Behringer Beat: MS-1 Review
Behringer revives another popular classic from the early 1980s, the Roland SH-101.
The MS-1 is another recent reproduction of a vintage analog synthesizer design. That puts it in line with Behringer’s Moog-style Model D, EDP-style Wasp Deluxe, and several others. Roland’s original SH-101 monosynth appeared in 1982 and initially appeared a very odd project. Polyphonic synthesizers were becoming widely available, and Yamaha’s digital DX7 and the MIDI standard were only a year away. Yet Roland chose to launch a compact, monophonic, non-programmable synthesizer with no effects, no complex interfacing, and a substantial nod in the direction of the portable keytar option, which had already proved not very popular with musicians.
Forward into the Past
Nonetheless, the SH-101 was a success because it was affordable—$495, £249, or 60,000 Yen—half the price or less of larger instruments at the time. It was also easy to use and very portable for taking to gigs and rehearsals. Devo, the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, and the Crystal Method were all SH-101 users.
The SH-101 was one of the first synthesizers to appear in multiple color options. Still, the red and blue ones were much less common than the utility gray. Its keytar aspect—which meant buying and fitting the optional modulation grip and a guitar strap and running the instrument on batteries—did not catch on as Roland had hoped. That left isolated stocks of mod grips around the world forlornly hoping someone would match them up with the appropriate gray, red, or blue models.
Behringer consistently provides every feature of the original instrument and then adds a few more. For that reason, you can assume every feature I’ll describe applies to both original and new models except where noted.
Everything Old Is New Again
The Behringer MS-1 (replacing their previous MS-101) has a single voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) based on a familiar Curtis 3340 chip. It also has a suboscillator you can fade up alongside any mix of the main VCO’s three waveforms: sawtooth, triangle, and variable-width pulse. The oscillator’s handy Range knob covers four octaves.
The lowpass filter self-oscillates at high resonance settings, and four-stage envelopes modulate the filter and amplifier. A combined pitch-bend lever and modulation button is to the keyboard’s left. If you have a modulation grip, it duplicates those functions, and three front-panel sliders determine their depth.
The MS-1 has two-and-a-half octaves (with a low F) of slightly weighted keys without velocity or aftertouch sensitivity. You’ll use it to program the sequencer or control the arpeggiator.
You can enlist the white noise generator as a modulation source, not so much for random sample & hold but for distortion-like effects. You can route a whole matrix of voltage sources—all the various waveforms plus noise—to modulate the filter. The MS-1 is capable of making a fairly wide range of abstract sound effects-type noises. The oscillator can glide, and an audio input jack can pass external sounds through the filter. With this set of features, the original SH-101 found favor with many starter musicians and many more advanced ones.
To the original mix, Behringer adds MIDI, USB, more interfacing jacks, and a versatile sequencer. Roland’s SH-101 had a simple sequencer/arpeggiator, but Behringer provides a 32-step, 64-sequence design also found on their Odyssey and others. You can edit the patterns and even transfer them from one synth to another using their free software, SynthTool (Mac/Windows). The easy-to-use sequencer has a bank of memory buttons and a small block of other controls with an LED ladder display, so it doesn’t take up too much panel space.
And the Sound…
The MS-1’s sound is deep and resonant. We’re not talking Minimoog here, as it has only one oscillator, but it delivers great throbbing or squelchy bass lines and reasonably sharp and cutting lead lines. You can assign the bender to the filter as well as pitch.
The MS-1 is extremely useful as a source of sequence patterns. It’s very easy to tap notes into memory and then pitch bend or transpose an arpeggio while adjusting the filter and other parameters. The arpeggiator is more versatile than the original, too, offering eight patterns rather than simple up, down, or up/down.
The original SH-101 appeared in a world of compatible voltage-controlled or clockable instruments. These included Roland’s Bassline and 100M compact modular system (now also the targets of Behringer reproductions). The MS-1 more than matches this in providing rear-panel minijacks for CV, Gate, Velocity Out, and External Clock In. Behringer goes farther by furnishing MIDI and USB as well. You can easily imagine the MS-1 interfaced to other keyboards and modules, perhaps either controlling or controlled by a modular system.
The Behringer MS-1 comes complete with a guitar-style strap and a modulation grip, which were options on the SH-101. The mod grip comes only in black. With its squarish, unstreamlined appearance, the MS-1 may again fail to catch on as a strap-on remote, though you never know. Like the original, this classic design will once again appeal to musicians on a budget who may be surprised by its musical potential and versatility. It is incredibly affordable in line with other Behringer tribute editions.
You can get a good idea of the MS-1’s basic sequencer facilities and sound variations by watching Behringer’s video demo of the model it replaced.
If you’ve never played the original, I’m certain you will be pleased with the Behringer MS-1’s price and versatility. Still, some readers will want to know if the MS-1 sounds exactly like an old SH-101. The answer is yes, it does sound like an SH-101. It more than adequately delivers authentic oscillator and filter sounds and great pattern-playing possibilities. Not having a gray model—just black, blue, and red—may surprise some old-timers, but that won’t stop anyone from investigating another quietly triumphant design from Behringer.
Price: $329 for black, $388 for red or blue