The Synth's Sojourn
A road report on Roland's guitar synth the GR700 by Imagination's Ashley Ingram and Mark Wood of Nucleus and Sunwind.
Imagination's Ashley Ingram and Mark Wood of Nucleus and Sunwind put Roland's GR700 guitar synth under scrutiny.
The Roland GR700 is the latest in a long line of guitar synthesizers from the Japanese company. While other companies like ARP (now deceased) and Korg abandoned the concept entirely, recent newcomer SynthAxe chose to go digital to avoid the tracking problems associated with pitch-to-voltage convertors, leaving only Roland active in this field.
Ashley Ingram of Imagination was one of the first musicians to obtain a GR700 in this country, certainly one of the first to take it on tour.
What do you think of the GR700's voices?
"Well, no two ears are the same," he says cautiously.
"If I was Roland I would rework the presets, you can program much better sounds yourself quite easily," he concludes.
Of course, with MIDI you're not tied to the sound of the GR700 module anyway.
"No, that's right. I would like to link two modules together, actually. I would get a much richer sound but then I think 'Why not get an expensive digital delay instead' — isn't that the same thing?"
Not exactly. If you had two modules you could have two different sounds playing at the same time, whereas with a DDL you'd just have the one sound, only doubled.
"People are now running two DX7's together. I'd like to run the GR700 and perhaps a JX-3P together. The GR700 is actually a keyboardless JX-3P anyway, so they would complement each other well."
Have you tried to control any other synth via the MIDI buss?
"Yeah, I've hooked up the GR700 to a DX7. It's fine on fairly slow things but there is an 800 Ms delay in relaying MIDI data between the two terminals which means that when you're playing jazz, people think you're playing really well — 'Hey, look man, he's playing in a different rhythmic!' — they don't know you're actually playing behind time!"
A lot of people have commented on how slow MIDI is at relaying information. Have you had any other problems?
"Well, not all the MIDI data is transmitted. On the GR700 you've got a hold facility so you can play a chord, press hold and solo over that chord, but if you press hold while you've plugged into the DX7 the G-707 says 'So what? It's not my department!" he laughs.
Ashley is also awaiting a MIDI retrofit kit for his Oberheim OBX, one of several add-ons available in the States, and is looking forward to trying that out with his GR700.
The old Roland guitar synths had severe tracking problems because of their sensitive pitch-to-voltage convertors. Have you experienced any tracking problems with the GR700?
"Well, you've got to play the G-707 like a guitar synth as opposed to a normal guitar or you get glitches and all kinds of problems," Ashley cautions.
"Once you observe that golden rule though, you can play it and have no mis-triggering at all. The problem is, when you play guitar for so long you get your own style and sometimes it's not the style that the guitar synth registers. Maybe I'm just a lousy player but I can't help that," he concludes with false modesty.
What about tuning. Any trouble there?
"No, it's really good. It took to life on the road brilliantly. We were doing this gig in Algeria of all places and we had two power cuts in the same show. The GR700 was brilliant. The Oberheim wiped its memory but the GR700 was still cool — the programs were all there."
How do you record with the GR700?
"I put mine through a JC120. You can't DI it because the sound is pretty noisy, which is something I'll have to speak to Roland about. Also it's very hard to get any character out of it if you just DI it but if you take it out of an amp the sound is a lot better.
"I always compress the signal and put a bit of digital delay on it to thicken the sound. The Oscillators are quite thin, really."
Another musician who has toured with the GR700 is Mark Wood. He took one on a two month tour of South America recently with jazz/rock band Nucleus where despite the variable voltage supply and high temperatures, it worked surprisingly well.
Did you have any problems with the pitch-to-voltage convertor?
"Well, I got mine direct from Roland before the final production version was in the shops and there were a few problems but now it's been set up properly, the only trouble I've experienced has been on patches with long release times. They seem more prone to glitches, somehow."
Ashley said that the output of his '700 was quite noisy. Is that something you've found?
"No, but then I amplify the GR700 and '707 separately instead of going through a single Jazz Chorus like Ashley does. It makes a real improvement to the '700's sound, the only problem is it's quite expensive to do because you need two amplifiers instead of one, but it really is worth it.
"I take the stereo out from the GR700 to one amp and take the '707 output direct from the guitar instead of via the GR700 to another. I've also got separate volume pedals so I can make the guitar louder or the synth louder depending on how I feel.
"The important thing if you try this is to only earth one amp. Otherwise you'll get a really bad ground earth loop and hum."
Have you interfaced your GR700 with any other synth yet?
"I've hooked it up to a DX7 of course and also a Jupiter 6. Obviously it works best with the JP6 because that's Roland as well but it interfaces pretty well with the DX. The only problems I had was a slight triggering delay when I was playing bass notes. Also when you bend a note it goes up chromatically!"
So you're pretty satisfied with the GR700 then?
"It's great. The layout's brilliant. It's so easy to change programs with the foot pedals and those huge digits. I'm sick of humping keyboards around with me just so I can plug the '700 into them, so I'm really looking forward to the new rack-mounting MIDI modules. Hopefully, someone will develop foot pedal program selectors for them!"
Mark's currently gigging with his own band, Sunwind, and those of you who attended this year's BMF will have seen him demonstrating the GR700 on the Roland stand. Ashley Ingram and Imagination are currently recording their new album, and Midge Ure and Steve Howe have both recently acquired '700's, so it appears as though the guitar synth has finally come of age.