Down-to-earth guitar synth
Ever harboured the secret desire to play an ocarina with your guitar? The Roland GR09 system makes it easier and more affordable than ever. David Mead checks it out
The GR09 follows in the wake of 1992's GR01, which was itself a huge leap forward in performance-orientated guitar synthesis from the somewhat befuddling GR50.
So what's the GR09 got that the 01 version lacked? Well, nothing actually. It's more a case of this model being an abbreviated form of the 01, with the emphasis being placed squarely on stage, as opposed to studio, usage.
The GR09 has no internal sequencer, for instance, and gone too is the GR01's multi-timbral facility. To compensate for these omissions, the new box is £380 cheaper. But before we get as far as examining the riches within the GR09, we have to achieve sectional interface with a guitar (Steady on - Ed).
Roland have made a few refinements to the special 'MIDI pickup' which has to be installed in your guitar in order to operate the synth. Externally, the main difference is that the GK2A pickup is slimmer, allowing it to be fitted to most steel-strung, six-string guitars without the need for modification. The original GK2 was chubbier, and awkward to fit to guitars with sci-fi trem systems, owing to the lack of space between trem and back pickup. Apart from that, the triangular control unit that you attach to the guitar is the same, and the method of fitting identical.
Roland still offer the choice between using double-sided adhesive pads or - gulp - screws to fit both pickup and control unit to the guitar, and my reservations here are the same as they've always been: nobody screws with my guitars, OK?
Once the GK is fitted, there are a few procedures to follow in order to successfully marry guitar to synth. You have to set the string sensitivity, for instance, in order to recognise incoming pitch data produced by your own individual playing style. Then, using the GR09's internal tuner, you can tune your guitar via the luxury of MIDI - I suspect nothing could be more accurate.
The synthesiser itself has all the familiar appeal of a floor-mounted multieffects unit. I applauded Roland's decision to take this tack with the GR01 - it makes the technology easier to grasp, even if you've reached only the base camp of guitar synthesis. One thing I must mention is the fact that Roland have provided the GR09 with a manual which is really simple to follow. The one provided with the GR50 was a nightmare; this one is a vast improvement.
The GR09's control layout is straightforward: four footpedals, four rotary switches, three pushbuttons, a display, and five LEDs make up the performance and programming side of the business. As far as connections are concerned, the synth has six jack sockets: two for stereo out, two for guitar signal send and return, and two for use with external (optional) footpedals to further enhance control over some of the synth's functions. There is an input for the guitar controller (GK2A) and MIDI 'In' and 'Out' ports. And that, apart from the mains input and on/off switch, is that.
The GR09 has 64 performance patches, drawn from 180 internal tones. A further 180 tones and, hence, 64 patches are available with the GR9E-1 Expansion Kit, so it should be possible to continually update this unit's software and keep apace with synth voice fashion as it progresses.
"You can tune your guitar via the luxury of MIDI - nothing could be more accurate"
The patches are split into two banks, A and B, with 32 presets apiece, each divided into eight groups of four which can be accessed using the footpedals. Each pedal has a triple function determined by the S1/S2 controls on the guitar-mounted GK unit. This may sound like a complex procedure in view of the GR's apparent performance-friendly stance, but it takes only minutes to familiarise yourself with the controls and I found myself whizzing through the presets almost immediately.
Roland have striven to make the GR09 an easy unit to program by laying out all of its possible control functions and performance parameters on the two large rotary selector switches. In order to alter anything or attempt programming your own patches, you merely slip into edit mode, select the function you wish to tweak, and use the incremental controls.
Creating a patch is a little like making a sandwich: you choose a main tone and sub tone from the 180 internal voices and assign them to the individual guitar strings, select parameters for attack, release and overall brightness, and then add reverb/delay (31 to choose from) and chorus/flanging (25 different types) to taste, choose a programme location, press 'write', and that's it.
In practice the procedure is a mite more involved than that, but you get the basic idea. It is even possible to have separate voices on different strings: piano on the top four, bass on the lower two, for instance.
The voices on the GR09 are really very fine. That in itself isn't surprising from a company with Roland's synth pedigree - the difficult part is choosing which voices to make available to guitar players, who are a notoriously fussy bunch of people at the best of times.
I think Roland have got the choice about right here. The electric sitar and banjo presets are not only accurate, they're certainly usable in their own sweet way. Nylon-string guitar with strings would probably suit a lot of function bands, as would some of the brass presets.
As usual with guitar synths, however, it's not a simple case of picking up this instrument and playing all your blues licks. There is a certain amount of style modification involved on behalf of the player, the precise amount depending on both the sound and the player's ability. Muted trumpet is an excellent voice on the GR09, but not if you try and play like Motorhead with it! Play a few choice Miles Davis-type phrases and you are at least in the right ball park.
"Muted trumpet is an excellent voice, but not if you try and play like Motorhead"
As far as tracking is concerned, the GR09 is virtually glitch-free. Any serious mis-tracking is more likely down to user error. On the slap bass preset, the temptation is to play the guitar in slap style - which confuses the synth something rotten!
Modify your approach and pluck the strings as normal, and the result is near perfect. Remember - the point is that you are merely controlling a synthesiser with the guitar, and most of the guitar's familiar characteristics are submerged in the process.
In many ways, owning a machine like this one forces you to broaden your understanding of different playing styles, which can only be a good thing. Take time out to modify and improve your playing, and before long you'll reap rich dividends.
There are further implications with this instrument that go far beyond what can be achieved with the GR09 unit alone. MIDI opens a multitude of doors and almost anything becomes possible - including the increasingly popular triggering of samples from an external module.
There are no real grey areas as far as guitar synthesis is concerned - you either love it or you leave it alone. If you love it and think you could use it in live performance, then the GR09 is among the simplest, smartest, and most affordable systems yet made.
It is also one of the easiest to get to like.
Prices inc VAT: GR09 £749; GR9E-1 expansion kit £139; GK2A pickup £129
More from: Roland UK, (Contact Details)
On The Re:Mix CD:
12 Roland GR09
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #1.
Review by David Mead
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