Roland System-1 Plug-Outs

Introduction

    I recently subscribed to Roland Cloud.  I'm enjoying it thoroughly!  As a result, I now have access to plug-outs for my System-1 that I never had before.  As such, now I can post a review of the Pro Mars, SH-2, and SH-101.  Before subscribing to the Roland Cloud, I wasn't really interested in any of the System-1 Plug-Outs because I prefer to have polyphony.  But I'm new to the realm of synthesizers, so I decided to give these a try once I got the Roland Cloud.
     I grew up listening to Chariots of Fire, and then fell in love with Enya and Vangelis as a teen/young adult.  (Plenty of Christian music in this time frame also used synthesizers, such as Whiteheart.) After purchasing my Roland System-1, I went on a quest to listen to all the chillwave, synthwave, darkwave/darksynth, and cyberpunk I could find on YouTube.  (By the way, YouTube Premium is the bomb!)  So I'm a new convert to the synthesizer world.
    Check out some sample sounds of the various Plug-Outs.
    Which Plug-Out do you think is the most useful?  Please vote here.
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    If you just want my patch collections, here they are.  Hand-picked for specific uses:

Mathematical Analysis: What Do They Have?

    I selected this because it has two oscillators, unlike the SH-101 Plug-Out, and because I have Roland Cloud.  I was able to install all their VSTs and look at what patches they had available, which is why I tried the Pro Mars.  Here's a mathematical perspective.  Note, I have installed all the "techno" patch sets for all of these Plug-Outs.

Plug-Out
Total Patches
Leads
Basses
Synths
Drums
Effects
Sequencers
Pads
PC
Pluck
Pro Mars
155
50*
38
28
7
22
10
0


SH-2
128
41
40
21
3
17
6
0


SH-101
150
41
44
9
6
23
10
0
9
8
System-100
192
37
40
21
5
50
29
8



* Note: this includes 10 "1979" patches, i.e. the original factory presets, which are sort of like leads.

    This is what I mostly based my decisions on.  I mainly play church music, so I want polyphony.  If not for the Roland Cloud, I would not have bought any of these Plug-Outs.  But because I have a subscription now, they're "free", so I figured, why not?  Anyways, so leads are about the only thing I can say with confidence that I would use.  I've never needed a huge bass patch for church, and I've been asked to do a synth lead maybe once, so it could happen.
    So if one was to base their decision on what plug-out is best based on what the majority of patch types are for each one, the SH-101 is intended for bass, the SH-2 for leads, the System-100 for sound effects, and the Pro Mars for leads. If you're looking for a piano patch, only the System-100 and the Pro Mars have one available from Roland (not that you couldn't make one yourself).  If you wanted to know which plug-out was best for Christmas music based on the number of bell patches included, the System-100 would be best, followed by the Pro Mars.
    Keep in mind, many reviewers say these Plug-Outs sound like their original 70s and 80s counterparts, but the exception is that now you have things they probably didn't have, like Bit Crusher and Scatter functions.  So it's a pretty nice advantage, even if the synths aren't perfectly reproduced due to the slight differences in controls.
    Based on this, I'll review each of them.  Keep in mind, you can click any of the icons below for the full size image.

