Boss SY-200 Review
This compact box is a monster tone generator, with a dozen analog-synth-based core sounds and 171 variable presets, plus expansive tweakability.
A staggering amount of classic and otherworldly sounds that are easy to shape. Compact enclosure. Easy to use.
Really? There’s 171 preset voices and they’re not listed in the manual?
Roland produced the first guitar synthesizer, the GR-500, in 1977. It was cumbersome—requiring multiple rack spaces or a tabletop stand, and a special guitar outfitted with hexaphonic pickups. Problems with latency and tracking were all too real, as anyone who tried bending a note learned. But, with the right coddling, they sounded heavenly. Check out David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” to hear the GR-500 at its best.
Many generations later, Roland subsidiary Boss delivers the SY-200. Inside its vault-like 5" x 4" x 2 " metal enclosure dwells all the processing for 171 sounds spread over a dozen core analog-style synth voices, 128 preset variations on those sounds, MIDI, and a deep but simple set of controls that put a variety of ferocious-and-twisted, elegant, and classic-synth-cheesy sounds at my fingertips.
- Lead Synth Mode, Oct Lead 1 setting—all dials at noon except guitar level at 63 and effect level at 30. Zuzu guitar on Zuzu neck humbucker and Porter bridge humbucker, through Carr Vincent 1x12 combo: volume 8 o’clock, treble 2 o’clock, mid boost mode, bass 9 o’clock, reverb 10 o’clock, drive 10 o’clock, 33W.
- Pad Synth Mode, Slow Sweep setting—all dials at noon except guitar level at 88, effect level at 44, resonance at 78, tone at 100; Zuzu guitar on Porter bridge single-coil, through Carr Vincent 1x12 combo: volume 8 o’clock, treble 2 o’clock, mid boost mode, bass 9 o’clock, reverb 10 o’clock, drive 10 o’clock, 33W.
- Pad Synth Mode, Soft Pad setting—all dials at noon except guitar level at 60, effect level at 50, resonance at 70,; Zuzu guitar on Porter bridge single-coil, through Carr Vincent 1x12 combo: volume 8 o’clock, treble 2 o’clock, mid boost mode, bass 9 o’clock, reverb 10 o’clock, drive 10 o’clock, 33W.
- Sequencer Synth Mode, Seq + Noise Lead setting—all dials at noon except guitar level at 65, effect level at 50, tempo at 120,; Zuzu guitar on Porter bridge single-coil, through Carr Vincent 1x12 combo: volume 8 o’clock, treble 2 o’clock, mid boost mode, bass 9 o’clock, reverb 10 o’clock, drive 10 o’clock, 33W.
- Organ Synth Mode, Layered Organ setting—all dials at noon except guitar level at 50, effect level at 70, variation 8,; Zuzu guitar on bridge humbucker, through Carr Vincent 1x12 combo: volume 8 o’clock, treble 2 o’clock, mid boost mode, bass 9 o’clock, reverb 10 o’clock, drive 10 o’clock, 33W.
- Arpeggio, then Lead Synth Mode, Touch Filter setting: all dials at noon, except tone at 45 variation 1,; Zuzu guitar on bridge humbucker, through Carr Vincent 1x12 combo: volume 8 o’clock, treble 2 o’clock, mid boost mode, bass 9 o’clock, reverb 10 o’clock, drive 10 o’clock, 33W.
The James Cagney of Guitar Synthesis
This tough little guy is the kid cousin of Roland’s SY-1000, a 13" x 20" stomp synth issued in 2019 that brought ’80s GR-300-flavored synth sounds and more to any guitar or bass for a grand. At a third of the price, the SY-200 offers a lot to any guitarist or bassist with a taste for adventure. There’s zero latency, the dynamic response is excellent, and the control set is so simple and intuitive that you almost don’t need a manual—which is good, because the manual explains little more than the device’s exterior anatomy. (Failing to include a list of those 171 sounds is a major omission. A Google search for a PDF of the manual brought up a downloadable list.) The SY-200 runs on three AA alkaline batteries or a Boss PSA series 500ma adaptor.
The 1" x 2 1/2" LCD screen is a godsend. Running the SY-200 on the floor with my pedalboard running through the SY-200’s effects loop, I could read the effect names clearly and switch through presets readily with the Memory/CTL 1 stomp button. However, I ultimately decided to place the SY-200 on a stand to better make changes on the fly—like changing the guitar/effect balance of my 017 bubble sound preset (video-games, anyone?), or adding resonance to my favorite voice, the 109 touch filter (raging, dynamically sensitive, attenuated fuzz).
The best place to start building tones is the right-side dial, with 12 analog synth sound options.
You start building tones on the right-side dial, by selecting from one of 12 core analog synth sound options. They are lead, pad, string, bell, organ, bass, dual (beefy tones), sweep, noise, SFX, sequence, and arpeggio. Some, like arpeggio and pad, are self-explanatory. Others have characteristics associated with their organic equivalent. Bell, for example, is bright and metallic, while lead is tightly focused for soloing. Noise and SFX yield modulations and octave-type sounds that are fairly unpredictable from setting to setting but very cool as trail tones at dryer settings. And I swear that I could hear the keys clicking in 074 layered organ, where I got my Jon Lord on.
Re-set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
Tone, resonance, and depth knobs are situated directly under the LCD screen and provide control of EQ and dimensionality. D. level and E. level are separate controls for balancing the organic guitar tone and the selected effect. The variation dial, meanwhile, lets you blend in additional voices from each sound category. For example, 074 layered organ has 13 additional variations within its sonic spectrum. The number of variations per sound varies. All the controls have detents, and the tone, resonance, depth, D. level, and E. level dials each have 100 subdivisions for ultra-precise tweaking. Sometimes the change of a few detents was imperceptible, to my ears, at least. In other settings, the arpeggio and pad, for example, very small changes could be significant.
Pushing the menu button activates the control menu and expression pedal functions and enables access to MIDI capabilities. The memory control button also works as a tap tempo, and you can control pitch shifting effects or envelope parameters via an expression pedal (not included). Want to save a particularly interstellar sound? Simply hit the menu and exit buttons at the same time, and then press down the memory dial. Bingo! It’s there in the preset bank, waiting to be called up via the Memory CTL/1 switch.
As with any synth pedal, there are occasionally unpredictable results. In a few settings, like 041 bubble, bent notes peter out a bit. And in some sweep, noise, and SFX settings, fast runs and chording got a bit sticky. But dialing back the effect level usually yielded a balance where clusters of noise sat comfortably below the core guitar tone, providing a foundation for the chaos. Some sounds, like 109 Touch Filter, had more boldness and character on the lower strings.
It’s hard to imagine a more sonically diverse pedal than the SY-200—especially for its size. Whether I used humbuckers, single-coils, or effects like delay and overdrive—the SY-200 was a delight to play. Even sounds that didn’t please my ear—like some chirpy classic synth tones—were intriguing and authentic. And at $299 it’s a bargain, particularly when you consider the vast number of tones and the ease with which they can be sculpted. Some players might even find that the SY-200 renders their flanger, phase shifter, organ emulator, shimmer delay, or other pedals redundant. Needless to say, there’s plenty in Boss’ latest synth to please both guitar synth newcomers and veterans.