As Roland revisit the Juno name once again, we look at whether their latest offering is a serious contender, or merely a bantamweight Fantom.
With the continuing popularity of computer-based digital audio workstations, I always welcome evidence that their hardware equivalents are not extinct. The latest example is Roland's Juno G, styled rather like a Juno 106 — but that's where the similarities begin and end. If you recall, the previous Juno, the Juno D, was related to the RS range of keyboards; the newest Juno is actually a cut-down Fantom X. Confused? Don't be. Roland have decreed that the name Juno is interchangeable with 'affordable', and as I referred to this previously in the Juno D review, let's leave it at that and get down to business.
The Juno G's amber display casts a warm glow over proceedings; it may not be as clear or informative as the colour screen of the Fantom X, but it's perfectly serviceable. On either side of the display are two small mirrors, perhaps to check your mascara or pupil dilation. Either way, it's not a feature you encounter every day.
A quick glance shows there aren't too many controls to play with; four multi-purpose knobs provide basic envelope and LFO tweaking, along with knobs devoted to filter cutoff and resonance. The multi-purpose knobs are intelligently employed within various edit menus, reducing the need to tab around and use the alpha dial, whilst five silver-topped sliders are reserved exclusively for audio functionality, one for each (stereo) track level plus one for input level.
If knobs and sliders are in short supply, there's no shortage of dedicated buttons — for mode selection, edit functions, sequencer transport control and more. Many of these are somewhat wobbly, so I was glad that a different type (closer in style to those of Roland's JD800) was chosen for category selection and menu-related soft keys; positioned beneath the display, these are far more substantial.
The keyboard felt slightly smaller than usual but when I popped out my tape measure, it proved to be, over the five-octave range, a mere centimeter shorter than those of my other synths. So perhaps I'm unusually sensitive — contrary to everything my wife says — or just plain picky. However, with a light action and no aftertouch, I can't say this is a synth I'd reach for as my main controller — but at least there is a D-Beam and Roland's standard stick bender to offer a degree of expression.
Further expression can be applied by utilising the rear-panel's control pedal inputs. Also at the rear are the stereo outputs, plus two assignable outputs, a headphone socket, stereo audio inputs (the left input being selectable as a microphone input), and the MIDI In and Out ports. In line with the current 'Juno' concept, there's no MIDI Thru or digital I/O, and an external adaptor supplies power.
The card slot is similar to that of previous instruments such as the V-Synth. With this, the Juno G can accept Smartmedia or Compact Flash cards when mounted into a suitable adaptor (it's a standard PCMCIA slot, as found in laptops). If you require further connectivity, a USB port is provided for data transfer and MIDI over USB.
The Live Setting mode is something we encountered on the Fantom series, and it's designed to make life easier on stage or even in the studio. Think of it as a means of gathing together patches, performances, songs or rhythm sets (drum kits) for instant selection regardless of the mode you're currently in. As there are only six buttons under the display, the shift key is brought into use to access the full 12 entries that comprise a bank.
It's your choice how to make use of Live Setting: it could be handy to store your songs as backing tracks for a live set, or simply as a quick way to retrieve particular patches and performances. There are 20 Live Setting banks in total.
Roland's form of sample-based synthesis must be well known to SOS readers by now, so I won't dwell too long on it here. A patch consists of up to four 'tones', each of which has its own filter, envelopes, LFOs and waveform selection. The more tones you use, the more polyphony is consumed. Even before you add any samples of your own, there are 1267 waves in the 64MB of wave memory — which should be an ample starting point for creating your own sounds. If you need more, you can add one of Roland's SRX series of expansion boards.
A good place to start sonic exploration is with the multitude of patches and performances. Actually, this could take days, as there are a total of 768 preset patches arranged in banks A-F, plus a further 256 GM2 patches, 45 rhythm sets (drum kits) and 64 preset performances. It isn't all preset, though (thank goodness); there are 256 user patches, 36 user rhythm sets and 64 user performances.
After losing yourself in pads, pianos and piccolos, you'll be glad to know there are several ways to quickly locate the patch you want; the most obvious is by category, using the clearly labelled buttons. Or, by hitting Enter from within patch mode, take the 'FAVRIT' soft-key menu option. With this you can register, and later retrieve, up to 64 patches as favourites. This method is handy given the large number of preset banks, some of which you may only wade through once in a blue moon.
