Roland Intros A-01 MIDI Controller & 8-Bit Synthesizer

Roland-A-01

At the 2016 NAMM Show, being held in Anaheim, CA Jan 21-24, Roland is introducing the A-01 – a unique mobile MIDI controller and 8-bit synthesizer.

The A-01 is a genre-busting piece of gear:

  • The A-01 is the same size as Roland’s Boutique synths, and can dock in the Boutique K-25m keyboard.
  • It’s a MIDI controller that works over full-size MIDI & USB.
  • It’s also a wireless Bluetooth LE controller.
  • It’s a unique 8-bit virtual analog synthesizer.
  • It’s also a step sequencer.
  • It’s got CV/Gate connectors, so it can control analog & modular gear.

Here’s Roland’s A-01 intro video:

The A-01 is designed to be an open-ended controller module, with multiple connectivity options:

  • The standard MIDI IN/OUT is joined by a USB MIDI jack for use with Mac/PC-based DAW software;
  • Wireless MIDI (via Bluetooth LE) allows production work on a Mac, PC, tablet or smartphone and
  • The A-01’s CV/GATE OUT supports vintage analog gear, including modular synths.

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The A-01 8-bit Synthesizer

The Roland A-01 also features an internal 8-bit CPU sound generator that they describe as ‘vintage digital’.

The 8-Bit CPU Synth reproduces a subtractive synthesizer with an 8-bit CPU. The A-01, with the limited computing resources of its 8-bit CPU, combined with a lo-fi 10-bit DA converter, has a unique design that delivers unique results.

The synth engine was designed by Akira Matsui, a former Roland engineer, who joined Roland in 1977, and was involved with the development of a variety of synths, including the SYSTEM-700 and SYSTEM-100, the early GR-series guitar synths and the JX-3P.

After retiring from Roland in 2013, Matsui immersed himself in his hobby of making electronic devices in his home studio. A Roland staff member who happened to see the homemade synth was instantly intrigued and approached Matsui to learn more about it. This is where the 8-Bit CPU Synth was born, which is now featured in the A-01.

“One day I wondered what it would be like to make a synth with an 8-bit CPU,” explains Matsui, below. “The idea was to see how far I could go with the limited resources of an 8-bit CPU and 8 KB of memory.”

Akira-Matsui
Akira Matsui with his prototype and a Roland A-01.

“I think this was in early 2014,” he continues. “The first thing I programmed was the oscillator, and somewhat surprisingly, it ended up being something that you could play decent scales on without using a lot of resources. I then programmed all of the analog synth elements?the filter, followed by amp, and then LFO?and I was able to pack all of them in quite nicely. In the remaining space, I programmed a step sequencer, and the finished result was the 8-Bit CPU Synth.”

“I spent a lot of time tuning the program. There’s no point in having a synth with lousy sound,” adds Matsui. “But if you begin making elaborate tunings in your effort to improve the sound, you will quickly run out of your 8 KB resource limit. So you do your tuning, but also make sure that the program fits into 8 KB. I think this is what makes the 8-Bit CPU Synth’s sound so unique and distinct from modern synthesizers or software sound engines.”

Features:

  • Compact controller and sound generator
  • Highly portable for mobile music making
  • Metal front panel
  • Dual assignable ribbon controls for pitch bend, modulation, sound preview, CC, and more
  • MIDI over Bluetooth®
  • CV/GATE outputs for legacy analog/modular synthesizers
  • Battery-operated (4 x AA) or USB bus-powered
  • 192×40 graphic LCD screen
  • Built-in 0.5 W mini-speaker for real-time sounds
  • Compatible with optional Roland K-25m mini-keyboard
  • Bundled package with K-25m keyboard dock (A-01K) is also available

Specifications:

  • Memory
    • Controller Mode: 16 patches (4 patches x 4 banks)
    • Synth Mode: 16 tones (8 tones x 2 banks)
    • Seq Mode: 16 patterns (8 patterns x 2banks)
  • Connectors
    • PHONES jack: Stereo miniature phone type
    • CV OUT jack: Stereo miniature phone type
    • GATE OUT jack: Stereo miniature phone type
    • MIDI (IN, OUT) connectors
    • USB port: MicroB type (MIDI)BluetoothBluetooth LE
  • Power Supply
    • Rechargeable Ni-MH battery (AA, HR6) x 4
    • Alkaline battery (AA, LR6) x 4
    • USB bus power
    • Current Draw
    • 500 mA (USB bus power)Expected battery life under continuous use:Rechargeable Ni-MH battery: Approx. 12 hours
      * This can vary depending on the specifications of the batteries, capacity of the batteries, and the conditions of use.
  • Accessories
    • Owner’s Manual
    • Leaflet “USING THE UNIT SAFELY”
    • Alkaline battery (AA, LR6) x 4
  • Options (sold separately)
    • Keyboard unit: K-25m

Pricing and availability for the A-01 are to be announced. See the Roland site for details.

48 thoughts on “Roland Intros A-01 MIDI Controller & 8-Bit Synthesizer

  1. This thing is bizarre, but actually looks like it could be pretty cool. It looks like it will work with about anything, and the 8-bit synth sounds pretty interesting.

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 4
    1. This is exactly the video I would put out if I were introducing a product that was a sausage made from scraps off my cutting room floor. Just sayin. Sometimes sausage is tasty, but you could photoshop almost any product into that video. That does not bode well.

      Like this comment?: Thumb up 4
  2. Not sure I care about the synth(?) but wild respect to Mr. Matsui for pulling it off in 8k.

    (This web page we’re looking at is over 2000kb before the video content)

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    1. That’s because nobody optimizes shit anymore. Streamline your code? Fuck it, we got RAM to spare.

      Remember all those 150 hour plus RPG from the 80s on one floppy?

