Pick and strum your way through a history of guitar synthesizers, all in one box.
Roland’s and Boss’s entries into the world of guitar synthesis have each represented significant advances in the exploration of new sounds for guitar. Their key contributions range from the GR-300 and its successor the GR-500—which are purely analog instruments—to a raft of MIDI guitars, floor-unit guitar synths, and rackmount guitar-to-MIDI converters.
Roland’s first physical-modeling instrument was the VG-8, which digitally replicates electric and acoustic guitars. Such models respond to guitar techniques just like real guitars do. The VG-8 was a welcome antidote to the sometimes squeaky-clean (and often static) output of sample-playback engines, which had become the typical fare of all-in-one guitar synthesizer units. The VG-8’s attempts at synthesizer models, however expressive, still didn’t capture the sophistication and timbral variety of most software synths.
The Boss SY-1000 proves just how far modeling synthesizers have advanced. It also condenses much of the guitar synthesizer’s history into a single unit.
As with the Boss GP-10, SY-1, and SY-300, the SY-1000 uses no samples whatsoever, relying instead on multiple synthesis engines (including physically modeled guitars, basses, and other stringed instruments), a powerful effects-processor with a configurable signal chain, and a sequencer along with a sophisticated control and audio-routing system. It’s also an extremely capable guitar-to-MIDI converter for use with external sequencers and synths.
A large LCD and two bank-select, four patch-select, and conventional programming and page-navigation buttons dominate the SY-1000’s robust top metal panel. You’ll also see six quick-edit rotary knobs you can press or tap to open parameters and twist to make adjustments. Parameters include setting BPM by tap tempo or rotary (the SY can send or receive MIDI clock), Key (for the harmonizer feature), or a rotary to select your divided pickup presets—a very handy feature if you need to switch guitars or basses.
Two context-sensitive control footswitches access each patch’s control assignments. These assignments can mean anything from performing dramatic pitch swoops to accessing alternate patches, enabling or disabling any of the three instruments (for instance, adding a synth component to a guitar), or simply turning effects on and off.
On the rear panel’s left side, you’ll see the 13-pin jack (labeled GK) and a normal quarter-inch guitar input. Simply plug in your usual quarter-inch cable and play. Anything you feed the input, including audio tracks, can provide content for the Dynamic synth or the SY’s effects processor. (Boss provides a handful of presets for those purposes, and you can program your own.) However, you will still need a divided pickup and cable for all the other synth and guitar models, alternate tunings, and powerful control features. Take my word for it, you’ll want to spring for the pickup and cable.
Busy in the Back
Unbalanced quarter-inch send and return jacks let you add external processors. Two pairs of quarter-inch jacks labeled Main Output and Sub Output let you connect to a pair of amps and a PA or recorder, for example. You can also use the left main output with a pair of stereo headphones.
Two jacks to the right of the outputs accept a variety of control footswitches and expression pedals. An extremely flexible modulation matrix lets you assign pedals and built-in switches to a wealth of parameters, such as LFO vibrato, filter cutoff, or resonance. You can even bend strings to independent preset intervals, as on a pedal-steel guitar; try that on a keyboard synth.
On guitar and bass emulations, you can use footswitches to switch between pickups or entirely different presets. A type-B USB connector conveys MIDI and audio signals between the SY-1000 and your computer. MIDI Out (with a software Thru) and MIDI In are next to the power button and power-supply jack.
Once you’ve adjusted the SY-1000 to suit your playing style, it tracks external synths quite articulately and with negligible delay. I’m glad Boss has restored adjustable pitch bend, an improvement over the GR-55, whose pitch bend was fixed at 24 semitones.
Clip 1 – This preset demonstrates SY-1000’s strengths in emulating modern analog synthesizers: a pulsing low end accompanied by an arpeggiating synthesizer motif and a thick, resonant pad, all in one patch.
Clip 2 – Strumming a thick, synth-brass preset with a gradually emerging propulsive bass figure.
