A Tale of Two Guitar Synth Rigs: Roland GR30 + GR-D + GR-S versus Roland GR55 + Boss GP10

As an economist-guitarist, I have found it hard not to reflect on the economics of the Roland Corporation’s product range whilst I have tried over the past couple of decades to get a guitar synth rig that worked the way I wanted. Before Roland released the GR55 I had been getting by with a 1997 Roland GK30 and a Roland-Ready US-made Stratocaster or a Godin Multiac, feeding the guitar signal into a Line6 POD XT Live, to which was also connected my Line6 Variax 500. I thus could get access to modelled guitars, a good acoustic sound with synth sounds, or an electric guitar/synth combination. But I couldn’t get acoustic/electric/synth/modelled guitars with one floor unit and one guitar, and I couldn’t feed the XT Live back into the GR30 in stereo. Moreover, the Godin Multiac had no guitar/synth/combination selector switch, so I couldn’t rapidly shift between modes and I instead had to fiddle with its little sliders, moving them in opposite directions. The sounds in the GR30 were generally satisfactory and often spectacularly good given the technology of the time, but it lacked a decent grand piano and to get this I had to use MIDI out to drive my keyboard sound module. The GR33 had some improved sounds and, I think, a foot pedal and stereo guitar return input, but before I got as far as buying a GR33 along came the GR55 and I ordered one immediately, with delivery being delayed a few months due to post-earthquake recovery lags.

The GK55 seemed to have been designed to wipe out the Line6 POD/Variax business model in a neat piece of Schumpeterian creative destruction: it combines guitar and amp modelling and guitar synthesiser in one box. It also potentially rendered Godin’s multi-voice synth access guitars obsolete by enabling the user to switch between patches for modelled acoustic and electric guitars and a GK-equipped Stratocaster. Better still, for those of us who have trouble finding enough competent/willing musicians to put a band together, the GR55 offered a USB drive and foot-controlled backing track playback, plus a wider range of synth sounds, including a grand piano, all of this at a quite reasonable price. It thus looked like Roland had generously made the most of economies of scope between its various technologies, plus some new ones, simultaneously getting synergistic benefits of putting them in a single box. If it were reliable, all one would need to take to a gig would be the GR55, a Roland-Ready Stratocaster and some cables to plug the two together and into a PA system.   Brilliant!

Well, not quite. The acoustic steel string guitar model is not very good, not a patch on the Godin Multiac or a Godin LGXT (if the latter’s piezo pickup is working properly). For users like me who saw the Godin’s three-voice guitars as a way of getting a superior combination of an electric guitar and a Multiac, it was disappointing that there was no way to switch readily between acoustic and electric sounds without programming separate patches for each sound and then turning up one set of pickups and turning down the other at lightning speed at the same time as changing the GR55’s patch. I could imagine a musician with a set of backing tracks and a fixed playlist sequence coping with the GR55’s patch system by lining up a set of patches in the necessary sequence and moving along as a set progressed, but any adjustment to the playlist or adding new patch changes within a song would require a lengthy reprogramming effort. Worse, still, the amp modelling seemed somehow lacklustre, the more so when I bought a Boss ME25 and got far better sounds from supposedly similar COSM technology. Hence I landed up taking the guitar-out signal from the GR55 and running it through a line switcher to either the ME25 (and before that, still the XT Live) or, for the acoustic sounds, straight to the mixer. What was also annoying, but mattered less given that I was mostly not using the internal amp models, was that the ‘just one Roland-Ready guitar is all you need’ approach of the designers had precluded the inclusion of an input for a normal guitar so that the latter could employ the amp models and effects. This no doubt helped generate continued sales for Boss pedals and multieffects units such as the ME25. (I’d bought my ME25 to get the harmoniser capability lacking in the XT Live, and because of the tiny screen and lettering on the latter, which made programming really tiresome.)

