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Review: GM-800 Guitar Synth & Guitar Synth Technology Flyover

Started by shawnb, September 11, 2023, 06:19:45 PM

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Over the last few years, guitar synth fans have been in a bit of a quandry.  There have been two major players: Roland & Fishman.  (Lots of smaller players as well, most notably Jam Origin MIDI Guitar...)

Fishman offers the FTP, the Fishman Triple Play, a pickup & pitch-to-MIDI converter.  For several years, the FTP has represented the best-of-class in pitch to MIDI conversion, and allows you to feed any synthesizer.  It is very playable, and tracking, dynamics, and latency are very, very good.  The downside is that you need to buy a synth & build a rig around it.  The FTP is just the pickup.

Roland has always provided great all-in-one units, e.g., the GR-30, GR-33, GR-20, GR-55, GP-10, etc.  But the history is a bit spotty.  The GR-30 & GR-33 tracked well, and latency was good, but the dynamics & playability were flat.  But they were perfect for cover bands that needed to maybe use a piano or organ for a song intro or two, where the band didn't have a keyboard player.  Lots of artists used the GR-3X - Robert Fripp played a GR-30 with King Crimson for a while.  (Good enough for Fripp = good enough for me... I own one...)

Roland then took a turn to the dark side with the GR-55.  My take is they tried too hard to improve dynamics & add features, and stuffed so much in there they broke the pitch-to-midi conversion.  The GR-55 P2M was terrible.  As was the P2M in the subsequent GP-10 and the SY-1000. 

And now, Boss/Roland just released the GM-800.  And I am VERY happy to say that the tracking and dynamics are excellent.  Easily comparable to the FTP.  If you play it into a DAW & measure how many milliseconds of latency there are, the FTP still wins hands-down. 

But with the GM-800, Boss/Roland has made a unit that is very, very playable...  Their best by far.

Very fun to play, with lots & lots of sounds...

1246 stock sounds.  100 Preset "Scenes" - a scene is a custom mix of 4 sounds + fx.  74 rhythm/drum kits.  93 FX.  Expandible thru downloads via the Roland Cloud. 

- No arpeggiator (seriously, wtf?)
- No harmonist
- No COSM/AIRD or guitar fx processor...  Synth ONLY... 

You need a separate guitar processor for playing, well, guitar.  Lots of guitar synth enthusiasts are pairing the GM-800 up with a Helix setup, or the Roland SY-1000.

When is a synth a synth?:
Broadly speaking, Roland has used two methods to approach guitar synths.  One, the focus of the notes above, is pitch-to-midi, followed by feeding the MIDI messages into a synth of some sort.

But Roland has also always had advanced modeling also, e.g., their COSM units & now their AIRD technology.  COSM/AIRD let you model/emulate other guitars and amps.  And further, that same technology can be used to provide some excellent synth sounds, e.g., a GR-300 emulation, or various sawtooth sounds. 

The benefit of COSM/AIRD technology is that there is basically NO LATENCY.  You can think of it as a fancy stomp box.  The modeling capabilities kinda blur the lines with some synths. 

Roland also has the more recent SY series, which takes this a step further and allows you to emulate all the basic synthesizer waveforms, e.g., sawtooth, sine, square, PWM, etc.  By tweaking the input guitar signal...  So, there is basically NO LATENCY, since there is no pitch-to-midi conversion.  Wonderfully playable. 

The limitation of the COSM/AIRD/SY technology, however, is tones.  You need to play piano?  Sax?  Organ?  Virtually any of the PCM sounds?  COSM/AIRD/SY cannot do that. 

The GM-800 is pitch-to-midi driven, so can basically play any synth sound.

I bring this up because a lot of folks complain & say the GP-10 or the SY-1000 are terrible synths.  The truth is the GP-10 & the SY-1000 both include some excellent modeling & fx.  But they also have a MIDI output port, fed by that flawed, funky P2M.  The folks who say these units are terrible synths are usually trying to drive a separate hardware or soft synth via the 5-pin MIDI cable.  Which, as noted above, is terrible.  The sounds produced internally by these units are outstanding.

Zen-Core & the Roland Cloud:
Roland has an underlying engine for all of their synths, from the Jupiter synths and the Juno synths to the Fantom synths & more.  They call that the Zen-Core synth engine.  I.e., under the covers, the GM-800 shares the same hardware engine as a Jupiter synth, or the SYSTEM-8.  In fact, you can edit sounds on one, export them, and load them into pretty much any other Zen-Core synth.  Or purchase basically the same expansion packs & sounds from Roland.

The bottom line is there is a wild & expanding array of synth sounds possible, and you can share those same sounds across your DAW, your Roland synth, & the GM-800. 



Tracking & playability comparisons between the GM-800 & the GR-55:

Jam Origin MIDI Guitar

SY-1000 Demo
Both the guitar & bass here are playing the SY-1000.  Note that without PCM sounds, most of the demos emulate early Moog/Arp era synths.  Note also that the SY-1000 also has the same underlying AIRD modeling & processor as the Boss GT-1000 guitar fx, so you get some excellent guitar sounds as well. 

FTP Demo
Abandon concern for hitting the right note.
Then, hit the right note. - Fripp


Thank you for taking the time to compile such a comprehensive. I am currently thinking of getting GM-800 and your review is a definite help.

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