Roland GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer

October 21, 2011
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Manufacturers have a tendency to pile on the features with each major update of a product, often making an otherwise simple device increasingly difficult to use. Remarkably, the negative aspects of such feature-creep is not an issue with the Roland GR-55, the latest guitar synthesizer in a long and distinguished line.

More than just a refresh, the GR-55 includes a surprising number of useful new features, including guitar and amp modeling, looping, audio playback, a built-in expression pedal, and the ability to serve as an audio/MIDI interface for your computer. Yet, the GR-55 offers instant plug-and-play gratification when you want it, while giving you the ability to customize its response and sound to match your specific needs.

The GR-55 is designed for guitars outfitted with a hexaphonic pickup system, which uses a 13-pin cable to connect the instrument to the pedalboard. If you don’t already have a guitar with a hex pickup, for $100 more you can purchase the GR-55GK package, which includes a GK-3 system that mounts to your guitar using doublesided tape, as well as a 13-pin cable. (If you’re buying just the GR-55 pedalboard and you don’t already have a 13-pin cable, be sure to order one so you can use the synth immediately.)

The multi-pin cable not only carries data from each string, which the GR-55 uses for processing, but the output from your normal pickups as well, which can be mixed with the modeled and synthesized sounds on a per-patch basis and sent through the stereo outputs. A mono guitar-only jack is also provided, allowing you to send a blend of your unprocessed sound and a COSM-modeled instrument to your favorite amp, while sending the synth sounds to a P.A. or recording device. (Roland points out that you can also send just the unprocessed sound or just the COSM sound through this jack if desired.)

If you’ve never used a guitar synth, there’s nothing difficult about it. Roland designed the GR-55 in such a way that absolute beginners can simply plug in the 13-pin cable and start the 270 factory presets, which are arranged in three categories—Lead, Rhythm, and Other. Be prepared to adjust the way you play in order to cleanly articulate notes with some of the patches. It goes with the territory, and even seasoned players have to keep this in mind.

You’ll get the best results if you go through a simple setup procedure that optimizes the response of the GR-55 to the particularities of your instrument— the type of hex pickup you have, your guitar’s scale length, and so forth. I went through this routine for the two guitars I used during the review—a nylon-string Godin ACS-SA USB and a steel-string Godin LGXSA solidbody—and it helped mitigate false triggers and yielded fast, accurate note tracking. If you want to hone the response further, the GR-55 offers additional parameters. Thankfully, the editing functions are designed with guitarists in mind.

If you want to modify a patch quickly, the EZ Edit button lets you change two parameters—effect level (wet to dry) and tone (mild to bright)—as well as the patch’s output level. I often used this area to add sparkle to a factory patch and dial down the reverb.

For deeper tweaking, hit the Edit button. The navigation system is remarkably simple to figure out. And if you get stuck, there’s no need to fear the manual; it’s well organized and will step you through any programming issue you have.

Despite it being called a Guitar Synthesizer, the GR-55 can be used with basses that have a GK-2B or GK-3B pickup system. The bass-related factory patches are not as wide ranging as the guitar choices, but there are plenty to start with. The synth portion of the GR-55 is based around 910 high-quality PCM sounds that include keyboards, bowed strings, brass, winds, and so forth. Unlike earlier GR synths, however, this one has two PCM engines, which substantially increases its tone palette. Another first for the line is the inclusion of a VG-99-style COSM modeling engine, which offers virtual versions of popular guitars, amps, speakers, and mics. (Component Object Sound Modeling is Roland’s proprietary method of using digital signal processing to create virtual instruments and rooms, among other things.) All told, this gives you a total of four signal paths—PCM 1, PCM 2, COSM instrument, and straight guitar tone—when creating patches.


 
Considering the amount of power in the GR-55, the front panel is remarkably stripped down, making it easy to use.
The GR-55 includes a pair of multi-effects processors that can be used in series or run parallel, as well as separate chorus, delay, reverb, and EQ blocks. In addition, you can send your normal guitar tone through COSM amps and guitar effects, as well as the master effects. The effects tempos can be set in an edit menu, synchronized to an external MIDI clock, or tapped in.

