Roland GR700 Guitar Synth
Review. In colour.
"First acoustic guitar... second electric guitar... third ELECTRONIC guitar." Can still hear them famous words ringing in the ears from the time Roland initially went potty about the idea of a guitar synth.
It was at the launch of the GR300, and they were extolling the virtues of a new breed of guitar and, presumably, guitar player. The six string was being dragged screaming into the 19th century, if not the 20th.
Roland have been the only company to actively pursue the dream of guitar synthesis into the eighties. If you're a wise and fortunate human, you'll still possess issue two of O.T.T. containing T. Bacon's thesis on the development of said instruments.
The GR700 and 707 controller form a significant step forward because for the first time the combination lives up to the full promise of guitar synthesis – a guitar that can control ANY synthesiser (as long as its MIDI compatible). The GR300 and GR500 before it were impressive machines, not without faults, but they were purpose built, self contained devices... in truth, massively complex effects units with ambitions towards being synthesisers.
The GR700 is what many guitar players have been waiting for, but it is going to fox a large number of people. So at last you can MAKE any sound that a keyboard man can make, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can PLAY it.
The 700 project splits into two halves – a futuristic looking six string instrument with a Roland designed tremolo system and a few extra controls, plus a box that sits on the floor containing most of a JX3P synth alongside essential pitch to voltage conversion circuitry.
Keyboards are like switches, they're easy to work with, but guitars have the awkward habit of putting out frequencies, genuine notes, for lord's sake, Guitar synths are the Pushmepullyous of electronics in that they have to accept a frequency, understand it and convert it to a useful voltage which can then drive the synth electronics to produce... yup... exactly the same frequency, but now behaving like a synth.
Pitch to voltage chips can be easily confused. They need a pure, uncluttered frequency to work on; a fundamental. Unfortunately, guitars and guitarists are not so disciplined. Often there are areas on the fretboard which promote extra harmonics. Certain attacking manoeuvres from the plectrum can have the same result.
These additional, underlying frequencies cause the P to V circuitry to 'glitch' – ie, lose track of the note being played and descend into hideous and unusable gurgling. Most often this will occur when you hit a string sloppily, or when you've left it to decay for a long time. Harmonics can endure beyond the fundamental – that's why really beautiful, matured guitars have a sound that blossoms: the notes as they sustain become richer because the harmonics surface above the fundamental.
All of this is bad news for a guitar synth. The original Roland solution was to place the special synth pickup as close as possible to the bridge where the harmonics are at their lowest. Incidentally, it's what's known in the business as a Hex pickup – six individual outputs, one for each string. It's height and positioning are crucial to maintain a good signal.
Now Roland have hit upon a second dose of medicine. In experiments with the older guitar synth controllers they found it was possible to move the trouble spots on the fretboard by altering the tuning, or changing the weight of the body. They deduced that it was the natural resonance of the guitar and the neck which dictated this disaster zone. They needed a way of damping the natural resonance of the neck to keep the harmonics under control.
That's why the GR707 ended up with a polycarbon bar which runs from the top of the body to the tip of the headstock. My reaction, on seeing the completed model, was 'how the hell are you supposed to play it'. In fact the bar is two inches below the line of the fretboard so it doesn't obscure your view of the frets when the guitar is around the torso. And within ten minutes of strumming, I'd completely forgotten it was there.
If you're really anti, the bar can be unscrewed, which would be a pity because it is successful. There are fewer glitches on the 707 than on any of the previous Roland guitar synths.
On more down to earth matters, the rest of the body is alder with a slim maple neck and rosewood fretboard – slimmer, I'd swear than previous Roland controllers and a mite acute at the edges for my fingers. It hangs without any trouble, but sits on your knee with all the comfortable stability of a warm jelly. Though there is a rubber pad on the bottom edge of the body which is meant to grip your strides, the shape and the balance is too much for it, and the guitar usually slides off.
