Roland Sys­tem 500 Se­ries Mod­ules

Bruce Aisher takes a look at the re­cently ex­panded Roland 500 Se­ries mod­u­lar range. Can they cap­ture that ’70s magic?

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

The mod­u­lar re­nais­sance sees no sign of abat­ing, and Roland, it seems, are keen to en­sure we don’t for­get their sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the patch­able syn­the­sis pan­theon. Although Roland haven’t been shy of re­vis­it­ing past ana­logue glo­ries, this has mainly come in the form of a range of dig­i­tally-mod­elled de­vices. Some of this DSP re­search also went into Euro­rack units, but it was the an­nounce­ment in 2015 that Roland, with the help of Malekko Heavy In­dus­try Cor­po­ra­tion, would be re­leas­ing some ‘real’ ana­logue mod­ules that re­ally got the purists ex­cited. The first wave of Roland’s mod­u­lar re­birth in­tro­duced five sep­a­rate mod­ules, and a ‘Com­plete Set’ pack­age with all of them built into a pow­ered wood and me­tal Euro­rack case, and sup­plied with a bun­dle of patch ca­bles to get you started. Ear­lier this year, news came that the range was to ex­pand fur­ther to in­clude four new mod­ules. While this means that pre­vi­ous ‘Com­plete Set’ own­ers will have to start sav­ing again to com­plete their col­lec­tion, it is good news for us, and shows Roland’s will­ing­ness to keep the ana­logue flame alive.

This brings us to the Roland 500 Se­ries. These are de­signed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Malekko in the US and built in Ja­pan, largely in­flu­enced by the orig­i­nal Sys­tem 100m mod­ules. The ini­tial five mod­ules (512, 521, 530, 540 and 572) were very closely aligned with their fore­bears (112, 121, 130, 140 and 172), the sec­ond tranche how­ever – not in­clud­ing the 510 and 531 – moves a lit­tle fur­ther from the orig­i­nals. The 505 VCF has no di­rect vin­tage mod­u­lar ver­sion, and takes its cue from the fil­ter sec­tion of the Roland SH-5 synth. The 555 com­bines fea­tures found in the 150 and 165.

Re­mem­ber: Euro­rack mod­ules are much smaller than their ’70s Roland coun­ter­parts. To fa­cil­i­tate this shrink­age, and em­ploy up-to-date man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques, they use two pig­gy­backed printed cir­cuit

boards and sur­face-mounted com­po­nents (with the ex­cep­tion of a lowly ‘full-size’ MN3007 de­lay IC on the 572 mod­ule). The front board hosts the pots, faders, but­tons, switches and sock­ets, whilst the rear board takes care of the sig­nal gen­er­at­ing and pro­cess­ing magic. Some will balk at the use of SMDs, though for them it will be a case of pay­ing a pre­mium for orig­i­nal vin­tage units or noth­ing at all. For the rest of us, the com­po­nents, when used in nearly all au­dio fre­quency cir­cuits, can be thought of as ef­fec­tively equiv­a­lent. One big down­side to minia­tur­i­sa­tion comes with the front-panel el­e­ments. The bot­tom line is that there is far less space within which to work, and an in­creased den­sity of ca­bles when patch­ing, which in turn makes read­ing and ac­cess­ing con­trols more fid­dly. I also missed the painted lines around func­tional blocks within a mod­ule, and more ex­pan­sive de­scrip­tive text, from the 100m. I get Roland’s rea­sons for choos­ing the Euro­rack for­mat, but this does mean pro­gram­ming is trick­ier at times.

A good place to start within the 500 Se­ries is the 510 SYNTH mod­ule. This is a 20HP mod­ule fea­tur­ing com­bined VCO, VCF and VCA sec­tions. Some of the sock­ets are in­ter­nally patched, so you can get a ba­sic sound out with min­i­mal fuss. With only this mod­ule play­ing, results were ex­cel­lent from the start. Patch­ing the square wave though, the (24dB/oc­tave) fil­ter de­liv­ered a sat­is­fy­ing res­o­nant squelch. Nudg­ing Res­o­nance up even­tu­ally ends in self-os­cil­la­tion, mak­ing the fil­ter very flex­i­ble. Switch­ing to the Square wave and in­tro­duc­ing an ex­ter­nal LFO patched to mod­u­late Pulse Width was equally good, and al­lowed me to con­jure up some of the warm, wa­ver­ing, low tones rem­i­nis­cent of my beloved SH-02. So far so good, and if you aren’t in the mar­ket for spend­ing huge sums on mul­ti­ple mod­ules this should make a great buy.

If you’re look­ing at a self­con­tained mod­u­lar sys­tem pack­age, then the ‘Com­plete Sys­tem’ makes a de­cent op­tion. It con­sists of the 512 Dual VCO, 521 Dual VCF, 530 Dual VCA, 540 Dual En­ve­lope & LFO and 572 Phase Shifter/Ana­logue De­lay/CV

