Roland GAIA-2 ► 300+ custom sounds

Presets compatible with firmware 1.1 and higher.


FAQ / read before you buy

Via Instant Buy & Download:
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What’s in the bundle?:
You will receive all the sounds from all my demos. This is 300 unique patches and their variations (333 in total) plus all the sequences that you hear.

What format / import method?:
My presets come under the name “WCOG” in a file in Roland SVZ format. Just copy the file from your computer onto a memory stick and import it to your Gaia-2. Warning: not every USB stick works with Gaia-2 : check if you have a compatible one or if you need to buy a new one.

What genre / style?:
There is no one style, because YOU decide what style these patches will be played in. It’s a wide variety of sounds that are meant to inspire, make you look at the synth in a different light and give you a great choice of directions. Some patches are bread & butter, some offbeat; they’re the result of me trying to find the limits of the instrument. The sounds are ready-to-use in music or can serve as starting points; just pick the textures or dynamics that you like and easily fine-tune them to suit your exact taste or purpose.

What else should I know before buying?:
All of the presets have the mod wheel assigned. Some of the presets have the motion recording active. You don’t need to install any Roland expansions for these presets. A standard factory unit of Gaia-2 is enough!


Notes on grades lower than 3/3:

[modern]: sounds modern but not very novel / new
[organic]: average – this is not ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) nor a Polybrute
[engine]: no mod matrix, only one MFX can be used at a time
[ui]: minimal amount of menu diving, short keybed with no AT
[build q]: nice kb action + metal panel, but the box underneath is plastic
[soft / mgmt]: not every USB stick works, no librarian, no editor (but browsing is great!)



► BACKGROUND / MY STORY

This was my fastest purchase of an instrument I had never wanted to buy. I owned the Gaia-1 back in the day (2012) and I had the opinion it was the worst-sounding, least-inspiring contemporary synth on my stands. What’s more, around that time Roland would play their corporate game of diluting the Juno and Jupiter names (basically just putting these labels on every new piece of digital crap;). Then there was the Roland Cloud subscription model in the vein of Netflix, plus the Boutique synths with their terribly miniscule controls. All of that turned me off and made me indifferent – if not antagonistic – toward the brand. The resentment was so strong that I would feel no appetite whatsoever to buy any new synth from Roland for the next decade.

Then, in September 2023, I saw the news. I thought “Oh God, here we go again”. But the more I thought about it all, the more I realized that my erstwhile disdain for the big R has imperceptibly dissolved over the years. I was neutral and ready to let bygones be bygones and muster some positive faith. I looked closely at the new Gaia-2; I saw the metal panel, the wavetables, lots of knobs, plenty of flexible effects and a Korg-Modwave style kaoss pad, and I interpreted these as a sign that the Roland ship has changed its course into a more positive direction. Now you’re asking yourself: has this new faith in Roland been rewarded?


► ROLAND vs “ROLAND”

Before you continue reading, I want to mention two things.

One: I will be reviewing the synth “as is”, like any other new synth that I buy, without any relation to – or explanation – of the Roland Cloud / Zen-Core platform / ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) / ABM (Analog Behaviour Modeling) / BMC (Behavior Modeling Core) / PLUG-OUT technology or the SH-4d / SYSTEM-8 synthesizer. Nothing. I take the stance of being born today and receiving my first Roland synth. However…

Two: While thinking & writing about the Gaia-2, I will try to keep a balance between both the perspective of a beginner / live-gig musician, and a sound designer / studio musician. I rarely do this kind of separation, but I think the Gaia (as well as Roland the brand) is a pretty misunderstood concept which gets loads of love or loads of hate, depending on which camp people belong to. If you don’t know what these camps are, let me put it this way: camp one consists of experienced synth nerds who love vintage Rolands from the “days of glory”, and who are disappointed with the direction the company is going (as Roland is basically becoming a software developer). Camp two is people who rather focus on the sound appeal and the ease of making music, and they usually feel little interest in the history or the future of a company. I’d like to see myself somewhere in the middle.


► FIRST IMPRESSIONS / MIXED SIGNALS

The first days with my Gaia-2 were a “hopeful disaster” if I may use such an inconsistent phrase. But this is exactly the mental state the synth was putting me into: inconsistency. I was confused by a variety of mixed signals.

The inherent tone sounded unmistakably “digital” (nasaly / flat / emotionless… – all things unpleasant), yet the amount of features suggested there must be ways to transform that starting timbre into something more appealing & graceful (or less “machine-like”). Three filters with three slopes, modulated reverbs and delays, phase modulation for wavetables, motion recording – “there is hope”, I thought.

Next: the interface seemed nice & comfortable, which suggested that designing new sounds would be a blast, yet I started to discover more and more things hidden in menus. But these were only 1-level menus, so I felt it should all become workable in the end.

Finally, the tactile aspect / physicality of the instrument and the materials used seemed very well-matched & tailored to create good workflow, yet I was constantly missing something, be it longer keybed, aftertouch, or the good old Roland-style joystick.

