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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Roland JP8000 (Preview)

Analogue Modelling Synthesizer (Preview)


Reviews : Keyboard

Though Korg have been making some inroads lately, notably with the Prophecy, Roland is still the name to drop in dance circles, so the announcement of a new, analogue-style Roland megasynth stirs the blood like little else. SOS's BRETT MITCHELL gets his exclusive hands on it...

The demand for more performance-orientated synths is seemingly showing no signs of waning. In recent years we've seen just about every major and not-so-major manufacturer implement some form of increased real-time control on their new instruments. Ironically, most of these new real-time controllers have been existing control sources from years gone by, such as ribbon controllers, knobs and sliders and, to some degree, even breath controllers. This demand for more real-time control, combined with an undying love for all things analogue-sounding, has spawned some very interesting new instruments, such as Clavia's Nord Lead and the Korg Prophecy. These instruments set out to give the people what they wanted -- an analogue sound, and an analogue type of control. What they also did was to take existing controllers, such as ribbons and knobs, and greatly expand on their traditional uses by taking advantage of the new high-speed DSP chips that powered their synth engines. The result was, and is, sound manipulation and real-time control trickery that could only be dreamed about with traditional analogue synths.
This is where Roland's new JP8000 comes in: it, too, features a form of modelling synthesis, a multitude of front-panel knobs and sliders, and some real-time control innovations we've never seen before. It's a true synth, and in my opinion the finest-sounding machine Roland have made for quite some time.



The JP8000 is finished in a spacey, metallic-blue plastic casing with a rather futuristic look. The blue surface has a velvety kind of feel which is quite appealing, though I did notice over the course of the review that this velvety surface is also very receptive to the inevitable barrage of finger scum -- so I'm not sure how it will look after years of use. Its overall weight, which is just under 8kg, is only around a third of the weight of the original (Jupiter) JP8, which should make it popular with gigging musicians, quite apart from its performance-orientated features. Above the 49-note, velocity-sensitive keyboard is a crowd of knobs and sliders dedicated to controlling sound parameters, a small (2-line x16-character) backlit LCD, and much orange and white text surrounding all the above. This initially makes the JP8000 appear overwhelming, and perhaps a bit confusing -- like the first time you saw a Jupiter 8, perhaps? Once you become familiar with the layout, it all makes sense and is, in practice, quite intuitive and easy to use. To the left of the keyboard are the octave up and down buttons, traditional Roland-style Bender/Mod wheel, LFO 2 functions, and various controller assignment buttons. I've never really been very enthusiastic about the integrated Roland Bender/Mod wheel, especially the Mod part of it, which has a very short range and is difficult to control. Roland have more than made up for it, however, by implementing a very nice ribbon controller which, as we shall see in a moment, has been improved by the fact that you can assign any number of real-time controls to be governed by it.

At the rear is a standard, detachable mains connector, power on/off switch, quarter-inch left and right audio outs, hold (sustain) and control pedal inputs, and MIDI In and Out connectors -- but curiously for a synth of this price, there's no MIDI Thru.



The JP8000 uses a new form of synthesis called Analogue Modelling, which seems to be based on a similar concept to a certain red Scandinavian synth released a couple of years ago. Information on the finer details of Analogue Modelling are a little thin on the ground: all we're told is that it "processes all the basic waveforms through the built-in DSP oscillator calculations". Limited polyphony is a problem that seems to plague a lot of the newer modelling-based instruments but, thankfully, the JP8000 can generate its sounds with a respectable eight notes of polyphony.

The synth's main operational mode is Performance mode, and it comes equipped with 64 preset and 64 user Performances. Within each of these Performances are two Parts, Upper and Lower, which can be configured in either Single, Dual or Split keyboard modes. Each of the Parts is then assigned to a Patch, of which there are 128 user and 128 preset. Each Patch, in turn, has a conventional 2-oscillator, analogue synth-style construction (Oscillator-Filter-Amplifier).

Oscillator 1 offers a choice of seven basic waveforms (Saw, Square, Triangle, Noise, Feedback Osc, Super Saw, Triangle Mod). The first four of the waves are quite conventional and will be familar to most readers, but the others are a little different: Super Saw consists of seven sawtooth waveforms detuned against each other, Triangle Mod is a modification of a triangle wave with a large number of overtones, and Feedback Osc is said to be geared towards creating guitar feedback sounds -- though in practice I found it useful for quite a wide variety of timbres. Each of these waves then offers two additional controls, which differ for each waveform. So, for example, the Square wave has adjustable pulse width and pulse width modulation depth, while the Feedback Osc has adjustable harmonics and feedback amount.
Oscillator 2 is a much simpler affair, offering just Saw, Triangle and Square waves, also with adjustable pulse width and pulse width modulation. Osc 2 may be tuned over a four-octave range, as well as fine tuned, and Osc 2 can be synced to Osc 1.

From here we move to the Osc Common section, where you can set the relative levels of the oscillators against each other, and apply ring modulation and variable amounts of cross modulation, as well as pitch env and LFO to pitch controls. It is possible to apply the pitch envelope and LFO 1 simultaneously to Osc 1 and 2, Osc 2 alone, or to cross-modulation.
It would be an understatement to say that the sonic possibilities of the oscillator sections alone are comprehensive. The combination of all the Osc 1 waves, combined with oscillator sync, cross modulation and ring modulation should keep you in new sounds for quite some time, but -- perhaps most importantly -- it's also going to generate sounds the like of which you've never heard before.

