Roland Gaia 2 review: Roland finally delivers the hands-on synthesizer we’ve been begging for

Roland Gaia 2 review: Roland finally delivers the hands-on synthesizer we’ve been begging for

The Motional Pad is great, the terrible name aside. It seems like a bit of a gimmick at first — a large X/Y touchpad, not unlike the Korg Kaoss Pad, dedicated to modulation. But once you get past the initial strangeness (and Roland’s factory patches that lean hard into its gimmicky side), it’s hard not to see the value. It’s used to control the waveshaping and phase modulation of oscillator one, but you can also assign almost any parameter you want to the X and Y axis and change them by simply dragging your finger around.

What’s more, you can record that motion, essentially giving you a third, complex LFO. It records not just the shape of your finger movements, but the timing too. So you could draw small circles slowly working your way from the bottom left to the top right, to open up the filter and increase the resonance before quickly zigzagging your way back to the start. Many of the factory presets treat this animated modulation sequence as a novelty, sketching out small people, leaves and, of course, the Roland logo.

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

Sound engine

This clearly isn’t a deal breaker, but it does speak to a broader issue I have with the Gaia 2: many of the presets feel like tech demos and I don’t find them particularly usable. Now, I can already hear people getting up in arms. “Well, a real musician would be designing all their own patches from scratch anyway!” you might be saying. I’m here to tell you to go kick rocks. There’s no shame in playing presets, especially if you’re making music as a hobby. Additionally, the factory presets should be a showcase of what a synth is capable of, not just technically, but musically. And judging by that, the Gaia 2 is firmly stuck in the early aughts.

This is ultimately what left me feeling cold about the Gaia 2: It sounds dated. The original Gaia was a strictly virtual analog affair. Its successor kept the same three oscillator structure, but swapped in a wavetable engine for one of them (the other two remain virtual analog). There are plenty of great, modern-sounding synthesizers out there that use wavetables, but Gaia 2 specializes in a particular brand of Roland cheese. It’s perfect for scoring a turn of the century cyber thriller, and while some people will love it, others won’t.

The two virtual analog oscillators sound clinical and lack oomph in the lower registers. The filter is extremely versatile with three different slope options (-12dB/Oct, -18dB/Oct or -24dB/Oct) for each of its three modes (lowpass, bandpass and highpass) and a drive option. It can sound a touch thin, but it’s serviceable.

The filter cutoff knob and slope LEDs on the Roland Gaia 2

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

I wish I could say I was more enamored with the sound engine, because otherwise this is probably the most enjoyable modern Roland synth I’ve used. The Gaia 2 strikes a near-perfect balance between complexity and approachability. The three oscillators, multimode filter, dual LFOs, Motional Pad and rich effects section offer quite a bit of depth, but are incredibly easy to dial in. Everything is labeled clearly and all of the most essential parameters have direct hands-on controls. Even most things that require shift functions or some menu diving are all pretty intuitive. It’s legitimately fun to program. The Gaia 2 would make an excellent instrument to learn synthesis on if it wasn’t so expensive.

Applying the LFO to any parameter is as simple as holding a button and turning the knob of whatever you want to modulate. And there’s even a step mode where you can design a 16-step custom wave. The Motional Pad and excellent sequencer are a cinch to use. And having faders instead of knobs for the two envelopes (amp and filter) is a nice touch. There’s no modulation matrix and you can’t reroute the envelopes, but I didn’t mind much. I rarely ran into a situation where I really wanted to do something when designing a patch, but couldn’t. It’s a straightforward synth with enough depth to keep even experienced players twiddling knobs for hours.

Roland Gaia 2 oscillator controls

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

Model Expansions 

Once you grow bored of the main Gaia engine, you can load Model Expansions to add emulations of classic Roland synths like the Jupiter-8 or Juno-106. It even comes with an SH-101 emulation pre-installed. Honestly, that sounds better than the default virtual analog engine.

Of course, the model expansions aren’t cheap at $149. And loading them on the Gaia is, let’s say, aggravating. You have two options: You can buy an optional $100 wireless USB adapter and send them from your phone. Or, you can copy files to a USB key and then load them manually from there. (You know, just like it’s 2001.) This is one of the few places where Roland remains stubbornly archaic. Even though the Gaia 2 has a USB-C port capable of transmitting both audio and MIDI (and power), it can’t connect to the Roland Cloud manager app to load Model Expansions.

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