With the launch of the Boss GP10 and the Roland GR-D and GR-S pedals, Roland showed it could offer better sounds than were in the GR55 but, rather than upgrade the GR55, Roland was going to ask its customers to pay premium prices to get them. The GP10’s amp modelling works far better, and can be accessed by both Roland-Ready and conventional electric guitars, but if we want to switch easily between a GP10 and a GR55 Roland asks us to pay (in Australia) two-thirds of the prices of the GP10 for a Roland US-20 switcher box. This looks an utter rip-off but I steeled myself for what behavioural economists would call the ‘negative transaction utility’ of buying something that was spectacularly not a bargain. When, on vacation, I visited the excellent Port Macquarie Guitars store, intending to order the US-20 there, their staff rang Roland Australia to check availability, only to be told that the unit was no longer being offered. Moreover, the GP10 still requires a lot of planning to use, as it has only up/down patch selection rather than banks of patches and the acoustic sound models, whilst better than on the GR55, still aren’t very convincing on the bass strings. The harmomiser facilities, however, are excellent and enable you to do very good electric 12-string modelling for faux Gibson EDS1275 or Danelectro twin-necks – good enough to make me think seriously about parting with my EDS1275, always a brute to play.

In terms of simple wiring and portability, the GR55, linked to the GP10 with a Roland GKP parallel cable plus a line switcher for my Godin LGXTs, is just about OK for what I envisage doing, so long as I have the patience to keep the patch sequences all lined up correctly and don’t deviate from a planned playlist. However, my refusal/inability to buy the Roland US-20 switcher comes at the cost of the prospect of sometimes having to turn the GP10 volume pedal down at the same time as I am turning up that of the GR55, or vice versa – something that is hard to achieve unless one is playing whilst seated! This rig requires five mixer channels if being used with a line selector pedal to make the most of a three-voice guitar such as a Godin LGXT..

However, there is another, more versatile rig that can be built more cheaply, in a more modular manner (and is hence less likely to cause a gig disaster if one unit fails), and which uses only four mixer channels with a three-voice guitar. It employs the Roland GR-D and GR-S pedals, which work brilliantly but which no one in their right mind would buy if they already have a Boss GP10 (I bought me GP10 after them, whilst still trying to figure out which rig would work best): they essentially do bits of what the GP10 can do. For me, the GR-D is particularly great for its analogue synth capability (which seems the same as in the GR55 and GP10 but which has no counterpart in the GR30), whilst the GR-S tops the choral sounds and 12-string sounds of the GP10 (albeit without being able to model any particular 12-string). These pedals haven’t sold well as their recommended prices are each over half that of a GP10, but I paid roughly a third of the RRP to get mine brand new on eBay (from Rhythm Active, Gosford, NSW, who also supplied my three Roland parallel 13-pin cables). The rig that I have built with these and my old GR30 is one that makes switching between sounds far easier, without huge amounts of planning and generally provides an excellent sound palette. The difference between it and a GR55+GP10 rig is akin to the difference between having a set of effects pedals and having a muliteffects pedal board, or at least somewhere between these two situations. Sure, it doesn’t have the sound of a Steinway Grand but that doesn’t require a GR55: just use the MIDI out and hook it up to, say, Logic X on your laptop! It took quite a lot of experimentation to make it work, largely because the GR-D and GR-S instruction booklets did not alert me to what I would need to do to stop the unadorned guitar sound from reaching the mixer when the guitar is switched to guitar-only mode – once I realized what was going on, it all became quite simple.

Here is how I eventually wired up the versatile rig, with unit listed in the order they are arranged on the floor from right to left to deal with cable and power supply logistics (the GR-S, GR-D, LS2 and Digital Reverb are powered by an Iron Horse power supply/tuner):

The standard 13-pin GK cable is connected in series to two Roland GKP parallel cables, to provide three GK cable ends for the three GR devices. You need to make sure the cable connections are well-seated, otherwise, you may find some strings are much quieter than the others (I had this several times with the B-string).

