THE BOSS SY-300 GUITAR PEDAL IS A POWERFUL BEAST THAT GIVES YOU EXTRAORDINARY ANALOGUE-STYLE SYNTH SOUNDS TO PLAY WITH. SOUND ON SOUND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF PAUL WHITE EXPLORES HOW YOU CAN UNLOCK ITS FULL POTENTIAL.
As an early adopter of Roland’s various guitar synths, including the original all-analogue GR-300 (and numerous others), I was very keen to try out the new Boss SY-300 and you can read my full review in Sound On Sound magazine. During the extensive review period I gained an insight into what the Boss SY-300 does best, so this article is really about using it as effectively as possible. Of course the greatest difference between the Boss SY-300 and the synths that have gone before, other than it being moved over into the Boss camp, is that you can use your own guitar without having to fit a GK series hex pickup. Indeed, perhaps the biggest selling point of the Boss SY-300 is its simplicity. You can use it just like any other effects pedal — think of it as a ‘magic’ fuzz box that somehow produces synth-like sounds instead of fuzz and you won’t be far off the mark.
Contributed by Roland UK
There are loads of presets that show off the capabilities of the instrument but the time will come when you want to create sounds of your own. Though navigating the front panel controls is pretty easy thanks to a logical menu system and neat little graphics, it is even easier if you download the free Boss Tone Studio Editor software, available for both Mac OS and Windows. Having used it I can confirm that it is extremely intuitive to the point that a manual is almost unnecessary and having so much displayed on screen makes tweaking that much faster. If you have a computer with a USB port, this should be considered a must. You can also record via the USB port or even play back previously recorded guitar parts and give them the synth treatment, which is a neat trick.
CONNECTING TO A PA OR YOUR AMP
There are many ways to connect the Boss SY-300 to a sound system, including just putting it between your guitar and usual amplifier, though more serious users may benefit from feeding the synth output into a full-range keyboard amp. Equally, there’s no reason not to send it straight to the PA in stereo as long as you have adequate monitoring. Some of those analogue sounds have a very wide range so a standard guitar amp may not do justice to deep bass sounds.
Having separate outputs for both the guitar and synth voices (where the guitar/synth balance can be set separately for each patch) means that if you have a separate amp (or PA feed) for the synth sounds, you could simply use an analogue volume pedal after the synth output to fade it in and out during performance, though there is also provision to directly connect external switches and pedals for additional control via a TRS control jack that can take a double footswitch or a Roland expression pedal. One advantage of putting a volume pedal (ideally stereo) directly after the synth output is that you don’t have to use a specific model or resistance value of pedal. The Boss SY-300’s MIDI In and Out/Thru connections can be used to send and receive MIDI program changes, clock and controller data as well as sysex dumps though the MIDI Out doesn’t included MIDI Note data for driving conventional MIDI synths.
A VERY USEFUL GUITAR HACK
So, what do you do if you want to turn down the guitar during a song to leave only the synth? You could use a second pedal, or you could make two versions of the preset, one with no guitar, but if you’re handy with a soldering iron and happen to play a Fender Strat or a guitar of similar design, there’s a handy little mod you can do. On my own Strat I removed the lower tone control pot, then wired the middle knob to act as an overall tone control. There’s lots of info online as to how to do this. In the empty hole I fitted a jack socket and wired that directly to the output of the bridge pickup.
Using two guitar leads (taped together where one is fitted with a right angled connector), I feed the regular output jack directly to my guitar amp and the added jack socket to the Boss SY-300; the SY-300 output is sent to the stereo PA. The advantage of this arrangement is that the Boss SY-300always receives a full level signal and in most cases the bridge pickup gives the best results as it has the highest harmonic content. You can use your guitar volume control as normal to adjust the guitar sound and the synth will remain unaffected as it is now fed pre- the guitar’s volume control. This way you have the guitar control to set the guitar level and a pedal to set the synth level so both can be adjusted completely independently.
Of course you don’t have to go to such lengths, but if you plan to make the Boss SY-300 a big part of what you do, this little guitar wiring mod is simple to do and easy to reverse at a future date. On the other hand, if you are happy to use one amp for both the guitar and synth sounds and you simply want to switch the synth sound on and off rather than have varying control, then you can ignore the previous section and just use the bypass footswitch as you would with any other pedal.
