I have, in the past, mentioned the Roland GAIA synthesizer, and have said that it could well be a “perfect” synth. Indeed, during its 13 years of production, it was a preferred instrument for teaching about synthesis and sound design in schools and universities everywhere. So, I was naturally quite interested when Roland announced the GAIA 2.
Yesterday, I visited my local musical instrument emporium and spent an hour or so with the GAIA 2. During that time, I concentrated only on sound design. I did not get into the arpeggiator or the sequencer, nor did I play with the SH-101 model expansion. I did get into everything else I could in an hour. I was the first person there, customer or staff, to play it. Here are my initial thoughts.
The build quality is on par with most Roland mid-level synths – solid and with decent enough heft. The whole front panel is a slab of metal with a brushed silver finish and black and blue lettering. All of the controls feel like they’re intended to be there and stay there. Buttons feel generally positive though maybe a little rubbery, and most of the knobs feel good and smooth. Resistance on the knobs and encoders is a mixed bag, though (more on this later). The display is typical of displays of this type – rather similar to those found on the Korg wavestate, modwave, and opsix. It’s generally readable and gets the job done, but really could be better.
Thankfully, Roland ditched the pitch/mod lever in favor of pitch and mod wheels. They are cute. They are ⅔ the size they should be. Seriously. The things are tiny, and the pitch bend wheel is rather stiff. The mod wheel feels okay, except for being ridiculously small. In both cases, the small size results in a very short throw that takes some getting used to.
Smack-dab in the middle of the front panel is a “motional pad” – basically a trackpad to which two parameters can be assigned. This is much like the trackpad on the Modal Cobalt 5s, except that it lacks the Z axis pressure function of the 5s. Pad gestures can be recorded, though, and saved as part of the patch. I found the positioning in the center to be awkward. There’s probably a reason these kinds of things are generally over on the left.
There’s a full-sized keyboard with 37 keys, and while it feels far superior to the Korgs wavestate/opsix/modwave, it’s not particularly inspiring. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, but they feel kind of like sprung, hinged slabs of plastic. It is nicely velocity sensitive, but there’s no aftertouch – not even channel aftertouch. I got used to it.
Everything ‘round the back feels pretty solid. Not much else to say there.
SOUND DESIGN WORKFLOW
Sound design is pretty intuitive. The panel layout mostly makes sense. Most knobs do one thing, and some have a related shift function. I was able to start making excellent noises very quickly. That said, there are a lot of small knobs that are fairly close together, and it’s sometimes hard to see quickly what you’re grabbing on to.
The VA oscillators sound very, very good, and they cover the basic shapes: sine, triangle, saw, square, supersaw, and noise. You cannot morph between the VA waveforms, although the switch feels more like a pot, with extremely subtle detents and very little resistance — it’s easy to bump and change the waveform unintentionally. The footage (octave) control is the same. If you are holding a note or notes when you change waveforms, everything retriggers as if you had lifted your hand and played the notes again. There is an effective shape/PWM control for the two VA oscillators.
The wavetable oscillator also sounds very good, and there’s a wide variety of interesting wavetables. The wavetable selector is an encoder that feels good and sturdy, and there’s a position control that moves smoothly through the wavetable. The footage selector on the wavetable oscillator is the same as the VA oscillators.
There’s a cross-modulation section. Using it makes for some wicked noises. There’s also an attack-decay pitch envelope with a positive/negative depth control envelope that affects all oscillators simultaneously. A hard sync/ring modulation switch rounds out the section and it works pretty much as expected. Squelchy screechy is really easy, but it’s a really good squelchy screechy.
All oscillators have a pitch control that is quantized to half tones by default. Holding the Shift button allows freely detuning the oscillators. I might rather it be the other way around, though I’m not sure.
Jumping back to the footage control: the range of these oscillators is HUGE. I think they go down to something like 10Hz, and up to a frequency that will probably call the dogs. Footage is marked from 64′ to 2′. Deep, fat, huge bass is easy.
There are two LFOs, which can be assigned to up to four destinations each. There are a bunch of available destinations, and assigning an LFO to a destination is very straightforward. LFO 1 has sine, saw, square, random, S&H, and step options. LFO 2 substitutes a triangle wave for the sine wave. LFOs can be tempo synced, and can be applied in positive or negative depths. There is no
phase option that I could see, and no modulation delay. However, the “amount” for each destination can be set.