Generally, the Juno G sounds great and is brimming with solid examples of bread-and-butter sounds, plus a fair stab at most genres — exactly as you'd expect from a workstation. Roland may have cut costs elsewhere to produce this, their budget Fantom X, but the Juno's sound engine delivers with no sign of compromise.
When you wish to make your own sounds, or tweak those supplied, patch editing can be accomplished on several levels. At the most basic, you just fiddle with the sound modification knobs. To go a little deeper enter Patch Edit, where you'll find a selection of simplified menus. Finally, to access each and every parameter, a Pro Edit soft key is offered. Everything is arranged logically; my only niggles were the performance of the cutoff knob, which was a little steppy, and the resonance, which became a menacing digital howl at high levels.
For multitimbral use, turn to Performance Mode where up to 16 patches may be layered, split, or assigned to individual MIDI channels. Even with 128 notes of polyphony you can run out of voices, so Roland kindly provide voice reserve and priority modes to determine the notes that will be dropped if polyphony limits are exceeded.
A dedicated Part Mixer button brings up, within the limitations of the Juno's screen, a representation of each multitimbral part's level and pan, plus effects sends, output routing and so on. A small graphical box, its position adjustable with the cursor keys, encloses four parameters that can be controlled with the sound modify knobs.
The Juno G is supplied with a mere 4MB of RAM, corresponding to just over 23 seconds of stereo recording. Memory is cheap these days, and to get the most out of this baby, I advise going the whole hog and popping in an additional 512MB DIMM. Do this and an exciting world of long samples or generous audio recording time (approximately 51 minutes, stereo) opens up.
Sample memory is shared between the sequencer's audio tracks and imported samples, so you'll have to decide how best to juggle it, plus the lack of multisampling means it's not the ideal solution for instrumental-type samples. But with 2000 user sample locations and 7000 card locations, the Juno G can be your safety deposity box of drum loops, voice samples, sound effects or even sliced-up chunks of ready-mixed tunes.
With no internal hard disk, audio resides either in the 16MB of flash RAM (which is separate to the sample RAM) or in a card placed in the card slot. As up to 1GB can be accessed via this slot, that is where I suspect the bulk of user audio and samples will be housed. Samples may be automatically loaded into RAM at boot-up time and the Juno remembers whether they are sourced from flash or from the card. Sadly, I didn't have the memory expansion fitted so was unable to do extensive audio recording or to check how long it would take to boot at maximum capacity.
The onboard sequencer ably demonstrates Roland's long experience in this field. It features the expected 16 tracks of MIDI plus the not-so-expected four stereo audio tracks. MIDI sequencing, whether in real or step time, is fast and intuitive, and with a resolution of 480ppqn and capacity of 400,000 notes, it should be able to cope with the majority of applications.
Despite an innocent exterior, the sequencer boasts several high-end features such as groove quantise, MIDI Time Code (MTC) and MIDI Machine Control (MMC). MTC and MMC are essential should you wish to synchronise with a computer workstation or one of Roland's VS series of hard disk recorders. For ease of navigation, markers are included, assignable to any position in the song. You can also set a loop point and then loop a section of the song for as long as you need, switching it off when you're ready to move on (or the audience insist on it).
I was most impressed to see audio recording present, especially when I realised how straightforward its implementation is. First choose your source, either stereo, mono or microphone; usefully, at this point you can apply various input effects such as EQ, enhancement, compression and so on. After pressing the Record button, you get the option to record Solo — meaning the synth's sound generator plays as normal and the audio recorded is that received at the audio inputs. Or there's Re-sampling, which lets you record the Juno G's output merged with any audio currently being received. Lastly, you can choose Audio Merge, which is a means of merging multiple audio tracks into one, perhaps to free up some tracks, or when you are mixing down your song ready for copying over to your PC or Mac.
After recording, there are numerous ways to edit your audio using onboard facilities such as Timestretch or Chop, the latter being a simple way to divide a sample into separate events. An 'auto' function will even do it for you, based on tempo or peak volume levels. When extracting drum notes you'll find yourself regularly turning to the Create Rhythm function, which maps the chopped results over a range of notes on the keyboard. It's scarily easy to build a unique drum kit by plucking chunks from an audio loop — or even a snippet of speech; the choices are endless! And if you need more sophisticated sample editing, you can always export to your computer via the USB port.
Interestingly, you can alter the tempo of your song post-recording — even if audio tracks are present. The Juno G does this by time-stretching the audio, although it has to be said that altering the tempo by more than a few bpm can produce something best described as 'experimental', rather than being sonically transparent. Of course, nothing is for free, and using audio tracks eats into the 128 notes of polyphony — as does time-stretching.
