I’m pleased to announce the release of my latest soundset – Shapeshifta for the Roland SH-32. The SH-32 was one of those synths that passed me by on release. I’d been rather busy with other synths at the time and I didn’t see much reason for me to justify ownership.
Years later, in timeless Roland tradition, it began to gain my attention. I picked one up on the cheap as I thought it would be an interesting addition. With all the front panel controls and a small footprint I was inquisitive to its capabilities. I’ll admit at first I didn’t really “get it”. It sounded similar (but not the same) to a few other pieces of Roland gear I had experience with. I drew some parallels with my XV-5080 and JP-8080, but the XV sounded way more polished and hi-fi, with masses of options. The JP-8080 on the other hand has a rawer tone, more synthesis functions and more high end.
To VA or not VA?
In many ways the SH-32 sat between 2 synth design paradigms; on one hand it sounded similar to a virtual analog (VA) synth, on the other it had much in common with sample based modules (romplers/S&S).
Both synthesis techniques are digital, but due to their sound generation method, are suited for different tasks. It’s generally assumed that VA synths mathematically generate their waveforms in realtime or use some form of look up wavetable system. They also posessed synth functions not seen on other digital synths. Typically this included PWM (pulse width modulation), oscillator sync, modelled filters, faster modulation rates etc. The flip side to these capabilities was a heavier burden on DSP resources, resulting in limited polyphony compared with a traditional sample based synth design.
When the SH-32 was released, the marketing appealed to those who wanted a VA synthesiser, but were put off by higher prices and polyphony limitations. Roland coined an interesting acronym, WASG (Wave Acceleration Synthesis Generator!) a bit of a mouthful…
WASG promised to offer a VA type synth with more generous polyphony than a lot of the competition (32 notes single/16 notes dual oscillator) , and still have many of their features. It had 4 part multi-timbrality, drum kits, an arpeggiator and step sequencer, PWM, oscillator sync, FX and more waveforms, it seemed a great idea.
Despite the feature list, listening to a SH-32 confirmed that this wasn’t a typical VA. Anyone who owns one will know it’s not the smoothest of operators. The box clearly lacks DSP resources… It is common to hear parameter stepping when adjusting controls. LFO and envelope rates are relatively slow and running the synth in performance mode only compounds this issue. So much so that early on I canceled the idea of making performance mode patches. The sound and timing of patches suffered too much for my liking. It wasn’t all bad news though…
On the contrary, the sound that this thing can belt out can be really quite astonishing. Big fat analog strings and leads, delicate plucks and metallic bells, dirty and distorted sweeps. It can sound classically traditional or hard and modern. The oscillators exude a glassy “sheen” and the bottom end is rock solid with plenty of oomph. The filter shifts the timbre of the waves in an almost colourful way.
Then there are the effects. The SH-32 has 2 FX processors with an interesting subset of algorithms. Many are related to the XV-5080, with ring-mods, slicers and phasers, but also both processors are capable of a myriad of delays and reverbs. This allows for delayed reverb, or reverberating delay – they do sound different! Add in the space-d and other chorus effects and the sound can be twisted in some very unusual and interesting ways.
When all these elements are combined it’s easy to forget its shortcomings. In many ways they are responsible for its hybrid sonic signature.
If you’ve never heard of the SH-32 before or have been put off by the factory presets, I urge you to have a listen to Shapeshifta. It may just change your perception on what it can do!