Roland GR-700 Guitar Synthesizer
By John Themis
Guitarist May 1985
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The Roland GR-700 Guitar Synthesizer is a real breakthrough for guitarists who have been looking for a backdoor into the synth world, without having to learn how to get around on a keyboard.
A lot of us have been put off guitar synths in the past, because of the inadequacy of their predecessors: the Korg Monophonic was one, for instance, which didn't trigger efficiently and you couldn't play a chord on it; the electric Hammond was quite uninspiring; I found the first Roland guitar synth (GR-500) quite clumsy. It didn't seem to have many sensible, useful sounds; the GR-300 was a bit more original, but still didn't have the variety of sounds which you can get on the GR-700.
The Synclavier is wonderful if you win the pools, but the GR-700 is an accessible, affordable, logical, no messing about piece of equipment for any serious guitar player no matter what style you may be interested in and it's suitable for live performance. I'm on my third solo album and wish it had been around a couple of years ago!
It's been on the market for a few months and is selling very well. I must admit I started getting worried when I saw that they were spreading around. I thought with so many about, any originality would be lost, but come to think of it, how many Les Pauls (Gibson and otherwise), Strats (Fender and otherwise), Oberheims, Prophets, DX7s etc. are there around? Loads! So ultimately it's not the instrument that counts, it's who's behind it, pulling (or in this case plucking) the strings and making the music.
That's the most important thing. What can the individual dig up from that creative, but usually dormant, source we all have? Put a dollop of emotion and originality into it, and dish it out with this new vehicle, the GR-700. After all, that's all it really is - another musical vehicle, and it requires a good driver to take it where he wants to go.
This is where I found I was getting carried away with the novelty of my new toy. For a while, it was the driver; it was dictating composition through me, when it should have been the other way round. So I grabbed it by its oscillators, gave it a good shaking and put it in its place!
You do get carried away at first, but it goes in stages. Some of the sounds are very inspiring; it's such a turn-on to be able to play a guitar and sound like a Hammond, a Bell, a big Albert Hall type church organ, a string section, a funky growling bass players, a Simmons drum kit, or a world war two carrier bomber in the distance and loads more that you can make up yourself. A note of interest about the drum sound, for those of you who have some sort of finder style and picking technique; when you apply it, it doesn't sound far off a drum solo.
I have listed some points about the guitar controller G-707. Overall it is a good instrument, as a straight electric guitar.
A) Accurate intonation is possible. The guitar has been made to be precise and this can be achieved with a little work.
B) The Tremolo unit is excellent. The strings bend down to an octave and hold tuning quite well, thanks to the moving saddles, which eliminate friction at the bridge end.
C) The tuning pegs are of a good standard and also contribute to keeping the guitar in tune when using the tremolo arm.
E) The pick ups are quite gutsy, but I would like more control over them. For instance, a volume pot for each one. What I would prefer is to coil tap the neck pick up and fit a preamp, to give it that extra bite.
F) The balance button between the synth and guitar sounds is quite useful if you haven't got two volume pedals, but the problem is a loss in volume of either, depending on which is dominant. For example, with two volume pedals you can have both synth and guitar very loud or very soft and still retain full control of the volume for both.
G) There is a switch called the 'mode switch', which controls (i) down position; only guitar, (ii) middle position; both guitar and synth (iii) up position; both guitar and synth, but in this position the trigger becomes more sensitive, i.e. the strings trigger notes that are played very gently. The problem here is that if you play too hard it goes the other way and starts to 'glitch'. I have found that the middle position works well overall in general playing situations.
H) The touch plates, on either side of the bridge pickup, I still find confusing with respect to which is on or off vibrato. Sometimes they can be triggered inadvertently. I have found using the vibrato knob more practical, as you can see whether it is on or off.
An 'edit' (resonance) knob gives you access to a sweep which you can start from a low volume low note to a shrieking high frequency, but it's more practical with the use of a foot pedal, for which there is also facility.
I) I found that the position of the master volume is out of the way yet immediately accessible better than that of the Les Paul or the Strat.
Now some points about what I feel is the most vital top of all, triggering. Don't be put off at first if you don't hear all the notes you are playing, or if you hear a lot of squeaks or glitches when you play fast runs and long chords. It can be very annoying but there is a way. It is absolutely paramount to regulate the following things before you expect good response:
a) Intonation. Get a tuner and regulate the octaves on each string so that whenever you play the guitar, it is perfectly in tune.
b) The height of the strings from the fretboard should be 1.5 mm for top E, at the 14th fret and 2 mm for the bottom E at the 14th fret. I know this could be a drag for those of you who prefer super low action, but I found that anything under this height tends to cause fret buzz, which can confuse the synth and trigger off stray notes.
c) Make sure that the neck is straight.
d) The height of the synth pick up should be 0.5 mm between the top E string and 0.8 mm between the bottom E string. Regulate this whilst pressing down the strings at the last fret. (You'll need a metric feeler gauge for this work.)
e) There is a sensitivity output regulation system for each string. Experiment with these levels until you're happy.
f) Make sure that the guitar is in tune with the synthesizer There is also a tuning facility for the 'chromatic' mode, which is on the guitar. All three must be in tune together.
g) Play all the notes as correctly and precisely as you can and don't make pick noises over strings that aren't being played, as this could trigger stay notes again.
