Roland’s first synth.
2-years after Moog had unleashed the mighty Minimoog, Japanese company Roland, who had just changed its name from Acetone, released their first synthesizer, the SH-1000.
The SH family of synths have generated quite some fame over the years, namely with the SH-101.
The SH-1000 being the first hasn’t really been given the credit and admiration it deserves.
Why is this?
Usually the first model of a product line is considered a classic, like the Minimoog, the Prophet-5 and the CS-80 being good examples.
The aforementioned all have a sound that was expected to be inherited by the next generations and are still even today used as benchmarks.
The SH-1000 clearly has that SH sound that we recognise in all the other SH models, but the SH-1000 is often still found on the 2nd hand market for bargain prices and you don’t really see dedicated pages on the internet, where people rave on about how amazing it is and that nothing else can match it.
I will try to find an answer to the why.
This is the year I bought my SH-1000.
I was in the Netherlands and my dad had sent me an ad of an SH-1000 being for sale.
I immediately sent him a link back to a video of a song.
The song was “Just an Illusion” by British dance act “Imagination”.
Dad, that bass line is the SH-1000!!!!
My dad found that hard to believe, that such a huge sound could come from a keyboard that more resembled an organ than a synthesizer.
I contacted the owner and we agreed on a price.
Interestingly, the owner was a Japanese gentlemen who was living in Amsterdam.
The instrument was in mint condition, with one change made to it.
The top cover had a corrugated aluminium strip screwed onto it, to avoid music paper from sliding off it.
The SH-1000 has two mounting holes for a music stand, which wasn’t included with mine.
Other than that, the synth was spotless, but some keys were a bit sticky.
I opened it up and saw that a couple of the tone-bars had come loose from the contact plates underneath.
These are somehow lightly soldered to it.
This caused the notes to double trigger.
It’s something that still needs to be fixed, but the intricacy of this job is beyond the skills and the tools I have.
Other than that the synth works as you would expect from a Japanese make.
When I opened it up I was amazed at how well this instrument was designed.
But, let’s travel back a bit in time to see why I wanted this synth so much.
In the early 90’s I would sometimes buy an English tech magazine called “Musician”.
You’d be lucky to come across one in a tobacconist, which use to be the only place that sold magazines in The Netherlands.
Somehow I lost some of these magazine.
The one issue that I wish I still had contained an interview with producer duo Steve Jolley and Tony Swain.
This producer duo had achieved many successes during the first half of the 80’s, producing countless hits for artists such as Alison Moyet, Bananarama and the aforementioned group “Imagination”.
Some of their hits used these amazingly well crafted bass lines.
These bass lines would always sit right in front of the mix.
Not just that, there was something else happening with those bass lines that intrigued me.
The glides between the notes were absolutely phenomenal.
The distance they travelled between each note was so well timed, that it could not possibly have been done with a pitch-wheel.
We are still in the pre-MIDI age, so things were still done manually?
The mystery of these perfect glides was revealed in that interview with Tony Swain.
He said he’d used an SH-1000 with a simple Boss Chorus pedal and some compression to get that sound.
The tape was slowed down to achieve more accurate timing, hence the tight sequence type nature of the bass lines.
Knowing this about the SH-1000, this was my chance to try and get that same sound.
Moog synths had a feature called “Glide”.
When switched on, a note would glide in pitch to the next note.
The time it took could be set using an amount dial.
This added a slide-guitar type of effect, which was very useful for emulating many other instruments as well, such as flutes and brass sounds.
Roland had to use a different name, so they called this feature “Portamento”.
Where Moog used a Rocket-switch, Roland used toggle-switches, which were a lot more immediate due to their length.
Tony Swain explained how he would flick that switch in between the longer bass notes, giving the illusion that a pitch-wheel was used.
The SH-1000 didn’t have a pitch-wheel, so Tony had to use this method instead.
It so happened that the notes played were similarly distanced, so the portamento would behave consistently.
