My Roland System-8

System-8
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Introduction

    After buying a Roland System-1, I started wanting a larger keyboard with even more features.  Subscribing to Roland Cloud, I fell in love with the Jupiter-8 and Juno-106 Plug-Outs.  I thought to myself, it's time to get a larger synthesizer with the features I like.  So it was only logical that I would eventually buy a System-8.
    I am very happy with my purchase.  This is a fantastic synthesizer.
    If you only want my patch banks, click here to go to that section.

Review

Unboxing

    The System-8 came with a more substantial owner's manual than the System-1, but it still wasn’t as complete as it should’ve been.  The System-8 also doesn't come with a vocoder microphone, either.  So if you want to use the vocoder, keep in mind you'll need to buy a microphone.
    Finally, it didn’t come with the most recent software, V1.3.  That’s fine, and updating it was easy.  As well, however, the manual and even the “ultimate guide” do not tell me how to use filter variation 2, which is supposed to be a bandpass filter.  That would be helpful, but since I don’t have that, I essentially don’t even touch this feature.

Appearance

    This thing looks fantastic!  Very polished and professional looking.  Unlike the System-1, it seems to have a few less back-lit controls, but not in a bad way.  It wasn't very hard to navigate the controls.  And having LCD screens makes figuring out what's going on a whole lot easier.
    As well, you can get side protectors for the System-8.  I chose the brushed aluminum side protectors, and I love it!

Feel

    This is my first keyboard that is, well, like a stereotypical electronic keyboard.  It feels good.  I like the System-1’s "controller" keyboard, but the System-8’s keyboard is more like a piano keyboard, granted without weighted feel.  The keyboard responds well to velocity inputs, though its range of sensing is a bit wider than I'm used to.  So far, I’ve played around with the velocity sensitivity, and a setting of around 64 works for me.
    The other controls feel great as well.  The sole modulation lever (for pitch bend and modulation) is different than I'm used to, but since I didn't play keyboards very often until recently, it doesn't bother me.  It's better than using the System-1's round mod wheel for pitch bend, that’s for sure.  Being able to change how much the modulation lever mod and pitch bend functions apply to my sound is a great feature to have.
    The interesting way in which patches are selected and saved is worth noting.  You select them by letter and number (so you have 16 buttons towards the right side).  You can also select them by the central "value knob," which is helpful.  And the LCD screen displays which preset you're on.  However, unlike the System-1's very convenient save feature (hold the button), you must press WRITE and then ENTER four times.  That is slightly annoying, even if you get used to it.  I understand this is the flagship keyboard, so you get more options.  But adding the System-1's easy "hold the button" save feature would be a nice addition in the future.

Features

    There are tons of features here to talk about, and I'm working on discovering them all.  But as I already noted, not all of them are in the manual, nor the “ultimate guide” on the internet, so I haven’t explored all the features yet.
    First, there's performance mode.  At first, I was frustrated with this mode, because even though it's cool, I couldn't get the patches to "stay" on their side of the keyboard.  All button presses registered in both parts.  This was echoed by the Facebook System-8 User Group, who wished for an actual "Keyboard Split" button.  I agree: having to modify a performance patch this way requires going through part edit in the menu and setting each part's lower and upper octave limits.  Four items in all.  To be fair, once you save this feature on the performance, it's saved.  And once you've done it a few times, it's pretty quick.  Maybe the default should be to split at middle C and then require menu diving to change it.  But ultimately, it's a fair criticism.

Initial Sounds

    The initial sounds are good, and useful for church.  Right now, there’s a problem that has disabled sending patches from my DAW/VST to the System-8.  The Plug-Outs can communicate to their VSTs in my DAW, but not the System-8 to its own VST.  I was able to modify a few of the initial patches to make them work in church.  Ultimately, I found a temporary work-around (see 14 November blog post, below).
    Having previewed many sounds that are available for this synth using the VST, there are a lot of fantastic presets available from Roland.  I recommend you check out my review of the Plug-Outs.
    When I got it, it included two Plug-Outs (the Jupiter-8 and Juno-106) and was using software version 1.12.  I updated it via Roland to 1.3 when I got it, which was a pretty easy process.  Version 1.3 comes with the JX-3P Plug-Out for slot 3, basically making the System-8 a four synthesizer juggernaut.