      Like this comment?: Thumb up 4
  3. Accessories – Leaflet “USING THE UNIT SAFELY”

    Wasn’t going to bother with this synth but the inclusion of this leaflet turns it into a no-brainer IMO.

    Seriously, would’ve been nice if they put the I/O on the front and had 1/4″ L/R and headphone outs. Not keen on any units only having minijack audio outs. It’s a false economy in terms of cost per unit vs. the inevitable “IT’S A TOY” backlash you’ll get from enthusiasts wanting to appear more grown up and serious than they actually are. Also, minijacks don’t last as long.

    Still if they can get the right price point, which is what they seem to aiming at, then there’s not too much to complain about. If they can get this around $299 it’ll fly, more so at $249.

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 4
  4. The manual: http://cdn.roland.com/assets/media/pdf/A-01_e02_W.pdf

    What an odd product. A controller with 6 assignable controls? An 8-bit mono synth. A MIDI to CV converter. A step sequencer (that’s pretty well spec’d!) that allows you to edit 4 steps at a time. I dunno. In the age of the BeatStep and ~$100 monos, I think this thing is going to have to come in pretty inexpensively to get folks excited.

    I should note that while the BS sequencer is almost certainly easier to use by virtue of the fact that you can edit/see all 16 steps at once, this sequencer offers 5 different tracks (internal only, I’m guessing) , so to speak: note, cut-off, resonance, velocity and gate.

    Also has some niceties on the CV out the BS lacks: set the root note for 0V, fine pitch adjustments, CV portamento and pitch bend adjustments.

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      1. I think that’s if you prefer to have the mini keys as a separate keyboard so you can… you know.. put it on your lap or something.

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  5. There must be one executive (can’t imagine more) suggesting in all these companies from japan to use minikeys. Please fire him, he is loosing money and face for you and the company.
    These keys are for 5 year old’s

    Thumb up 10
    1. i like minikeys. so i hope they don’t go away. also some children make music. they can’t be selling too bad if they keep making them.

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      1. also the synth bit seems to be detachable from the keyboard, so might be available on its own even. Together for 299$ or just the synth for 199$? I could probably do that

        Like this comment?: Thumb up 0
    2. 5-year olds have to get their jams on somehow.

      But seriously, if folks didn’t like them and buy them, they wouldn’t sell them. You can call them incompetent for putting mini-keys on things, but try not to let it bug you so much.

      Thumb up 8
      1. they are selling because they are attaching them to cool products people have been asking for years. The odyssey, the ms20, generally analog synths etc. And it bugs me because these are very inconvenient to perform with 🙂 People used to carry 50kilo’s rhodes to perform, surely a plastic 3octave keyboard isnt that heavy..

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    3. I actually like mini keys because they are convenient and better than no keys for portability. Mini keys can fit in a backpack, full size keys can’t unless it is like 1 octave.

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  6. Why do all the new products videos have been using Dubstep or Drum n Bass in their demos? It´s time for a change, don’t you think? Very nice product btw.

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    1. NAMM hasn’t officially started yet, there’s so much more to be revealed. I’m also hoping for a new sampler this NAMM. Finger’s crossed!

      Like this comment?: Thumb up 2
  7. Nice size, great design…. been waiting for digital synths in this size/format to appear (other than Dave Smith products) …. if it hit’s $200 (without the keys) , i’ll snap it up.

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 1
    1. You’re excited for $200 for a digital monosynth?

      I like the size a lot myself but with a single note of polyphony, even with the sequencer and CV/G outs, $200 seems better spent on a used iPod Touch if small digital synths are the goal.

      Like this comment?: Thumb up 2
  8. does anyone think that we might see some new Roland controllers (49, 61 key) anytime soon because of this?

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 0
  9. The name/title made me think this would be a perfect Nintendo NES chip tune maker. The video threw me off of that idea.

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 2
  10. I looked in the manual.

    There is no possibility to name controllers (e.g. “cutoff”, “env depth” etc. – instead of “CC74”, “CC50” etc.). That’s bad, especially given that there’s a proper display for such function. It would be great to control VSTi’s.

    There’s no possibility to display CC value fed back by a DAW (in controller mode the unit does not recognize incoming MIDI CC messages).

    So… this unit is yet another example of “nice idea, but weak implementation”. It has 3 modes, but none of them is particularly useful.

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    1. It’s got one CV out, and one Gate out for controlling / sequencing external monosynths.
      Not sure what you mean by ‘stereo’…?

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      1. cv pulse out is stereo on things like the PO’s because it does mono audio on one channel and pules on the other – if that is what he means –

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      2. From specs:

        CV OUT jack: Stereo miniature phone type
        GATE OUT jack: Stereo miniature phone type

        No modular synthesizers use stereo minijacks.

        Like this comment?: Thumb up 0
        1. Well none of them do.

          But the signal is carried in the tip and that will work mono or stereo fine.

          Maybe this is a double system with one signal in tip and one in ring?

          Like the old Moog Rogue CV.

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  11. Something about watching someone jam out hardcore on something so tiny.

    It’s a bit like rubbing an iPad in a performance with a ton of over-the-top body english– snazzy!!

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 1
  12. oh man – this thing is an instabuy for me as long as the price is reasonable- it seems like the kind of thing that easily slots into every part of my standard setup

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 2
  13. i’ve given it a short tryout, and i think the CONNECTIVITY with simple ease is almost being overlooked on this unit, whether it be midi/cv/usb/BLUETOOTH…. we have spent the last couple of years chasing our tails with expensive solutions that this box provides, I am somewhat biased having seen it a few days ago, but this removes a LOT of headaches that exist for me, and oh yeah, it has a cool 8bit synth as well….. (which imho is simple but sounds great)

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