The Green Goblin (with the Jupiter Mod)

Front panel of Roland System-8

What is the Roland System-8 (and what is the Plug-Out)?

First and foremost – I don’t do technical reviews. You can get paid junk content anywhere you like or visit Roland’s website for all the obvious crud. Here, I’ll simplify beyond believe so you at least have a clue (if you didn’t previously). The Roland System-8 is a synthesizer that was a flagship of the Aria series, based on their ACB technology, which stands for Analog Circuitry Behavior. Basically, the intent was to model the original synthesizers down to the behaviors of the circuits. Essentially: marketing speak. BUT – in my opinion, the System-8 sounds wonderful, really. There is the internal System-8 engine, and up to 3 synthesizer plug-ins that you can ‘plug-out’ into the unit, which then no longer need access to a computer to function. These Plug-Outs include (but there are more, this is just from memory): Jupiter-8, Juno 106, Juno 60, JX-3P, SH-101, System-100, ProMars). I currently have the Jupiter-8, Juno 60, and JX-3P in mine.

In fact – the whole reason I bought the damn thing was because I wanted to sell off my Roland JX-3P, which had no modification for MIDI and therefore was (annoyingly) always stuck in OMNI mode (meaning, any note data that was sent out, on any channel, would be heard by my JX-3P). Only a MIDI patchbay could make it useable in my studio. So of course I did the sensible thing and bought the System-8. Only… the System-8 didn’t really match my expectations and did not sound very much like my JX-3P. My JX-3P sounds very ‘beefy’ and thick and there are a lot more high frequencies that come through. I’ve gotten a lot of flak for this on my video where I demonstrate differences. I MUST be doing something wrong. Well, at a minimum, I know how to create a PWM sound on my JX-3P and it sounds much better than it does on my System-8 (the JX-3P PWM goes through zero, but the Jupiter-8 Plug-out also goes to zero but has this ugly glitchy sound too, if you create PWM using the same method as on the JX-3P, using sync). The resonance on the JX-3P Plug-Out is also not similar, as it develops an ear-splitting whistle-y sound. So unfortunately, now I have two synths when I only needed one. The System-8 is great not for the JX-3P Plug-Out (although sounds I create and match between the original and Plug-Out DO sound similar), it’s great for a lot of other reasons. See below for my video comparison of the System-8 JX-3P and a real JX-3P.

The internal System-8 engine is really interesting, with a bunch of filters that I find difficult to describe (sideband filters???) but also beneficial. I can create sounds that are just not normal using the System-8 filters alone. These are certainly a highlight of the synthesizer. I think if I could create 4 instances of the System-8, that might be worth it alone. In fact, the System-8 is really the highlight of the synthesizer. I should warn you that replacing your vintage synthesizer with the System-8 may leave you feeling like a Ringwraith… always searching for the original. I could be wrong. I know someone who sold their Kiwi Juno 106 after buying a System-8, but they’re probably mentally stronger than I am.

Things to like about the System-8

The first thing that someone might want to know is my impression of the System-8. And really, the first thing I want to say is all of the negative aspects of it, because they’re always right in my mind. So, when making this review, I’ve actually had to do things backwards, but place them in a different order. What do I like about the System-8?

Ease of use: Seriously, I find it easier to come up with patches on the System-8 than any other synthesizer. It’s fairly well laid out and easy to use. As I state later, the LEDs guide what knobs are used in a particular Plug-Out. Darkened knobs mean that there is no function currently. This is a really interesting and useful feature. I wrote 64 patches in a few weeks. In fact, I’m releasing the sound-set (Alpha-8) at the same time as releasing this review (see here for ordering)!

Complexity in simplicity: It’s a weird thing to describe, but I think all the simple building blocks within the System-8 (different synth engines, multiple filters available, different oscillator synthesis methods from cross-modulation to FM synthesis, etc) all come together in a pretty coherent way. The one con to this (and I won’t list it as a con because it’s not really that problematic) is that it can sometimes feel like there isn’t really a theme due to the Plug-Outs that sound different.