When a synthesiser company has a hand in designing a guitar, it's safe to presume that oddnesses will happen, and they do. Roland have rejigged the traditional idea of a headstock by placing the machines in reverse order. They run along the bottom of the headstock so that the bottom E has the longest length of spare string between nut and machine, and the top E has less than an inch.
This, reveals Roland chap Dave Green, is pretty logical when you consider the major fly in the Guinness of any tremolo system. They wander in pitch, usually because there are several centimetres of top E and B between the nut and machine which can stretch and then slip in tuning. The thick bottom Es and As are the wires least likely to give, so why not invert the order?
This is a fortunate scientific discovery for Roland because, as the polycarbon bar has to be attached to the top edge of the headstock, it would have been far more difficult to site the machines there anyway. But let us not carp.
The tremolo block, itself, is another example of Roland brainpower. It works on a hinged plate, kept under tension and gliding up and down inside a substantial hole cut into the alder body. It's not a through the body job like a Strat, but owes more to the Kahler and Floyd Rose devices.
The saddles are topped by small bronze rollers so the strings don't stick, but the bridge required extra attention thanks to the Hex pickup. When most tremolos are pushed down, they have the side effect of lowering the strings as the bridge drops in height. This may be okay on an ordinary guitar, but on the 707 that would dump six lengths of wire directly onto the Hex pickup – a challenge that even the bravest pitch to voltage chip would file under suicide. Roland's trem will slacken off the strings yet compensate mechanically to keep the bridge at the right height.
I was surprised at how well the 700 synth section tracked the guitar when the trem arm was heaved around. It reacted quickly to fast vibratos, and clung to all but the most lunatic detuning manoeuvres when the harmonics and glitches became certifiably insane.
The 707 has a bolt on neck, and is... well... functional, I suppose, but I can see quite a few guitarists making use of Roland's new pickup kit which allows the Hex coil to be fixed to your own personal instrument. If you're preparing to spend £1500 on the 700 synth section, you probably will have already forked out a sizeable amount of dosh for a 'name' guitar.
Still, as Dave Green pointed out, with a bright silver 707 around your neck, everyone is going to know it's YOU knocking out the brass section, and not the keyboard player.
The 700 is the sound source – a JX3P in a flat, silvery box with large rubber feet. It stands about 7 inches high and two and a half feet wide with a sloping front to take 11 square, black footswitches and a flat section at the top for a VERY large LED display and a series of touch switches beneath a membrane.
The 700 has 64 programmable memories arranged in eight banks of eight. Four of the footswitches are numbered one to eight, and the extra three on the left are labelled bank, edit and hold.
The LED display is split into two sections and each figure in the readout is at least two inches high. The left side of the display presents the bank info (tap the bank footswitch and then the desired number), and the right side shows the patch selected.
The 707 controller makes contact with the 700 via a 24 pin connector which marries with a socket at the base of the guitar and at the rear of the 700. The guitar also has a straight jack socket output. The back panel of the 700 has two further Dins, one for a MIDI Out (there's no MIDI In because the 700 doesn't recognise key assign information), and another for linking with the PG200 programmer – the add on box that supplies a pseudo front panel of knobs and switches for the JX3P.
Like the JX3P keyboard, there's a stereo output from the stereo chorus, plus an input, to control the filter cutoff and oscillator pitch from an external pedal.
Also, and this is a departure from the JX3P, you can expand the memory space by using a plugging in RAM cartridge known as an M16C. XLR outputs as well, if you like lockability.
Before we finally move on to fingers and noises, there is one more similarity between this machine and the previous Roland guitar synths. You can decide how many strings should be routed to the electronics – all six, or maybe just one – and those aforementioned touch switches will do the job. For example, you could want to use the bottom E for a synth bass bote, then be able to kerang out a normal guitar chord on the remaining five, without the rest of the oscillators coming into play. This selection can be programmed into the memory.