► THE SOUND

Like I’ve said: the lifeless default tone made me distrustful & anxious, regardless of how cool the synth looked. Playing the Gaia-2 alongside my Arturia Polybrute or my Korg Prologue and judging its tone against the organic warmth & intriguing idiosyncracy of these synths boosted my distrust almost into a state of disgust. I thought: Damn. Fool me once, shame on you Roland. Fool me twice… Have I just got fooled again?!

So I went through all the menus; I tweaked every available parameter to learn how the sensitive filter behaves, how the double X-MOD works and what the diverse multi-effects have to offer. After a couple of days of this experimenting (and pushing myself out of my bias / preconceptions zones)  the reward has come. As much as I wanted to change the Gaia, the Gaia also changed me. It drove me out of my Oberheimy / Prophet-eqsue / analog-subtractive rut. I wanted to find out what the temperament / personality of this synth was, but I realized there isn’t just one. This is when all the pieces of the puzzle – the happy-medium architecture of the engine, the unobvious / non-synthy sound – have started to fall into place. Today I am sitting in front of a huge library of patches that by their variety and nature remind me of my work on the Yamaha AN1x – a synth that is relatively limited but always manages to catch the ear with its slim-yet-distinctive sound.

So if you ask me to give you the most important piece of advice about the Gaia-2 before you decide to buy one, I’ll say this: IMO it’s not a “one big sweet spot” type of synth, even though it’s very tempting to look at it this way. Don’t get me wrong – it is one of the easiest-to-understand, quickest-to-tweak synths out there. But it’s simlpy too versatile to become a one-big-sweet-spot type of synth. I would rather say it’s more like a network of smaller sweet spots that you can jump between and / or combine (for example: wavetable oscillator + hipass filter + infphaser + shimmer reverb for a digital-style pad OR a pulsewave oscillator + lowpass filter + sdd 320 chorus + srv 2000 reverb for an analog-style lead).

The synth operates within a wise set of limits that keep you from derailing your sound design process. The amount of parameters and the lengths to which you can deform said parameters are just “right”. This way the sounds we’re messing with quickly develop “familiar” or “usable” shapes. And I cannot say the same about, for example, the Sequential Pro-3, the Argon-8, the Hydrasynth and other wavetable synths which demand some sculpting in a mod matrix / menu and can still grate the ear at the end of the day.

The Gaia-2 allows me to dial in a big portion of the simple sounds that I wanted to make on my Pro-3, my Hydra or my Modwave – with the important difference that I can do it fast and I can do it to a greater satisfaction level. Due to the harmonically-restrained nature of the Gaia tone these sounds will almost always effortlessly blend in a mix. The synth errs on the side of caution, so to speak. Or to put it simple: Gaia-2 just sounds nicer quicker. Pro-3, Modwave & Hydra are much deeper synths that give you more freedom in sound design. They are capable of exhibiting more nuance and they have more scope for animating the textures & dynamics of the presets and positioning them in the stereo field. They sound more multi-dimensional, interesting, impressive or unusual. In comparison, the Gaia-2 sounds… boring! It does not come with as much boldness, unpredictability or dynamism. It won’t deliver the most unique digital timbres in the vein of Waldorf Quantum and it won’t give you the most juicy & organic analog goodness the world has ever heard. Instead, it will give you a very high probability of quickly achieving both digital and analog vibes that you will find catchy, satisfactory or decent enough. In this respect it’s a very musical / responsive synth.

However, truth needs to be told that some patches are just out of the question – for example, a supersaw in unison. It has an ugly start that sounds as if the supersaw was a sample or as if the oscillator restarted on each key-on (as if there was no “free-running” of the oscillators). If you want to put this kind of sound into a minimalist electronic track, it’s going to stand out in a bad way. Oh, did I mention that the noise oscillators are just sampled loops? How cheesy.


► USER INTERFACE / WORKFLOW

I’ve said at the beginning the UI was somewhat confusing for me. But I only had this impression because I was looking at the Gaia-2 from the point of view of a synth nerd / sound designer. I was irritated by the fact that various parameteres were strewn across multiple menus. I could only learn their locations by re-reading the manual or re-visiting the menus themselves. I thought “geez, isn’t it easier to make an alphabetical mod matrix and put everything into this one place?”. Well, not necessarily. There is some logic behind Roland’s approach.

A mod matrix is most welcome by any methodical sound designer, but menus can be better for beginners because the parameters sit “right where they belong”, so to speak. Do you want to assign the Mod Envelope to Oscillator-2 Shape? Just go to the Mod Envelope menu and do it there. This is the philosophy of the Gaia-2. It makes you work on two levels: the front panel level with all the knobs and buttons that you can touch, and the menu level where each menu represents only one thing: the module of your interest, be it Filter or Reverb. There is nothing else. Pretty easy, unlike other synths with menus & sub-menus and pages & sub-pages of clicking, which may induce the most unwelcome state of analysis paralysis.

What’s more, all the button combinations are printed on the panel. Just by looking at the synth you will instantly know that pushing Shift + ARP will take you to the Arpeggio menu. Other synths do not make it as easy! I think it’s a good idea to print the most vital parts of the user manual on the front panel.

