Roland has made some of the world’s most iconic products, like the D-50 linear synth, the TR-808 drum machine, and much more. They switched from more analog products to more digital ones starting in the 1980s and have been focused more on the digital elements of music than some of the other music gear manufacturers.
The interesting thing about the Gaia SH-01 is that they refer to it as a virtual analog synthesizer. What that means is that it’s a digital synthesizer that’s modeled after an analog synth.
So, why are they afraid to call it what it is? It seems to me like a lot of digital synth makers refer to their synths as things like “analog modeler” or “virtual analog” because they know that people like the analog sound, but can’t necessarily afford all the hardware associated with the analog stuff.
So in this article, I want to change the perspective a little bit. Rather than comparing it to something I’d expect to find on an analog synth and being disappointed when it doesn’t amount to it, I want to review the Gaia for what it is: a digital synth.
People often underestimate the power of a good digital synth, and that’s probably because of the influence of synth purists, who typically prefer analog sounds. But honestly, there are more than a few great digital synths out there, and in my opinion, the Gaia is proof of that.
As you read this review, consider the fact that while the Gaia does model analog synths, it can also do things that wouldn’t work on an analog synth, and that there’s actually a lot of value to that.
I’d also like to point out that I’m not sure if you absolutely have to spend over $1000 to get great synth sounds. With that in mind, later in this article, I’m going to compare the Gaia to the Novation Ultranova, Roland JD-XI, Roland System 1, and Korg MicroKorg to see which digital synths really are the best, and why.
And lastly, before we get started, we invite you to please use our interactive table below to compare how well the Roland Gaia SH-01 compares to other notable synthesizers on the market:
|Roland GAIA SH-01||37||9.5 lbs.||$$||★★★★|
|Roland JD-XI||37||4.14 lbs.||$||★★★★|
|Roland System-1 25-Key||25||5 lbs.||$||★★★★|
|Novation UltraNova||37||7 lbs.||$$||★★★★|
|Korg MicroKorg||37||4.85 lbs.||$||★★★★|
|Korg MicroKorg XL||37||4.41 lbs.||$||★★★★|
What Does the Roland Gaia Offer?
The Roland Gaia SH-01 is a 37 key synth that digitally models analog synths by using a big oscillator that allows you to choose from several different waveforms, including saw, sine, square, triangle, and something called super saw.
Now, as someone who doesn’t play Roland synths all the time, I was kind of surprised by this super saw waveform. It’s massive, really wide and very buzzy. This kind of power is definitely next-level. I had a lot of fun playing around with the oscillator abilities, particularly the setting where you can widen the pulse, which allows the oscillator to spin around a little bit, and it really thickens up the sound.
In order to shift the oscillator’s waveform, you have to press a little button that scrolls through the waveforms. Not super convenient if you accidentally skip past one, and I prefer a knob to do the job. But on the other hand, the detune sounds wonderful, and it’s both lifelike and original sounding, and I was impressed.
When I demoed the Gaia, the filters were really impressive to me. The cutoff and resonance move so well together, and I think this is a good example of how the digital is different than the analog.
You can change other variations in the effects rack to filter the frequencies differently, almost creating a bandpass instead of just a lowpass or highpass. Really cool sounding. So for instance, if you want to get a nice mid sound and notch all the high and low out, you can do it. This makes performing and recording super easy, because you don’t have to rely on the mixer to do the EQing for you.
The filters can also be automated on a slope, something I’ve never seen analog synths do before, although some might. So you can tell it that you want the cutoff to spike for a second and then mellow out, and even bend the pitch. It sounds amazing, seriously.
Below, please take a brief moment to view some of the best-selling synthesizers on Amazon, and then see how well they stack up to the Roland Gaia SH-01:
Here’s another example of how, because it is digital, it can do different things than the analog synths can. If you’re familiar with how a synthesizer works, you know some analog synths can do limited polyphony, while some cannot at all. The Gaia has a 64 note polyphony. That means you can hit just about any chord and not have to worry about notes dropping out.
Now because I am a keyboard player, I love hitting big chords. But I do also appreciate a nice synth bass tone as well. You can switch over to monophonic mode to hit big synth bass lines, or even choose one of the many arpeggiator patterns to create really cool sequences that add a ton of movement to your playing style.
Switching from mono to poly isn’t difficult, but I think I would still prefer a knob or even a switch, because the button sometimes makes it hard to remember which setting you’re on. In a live scenario, accidentally triggering mono notes when you’re trying to play chords is embarrassing. I think in general, I prefer less buttons and more knobs, but I still think it’s easy enough to do—you just have to remember what setting you’re on ahead of time.
Ever wonder how to do sound design and go from hard melodies to soft pads really quickly? The Gaia lets you do this really easily, actually. In the envelope section, you can simply turn down the attack and hold the chords down. They’ll swell in really nicely, and you can change the level at which they swell and also ring out based on where your sustain is. So, this is a really good way to learn about envelopes, and I love the fact that the envelopes are hands-on and easy to identify so that anyone can play with it and learn what everything does.
The effects are very diverse, ranging from flanger, distortion, delay, reverb, and low boost. All you have to do is press a button to get the desired effect. My recommendation? Try a flanger with a touch of delay to get a cool modern R&B sounding synth that could compliment killer drums.
