Review: Boss SY-300 Guitar Synthesizer

Resistance to guitar synthesizers can be traced, in part, to the reluctance of players to add hex pickups or deal with the highly accurate picking and string damping required to make those systems function properly.
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Resistance to guitar synthesizers can be traced, in part, to the reluctance of players to add hex pickups or deal with the highly accurate picking and string damping required to make those systems function properly. Enter a product that could entice far more guitarists to join the electronic music party. The Boss SY-300 ($699 street) requires no hex pickup—only a standard 1/4” cable—and since there’s no audio-to-MIDI conversion involved, it’s latency free. Of course, this also means you can’t use the SY-300 to control other hardware or software synths.

In the SY-300, your guitar signal drives three separate oscillator sections that can be layered together. Within each section you can select wave shapes, alter them with filters, amp, and pitch controls, and modulate them with LFOs. You can apply onboard effects to individual sections, the whole mix, and your straight-guitar sound as well. Its step sequencer creates melodies and arpeggios from a single played note. Four footswitches let you bypass the synth sound, scroll through patches, and control three chosen parameters per patch. External footswitches or an expression pedal can be connected for further control. A Thru output sends dry guitar directly to your pedals or amp, and can also be used with the Return jack to create a loop in which to insert your own effects.

The Main and Sub output pairs offer assignable signal routing options. Some synthesizer sounds create deep lows that can damage standard guitar speakers or just get lost, so kudos to Boss for the option of routing them through the Sub outputs to a bass amp or P.A. A set of MIDI In and Out/Thru jacks can interface with switchers and/or sync with drum machines or other MIDI gear. The SY-300’s USB out acts as an audio interface. You can record synth and effects sounds into a DAW, or monitor them while recording a dry signal, and then send signals back to the SY-300 to “re-synth” the sound. Pretty cool.

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If terms like waveform, LFO, filter, and sequencer sound like Sanskrit, reading up on them will ease your way into the SY-300. But if you are conversant with some basic synthesis concepts, or just used to scrolling through a multi-effect menu, you should find the SY-300 amazingly intuitive. A Blender control lets you pull parameters from one preset into another to explore new tones, but ultimately, there is no substitute for just playing around with the knobs and listening to the results.

The large, clear LCD screen made it simple to quickly have fun with the fat, analog- sounding factory patches. Just scrolling through them gave a sense of the unit’s limitless sonic possibilities. With minimal manual perusal, I was soon programming my own synth patches, which I could then store to 99 user slots. Once I downloaded the Boss Tone Studio Software and connected the SY-300 to my computer, it was even easier to modify or create a wide array of synth tones. I could also download new presets from the Boss Tone Central website.

The game-changing part of the SY-300 is that I didn’t have to alter my playing technique in the slightest. I could slide into notes, do string vibrato, bend strings, play hammer ons and pull offs, and use the whammy bar—all of which the Boss unit tracked instantly and perfectly. Since it uses the guitar’s pickups, it responded tonally to pickup changes, as well as to where I picked along the string. I can’t emphasize strongly enough that you can forget every other experience you have had with guitar synthesizers. With the SY-300 I felt like I was still playing guitar, but with a level of expressiveness heretofore missing when playing through hex-pickups and even through software audio to MIDI converters that didn’t require a hex pickup.

It was instantly recognized by my DAW as an audio interface, and seamlessly synched LFOs and effects to drum tracks. In no time I had a full-on, multi-part dance track that would fit right in at the club. The SY-300 didn’t just supply sounds, it supplied inspiration!

If you want to be able to control any hardware or software synth or sampler, you should explore audio-to-MIDI converters, like the hex-driven Roland GR-55, or software solutions like Jam Origin’s hex-free MIDI Guitar. But if you just want to add great polyphonic synth sounds to your arsenal without compromising the guitar techniques you spent years developing, look no further than the Boss SY-300.

KUDOS Fat synth sounds. No special pickup needed. Instantly tracks all guitar techniques.