This is where we start resting on the couch and talking about sound psychology! Remember, you're controlling a proper synthesiser and you have access to all its effects – detuned oscillator banks (two), ADSR envelope generators, syncing, and so on.
And because you're now encountering fewer glitching or mistriggering problems than ever before, the net result is – you go mental.
The GR707 feels and plays like a normal guitar, and that's what you try to do, but string sections don't work that way and brass sections don't work that way, so you still have to alter your approach to get the best out of the instrument, even though it could be played like a standard six string.
And the immense expression within the Roland can catch you out. A soft, lilting flute or violin might inspire you to stroke the strings gracefully to make the best of the effect. But all you do is wreck the triggering because although the synth is being delicate, YOU still have to deliver a powerful twang to give the 700 a good signal.
And it is very strange to hear violins, organs, surf, etc issuing from a guitar. Previous Roland GRs have had a character largely dominated by the natural envelope of a guitar string. Most exponents have plumped for long, sustaining chords. The synth sections have almost been used as giant and good natured fuzz boxes.
Though it's arguable that those tones are still the most immediately successful applications, with practice you can work your way into percussive, piano and clavinet styles.
But again, it's a matter of adjustment. The most common approach to a keyboard is to sling three or four notes in on the right hand, and one or two notes down the bass. Unless you've got mitts like coat hangers, all the notes from your chord are going to fall within one octave. On a guitar, the average E major can encompass six octaves, with a note from each. That's why you have to think again. That vast breadth of frequencies will produce a diabolical mess with certain synthesiser voicings. You have to learn that the use of two or three strings may be a lot better, even though you have the capability for all six.
The guitar controller has a master volume for the onboard pickups and the 700, a balance control to alter the levels of the guitar and the synth, a control for the filter cutoff, and another knob marked 'edit'. This is directly related to the JX3P's editing system, where you select a parameter, then change the value with the edit control. Slow, but it does mean you can program the 700 from the 707 panel.
It's vital to consider the 700 system as a twosome – a guitar and a synth, particularly when you're playing around with the hold button. Atmospherically, the Roland can be at its most powerful by creating a massive string or brass-like sustained chord, locked into place by pushing your foot down on the hold switch. This means you can then solo over the top of it with the normal guitar pickups, without retriggering the synth.
Though once again, the mighty phrase MIDI raises its bonce. You can run another synth from the rear panel of the 700 and the hold button will work only on the electronics within the 700's case, so you could solo with a second synth sound on top. Is big.
So big, in fact, that if you're already blessed (cursed?) with a keyboard player in the band, you'll have to come to some arrangement as to who does what. The obvious division would be for the synth guitarists to handle the thick backdrops of sound, while the keys man shoves in the snappy staccato material.
Because however accurate and speedy the pitch to voltage conversion may be, it cannot react as rapidly as fingers on keys. There will always be staccato keyboard techniques that the synth guitarist cannot master – but there's no need to sulk. Just do it in your own way.
There are certain details of realism that the 700 will take care of for you. For example, if you bend a guitar string, then the pitch of the oscillators will stay matched to you. Funnily enough, Hammond organs don't work that way.
So there's a button on the front panel marked Chromatix. In this case, when you bend a string, the pitch jumps upwards in semitones, missing out the travelogue in between. Just try finger vibrato or the tremolo arm in this mode... adventurous isn't the word.
There is a method of introducing vibrato from the onboard LFO. The plastic surround to the tail, humbucking pickup holds a small metal stud. Touch this and the conductivity of your skin will turn on the LFO. Lift your finger and it stops.
And that's a small, concise example of what the 700 is about – familiar guitar techniques made available in an electronic way and with a new mind behind them. Face up to the facts. It will not make you sound like your favourite keyboard player, no guitar synth ever can. But it will make you sound like a very different guitarist.
G707 controller: £699
GR700 synth: £150
PG200 programmer: £210
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Review by Paul Colbert
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