Roland System 100m
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
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.
Three years later came the System 100m which was somewhat of a cutdown, affordable version of the earlier 700. In some ways, 1979 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 for five years. 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.
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 voltages. There's a control input for the portamento.
There is also an MPX input with associated slider. This is for connection to one of the Roland sequencers of the day such as the MC-4 or MC-8 so that you can switch portamento on or off with initial depth (or so I read, without said sequencers I've never been able to try it).
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 that I've never seen or used (although I've used the equivalent on the System 700).
There are four switches with an input and output and then inputs for normal or inverted gate signals that turn the associated switch on or off.
The multiple jacks allow audio and/or control signals to be combined and/or multiplied.
Module photo by Hgrobe (Creative Commons)
174 Parametric EQ
Another rare module I've never seen in the flesh. It looks pretty self explanatory with four bands that include frequency, band width and level controls.
There's one input and two outputs, plus a bypass switch.
Module photo by Hannes Grobe/AWI (Creative Commons)
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).
Prototype / limited run modules
I've never seen any of these in person and I've only seen photos of the 111 and 160, so I'm not certain that any of the others actually made it out into the wild. The 171 would make sense as there was a similar "interface" module on the System 700, but I'd love to know if anyone out there actually has any of these:
111 VCO / VCF
120 VCF / VCA
141 Dual Envelope / Gate Delay / Inverter-Adder
160 Computer Interface
171 Pitch to CV / Envelope Follower / VCA
The rare 160 "Computer Interface"
prototype module and also a photo of a System 100m connected to a Roland CMU-800 Compu Music and a Commodore 64.
This shows the early days of the shift towards computer sequencing which has now been the industry standard for decades. The Roland MC-8 and MC-4 were precursors to this.
Photo credits Dr Hannes Grobe (Creative Commons)
RYK 185 Sequencer
In 2008 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.
190 3-module case
191 Rare 5-module case without multis
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), two unison and two poly modes, pitch bender with sensitivity control, portamento and tuning.
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.