System-9: Daisy Chaining the System-1 to the System-8
So I was bored during the COVID19 pandemic, and I got bored.
Just kidding. When I first learned
about MIDI, I was intrigued by the ability to join things
together. My worship leader recently asked me, in light of
the COVID19 and the ten person group limit recommendation, to be
one of the few musicians we would use to live stream our worship
services at church. He asked me if I could cover bass
while also covering pads and/or strings. So this got me
thinking about how I could arrange my System-1 and System-8 in
such a way that I could cover more sonic territory. This
is what I came up with, and how to do it. There are other
keyboards that can be used to do this same thing, such as almost
any keyboard with MIDI out, daisy chained to a synthesizer with
pads. (This could result in, for example, piano plus pads,
using an older keyboard and/or older synthesizer, etc.)
But in this article, I am going to go into detail about
specifically how to do this with the Roland
System-1 and Roland
To do this, you will need, obviously, a Roland System-1 and a Roland System-8. Like I said before, you can do this with other MIDI devices, but we're focusing on this AIRA group of synthesizers.
You will probably need a rack system that can hold two synthesizers at once. It is possible to put them both on X brace keyboard stands up close to one another, but this might make controlling the System-1 difficult. You will see why this is important in the following paragraphs.
You will need a traditional MIDI cable. You might be able to do this with a USB MIDI cable, but I would recommend traditional MIDI cable. You will connect the System-8's MIDI OUT port to the System-1's MIDI IN port.
One of the first things you need to do with the System-8 is find a way to set it so that it is comfortable for you. Some of the things this will require are unique to this union of System-1 to System-8.
First, you will probably want to set the
System-8's key velocity curve to something that you like.
It comes with the factory default of Medium. I find that I
don't like to hit the keys hard with a keyboard (versus a piano)
so I set the key velocity curve to Light. Using the Light
setting isn't a requirement, just that you should probably
change this setting to whatever you want before you
proceed. However, keep in mind that you may want to
normalize the patches so that volume balancing is easier.
Second, the System-1's velocity sensitivity over MIDI (versus its own native keyboard, which has no velocity sensitivity) is very touchy, in my experience. I would have to slam the keys to get it to register velocity and be audible, but then it would be too loud when I slammed the keys. But setting the System-8 Key Velocity to Off would result in the patch on the System-8 being too bright (because it's at max loudness, so the patch velocity sensitivity as applied to the filter and amp section would be at maximum). So there was no middle ground, or so I thought, until I realized there was a setting for this. First, to fix the Key Velocity Off setting, I went into the System-8's settings and found the KEY TOUCH: Fixed Velo setting. It was set to the maximum value (127). For what I am trying to do by joining these two together, that is too much. I set it instead to about half (64) and this fixed the problem. At the same time, setting the curve, above, fixed the problem with how polarized the velocity response is for both synthesizers.
With these settings changed, both synthesizers give me about half volume (mf), which is much easier to use in church for this purpose. As well, I still have the ability to intentionally emphasize melodies by selectively pressing those keys. So now if I want to accentuate the melody line, both synthesizers respond appropriately.
Then I created a performance patch on the System-8 that had the System-8 KY Random Sparks (From the Synthwave 1 set) and a custom bass patch. I set it to split the keyboard so that the upper is the pads and the lower is the bass. You can do this using the System-8 settings in Part Edit. This is important because if you are using bass on the Lower part, you don't want key presses above the left half of the keyboard to affect the pads, and vice versa. I set the volume of both to be +0 dB. I had already normalized all the System-8 patches I use (see my System-8 page), so I don't have to fiddle with the volume, but it is possible to alter the volume balance. Be sure that the Performance Edit settings also do not alter how loud the performance patch is.
One quick note: I tried first setting upper
to a pad patch, lower to a bass patch, then strings on my
System-1. While it worked, for church it was problematic
trying to turn the strings down on the System-1 during softer
portions of the song. So instead I put the pads on the
System-1 so that during places in songs where there was no bass
and the song was quieter, I could reach over and play the pads
on my System-1 instead. This worked a whole lot better.
This is important because the upper is what becomes channel 1. You can change this, but I find it easier to understand logically (i..e bass is Lower). This is important because the System-1 is expecting MIDI channel 1 control. The channels are arbitrary, and you can configure the System-1 to MIDI channel Omni, which will receive all channels, but do you really want pads or strings following the bass line of the System-8? For what I am doing, that's not really a good idea.