ProMars

Pro Mars

     So I had to go read up about what the Pro Mars originally was, and why Roland put it out.  I didn't realize how cool it was, the heritage, etc.  I'm very pleased with how it sounds!
    When I went to build a set of 64, I was easily able to include only those patches which either sound ideal for church or ďcanĒ work for church with or without modification, and I didnít have to include any bass patches.
    I mainly like patches for church that include bells and possibly instruments that sound realistic enough.  However, I usually include anything that I think will sound good in church.  Probably the closest styles to church for patches, at least how my ears and tastes work, are chillwave and synthwave.
    I would like to say that the appearance of this VST is fantastic!  It's got a beautiful 70s vibe that isn't afraid of using color and wood grain.  Sure, sound is more important, but it's worth noting that the VST looks amazing.
    There are only two patches that claim to be bells, but the rest of the patches sound amazing.  The System-1 has eight or more bells, so I should have enough for Christmas.  The addition of a Timpani patch is actually really good, as some churches could definitely use something that provides Timpani.  Sure, it sounds slightly synthetic, but it can definitely substitute for real timpani.
     In selecting patches, I included the original 10 "1979 Promrs" series of patches as my first ten.  I already had a bass patch but I included this one because it sounded like pizzicato playing.  This first set of 10 is just perfect, and speaks to what the Pro Mars was intended for.  Out of 88 patches that could be useful, 41 are "very" useful, so 46%, which is higher than the SH-2.  This means I would only need to modify about 23 patches to get to a set of 64, so this takes less time.  Here is the set of ProMars patches that I selected for church use.
    The Pro Mars Plug-Out is definitely cool to have.  Because I put tons of pads and strings on my System-1, the Pro Mars works great for me.  Switching between the two takes two key presses and not one, unlike the System-8.  But at least the System-1 remembers which bank you were on, so it's not as bad.  I would like the ability to fast-switch, i.e. for the System-1's programming to remember which preset, System-1 and Plug-Out, I am using, that way I can switch to a lead I have already selected by using the Plug-Out button, rather than having to press that button and also the patch I want.
    I don't like portamento very much, but I tolerate those patches that have portamento, so long as thereís not so much that itís distracting.  Most real instruments, as well as the human voice, have various amounts of portamento.  But I just point it out: usually if it bothers me, I turn it and LEGATO off.  I like my leads a bit on the percussive side.
    The Prom Mars is beauty in simplicity.  Some of the patches, like "Ambient" and "Aurora," are great for Chillwave.  But you can still use scatter, Bit Crusher, and arpeggio abilities, as well as the octave range.
    The way to select detune is a little convoluted.  Basically, your OSC2 COLOR and TUNE knobs have been converted into detune knobs, A and B.  When the RING and SYNC buttons are off, no detune is enabled, meaning in manual mode you can leave these knobs in a detune position you like and then select them.  When the SYNC button is on, the COLOR knob is your detune.  When the RING and SYNC knobs are both on, your TUNE knob detune is in effect.  So, similar to what I hear about the original Pro Mars, your detunes are there for you to select while playing, for effect.  Turn them off, "boring" mono.  You could set one to a slight detune for a wider lead, and one to octave or fifth for an interesting lead.  Note that the (OSC2) TUNE knob seems to have more range than the COLOR knob, which I think is a recreation of the original?
    The Pro Mars had two oscillators, but seeing half the OSC2 controls extinguished was slightly ominous at first.  I read up on the architecture of the Pro Mars, so I think I understand how it works now.  But I'm still trying to figure out how to control which oscillator is detuned (like VCO-2 A/B tune controls).
    I want to see how the Pro Mars Plug-Out will work with MIDI.  Will it send tempo sync?  Will it receive tempo sync?
    Overall, the Pro Mars is great, but I can't imagine paying full price for this Plug-Out.  Donít get me wrong, Roland Cloud is cool.  This isn't because the Pro Mars Plug-Out isn't nice, but more because I'm currently in a part of the music industry that relies more on pads, strings, and other polyphonic things rather than on monophonic synthesizers.  But I love the old-school charm of the Pro Mars Plug-Out, and one day I want to dabble in Chillwave, where I'm sure I'll find this Plug-Out very useful.  Overall, I recommend the Roland Cloud, and I recommend this Plug-Out!
    Also, of all the Plug-Outs that I would be willing to put on the Roland System-8 I now own, this is the only one, and only because of the Timpani patch, ironically.  But because the System-8 comes with three Plug-Outs for free, the need for a monophonic ProMars almost doesn't exist, at least in a church environment.