Engines of Creation
The SY-1000’s synthesis palette is considerably broader than its predecessor’s capabilities. Beyond the synthesizer engines, the SY-1000 adds new guitar and plucked-instrument models. In all, it has eight distinct groups of synth engines: Dynamic Synth, OSC Synth, E Guitar, Acoustic, E Bass, Vio Guitar, Poly FX, and GR-300 (an emulation of the Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer, carried over from the Boss GP-10). Most of these categories branch out into more specific models. Vio Guitar, for instance, emulates bowed guitar techniques and offers bowed versions of a Stratocaster, Les Paul, Les Paul with P-90 pickups, fretless guitar, and so on. OSC Synth provides a menu of single- or dual-oscillator, ring modulation, or sync configurations.
Clip 3 – Here I’m just noodling on a fretless guitar.
An SY-1000 patch can consist of as many as three discrete synthesis or guitar-modeling systems (or instruments, in Boss lingo), as well as input from the guitar’s normal pickups. You can split, layer, and control each instrument independently. Anyone acquainted with the Boss GP-10, Roland GR-55, or any of the earlier V-guitar line will be familiar with most of the guitar and bass models. However, the SY-1000’s main attraction may be its analog-style subtractive synthesis engine.
One of the major improvements over sample-based guitar synths is that extreme bends and slides perform smoothly and without the tweezed-out artifacts exhibited by samples.
Clip 4 – Widescreen MC is my first attempt to emulate the classic “Soundtrack” pad.
Clip 5 – In Quacker Box MC, a nylon-string guitar model merged with a JX-10 type horn patch I programmed.
Hear the Difference
The Dynamic Synth and OSC Synth represent major improvements over their earlier versions in the SY-300. By comparison, the SY-1000’s sounds are thick, creamy, and more in the character of a keyboard synth, not unlike my Roland JX-10 of sainted memory. This is most likely a result of more sophisticated envelope control of filters and amplitude. The ring modulation is great for adding bell-like tones. Because it appears in the FX section as well as in the OSC Synth’s architecture, you can apply it to guitars as well as other models. (Ring-modulated virtual banjo, anyone?)
Clip 6 – Mercurial Clouds MC was indirectly inspired after a listen to David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury. Its name also speaks to the mercurial timbre changes it produces.
Vio Guitar is a welcome addition to the SY-1000’s palette, adding beautiful and organic pad qualities that blend beautifully with the more overt synth tones. The timbral capabilities of this instrument are inspiring. Two 16-step sequencers with programmable envelopes and durations per step sweeten the pot by making the possibilities virtually endless.
Clip 7 – My patch Organic Pad creates an underlying guitar-like timbre but adds sparkling, organ-like tones.
Close, but Not Perfect
Although I found little to complain about, the SY-1000 isn’t perfect. Switching between bass and guitar controllers requires rebooting to switch between guitar and bass modes. With a bit of tweaking, bass- and guitar-mode patches are interchangeable. Inexplicably, though, you can’t use the acoustic bass model in the guitar library; it doesn’t even show up when you view guitar presets. As long as you’re in the bass mode, you can work around the problem by transposing the patch, but it’s an inconvenience that I hope a future firmware tweak alleviates.
Along with the hardware, Boss furnishes SY-1000 Tone Studio, an editor-librarian for the unit. It’s slow, it’s crash-prone, and it has more bugs than a picnic in the Amazon. Fortunately, the instrument’s generous backlit, graphic LCD Is more than adequate for programming patches from the front panel. Hopefully, Boss will revamp the editor, as the graphic display, the ability to move effects in the signal chain, and all of the librarian features would come in handy. None of these are deal-breaker issues.
With a street price of just under $1,000, the Boss SY-1000 comes in at the high end of the all-in-one guitar synth spectrum. It is well worth its asking price, offering unparalleled expressiveness and rich, evolving timbres for stringed-instrument players to explore. I recommend it without reservation.
Bonus Content for SY-1000 Owners
Here are a few patches I’ve developed for the SY-1000. You will need to download the Boss Tone Studio for SY-1000. And, of course, you’ll need an SY-1000 to play them.
- Chiffy Pop: a resonant lead sound with a pronounced chiff on the attack.
- JX Horn: a single-instrument take on the classic JX horn sound.
- Expressivo: A fast-attack lead sound with a swelling sawtooth synth tuned +7.
- Organic Pad blends Dynamic Synth and OSC Synth, and Poly FX instruments for a sparkly pad with organ-like overtones.
- Widescreen MC is my first attempt to emulate the classic “Roland Soundtrack” patch.