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Roland GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer Review

March 23, 2011

Download Example 1
Electric piano synthesizer voice combined with regular pickups and a COSM L4 guitar model playing single notes at a moderately fast tempo.
Download Example 2
Twelve string synthesizer voice only finger picked and strummed.
Download Example 3
Twelve string synthesizer voice in combination with a 12 string COSM acoustic guitar and the regular guitar pickups.
GR-55 directly plugged into an Echo Indigo audio card on a Fujitsu laptop
Guitar synthesizers, while a great idea in principle, never gained wide popularity—in no small part because did not always work very well. Try taking any older guitar synth and strumming a percussive rhythm part along the lines of “Pinball Wizard” using a synth piano or guitar voice, and you are certain to experience a bewildering splatter of false and mis-triggered notes and ugly latency. Those performance issues combined with the steep learning curve of synthesizers resulted in most guitarists saying “no thank you” to guitar synthesis.

Roland, who has built guitar synths since the ‘70s, has never given up the fight though. And the company’s brand new flagship guitar synthesizer, the GR-55, may change a lot of minds dead set against the notion. Roland unequivocally states that this is the fastest and most responsive guitar synthesizer they have ever made. In addition to its own internal synthesizer voices, the GR-55 also offers the COSM guitar modeling technology featured in its groundbreaking VG-99 product along with COSM amplifiers and multi-effects. Throw in MIDI outputs to drive computer software and external synthesizers, a simple looper, USB-audio & MIDI interface and audio file playback and you have an awful lot of firepower in a compact floor pedal unit. Even more importantly, Roland has taken great pains to make the unit as simple and accessible to guitar players as possible.

13 Pin Basics
Let's cover a few GR-55 basics. First, and most important, you can't use this product with a guitar that has not been configured for a guitar synth. It doesn't have a 1/4” input jack to plug a regular guitar in. Instead you have to use a guitar with a special hexaphonic pickup that connects to a 13-pin jack and cable combination. Roland ships two versions of the GR-55, one version with an included Roland GK-3 pickup that you can physically mount on your guitar to output a hex signal, and another version without the GK-3 that you can use if you already have a guitar with a hex pickup and 13 pin jack. Bass players can use the GR-55 if they own a bass with an equivalent pickup and a 13-pin output.

The GR-55 has two distinct sections that you can combine and add effects to. The first section is the COSM modeled guitar, which is not a synthesizer but enables modeled approximations of instruments including Telecaster, Stratocaster, Les Paul, ES-335, and nylon and steel-string guitars as well as COSM-based synths. The COSM guitars have no latency issues because they use the actual sound of the hex pickup to model the various instruments. You can even tune these models to your favorite alternate tunings (without re-tuning) or turn any guitar into a 12 string (or both, i.e. an alt tuned 12-string-say DADGAD). You can also blend in your guitar's pickups with the modeled COSM sound.

The second section of the GR-55 is the synthesizer section. Roland uses its own internal system of triggering synthesizer sounds that is far superior to MIDI for guitar players because it takes picking dynamics, strumming, finger picking, bends, and other physical factors into account.

On the GR-55, Roland includes two banks of synthesizer voices, meaning that you can combine two synthesizer voices together at the same time. You can blend strings and a piano together, for example. Each bank of synthesizer voices features 910 separate voices, including most sounds that a guitar player would want—organs, pianos, strings, woodwinds, brass, synthesizers, percussion, and any number of specialty voices. The two banks are identical to one another. And Roland includes enough editing tools to change virtually all of the parameters of the synthesizer voices.

In the entirety of my experience with guitar synthesizers I have never had a synthesizer track this cleanly.

The COSM guitar and synthesizer sections go through effects banks, which include a COSM amplifier of your choice. The amplifiers include selections from clean designs such as the Roland JC-120 to various metal-oriented designs. You can route the outputs of the GR in a number of useful ways, separating synth sounds that usually need a clean power amplifier from guitar sounds that can go to a separate guitar amp. The GR has an output jack just for the regular guitar pickups and COSM modeled guitar without the synths, effects, or the amp. This allows you to go to another guitar amp with the pure guitar sounds if you choose. It’s a thoughtful touch and a great tool for opening up and expanding your sound.

The lack of a standard 1/4" guitar input does have some inherent limitations. If you play a gig and want to use any guitar other than the 13-pin or GK-3-equipped guitar you use for the GR-55, you have to have a separate amplifier or a separate input on the amplifier you are using for the GR. If the GR had a regular guitar input, you could use the internal effects and amp modeling of the GR and run through the outputs of the GR into the amp of your choice.

