I have had two consistent complaints about most Roland gear: a lack of hands-on controls and an unnecessary amount of diving through incomprehensible menus. But, earlier this year the company shipped the Aira Compact S-1 Tweak Synth. Its menu sent me into a rage spiral, but it did offer a fair number of hands-on controls. Then, not long after, Roland debuted the SH-4D which not only had plenty of knobs, buttons and faders, but a streamlined menu and a screen that didn’t predate home computers. My biggest issue was the form factor; I just really wanted it to be a dedicated synthesizer with a keyboard, but it was more of a pseudo groovebox.
So, when Roland announced the Gaia 2 — a long overdue update to its 13-year-old virtual analog synth — I was cautiously optimistic. The S-1 and SH-4D were signs the company was heading in the right direction interface-wise, and they both sounded great. At first glance the Gaia 2 seemed to be everything I’ve been looking for in a Roland synth: plenty of hands-on controls, a decent screen, a simplified menu and a full-size 37-key keybed. And yet, at the risk of seeming impossible to please, I walked away from the Gaia 2 a little unsatisfied.
All sounds, except for the drums, come straight from the Gaia 2. The only additional processing being some EQ and compression.
The most immediately underwhelming thing is the build. Now, to be clear, the Gaia 2 doesn’t feel cheap, but I expected slightly more from a $900 synth. The top panel is metal, but the rest is plastic. The keyboard is excellent, but lacks aftertouch. The knobs are mostly fine, but there are a few encoders that feel loose and have a good amount of wiggle. The detents on some are weak too, making it easy to miss your mark. Plus the pitch and mod wheels are bizarrely small. All of these things would be easily forgiven on a $600 synthesizer, but at this price I felt a little let down.
The Korg Minilogue XD, for instance, only costs $650 and generally feels more rugged, even if the keybed isn’t as good. And Elektron’s Digitakt and Digitone lack a keyboard but feel damn-near indestructible at $949 (and for only $50 more).
The controls are extensive, though. Roland hasn’t solved all of its menu-diving problems, but the Gaia 2 gets pretty close. There are more knobs and buttons than I care to count. Everything is organized logically and, while there are some shift functions, many of the controls are single purpose, leaving you free to tweak almost anything with one hand while you play. This is getting harder and harder to come by as customers expect more powerful synth engines with more modulation options, while also wanting instruments to be compact.
The Gaia 2 isn’t exactly small. At roughly 26 inches wide and 13 inches deep, it does command a decent amount of desk space, but it’s hardly onerous. And it makes the most of its front panel, cramming it full of controls and a decent sized screen.
It’s inevitable that your eyes will be drawn to the “Motional” touchpad directly below that. It’s one of the highlights of the synth, with my one complaint being its placement. It’s dead center, which makes sense if you’re using it to navigate the menus with a cursor. But, it’s much faster to just use the knobs. The touchpad just doesn’t feel natural for navigating the interface, and it would be much less cumbersome for performance on the left side — there’s certainly room for it alongside the toy-sized pitch and mod wheels.
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.
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.
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.
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), you can't just plug it into your computer and connect to the Roland Cloud manager app to load Model Expansions.
The bright spot in the sound engine, though, is definitely the effects. There are seven reverb and delay options, three types of excellent sounding chorus, and 53 other effects including compressors, bit crushers, lo-fi and scatter. The new shimmer reverb algorithm, in particular, is gorgeous. There’s almost as much room for sound design in the FX section alone as there is in the rest of the synth. This is also your best bet for adding some character to the often cold-sounding main oscillators.
Ultimately, what makes the Gaia disappointing is that it gets so much right, but can’t quite stick the landing. It’s extremely fun to program patches on, but I just didn’t click with the results. It expertly blends approachability with depth, but it’s too expensive to recommend to a beginner. And it finally delivers the hands-on controls people have been begging for, but the quality of the encoders, pots and buttons leave something to be desired. I wanted to like the Gaia 2, and I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there who will, but it’s just not for me.