Roland System 100m
Roland in their early days, circa 1972 in Osaka, Japan.
Founder & Chairman Ikutaro Kakehashi is 8th from the left on the back row, second from the left on the front row is Dan-san (President) and sixth from the right on the back row is Noriyasu San who would later design the famous VP-330.
More names to come as we're able to identify them.
Background and context:
Roland's path into modular synthesizers is quite interesting because it's kind of counter to what the American pioneers were doing. In the late 60s and into the early 70s Moog, Buchla and ARP had built famous modular systems, but by 1973, Moog and ARP in particular were turning their focus to smaller, more portable instruments without patch chords as well as polyphonic synthesizers. By contrast, Roland started small with the humble SH-1000 in 1973, which was Japan's first mass produced synthesizer. It was in the vein of the ARP Soloist and Pro Soloist and in fact, Roland's second synthesizer, the SH-2000, owes a lot to the Pro Soloist when you sit them side-by-side.
Roland then went the other way, building more complex instruments as well as expanding into string synthesizers and electric pianos (and much more). It wasn't until 1975 that they released something modular (well, semi-modular) and that was the System 100 which comprised a five main sections:
101 Monophonic Synthesizer
Here's a couple of videos I made with the full System 100; firstly a detailed look and listen to it and secondly, a cover of The Human League's "Being Boiled".
In 1976 came the System 100's big brother, the System 700. The latter remains the most expensive instrument Roland ever made and a full system cost ¥2,650,000 at the time.
Here's a couple of demos I cooked up earlier:
The System 700 main console is a cross between an ARP 2600 and the Moog Modular Systems, although Roland added many of their own ideas. I guess they benefited from seeing what had worked in the past and been able to consider what else might work in the future. The 700 included five additional blocks (including a distinctive sequencer) that cemented its place in iconic synth history.
In late 1978 came the System 100m which was somewhat of a cutdown, affordable version of the earlier 700. In some ways, 1978 seems surprisingly late to be releasing a new analogue modular synthesizer when poly synths, drum machines, sampling and digital tech was coming fast (which Roland were also a big part of), but obviously it was the right choice because they kept making it until late 1983. I'm glad they did because it's one of my favourite synths ever.
As with the System 700 above, here's some videos of the System 100m in action.
The Production Modules
This module includes one oscillator with switchable triangle, pulse and sawtooth waves. There's manual pulse width modulation that can be defeated with a patch cable for external pwm. There's broad range adjustment from 32' to 2' and with the additional pitch knob you have a range from 1Hz to 30 kHz.
The VCO is normalled to run directly into the resonant low pass filter (24 dB per octave) which has a second input and two modulation inputs with the first being normalled to track the CV or keyboard inputs of the cabinet the module is housed in.
The VCA has two inputs with the first normalled to the VCF. It has two modulation inputs and is normalled to share one with the VCF (which can be defeated if required). It has two outputs and an initial gain knob to boost the gain or force the VCA to remain open continuously.
112 Dual VCO
A more comprehensive oscillator module with two independent VCOs that provide switchable triangle, pulse and sawtooth waves.
Unlike the VCO on the 110, the 112 includes both manual and external PWM, phase sync (aka oscillator sync) with weak and strong settings and sync input/output jacks on either oscillator.
There are two VCO outputs and three modulation inputs per oscillator (with the first normalled to track the cabinet / keyboard CV input).
121 Dual VCF
Following the concept laid out in the 112 we have two independent low pass filters in one module.
Each filter has resonance and will self oscillate at higher settings.
There's also a switchable high pass on each filter that cuts at 1kHz, 2kHz or 5kHz.
Each filter has three inputs and two outputs as well as three modulation inputs (again, the first is normalled to track the cabinet / keyboard CV).
130 Dual VCA
Finishing up the dual modules we have two independent voltage controlled amplifiers in one module.
These each have three signal inputs, three modulation inputs and a high and low output.
The amplitude can be switched between linear or exponential control response and there's also an initial gain knob on each VCA as per the 110.
131 Output Mixer
A four channel stereo mixer with independent panning for each of the channels.
There's a master volume knob, stereo outputs, a mono output and a headphone output (with its own level control). The outputs have both mini and 1/4" jacks.
There's also a "standard oscillator" that outputs switchable frequencies of 220Hz, 440Hz or 880Hz so you that have a fixed tuning reference for the system (very handy).
132 Dual CV/Audio Mixer & Voltage Processor
Probably the most esoteric module on the System 100m, the mixers can be used to sum control voltages and/or mix audio signals.
