Roland SH-5
– king of the vintage SH-series?

Another one of those “best synths ever made”! Have there been too many “best of” analog synths? Comparing the SH-5 with other instruments simply leads to the conclusion that this particular machine is in many ways unbeatable. It’s the peak of the Roland SH-series, so to speak. The “best of that bunch”, as Martin Newcomb says.

Roland-SH5-Synthesizer

The SH-series, that’s the SH-1, SH-2, SH-3(A), SH-5, SH-7, SH-09, later on even the SH-101 that offers a totally different design. And don’t forget those early preset-synths SH-1000 und SH-2000. Latest instruments (virtual analog) with nostalgic SH-names (SH-32…) might not have too much in common with the classics SH-5, SH-7 or SH-09.

And of these the SH-5 might be the best of all. I owned the SH-1 (lovely synth, not too many features), SH-09 (even more cut-down, but sounds wonderful!), SH-101 (great little sequencer!) and others.

Roland-SH5-BandPassFilter

SH-5’s predecessor SH-7 offers vast modulation possibilities, but concerning its filter quality there are pros and cons as well among musicians.

In 1975 Roland was …

  • … not a tremendously serious name on the synthesizer-market. Moog and ARP dominated the field and Oberheim was starting to come into its own. Korg was little known, although Kitaro already made loads of music with his all-time-favourite Korg 700S (maybe Korg’s team used all the money developing the PS-series?). Yamaha, too, was little known for its synthesizers. SY-1 and SY-2 had no chance on a synth-market dominated by Minimoog- and ARP-instruments.
  • … making the SH-5. In order to be attractive, Roland had to feature its instruments with special modules. SH-3 e.g. offers a five-stage oscillator (and a really dull filter, what a shame!). Its successor SH-5 was even better-designed.

Roland-SH5-modulationPath

The instrument’s design

The SH-5 comes in a solid case. This makes the instrument with its cover really heavy. But that lovely case is the reason that many SH-5 are in excellent cosmetic condition these days. Massive wood – no comparison to ARP-2600’s scrimpy pseudo-case. Take off the cover, and the instrument is ready to play. The power cord even has its own compartment on the backside (with a little door). True mid-70s vintage-style.

The keyboard is a nightmare. Sadly that’s a feature of many Roland vintage synthesizers, such as SH-1/2/3/5/7/09 and Jupiter-4, VP-330 (first version) etc. No pleasant feeling at all, and double-trigger usually is really a problem. At that time – 1975 – Yamaha, Korg and Moog were offering keyboards of much higher quality.

Roland-SH5-LFO-Detail

And yet – overall, the design of the instrument is brilliant! The control panel sits at a perfect angle in front of the musician (as with the Minimoog). It offers good orientation – you never get lost on the SH-5.

Features

Well, they’re really ok for an anlog synth:

  • 2 VCOs
  • 2 LFOs
  • S/H
  • ring modulator
  • noise
  • mixer
  • multi-VCF
  • band pass filter
  • VCA
  • one and a half ENVs

Roland-SH5-knobs

That’s all packed in a sort of half-modular concept. Well, and there are heaps of connections. Those controllers (pitch bend, etc.) next to the keyboard are not bad either.

Band Pass Filter

Talking about being unique! One of the best sounding filters ever produced. Overwhelming power, aggressive sounds and “pure analog”. The BP filter can be faded in and out. Most of the SH-5 soundfiles we attached use this simple feature – listen to them!

Beside the band pass filter there’s also the instrument’s …

Roland-SH5-Connections

Multi Mode Filter

Really unusual design considering this is a Roland! Do you know any other SH with more than a LPF? At the most there’s usually a additional manual HPF …

The multi mode filter offers LPF, BPF and HPF. Resonance is extremely brilliant, giving the sound a lot of musical depth.

To sum it up: what the SH-5 offers is a switchable LP/BP/HP-filter with a separate band pass filter in parallel. Not too bad, hm?

Roland-SH5-VCFs

That means this synthesizer goes far beyond all other SH-instruments when it comes to sound quality and -variety. Although the SH-series generally sounds superb. We have to admit the small SH-09 e.g. produces enormous musical textures, not versatile, but surprisingly powerful.

By the way: VCF-IN is offered on the backside. Just connect a Midi-CV-interface or use your analog sequencer to control filter frequency. What a shame the separate band pass filter offers no CV-IN! That would make it perfect.