TIPS ON SETTING UP
For those lacking in patience, the Boss SY-300 will work right out of the box but it is worth taking a few moments to visit the setup page as a few simple tweaks help achieve the best sound and the most accurate tracking of the pitch shifters and filters. This is a simple procedure and is explained in the manual. It is also possible to store different setups for different guitars. While the notes you play don’t suffer from tracking errors as such — the oscillator waveforms are derived directly from processing the string vibrations themselves, not from triggered samples — the tonality will be more consistent if you follow the setup instructions. Included in the setup is the option to use an internal compressor to even out the level fed into the synth. I found it best to leave this turned on as it gives a more consistent sound quality and longer sustain.
There’s also the option to switch to bass guitar mode, which ensures the best performance when you are processing a bass. In fact the Boss SY-300 will also work when fed with certain keyboard sounds and indeed other instruments, so if you have time to experiment you may surprise yourself.
When using the Boss SY-300 with other effects pedals, you should put the SY-300 at the start of the chain so that it receives a clean signal. It won’t work nearly so well if fed with distorted sounds, wah wah or if swamped in delay or reverb. You can put it after your tuner of course, and it should be OK after a compressor, and as the Boss SY-300 already includes a good guitar tuner, you can save space on your board by leaving your old tuner at home.
CREATING YOUR SIGNATURE SOUNDS
If even basic editing makes you nervous, the Boss SY-300 has a very neat trick up its very blue sleeve, and that is the Blender button. Remember that a patch can consist of up to three layers, each with its own oscillator, tuning, envelope and filter settings. Blender provides a very easy way to replace any of the current patch oscillators and their settings with any other oscillator copied from any other patch. By mixing and matching layers copied from existing patches you can create very different-sounding new patches, which may then be stored in the 100-slot user section. And if even that degree of editing worries you, there’s an online tone library that you can access where new artist sounds are being added all the time.
Having said that, I really would urge you to try the editor software and to use it to examine some of the factory sounds to see what makes them tick. It could be argued that the most complex part of the editor is the page that allows controllers to be assigned to a range of destinations, but a little perseverance pays dividends as this section is often the key to creating more sophisticated synth sounds. Here you can determine what the foot-switches control and you can also arrange, for example, to have an LFO or envelope control a filter frequency, or other key parameter.
The oscillator waveforms include the usual pulse, triangle, sine, sawtooth, and noise waves used in basic analogue synthesis but there’s an extra Sharpness control available when noise is selected that puts the noise through a tracking filter to give it a sense of pitch. The higher the control setting, the more defined the pitch. I found this to be a useful element in creating organ-like sounds by layering different octaves and then playing the result through the rotary simulator effect. This can be set so that the speed accelerates and de-accelerates when you press a footswitch to produce an effect very similar to a Leslie speaker. Layered behind a clean guitar it sounds pretty convincing as long as you keep switching speeds as a real organ player would.
Another feature that isn’t immediately obvious is the Layers page, which lets you set a different note range for each of the three oscillators so you end up with something rather like a keyboard split, but for guitar. This is really useful for keeping the low notes playing a simple bass sound while a more complex texture might be added to the higher register. You do, however, have to appreciate that this works purely by the note played and can’t be set to detect specific strings in the way that a hex pickup system can.
THINK ABOUT THE TYPE OF INSTRUMENT YOU’RE PLAYING
If there’s a tradeoff between the Boss SY-300 and sample-based guitar synths, it is that you get a much more natural playability with the SY-300 but at the expense of a more limited sound set. Despite being a digital device, the Boss SY-300 is designed to recreate a wide range of analogue-style synth sounds, from searing leads to deep basses, but it isn’t ever going to give you grand piano. I already own a Roland VG-99 plus a guitar fitted with a hex pickup and in many ways the HRM synthesis employed there is able to produce a similar range of sounds, though the VG-99 lacks the sequencing and some of the modulation options available of the Boss SY-300. Despite its strictly analogue-influenced sound engine, the SY-300 is able to serve up some stylish poly-synth pad sounds or ambient textures where the sequences, Isolators and Slicers can be used to create rhythmic pulses, ‘one note melodies’ or subtle timbral rhythms.
