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10 great things about the Roland SH-101

Roland SH-101
(Image credit: Future)

1. Portishead subterfuge

Portishead were an era-defining band; their debut album Dummy is a suave and sophisticated collection of trip hop grooves, synthesis and beautiful vocals from singer Beth Gibbons. The first track from the album Mysterons is credited as having a Theremin playing the lead melody, but band member Adrian Utley later admitted that it was in fact an SH-101, with a large dose of portamento. 

2. Cool colours

After the initial release of the SH-101, Roland decided to produce two additional colours. Apart from the default grey, you could also buy the classic 80s stylings of bright red and mid-blue. This gave rise to the urban myth that one colour was better for basses while another was better for leads; there was no truth to this at all, as all three models adopted the same form, functionality and electronics, but it didn’t stop a typically 80s accompanying advertising campaign, playing up the stereotypical colour sets. 

3. Strap in

In-line with its reissued 80s colour scheme, the SH-101 could also double as a keytar. This would require the addition of the MGS-1 mod grip, as a separate purchase, which was in turn available in three different colours. The kit contained the mod grip itself, which provided a convenient place to hold the 101 while cavorting around on stage, with a button for modulation and small wheel for pitchbend, but only in one direction. Potential purchasers were also treated to a Roland branded guitar strap!

4. Go west to OMD

The 101 was a very popular choice for many bands in the 80s with two pop bands utilising the 101s enormous bass potential. The Go West hit We Close Our Eyes features a mega-huge 101 bass riff, which opens the song, and closes each chorus, while Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark utilised the punchy attack and decay of the envelope, for their looped-riff in Locomotion.

5. Sequencer 101-style

While the 101 provides a great set of sonic features, it also hosts an onboard sequencer which has become something of a referenced classic. Operating in step mode, the sequencer could retain up to 100 notes, as ordered. 

We’re not sure why 100 notes was the upper limit, but the concept of this quick and easy sequencing process has now occupied the music tech psyche, with manufacturers referring to their own similar designs as ‘101-style sequencers’. That’s quite a homage for a cheap little synth from the 80s…

6. Subsonic!

There is no doubt that the 101 could make the most colossal bass sound, thanks to the presence of a sub oscillator right at the core of its VCO engine. It was also popular in more underground settings, as a synth which could generate brilliant sine waves, by self-oscillating the filter, with maximum resonance. Those sines could be heard all through the 90s, from any car with a lavishly overpriced stereo (normally a BMW 3 Series).

7. Squelchy filter

When not operating in sine-self-destruct mode, the 101 filter did a very close impersonation of a 303, in full flight. The squeal of the filter, being tweaked in real time with large amounts of resonance, was synonymous with the sound of rave, which when coupled with the ability to program glides from within the onboard sequencer, could do 303 for a fraction of the price

8. 808 to Orbital

With these dance-like credentials, it’s hardly surprising that many dance acts of the day made a special place in their rigs for the feature-packed SH-101 mini monosynth, especially given its relatively low price. Two of the finest bands from that period, 808 State and Orbital, both made extensive use of the 101 in their production and live rigs.

9. Rocking out in Dolby

Another 101 aficionado was Thomas Dolby, who took the concept of rocking out on a keytar a little too far. He would often pick up the 101-axe and wander free, while soloing on songs such as Commercial Breakup

But after a particularly long and gruelling UK tour, Dolby got an attack of the Townshends, and found himself smashing a trusty 101 to pieces during the encore of his final show. Dolby was reported to say, ‘I’m not sure what came over me?’, so we’ll put it down to the stress of life on the road, rather than any hatred of the 101

10. Affordability

Talking of cash, this was a serious synth, at a sensible and affordable price, even more so if you hunted around for one secondhand. They would regularly change hands for just £100, which is certainly not the case now thanks to its loved and acquired ‘vintage’ status, but thankfully companies such as Roland are at hand, to help you with affordable options that are certainly impressive.

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