After coming down in favour of the Roland SDE digital delay lines last month, it's almost embarrassing to hand out the sticky sweets yet again.
But there's scarce doubt that in terms of value, facilities and fashionable desirability, the SH101 dusts the sideboard with every other match-priced mono on the market. The Yamaha CS01 may beat it on price, the Moog Rogue battle bravely with its two oscillator sound, but when you're talking 'bargain' this successor to the popular SH09 defines the word — not just a single oscillator synth, but a 100 note step time sequencer to boot.
Down to facts. The VCO pushes its mixable triangle and pulse width waveforms through the usual 16/8/4 and 2 footages, shaping them with a crisp ADSR envelope generator and a pleasantly rich filter.
In the past I've never been entirely convinced by the Roland sound. It's always seemed thin and piano-like. The SH101 was the machine that finally converted me. For a single oscillator keyboard it has a vast sound, and bass lines work a treat. The ability to modulate the pulse width with the LFO fattens an already broad tone, and mixing in the triangle and a sub-octave adds extra depth.
Speaking of the LFO, we've got triangle, square, random and noise waveforms. The last is a corker because it means you can modulate the SH101's own white noise source with... well... white noise. The thunderstorms and rain effects are collossal, topping those of more expensive devices.
Nearly all the controls are on sliders making them easy to read and understand. A few extra switches hover to the left of the two and a half octave F to C keyboard.
A Roland bender (!) lives here. Rather than the normal modulation wheel system that Moog made famous, these Japanese chaps have lately gone for a sideways mounted performance control: pushed to the left it drops the pitch of the note, heaved to the right and it rises. Sneakily, if you shift the bender forward, it acts as a switch to bring in the predetermined vibrato. Sliders and knobs abound to dictate the modulation levels.
The sequencer is activated by pressing the load switch (lighting a red LED). You feed in the appropriate notes from the keyboard and hit play. Rests can be inserted by tapping the key transpose button at the appropriate moment and the SH101 remembers its sequences thanks to a battery back-up. In fact it operates from six 1½ volt U2s tucked into a compartment underneath, but there's a mini-jack socket for a 9-12 volt power supply. A fresh set of batteries is good for five hours or more of performance, say Roland.
There are no editing facilities, but the sequence can be shifted in key while it's running, and the external-clock-in will allow it to be commanded by a sympathetic Roland drum machine. No MIDI: the SH101 was designed before details of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface had been finalised.
Portamento can be off, on, or only come into play when you hold down two keys simultaneously, so you can introduce glides without fiddling with other controls.
The lightweight, grey plastic case is constructed so it can be dangled from a strap à la CS01, but of course with full sized keys. And there's the optional extra of the MSG-1 — a stubby neck-like protuberance that attaches to the left hand end of the keyboard and carries a bend wheel (up only) and a vibrato button.
The 101 is obviously the perfect compatriot for the MC202 Microcomposer studied at the front of the book. Though Roland are bound to be working on a follow up (when are they not?), they've already arrived at a classic. It's easy to get to grips with, apparently reliable, and produces all the basic, classy synth sounds required by the dimmest amateur or the richest pro.
Review by Paul Colbert