Roland has long been one of the fore-runners in the guitar synth market, but in recent years their offerings such as the GI-20 and GR-20 have scaled back features and limited flexibility in an attempt to make them easier to use. The new Roland GR-55 guitar synthesiser is not only a return to form, but has potential to be a real game changer. Roland are marketing the GR-55 as an all-in-one solution, offering GR guitar synthesis with updated sounds as well as VG-series guitar, effect and amp modelling, all in one relatively small floor unit. For many users with complex setups this is an attractive idea, theoretically replacing multiple guitars, guitar synths, amps and effects units.
The first thing you notice about the GR-55 is the size – at only 40 cm wide and 24.5 cm deep it has a much smaller footprint than most other Roland/Boss floor units. The chassis and footpedal are made of steel and the footswitches are the familiar, rugged Roland/Boss ones. The large rotational control knob is flanked by small but solid feeling press buttons that together act as your main navigation and editing tool. Of special note is the display, which is massive – taking up nearly a third of the top surface space.
The rear panel sports a fairly comprehensive array of inputs and outputs for connection, which are all firmly bolted onto the metal chassis as well as a power switch (flanked by standoffs to avoid accidental switching). Notably missing from the rear panel are jacks for external control (additional expression pedals and switches), no dedicated ¼” guitar input and no effects loops.
My one big gripe with the construction is the familiar, but unwelcome external “wall-wart” power supply, where I had hoped to see the pro level IEC mains “kettle plug” power receptacle.
The operating system is relatively intuitive and easy to figure out for a fairly complicated system, although there is a lot of room for improvement. The way the left/right, page up/down buttons work is sometimes confusing and takes a bit of getting used to. The mass of screen real estate is sometimes underutilised and scrolling through longer lists of parameters can be tedious.
The lack of dedicated bank up and down buttons is an annoyance and the similar lack of control pedal inputs means that you cannot even add your own foot pedals to do this. Factory settings are however set so that the up/down buttons on the GK-3 changes banks.
The most important quality of a guitar synth is how well it tracks your playing and follows guitar playing techniques without glitches. Out of the box, the GR-55 tracked very well indeed with the included GK-3 pickup mounted to my Strat. Surprisingly, my Graph Tech Ghost piezo pickup guitar did not fare as well until I had spent some time setting parameters, but once I had tweaked a little, it tracked as well (but not better than) the GK-3. The setup has preset settings for all the major 13-pin systems available, which is nice, and there are a number of other options to tweak specifically to get the best tracking from a number of different guitars.
The real strength of the GR-55 is the ability to blend the synth, modelled guitar and normal guitar sounds together. It is especially nice to be able to use modelled bass sounds on the low strings (as modelling has no delay on low notes), together with synth patches on the higher strings. The preset sounds are the usual hit-and-miss of weird and wonderful sounds with overblown guitar tones designed to show the capabilities of the unit. Thankfully, editing reveals a lot more flexibility and very usable bread-and-butter tones.
The synthesizer sounds themselves are good, definitely a newer set than those in the old GR-33, but still a little behind the times compared to the newest synths. However having over 900 tones gives you a wide range, covers all styles of music admirably.
One thing that I was very disappointed not to find is an arpeggiator, which is a great tool for guitar synths, allowing the player to play sustained guitar chords while the synthesizer sound is arpeggiated behind it.
The guitar modelling tones are a scaled-down set of Roland’s VG tones, 40 in total covering electric, steel, nylon, resonator acoustics, banjo, sitar, resonator, bass as well as a range of analog modelled “synth” tones. Most sounds are quite good and usable, on a par with the VG-99 tones. The acoustic guitar models are a little disappointing, having far too much midrange close-miked tubbiness that I had to EQ out and “Body” settings had to be kept fairly low to avoid muddiness. The 12-string setting on any modelled instrument is very nice and is very useful for adding bright, clear acoustic or electric guitar sounds.
Amplifier and speaker modelling
If you are familiar with Roland’s amp modellers, you know what to expect here. While not exact copies of the amps they model, the amp modelling rather offers sounds “in the ballpark of…” with lots of editing options that allow you to tweak the sound to sit in the mix properly. This works especially well in this case, as the combined sounds from the GR-55 can be incredibly complex and you need to be able to tweak the guitar sounds to fit. The downside is that you do have to tweak a lot to find the best tones.
Effects are fairly simple and straightforward, but fairly limited. Each of the four source sounds can be routed through one of three signal paths, two of which have one selectable effect each, with a range effect choices. On top of that, there are also three sends for each path (delay, chorus and reverb) as well as a global EQ. Sound wise, they are mostly solid and useful.
File playback & Looping
The GR-55 also features a USB stick reader and can playback WAV files for backing tracks or practice. Playback can be started and stopped via the control pedal, but obviously at the expense of other functions such as hold or effect switching – and once again the lack of control pedal inputs doesn’t help.
The looper is more than a little limited with only 20 seconds of recording time which is paltry compared to even the simplest loopers on the market.
USB connection – lets you connect to a computer to use a patch librarian software available from Roland, which allows you to backup your patches. Also, while there is no official editor yet, but there is a great third party freeware application called GR-55FloorBoard, which does the job very well and is far easier to use than programming the unit via the front panel.
MIDI output – The MIDI and USB outputs allow you to drive external synths and softsynths and tracking is still very good. For recording, there is one big limitation – the GR-55’s sounds cannot be played back by a MIDI sequencer, so it means recording the audio output if you want to use the sounds on the unit and no MIDI editing will be possible.
Guitar Output – You can route the plain guitar sound or the modelled sound from the Guitar Out jack on the rear panel, enabling you to use other effects units or amps for these sounds
The big question is can you throw away all your other synth, effects and modelling units if you buy a GR-55? The answer depends on what you need. For many live playing situations, the GR-55 will do a very good job of handling all the tasks asked of it and keep setup very simple, compact and eminently portable. It is also a good upgrade step from the older GR-30 and GR-33 units.
However for those advanced users utilising units like the VG-99 to their full extent, or those wanting the tonal purity of a real amp and effects setup for their guitar tones, it is more than a little limited. Also, players uncomfortable with complicated effects units are going to find the GR-55 too complex for their tastes (for them, the GR-20 is still a good option).
Overall, the GR-55 is lots of fun and is a step forward in guitar synth technology – so much so that I bought my review unit within a day of trying it and was gigging with it two days later. More importantly, it is showing the way to go and I for one am hoping that Roland will bring out an advanced version with more powerful amp and effects modelling.
- Up to four sound source at a time: two synth tones, guitar modelling and normal guitar input
- Over 900 of Roland’s latest fully editable PCM sounds, including pianos, organs, strings, vintage synths, and much more
- COSM guitar and amp modelling
- Two effects engines, plus global reverb, chorus, and delay effects
- An onboard looper
- Built-in USB audio player with foot control
- Available with or without GK-3 divided pickup
Suggested Retail Price : R 9,995.00
Tel : 021-799-4950
Web : www.bothner.co.za
Written By : Alan Ratcliffe