My Roland System-1
IntroductionI bought a Roland System-1 in a quest to play pads in church as an "auxiliary keyboard" player. That is, I mainly play electric guitar. I was intrigued by videos on YouTube of the various pads others had programmed into it. My previous keyboard, an Akai Mini Play, was too limited and had too small a keyboard, even though it worked adequately enough.
If you're interested in seeing all the fun things I learned over time with my System-1, please see my System-1 Blog.
The Roland System-1 is a two-octave digital (analog-modeling) synthesizer. It has 64 memory locations, and with a Plug-Out it adds 64 more, for 128 possible memory locations.
This article is my experience using the System-1. It also includes a Blog at the bottom where I will post new things as I learn them. I hope you find it useful. Also, please check out the System-1 Facebook Page and Subreddit and my Roland System-1 YouTube Playlist. As well, check out the recordings I have made of various System-1 patches.
So far, I have found the System-1 to be more than adequate for playing pads in church. However, I would like to point out that I took this route because, as I wrote previously, my needs and limiting factors are different than some. Will the System-1 work for you? Check out this article I wrote.
Finally, I wrote a review on the various Plug-Outs, here.
Keep in mind that, as I learn, I am going to add sections to this document starting at the bottom, extending it. So be sure to check the bottom for updates.
My reasons for buying it were as follows, in no particular order:
- Two octave, so should fit in a backpack (I was incorrect).
- A true synthesizer.
- The recorded
pads I watched on YouTube.
- Lots of knobs and sliders (I prefer manual controls over screen menus).
- Full size keys. I hated the keys on the Akai Mini
Play: they're small and stiff.
UnboxingWhen I got the System-1, I was slightly unhappy that it didn't come with its own USB cable. However, it was packed well.
The manual that was included isn't bad, but it seems a bit minimal to me. I'm a newbie, so I'd appreciate more detailed instructions, or even a tutorial. Most notably, the manual does not specify what the Color knob in either OSC1 or OSC2 is controlling when using the various wave forms. Luckily, the internet was helpful.
The appearance of the System-1 is fantastic. And for the most part it's easy to understand where everything is. But the manual did not include the signal path information, which would've been helpful for me, because I'm a newbie.
The sound of the System-1 is very good, but I noticed that the headphone output can be peaky, at least with my cheap Sony earbuds.
Note that the power supply included is a PSD-120, in case you need to buy one.
This thing looks absolutely fantastic.
If there were DJs in The Matrix, they played Roland Aira
products. The green backlight is both beautiful and
functional. I would prefer a way to change the intensity of the
back-light, however, or that it be varied by ambient lighting.
The System-1 does not have a screen, which is sad because I know the memory locations store the name of the patch. Knowing what I selected, even if it's only a very minimal screen, would've been nice. But what I've found is that if I want to write down what I have placed on each memory location, I can put a piece of painter's masking tape (non-residue) on the right side strip of black body near the right edge of the keyboard and write on it what each patch is.
The "screensaver" mode ("demo" mode) turns heads. It's almost like the keyboard is doing a little "happy dance" while it's idle. In church, it cannot be seen by the congregation, but the choir behind me can see it. During the church youth lock-in, several of the teenagers said it looked very cool. To be fair, if I'm engaged in doing something, like writing this document, it's very distracting. But in a live situation, it hasn't bothered me or distracted me enough from playing electric guitar
One slight annoyance is that even touching the octave up/down during live use results in the patch number button flashing (if I am using a patch). Sure, I get it, that "modified" the patch, but it can be a bit distracting. My mind wonders if I bumped some knob, only to remember that I changed octaves. And when you change octaves back to the one stored in the patch, it doesn't stop flashing, which is even more annoying.
Compared to the Akai
Mini Play I used to own, the keyboard feels SO
much better. I can understand, to a point, why some have
complained about the System-1's keyboard, but for me it works
great. An unexpected benefit of not having velocity
sensitivity is that when I switch to/from electric guitar, I
don't have to worry about hitting the keyboard too hard.
My Akai Mini Play translated hard playing as a need to shift
either the LPF cutoff or resonant frequency, which didn't sound
good. It made my pads nasal. And on top of that, the
keys were stiff and the velocity sensitivity very narrow.
That's not very appreciated when I'm playing supporting pads in
As expected from Roland, the knobs and sliders feel fantastic. The keyboard, to me, feels great. Maybe not "Steinway" great, but very good at least.