"...this is one very accomplished synth engine..."

Moving onto the Filter section, this has 12dB or 24dB/octave high-pass, low-pass or band-pass filters, all with adjustable resonance. The filter has a four-stage ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) envelope, in addition to key follow, LFO1 depth and env amount. I've no complaints about the filters, which work a treat in all their modes, and even simulate filter oscillation at extreme settings.

The Amp section is an (also typical) ADSR affair, with an overall level control and pan pot; autopanning is possible via LFO 1. The JP8000 has two LFOs: LFO 1 offers Saw, Triangle, Square and Random waves with adjustable rate and fade time, and largely takes care of all the internal modualtion duties. LFO 2 is directly linked to the mod lever and can be assigned to Pitch, Filter or Amp, with adjustable rate and depth.

Finally, just before we get to hear the sound emerge from the outputs, there's a simple bass and treble control, chorus effect and delay. The chorus is controlled from a basic level pot, with a choice of 11 effect variations: fast and slow choruses, flanges and phasers. The delay section has three pots dedicated to controlling delay time (maximum 1250ms), feedback and level, in real time, and there's a choice of three panning delays plus short and long mono delays. The various chorus and delay effects are selected by way of the LCD, though, unfortunately, delay times are not displayed in ms. All is not lost, however, since (just as with the LFO) chorus rate and delay time are both syncable to MIDI clock or the internal arpeggiator at a variety of intervals.

I'm sure you'll have realised by now that this is one very accomplished synth engine, capable of a very wide variety of sounds. Within the factory presets is the standard fare of Minimoog and 303 bass impersonations, biting lead sounds, and big, rich pads that could be coming from a Prophet 5 -- or, indeed, a Jupiter 8. The most noticeable sonic attribute of the JP800 is its very 'sharp' sound, which has more in common with genuine analogue instruments than it does with the (sample-based) JD range of instruments. I've always felt those instruments have a 'glazed' edge, but thankfully this is not the case with the JP8000, which has a very up-front sound.

The JP8000 is effectively a bi-timbral synth, and each of the upper and lower Parts may be assigned their own individual MIDI channels, in addition to a global MIDI channel, to facilitate program changes and so on between Performances. It is also possible to select chorus, delay and LFO sync on/off for each of the Parts, and Patches or Performances can be saved individually or en masse to a suitable SysEx device.



The JP has been designed very much as a performance instrument. The level and flexibility of real-time control is perhaps greater than we've seen before on any synth. All front-panel knobs and sliders receive and transmit their own MIDI controllers, for recording real-time changes into a sequencer. Several real-time controls may also be simultaneously assigned to the ribbon controller. For example, you could set up the controller so that when you slide your finger to the left, frequency and resonance ramp to their full settings, returning to their original setting when you move your finger to the right, while Osc 1 feedback amount and harmonics move to their full settings at the same time. Individual parameters can be adjusted as little or as much as you like, and assigning parameters to the ribbon controller couldn't be easier. Multiple parameters may also be simultaneously modulated by keyboard velocity, in much the same way, and just in case this still isn't enough, an individual parameter may be controlled from the control pedal. But there is no doubt that the most usable controller is the ribbon. I went mad with this, assigning multiple controllers working in different directions, and came up with some truly amazing morphing textures.



Also on the real-time control front, Roland have come up with a very innovative method of adjusting multiple knobs and sliders (apart from assigning them to the ribbon). It's called Motion Control, and it's basically a sequencer for recording knob and slider movements. Up to eight bars of multiple slider movements may be recorded into a total of four locations. Multiple takes may be recorded by cycling around a pre-chosen section -- so, for example, you could first record the movement of the Cutoff Frequency control, then perhaps the Resonance control, and then adjust the Pulse Width on Osc 2. It's also possible to delete individual knob and slider movements at a later date, should you decide you don't like them. Once you've recorded your motions, it's then possible to trigger the sequence at any time, via dedicated front-panel buttons, though you can also choose to re-trigger a sequence every time you play a new key. This is an excellent function and will enable you to make some really complicated real-time changes without lifting... well, alright, one finger.

The JP8000 has an onboard arpeggiator that supplies all the expected Up, Down and Octave variations, as well as a Hold function and the ability to sync to MIDI clock and transmit arpeggiated notes via its MIDI Out port. As on their recent MC303, Roland have also supplied a selection of Beat Patterns which alter the gate time and accent of the arpeggio in real time. Further to this, they've built in their RPS phrase synthesizer, familiar from other Roland instruments, which supplies a total of 48 preset patterns (musical phrases) which can be triggered from a single keystroke. It is possible to replace these with your own patterns, which may be recorded in real time and then quantised, if necessary.



After spending some time with the JP8000, you begin to realise that Roland have perhaps been sitting back and watching the competition, while thinking about some genuinely new and innovative ways to improve on existing instruments. There's little doubt that the JP8000 has been inspired by Clavia's Nord Lead and also, to some extent, by the Korg Prophecy, as it seems to share many of the features of both these instruments. However, it also has significant innovations of its own to offer, notably the flexible way in which parameters can be assigned to the ribbon controller, the arpeggio Beat Patterns, and the Motion Control function. But, as I've mentioned, the most striking thing about the JP8000 is its overall 'sound' and the ease with which new textures can be created. The JP8000 will appeal to a broad band of users who are after that traditional analogue sound, but those who are involved in making dance or electronic music, particularly, will be foaming at the mouth.
Watch out for the usual in-depth SOS review in the very near future.

Published in SOS February 1997

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