Roland System 700 Modular Synthesizer In Action

Synthesist Alex Ball shared this music video, Axiom, featuring sounds of the Roland System 700, from 1976.

Here’s what he has to say about it:

The System 700 from 1976 was the most expensive instrument Roland ever made. A comprehensive, semi-modular monster that was at the cutting edge at the time, the full system cost the equivalent of around £35,000 – £45,000 (around $45,000 – $50,000) and as they made so few of them; they have been known to sell for even more than that on the rare occasions that they emerge on the second hand market.

Huge thanks to the owner of this remarkable instrument for the very generous loan.

We have the main console and two of the “blocks” present, but the full system has two further wing cabinets containing six additional VCOs, two further filters, three further VCAs, six further envelopes, another LFO, S/H, mixer and two further multiple jacks. In addition it has a twelve stage, three-channel sequencer that also acts as a switching mixer.

With the three blocks I borrowed I do have all of the modules present with the exception of the gate delay and I can use alternative sequencers in place of the original, so I feel this is a full representation of this marvelous instrument and what it can do.

Modules used:

701A: Keyboard Controller
702A: Voltage Controlled Oscillator -1
702B: Voltage Controlled Oscillator -2
702C: Voltage Controlled Oscillator -3
703A: Voltage Controlled Filter -1
703B: Voltage Controlled Filter -2
704A: Voltage Controlled Amplifier -1
704B: Voltage Controlled Amplifier -2
704C: Voltage Controlled Amplifier
705A: Dual Envelope Generator
706A: Low Frequency Oscillator -1
706B: Low Frequency Oscillator -2
707A: Amplifier / Envelope Follower / Integrator
708A: Noise Generator / Ring Modulator
709A: Sample & Hold
710A: Multiple Jack
710B: Multiple Jack
711A: Reverberator / Panning / Phase Shifter
712A: Voltage Processor
714A: Interface -1
715A: Multimode Filters / Audio Mixer
716A: Mixer
718A: Power
720B: 2CH Phase Shifter
721B: 2CH Audio Delay
723A: Analog Switch

Here’s what Ball has to say about the technical details:

“The bass sound heard playing the verse riff was created using one oscillator at 32’ with the other two oscillators at 16’. The oscillators then all went on to their own discrete filters and VCAs and came back into the 711A module where they were panned center, left and right respectively. This gave me a true stereo bass sound with individual voice articulation.

I ran a guitar through the amplifier and sent that to the two-channel phase shifter in the verse sections and then the two-channel audio delay in the final chorus. I also used the envelope follower (with integration / lag) that tracked my guitar signal so I could modulate the filters from my strumming.

The lead sound had different left and right signals utilising phase sync to the left and ring modulation to the right, all topped off with the usual LFO, S/H and envelope mod of the filters for further colouring.

The 701A keyboard can send out two control voltages (an old 70s trick) and so I could play duophonic parts. However, I also realised the third oscillator would still track the keyboard with low-note priority, so I tuned it up a fifth and then played some two note diads and got a bonus third note. As this creates chords that you wouldn’t come up with if you were playing a normal polyphonic instrument (and probably couldn’t play), it unveiled some interesting voicings that are heard in the breakdown chorus and end chorus. They’re also not equally tempered, which adds some detuney loveliness. I ran one channel through a Korg Stage Echo for even more vintage bliss.

In the second verse I used the interface that will convert a pitch to a CV and simultaneously create an envelope and gate signal from an external source. Via this module I was playing the 700 entirely from my guitar – oscillators, filters, amplifiers etc, which created another different sound and type of articulation.

The little blippy sequences were running through the multimode filter bank that has four resonant filters running in parallel.

I created some analogue drum sounds but I also processed my TR-707 through a Maxon RM-60 as I’ve demonstrated in previous videos. The 707 was running over midi.

Also, I’m pretty sure I accidentally stumbled upon something similar to one of the blaster sounds from Star Wars, I think it’s the AT-ST blaster from Return of the Jedi. If you listen you’ll catch it twice in the track.”

Equipment Used:

Roland System 700 (1976)
Roland TR-707 (1984)
Squier Jagmaster (1998)
Ibanez JEM 7DBK (2002)
Korg Stage Echo SE-500 (1977)
Maxon RM-60 Mixer (1984)
Soundcraft 22 MTK
Cubase 9.5


10 thoughts on “Roland System 700 Modular Synthesizer In Action

  1. AAAaaarghhh!! I had routine access to one of these beasts (the full 4 cabinet version) when I worked for Roland as the company’s one and only product specialist back in the 1970s. I even hauled it out and used it on gigs. It sounded G R E A T! It was easy to use, even live, at least by the standards of the day. The only things that made it less than perfect were: 1. Its BIG and 2. it lacks some of the more sophisticated types of modules that were available even in its own time – things like complex CV processors and wave-shaping oscillators, for example. But as a keyboard-based modular synthesizer it was the best. I liked it far more than the Moog modulars.

  2. A long time ago, robotics extraordinaire Bill Vorn owned one in our Montréal based electronic duo « Machinations ». It sounded incredible. Power in the hands of fools!

  3. Now…if only Behringer could get their hands on one… is it conceivable that one day we could own a new System 700 without robbing a bank to do so? Behringer – you are making a great start with the System 100 and System 55 – surely a System 700 re-issue couldn’t go wrong, if it were affordable? The ultimate modular is back?

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