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Friday, November 8, 2013

Roland JV90 & JV50

Expandable Synthesizers



Reviews : Keyboard


Roland were one of the stars of the recent NAMM show, launching a jaw-dropping array of new products, including three new 'Expandable' keyboards in the JV line. DAVID CROMBIE looks at two of them.

Roland, in keeping with most synthesizer manufacturers, are stuck in a rut. There's nowhere to go. Virtually all the quantum steps in synthesizer technology have been made. Synthesizers continue to evolve, offering more power and features, better quality sound, and all for less cost, but there seems little uncharted territory left that is ripe for conquest. Consequently, companies develop a technology, then release many different variations of the basic concept.

For Roland, the current cycle started with the JD800, the behemoth that put sliders and switches back on the agenda. From this monster came the JV80 and JV30 (listing around April '92 at £1249 and £745 respectively), which cut out most of the switchware and were more intuitive to use. The JV90 and JV35 now supersede the JV80 and the JV30, and the JV50 holds a new position in the catalogue. The JV35 and JV50 are virtually identical save that the latter has a MIDI File Player on board, which opens up all manner of possibilities.

But the new JV90 and JV35/50 are pretty different kettles of fish. Their voice architecture and construction obviously show their family relationship, but you'd be quite wrong to say that the JV35 and 50 are the JV90's little brothers. They both have quite different facilities and will be bought by different people.




On first receiving the JV90, I did something most unusual. I didn't tear open the box, plug the synth in and let rip. I actually did what you are always told to do and started to probe the manual.
I was rather taken aback to read, in the very first paragraph of the introduction, "The JV90 allows you to create a wide variety of sonic textures by digitally manipulating the high quality on-board sounds. By installing an optional Voice Expansion Board, you can increase the number of sounds available and the instrument's maximum polyphony. When fully expanded, the JV90 is a versatile instrument that can be used for live performances, studio recordings and desk-top music applications."

The JV90 costs £1375, and if I had just shelled out such a sum I would be somewhat miffed to read that I needed to spend more money to get a "versatile instrument". In fact, this paragraph is totally misleading, as the JV90 doesn't require any expansion to be a perfectly useful sonic assault vehicle (SAV).

On unpacking the JV90, you're presented with a sleek, long, thin instrument which, at under 10kg, feels remarkably light, considering its power. It features a 76-note E-G keyboard, which is both velocity and aftertouch sensitive, though the aftertouch is monophonic. The performance controls consist simply of the Roland proprietary Bender, a centre sprung lever mounted left to right, with modulation introduced by pushing the lever forward. Above the lever are three sliders: Volume; Presence; and one marked C1, which can be assigned a range of real-time tasks.

Most of the other controls are located either side of the 40 character x 2 line backlit LCD. These displays have been used since the D50 and are both attractive and easy to read in virtually any lighting conditions (unlike the red lights on the illuminating buttons).
The controls are laid out in four main groups: Edit Palette; Mode; Function; and Patch Group.




Starting from the basic building block and working upwards, the JV90 utilises:
• Tones, which consist of a Waveform Generator, Filter, Amplifier, 2 LFOs and 2 Envelope Generators (see Diagram).
• Rhythm Tones, which are basic rhythm samples/waveforms.
• Patches, which consist of up to four tones.
• Rhythm Sets, sets of rhythm tones mapped across the 76 notes of the keyboard.
• Performances, which are a collection of seven patches, a Rhythm Set, and an Effects setup.


At the heart of the instrument we have the Tone, four of which are used to make a Patch. The starting point for the tone is the Waveform. The JV90 has 152 waveforms in internal memory, and you can also use waveforms from wave expansion boards (see panel) or from Roland's range of PCM cards. These waveforms are fairly typical, from Pianos, through woodwinds and brass, strings and fantasies, effects and percussion, and are mapped across the keyboard so, for example, the Alto Sax wave has seven different samples encompassing the range of the keyboard. The transitions in virtually all cases are pretty good.

As string sounds are very widely used, I would have liked to see a few more string waveforms here. In essence there are really only three, but of course you can 'expand' the synthesizer and bring in other waveforms, either from the expansion boards or the PCM cards.

One really great facility, which is sure to attract a lot of interest from those who strive for dirtier, and/or industrial sounds, is the Frequency Cross Modulation feature, which enables you to take two waveforms and cross modulate them to produce a new, highly complex waveform. Basically this is a low-level FM -- Roland call it FXM -- and it doesn't necessarily have to produce raspy, buzzy sounds; it can be used to create richer waveforms of greater complexity which are still harmonically pleasing -- this just takes a little more work.

The signal path of the JV90's Tone module is similar to that of a traditional analogue synth. Oscillator (waveform), to filter, to amplifier, with the latter two modulated by envelope generators, and all three modulated by two low-frequency oscillators. To the uninitiated (where have you been?) Roland call their modules TVFs and TVAs -- Time Variant Filters and Amplifiers.