Using It In Church

    The System-8 works very well in church!  There are no “danger buttons” to accidentally push.  Not only do the patches work well in a worship environment, but the ability to split the keyboard into two patches makes it very useful.  And to top it off, you can use each Plug-Out for what some people claim they are best at (Jupiter-8 for strings, Juno-106 for pads, etc).
    Having the Plug-Outs available only increases the usefulness of the System-8, as now the player has more presets to call upon.  This leads to many possibilities, such as (for example) loading one Plug-Out with only leads, pads, or some other type of patches.  As well, having more patches gives the player more options to choose from.  And if that’s not enough for the user, other Plug-Outs via the Roland Cloud (System-100, Pro Mars, etc) only make it even more flexible.  One could include some iconic leads and/or basses from the Pro Mars and/or SH-101 and/or SH-2 and use them in split keyboard modes, if desired.
    The Line In function is also helpful for those who want to run another instrument.  For example, I’ve used it in church for running my System-1 so that I can reach over and use it for timpani.  I could Plug-Out the ProMars into the System-8, but then I would lose the ability to play pads with it.

Synthesizing Sounds

    Synthesizing sounds on the System-8 is pretty easy.  The only difficulty I’ve encountered stems from how many controls there are rather than any lack of capability.  I have brought over a few patches from the System-1 by manually dialing them in (thankfully the System-1’s filter section is included), but only a few that I really love, like BL SMALL BELLS and SY LIKE A JUNO.  Which is ironic considering it’s way more bombastic than any patches I found in the Juno-106 Plug-Out’s factory patches.  But given how many patches the System-8 itself includes, not even including those in the Plug-Outs, I have nearly everything I need.  Unlike the System-1, which didn't include some church-friendly necessities like harp and piano, the System-8 comes loaded with enough patches (including the Plug-Outs) that I have everything I need, technically.
    As usual, to make the System-8’s patches useful for church, where appropriate I’ve needed to change attack time, filter parameters, reduce delays, and reconfigure the mod lever.  On most patches except leads, I prefer the mod lever left/right to control the filter (which is useful in church) and forward (bend) to control vibrato.  With other patches, I have modified the amp section velocity sensitivity enough that the volume increases when I increase key press velocity, so that it follows my natural playing.  With mainly the piano-like patches, I have added or adjusted filter velocity sensitivity to make it sound more natural, just like hitting the keys harder on a real piano results in a slightly brighter note.

My Patches

    I made the "church" sets by going through each patch one by one and testing it to see if I thought it would work well for church.  As I delete or add patches, these files below will change.  I am not keeping old copies of them: they are literally what I am using in church right now.
    The other patches below are merely collections for people who don't have DAW or VST capabilities, for whatever reasons.  I include the System-8 “large” patches for those who are affected by the Roland System-8 Librarian/VST not connecting to their System-8, like mine.  If you copy these to your SD card in the BACKUP folder, you can pull patches from them, or load them all at the same time.


Blog

    This is where I will periodically post new things I learn about the System-8.

11/1/19 Splitting the Keyboard in Performance Mode

    To split the keyboard equally in performance mode, here's what you do.  You save your upper and lower parts to the performance, first.
    Next, you go into Part Edit through the menu.  One by one, you set the parts lower and upper ranges as follows.  I'm assuming your "upper" part is the higher half of the keyboard and your "lower" part is the lower half.

    This results in an equal split, with middle C on the keyboard belonging to the upper part.
    I also noticed that you have to modify the patches you use for upper and lower, in patch mode, to change what the modulation lever does.  This can result in slightly more work, because it seems one would need to go to each patch, modify the patch in patch mode to alter what the mod lever does, then go back into the performance and re-select the patches the upper and lower parts are mapped to.  So leads plus pads as a performance mode (like I set up for Greater Things, pads in the left hand, lead in the right) results in me compromising by making both configured to mod the filter and not pitch.  So I can't do the cool vibrating lead "pings" at the end of the lead lines.

    Today I also manually synthesized (because I'm having Windows driver problems) the KY Random Sparks patch from the Roland Synthwave 1 preset collection.  Yeah, that's how awesome that patch sounds, to me.  Kudos to Roland for including the Synthwave collections, as this is one of my favorite musical genres!