It seems to have plenty of features, but I'm
a synthesizer newbie, so I am not sure if my complaints are
valid. For instance, I would want a tap tempo or metronome
feature (or a knob with metronome markings) so that I can dial
in tempos more precisely, for use in a band situation. But
it doesn't have that. I'm not complaining, but I'm just
curious as to why it didn't come with one. But because
this thing also lacks a sequencer, maybe it wasn't intended to
fill that role, unlike the System-8. (To be fair, it
should be called a System-3 because it's like two System-1's
plus a third system: a sequencer.)
But I'm sort of glossing over all the cool features here. This isn't intended to be a full review: Keyboard Magazine and others have done a far better job than I could've done.
One feature to note is the arpeggio feature. While this keyboard claims to be four voice polyphony, keep in mind that this doesn't apply to the arpeggio when it's playing only one note. In theory you can press every key simultaneously and it will go up/down/up+down all of the notes one at a time. So that means you can play the intro arpeggio to Stranger Things, for example, and not worry about missing notes due to polyphony limitations.
I have come to agree with those who have complained about pitch bending on the scatter outer wheel versus a traditional pitch wheel: it's not adequate for solos. I can do some of the lead bends from Swoon (The Chemical Brothers), with difficulty, but anything more is just not really helpful, especially vibrato while playing lead. However, I have found that the mod button does a pretty good job compensating for this, giving me a nice vibrato during leads.
Initial SoundsThis thing sounds great! Everyone who hears it likes it. People use words like beautiful, fantastic, and impressive to describe the included Roland patches (mainly the pads). It has great flexibility. The oscillators sound great. The keyboard feels good to me. The sustain pedal works very well. All in all, I can't complain. But it's as if now that I am using it, I feel the urge to keep tweaking my sound to find that perfect sound that my mind imagines.
Here is how I have made some sounds, and some notes, before I started playing with factory patches.
I especially love how it sounds like a lot of the synthesizer (I'm guessing) stuff I hear on Hillsong's Zion and Empires albums. I'm a huge Hillsong fan, so being able to get close to their sounds this easily more than sells the System-1.
NOTE! I am a synth newbie, so keep in mind the first patches you see here were made by me when I didn't know a lot. They're still completely valid, but since figuring out how the factory patches work and why they do certain things, I realize my initial patches below are a bit mild. If you like them, cool, but if you scroll down, I have a new section, "Modified Sounds", where I take some of the available patches and modify them to suit my taste.
At first, I thought the System-1 only came with one bank of presets (so 8 total factory sounds). This is correct. However, Roland's free System-1 Librarian for your DAW (I use FL Studio free version) has 279 presets that you can, for free, click "send" to your System-1 and then save in memory anywhere you want. So probably the first thing you should do after you buy this is go download the Librarian. You can go load up all 64 patches (8 banks) with stuff. For my uses, this is more than enough.
There isn't a patch that sounds perfect for Van Halen's song "Jump", but "SY Classic Brs" sounded close.
When I started dialing in my own lead sounds, I fell in love with the unison mode (press the "MONO" button until it flashes). I think so far my favorite is square wave at 16 foot on OSC1 with multi-triangle on OSC2 at 8 foot. Note that this is a monophonic mode where the oscillators are on unison (almost like having two keyboards)
Using It In Church
I added this part to try and separate my
experience using the System-1 in church with its general
features. If you would like to download any of my patch
collections, or if you appreciate my help, please see the donate page. My patches are
free, but are now on the donate
Note that I am a church musician, so when I fired up the Roland Librarian and went through all 279 presets, I found only about 178 of them to have potential for church use. But I also ignored the sound effects (FX) class of patches, so keep that in mind. Honestly, nearly every pad (PD) class of preset sounded wonderful. As well, many of the synthesizer (SY) presets sounded great. There's a huge sounding patch called "SY Like A Juno" that sounds absolutely fantastic.
One thing to note, however, is that not all patches would sound great in church. In adapting these patches (even though I also like to build my own from scratch), one thing I did on all my patches is take them from the Librarian. So the first thing was to load the patch and see how loud the output was and dial that down using OSC 1/2 mixing. The Librarian has this amplitude indicator on the System-1 image. I simply made sure all of mine, at their max loudness, were all about the same volume level on screen, then saved to a patch memory.
A lot of the things I'm going over here are mentioned in Hillsong's wonderful keys masterclasses part 1 and part 2.
Another couple things I did to adapt all the Roland Librarian patches for church are as follows:
- I dial down the delay on factory patches because this is the reason patches "squeak" as you switch. I don't want that to happen in church if I switch patches, so I saved them all with the delay all the way down. I can add delay live in church if I need it.