I want to mention the keybed has the nicest action of all the synths I’ve played over the past 2 years or so. I also have to take note of the most-comfortable rotary encoder ever, and the OLED display which sits right in the center and is big & clear enough to give you proper visual feedback. At the beginning I was bemoaning the lack of a data slider. But you can use the Pad exactly like a data slider by swiping your finger from left to right, and vice versa. Again – easy. That’s why, at the end of the day, I am finding the Gaia-2 interface much, much better than Modwave, Argon-8 or Peak / Summit, and for obvious reasons also better than Hydrasynth (HS has much less access to real-time controls). Actually I’m finding the Gaia-2 UI to be near perfect, or as perfect as it can be in a synth of this kind. Just remember that some of these other models that I’ve mentioned (Modwave, Peak, etc) are more advanced than Gaia-2, and that’s why their UI will seem more convoluted. When you buy a Gaia-2, you sacrifice some amount of modulation power for the sake of comfort.


► OUTRO / THE CONS

We can dislike Roland’s technological or marketing decisions, but we can’t ignore the fact that Roland has been on the market for half a century or so. They’ve surely amassed a huge amount of experience in designing sound engines and selling them as musical instruments (even if the Gaia-2 engine is nothing new for 2023). If I was a newbie and I bought the Gaia-2 as my first synth, I would be perfectly happy.

However, I am also pleased with it as a synth nerd. It’s funny how I moved from vehemently hating the Gaia-1 to accepting the Gaia-2. Again – I think Roland should have given it a new name instead of rehashing what’s familiar, because to me the Gaia 2 is a wholly different synth. Much more capable, much different sounding, much better designed. If I indulge myself in day-dreaming / nit-picking then I wish the Gaia-2 had 3 LFOs, or fine-adjustments of the choruses, or the ability to modulate a modulation… But I know I’m being silly and irrational, especially when I realize I’ve made over 300 cool-sounding patches on this machine. What else do I really need? I love the fact that there are as many as 3 filters each with 3 slopes, that the MFX is modulatable, that the XMOD comes in two variations, that the sequencer has 5 parameters for each step, etc, etc. And the possibility to introduce a click / transient / snap onto the onset of the sound via a feature in a menu? So cool. In Peak or Polybrute you would have to design that from scracth in the mod matrix.

So if I was to come up with just one word that best describes this synth, I would choose “streamlined”. The way it looks and tempts you to touch it, the ease with which you operate it, the “usable” / laid-back timbres that it produces plus the magical way it’s suitable for both the beginner and the experienced enthusiast: everything is so streamlined, efficient, sleek & smooth – even if boring / plasticky-sounding from time to time. If you don’t want to be bored, you buy a Korg Wavestate and get yourself lost in wave-sequencing, or a Moog Matriarch to get yourself lost in a heap of patching cables. If, on the other hand, you’d rather own a monster chameleon coming with a variety of straightforward sounds that are useful in popular music and during composing, you get a Gaia – plain and simple. If we look at it this way, we can ask the question: is efficiency boring? In such case, of course not.

More on the downsides: I find the expressiveness of the instrument considerably limited by the short keyboard and no aftertouch. It’s seems so silly when you realize the Gaia-2 can load some model expansions (apart from the factory SH-101) that support AT, or PolyAT, but in order to use that feature you would have to connect an external keyboard controller to your Gaia-2. I mean – WTF? I suspect Roland wanted to keep this synth around the $800 mark, but the Gaia-2 so insanely versatile that adding an AT keybed and raising the price a bit would still be great value.

Speaking of Roland expansions: the idea is that you can load an engine of a different synth into your Gaia system, for example the JX-8p. But… once you do that, the Gaia-2 interface loses its original functionality. In other words, the custom models do not do what the panel knobs’ labels say (fixable via an update?). This makes the expansions more a target for for preset-players than sound designers. It’s just a different kind of music making philosohpy and marketing strategy. Roland themselves say that “the trend of synthesizer tones has evolved, especially in electronic music – we needed to adjust every specification to generate such sounds according to the customer’s demand.”

So, as you can see, it’s all about the market, the trends, the customer, yadda yadda… Boring, practical, down-to-earth stuff;) But it just works. Simplicity and immediacy FTW! Also, I want you to realize one thing that I’m seeing more and more often:

Case 1: Company X announces or teases a synth. No specs, no price, no date. After a month or so there are 50 pages of speculation on forums and there is constant fuel added to the hype pyre (when the instrument is finally released there may be as many as 300 pages). The narrative does not lose its dynamic and the product is constantly present in the collective consciousness.

Case 2: Company Y (Roland in this case) announces a new synth (Gaia-2) out of the blue. Full specs are there for everybody to be seen. The synth is available for purchase in stores. All on the same day. After a year the thread for this synth on the same forum has 20 pages. The thread is buried deep down somewhere where not even a limping dog sees it.

This is something that beginners should keep in mind when they try to decide what new hardware synth to buy and – god forbid – come to the conclusion the Gaia-2 is not worth it.

 

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