After considering the above, I found that the triggering got much better and overall, I feel quite comfortable with it now (I always have the suspicion that heavier gauge strings help too, but I wouldn't be my mother-in-law on it!)
Something that is a little unfortunate for me however is that I tend to rest on my right hand near, or on, the synth pick up and because it is spring mounted, I ten to move it all the time. Consequently, I have to re-adjust it. So it would have been nice to have a rest plate, which would slide over the bridge and tremolo mechanism as on a Strat for example.
Although the stabilizer (this is a bar which runs across the top of the neck) looks like it might get in the way, I found that it doesn't, wither visually or playing-wise. Apparently, it is there to absorb unwanted harmonics, which again can confuse the synth. You can detach it if you wish, but apart from balancing the instrument, I think it looks quite snazzy; mind you, I am an exhibitionist.
I found this guitar a very good, precision instrument and I feel very comfortable with it.
If you are going to fork out the money to buy this monster, it is worth your while to purchase the PG-200 programmer, which links on to the main synth, and allows you to control the sounds manually. You can control the sounds internally on the main synth anyway, but the PG-200 makes it much easier and quicker. You can, for example, take a preset sound, alter it by changing the octaves, giving it more or less sustain, etc., and store you new sound on another bank (on a cassette), without altering the existing preset.
Internally, the synthesizer has 8 banks, each of which have 8 patches each (64 patches in all). So, you have strings on bank 2, patch 3 and xylophone on bank 3, patch 4. You can store up to 64 sounds on a cassette and have as many cassettes as you can afford. The sounds can be rearranged into whatever order you find them convenient. I have a cassette which has all the string sound on bank 7 and all the Hammond sound on bank 8, so in a studio I can take someone through my Hammonds on bank 8, patch 1 to patch 8, until they hear the sound they need, then I adjust it with the PG-200 to get what they have in mind.
For another cassette, I could have a variety of sounds on each bank; on 8-1 strings, 8-2 marimba, 8-3 bass, 8-4 bells etc., so I could use it in a live situation. The purpose of this is speed in obtaining sounds: I only need press one button to change a sounds if I'm on one bank. For the next tune I would go on to a different bank, etc.
A sound can be assigned to different strings; for example, I have a sound where my bottom three strings are bass and the top three are normal guitar. By using a certain fingerpicking style, it sounds as if I have a bassist playing along with me.
An inbuilt stereo chorus can be used with any of the sounds.
One thing that impressed me was the 'quantization', a chromatic facility which makes a string bend, say from D to E, sound as if it were played on a keyboard. It plays D, Eb and E without slide. If you only play the nearest half note using a heavy vibrato, it can sound as if you're playing half note hammer ons. This works particularly well with the Hammond and keyboard sounds.
The synth has a MIDI out, which means that you can link up to any keyboard (with MIDI) an play it with your guitar controller, i.e. a DX7, JUNO, or DMX drum machine. This can be quite devastating, especially when you link 2, 3 or 4 keyboards together. Quite outrageous!
The pitch bender allows you to take a chord and programme a bend (operated with a pedal) up to a 5th or the 4th, whichever you require.
By means of the 'Hold' button, a chord can be held, whilst you solo over it with the guitar sound.
There is a 24 millisecond delay on bass octave sounds, which are noticeable if you're playing quickly. It hasn't posed a serious problem for me though.
I'm currently using this synthesizer in rehearsals (with a band called Freeez) for recording and a tour. There's a lot going on most of the time: the guitarist, Billy, has a Roland GR-300 guitar synth and effects; the drummer Paul uses Simmons; Lou, the keyboard player has a DX7 and a Juno (linked) and Peter plays an aggressive bass. The Roland still cuts through, no problem. Even when I double up on some of the bass riffs, it cuts across that really low end of the PA, which you thought wasn't there, adding different dimensions and textures to the overall sound. I'm also working with it for a band called Catch 22 with great results and I shall undoubtedly be using it on my next album.
I know of no better guitar synthesizer on the market at present in the price bracket and I strongly recommend the product. Marks out of 100 - 95. Congratulations Roland!
Copyright 1985 Guitarist Magazine