The Roland SH-101 is an iconic synth. Released in 1982, it was one of Roland’s last analogue monosynths. The SH series stretches all the way back to 1973, but the 101 is distinctly 80s in sound and appearance, all the way from its plastic case to the optional modulation grip and strap for keytar-style stage use. The synth engine is basic – just one oscillator plus sub, a low-pass filter and a single envelope generator shared between VCA control and filter modulation – but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. The addition of an on-board arpeggiator and one of the simplest but most effective step sequencers you’ll come across just make the 101 an even more attractive proposition.
The monophonic SH-101 is amazing for all kinds of basslines, solid for leads and great for FX. It can even do a reasonably good impersonation of its sister synth, the TB-303.
Prices have crept up steadily in recent years, with mint condition models threatening to break the £1,000 barrier, but it’s still just about possible to pick up a fully functional example for little more than £400. That’s pretty much the same ballpark as the recently released Roland AIRA System-1, which includes a ‘plug-out’ emulation of the SH-101. Given the choice, we’d still go for the real 101. You might lose out on the modern frills like MIDI and patch memory, but the 101 is a true classic.
Software emulations from TAL and D16 give a hint of the 101’s unique character, but the hands-on appeal of the real thing can’t be beaten. A truly inspiring synth which will help you become better at sound design and, more importantly, sound great in just about any type of track.