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System-8 Mysticism

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Finally!

After what seems an eternity, my brand new sound bank for the Roland System-8 has arrived. Following a brief encounter with Coronavirus, I continued on my path towards Mysticism.

Illustration of Roland System-8

What is Mysticism?

But what is Mysticism I hear you ask? Well, it’s easier to start with what it isn’t. Mysticism probably isn’t the sort of sound that most people think of when they first encounter the System-8. But I figured, many of the classic analog sounds people use are already available elsewhere. Sure I could make some too and maybe I will some day, but for now I thought, why not try and push the System-8 in a different direction.

So, with that being said, it’s all about going deep. Deep into a system possessed by swirling sonics, organic atmospheres, aquatic washes, rustic harmonics, weightless string machines and sound FX.

Upon listening back to many of the sounds I had created, I thought it was all a bit spiritual and strange, and even mystical! But really it can be whatever you wish it to be.

If you’re interested in hearing these patches, there’s a complete 40 minute long YouTube video featuring all 64 sounds. There’s also individual audio demos to be found on my website (link below). I do hope you like the bank and thank you for stopping by.

Michael

About the System-8

The Roland System-8 is an interesting synth with a myriad of sonic possibilities. My path to sound creation here probably began somewhat differently to many people. I have never owned the hardware version as I was too cash strapped at the time of its release. I stuck with my friend, the System-1 with the proviso that Roland may repeat itself and release a plugin version. Soon after, the Roland Cloud service was released so I doubled down, subscribed and bided my time.

And then it happened – the awesome 8 voice polyphonic ACB powerhouse was reincarnated as a plugin. Hooray I gasped, what a synth – it was like having 2 System-1’s stuck together and more besides. Despite the joy, I didn’t get exposed to the System-8 for a while after as I was busy setting up Soundsauca. But once I had cleared out my to-do list I surely wanted to make a sound bank for it. As I did, I became accustomed to some of it’s special features which I thought I’d share, so here’s a rundown of some details I explored with the System-8.

Overview

The System-8 plugin synthesizer is an 8 voice polyphonic virtual analog synthesizer. It comprises a classic 2 oscillator design, each with a range of oscillator variations. Each of these has a “color” modulation parameter which can be modulated by an LFO, envelopes or a tuneable sub-oscillator offering sine/triangle. There are 3 envelopes available – 2 ADSR types for amp and filter, and 1 AD element for pitch. 3 effects processors are included, along with an arpeggiator. Solo and unison voicing modes round out the package.

FM Fandom

With the System-8’s oscillators, all the standard oscillator types are present (saw, square, triangle and the “super” or 5 x stacked variations). Along with these stood a noise saw, logical operator, FM/sync, and a vowel oscillator. Oh, and then there’s that…err… 808 cowbell – go figure!

But wait, there’s more! It also has real FM, with a choice of 2 algorithms and 6 sets of ratios each. This was seriously cool stuff. Presets like “FM Artifacts” and “Ionospheres” demonstrate the sound best.

Before this update, FM was possible using the cross mod, but that was always hard to control tuning with, just as on an analog synth.

Luckily I’ve a few FM synths lying around, namely the Yamaha SY-77 and DX100. In fact my little DX100 often gets let out if I’m in need of a chunky stab or gristly bass. This is different though, instead of ploughing through all those menus to set up carriers and operators, you could just flip through the algorithm dial and add the frequency modulation via the “color” knob and bang, you’re done in record time! Unless of course you wish to further mangle things with an extraordinary array of filter types…

Filter Tips

The System-8 has a treasure trove of high quality and characterful filters. I’ll start with the standard ones, System-1/System-8. These are a useful set and are different. As I’ve been around the block with the System-1 I’d characterise the System-1’s filter as harsher with a piercing resonance. Adjusting the oscillator mixer levels is the key to getting these working. The System-8’s are smoother and more rounded and also include the a hi-pass variant which I happen to like (JD Jetstream anyone?).

If I recall, it was a little while after the initial plugin release that Roland implement some more features. Alongside the original System-8 types in low-pass, hi-pass at 12/24db, Roland also implanted the Jupiter-8, Juno-106 and System-1 filter types. Presumably with code already available from the System-8 plug-out models, this would be a relatively straightforward task to achieve. But they didn’t stop there either. Some of the even more interesting sounds emanating from this synth come from the 12 Formant filter types, a unique “Harmonics” filter and my absolute favourite, the sideband filters.

The Jupiter-8 filter is as one would expect, fantastic. It’s strong and beefy with a solid mid range and smooth top end. As per the original, the resonance extends up high but doesn’t self oscillate. My patch “Phased Out” gives an example of its wide character. The Juno-106 filter is a cracker too. Like its predecessor, it’s rich and deep, with a higher frequency range compared to the Jupiter. Out of them all, this is the one to choose if you want to get deeper into modulation, as the LFO mod range is increased. It also goes quickly into self-resonance, enabling those SH-101 type zaps “Cap Discharge” – great!

Sideband Showdown

Sideband filters as I understand, extract the un-pitched (atonal) frequency elements from a sound and allow for tuned feedback. Imparting comb filter qualities, they can add glittering artefacts to a signal. Their effect can vary from a subtle glassiness, all the way to crazy town with super stringy twangs and other effects. In between these extremes are a huge array of possibilities that are put to good use in the patch “Mysticism”.

