Chris Lyth pays homage to a machine that helped shape the sound of early house and techno
In this new series, we will take a look at some of the most important and iconic instruments in electronic music history. For our inaugural outing, we turn our gaze to Roland’s plastic fantastic SH-101 and look at how Roland’s knack for happy accidents led to some of the most culturally significant musical movements of the modern age.
The 1980s were a golden age for the development of synthesizers and drum machines. New cost-effective factory processes were finally liberating synthesizers from the gouty digits of rich men dressed as wizards and putting them within the fiscal grasp of the average musician. So in 1982, with some fanfare, Roland launched the SH-101 – their egalitarian bid to finally produce an affordable mass market analogue mono synth to appeal to Rock and Pop musicians alike.
The new synth was plastic, battery-powered and had a separate key grip, which would presumably allow you to wear it as a guitar whilst sporting luxurious hair and spandex trousers (Roland really thought the keytar would set the world alight). But, despite its modest price of £250, it utterly failed to resonate with the mood of the age. Affordable polyphony was finally becoming available to the masses, and Yamaha’s digital DX7 was the hot new kid on the block.
Digital was in-keeping with the spirit of the age: it was new, futuristic, sleek and aspirational, and the DX7 became the first commercially successful digital synth, selling like hot pies at a midwinter football fixture – much, one imagines, to Roland’s chagrin. The SH-101 was discontinued and, like the TB-303, suffered manifest indignities gathering dust in the bargain bins of music shops. The SH-101 was the last synth in Roland's SH mono synth range, which had started with the SH-1000 in 1973, and would be the last full-sized analogue mono synth that the company ever produced.
The fact that machines like the SH-101 and TB-303 had been a failure in the marketplace is ironically what cemented their legacy. The initial unpopularity of these machines allowed them to fall into the hands of poor but innovative musicians who used them in ways that Roland hadn’t intended. Skip forward a few years to early the 1990s, and these machines had profoundly altered the musical landscape.
It would perhaps be easier to list the producers who didn’t use the SH-101, so ubiquitous was it in the burgeoning house and techno scenes. It had the ability to cover a wide range of ground tonally, and is capable of the deepest, meatiest bass known to mankind. The sub will literally shake your house down - it’s absolutely massive, and it’s no surprise that many drum & bass and IDM artists also picked up on it.
Outrageous bass is only the start, thought, as the SH-101's lead line and FX pedigree was also strong, and acts like Boards Of Canada, Juan Atkins and Aphex Twin have all explored its lead potential. Its ability to sound squelchy and acidic could easily fool the ear into believing it was a TB-303, and its warmth makes it easy to conjure drifting aquatic tones.
What makes the SH-101 such an inviting instrument for beginners is that, unlike some machines, you don’t need a degree in computational physics to find your way around it! In fact, it offers a great insight in to how subtractive analogue synths work: the signal path is laid out intuitively from left to right, and once you learn how a 101 works, your knowledge is transferable to many other synths.
At its core, it is an incredibly basic design, sporting just oneVCO (voltage controlled oscillator) with two waveforms: pulse and sawtooth. What gives the VCO its enormous bass punch is the ability to mix in a dual-octave sub-oscillator. The VCF filter is a superbly scaled circuit that affords a massive amount of tone sculpting without it ever sounding ugly. Nasty maybe… but good nasty, if you know what I mean!
With the resonance pushed high and the cut-off low, massive speaker-crushing bass sounds are to be had in the lower octaves. Change the range switch to four or two, however, and you start getting a very pure tone which sounds a lot like a theremin. Add in a little movement from the LFO and a very basic tone is already starting to sound a touch subversive.
The ADSR envelope is simplicity itself and probably the most musical and responsive I have ever used. It’s incredibly tight, almost brutally so, but an awesome tool for shaping sharp angular lines and keeping your tones punchy as hell.
It’s not just the sound that has endeared the SH-101 to so many producers, it also has some tasty performance features. The ability to assign VCF, Pitch and LFO to the pitch bender is great for creating expressive lines, as is the portamento knob, which can make notes glide into each other smoothly, or take you into zaps and squelches territory when pushed further.
The onboard arpeggiator has spawned many a classic bassline: it’s fairly simple but enormously useful for creating rolling bass and lead lines. Just press down a few notes, hit the hold function and get busy tweaking the cut-off and resonance. It’s fun, easy and hugely effective. And tthe 100-note step sequencer is somewhat of a classic in its own right. Perhaps this video of A Guy Called Gerald jamming away with two SH-101s and a TR-808 demonstrates this best!
Used in electronic music, the SH-101 has the ability to fit into a mix effortlessly and sound intrinsically correct. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because it generates a very raw but simple sound, as opposed to modern multi-oscillator behemoths which can often sound incongruous. Techno thrives on power, simplicity and expression and this plays perfectly to the strengths of this machine. More esoterically, along with its other Roland counterparts, its sound has almost become archetypal and is woven into the sonic fabric of electronic music. Our ear has simply become very accustomed to it.
The SH-101 today…
While an original machine will likely cost you around £1,000 on the secondhand market, there are a few modern options. Roland itself released the SH-01A as part of its excellent boutique range; this modelalso comes with some very welcome mod cons such as polyphonic mode, patch memory and chord mode. It’s very good and sounds very similar to the original.
Behringer, whose ability to take 'inspiration' from other companies remains unrivalled, also recently added the MS-101 to their catalogue. I’ve not tried one myself, but user reports are favourable and it costs around £270, which is not much more than the original SH-101 cost back in 1982! Or if you want it in software format, then the TAL-BassLine-101 is excellent and sounds very close to the original, while throwing in extra features like polyphony. Roland also offer a pimped-up 101 plug-in as part of their Roland Cloud subscription service.
There’s a rebel synth faction who feel that the legacy of the SH-101 has been a little overlooked. I suspect its versatile palette could ironically have undermined its claim to top techno billing – unlike the TB-303 whose tonal scope is more limited, but instantly recognisable. Perhaps, in truth, its only fault is that it isn’t the TB-303, which has bathed in techno’s spotlight since the late 1980s. History, however, is constantly being written and who knows, the SH-101 may yet usurp the current king.
Words & pics: Chris Lyth