11/14/19 The Plug-Out VSTs Are Down

     I’ve been troubleshooting something for a while now with Roland’s assistance.  Before I begin, let me say that I believe this is a software problem introduced by Windows itself, and that Roland has been calling me and emailing me proactively to help me resolve this.  Roland has gone above and beyond here, so please keep this in mind. And please check below for the 11/29/19 blog!
     It all started when I first got the System-8.  I went to plug it into my laptop to integrated it into FL Studio Free Edition, which I was using to host my Roland Cloud VSTs and Plug-Outs.  It didn’t work at all.  While the MIDI functions worked perfectly (and still do), the VSTs acted like they either could not communicate with it, or they said “invalid file format”, etc.
     Undaunted, I discovered I could send patches to it directly from Chrome by visiting Roland’s Aira website, so at least I could grab the patches I wanted.
     But this followed with a long troubleshooting history of trying my wife’s laptop, reinstalling FL Studio, reinstalling Roland Cloud and all the VSTs and Plug-Outs, trying a different DAW (Raptor and Ableton).  I tried the Jupiter-8 and Juno-106 VSTs, and these worked for a time, but then did not.
     I discovered that I could use the SD card as a sort of intermediary.  (Always back up what you do!)  So I put some of the patches (as downloads) in the EXPORT folder of the SD card, and discovered I could load patches from these patches (in .S8P file extension) or from the backups I had made (in .bin) format, and that I could also load the .bin files I saved from the VST into the SD card and load the patches one by one.  But the ability to load an entire 64 patches in a bin file prepared in the VSTs didn’t exist.
     So Roland is aware that there is a problem.  And there are ways around it, but these methods are not very fun.  Loading patches one at a time by menu diving isn’t very fun.  I would appreciate it if Roland would add the capability to load all 64 from the VST (in a .bin file), as that would be a huge time saver.  Another helpful feature would be the ability to send all of a certain sound library (from the Aira website) into the System-8, which would save at least some time.
     This does not shake my faith in Roland.  Their tech would call me on the phone and would walk through it with me on his own laptop, not just read off a troubleshooting card like most companies’ representatives would probably do.  It’s just slightly annoying.
     So what I’m doing right now is, one by one, loading all the patches from the Aira website into “mega files” so that it’s at least less clutter on the SD card, and I have it in a .bin BACKUP file so I can load all 64 together if I want.  I do this on college textbook reading breaks.  It’s going to take a while, but soon I plan to have the files here so that someone in my situation can save themselves some time and effort.  Which is why I make the means to donate available: this is taking me hours, but it’s worth it, at least to me.
     The goal is to make it easier for those using this keyboard in church to have a church.bin file they can load up and be ready for church, as well as a busking.bin file for my own use.  My needs while busking (synthwave) are different than my needs in church (worship).  The System-8’s ability to load all 64 in a few seconds is totally worth it, even if, for now, I am slightly limited due to how long it initially takes to get them programmed in.

11/15/19 SY LIKE A JUNO

    I brought over the SY LIKE A JUNO patch from the System-1 to the System-8 because I didn’t find any intensely bombastic pads on the Juno-106 Plug-Out.  Programming it was rather easy.  A bonus feature that Roland might consider is the ability to plug the System-1 into the System-8 and have the System-8 do a MIDI “get” command to grab whatever patch is on the System-1.  Another bonus feature might be a feature within the VST to “translate” a System-1 patch into a System-8 patch.
    The System-8’s delay appears to be digital rather than analog (like the System-1).  This means the delay seems to be part of the ACB processor.  You can see it when you set a large delay and then play more notes than the unit’s polyphony can handle (more than 4 on the System-1, more than 8 on the System-8).  The note that gets “pushed out” also causes that note’s delay and reverb to get pushed out with it.  Meaning if I intentionally play a G chord across the keyboard of either unit, at the end I can only hear the delays and reverberations of the last 4/8 notes.  I think a future improvement Roland could do is redesign the System-1/System-8 or their successors so that the reverb is its own discrete unit, meaning even if the notes get pushed out due to exceeding the level of polyphony the unit contains, the delays still go through their own decay, sort of like an analog delay unit.  This would make either or both of these keyboards way more useful, as one could do things like (for example, when using a bell patch) run a series of notes across the keyboard so they linger.  This would make it appear that they have more polyphony than they truly have.  And it might also eliminate the digital “squeaks” that happen when one switches between two patches that have a lot of delay.

