⊕ Crazy amount of sound shaping detail available
⊕ Clever design means learning curve is moderate given its complexity
⊕ Superb effects and fun sequencing tools
⊖ No companion app for management available
⊖ No pattern chaining or song mode
It’s been a scarcely-believable 50 years since Roland created its first-ever synth, the SH-1000. Though the synthesizer landscape is now vastly different, the SH series is still in the rudest of health with the release of the SH-4d – a compact and portable desktop polysynth that brings the company’s irrefutable expertise to bear on a product that packs a tremendous amount of punch into its diminutive frame.
The SH-4d is small but robust, powering over USB-C via mains or your computer. There’s a USB-C to USB-A cable supplied but, disappointingly, no USB-C to C cable. Standard charging cables won’t transmit data so in order to use its audio and MIDI interface capability, you’ll need a compatible cable. Intriguingly, it can also power from four AA batteries and offers around four hours of use on these; an impressive feat given the complexity and power of the instrument. You don’t generally find synths this advanced that you can battery-power and use anywhere.
On the back, you’ll find full-sized MIDI DIN ports, an external clock signal input, an audio mix in mini jack and headphone and stereo outputs. The mix input is sent to the phones and output ports, but not the USB audio stream. Download the USB driver and hook it up to your Mac or PC and the synth will appear as a MIDI device and as an audio device with 12 mono or 6 stereo outputs to your DAW and stereo inputs for sending signal back to the synth. The unit’s multi-effects section can process the sound you send to the synth over USB if you wish.
Computer integration is satisfactory, though at present there’s no companion app or plugin for accessing the synth’s myriad parameters and settings. It’s possible that Roland may release one soon and it would definitely be welcome. That said, the SH-4d also feels like a synth that’s been designed to be fully operational without a computer – a truly standalone model. The LCD screen at the top left is pretty small but does a fine job of providing visual feedback, especially given the vast number of things you can do with this instrument. You wouldn’t want it to be much smaller, though.
The central core section of controls switch their function automatically depending on which part of the synth you’re working on – more on this in a moment – and along the base is a 25-key button-based keyboard with octave and pitch controls. It can accept MIDI input from a keyboard or DAW as well.
Roland has designed the interface to minimise menu diving, which often plagues hardware instruments with small screens. It’s done this, largely successfully, by making most edit and secondary functions accessible via a shift+press. You use the shift button so often here that it quickly becomes second nature. The four directional buttons, two knobs and Enter and Exit buttons allow you to navigate the screen.
Now onto the juicy stuff. The SH-4d manages to pack in some serious firepower when it comes to sound generation. There are four synth parts and a customizable rhythm part with a total polyphony of up to 60 notes. The synths can each use one of 11 oscillator models that cover a diverse range of characters and tones from retro to futuristic, as Roland puts it. In the Osc section, turning the Model knob will cycle between these 11 and the physical dials and four faders will adapt to edit that particular model.
Broadly speaking, they break down as follows. The ‘Classic’ oscillators consist of the SH-4d with four selectable waveforms and the SH-3D model which substitutes an extra LFO for the fourth part. Then there’s the Chord model which lets you use the sliders to create chords from single notes. The ‘Future’ models consist of the two-operator Cross FM model and the Wavetable model as well as the Drawing model where you can use the sliders to manually draw your own waveforms.
The ‘Modulated’ category contains the Ring and Sync models which let you create rich, evolving tones and textures, while the ‘Legacy’ oscillators are made up of analogue classic sounds from the SH-101 and Juno-106, as well as the PCM model with a helathy selection of sample-based sounds from Roland’s library. Sadly, there’s no option to use your own samples – not yet, anyway. Last but not least is the Rhythm part, a separate sound set with 49 preset kits and 64 user slots. Each kit has 26 instruments with up to two layered waveforms and a range of synthesis controls for creating your own unique electronic drum sounds.
The four tones are accessed by holding shift and pressing the Part 1-4 buttons, and the Rhythm button for the fifth part. Then with a sound selected the Tone button accesses a wealth of options like tuning, analogue feel, legato switching and many more, which are displayed on the screen. Depending on the oscillator model in use, the four sliders and buttons adapt to manipulating parameters specific to that model. There’s a newly-developed multimode ladder filter available that has LP, BP and HP modes as well as ADSR controls and a gritty Drive knob that can add a ton of bite when required. Amp and LFO sections with multiple controls again adjust themselves to your current sound, with feedback appearing at the top of the screen but not blocking out its other content, which is helpful.
The synth’s sounds are wonderfully rich and warm and blending the five parts while mixing and matching oscillator types – each with a crazy depth of sound-shaping tools available – makes for some stunning tones and textures. These are helped along by the onboard effects, a total choice of 95 shared between single and multi-fx slots and running the gamut from reverbs and delays to lo-fi, pitch shifters and even the famous Juno chorus. As elsewhere, hitting Shift while selecting an effect dives you into its detailed settings. The preset patches on the synth make extensive use of these, especially reverb and delay, to give a sense of depth and dynamism to sounds.
It’s not just sound shaping on offer. There’s also an arpeggiator with multiple modes including a Visual mode that makes use of the unit’s built-in gyroscope to let you physically pick up and tilt the box to affect the way the arpeggiator behaves, with feedback via the screen. Similarly, the D-Motion effect lets you assign two parameters to an X/Y grid and move the box around to change these in real time. Both can transmit CC messages too, making it a quirky way to control external software or hardware. A powerful modulation matrix system is slightly hidden in software but lets you use LFOs, envelopes or external MIDI signals to modulate many parameters within each Oscillator model.
The onboard sequencer is multitimbral, which is less common in instruments at this price point, and features two-step input modes or real-time recording as well as velocity editing, flam, probability and other performance controls including motion recording of knobs so you can program filter sweeps and similar movements – a sort of simple automation. You get up to 64 steps per part and the system of 16 step buttons combined with some clever backlighting make it relatively easy to follow what’s going on, even if there’s a bit of a learning curve at first. The fearsome polyphony means you can get some really complex sequences going and it’s a lot of fun, though at present there’s no song mode or even facility to chain patterns together. This seems like something that would be relatively painless to introduce in a software update, so let’s hope Roland feels the same way.
The SH-4d has a sound that really belies its small size and the fact that it can run off batteries is even more remarkable. The inclusion of 11 oscillator models makes it capable of truly era-spanning results, whether you’re going for retro Juno tones, futuristic wavetable sonics or a blend of completely different textures and tones. There really is something here for everyone, with a scope of sound generation and a depth of sculpting that’s almost unheard of in such a small package. You’ll be hard-pushed to find a synth that can sound this big and this interesting while being this portable.
The performance features are fun too, if slightly lacking right now with no song mode, but also the omission of a software app as an alternative way to manage, back up and control the synth is a shame. Both though are likely to be remedied in time. Roland has worked hard to fit so much functionality into this desktop unit and though they have largely succeeded, it does also reward a passing familiarity with a hardware approach to editing and synthesis. Familiarise yourself with it however and you’re in for a treat – a world of near-infinite sonic possibilities and a heck of a lot of fun to boot.
- 11 oscillator models, 4 synth parts, 1 rhythm part
- USB audio, MIDI and power, battery option
- Effects section including 93 master effects
- 60-voice polyphony
- Step sequencer with 64 steps per part
- Visual arpeggiator and D-Motion gyroscope control
- Modulation matrix
- Multimode filter
- 25-key keyboard with pitch and octave buttons
- MIDI ports
- £549 / €629
- Contact Roland
- Buy: Rubadub, Andertons
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