Make Music I by I 12.08.17

Roland SE-02 review: A near-perfect analog monosynth for under $500

Roland’s latest Boutique synth is an all-analog collaboration with US company Studio Electronics that takes inspiration from the Minimoog Model D and other ‘70s instruments. Scott Wilson finds out if the SE-02 is worth your cash, or if it’s just another paperweight in waiting.

Roland’s rebirth over the past few years has been a long time coming. For decades, the company stubbornly refused to give its fans what they wanted – namely gear that honored the legacy of iconic instruments like the TR-808, TB-303 and SH-101 instead of bloated, ugly workstations and grooveboxes. Recently though, Roland relented, winning over its critics with affordable, practical tools like the TB-03. So what can it possibly do next? The answer, is the SE-02.

The SE-02 is the latest addition to Roland’s Boutique range – arguably the best line of products to come out of the company’s Japanese laboratory since it made a u-turn on revisiting classic gear with the AIRA series. The Boutique line offers compact, practical modules at a reasonable price, but until now, they’ve all been digital emulations of classic gear. The SE-02 is the first fully analog synth in the series, offering sonic purists a reason to get involved.

While the compact Jupiter-8 (JU-08), tiny Juno-106 (JU-06) and dinky TB-909 (TB-09) have all been well received, the SE-02 feels like the first truly vital synth in the range. For a start, it’s not based on an existing instrument that you could otherwise buy as a software plug-in. Roland has also teamed up with independent synth manufacturer Studio Electronics to make it and the result is something that genuinely feels and sounds like a boutique instrument.

Sub-$500 analog synths are nothing new, but the SE-02 is hands down is the best I’ve ever heard. Most synths in the category have to make compromises somewhere along the way, usually in the number of oscillators, but the SE-02 sounds like an instrument that costs twice the price. The unfiltered waveforms will cut through any mix, and the filter, to my ears at least, is as close to the buttery smooth Moog filter as you’re going to get without buying a Minimoog.

Studio Electronics’ Tim Caswell has said that the Model D was indeed used as a reference for the synth (the panel layout is near identical), but that it’s actually a “sort of greatest hits of ‘70s analog technology” with elements from classic Oberheim and ARP synths as well. “It is our desire that it be very stable, yet not to the point of sterility,” he says, and he’s correct – there’s something about the sound that feels a little sharper without sacrificing the soul of a classic ‘70s synth.

One of the key functions that helps it stand out is the cross modulation section, which has three functions: a knob that lets OSC 2 modulate the filter cutoff frequency, a knob that lets OSC 3 modulate OSC 2’s waveform and a knob that lets OSC 3 modulate the pulse width of OSC 1 and 2. Unlike the scatter functions on Roland’s AIRA gear, the effect is subtle and more importantly, something you’re likely to use.

There’s also a delay section. I haven’t loved the built-in effects on recent Roland gear such as the TR-8 and System-1 because they’ve sounded quite cheap, especially when compared with the bundled plug-ins you get with most good DAWs. On the SE-02 though, the delay is an integral part of the synth’s character. It’s another aspect that the instrument has over the original Minimoog, which didn’t have any built-in effects. It’s a very subtle addition, but you’ll find that it makes a big difference to the way you create patches.

Not that you’ll necessarily need to make patches at all. The synth includes 384 factory presets, which range from aggressive, 303-style acid sounds that you could make a ‘Da Funk’ cover with, to spooky ’80s leads that sound like they’ve come from the Stranger Things soundtrack. The earliest Boutique synths were shipped with only a third of that number, and my experience with the JP-06’s patches was quite disappointing. The SE-02 is so well stacked, that you may well find yourself not needing to use any of the synth’s additional 128 user slots.

The sequencer itself is another big leap forward for Roland, and probably the best you’ll find on a sub-$500 synth. As with previous Boutiques, it’s still only a 16-step sequencer, but the addition of a song mode, which allows you to chain up to 16 parts together, vastly expands what the machine is capable of. You can even set different patches within a song, and set a part to repeat a number of times, so the length and variation of a song has serious potential.

Learning to program the sequencer isn’t that difficult. The functions of each mode are clearly marked, and the instructions are easy to follow, but it’s a fiddly, time-consuming task – especially if you’re programming a song, which can be particularly tortuous. However, it makes a massive difference to how much fun the SE-02 is compared to the earlier Boutiques. Once you’ve set a long sequence chain off, you can focus fully on tweaking the sound by hand.

The best addition to the sequencer by far is the ability to save per-step synth parameters, which means that as well as sequencing notes, you can save the state of any knob you tweak. In 2017, a feature like this on an affordable synth shouldn’t be such a luxury (Elektron’s been doing it for years), but the nuance it brings to your sequences is significant, and it’s difficult to imagine using anything less.

There’s one key aspect of the synth that might irritate some users. The knobs are very small, and placed close enough together that getting hold of them without your fingers hitting the ones next to it can be tricky. In general, the knobs have just enough resistance, but those that are notched (i.e. oscillator range, waveform selection) are a little too stiff. It does feel as if the knobs could have been spaced out just a little – and it would have been just as nice to look at.

Many companies have tried, but the SE-02 is as close to being the perfect analog mono synth as you’re likely to get for under $500. It is, admittedly, at the premium end of the affordable scale, and the keyboard attachment is an optional extra, but it sounds better than any of its rivals. The SE-02 is a landmark synthesizer for Roland, and the new standard for affordable analog monosynths.

Scott Wilson is on Twitter

Read next: The 12 best affordable, pocket-sized, hackable synthesizers



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