Digital pitch shifting is used to detune or retune the individual oscillators by up to 24 semitones up or down and you can also program pitch glides, though it seems odd that pitch shift can’t be applied to the raw guitar sound if you choose to use that as an oscillator source. When playing polyphonic pad parts, especially those that include pitch shifting, I find the result sounds more natural if I play partial chords of only two or three notes, or if I arpeggiate chords rather than simply strum them, though unlike most pitch tracking synths, strumming won’t upset the Boss SY-300. However, some complex chords occasionally confuse the filter tracking if you play all the notes at once, especially evident on patches that use tuned noise oscillators, but although this can sound a bit lumpy when heard in isolation, it’s much less noticeable when layered with the guitar sound.
While using the original guitar sound as an ‘oscillator’ sound source rules out pitch shifting and arpeggiation on that particular oscillator, the sheer range of digital effects available from the four on-board effect engines makes it possible to reshape the guitar sound in very unexpected ways where the flexibility to place the effects where you need them opens up a lot of creative possibilities. Indeed there’s really no reason not to set up some patches that are simply processed guitar — it might save you having to buy a separate multi-effects unit.
“Synth sounds with a naturally fast attack lend themselves to arpeggios or processing via the sequencers.”
Newcomers to guitar synthesis need to be aware that some sounds have a deliberately slow attack, so it’s no use playing fast shred-style lines and then complaining that the synth can’t keep up. You need to get into the mindset of the type of instrument you are recreating, so if you’re playing a string part, or maybe a brassy sound, you have to think in terms of how these would normally be played. Slow sounds need time to develop so play accordingly. You’ll find that the sustain period before the synth sound dies away is surprisingly long, so although you can rig up an external pedal system to hold sounds indefinitely, you’ll probably never need to.
Synth sounds with a naturally fast attack lend themselves to arpeggios or processing via the sequencers while the Slow Gear effect can be used anywhere in the chain to add a slow attack to individually picked notes. Just be aware that it is essentially a level-triggered effect so will only affect the start of a note or chord following a pause. For example, if you play a legato phrase, it will only affect the first note of the phrase. You can also adjust the envelope settings for the individual oscillators to make the sound die away faster than is natural to give a short, plucked banjo-like effect to the sound.
HARNESSING THE WAVE GENERATOR
I haven’t yet mentioned the ring modulation and oscillator sync capabilities of the Boss SY-300 though they are ably demoed in some of the factory patches. Oscillator sync is usually employed where one oscillator is used as the main pitch source and another, which is set up to vary dramatically in frequency via pitch modulation or pitch glide, is used as the sync signal. Essentially the waveform generator of the main sound oscillator is reset to the beginning of its cycle by the sync oscillator and as the sync oscillator’s pitch changes, you hear a sound that might best be described as being somewhere between flanging and an electric guitar in pain. You’ll hear this used a lot on monophonic lines where the player is trying to emulate a distorted electric guitar and it can be very effective. It’s less successful on chords though as its complexity can make it sound rather messy.
An electric guitar is a very expressive instrument and the Boss SY-300 allows more of the player’s natural expression come through with no need to adapt their playing technique, which in turn gives more control when soloing than with a typical keyboard. The SY-300 will follow exactly your own pitch bends and vibrato — which is so much more organic-sounding than the simple LFO modulation most keyboards rely upon. You can also use your whammy bar and the SY-300 will follow with no tracking delay and no wrongly interpreted pitches.
Another thing I tried and found surprisingly productive was playing the guitar through the SY-300 with an eBow. If you don’t know what these are check out YouTube to find out. The ability to play smooth, legato sounds with endless sustain makes for some very interesting synth parts that sound very different from the usual keyboard or guitar-controlled synth sounds. I never had any real success using the eBow with conventional pitch tracking guitar synths but the Boss SY-300 just seems made for it.
With its repertoire of analogue-style sounds, the Boss SY-300 may not offer the same sonic realism as one of Roland’s GR sample-based systems, but for me the fact that it feels more natural to play and is so forgiving of playing technique is a huge plus — as is the fact I can use any guitar. You can also use the switches to modify the sound during performance, such as adding pitch glides, muting oscillators or changing the rotary speaker speed, and if you’re prepared to experiment, you can come up with some unexpectedly complex and textural sounds too. It’s also pretty easy to conjure up EDM chord and bass sounds, which is bound to impress at your next pub gig. Certainly the tonal palette goes away beyond that of the old GR-300 that inspired it, whether for playing pad sounds, bass parts or lead lines. If you’ve tried guitar synths before and decided they were not for you, I’d urge you to try the Boss SY-300 the first chance you get as I think you’ll find it a very different beast and one with a great future ahead of it.