As far as size, well, the Gaia is very light—too light in my opinion. It only weighs 9 pounds and I’d be concerned that it would fall off the stand if I played too aggressively. The body is mostly plastic, and I wish it felt a little more durable. It’s not horrible, it’s just a little light for something that’s supposed to withstand a little bit of road wear.
Here are a few notable specs of the Gaia SH-01:
- 3 layerable virtual oscillators
- 37 keys, velocity sensitive
- 64 note polyphony
- Cutoff/resonance filters with sloping automation
- ADSR Envelopes
- 64 arpeggiator presets
- Phrase Recorder
Here’s a full list of specs if you’d like to learn more.
Roland Gaia SH-01 vs the System 1
Roland also makes a couple of other great digital synths that do pretty different things. Take the System 1, for instance, which in my opinion plays much more like an analog synth, with one or two exceptions.
The Aira series, which is Roland’s new black and green gear series where everything is sort of integrated into a fresh new package, includes an effect rack that doesn’t come with the older Gaia. It contains things like a scatter effect, which does really cool, weird effects to your sequence when you play it. I like it a lot and I do wish the Gaia had something like this, but I feel like you can push the Gaia a little more in terms of sound design.
The System 1 is really trying to be an analog synth, but it also has a few presets that allow you to jump right into a specific sound and edit it from there. I’m not the biggest fan of the kryptonite green Roland is obsessed with lately, but that’s just an opinion. Still, the arpeggiator is a little easier to use on the System 1. The System 1 costs $500, while the Gaia costs $600, but I think you get a little more for your money with the Gaia.
Roland Gaia SH-01 vs the JD-XI
The JD-XI is cool because it’s a hybrid, which means there’s actual analog circuitry in it. If you really need the analog sound, you’ll get it with the JD-XI. The layout is also nice, in which you basically start on one end of the keyboard and modify all of the sounds until you get your desired tone.
My big complaint? There’s only one envelope, and it controls everything all at once. Why on earth would they do this? That means you can’t have a long attack with a short release. It makes no sense to me.
But, if you don’t care about that, this is a good choice if you want a few more options than the System 1 for the same price of $500. For instance, you can also play along to drum tracks, which you can sequence yourself like a drum machine, and record stuff if you want. It also comes with a mic you can use to sing along to your tracks using a vocoder or an autotune style vocal sound. Pretty neat, although it’s such a small unit, and I feel like they might have crammed too much into one little box.
Roland Gaia vs Novation Ultranova
Novation’s Ultranova also has a vocoder that sounds really good, but it has something really creative, a touch mode that allows you to rapidly adjust parameters just by touching the knobs with your fingertips. It’s wild, weird, and so fun. You definitely couldn’t do this with an analog synth.
You can also mess with the vibrato of your sound by jiggling your finger around while pressing a key. It kind of feels like playing a guitar, and it’s really strange but fresh as well. Innovation-wise, it’s really creative. It doesn’t allow you to tweak sounds the same way the Gaia can, but it’s a really different take on synthesis and I really appreciate the creativity.
You can play it mono or poly, and there are more than enough presets to choose from, but tweaking the sound the exact way you want it is not easy. In fact, it’s almost better to approach this synth as something you should play not knowing what to expect and being surprised by what you hear. If you’re not interested in doing that, you might want to look at the Gaia instead. The Ultranova is $550, and it’s a lot of fun. Here’s the specs page if you want to learn more about the experimental synth and its many moving parts.
- You can read our review of the Novation Ultranova right here.
Roland Gaia vs Korg MicroKorg
The MicroKorg is a great option as well, particularly if you’re more into presets and not sound design. It’s been used by thousands of professionals and it always seems to get the job done, but it’s really little. The keys are small, but still springy, and it’s not always the easiest to play. The filters and effects are great, but they’re harder to get to. You have to adjust a knob just to select an effect or filter, and then you can adjust it from there. So it takes a little longer to set up the right way, but you can save presets ahead of time if you want to.
Still, for only $200 more, the Gaia is much more hands-on, and if you’re the type that prefers to tweak everything, the MicroKorg isn’t for you. If you want something small, cheap, and overall a good investment, you should definitely consider it.
- You can read a review of the Korg MicroKorg here.
Digital synths are something new and I think we should embrace that as musicians. Not everything has to sound like a Moog. Music only moves forward as a result of the gear created to make the music.
Roland did it most successfully with their 808, but maybe their new digital synths can push music forward again. The Roland Gaia is really powerful, and it’s full of new ways to think about synthesis, although maybe not to the extent of the Ultranova. It’s really light and I don’t know how travel-proof it is, but as long as you’re careful with it, it should last you forever. The design isn’t perfect, but the sounds are great and mostly everything is hands-on, making the Gaia something for the professional and the learner.
For under $1000, a $600 price point isn’t horrible either. The Gaia is more affordable than a lot of analog synths out there, and while it might not sound purely analog, it might do a little more. I like the Gaia a lot, and if you like it too, you should pick one up some time. I give the Roland Gaia SH-01 a 3.7 out of 5 stars.
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