Tony also said in that interview that the SH-1000 was the only synth they had in the studio at the time that could do bass.
There were more things happening though and this is something that I personally hammer on about a lot.
The bass sound used in these tracks had an incredibly strong attack.
Early analog synths were using discrete components.
Later these components were replaced by integrated circuits, especially the oscillators.
Mainly the envelopes benefit from very accurate responding electronics.
What do I mean by accurate?
Most synths have what I call lazy envelopes, especially synths made from the early-mid 80’s onwards.
When you close each step of the envelope, the ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) you should still produce a loud plopping sound.
This is a good sign of a fast envelope.
However, once you start opening up the Decay you will really start to notice that the envelope is either fast or slow.
If the dip or the drop (Decay) after the initial attack is very quick, then you know you’re dealing with a synth that is accurate.
Moog synths also have always had this quality.
When we look at the function of a bass sound, its job is to supply both low-end content and percussive qualities.
Especially for electronic and dance oriented styles of music.
A bass sound that has a slewed initial, will not support the pulse that the music it’s trying to convey.
A conventional bass guitar has a few essential properties that make it sound a certain way.
When the string is struck, it initially moves in and out at a fast speed and then quickly loses energy.
That initial pluck gets amplified by the pick-ups, which amplify that sound like a microphone does.
These short bursts of signal give a bass that percussive element.
Then there is finger-board noises as well.
A bass becomes even more percussive sounding when the strings are being hammered, applying the slapping and snapping technique.
To mimic these characteristics a synthesizer needs to have those qualities too.
On this Imagination track “Just an Illusion” the bass has a fast attack, short decay and soft sustain.
That is why it’s poking out of the mix so much.
The chorus gives it that buttery effect and the compression gives it more presence, as well as controlling the peaks.
It didn’t take me long to recreate that sound on my SH-1000.
The SH has only 1-oscillator, yet there is another octave audible on the track.
To get the 2-oscillators effect, you have to combine waveforms.
The tongue-switches at the front are used to turn the oscillators on.
You can combine a 32’ saw and a 16’ square to get the lower octave.
The presets on the right of the synth override the manual settings.
As soon as a waveform is selected, the manual mode takes over and you can start shaping your sound from the top panel.
Because the SH-1000 was at the very beginning of Japanese synth development, it sounds ultra raw and unpolished.
I found this to be a great advantage in supporting more modern synth sounds, adding that liveliness to them.
There are a few things that do not work in SH-1000’s favour.
- The main issue is the lack of a second oscillator.
- Another major factor is its looks. As mentioned before, Roland intended to sell this synth to the organ market. Hence why many controls are at the front of the keyboard and not on top. This was so organ players could access the presets without having to stand up.
- Pitchbend style playing is something that organ players didn’t do, so this was not an essential.
- There yet has to be a MIDI-retrofit made for this synth.
- CV & Gate conversion is not possible as the SH doesn’t even have CV. This makes it unattractive for DAW or other hardware integration.
- Not enough people have discovered its potential. Let’s face it, market value is mostly governed by hype. Some models of synth have been overly hyped up over the years. Though valid, trends have boosted their value. The SH-1000 just was never part of any hype, ever leaving it sitting on the list of abandoned synths. Even though the SH-1000 is not that commonly spotted on the 2nd hand market, it’s not scarce either. It’s not as rare as a Steiner Synthacon or Gleeman Pentaphonic either. When you do find an SH-1000 it is usually in pretty good nick, which is probably because it’s been sitting in someone’s house on top of an organ for many years. It’s not the type of synth that changes hands a lot for people to experiment with due to all the reasons mention above.
Watch this video where I play along with Imagination's track, using the same bass sound.
It clearly shows how the Portamento switch is being used in between the long notes.
If you come across a 2nd hand SH-1000, give it a chance, it will not dissapoint.
If you are a Native Instruments REAKTOR user, simply download https://www.native-instruments.com/en/reaktor-community/reaktor-user-library/entry/show/8444/ emulation.