Roland-SH5-VCA-ADSR

Ringmodulator and noise …

are quite important for those crazy fx-sounds. Roland’s rather usual RM can hardly be compared with Yamaha’s state-of-the-art- ring modulator of the polyphonic CS synthesizers. But still, it’s flexibly designed with its small source-matrix. Lovely, really…

And you get pink and white noise too (although switchable, not continuously available as on the ARP-2600).

Mixer

Each of the five audio sources can be mixed individually: VCO1, VCO2, RM, NOISE and AUDIO-IN (Ext-IN). That’s very useful. Think of a hard-synced VCO-sound coupled with a shimmer of ring modulation… But mixing audio sources isn’t all it can do: the SH-5 offers a switch-matrix to run each source – either through the VCF, VCF and BPF, through the BPF alone, or directly via the VCA.

Roland-SH5-MixerRouting

So you have 5 audio sources with 4 different routing-possibilities.

Sound

This is a dangerous synth: those who play it usually want to keep it! That powerful band pass filter, especially, produces pronounced sounds no other analog synth is capable off.

The SH-5 is your favourite instrument if you like:

  • Powerful basses [this is always mentioned first, why?]
  • Percussive sequencer-sounds
  • Arpeggio-like-sounds
  • Experimental RM/FX-sounds

Roland-SH5-LFOs

Don’t look for the SH-5 if you prefer:

  • Naturally sounding lead voices (keep an eye out for the polyphonic Yamaha CS instruments)
  • String sounds (my SH-5, at any rate, has no clue as how to create them)

The Roland SH-5 today

Estimating the value of the SH-5 isn’t easy. Sound character and some features are totally unique, and how can that be priced? If you really want one you might be willing to pay up to 3000 Euros now, in 2013. There is no substitute for this machine, so its price is theoretically open-end.

Roland-SH5-VCOs

I am exaggerating, of course. Street prices now range between 2200 and 2800 Euros. Usually, the SH-5 comes in very good cosmetic condition (thanks to that lovely case-design). Double trigger is a problem with every SH-synth, but cleaning the key’s inside usually helps. Apart from the low-quality keyboard, the SH-5 is ingeniously designed and well-equipped.

Listen to the sound files and decide what you’re willing to pay …

Roland-SH5-Logo

30 thoughts on “Roland SH-5
– king of the vintage SH-series?

  1. Envelopes are not fast at all , they’re linear , general sound
    is quite thin , but in a warm kind of japanese way , not comparable to american synths , good for fx sounds and external filtering but not much else , glad i sold it at a good profit (bought at about 500 euros , sold at 3 times at much) , at current prices to avoid like hell :)

    • If it ran thin, you needed to adjust the BPF, if set to high it produces a very nice, but squelched tin can sort of signal, lower setting are sometimes to low for some amps to even work with. With the volume set at 2.5-3 through a 75W amp, set on 2 or 3, I can rattle the windows two floors up with the bass tones alone. While the SH-5 can produce a cornucopia of thin sounds, I have never heard it’s overall description use that term, usually “fat, phat, heavy and thunderous”.

  2. A friend gave me an SH-5 in 1989 with one stipulation, I could NEVER sell it. The 1st night I had it home, I knew that would not be a problem. Anyone complaining about “thinness” of sound, did not get to know this machine. From ear piercing squeals to foundation shaking thunder bass, it will create sounds like no other synth it’s size, period. The only thing that could have made it any better would be polyphony, but I’m not complaining at all. I will have mine until I die, my kids can fight over who gets it.

  3. Hey Theo, great review! I love the pics as well – classy.
    As an owner for the last 3 years of an SH-5, I can guarantee that the last thing this synth is is thin!! Unless you want it to be, of course. What a glorious example of mono synths.

    • Every time I see the “thin” complaint all I read is “I didn’t actually try much on this gear”. I’ve seen it in reference to many pieces I own and not only do not think of as thin, but my 1st thought’s if you ask me what my impression of it is, 9 times out of 10 it’s “hella Phat!”
      I’ve seen it slapped at all manner of gear, old and new alike and it is almost always not true.

  4. The best thing about this site aren’t great pictures and well written reviews but amazing sound examples and demo songs. Where I can buy your music? :)
    Cheers!

  5. Hi Theo
    Great Article. Thanks
    Happen to have one in storage – used only for 3 months and stored away safely for 25 years. Now it is out of the box again. I understand that it is still highly regarded but I do not see myself using it again.
    Thanks just the same
    Romano

    • You should see if the folks at RL Music would be interested in either brokering it for you or buying it outright, don’t let it gather dust if you aren’t going to use it, there are a lot of folks looking to pick these up and the availability has dwindled as the years progress. RL Music’s email is richard (at) rlmusic.co.uk, they restore, rebuild, customize and sell vintage analogs.