Robust selection of Roland history: You can add a Roland SH-101 with a few clicks (and of course, money). The stock engines in the System-8 are the internal engine (you can’t remove this), the Jupiter 8, Juno 106, and JX-3P. I actually have some distain for the Juno 106 Plug-Out, so when the Juno 60 Plug-Out came around, the 106 was gone within minutes. This actually reminds me of why I sold my Juno 160 (HS-60) years ago, in 2012 for $350. Sigh. Anyway, I haven’t chosen any monophonic synthesizer Plug-Outs to install because they do not work polyphonically and so it’s not worth it to me. How close these get to the real things? I don’t really know. The only comparison I’ve done is between it and my JX-3P and that was somewhat of a failure. I have heard people comparing the Jupiter 8 online and I found it indistinguishable from the real thing, for whatever that’s worth. Furthermore – you can usually do more things than the originals (two envelopes for the JX-3P, arpeggiators for all of the synthesizers, filter variations, step sequencing of parameters in real-time).

The SOUND: I left this for last, but I do want to drive something home: The System-8 SOUNDS GOOD. I do not hear aliasing, the supersaw waves are really good, the Plug-Outs sound fantastic. If there’s anything to criticize about the System-8, it isn’t how it sounds. Strangely, for as much as I harped on it early on regarding the subsequent cons (see below), it really is one of my favorite synthesizers. My favorite sounds below:

Next, I will discuss the things I don’t like:

The Green Goblin colors

In my opinion, it is one of the more visually striking synthesizers out there – but not in a good way. Bright green LEDs light up each plastic knob, in a cacophony of visual displeasure. I am not alone in feeling this way. It was a brash choice by Roland to use Goblin Green LEDs to stand out against the black background of the synth body. Why they chose Goblin Green, I have no idea. Their whole “Aira” series is like this. There was one person who must have made the comment to someone higher up in Corporate, and they just went face first into it and did not stop. Had they used white or pink LEDs – that would have been a vibrant look I could enjoy. The reason these LEDs are there is to let you see what parameters are available to you in a given Plug-Out, as some are not available with different synthesizers. I do like the concept, but even still, parameters don’t always mean what you think they mean, so it takes some time to understand what you’re actually controlling when you’re outside of the System-8 internal engine. You can shut off the LEDs entirely – and it sort of looks better, but then it’s really getting hard to find your way around.

In fact, the color scheme is one reason I really was against buying the Roland System-8. I thought (and still somewhat believe) that the Roland System-8 is one of the ugliest synthesizers out there. However, it actually did sort of grow on me. This is because of how easy it is to use the System-8. One thing I like to do is tone down the green in post-production in videos and the Goblin Green turns Mint Green, and I much prefer it.

Plastics

Lots and lots of plastic. The System-8 feels very cheap, in my opinion. The knobs feel weak, the buttons are spongy, the chassis is mostly plastic. It weighs very little (which could be a pro I guess). The big black sarcophagus encasing the whole thing just does not inspire me. It’s hard to explain, but I guess that’s why it’s an opinion. I don’t like how the whole unit feels or looks (although, again, I can make it look cool in a video, at least in a way that’s visually appealing). But in most instances, I’m stuck in my studio looking at the awful din that is the bright LEDs and black plastic body that spews forth from the System-8.

The Keyboard

Speaking of plastics, the keyboard feels light and plasticky. I’ll say it’s actually worse than the keyboard from the AN1x because it’s only 4 octaves. For a flagship synthesizer from Roland, I would expect 5 octaves and a really nice keybed. They did not deliver here. If I haven’t played the System-8 for a few days, there is one or two keys that sort of ‘stick’. I don’t like that aspect.

Bugs and wishful thinking.

PWM: For PWM created using sync (i.e., the method used for PWM on the JX-3P) on Plug-Outs, I hear clicks when the pulse-width goes to zero (it should be silent). This ends up ruining this feature for me. I have tested this using the Jupiter 8 Plug Out as well, which makes me suspect that they use at least some of the same coding in between the Plug-Outs. It sounds bad to me.

FM synthesis: When using FM synthesis, if I make a long-release bell sound, when notes start stealing, I hear audible clicking. Even if I am using long attack times for both filter and amp. This doesn’t seem like correct behavior and a friend of mine told Roland and they were putting it in their bug list, but likely not changing anything.

Stereo Panning: I understand that the System-8 Plug-Outs function as models of the original gear, none of which had stereo panning. However, the internal engine is it’s own thing and COULD have stereo panning. However, it was not included. There is a ‘PAN’ delay which does panning, but only really for the delay. I have managed to use this in such a way as to create panning sounds (i.e., use it 100% wet), but it takes a lot of work and doesn’t exactly sound perfect.