The mixers are normalled to contain a positive and negative voltage source and there are two inverted and two non-inverted outputs for each mixer.
The voltage processor provides a continuously variable positive voltage (0 - to +10 volts) and a continuously variable negative voltage (0 to -0 volts), each with its own output.
140 Dual Envelope and LFO
Two ADSR envelopes that can be triggered by gate, gate + trigger, an external gate or via the manual momentary switch.
There's two positive outputs and one inverted output per envelope.
The LFO has a range from 0.05Hz to 30Hz and has five switchable wave forms (sine, triangle, square, sawtooth and reverse sawtooth).
There's broad frequency (L, M, H) and fine frequency control with additional delay.
The LFO can be switched to phase lock to the cabinet keyboard trigger and it also has an input to control or modulate its frequency from an external control voltage.
It has two outputs and a switchable output level.
150 Ring Mod / Noise / S&H / LFO
The ring modulator is normalled to have the 150 noise and LFO as its X&Y, but these can be defeated with patch cables and any two signals of your choosing.
The noise generator has two white and two pink outputs.
The sample and hold can run on its own clock and sample voltages from the 150 noise or LFO, but you can externally clock it and give it any external signal to sample from.
There's also continuous lag time, clock output and s&h output.
The LFO is as per the 140.
165 Dual Portamento
Has CV input and output for each channel with a continuous slider to introduce portamento or slew between voltage changes.
On the bottom left of each channel is a control input to modulate the portamento amount.
On the bottom right of each channel is an MPX (multiplex) input with associated slider. This connects to the equivalent MPX output in either the MC-8 or MC-4 sequencers of the era. The MPX is a programmable value that switches the module from the "initial" portamento amount to the "MPX" portamento amount when a 1 value is used. The module returns to the "intitial" amount when a 0 value is recieved from the MC-4 or MC-8.
This allows two tandem portamento values to be setup on each channel that can be switched on any step of a sequence as required.
172 Phase shifter / Audio Delay / Gate Delay / LFO
The phase shifter has an input and output, an on/off switch, modulation intensity, shift frequency and resonance. The modulation has a normalled connection to the onboard LFO, but this can be defeated with a patch chord that brings an external control signal.
The audio delay is setup as per the phase shifter but its effect is a delay of between 0.3ms - 0.7ms. In fact, "delay" is a misleading term because very short delays like this create flanging effects and this really is better thought of as a flanger.
The onboard LFO is useful, but very basic. It produces triangle and inverse triangle waves (with outputs for either) and has a frequency knob.
Finally we have the gate delay. This takes gate signals, trigger signals and even audio signals (if they're within the right range) and reshapes them into a gate output that can be delayed by anything up to 6 seconds.
The threshold is basically a gain setting in case the incoming signal isn't strong enough. The original documentation refers to this being added to assist with low level pulse signals recorded to tape.
173 Signal Gate and Multiple Jack
A rare utility module.
There are four switches with an input and output and then inputs for normal or inverted gate signals that flick the associated switch on or off. These can be used as crude VCAs but they can also be used for voltage controlled mixing of audio or control signals.
The multiple jacks allow audio and/or control signals to be combined and/or multiplied.
174 Parametric EQ
Another rare module that was released late in the 100m story.
There are four bands with frequency, band width (Q) and bipolar level. There are knotches in the level sliders so that the zero point can be found quickly.
There's one input and two outputs, plus a bypass switch.
Can run as two parallel step sequencers (with up to 8 steps) or as one series with up to 16 steps.
There's an internal clock and tempo control, but it can also be externally clocked. Below that is portamento which works globally when in series and on channel one only when in parallel. Down again there's gate time which works globally.
Below that is a step knob. In parallel this defines how many steps the sequence is and in series this defines how long channel two is which allows for sequences of 9 - 16 steps.
In repeat mode the sequencer runs continuously, in step mode it steps forward every time an external trigger signal is received (input at the bottom of the module) or every time the manual momentary switch is pressed. In single mode the sequencer runs through once each time it's triggered.
The control voltages on each step have a switchable range of either 3 volts (for 3 octaves) or 10 volts (for 10 octaves) but this can be altered via the 132 module if you wanted something else (e.g. 1 volt for a single octave).
The Prototype Modules
111 VCO / VCF Prototype
An alternative approach to the single 110 modules and dual 112 / 121 / 130 modules, this prototype houses a single VCO and VCF in a module.
The VCO and VCF follow the layout of the equivalent modules in the 112 and 121 with the only difference being a normalled connection between the two.
I've verified the existence of at least three of these.
