During the early 80s, microchip technology was touching every aspect of human life. We were not quite at the stage where our fridge-freezers could order our shopping for us, but the switch to chip circuitry was having a very positive effect on the price of music technology.
Just a few years previous, you couldn’t buy a synthesiser for less than several hundred quid, but the Japanese giants of music technology world would have a thing or two to say about that in this decade. The original Roland Jupiter series once commanded four-figure price tags, but Roland then found a way of shrinking the tech into a form that would make it much cheaper, and used that knowledge in the more modestly-priced Juno series. Even so, it was still several hundred pounds a pop, so when the SH-101 appeared with a street price of around £199, it was something of a revolution. Here was a monosynth that you could really get on board with. It boasted an immediacy in sound, and that sound was huge considering its size.
The SH-101 adopted the SH pedigree from previous Roland monosynths, such as the SH-2 and SH-09, while shifting to the adoption of a number which aligned itself with other machines in their range, such as the TR-808, TR-606 and TB-303. The 303 has acquired cult status, and while there are considerable differences between the 303 and the 101, they can often have a fairly similar sound, depending on the musical context.
Built from a grey plastic, the original 101 was powered by an external DC power supply, or you could fill it with batteries, should you want to go native! This allowed keyboard players to wander free, as the 101 had additional accessories such as a mod-grip, which would essentially turn it into a Keytar, and one that adorned many R’n’B videos during its tech tenure. In reality, using it as a keytar was a nightmare; with no patch memories, you would have to set the patch before going for a keyboard-based wander, only to find that the moment you strapped in, you’d most likely knock the faders out of shape, as you moved about, requiring immediate readjustment, before or during playing!
However, for the more studio-bound, the 101’s signal path began with a Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO). As technology had marched on, this VCO had been placed under digital control, meaning that you heard all of the analogue depth, but with reliable tuning, at least after a few minutes of warm up time.
The VCO offered three oscillator tones, plus white noise, which could be comfortably blended together to form the sound you required. The fundamental saw wave was the bedrock, with an accompanying square wave, which was open to pulse width modulation. But the secret sonic weapon could be summoned from the depths, in the shape of a sub-oscillator. This heavyweight tone shored up the fundamental pitch, and could be placed either one or two octaves below the main pitch.
While the filter was functional in context, it was also fierce and self-oscillating, inspiring many artists and producers to employ the resultant sine wave in isolation. It was perfect for 808 style bass drums, while offering tracking, so could easily operate as a bass sound in its own right. This became something of a calling card for hip hop, R’n’B and the emerging jungle/drum & bass producers.
Not to be outdone, the rave producers also discovered that it could do a pretty decent impersonation of a 303, thanks to its basic step sequencing capability, and a filter that squealed to perfection.
Other ways to get the 101 sound
The SH-101 resides in a place which is a world away from the American synth models. While the Moog and ARP machines offered a colour which has become synonymous with America, the Roland machines seem to have become linked with Europe, obviously via Japan, from where the 101 originated.
The 101 can sound deep, characterful and crisp, and in searching out hardware (there’s very little else out there in software) the Roland SH-01A, in boutique form, is a great place to begin. If you yearn for something bigger and more flexible, the Roland System series machines will be worth seeking out, offering a fully formed interface which reacts according to the Plug-out model that you wish to work with; the System 8 is something of an underestimated workhouse, in our view.
Meanwhile, those clever folks at Studio Electronics have ripped the filter chip from the 101 (and others) to form a desktop synth with huge character and amazing bang for buck. The all-analogue Boomstar 8106 is an incredible sounding box, re-imagining the 101 in an altogether more flexible form. Equipped with two ADSR envelopes and syncable LFO, the only difference occurs at the front of the signal chain, where two oscillators and a sub can be tuned like a 101, or detuned for a thicker texture. It’s not cheap, but it will give cheaper clones one hell of a roast, while also being built to last.
It’s therefore little surprise that this humble and affordable little synth has since become a member of the synthesiser hall-of-fame, with a secondhand price tag which is currently around five times its original price.
The new 101s
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