Having selected a waveform, it is then necessary to set up the filter -- here we have Low pass and High Pass filtering. On old analogue machines, it was the filter that really gave a synthesizer its characteristic tonal quality, because it introduced a degree of harmonic distortion. The digital filters used today, although they may still be of the 12 or 24db/octave variety, do not introduce such distortion and so sound the same from one synth to another. It is for this reason that synth manufacturers have to be particularly clever with their output and effect stages in order to give their instruments an identity. Roland have gone a stage further and provided a feature called Analog Feel to help in this area. More shortly.

The JV's filter, as well as being high and low pass, has cut-off and resonance control parameters. The filter will track the keyboard and can be modulated by the four-stage Level/Rate TVF envelope and by both LFO1 and LFO2. A similar envelope is use to control the TVA and, again, the LFOs can be used as modulators. The Edit Palette (see panel) is particularly useful when it comes to editing envelopes, as all the eight parameters are simultaneously accessible.

One important feature of the TVA-EG is the tone delay time parameter. This sets the time delay after a key-on message is received before the envelope is activated -- very useful for creating cross-fades within sounds. Roland have actually taken this facility one stage further and incorporated a function known as Playmate. This automatically sets the delay time to that between the previous note-on and the most recent note-on, so you can actually play the delay time. It's not just a gimmick (though with that ghastly name it does sound like one), but can be employed to unique effect; for example, you can get a set of sounds to arpeggiate at a tempo that syncs exactly to your playing style.

The Rhythm Tones are essentially the same as the basic tones except, of course, that the waveform's frequency isn't determined by the note played on the keyboard. Each Rhythm waveform can therefore be modified by its own filter and amplifier and the output of each tone panned across the stereo image.


The Patches are arranged in five banks of 64 (320). Only one bank is user-programmable, which doesn't seem quite right for an instrument of this nature. Professional synthesizers are all about synthesizing; Roland have made this an easy instrument to program, and yet they don't give us enough memory space to save our own creations.

A Patch consists of up to four tones. If you use all four, the polyphony of the instrument is reduced from 28-note to 7-note. A Patch also incorporates an Effects setting, courtesy of the JV90's simple Chorus and Reverb/Delay section. There are three basic chorus algorithms, with the associated Level, Rate, Depth and Feedback controls, six reverbs, and two delays with level, time and feedback controls.

Now to examine the Analog Feel effect which, as mentioned, strives "to give greater 'naturalness' to the sound (i.e. make it sound less digital)" -- Roland's words, so they are obviously aware of the analogue-is-best camp. Analog Feel works by applying a independent, random, low-frequency modulation to the pitch of each tone's oscillator. This in turn produces a random detuning effect. In modest amounts this facility seems to work really well, but used to excess, it's something like being on a channel ferry in a Force 8, having had a skinful the night before and a fry-up for breakfast.

A Rhythm Set consists of a set of Rhythm Tones mapped across the keyboard. There is but one user programmable rhythm map, and four preset ones. Here, again, we could do with at least two to set up ourselves. It looks like we're going to need an M256 memory card.


Seven Patches, a Rhythm Set, and an effects setup go to make a Performance. A performance can take on three attitudes: Layered, whereby all patches are stacked up on top of one another for a super-rich sound; Zoned, where each patch is only played by a specified range of keys; and Single, whereby the various patches (and rhythm) are given specific MIDI numbers, and can then be played multitimbrally by a MIDI sequencer or one at a time from the keyboard.




There are really two modes for editing. You can select a Patch or Performance and execute fairly fundamental changes using the Edit Palette (see the Data Entry block). If you were editing a Patch, this would give basic control over the Waveform, Pitch, Pan, Level, and Filtering. At this point, the display shows corresponding values for all four Tones, which makes it easy to set them up in relation to one another. Simple Performance editing facilitates similar control, but with Patches rather than Tones.

More detailed editing comes into play when you select Edit and hit the Function buttons. Now you can really get to grips with the sound, with access to every last parameter. The Edit Palette controls are still used for this, but parameters to be edited are selected using the Function keys. It sounds complicated, but it isn't. Perhaps Roland could have centred the editing around just one set of controls, rather than splitting things between the Edit Palette and the Function keys, but in doing so they might have destroyed the simple editing option, which is extremely useful for tinkering with existing sounds.

The JV90, unless it is expanded, has just a single stereo output. There are another two output sockets, but they just don't work unless you've got the expansion board fitted -- highly frustrating.




The JV50, owing a lot to the existing JV30, is a JV35 with a Standard MIDI File (SMF) player built in. Both 50 and 35 are General MIDI compatible and conform to Roland's own GS format. They are primarily designed as sound resource banks with limited editing facilities. In addition they are particularly suited to live performance.

For simplicity I'll continue for the moment by referring to the JV50 only. This instrument is a fair bit smaller in size than the JV90, and is totally different in concept, if not technology. It features a 5-octave, C-C, velocity sensitive keyboard, no aftertouch, and just the Bender performance control. The backlit LCD is also considerably smaller, though the demands on this display are obviously less.