Effects: I actually think most of the FX are quite useable, but it’s a shame that a regular Juno Chorus isn’t also included in the “Effect” lane, which just has a bunch of distortions and phasers, except in the Plug-Outs where you will find a Juno Chorus. I’d prefer also having access to this in the internal synth engine as well. I rarely use the Effects because they’re just not that interesting to me.

MIDI: No MIDI thru. Really Roland? What a way to be cheap. I use MIDI thru all the time, although I can get around it, it would be nice to have. It’s strange considering they have CV in/out, but decided against putting in MIDI thru. Secondly, dealing with program change messages is a nightmare with MSB and LSB to get to different banks and patches. Maybe it was just the best way to manage it, but I don’t care for that. I’m not sure a lot of people are even familiar with MSB and LSB so I’d guess this is pretty use-specific.

The LFO: The LFO is just extremely basic and there’s only one. There are options to change the shape of the LFO and the behavior, but the other LFO options aren’t interesting to me because they are too rhythmic. Worse, the LFO doesn’t even function correctly when modulating PWM (in the System-8 engine). It continues to maintain a sine wave, even when switching the LFO shape. Also, for the System-8 engine, there is no way to independently modulate the pitch of OSC1 but NOT modulate the pitch of OSC2. You can do this with the Jupiter 8 plug out, but then you lose a lot of other features of the System-8 engine.

OSC3 as a mod source: Yeah – every 4th note when using OSC3 as a mod source sounds like trash. This is a major bug that will never be fixed.

Side panels: These are a must if you intend to keep the System-8. The metal panels look better against the black synth body, but that’s just my opinion.

End of cons rant.

The Jupiter Mod

You may have noticed that my photos show the System-8 with a Jupiter 8 look to it. This decal was the result of hard work by Matt Mac Evans, whom I met online. He made some preliminary decals for himself and then offered to have it manufactured for interested people. It was a one-time production and I was lucky enough to get a set. Installation of the decals took about 2-3 hours because it was challenging to line them up (each individual set of upper and lower vinyl decals had to be added at a time). I only had one shot and couldn’t buy another set if I failed. Thankfully, it worked out. This mod truly made the System-8 more appealing visually. If only Roland had ditched the Green LEDs and gone for white and added this decal, it would have been far classier. For anyone who got this mod – you were among the lucky few.

Back panel of the Roland System-8

A final note

Of course, everything should be taken with a grain of salt, as it is all just my opinion about the Roland System-8. To summarize, I would absolutely recommend the System-8 to anyone. I don’t think it looks quite as bad in person as it does in pictures. Sure, it’s very light and the keys aren’t the best and it’s 4 octaves and the green LEDs are off-putting, but it has a very rich sound and I would dare-say hard to tell it apart from the originals. If you get bored with one Plug-Out, just switch it for one that appeals to you.

I will say that, despite really liking the System-8, I do feel a strong preference for other gear. I don’t know why that is. There’s something a bit clinical in the models that I don’t care for. I KNOW it is not the original gear, and for that, I am a Ringwraith. It’s hard to disconnect myself from what is in front of me from what it is intending to be. It is poorly packaged and feels like it. Whereas, something like the AN1x is also very plasticky, but just manages to have some sort of soul that I can’t quite feel with the System-8. Here I am romanticizing devices with knobs and keys and lights, but – I mean, if you’ve read all this, that probably means you care to some extent too.

As an end to all this – I was very pleasantly surprised by the System-8. Within a week of buying it I was certain it would be out the door in a few more days, but it grew on me. I’ve now had it for 7 months and still find it quite compelling. You can’t really go wrong with it, if you don’t mind all the things I listed in the ‘cons’ section. The System-8 engine is worth the price. The Plug-Outs are truly just extra icing on the cake.

Roland System-8 Plug-Out Synthesizer

8.3 out of 10
Roland System-8 front panel
Sound
10/10
User Interface
10/10
Aesthetics
5/10
Price
8/10

Pros

Easy to use

Simplicity

Great selection of engines

Cons

The Green Goblin LEDs

Plastics galore

The keyboard

Sound glitches


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Joe

thanks for the overview and comments. Agreed that the native engine is the real gem, after the buyer is enticed by the plug-outs.

I found the green lights were fine when turned way down (but not quite off). Kudos to you for stressing that the S8 sounds good in itself, rather than rating it solely in comparison to what it claims to mimic. Of course that comparison is also valid, but let us admit it’s pretty good even when not identical.

Too bad the sticker set wasn’t a larger run, because I expect a lot more people would have gotten it if they had only known.