Roland SH-2 Plug-Out

SH-2

    Moving on from the beautiful retro appearance of the Pro Mars, I moved on to the more industrial looking SH-2 Plug-Out.  This one also appealed to me because it has two oscillators.  And when I began to use it, I was glad to see OSC2 not blank out.
    I tried the SH-2 and found that it's very nice.  Although some of the way it's laid out doesn't yet make sense to me.
    Playing around with it in manual mode, it indeed has two oscillators, but OSC2 seems to have only three waveforms, one of which is noise.
    This thing indeed has some good sounds.  I enjoyed several of the patches.  But there seems to be fewer patches that are trying to emulate real instruments.  The bass patches are great, even though I probably won't need them in church.  Several of these bass patches sound great as leads if you take them up a couple octaves.
    But the controls are slightly wonky due to the System-1 being the interface.  The MONO and LFO buttons have four modes.  I recommend finding the Roland document on how the SH-2 Plug-Out works and reading it.  I wish Roland was still putting out the plastic Plug-Out overlays for the System-1: Iíd love to own one of each.  That would be very helpful.  Why Roland stopped making them, I have no clue.
    Overall, I can fill up the 64 memory positions on the System-1 SH-2 Plug-Out with enough leads and synths.  But there seems to be a little less "mojo" versus the Pro Mars and the SH-101.
    Of all the patches it comes with, 64 are useful for church, and 21 are "very" useful for church (meaning they probably don't require modification, for example), or 32%.  There's no piano patch, but I can probably synthesize one.
    This is a good Plug-Out.  And it seems to have great bass patches.  Nick Batt from Sonic State says that the SH-2 was originally meant to be a bass machine, and I think he's right.  Nick has decades of synthesizer experience.
    Nick Batt says the System-1 and SH-2 (or any Plug-Out) have only 8 patch memory.  Since his review of the SH-2 and the System-1, Roland has updated the software on the System-1.  Now the System-1 will hold 64 patches of its own, and each Plug-Out can also have 64 patches of its own, making the System-1 technically able to hold 128 patches at a time.  Keep in mind that all System-1 Plug-Outs are monophonic.  This could be useful if you capitalize on the Plug-Out for mono patches and the System-1 for everything else, such as a Plug-Out for leads and the System-1 for pads and stuff for chords.
    So the SH-2 is definitely good, but of all the Plug-Outs, to me itís the 2nd most useful Plug-Out, with the System-100 being the least useful to me.

Roland SH-2 Plug-Out

SH-101

    I was skeptical at first about the SH-101 Plug-Out.  At the time, I was thinking, maybe I should buy a Boutique SH-01A and get polyphony instead.  I assume that Boutique would have great pads.  But my wallet is smaller than my lust for synthesizers.
    With the Techno patch pack from the Roland Cloud, the SH-101 has enough leads and lead-like patches to fill up 64 patch memory in the System-1.  Mostly, I use this Plug-Out for leads.
    The SH-101 has such a cute, simple vibe that it's actually charming and fun to use.  The presets are beauty in simplicity.  It surprised me, and I fell in love with it.  I can see why this was once sold or included with the System-1, as this is a great contrast to the System-1ís ďcomplexity.Ē
    This Plug-Out might be a good way to learn synthesizers, as its simplicity makes it easy to understand.  It was fun mixing waves and moving around in manual mode.  My teenage son especially liked playing with this Plug-Out, though he mainly played with presets.
    I thought I would not like the SH-101, but turns out I like it a lot!  But between the Pro Mars and this one, my choice of the most useful Plug-Out, to me, was not easy.  I went with the Pro Mars because it has more church-friendly sounds, as well as a very useful timpani patch.  Other than the timpani patch, the difference in useful patches between the SH-101 and the ProMars is less profound.  If anything, the only thing that separates them in usefulness in church is the Timpani patch.  The ProMars patches sound more "refined" and "professional" to me, while the SH-101 patches sound more "juvenile" and "fun-loving.'  The SH-101 is a very strong contender.  And being able to use the VST in blue is quite charming: it looks fantastic that way.