The JV50 provides 24 voices and is 16-part multitimbral. It has 226 preset Tones, 256 User programmable Patches, nine Preset Drum Sets and nine user-programmable Drum Sets, as well as eight Performance Memories.

Let's start by looking at the 226 Preset Tones. These break down, in true Roland GS style, into Capital Tones and Variation Tones. The 128 Capital Tones are sub-divided into 16 Tone Groups, such as piano, organ, brass, SFX. There are eight Tones in each Tone Group.

The Variation Tones have essentially the same character as the Capital Tones, but offer different nuances. Some Capital Tones have no corresponding Variation Tone, others may have four or five. You can edit the existing Preset Tones using the JV50's Edit Palette, and store the new sounds in any one of 256 memory locations. These edited tones are known as User Tones.
Roland have been extremely clever with the JV50's Edit Palette, which consists of just three sliders and a few buttons, but provides effortless control over Filter Cut-off and Resonance, an ADR envelope that is applied to both TVF and TVA, and over the Vibrato, Rate Depth and Delay. It doesn't sound like much, but you can do a hell of a lot with just these few parameters. Brilliant.

The Effects section, like that of the JV90, doesn't go over the top, but provides Chorus level and type options as well as Reverb level and a choice of three Reverbs and two Delays. Eight user-programmable performance locations are available for storing 16 Presets/User Tones/Drums, all performance information -- such as key splits, transpose, portamento -- and the settings of the effects section.

In essence then, the JV35/50 is a basic GS sound generator, with the addition of a clever editing facility so that a very wide range of sound structures can be created and stored for future use. It's very fast and easy to use, and it's fun too, since you get what you want instantly.




As I stated at the beginning, we've not seen heaven and earth move with these new offerings from Roland, just an ongoing development of the JV program.

The concept of producing an expandable system is a very good one. There's nothing new in buying new sounds to expand your synthesizer's sonic armoury, but the idea of being able to add more voices and increase multitimbrality at a later date is extremely useful. However, Roland's claim that the expandability feature will reduce the chances of the instrument becoming obsolete -- "Because the JV90 is so expandable it will be a synthesizer you can depend on for years to come" -- has to be considered more carefully.

Most people buy a synthesizer for what it can offer them here and now. The only longer term worry a prospective purchaser has is whether in six months from now he'll be able to get something more powerful at half the price. Roland's own philosophy was stated by Ikutaro Kakehashi: "No one synthesis method can produce all the possible sounds. Each method has its own strengths and weaknesses." This would also tend to suggest that no one synthesizer can continue to be all things to all men.

I feel, however, that the expandability aspect is at present a little bit compromised. Having to unscrew panels on the base plate is not really what the musician/consumer wants to do. Obviously it would be far better if you could just plug the expansion cards into a recess in the rear panel, as if they were PCM cards. I understand that Roland probably have technical reasons for having to fit these cards as they do, but what if you want to use two or more Wave expansion cards together? You can't. What if you want to switch from the Orchestral to the Piano wave expansion board? You have to get out the screwdriver.

The Voice Expansion System is a different matter. If you buy an additional 28 voices you're unlikely to want to put them in and take them out all the time, or to swap between the GS and JV expansion cards, so you'll fit the card and leave it, which is fine. I guess that Roland will continue to work at the various options available.

I particularly like the JV35 and JV50. They have a wide collection of good sounds, although generally they are a tad weaker than those of the JV90. Their great strength is the quick, basic editing Roland have provided to enable the musician to tailor the sound to his own requirements without the risk of getting totally lost in the edit. The JV50's MIDI File Player has got to be a must for anyone using sequences live, and the other possible applications that this opens up (education, practising, notepad storage) further enhance its appeal. You can even use the JV50's floppy drive to store bulk data from the sound generator, or use it to store MIDI data from external devices to disk.

There is no doubt that the JV90 has a great array of really knockout sounds. The 18-bit D/As provide a crisp, clear and noise-free sound that really does cut the mustard. With just the basic machine, you've a really powerful instrument that is well suited for both live and desktop recording work. But when fully stuffed it potentially delivers 56-voice polyphony, 24 multitimbral parts and incorporates up to 18Mbytes of Wave Memory. It reads impressive and it sounds impressive.

The Factory Patches are well arranged, and cover virtually every base. There's no one sound that leaps out at you, shouts out at you, and knocks you down with a feather, but there is a wealth of well-constructed, interesting and usable sounds that can be used in a wide variety of applications, from corporate videos to dance tracks. When you consider that a fully stuffed JV90 with additional wave and voice expansion, a memory card and a couple of sound cards could cost you over £2,000, you might feel that it's a little on the expensive side. But the base instrument at £1375 does offer good value for money and it definitely won't disappoint you when you get it home. If you get that publishing deal, you can always "expand" at a later date...

Published in SOS March 1994

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