      • Hi Simon
        I missed your response and would like to ascertain whether you still are interested in a the Roland SH5. I have not done anything with it as yet but I am in the market for a Roland V Piano. Regards Romano

      • Hi Simon
        Not sure whether my previous mail worked. I still have my SH5 and would like to know whether you still are interested in this vintage synth.
        Kind regards
        Romano

          • Hi Alejandro
            Just to confirm that I still have my SH5. I did not place it into market due to work overload in my business.
            Regards

      • Hi
        Missed your note but I confirm that I still have it. Due to work pressure put the sale on hold.
        Regards

        • Hi Romano,

          I might be somewhat late, but have you sold your SH-5 in the meantime?
          Best,

          Jonas

          • Hi Jonas
            Just saw your note. I have not proceeded with the sales enquiries due to work commitments. However I do still have it.
            Regards
            Romano

  6. This synth is amazing. The sound of the filters are pure warm creamy analog. The interface is well thought out and beautifully designed. The case is rock solid and protects the synth beautifully. It is the ultimate in sound and design. I’m glad i bought this instead of the Roland SH-7. It is “art” very inspiring in its simplicity and form and the sound it produces is living.

  7. I have to disagree with one little part of your article, minor point
    “At that time – 1976 – Yamaha, Korg and Moog were offering keyboards of much higher quality.”
    Slight correction on the date, the SH-5 came out in 1975, the same year as Korg’s biggest overlook bit of gear, the MakiKorg, of which I am a proud owner. While neither the SH-5 OR the MaxiKorg would have what I’d call sophisticated keys, the Korgs are far from better, just different, but for the sounds and the machines, those keyboards, while not great keydecks in general, both perfectly suit the synths they are on, the ONLY complaint I would level on the SH-5 keyboard is if you are really going to town, they click. Doesn’t bleed into the signal, but a mic will register it

  8. … hi Steve. Thanks for the great comment. The SH-5 was released in early 1976, as far as literature tells (Mark Vail, Julian Colbeck, Matthias Becker,…). And yes – you’re absolutely right – the MaxiKorg (800DV) is a marvellous piece of analog music synthesizer (one of the best mono/duophonics, in my opinion). Cheers …

  9. If anyone is looking for an sh5 I am selling one of these and its up on ebay at the moment for 3900, make an offer, (oct 14). It’s amazing I have 2, so selling one to buy a P5.

  10. I have to agree with Paladium on the envelopes, they’re certainly the biggest letdown on this otherwise great synth. It’s weak with regards to generating percussive tones imho. The bandpass and highpass modes of the VCF were not among its highlights either, but I found lowpass mode in conjuction with the static highpass to sound excellent. Otherwise I found it to be a unique and compelling instrument. A fabulous ambient drone generator. Possibly the greatest feature of the synth imho is the routing/mixer section. Every analog synth should have one of these!

    People seem to fall into two camps in the SH-5 vs SH-7 debate. Either they love the 5 and hate the 7, or vice versa. Imho they’re just two very different synths, with different strengths and weaknesses.

    For comparison with the SH-5, here are a couple of snippets containing only SH-2 and SH-7:
    https://soundcloud.com/bomsedeisa/sh-2-sh-7-01
    https://soundcloud.com/bomsedeisa

  11. I sold my SH-5 to Stereo MCs for £2000 few years ago… What a shame! Amazing, the best SH synth…

  12. Hi readers,

    I just wanted to pass on my knowledge of how to trigger the lfo’s seperate from when triggering the envelopes of the vca when using an external cv sequencer to trigger notes. I use doepfer dark time for envelope gating and pitch cv. To trigger the lfo I use a cv/gate signal from roland tr-808.

    First I connect dark time pitch cv out to the ‘keyboard voltage input’ of sh-5. Then I connect gate out from dark time to ‘external input trigger’ on sh-5. Make sure to set adsr and ar envelope trigger on front panel to ‘ext’. By triggering envelopes via ‘external input’ rather than the ‘computer keyboard voltage input’ the lfo’s are effectively free-running. I then send a cv gate signal from an 808 into the ‘computer keyboard voltage input’ at the start of every 2 bars so that the lfo’s restart every 2 bars in time with the tempo.

    Hope this helps someone. Please repost to the necessary forums if helpful.

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