Roland GR30 (or GR33) Guitar Synth

When using the parallel cables rather than a Roland US-20 13-pine switcher, one needs to break old habits of selecting patches via the S1/S2 switch(es) on the guitar and instead set the unit so that patches within a bank are selected from the unit’s pedals – using the S1/S2 method will change the item you have selected on the GR-D and GK-S. To switch between banks, get a pair of Boss FS-5U footswitches: I made the mistake of buying a Boss FS6 switch without realizing it has battery powered LED indicators, so I keep having to remember to unplug the FS-6U’s cable to avoid wiping out the battery. In order to mute the GR30 when using the GR-D or GR-S, it is necessary to have a Roland EV-S (or similar) volume pedal plugged into it. Cable connections are as follows:

L+R Output: to input jacks on the Roland GK-S.

Guitar output: insert a jack plug with no cable; if you don’t, you will get the guitar pickup signal routed into the L+R output when you select Guitar or Guitar+GK on the guitar.Guitar return: output from Boss Digital Reverb pedal (in stereo if you are using a GR33).

Roland GR-S

L+R in: from GR30/33

L+R output.L+R out: To Roland GR-D (Line Out option selected, as it is going straight to mixer or non-guitar amps).Guitar out: to Boss LS2 line switcher ‘Input’. If one were simply using a Roland-Ready Stratocaster rather than a 3-voice guitar such as the Godin LGXT, there would be no need for the Boss LS2 and Boss Digital Reverb connections described below, and the GR-S output could go straight to one’s guitar effects system.

Boss LS2 Line Switcher

This is used for selecting between acoustic (piezo) and magnetic pickups on my Godin LGXTs. It also means you can simply unplug the guitar cable from the Godin and plug it into a Roland-Ready Stratocaster or a non-GK-equipped guitar (using the LS2 magnetic pick-up route in either of these cases).

Set the selector switch to the first (top) setting) A < — > B

Input: from the guitar output of the Roland GR-S

Return B: Guitar cable jack plugged in here, coming from the standard guitar jack on a regular guitar or Roland-Ready Stratocaster, or from the magnetic pickup-only output jack on a Godin LGXT.

Output: to input of Boss Digital Reverb.

Send A: to electric guitar effects pedals or multi-effects unit. In my case this is normally a Boss ME25, sent straight to the mixer via a stereo-jack-to-2-mono jacks cable with the stereo end plugged into the ‘headphones out’ socket on the ME25 in order to active its guitar simulator (why don’t they give us a simple switch for the regular outputs, as on the GK-D and GK-S, so that we can use standard cables?). I really like the ME25’s sounds and ease of programming though, because it only offers linear up-down patch selection, it is less in the spirit of this rig than my older Line6 POD XT Live.

Boss Digital Reverb (or a more recent model)

Input: from Boss LS2 output

Output: to guitar return input on Roland GR33 (in stereo on a GR33)

Roland GR-D

L+R inputs: L+R outputs from Roland GR-S

L+R outputs: to mixer or non-guitar amps (in my case, a pair of 1997 Peavey KB/A100 combos, now rendered obsolete by modern PA gear such as the Bose L1 system).

Guitar output: insert a jack plug with no cable, to prevent the guitar signal from being sent directly to the mixer when guitar or guitar/GK is selected on the guitar.

Once all these connections have been made and a Godin LGXT or other 3-voice GK compatible guitar is used, it is possible to use GR devices-only, GR devices+magnatic pickups, GR devices+piezo pickup, magnetic pickups only, or piezo pickups only. To get both magnetic and piezo sounds simultaneously, it is necessary to switch the LS2 mode selector to the fifth position (one from the bottom), where one of the selections gives you this, but I have not yet found a way of using the LS2 to switch between piezo, magnetic and both types of pickups whilst keeping clean acoustic and effects-processed electric sounds.

Clearly, other rigs can be built from different combinations of this gear and, indeed, my original plan, when buying the GP10, was of a GP10+GR30+LS2 rig. The latter rig works nicely and is the most portable way of getting a Godin-friendly system with guitar modelling, analogue synth and MIDI-triggered emulated instruments. But this doesn’t offer quite the instant versatility of the complex system I’ve just outlined, a system that obviously has the disadvantage of a very long footprint.

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