By Shane Cadman
At the time of our previous interview with Kevin Comstock at Musicians Institute (MI), there was talk of a top-secret Roland product that was going to be installed in the near future. Well, the time for secrecy has passed, and the brand-new Roland GAIA SH-01 is now part of MI’s Keyboard Technology lab. Not only are the synths set up in the lab, but an entire course has been designed around them.
“Our GAIA class is 10 weeks long, revolving around sound creation. We’ve opened the class up to all students at the school, not just keyboard majors, and the students love it.”
Pleased To Meet You
In case you’re not already familiar with the GAIA, it is a 37-key polyphonic synthesizer packed with features. While a quick glance may deceive you into thinking this is an entry-level instrument, once you start playing it, you know you have something serious here. The GAIA has three virtual analog engines, each with a dedicated oscillator, filter, amplifier, envelope and LFO, that can be stacked on each other to create amazing sounds and textures. It also has a variety of built-in effects (including distortion, delay and reverb) that can be used on their own, or layered on top of each other, to open up worlds of sonic possibilities. Like many Roland keyboards, it has a D Beam, arpeggiator, and Phrase Recorder onboard, which make it great for live performance, but it is the knobs and sliders that make it a perfect learning tool for the classroom.
“The GAIA is the best learning synth out there. The way it’s laid out is so intuitive. You start on the left side of the keyboard, turn your knobs and the move to the right, and you’re going to have your sound.”
Will It Go Round In Circles?
In this age of soft synths, which can be beautiful to look at, but challenging to use, a real-live polyphonic synthesizer with actual knobs and sliders is a sight for sore eyes (quite literally, if most of your music making time is spent staring at a computer screen). However, there is an interesting learning curve for many students.
“Most of our students did not come up in the days when there were lots of synthesizers with knobs. In fact, they tend to be scared to turn any knobs, which is very strange. They’ve grown up using laptops and soft synths–they’re more comfortable with them. The interesting thing is that the concepts of programming are the same on the GAIA as on the soft synths, but there seems to be a disconnect between the module on the computer and hardware synths. The GAIA is now bridging that gap. It has the tactile elements to be able to immediately turn a knob and hear how that changes the sounds. Sure, you can do that on the little space-shuttle looking thing that comes up in the software, but when you use a mouse to turn a knob, there’s a different feeling of reality. It doesn’t seem as much like you’re changing the sound, as you’re changing the computer and the computer is changing the settings.”
Also, many soft synth users today do not understand the basics of synthesis, so they have to rely on either using preset sounds or randomly changing settings until they happen upon a sound they like. While either of these can end up with great sounds, it’s always better to know the basics of synthesis and sound design–and that’s one of the areas where the GAIA shines. And as Kevin mentioned earlier, the layout makes designing curriculum a breeze.
“Different sections of the synthesizer are divided by a colored box, so you can really design a weekly lesson around each section (LFO, oscillator, etc.) and then pull it together around the end of the class, which works out really well.”
With the layout of the GAIA so conducive to lessons in synthesis, it’s important to have an objective defined so the students know what their goal is in the class. So what’s a good objective to Kevin?
“I think a good objective with any synthesis class is to be able to program any sound from a non-musical, verbal description of the sound. For example, if you’re doing sound design for a video game, somebody’s going to tell you the sound that they need with a very non-musical phrase. They may say ‘I’m looking for the sound of a bubble exploding on the back of a butterfly.’ And if they say that to you, your example might be different than my example, but what’s most important is that we, as sound designers, are in the ballpark. I even encourage students, once they’re at the right level, to program sounds conceptually before even touching the keyboard. In other words, turn all the knobs where they think they should be, and then turn on the keyboard and see what you got, because that solidifies programming technique.”
Climb Every Mountain
While designing a sound from a verbal description may sound like a difficult, if not impossible, challenge, for Kevin and his keyboard program at MI, it all comes down to the same thing–getting work as a musician.
“There’s more work if you have basic keyboard skills. If you’re a guitar player, and you can create sounds for a video game and play great guitar, you’re going to have a better possibility of getting work. I keep saying ‘keyboards are the people’s instrument.’ Pretty much anybody who’s a musician, if you don’t embrace the keyboard and the technology end of things, you’re just limiting yourself. And for us, there’s such potential for sound design and audio for video games, that being able to really cater to the students who have a desire to do that, the GAIA is the perfect gateway.”
You’re The Best Thing
For piano labs and tech labs, for teaching synthesis and sound design, for reaching musicians and non-musicians alike, there is no better place to start than the Roland GAIA SH-01. After all, it is “the best learning synth out there.”
Take an Interactive Tour of the GAIA SH-01.