Don’t want to spend huge sums on mul­ti­ple mod­ules? This makes a great buy

Gate De­lay/LFO, all housed in a very fetch­ing cus­tom case. As men­tioned, these are all closely re­lated to sim­i­lar mod­ules on the orig­i­nal 100m. The 512 adds sep­a­rate out­put jacks for the wave­forms (square, tri­an­gle and saw) in each VCO sec­tion, but oth­er­wise main­tains the pulse width CV mod­u­la­tion and two os­cil­la­tor sync op­tions. CV pitch-track­ing is good, and tonally the mod­ule does what you’d ex­pect. The 521’s two 24dB/ oc­tave fil­ters are sim­i­lar to that in the 510, but this time with a few more op­tions for mod­u­la­tion patch points. As the in­put faders are pushed, some sat­is­fy­ing sat­u­ra­tion be­gins to oc­cur. A sim­i­lar thing hap­pens with the 530 VCAs. Both let you add dirt or warmth, and sound great. Each VCA has three in­put mixer slid­ers, three slid­ers for mix­ing CV con­trol sig­nals and a se­lec­tor switch for lin­ear or ex­po­nen­tial re­sponse modes. The 540 En­ve­lope Gen­er­a­tor and LFO has two in­de­pen­dent ADSR en­ve­lope sec­tions (with two speed set­tings and ‘nor­mal’ and in­verted out­puts) which can be trig­gered ex­ter­nally from a Gate sig­nal or man­u­ally via an on­board but­ton. One nice ad­di­tion to this mod­ern ver­sion is the abil­ity to switch into an LFO-like cyclic mode, with the shape and fre­quency de­ter­mined by the At­tack and Re­lease times. The LFO sec­tion fea­tures five wave­form out­put, LFO start, re­set and de­lay and CV con­trol of fre­quency. The fi­nal part of the ‘Com­plete’ bun­dle con­sists of the multi-func­tion 572 Phase Shifter, De­lay and LFO. There is noth­ing like a phase shifter for ad­ding move­ment to puls­ing or se­quenced synth lines. This Roland ef­fect does a good job, and goes fur­ther than the orig­i­nal 172 mod­ule by of­fer­ing a wet/dry mix con­trol (with patch­able CV con­trol). The de­lay sec­tion, driven by a BBD IC, is great for creat­ing cho­rus and flang­ing ef­fects. In­creas­ing the de­lay time be­yond the lim­its of the De­lay Time con­trol, things get pro­gres­sively more lo-fi, and with the high-pitched tone of the clock­ing cir­cuit be­com­ing au­di­ble. The Gate De­lay can be used as a pulse shaper or for de­lay­ing a pulse source. The sim­ple tri­an­gle-only LFO fea­tures both nor­mal and in­verted out­put jacks, and is ideal for mod­u­lat­ing the de­lay time and phase shift. As a pack­age, the ‘Com­plete’ set is a great way of ac­cess­ing the core vin­tage-style Roland tone, and would work well within an ex­ist­ing mod­u­lar setup. One big omis­sion for me, though, was the lack of any Mul­ti­ple mod­ule. The orig­i­nal 100m had nine four-way mul­ti­ple jacks along the lower por­tion of its front panel. This made com­plex patch cre­ation much sim­pler.

The most ex­cit­ing of the re­main­ing 500-se­ries mod­ules for me is the 505 VCF, based around the fil­ter sec­tion of Roland’s SH-5, a mono­phonic beast of a synth. The 505 has two VCFs and two VCAs. VCF1 is a multi-mode fil­ter (LP, BP, HP) and VCF2 band-pass only, with the out­put from each ca­pa­ble of be­ing mixed to ei­ther VCA. Tonally, this is quite dif­fer­ent from the fil­ter on the 510 and 521 mod­ules, so it’d make a nice ad­di­tion if you al­ready have a ballsy low-pass fil­ter in your ar­moury. The 531 MIX mod­ule is in­spired by the orig­i­nal 131, but adds more in­puts (with mute), CV con­trol of pan and a stereo mini-jack mic/line preamp nor­malled to in­puts 5&6. The rel­a­tively unglam­orous, but very useful, 555 LAG/S&H mod­ule com­bines fea­tures of the 150 and 165. While the noise sec­tion and ring mod­u­la­tor are the only au­dio gen­er­a­tor/pro­ces­sors here, the in­clu­sion of por­ta­mento and sam­ple & hold are both great – and an ex­tra LFO will al­ways come in handy.

The re­turn of Roland to the ana­logue mod­u­lar fray is only to be wel­comed, and the qual­ity of all the units in the 500 Se­ries is high. That said, this at­ten­tion to de­tail comes at a price, and the choice will de­pend on your wal­let. Not­with­stand­ing the size of the mod­ules – which can be lev­elled at most Euro­rack units – these were a plea­sure to use. If you’re look­ing to add some of the famed son­ics to your ex­ist­ing setup, then the 510 Synth Voice Mod­ule would make a great pur­chase. Want the com­plete magic? Buy them all!

CON­TACT PRIC­ING: WHO: Roland WEB: roland.co.uk SYS­TEM-500 Com­plete Set (in­cludes 512, 521, 530, 540, 572 + case, PSU and patch ca­bles): £1,979, 510 SYNTH: £389, 505 VCF: £349, 512 VCO: £309, 521 VCF: £309, 530 VCA: £309, 531 MIX: £389, 540 ENV/LFO: £309, 555 LAG/S&H: £349, 572 PHASE & DE­LAY: £309

512 VCO 521 VCF 510 SYNTH 531 MIXSmall mix­ers aren’t that glam, but this one has some pretty useful fea­turesShort on mod­u­lar space? This puts el­e­ments of the 512, 521 and 530 mod­ules in one mod­uleTwo in­de­pen­dent sec­tions with two 24dB/oc­tave low-pass fil­ters and switch­able high-pass sec­tionsTwo os­cil­la­tors with in­de­pen­dent wave­form out­puts and in­di­vid­u­ally tun­able fre­quency ranges

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