars I bought is the closest sounding analog recreation. While diva does sound great it doesn’t sound half as good as Rolands ACB.

    • Greg says:

      Ok, I haven’t heard one in person yet so I’m not going to judge on it sonically, all demos I’ve heard in HD compared to the demos of the JD XA analogue side and JDs crossover patches the System8 sound was cold, a little stepped on the control side also. Early days, need to get hands on with one, I love its layout.
      Thanks.

    • Greg says:

      Is that also when Diva is in Divine mode when ACB sounds better?

      • /// Tom says:

        Cannot compare, as I haven’t received my ordered System-8 yet, but I would be extremely surprised if the new ACB 2 in the S8 didn’t surpass Diva. Diva (which I absolutely love) is getting a bit old and there are today other similar software utilizing similar heuristic computations used by Diva. The Boutiques (JP-08 and JU-06 in particular) are a good example, and so is the SH-2 plugout (although restricted to monophonic playing to give the limited procesor in the System-1 a fair chance to run it.

  5. melcdrofla says:

    Get a Casio!!!!!!

  6. AtomiX says:

    As an owner of a System 1, the ACB plugouts are very impressive. The SH101 and ProMars are simply fantastic. Also I must add, that the System 8 engine will be ‘more aggressive’ or ‘wilder than the JD-XA given the OSC types such as Noise Saw / Logic Operation/ FM and the Overdrive/Distortion effects. I’ve personally made some very raw bass patches using these OSC types.

  7. Hi Dave,

    Your ever adoring local customer speaking here, excellent blog there. I wanted to ask a little question, is if the system 1 will feature the Juno 6 and Jupiter 8 (not that I have a system 1 YET but I’ve been looking at it as soon as it came which I’m sure you aren’t surprised about) because I’m curious to know the comparisons. Is it a more powerful engine. Be sure to let me know, I’m interested in the system 1 because of the size.

  8. Synthguy says:

    I know I’m late to the party here, and coming from across the Pond, but I wanted to toss in two pence.

    I’m in complete harmony with what Dave is saying. I love both of these synths, and both are doing their own thing. The SN engine is fantastic as a VA, wish it had a good hard/soft sync feature though. Including the Jupiter/Integra samples is a very nice touch, and adds greatly to the soundmaking power of this synth. The analog section is heavenly, and I’ve programmed seamless patches layering analog and SN sections, fooling you into thinking the XA is a high voice count analog.

    The ACB engine is doing something very different, modeling electronics, and it’s doing this extremely well. Saying you can get the same quality in a softsynth… well sure, because many of them are doing circuit modeling too. Plus, the S-8 is doing some hefty DSP under the hood. Those trying to run the new Cloud Plugouts are finding them to be a bear on their CPUs. They sound great. I’ll allow those saying the Ju-106 Plugout is better than the Jupiter, but the JP-8 is still grand, and comparisons with the others sound pretty much spot on. On top of all that, the sequencer on the S-8 is better than the XA’s. Having only eight notes to play with is kind of a drag, but many analogs these days only offer six.

    I love the SN engine, and the ACB engine too. If I was to choose, I’d get the JD-XA – first. I can’t have just one. Unless lots of real time sequencer fiddling is your thing, then I’d say get the System-8. First. ;D

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