Get hands on with Roland's new SE-02, an analog synthesizer designed in collaboration with Studio Electronics.
Hands-On Review Roland SE-02
By Mark Merlino, Musician's Friend Staff Writer
What happens when an iconic brand, responsible for creating some of the most influential electronic instruments in music history, crosses paths with a boutique analog synthesizer shop from El Segundo, California? You get a rare blend of heritage and technology that develops into something as cool as the SE-02. Born from the brilliant partnership between Roland and Studio Electronics, the SE-02 delivers a massive analog sound in a package and price that will fit any creative environment.
A Little Bit of History - Roland and Studio Electronics
Studio Electronics has been building analog synthesizers by hand since the late ‘80s, starting with the SE-1 and then the popular BOOMSTAR series desktop synthesizers found in award-winning composer studios around the world. These guys know analog, they live and breathe it every day, which is why this union is so spectacular. And if there's one company that has just as much respect for analog circuitry as these guys do, it has to be Roland. This global brand is responsible for some of the most iconic electronic instruments that have ever been made, some of which have even been the driving force behind entire genres of music. So, when they introduced the Roland Boutique Series, the world was listening.
Introducing the SE-02
The SE-02 is the debut instrument in Roland's new Boutique Designer Series, and it's the first time they've incorporated analog circuitry inside the Boutique Series format. It's a monophonic synthesizer with three voltage-controlled oscillators, a voltage-controlled 24 dB low-pass filter and a dual gain-stage amplifier. There are two envelopes on the SE-02, although they are not true ADSR envelopes, they do have some flexibility allowing you to swap the decay function for a release function on both envelopes if needed. The LFO has nine different waveforms to choose from, and can be tempo-synced to your DAW or other external MIDI devices.
The build is solid, with an all-metal chassis that feels as rugged as it looks. However, the same thing that makes this series 'Boutique', is also the thing that some people might see as a bit of a limitation. The Boutique Series gets its coolness factor from recreating iconic instruments from the past, and transforming them into a small, ultra-compact size. This in turn leads to smaller, more densely placed controls that some people may find a bit hard to maneuver around. That being said, this is what makes this series so unique. It makes the sound of these iconic pieces of gear accessible, without taking your entire paycheck.
Keeping in line with the size factor, the SE-02 features convenient 1/8 in. mini jacks for headphones, mono audio output, external input, trigger in/out, and CV input for connectivity with modular systems. Plus there's full-size MIDI In/Out and USB audio connectivity for integration with computer-based setups. There's a knob-per-function on the face of the SE-02, which is a nice feature for a synth of this size, virtually eliminating any menu diving when designing sounds. Although, there are some additional modes and advanced features that are easily accessible with just a couple of button combinations to access them. If you want to just dive in and get started, the SE-02 comes with 382 built-in presets straight out of the box, or there are 128 available user presets if you want to spend time creating custom patches.
The Sound of SE-02
The SE-02 has an all-American sound, with crisp clean highs and a thick, rich bottom end. For a unit this size, the sound is absolutely massive. The guys at Studio Electronics have packed all of their knowledge into this small chassis, and you can hear it. The SE-02 can recreate some classic tones, but also create some new and inspiring sounds.
As mentioned, there are a total of three oscillators, each with six different waveforms to choose from including triangle, sawtooth, square, and more. Despite having three oscillators, the SE-02 does not have a paraphonic or duophonic mode, it's strictly monophonic. However, with some slight detuning of VCO 2 and VCO 3, you can get still get gigantic sounds from clean, pristine leads to massive synth bass.
For additional sound-shaping options there are three types of cross modulation (XMOD), a feedback loop, noise generator, and a tempo-synced digital LFO with up to nine different waveforms to choose from for some really in-depth and interesting sound design. There's also a built-in digital delay that can instantly sweeten-up the sounds you create.
A Built-In 16-Step Sequencer
The SE-02 features Roland's powerful 16-step sequencer found on other models in the Boutique Series. It takes a bit to get around the features at first, but once you've got it down, you can really get creative and arrange some interesting patterns. You can set the note value per step from either the SE-02 itself, or from an external MIDI device like I did, which makes it much faster and more intuitive to program. You can change shuffle, scale, direction, and first/last steps on the fly, or dive in deeper and modify the gate depth and glide per step.
If you want to create even more complex patterns, the SE-02 allows you to automate a parameter change per step, which can add some really interesting movement to your sequence. Imagine automating the filter cutoff to open and close as your sound moves across all 16 steps. It only allows for one parameter move to be made per step, and there's only 16, so it's a bit limited in that respect, but with so many different parameters to choose from, you'll have no trouble finding new ways to be inspired. There's also a song mode where you can chain patterns together to create even longer arrangements.
Let's just get the obvious out of the way, it is part of the Boutique Series, so size is a major factor of the SE-02's design. Some will love it, others may not, but regardless of its compact form factor, the SE-02 is capable of delivering some heavy tones that reach far beyond its size. I was blown-away with the sounds I was able to create, they had so much weight and depth, and the professionally designed presets that are included, highlight the SE-02's diverse range.
I'm really excited to hear that this is the first in the Boutique Designer Series, as I can only imagine what other collaborations Roland is working on for future instruments. However, this union didn't just manifest itself overnight. It's been a long time that Studio Electronics has been knocking on Roland's door, trying to get them to use their analog soundboards in one of their products. Lucky for us, Roland finally answered, and the SE-02 was born.