141 Dual Envelope / Gate Delay / Inverter Adder Prototype
Finally found in 2022, this module is closely related to the production 140 module as it has two envelope generators at the top. They then differ in the bottom third where the 141 has a gate delay and inverter / adder in place of the 140's LFO.
The gate delay mirrors the design of the 713A module in the earlier System 700 with "rise time" and "fall time" controls. Both the delayed and undelayed signals have outputs and the gate delay is normalled to envelope generator 2 above it if "EXT GATE" is selected.
The inverter / adder circuits invert control signals and/or sum and invert control signals. They can also be used as very primitive 2-into-1 audio mixers.
Whilst this module has no serial number, the modules that accompanied it did and they were very early (October 1978). Furthermore, the slider caps are a lighter colour (like the 111 proto) and not because they're faded. The circuit board on this module and the other early serial modules that accompanied it have a molex connector for the wires from the rear din port and this is not present on the standard production modules.
Combined with the fact that these designs reflect the earlier System 700 and much more sophisticated versions of them appear in the 172 and 132 modules respectively, my guess is that this was a pre-release prototype carried over from the 700 that served as a stepping stone towards better designs that made it into production, but I can't be certain.
Only one example of this module is known to exist.
160 Computer Interface Prototype (photo Ian Nieman)
Probably the most fascinating of all the prototype modules is the 160 Computer Interface. Not much was known about this module, but by chance, I stumbled across a photo of Godo Irukayama using two of them in the early 80s (further down the page). Thanks to Adam Douglas who translated, we managed to get hold of him and he finally gave us the missing information:
In 1979 Roland decided to develop a computer interface for the System 100m. Initially they did a prototype run of less than 30 units and it never got beyond that, hence the rarity.
Godo had been collaborating with Roland, creating bespoke concepts such as an interface that allowed lighting to be controlled from the MC-8 sequencer. He also became a product demonstrator for Roland and even demonstrated the 160 modules on Japanese television.
The module came with a specification sheet that allowed enthusiasts to write their own program, but it also included a sample program for the NEC TK-80, which is what Godo used to control it.
The module converts data to two channels of analogue CV, gate and multiplexed (switched) portamento that can then be sent to other modules in the 100m to create the sounds. It can also convert CV/gate back into digital data (similar to how the MC-8 and MC-4 can record the input from an analogue keyboard).
The module is able to store data with FSK and has Cassette Memory Transfer (CMT) for data transfer.
The tempo can be controlled by an internal oscillator or via CMT.
I know of five 160 modules still in existence.
120 VCF / VCA
Presumably following the paradigm of the 111, this would be a VCF on the left (identical to the 121) and then a VCA on the right (identical to the 130) with a normalled connection between them (as per the 111). Unfortunately, no examples have ever been found to verify this.
170 Pitch to CV / Envelope Follower / VCA
This sounds similar to the 714A "Interface -1" module on the System 700 and also the SPV-355 pitch to CV rackmount module. In addition, envelope followers were a feature of Roland's SH-1, SH-7, SH-2 and SH-09 synthesizers of the period.
As all of the above were produced in the 1970s and Roland dispensed with these features in the early 80s, the suggestion is that the 170 was another pre-release prototype that was ditched because Roland were discontinuing such technology generally at that time, but there's no way of knowing as no surviving examples have ever been found.
The plot thickens...
In this extended photo of Tidao Kikumoto there is a System 100m cab on the shelf to the left. The partial module on the far left is an unseen protoype of some description and the standard modules next to it (130, 140 and 150) have white circles around the output jacks, something only seen in the early print adverts for the System 100m and not a design that made it into production.
This module may well be the mysterious 170 as it definitely can't be the 120.
From what I can make out, there is an LED that gives visual feedback of a signal. This signal runs into three separate sets of controls.
The first box contains two sliders with four jack outputs below. The second contains one slider with two output jacks below with another LED. The final box contains a rotary knob (missing the cap, as is the 130 next to it) which comes out at two jacks also.
These three sections may be CV, VCA and envelope follower and the unseen section at the top may be the preamp from which the signal comes in.
The Ryk Modules
RYK 185 Sequencer
In 2008 Jake at Ryk Modular designed a new module for the System 100m, the 185 sequencer. A limited run was released in 2009.
This sequencer improves upon the original by adding:
4 gate modes per stage
1 - 8 repeats per stage
Portamento per stage
4 playback modes (forward, ping-pong, random and fixed)
4 step division modes for repeat variations
Clock in / out
These features mean that all kinds of different sequences are possible that could not be achieved on the original 182.
There were later firmware updates that I'll list at a later date when I have the details, but this included a split mode.
