GAIA SH-01 Synthesiser

25 March 2012 | 1:15 pm | Baz Bardoe

I love Roland gear. Something like 95% of the sounds on my albums come from Roland kit. In terms of the history of electronic music , the company has been integral. Units like the 909 drum machine and TB303 bass synth are synonymous with techno, and so widely copied it is ridiculous. So in order to produce a piece of hardware that is true to this legacy, but also adds something in terms of a progression, it needs to be incredibly special and I am happy to
say that the GAIA SH-01 is precisely that.

This is a truly great synthesiser on several different levels and instantly ticks the main boxes for me. The first thing is that the controls are logically laid out and there are knobs and sliders, rather than fiddly hidden menus. Ergonomically it is great. Then there's the sounds. The quality is great and the preset banks give you an instant view of the sheer range of sounds this unit is capable of. The manual come sin two parts with the first small version being a quick start version and the second one being  a bit more detailed. One of my biggest gripes with hi tech equipment is illogical and confusing manuals. Roland have created something that is logically laid out, with clear step by step directions. Words are backed up by colour pictures with a little finger pushing the relevant button or whatever. It is SO simple to follow, and yet also informative. This is how you do manuals. Musicians want to get playing as quickly as possible.


So let's start with the amazingly intuitive controls. If you are reading this chances are you love synthesis and would know that there are three elements to sound, namely pitch, brightness and volume, controlled by the OSC (Oscillator), FILTER and AMP sections. These are laid out from left to right across the top, with each section defined by an orange margin. To the left of the OSC section is a LFO control, and to the left of that a section where you can choose which of three tones you are going to work with. (Each sound on the GAIA can comprise three tones and the huge64 note  polyphony means you can hold down as many keys as you like and not have any notes drop out.) To the right of the AMP section there is an effects area where you can add all the classics such as delay, reverb, distortion etc. There is a facility for a line in, and yes…..on the extreme left there is one of those theremin like D-Beam devices that Roland has become so fond of  lately. Across the middle are the buttons allowing you to choose different banks, the arpeggiator, and octave.

The thing which really impresses me with the GAIA is how logical and intuitive the layout is. I always think of synthesis as being like building with blocks, with each component of the sound being adjusted and added the previous. Roland have laid out the various components across the top so you can easily work from left to right, and there are sliders and knobs. I can not emphasise enough how great it is to have it all laid out in plain site – no multiple clicks on knobs to access hidden menus and parameters. And as Brian Eno once pointed out, part of making music is the physical interaction with the music making equipment. Brian would approve of these controls I suspect.

The key attribute of any synthesiser however is the sound quality and in the case of the GAIA it is just magic. There are 64 preset sounds and room for 64 of your own as well as the capacity to record phrases. The factory presets cover the gamut of classic synth sounds, from rich pads to squealchy bleeps, strident leads and even a pretty decent distorted 'guitar'. The Achilles heel of most analogue modelling synths is the cutoff and resonance knobs. These are vital for creating those 'buildups' that make a dancefloor go crazy, or spacey ambient atmospheres. Whatever your fancy, the problem with some analogue modelling is you can hear the little 'steps' between each  variation in the sound, but this is just ridiculously smooth and fluid. I love analogue sounds and this is just so authentic – rich and deep tones are at your command and no matter what adjustments you make, it behaves in a very analogue way. Ryuichi Sakamoto would be able to tell the difference, but not too many others I suspect. It is in short, an absolute delight. I just love how easy it is to create sounds that belong on my next ambient album, and how addictive and completely satisfying it is.

It is a brilliant standalone piece of kit, but it does have MIDI and USB so you can make it 'talk' with other gear or your computer. You can even use it as a DAW controller, and a V-Link function gives interactivity with visuals. In short it is loaded with features, and works well as part of a team or on its own. Roland have not exactly swamped the marketplace with products like these. The impressive JP 8000 came out in 1997 as I recall, and the more recent SH 201 didn't capture the public's imagination for whatever reason, but the GAIA well and truly restores Roland's reputation as THE MAN when it comes to electronic music making. With a very competitive price, and a great look it really is a winner. It is just so refreshing to come across a bit of gear that sounds great and is designed for intuitive use, with a manual that is incredibly straightforward. I love it and will be buying one. It is a real gem.

• 37 keys (velocity sensitive)

• 64 voices

• Patch Memory- Preset: 64, User: 64


• Knobs/Sliders: PITCH, DETUNE, Pulse Width,

• Pulse Width ModulationEnvelopeAttack, Decay,   • Envelope Depth


• DIST Distortion, Fuzz, Bit Crash

• FLANGERFlanger, Phaser, Pitch Shifter

• DELAYDelay, Panning Delay
(with tempo sync function)

• REVERBReverb

• LOW BOOST Low Boost.

• ControllersPitch Bend/Modulation lever.

• D BEAM Controller

Power Supply:
DC 9 V (AC Adaptor or rechargeable
nickel-metal hydride AA batteries x 8)
• Batteries sold separately.
• Zinc-carbon batteries or alkaline batteries                 cannot be used.

Owner's Manual, Guide Book, CD-ROM (USB DRIVER), DVD Video, AC Adaptor (PSB-1U),
Power Cord