The formant filters on the other hand, enable vocal like effects to be achieved through the signal. In one instance, I created the preset “Sith Choir” and these filters were brilliant for capturing some sinister Sith Lord tones.

The last one is really unique – the harmonics filter. In some ways it reminds me of the tone from the Roland JP-8000 feedback oscillator, and also some of the COSM (Composite object sound modelling) filter blocks found in the V-Synth series. Either way the harmonics filter is adept at driving and grinding the oscillators and a great deal more besides, and since it’s a polyphonic process, all manner of gritty overtones can be had.

LFOs & Envelopes

Whilst there is a single LFO on the System-8, it does have some extra tricks up it’s sleeve. Along with the usual wave shapes (sine, triangle, sawtooth, square, s+h and random) there are another 2 other sets of variations.

The second set takes takes the standard 6 LFO shapes and modulates their speed by a secondary “virtual” LFO (indicated by the x2 above). This allows for LFO rate to modulate between a faster and a slower value without turning the knob. The speed ramp is tied to the global LFO rate, so the faster the LFO, the faster the rate of change too. The LFO can also re-trigger the envelopes periodically, which whilst utilising S+H shapes and the arp, can produce some interesting rhythmical aspects.

The third group is another 6 of what I would call “impulse” waves. As the graphic (above) suggests, they have an initial burst of modulation at varying degrees of speed, followed by a tailing off section. Rinse & repeat. I wish they could be switched to a single-cycle as often one initial spike is all that’s needed. Still, can’t have it all can you!

Send it

The envelopes are a more straightforward affair but are tight and snappy when required and allow for negative modulation on the filter and pitch. Due to the free-running analog style oscillator section, they tend to click at fast certain settings, something I actually like. This can be used to benefit organ patches or as I found, can affect the filter response with repeated note triggers, particularly at high resonance settings. It’s in these details that the System-8 offers up some of this elusive organic behaviour that many other digital synths won’t.

In Effect

The effects are a more simple and straightforward affair. I appreciate that in the System-8’s hardware incarnation they are highly useable with simple adjustments, especially in a live situation. As a sound designer I don’t always rely on effects (although I’m guilty of it from time to time – too much time actually!), but sometimes they are the icing on the cake and can make or break a sound. I often enjoy rummaging around at their extremes, finding little fragments of magic to add to my sounds! If my sounds are too wet, you can always turn them down 😉

The 3 effects are divided out with the first including distortions and a bit crusher. The other one here is the ubiquitous Roland phaser, unfortunately it’s in mono but hey! The second is the time based effects with a chorus and flanger, along with a few delay types. I personally like the stereo delay to give an otherwise mono signal path some width, or the delay + chorus effect which can also achieve this. The flanger is nice but to get it in the zone there’s a few extras I used on the plugin version (more on this further below). Finally there are 6 reverb algorithms, with ambience, room, 2 halls and my preferred plate and modulation types.

Hidden Gems

After reading some of the manual for the System-8 hardware, I realised there were some additional parameters that weren’t readily available on the plugin version. I thought about this and since both the plugin and hardware are patch compatible I went hunting in my DAWs automation parameters to see whether these could be accessible. And low and behold there they were, hidden away! Here’s a rundown of the main ones:

  • Chorus high-cut/low-cut/pre-delay,
  • Flanger low-cut/manual/resonance,
  • Reverb density, (direct) level, high-cut/low-cut & pre-delay,
  • Delay (direct) level, damping, low-cut/hi-cut, tap offset, feedback level.

I’m not sure about other sequencers, but in Logic Pro X I managed to map many of these parameters to the “smart controls” panel. In this I chose the “Modern Black 2” Tab arrangement, which allows for up to 48 parameter mappings. Initially 24 are available over 2 tabs (Controls & Sends). Using the buttons, a further 24 are configurable, allowing for relatively fast access to these parameters not available on the plugin front panel.

These extra parameters may not sound like a big deal but they do offer the ability to balance out some of the effects and to even widen or dampen things down. It is a bit fiddly as Logic often reset their values for some reason, but If you change something it is saveable within the System-8 plugin and can be recalled later.

Easter Egg?

Whilst I was mapping these effect parameters for some of the sound design patches I did discover a few more hidden gems. 2 in particular were quite interesting:

  • F Env Variation
  • A Env Variation

Upon exploring these, I found these 2 parameters adjusted the length and possibly the slope of the filter and amp envelopes. I was intrigued by this and wondered if these parameters were hidden away on the hardware. I again looked at the System-8 reference pdfs but found no mention of these or indeed another group of parameters related to CV (control voltage), which I presume relates to the hardware’s ability to use CV to control specific parameters. I also asked on the GearS!utz forum but alas, no one really knew much about it.

Finally…

So there you have it, a mystical sound bank for a mystical System-8 with a chunk of info on what I discovered whilst creating it. I think I need a lie down after all that hyperbole! I hope you found some of my rambling useful and if so, let me know what you think, are these envelope parameters left in by accident, or is there another explanation?