There is one multimode filter, and it sounds very nice and fairly neutral and rather well behaved. It does low pass, band pass, or high pass with 12db, 18db, or 24db per octave slopes. It’s also got a very nice drive control that does a good job of adding some grit without being overbearing. Turning up the resonance sucks the bass right out of things, though. You cannot morph between filter types.
There are two ADSR envelopes – one for the filter and one for the amp, and they both work as expected.
The filter envelope has variable positive and negative keyboard tracking, and positive and negative depth control. It does not have a start delay on the front panel and I didn’t look hard for it in the menus (and it’s not documented if there is one).
The amp envelope has a master level control (not to be confused with the master volume control) and a “tone” control.
There are a lot of them, sorta, divided into three sections.
First up, the Roland chorus is there, and it sounds as glorious as Roland’s chorus has always sounded. Not much else to say there, except that it comes in three selectable flavors (with shift functions that I didn’t have time to play with).
The multi-effects section contains a long list of “Boss stompbox” effects, amp and cabinet simulations, etc., etc., etc., all distilled to a 3-knob control paradigm. The effects I played with all sounded great, and the controls Roland selected for the three control knobs were generally sensical, although I would have preferred the wet/dry/effects level control to be a fourth control as opposed to eating up one of the three adjustable parameters. In any case, the biggest gripe I have with the multi-effects section is that only one can be used in a patch.
Finally, there’s the delay/reverb effects section. You get your choice of one here, not both delay and reverb, which is rather disappointing. The delays and reverbs are mostly basic, but all sound excellent. The shimmer reverb is absolutely gorgeous. There really needs to be a separate delay and reverb.
COMPARED TO OG GAIA
The original GAIA was a very interesting synth, and had some features that I think were what made the GAIA the GAIA – particularly the architecture. In the original GAIA, each of the three oscillators had their own LFO, their own filter with ADSR envelope, and their own amp with ADSR envelope. Oscillators could be worked on singly or in combination, effectively giving the GAIA three single-oscillator synths in one box. That meant that sounds with a lot of interesting motion could be easily created. To me, that was the core of the GAIA magic, and Roland has dispensed with that in favor of a more traditional architecture of oscillators => mixer => filter => amp => effects.
SUMMARY IMPRESSIONS AND MY BOTTOM LINE
I should say here that I walked into the store wanting to love the GAIA 2. I wanted it to scream “Get out your credit card, Geren!” But, it didn’t. It sounds really, really nice, and getting really, really nice sounds isn’t hard. But it’s got enough shortcomings that I just don’t think it’s a $900 synth.
For $900, there should at least be channel aftertouch; the VA oscillators should be morphable; the filter type should be morphable; turning up the resonance shouldn’t suck the life out of the low end; there should be a third, assignable ADSR envelope; it should have MPE support; and there should be the possibility of polychaining.
After playing it, I chatted for a while with the two sales guys and a couple of other customers, and an important question we came up with is this: “What could be done with the GAIA 2 that could not be done with something already owned.” In my own case, I’m not sure that I could come up with a compelling enough list to warrant a $900 expenditure.
The sales staff were of the opinion that, on paper, that the GAIA 2 should retail for around $600, which they point-blank told their Roland rep. They let on that Roland is specifically targeting the Korg wavestate mk2, which they quote for $649 in store, and $699 on line. My own take is that the GAIA 2 could go for around the same price as the wavestate mk2, balancing the pros and cons of each. If I was looking for an $800 VA synth, I’d buy the Modal Cobalt 8, which is a better VA synth than the GAIA in a lot of ways. Or, maybe I’d go for broke and pick up the Novation Peak or Summit.
Many of the issues with the GAIA 2 could probably be addressed in future updates, but it’s always best to buy something for what it is today, and not based on what it might be tomorrow. And for me, today, the GAIA 2 is just not that good a value.
As always, your mileage may vary, and I’d encourage trying it for yourself if you can, before buying one. You may love it at $900, and feel it’s worth every penny.
GAIA 2 ALTERNATIVES
Here are a few alternatives to the GAIA 2 that I think may offer better values:
- Korg Minilogue XD (also available as a desktop module)
- Modal Electronics Cobalt 8 (also available as a desktop module)
- Modal Electronics Argon 8 (also available as a desktop module)
- Behringer Deepmind 12 (also available as a desktop module and in a 6-voice version)
- IK Multimedia UNO Synth Pro Keys (other versions available)
- Korg Wavestate Mk2 (not for beginners)