The factory presets not only show the creative potential of the four signals paths combined, but demonstrate the variety of ways that the built-in expression pedal, which has a wah-wah-style toe-switch, and the control footswitch can be used. For example, some patches use the pedal to fade in a synth sound, while the control switch is used to turn an effect on and off. The pedal can also do double duty, perhaps acting as a pitch shifter when bypassed and as a filter when engaged. Furthermore, each of these controllers can control up to nine parameters at one time per patch.

For example, you can send a modeled Les Paul through a COSM-based Mesa/ Boogie amp that is miked from the side by a virtual Sennheiser MD421, then program the pedal to fade in a string or brass pad, assign the control switch to add delay, and then blend in your own guitar to taste. You can also create patches that have altered tunings, as well as assign specific sounds to individual strings.


 
 

The rear panel handles both studio and stage chores.
Overall, the PCM and COSM sounds are outstanding, and I especially dug the synth and keyboard tones. I also enjoyed how the brass and wind patches sounded when using voice leading within complex chords. The trick is not to get bogged down trying to fit your music to the factory patches, which can often sound over-the-top. Simply find a patch that offers something you like, then edit it into something useful. The GR-55 provides 297 user slots for saving your work.

I really wanted to compare the various COSM instruments to each other, but the GR-55 doesn’t give you a bank of modeled guitars on their own. Instead, they’re sprinkled throughout the library, usually appearing as part of synth patches. Clearly, the sound designers wanted to emphasize the synth aspects of this box; you’ll need to put in some editing time if you want to logically arrange a collection of more traditional sounding, COSM-only axes.

To keep things organized, Roland offers a free patch librarian (Mac/Win), downloadable from its Website. The USB port on the side of the GR-55 allows you to load and save your patches using a memory stick. Hopefully, Roland will create a software editor to simplify the editing process. Other welcome additions to the GR-line are the phrase looper and audio playback capabilities. The looper is fun to use, though it’s fairly rudimentary, offering a maximum time of 80 seconds. In addition, you can’t store the loops internally, fade them out, or sync them.

The audio player can be used for playing backing tracks onstage or for practicing. It accepts AIFF and WAV files from a USB memory stick, and the GR-55’s pedals can be used to switch between files as well as stop and start them. Unfortunately, the phrase looper is disabled when you use the audio player.

The ability to translate guitar gestures into MIDI data is an important aspect of using a guitar synth, whether it’s to control external synths or transcribe a performance in software notation. The GR-55 tackles these chores easily. The rear-panel USB 2.0 port handles audio and MIDI data, allowing the device to act as your computer’s digital interface. Once you install the drivers, simply connect the GR-55 with a standard USB cable (not supplied) and select the pedalboard as your I/O. Within minutes of firing up the GR-55 for the first time, I was able to record tracks into DSPQuattro X, notate my playing with Sibelius First, and listen to tracks from my iTunes library. And the GR-55’s 24-bit D/A converters sound very good.

The GR-55 also offers standard MIDI I/O so you can use an external MIDI foot controller or play other synths. Note that the device doesn’t have an analog input for an expression pedal, so MIDI is the way to go if you need more foot power over your patches. It’s also worth noting that the GR-55 includes V-Link capabilities, allowing you to use your guitar to trigger and process video clips on a V-Link-capable device via MIDI. Neat!

The GR-55 takes the guitar synthesizer beyond something that merely plays leads and pads. On top of its excellent sound quality and performance enhancements, the GR-55 can serve as the hub of a guitar- based studio thanks to its USB connectivity. Just as importantly, the unit is ruggedly built and more roadworthy than previous GR synths. Bottom line: If you’re looking for a hardware-based guitar synth, the GR-55 is a hard one to beat.

Specifications

Contact Roland, (323) 890-3740; rolandus.com

GR-55

Price $979 retail/$699 street; GR-55GK $1,119 retail/ $799 street

Presets 270 factory/279 user

Sounds More than 900

I/O 13-pin DIN GK input connector, 1/4" guitar out, two 1/4" main outs, 1/4" stereo headphone output

MIDI In and Out, two USB ports

Extras Dual multi-effects processors that can be used in series or parallel. Separate chorus, delay, reverb, and EQ blocks.

Kudos COSM modeling. USB connectivity. Solidly built. Expression pedal. Audio player.

Concerns Can’t save or fade loops. No software editor.

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