System-100 Plug-Out

System-100

    I didn't include this Plug-Out at first because I didn't realize that it worked for the System-1.  So I got a bit excited when I first clicked Plug-Out and started going through the patches.
    However, I wasn't as satisfied with it.  For one, even though it has so many patches, and many of them sound good, some of them are "on" when you select them, making them unsuitable for a church environment.  To be fair, most of these were effects type patches, so I just excluded them.  But this doesn't mean the System-100 Plug-Out is bad: the patches are impressive, even if they wouldn't go well in church.
    Also, I noticed that it didn't have as many leads as I would like.  That's OK, to a point, because the synth and sequencer types can be used to "pad" the 64 memory locations.  Still, it's worth noting I only found 52 patches suitable for church, and only 10 (19%) were useful the way they came.  This means I would have to modify 54 patches to get to a set of 64 for church, and this would mean "radical surgery" on some.  In the System-100's defense, the ten that are included in a form ready for church are incredible: very beautiful shimmering bells and leads.  One could make the case that the System-100, especially I learn to use it better, could be very useful around Christmas time for its bells.  If I could synthesize the sound of sleigh bells, that would be incredible.  (At the time of writing, my current music minister at my church forbade us using sleigh bells LOL.)  These patches seem to underscore the fact that the System-100 seems to be designed to be a sound effects machine.  Maybe if I learn how to use this semi-modular Plug-Out, I can figure out how to make some awesome patches.  Listening to The Human League, I must at least give the System-100 the respect that it deserves.
    This plug-out has pads!  But of course they're monophonic on the System-1.  I was so excited to see "PD" in front of a couple, but then when they were monophonic, I felt disappointed.  I understand why, to a point: back in the era of The Human League, these pads needed to be overdubbed.  I understand, but it's slightly disappointing to see "PD" at the front of the patch name but not be able to use it in a polyphonic mode.
    Then I tried to learn how to use the System-100 Plug-Out in manual mode, and I got nothing.  No sound.  I pressed "get" on the Plug-Out VST and noticed no cables were shown.  This is problematic.  If I can't program something in from scratch while I am using it in the moment in a live music situation, it's less useful.  Sure, I could go and change a memory location that is suitable, but it's still sort of bothersome.  What I like about Plug-Outs is that they plug out, so I can take them somewhere without my computer.
    Maybe this semi-modular Plug-Out is above my skill level.  Maybe I'm not ready for that.  It's got a patch matrix as well, which I've never used before. Maybe this Plug-Out is out of my reach.  But at present, I can't use it very much in church.
    To be fair, the System-100 has excellent bell patches that would make it a very welcomed addition for Christmas events.  These bell patches are very impressive.  The rest of the patches are good leads and average synth patches, so compared to the other Plug-Outs, it feels less useful to me.
    Maybe I'm wrong, or too much of a newbie.  My experience using this Plug-Out was, of all the Plug-Outs, the most frustrating.  I need manual mode to work, and very easily.  In the end, it's good to have, but it's the least likely of all the Plug-Outs for me to use.  Maybe one day when I have the time, I can use it to create some realistic instrument patches.
    I can only bemoan my lack of time and synth knowledge, and reluctantly move on.  So ultimately, this Plug-Out is the least useful to me at this point.

Feature Analysis

    For those looking for specific instrument simulations that might be useful in church, here's a quick list of Plug-Out instrument patches.  Keep in mind, even if they attempt to simulate a real instrument, they're not going to be perfect.

SYSTEM
Trumpet
Cello
Clavichord
Bells
Organ
Timpani
Saxophone
Piano
Xylophone
Pro Mars
X

X
X

X
X
X

SH-2



X
/



X
SH-101



X





System-100

X*

X



X

* Not very realistic
/ Exists in a bass patch (i.e. change octaves)

Conclusion

    These VSTs alone make Roland Cloud worth it, to me.  What makes it even more appealing is their Loyalty program: every year you get to select a VST to keep forever.  In theory, you could subscribe for a year, get your free Plug-Out/VST at the end, and then unsubscribe, and still save money.  I plan to subscribe to Roland Cloud as long as I can, because it has so many wonderful features.
    All the Plug-Outs sound great with the System-1.  Of the ones I tried, I prefer the Pro Mars (despite the weird detune selection controls), followed by the SH-101 and the SH-2.  All of them work well, and do a good job expanding the System-1.
    What could Roland do to improve the Roland Cloud service?  Personally, more patches would be nice.  Like the Boss ME-80's patches from Michael Hodge, I'd appreciate Roland coming out with a bank or two (or an entire set of 64) of patches specifically for church for the System-1, System-8, and all their Plug-Outs.  Or maybe releasing my sets.  They have a tab in the Cloud dedicated to this, and their techno patches for the SH-101 do an excellent job adding more to the Plug-Outs.  I'd like to see even more patches offered in the Cloud, as well as for the System-1.  Though the System-1 currently has 255 patches included in the VST/Librarian, which is free without a subscription to Cloud, you can see on my other page that I needed to add a few things to make it perfect for church.  Nothing wrong with that, but I just wanted to point it out.
    I'm very pleased with the Roland Cloud service and the Plug-Outs.  Just one more reason for me to recommend the System-1 and System-8!
    If Roland is reading this, I would ask them to improve the System-1 Plug-Out and Roland Cloud use by adding Linux support.  I would be willing to beta test.
    The only other thing I could ask them to include is more instrument-emulating patches.  I know that for some Plug-Outs, like the SH-101, this emulation wouldn't be very realistic, maybe even a bit video-game sounding.  But I would appreciate it.  I know that the architecture of the System-1, System-8, and their Plug-Outs isn't going to make the patches sound super realistic, but I would find it useful.

    In my opinion, for example, every Plug-Out and AIRA System-1/8 should come with one patch that is as close to a realistic piano sound as possible.  As ubiquitous as the sound of a piano is, at least this instrument should be available on every synth and Plug-Out.