The 185 was licenced to Intellijel and released as the Metropolis sequencer.
In 2021 a revamped 185 was released.
8 gate modes per stage
1 - 8 repeats per stage
Portamento per stage
4 playback modes (forward, ping-pong, random and fixed)
Multiple voltage options
Programmable split with repeats
Parallel split with separate CV/Gate out.
Clock in / out
RYK 175 Triple Vactrol Band Pass Filter / Triple Resonator
Around the same time as the original 185 sequencer, Ryk produced a handful of 175s.
This module contains three vactrol band pass filters that can be used individually or in parallel.
A multimode filter is one of the shortcomings of the 100m as the earlier System 700 was so well equipped in this department.
In 2022, we twisted Jake's arm to reintroduce the 175 and he obliged with an updated version. He very kindly let me have serial number 1.
The below photos show the new module, but also the prototype that Jake brought over for testing whilst the module was in development.
The video link below shows this fantastic module in action.
118a, 111 clone, 142, 191-X and more...
The latest to join the niche world of new 100m module creation is e-licktonic, known for the Yocto and Nava 808 and 909 clones.
The first module, the 118a, arrived in 2023. It's an 808 style analogue bass drum and snare drum in a module with an onboard sequencer, the latter is inspired by the Grids sequencer from Mutable Instruments.
They have plans for 118b, 118c and 181d which are toms, hi-hats, handclap and cowbell respectively, all with sequencers. Basically a customisable, 100m module-based TR-808.
Their further plans include a clone of the 111 prototype module, a new 191-X cabinet, and a 142 complex dual-loop envelope generator with logic state output.
Here's a couple of demos of the 118a..
190 3-module case
191 Rare 5-module case without mults
191-J Most common 5-module case
180 Basic 2.5 octave monophonic keyboard with transpose switch, tuning and portamento
181 Mid-range 3.5 octave monophonic keyboard as per the 180 but with additional bender
184 The top-end digital scanning 4CV keyboard that outputs 4CVs and 4 gates for polyphonic playing! It's essentially the keyboard from the Jupiter-4 and includes an arpeggiator (with rate and hold), 4 assign modes (unison, poly unison, poly reset, poly cycle), pitch bender with sensitivity control, portamento and tuning.
Haruo Noriyasu was MD of Roland at the time. Here he is with a 100m in an article titled "I met Dr Moog for the sake of the development of synthesizers" that I hope to get translated soon.
Ikutaro Kakehashi with the System 100m
100m Spec Sheets
The Biggest 100m in the world (probably)
Hans Zimmer probably has the biggest 100m system in the world and from photos I counted 130 modules in a custom wall-mounted setup in his studio in LA. I had a conversation with composer and producer Jeff Rona and it turns out that he was involved in that story. He had been an employee of Roland a few years prior.
The recollection is duplicated here with permission:
A little after I left Roland I was at a theater performance here in LA. The play was about a man in the near future with a robotic companion. The theater wanted to make the man’s flat look slightly futuristic and it was stuffed with a wall of 100m modules. Interesting choice of home decor. I figured it was because the president of Roland US, Thomas Beckman, was on the board of the theater group and must have loaned them out. I called Tom (my boss of 4 years) and asked about the modules. He asked if I wanted them, and I said ‘of course.’ He said he’d sell them to me at $100 each IF I BOUGHT EVERY LAST ONE - these were the last modules in the US. There were at least a couple hundred.
So I made a deal with Hans Zimmer for us to go in on them together. I built a medium sized rig, and he built a much larger one. But that’s where his system came from.
I remember I went to the Roland US warehouse and just loaded all the boxes up - they'd all been thrown together into several large boxes. They were so glad to be rid of them.
Back in Black:
In 2016 Roland announced their first modular synthesizer in 30 years; the System 500. In collaboration with Malekko Heavy Industry and inspired by both the System 700, System 100m and SH-5, the System 500 has nine modules available to date. I gave it a whirl in the video below.
In 2021 I got a very rare opportunity to put all of Roland's Systems together in the same place at the same time. The video below shows comparisons of them all, as well as musical performances.
Clones and Influnce:
Numerous clones and software versions have been created over the years, largely in eurorack format. Rob Keeble of AMSynths is noteable as he's created his own versions of the 100m.
Photo - AMSynths
Rob was then a fitting choice for Behringer who announced a comprehensive re-issue in eurorack format in 2020. This was dubbed "The System 100".
Each module was meticulously recreated with some modules being combined for efficiency (e.g. the "297" being a combination of the original Roland 132 and 165 modules).