Configured this way, I saved the performance patch. Then I set my System-1 to the PD Deep Pad patch. That's all it took, and now I had keys, pads, and bass being controlled from one keyboard!
Note that the Juno-106 patches that use the
chorus 1 or 2 have a background hiss, just like the original
1984 Juno-106 keyboard. You may not appreciate this.
If you don't like it, reduce the EFFECT LEVEL knob.
Using This Configuration
When using this configuration, there are some things you might want to be aware of.
First, the System-8 defaults to sending
patch change commands over MIDI OUT. This can be
problematic, for example if you want to change what patch you
are using on the System-8 and the System-1 switches to some
random patch as it tries to interpret what it was told. I
have found that if you turn this feature off, for some reason it
affects the Performance modes. I hypothesize that the
System-8 is using an internal virtual MIDI signal between
performance elements. I tried turning the patch transmit
feature off, and it had strange effects on my Performance
patches. So I recommend you leave it on and adapt in some
other way, or remember to change the System-1 patch when you
change the System-8 patch.
Second, the System-8 comes configured to send parameter changes via MIDI OUT. This is actually a good thing, but you need to be aware of it. For the purpose I am using it here, that was actually a good thing. If I have pressed UPPER on the PANEL SELECT area on the System-8, I could do filter sweeps using the high pass filter (HPF) and low pass filter (LPF) and they would apply to both the System-8 and the System-1. This is excellent: I wouldn't want to filter sweep the pads, only for the strings not to do the same.
However, recall that when you select a patch on the System-8, you need to select or change things on the System-1. So if I perform a LPF sweep, I need to either put it back using this same knob, or press both the System-8 and System-1 patch buttons to reset the patches back to their original settings.
Finally, note that the System-1 is going to interpret the PITCH BEND/MODULATION LEVER a bit differently than you are accustomed to. There is not really a System-1 setting for this, so it will interpret Pitch Bend on the lever as if it is its own pitch bend wheel, with a range of a major 2nd. This is annoying, as I have almost all my PITCH BEND settings in my pads set to sweep the filter, not bend pitch. I use it in church, after all. So I have to remember to refrain from doing so when the System-1 is connected. There may be a setting on the System-8 not to transmit the pitch bend/modulation lever, but I haven't tried it. But modulation works well on the System-1: it increases the amount of pitch modulation coming from the LFO, as if you had pressed the MOD button on the System-1.
I have my System-8 and System-1 outputs going to my Roland KC-80 amplifier, separately. This works well for me. However, it is also possible to send the System-1's audio output into the System-8 using the INPUT jack. You might find this more convenient in terms of changing the volume of the System-1 using the INPUT knob. With my dual rack, it's not that big of a problem to reach both volume knobs.
But I would strongly recommend that you
instead get a mixer to mix your synthesizers. That way you
have a bit more control over the process.
Finally, note that if you instead simply want a piano patch on the System-8 with pads on the System-1, you can use different patches on the System-8 and put the System-1 on pads. Basically, any two patches on both synthesizer will work together in whatever combination you want. Note that using a Performance mode on the System-8 limits you to four note polyphony. If you want more notes, you would probably do well to use a Patch mode on the System-8. The System-1 is going to be limited to four voice polyphony in this mode, so it will only register the last 4 notes played, and/or the 4 highest notes, depending on your fingers.
Running the System-1 output through the
System-8 can also be useful if you want the ability to shut the
System-1 "off" while doing other things. But you could
also get a MIDI cable with a "killswitch" that would do
basically the same thing.
If you are looking for a nice piano sound, the System-8 doesn't really have one. It is a synthesizer, after all, not a sample-based keyboard. When I needed a piano sound during the men's conference at my church, I instead used Roland Cloud with my laptop: I selected Concerto Piano and then added Sugar Brownie Pads. That resulted in a fantastic sounding piano and pads combination.
If you are at a church where you have only one keyboard that has only one mode at a time, and you are using it to play piano, buying a System-1 and daisy chaining them would be cheaper than buying a keyboard capable of good sounding piano and pads simultaneously, as the System-1 is only $500 on average. So MIDI daisy chaining will be great.