11/29/19 Plug-Outs Working Again, But Not System-8 VST Yet

    Roland's Plug-Out VSTs are working again.  Not the System-8 librarian VST itself, but the Jupiter-8, Juno-106, and JX-3P VSTs.  I was able to make patch set files (see above).  I am using FL Studio (free).  First, configure the MIDI page like this image:

FL Studio MIDI
          Page

    Then when you pull up a VST, go to the settings and ensure you have selected SYSTEM-8 CTRL for both entries.  Then the Plug-Out VST should work.

    Currently, Roland is still helping me fix the issue with the System-8 VST/Librarian, but at least I can report that the rest is fixed.

01/03/20 Daisy Chaining System-1 and Remapping Performance Modes

    Over the Christmas and New Years time frame, I started using the System-1 "Daisy Chained" with the System-8 for some of the Christmas music events I played at.  I first discovered that the System-1 is very velocity sensitive when used via external MIDI, and that the best way to use it this way is to press Velocity Off on the System-8.  I also discovered that if one is going to use the System-1 slaved to the System-8 via MIDI that one should not change patches or patch parameters while doing so, otherwise the System-1 might make the same changes unintentionally.  So basically, I set the System-8 up in a strings patch, and then turn on the System-1 and put it in pads mode, and I had strings + pads.  It worked very well live.  I might have done even better if I had set the System-8 to a performance patch that is piano and strings, thus adding pads using the System-1.

    But someone who often finds themselves adding multiple instrument layers might do better to buy a Roland RD-2000, as this keyboard can run up to four parts simultaneously and adjust their volumes independently.  I tried this out in a music store on an RD-2000 and was very impressed.  It's not what I wanted, as I wanted synthesizers and not stage piano keyboards, but it's a great keyboard, and I would love to own one.

    I had time over the New Years holidays to work on my System-8 performance modes.  I had "squashed" some of them before even trying them out.  So I did a factory reset and evaluated them all.  Not all of them are suitable for church, but many are.  So then I restored back to my Church patches and loaded the performance modes that are worthy back into my System-8.

    Because I have moved around and/or replaced many of the factory System-8 and Jupiter-8 patches, many performance modes no longer sounded like they should.  So I then spent the time remapping the performance modes to their new location, thus restoring their sound.  As well, for those whose upper or lower parts pointed to a patch I no longer included, I substituted the next best patch I could think of to get the performance mode working.

    I then saved and updated the System-8 Church patch.  Not all the performance modes are going to be perfect, but I at least included the ones I thought would work.

    My experience with churches and MIDI, in regards to using arpeggios in church, is that unless you have spent a lot of time and money with it, it might not be worth it.  It is worth it if you have the money, and I greatly appreciate churches like Hillsong, Elevation, and Bethel that use arpeggios in worship.  I think they sound fantastic.  In my experience, they may not be easy for a smaller church.

    They would work at my church specifically because we have one of the Roland V-Drum sets.  We don't use acoustic drums, which saves us having to buy and place a "drummer cage."  We prefer our drummers "cage free."  If my System-8 is close enough to the drummer that I can stretch out a MIDI cable to him, and we set the tempo at the beginning of the song using his metronome, it will transmit MIDI tempo to the System-8, which I can use to synchronize my arpeggios to.  However, it needs to be set up before service and the other instrumentalists need to be told to strictly follow the drums, otherwise the tempo will be off.  It can work, and I'm excited to get to try it some time in church, but for now this is merely "proof of concept" for our church.

    Otherwise, my experience is that if I set the System-8 for the tempo the song has marked and then just come in with arpeggios in a specific place (like A Mighty Fortress by Nockels, 2nd verse where the synth arpeggios come in), it will sound off.  For those scenarios, I have found manually playing the arpeggios rather than using the arpeggiator is probably best for now.  But I'm excited to see if some day I can incorporate MIDI in church!