- I decreased the reverb if the patch was running more than about 50%, by changing reverb to be 50%. This is because the amount of reverb I need varies from song to song, but I never find that I need more than 50%.
- On patches with detune, I experimented with it. With some of the bell patches, there was too much detune, so reducing (but not eliminating) the detune made the patch more tolerable in church. I've heard people using keyboard default bell patches with too much detune in church, and the effect is rather ugly. For other patches like PD NOISE PAD, eliminating the detune in this librarian patch changed an unusable patch into one that is almost indispensable.
As for using it in church, one thing I heard Peter James of Hillsong state is that you should bring the filter down (LPF CUTOFF) when you're playing the beginning of a song and then slowly increase it as the song gets louder/faster. He also recommended not using the filter wide open when people are trying to sing or talk.
Note that in church, even if the System-1
cannot sound identical to some acoustic instruments with a lot
of nuance, like an acoustic guitar, a grand piano, or an
electric guitar through a tube amp, it can synthesizer new
sounds in the moment. Yesterday, I did this using my
System-8 (which is close to the System-1). Our worship
leader didn't like the bass patches the System-8 came with, so
he asked me to create a new one. Together we got a sound
that we both like that works very well with our church, in terms
of style and the sound it makes coming out of our bass subwoofer
and main speakers. Most your average cheaper keyboards you
find in churches can't create new sounds on the fly, if at
all. So my System-8 totally upstaged the Kurzweil PS-1 we
have. Most the more expensive, newer keyboards designed
for live music have more capabilities, and better sounding bass
samples possibly. And to be fair, the only reason we
needed a bass patch was that our music team was cut down to only
5 members due to COVID-19 concerns. But it's worth
pointing out because the main thing a synthesizer brings to your
worship band is flexibility (other than lots of pads).
With a synthesizer, you don't just play sounds (like on a
keyboard): you can shape sounds.
ControlsThe inadequate owner's manual is the strongest negative aspect of this keyboard. However, note that Roland Australia has an "Ultimate Guide" to the System-1. It helps quite a bit, but I don't think it really goes as in-depth as I would like. So I explored my System-1.
The main thing that I felt wasn't really "spelled out" (neither in the "Ultimate Guide" or in the manual) is how the OSC1 and OSC2 COLOR knobs work. So I took some time to slowly map out how this works. For some wave forms, the COLOR knob seems to control the brightness, others the phase, and still others, other functions like noise ratio. Here's a chart of what it sounds like this knob does, to my ears, between "MAN" and "F. ENV" on the MOD knob. By "depth" of F. ENV I mean the level to which the F. ENV modifies the tone. Sort of like changing how noticeable the filter modulation is.
To my ears, though, the filter envelope still modifies both oscillators, whether or not F. ENV is selected. To me, this is annoying, because I'd like to be able to specify which oscillator is using the F. ENV and which is not (i.e. if OSC1 is "MAN" and OSC2 is "F. ENV", then OSC1 shouldn't get modulated while OSC2 should). Maybe this is possible: if I'm mistaken, please contact me.
||MOD knob setting
||COLOR knob function
|Saw, Square, Triangle
||TONE of the wave form (brightness)
|Saw, Square, Triangle
||The depth of the F. ENV
||The phase of the multiple wave forms
||The depth of the F. ENV; the phase is set
to the most conservative setting
||The ratio of noise to saw
||The depth of the F. ENV; the noise ratio is
set to about 13%
||The ratio of the logic operation?
||Seems to control the COLOR knob via the F.
||The frequency of the wave form?
||Seems to control the COLOR knob via the F.
|FM + Sync
||Not sure; the amount of sync?
|FM + Sync
||Seems to control the amount of sync (?) (no
||Controls the formant (vowel)
||The F. ENV now controls the COLOR knob
(modulates the formant/vowel)
|Cow Bell (CB)
||The duration of the cow bell from almost
nothing (pluck) to pad-like
|Cow Bell (CB)
||No change: still the duration of the wave
After making this chart, I then tried selecting LFO instead of F. ENV. To my ears, the LFO position is moving the COLOR knob. So I guess it depends on what you have selected to modulate that knob? I'm still not sure.
Synthesizing SoundsI'll try to share my experience in synthesizing sounds here.
Hammond B3 SoundI listened to a video by Oscillator Sink and tried to adapt his directions to my System-1. But it didn't work very well for me. A gracious person from Reddit helped me get closer to what a B3 sounds like (even though you can't really do that without literally owning a B3). Here's what he taught me. To change the "Leslie" amount, you can move the rate knob around. Note that all of the pictures below can be clicked to enlarge.
