Roland GR-33 Guitar Synthesizer

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Roland GR-33 Guitar Synthesizer

A full GR-33 setup includes the floor converter unit, a 13-pin enabled guitar (either something like a Brian Moore i8.13 or a GK-2A/GK-3A pickup mounted on a standard electric guitar), and the cable to connect them. The pickup is useless without a converter, and the converter is useless without a pickup.

Sound (7)

Sound-wise this unit is more-or-less a Roland JV-1080. Although the sound is clean and clear, it is not very thick or rich. Since you can blend two tones together and layer them on top of your guitar sound, which can be fed to external processors via an effects loop, this doesn’t matter too much in most cases. However, if you’re looking to compete with someone playing a nice analog synthesizer you’re going to want to connect an external module to the MIDI out because the synth sounds themselves on this can be a little plain at times.

roland_gk2aThe pickup is useless without a converter, and the converter is useless without a pickup.


Versatility (8)

It’s as versatile as your average ROMpler. There are built-in sounds to fit into nearly any style of music, although they are not very tweakable beyond minor digital effects and the typical ROMpler settings like arpeggiation, sustain, attack, etc.

The reason it scores nicely is not just the respectable selection of waveforms at 384, but the ability to play using guitar tone only, guitar tone mixed with synth tone, or straight synth tone. Coupled with the fact that it works as a complete standalone all-in-one unit and has the necessary connections to allow vast amounts of expansion, this unit is quite versatile and will change your average guitar into a complete orchestra.

Playability (5)

Guitar synths are notoriously difficult to master without glitches or wrong notes. However, the GR-33 does a good job of eliminating false triggers and ghost notes, although they are passed on through the MIDI chain, making this advanced filtering all but useless to those using outboard gear. The internal sound module seems to be designed to respond a little differently to the same data. Mastering this thing will make a person a more accurate guitarist and probably surprise him or her by showing how sloppy their technique really is. That said, a person that has never played one of these before could still pick it up and sound decent just strumming chords, although some of the patches will sound rather “squonky” when strummed.

Control (7)

The assignable continuous controller pedal can be rather useful for controlling panning, how tones are blended, effect depth, and the like. Add to that the hold pedal, the wah, pitch shift pedal, the pedal for turning the arpeggiator on/off, and the ability to change patches from the hex pickup on the guitar and you have a reasonably controllable synth. It doesn’t have much in the way of realtime filters and effects, but excessive knobbery would be a pain anyway with such a device. A second controller pedal would be a welcome addition to the unit and would not make it too bulky with it being fairly narrow compared to most all-in-one floor effects units.

I spent a sizeable amount of time controlling this unit with a bass guitar. My advice on that front is: Don’t. The response is slow and note triggering is generally pretty erratic with a bass. Other synthesizer units are far more suited to bass control. The functionality with bass control is passable at best, which is probably why Roland later released a bass version of the GR-33.

Features (7)

The features have pretty much been summed up in the Control and Versatility sections. However, one of the best features is the ability to transmit each guitar string as a different channel or all on one channel, controlling different external devices with each string. Unfortunately since the module itself can only produce two tones, this cannot be fully exploited within the synth. It is not expandable, although using the JV sound engine it would have been feasible to design it to accept SR-JV expansion boards, thus increasing the value of this device greatly. I guess the engineers realized that most guitarists would be too plug-and-play and that most synthesizer enthusiasts would already have a large collection of outboard gear they would just MIDI up to. Or they were cheap and in a hurry.

Simplicity (6)

This unit is really as simple or complex as you want to make it. You can go the route of buying something like a Brian Moore i8.13 that already has the 13-pin cable hookup and simply plug in and play. You could also go the route of installing a pickup like the GK-3A on your guitar and connecting up to a towering rack of signal processing gear. The effects send on this unit allows for a staggering array of possibilities.

For example, the setup I used live with the GR-33 involved a Yamaha TG-77 and FS1R connected to the MIDI out and a Digitech RP-12 and three effects boxes connected to the effects send. I needed at least four feet to be able to control everything.

roland_gr-33_lcdIt’s not classy in appearance – just an extra floor pedal, and although the molding of the case is relatively stylish, it’s not something an audience will notice.


Reliability (8)

First of all, it’s mostly plastic. It’s durable plastic and the base is metal, but it’s plastic nonetheless. It’s quality-made and likely to last a very long time despite the choice of materials. Never once did I have a complaint about its function and I am convinced I would have no problems unless I threw it off a cliff. I would fearlessly use it without a backup, but it is a good idea to have a spare 13-pin cable since there are 13 separate thin wires to fail in that signal cable.

Class (6)

It’s not classy in appearance – just an extra floor pedal, and although the molding of the case is relatively stylish, it’s not something an audience will notice. The points it does get come from the coolness factor of being able to play your guitar and have the sound of a Tuba, digeridoo, or drum beat pour out of the speakers.

The things that this device is most noticeably lacking are:

  • The ability to program the arpeggiator
  • SR-JV80 expansion board capability
  • Ghost note filtering on the MIDI output.
  • A second continuous controller pedal
  • Analog filters (everything should have an analog filter, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense!)

All in all, I highly recommend this unit to anyone interested in getting into guitar synthesis. The technology still has room to improve, but this is a solid and useful unit that will facilitate vast quantities of sonic enjoyment and experimentation. Couple it with a sampler or mega-module like the Fantom-XR and you’re ready to take over the world.

Sound: 7
Features: 7
Versatility: 8
Simplicity: 6
Playability: 5
Reliability: 8
Control: 7
Class: 6

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