Roland SH-4d: Four Synths And A Drum Machine In One Black Techno Box


Roland’s latest, the SH-4d, is a multitimbral powerhouse complete with rhythm track and sequencer. If you’re more of the black box techno type and have been waiting for Roland to release something with you in mind, wait no more. This is aimed squarely at you.

Roland’s first synthesizer, the SH-1000, was released way back in 1973. Since then, the company has periodically added to the lineup, including the especially popular SH-101 in 1982. They’ve now given us the SH-4d, the first in the series since 2010’s Gaia SH-01. 

The SH-4d is an all-digital (sorry, analog lovers) desktop synthesizer. Much like recent instruments Jupiter-Xm and Juno-X, it’s multitimbral, with four layers of synths plus a rhythm track. Unlike those two instruments, though, you can’t play all four layers at the same time. The inclusion of a fairly robust step-sequencer though means the SH-4d is almost a groovebox masquerading as a synth. We say almost because the emphasis here – as with the X family of synths – is firmly on the synthesizer part rather than the rhythm part. 


The Black Box

The first thing you’ll notice about the SH-4d is the striking industrial design. While it’s borrowed the knobs, sliders and font from the Jupiter-Xm, it’s lost the color. This gives it a stark, old-school vibe, like something you’d see on a control panel in a piece of heavy machinery from the early 1980s. We like the no muss no fuss design aesthetic and find that it looks smart on the studio desk next to other black techno boxes.

Looking at the front panel (which is slightly angled for better viewing), and moving from left to right, there’s a section for making general adjustments. The LCD screen is also here. It’s on the smaller side, there’s no getting around that, but the engineers have done a decent job of cramming in enough visual feedback to make interfacing with the instrument fairly easy. After this, there’s the oscillator section, filter with dedicated envelope controls, the amplifier section, and a single LFO. At the far right is the effects block.

Running along the bottom is the sequencer, with 16 multi-color LED step buttons that double as function controls when you press the Shift button. Finally, there’s a two-octave keyboard of a kind made from the same LED buttons as the sequencer. It doesn’t look like much at first but in practice, it’s extremely intuitive and handy when on the go.


Overview of the Oscillators

Unlike many of Roland’s recent releases, which can load models of entire instruments as part of the ZEN-Core ecosystem, the SH-4d instead has a variety of built-in oscillator models. These run the gamut from virtual analog to distinctly digital, such as wavetable and FM. It’s a new move from Roland, one that sees the company embracing more modern (and even esoteric) synthesis styles. 

The flagship oscillator model is SH-4d, a virtual analog engine with four oscillators nested inside. Each of these can be assigned a waveform, which ranges from your basic sawtooth and square to things like Roland’s supersaw and even the pulse-width saw from the Alpha Juno. The companion to the SH-4d engine is called SH-3D, which swaps in an LFO for one of the oscillators. With only one dedicated LFO in the general signal path, this is nice to have. 

It wouldn’t be a modern Roland synth without some greatest hits thrown in, and the SH-4d is no exception. It includes emulations of the oscillator circuits from the SH-101 and Juno-106. Note that these don’t include recreations of other sections like filter or envelope. For those, you’ll need to level up to a Juno-X or Jupiter-X.

The remaining oscillators include Sync and Ring, dual oscillator engines for sync and ring mod effects, respectively; Cross FM, a two-operator FM engine; Wavetable with modulatable wavetable position; Chord for one-finger chords much like the recent J-6 Aira Compact; an oscillator that lets you draw out your own waveform called, unsurprisingly, Drawing; and finally PCM with a selection of stackable waveforms from Roland’s ‘90s past.

Lastly, there’s the Rhythm section. Although it’s just sampled waveforms, you have quite a bit of control over them, plus filter and amp for tone shaping.


Overview of the Sequencer

Most dance music producers will immediately head to the sequencer, especially on a synthesizer without a real keyboard. While the sequencer here isn’t as robust as one, say, on an Elektron device, it’s more involved than just basic TR-style step sequencing.

That being said, there is TR step sequencing, either per note or continuous (the sequencer advances automatically with each set note) as well as live recording. Live includes notes and knob movements. You can also assign basic parameter locks for knob changes.

Further parameters include ties, per-step gate length and velocity (particularly helpful as the on-board keys aren’t velocity sensitive) plus probability and sub-steps AKA ratcheting. 


Making a Bassline With the SH-4d

Let’s see how the SH-4d handles out on the road. We’re working on an electro track and want a synthy bassline to act as the focus. We’ll use the sequencer as well.

We start by finding an empty pattern, setting the tempo to 130 bpm, making sure oscillator one is set to the SH-4d model and then initializing it. This gives us a single sawtooth wave.

Using the step sequencer, we punch in some notes by pressing the note position (1-16) and the corresponding note we want to sound simultaneously.

Here’s how that sounds:

Next, we’ll add ties and adjust the gate length on a few of the notes to add some variation. We hold down the step button and adjust the gate length. You can also make ties by pressing the Page/Tie button and holding the step button.

With ties and adjusted gate length:


Next, let’s dial in the sound we want. In the oscillator section, we can add waveforms to each of the empty oscillator slots, adjust the volume of each one with the sliders, and detune using the Pitch knob. Hold the Shift button while turning for fine tune. That’s a fat oscillator sound.

With sawtooth, square, sawtooth, and sine waves mixed in:

Finally, we use the filter, envelopes and effects to shape the sound. The Drive knob in the filter circuit adds some nice dirt.

Final bass sound:

Here’s the bassline with a beat and wavetable noise, all from SH-4d. Note that we’ve added some additional production with plugins in our DAW to show how it would sound as a mixed track.

The final loop:


The Final Word

If you’re more of the black box techno type and have been waiting for Roland to release something with you in mind, wait no more. This is aimed squarely at you.

Much like the Juno-X, Roland had dance music producers in mind when they developed this. It’s fun to use, fairly intuitive (not something you can say about a lot of Roland gear, to be honest) and sounds really good. The virtual analog models are solid and the digital engines are the icing on the cake.

In terms of drawbacks, there are a few. While the filter is perfectly fine and sounds good across the variety of oscillator models, it’s not the sweetest filter circuit in Roland’s history. A few extra models would have been nice as well but then we’re straying into more expensive territory. Same for the drum sounds. They’re good for busting out a temporary beat but don’t expect to be able to rely on them for final productions. For that, you’ll want the TR-8S or a dedicated rhythm machine.

There’s lots more we haven’t had space to mention, like the modulation matrix, extensive effects, and connectivity (in a nutshell: stereo in/out, MIDI in/out and USB audio/MIDI). Also worth mentioning is the D-Motion function, which uses a built-in accelerometer to let you change parameters by picking up the device and physically moving it around.

We really like the SH-4d. It’s fun, sounds stellar, and encourages creativity. You get a lot of machine for the price too. At around £550 it’s right in the sweet spot, cheaper than most Elektron gear but about the same as a Korg Drumlogue. Four synths for the price of one? You can’t beat that.

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If you’re more of the black box techno type and have been waiting for Roland to release something with you in mind, wait no more. This is aimed squarely at you.”]

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