The GR-55 also includes an audio file player that you can trigger with the foot pedals and a simple looper. You can play previously recorded backing tracks live. While you are playing, you can also create a 20 second loop that layers tracks together as you play. It’s a useful feature, though 20 seconds isn't very long for a modern looper, and the GR lacks many common features on dedicated loopers such as retriggering and loop save features.

Finally, the GR-55 can be used as a USB-audio interface direct to computer based recording, including reamping capabilities. It also sends MIDI through the USB stream, for controlling soft synths.



New Frontiers
Given how much the GR-55 can do, it’s smaller than I expected. It’s sturdy, with an attractive blue case made of metal and its compact footprint that’s comparable to other multi-effects pedals on the market. Three of the four pedals select different patches and all can be pressed in various combinations to launch special features such as the tuner or the looper. The GR also has a Control pedal that can be assigned to different parameters (up to 9 at a time per patch, if you want) for each patch, such as triggering a rotary speaker simulation or causing a synthesizer voice to sustain. Finally, there is an expression pedal to control various variable features such as volume or a wah sound (also up to 9 parameters at a time).

To put the GR-55 into play, you must first configure the unit to work with your specific hex pickup guitar. If you skip this step you are asking for poor performance and a bad experience with the product. I followed the instructions carefully to get my Graph Tech-equipped Carvin SH-575 set up within the GR-55. There is an initial section at the beginning of the manual to help you with these steps, but there’s also a Parameter List of additional settings as a reference. I found following the Parameter List settings critical to getting my Carvin to track properly. Other adjustments will help you optimize your guitar for the unit. Piezo-equipped guitars like the Carvin may need filtering on the highs and lows and other adjustments within the GR.

After I configured the unit, I called up an electric piano patch. Wow! The GR-55 tracked my playing very closely, and most impressively, read pick attack very accurately whether I used a pick or played the guitar with my fingers. It even tolerated a bit of slurring between notes—an impressive and unusual capacity in guitar synths. Percussive sounds such as piano, vibes, and even guitar patches have always been torture in guitar synths. The GR-55 handled these well. In fact, in the entirety of my experience with guitar synthesizers I have never had a synthesizer track this cleanly.

That is not to say tracking is perfect. A bit of sloppiness in your playing can produce a false note or a glitch, but there is a new parameter called the Low Velocity Cut that will help eliminate accidently triggered sounds by cutting off sounds input below a selectable volume. And from time to time the tracking will warble slightly on a note or even possibly miss it. More often than not, this was the result of my own poor technique. Also, certain long sustained voices such as organs and strings can develop a subtle rubbery or slightly sour sound when held. For long, sustained synth sounds, you are better off using the Control pedal set to hold the note pitches before your fingering can confuse the tracking of the system. I also found that certain techniques such as rapid strumming are best left to the COSM guitars.

The layout for changing sounds consists of banks with three patches per bank. A patch is any combination of two synth tones, COSM guitar signal, regular guitar signal, and effects. You select both banks and patches using various combinations of the first three pedals. Roland has three switches on the pedal for Lead, Rhythm, and Other that contain a large repository of preset patches. There is also a User area where you can store your own patches. If you edit one of the presets and try to save it, it will not change the preset but instead direct you to the User area. Because it saves these patches in a different area than the presets, you can easily accidentally overwrite one of your own patches if you are not paying attention to where it is saving.

The Verdict
The GR-55 is a deceptively simple looking pedal that has a great deal of depth to it. Overall, the sound quality of the synth voices, COSM guitars, and various effects is excellent. I appreciated the clarity of all of the sounds. And although I beefed up a number of patches using the onboard EQ to have more bass and punch, those adjustments were fast and easy. Keeping a guitar synth affordable typically requires a lot of design compromises. But the Roland is still a very powerful unit. And without question, it is the best tracking guitar synthesizer that I have ever played. The ability to blend COSM guitars with synths is inspirational, and this pedal could open the door to new creative options for guitarists of any style. Indeed guitar players interested in increasing their tonal palette in a big way may find that the GR-55 alone can do far more for them than a rack of regular stomp boxes or multi-effects.

Buy if...
you want a simple but very powerful tool to vastly increase the tones in your repertoire.
Skip if...
you demand perfect tracking or aren't willing to be bothered with having to use a 13 pin guitar
Rating...


Street $ - Roland - rolandus.com