Note that after I made this patch, I thought better and added some reverb (knob at about the 9 o'clock position) and moved OSC 2 pitch knob to 4. Note that you can move OSC2's pitch knob back to 8 for more mellow sounds. Honestly, you can move both oscillators' pitches around all you want: you get a lot of cool sounds. You can move the rate knob around to (crudely) simulate the change in speed of a Leslie cabinet, and move the resonance knob on the filter section around to change the sound up slightly.
Here is a clip of the new sound (at one point I move OSC2 to pitch 4, like I said). I also recorded another clip later.
I later discovered that changing octaves on the BS ORGAN BASS patch resulted in something that sounded better than my patch, above, so that's what I'm currently doing for organ sounds.
Bell SoundAt first, I had programmed my own bell sound in. But now that I have Roland's Librarian, I found a bell patch that already sounded great, and adapted that. I also put several other bell related patches into other memory banks.
Electric Piano Sound
I was reading the Sound
on Sound Synthesizing Pianos article and here's what I
came up with for an electric piano sound. The System-1
does not come with electric or acoustic
piano patches, by the way. Roland also didn't make any for
the System-1, so you'll need to synthesize your own.
In my mind, the target sound for this is
Just Never Say It Enough by Wayne Watson. Perfect
example of a beautiful electric piano, although it might be a
Fender Rhodes (tm). I literally dialed this patch in while
listening to this song's introduction.
I bought this synthesizer for pads. I love pads. But now that I've figured out the factory presets, I have all the pads I could ever want. Still, when I first bought this, I didn't know about Roland's Librarian software, so I did the research below to try to figure out what I needed to do.
As a side note, my ideal pad sound is
Gateway Church's song Every
Breath. You can especially hear it at the beginning
of the song.
For the most part, the Roland preset "PD DEEP PAD" is everything I need for a pad. But I have in the same bank another patch from Roland called "SQ GLASS ARP" that I modified for use as a pad. I love pads so much that memory banks 3 & 4 are nothing but pads (so easily 16+ pads in my memory setup).
I found that using a less abrasive setting for OSC2 (like vowel, FM, or triangle) with OSC1 on multi-saw (dial in the amount of difference between the saw waves using the COLOR knob) seems to work well, to my ears.
Hillsong, Heart Like Heaven, Empires
I patterned this patch after how the song
Heart Like Heaven (Empires album) by Hillsong sounds: mainly the
arpeggio motif. It's not a perfect copy but it sounded
good enough to me. Here's a clip
of me using the patch.
Hillsong, Rule, Empires
I patterned this patch after how the song
Rule (Empires album) by Hillsong sounds: mainly the arpeggio
motif. Note that I went back and added a bit more delay
and reverb to this patch. Here's a clip of what I came
Hillsong, Love Is War, Zion, Verse & Chorus
The song Love is War by Hillsong (Zion
album) is a bit difficult to play with just one patch.
This patch is close to the sound on the verses: a more subdued,
almost Tron-like arpeggio motif. The next patch is for the
choruses, more bright and prominent. Remember that you can
use the arpeggio at least the choruses. Because the
arpeggio motif on the verses seems to skip the first 1/16th, I
couldn't find an arpeggio system that works, and given the
octave at which it occurs, I couldn't access a note below the
motif so that I could use the arpeggio feature. The top
one is the verse, the chorus is the second one.
I'm sure that playing this in a live worship band would require tempo sync from the drummer over MIDI cable; otherwise you'll have to manually play it.
Here's a clip of the first part and second part of that song. Note that I am using the arpeggio. Also note that you can save the patches with arpeggio enabled. I chose to do that so I can switch back and forth. Whether the arpeggio and tempo get saved with the patch memory or not can be selected using the manual's instructions.
Stay & Wait
I recorded this clip of the
System-1 arpeggio function on my Stay & Wait patch (this is
the #2 portion because I'm trying to dial in the first part of
the song where a string-like arpeggio seems to be
playing). This clip is the very end of the song.
Basically, I feel like this song requires two different sounds. I did my best to dial them in. Here you go:
My Own Bass
Sunday morning, I couldn't find a decent bass patch that would work for church. Though EDM bass can sound great, I might be the only one at my church who will appreciate that sound. So I dialed in a quick bass patch that I think sounds good for church, and sounds reasonably close to an electric bass. Enjoy!