Using the onboard mixer you can add effects to each track of your song, up to the limitation of three multi-effects, reverb and chorus. Audio tracks can be processed in exactly the same way.
It isn't marketed as such, but the Juno G has many of the attributes of a sampler. It can use recorded audio as a waveform source to be played back within a regular patch, processed by filters, effects and LFOs. The main weaknesses, when compared to traditional samplers, are in the lack of any multisample capability and its looping, which is rather basic. In fact there are just a couple of simple loop modes (forward and reverse) and no crossfade looping. And as with members of the Fantom series, the loop points of imported waves are ignored. Unlike the Fantom X and Fantom SR, the Juno G cannot import from Roland's own S700 series sample library.
In Patch Mode, you get one multi-effects processor plus reverb and chorus, whilst in Performance Mode there's an additional two multi-effect processors added to the equation. Sure, this isn't an effect for every part, but it isn't bad — and is certainly a workable compromise at the price point.
There are 78 effect types to choose from and some are jolly interesting. I particularly relished the various time-stepped effects such as filters, ring modulator and pitch shifters. There are RSS effects too (Roland Sound Space 3D), a superb set of delays, composite effects such as overdrive with delay and many more. In Performance Mode, the three multi-effects are routable in practically any configuration and many effect parameters are available for MIDI control.
Finally, a simple three-band compressor serves as a mastering effect for your finished songs.
It's not all workstation and play; inspired by the Fantom, the Juno G offers a few nifty performance tools such as Chord Memory, the D-Beam, the arpeggiator and rhythm groups. Chord memory is a means of storing and retrieving 64 user and 64 preset chords; it has a 'rolled chord' mode which can simulate, amongst other things, a strumming effect. With the roll function active, you control the speed by which you zip through the notes by how hard you hit a key.
The D-Beam is a single beam capable of being a Theremin-like solo synthesizer or acting as an assignable performance controller. The arpeggiator is versatile but never overly complex, and with 128 preset and 128 user arpeggiator patterns, you should not get bored with it any time soon.
My favourite performance tool deserves a little more explanation. Push the button marked Rhythm Pattern and those multi-purpose buttons beneath the display serve as triggers to kick off MIDI drum loops. It's like having a mini drum machine thrown in! You start a loop by pressing its button, press another to select a new one and stop loop playback by pressing the same button again. During playback you can change the drum kit or select a new bank of six patterns from amongst 32 preset and 32 user rhythm groups.
Each of these patterns may be up to 32 steps in length and can feature up to 16 percussion voices at once. It's easy to create your own, either by starting with one of the factory presets (most of which are delightfully uncluttered) or by starting from scratch using a traditional pattern-edit grid. Having made something you like, you can audition different kits until you find the one you want to associate with it, finally storing it for easy retrieval. With 256 preset patterns and space for up to 256 user patterns, this is a feature that should be filed under 'very useful'.
The Juno G has two USB modes: MIDI and Storage. To enable the MIDI mode, the driver on the supplied CD must be installed; it then provides MIDI In and Out to your computer without need of an interface (the standard MIDI In port is disabled).
The Juno's storage mode is a means of mounting either the synth's internal flash memory or the card memory as a removeable drive on your PC or Mac. After formatting a memory card on the Juno, you must place any Wave or AIFF files you wish to use in a specific folder. You must always import samples before they can be played, then resave them again, either to internal flash memory or to card. A barely documented consequence of the requirement to resave is that the Juno G creates a bare-bones patch for every sample you write. These patches are found in the USAM (User Samples) or CSAM (Card Samples) memory areas, and offer a quick means of creating patches based on your samples. You can edit USAM and CSAM patches as normal, but can only save them to standard user or card memory locations.
Please don't make the mistake I did and try to set the USB mode via the System/USB menu. Athough it appears to work from there, in reality only MIDI mode switching actually does, not Storage mode. So always use the menu accessed via the dedicated USB button. The manual warns about switching modes without first performing elaborate safeguards; it also advises that you should not pull out the USB cable until you power off and that you should never shut down before deselecting USB Storage mode. I must confess I'd been doing exactly those things without noticeable problems before I ran across that section in the manual. Ignorance is, indeed, bliss.
Explore the CD further and you will discover editor and librarian applications developed especially for the Juno G. The editor offers a clear, graphical view of all aspects of patch and performance editing and even basic sample tweaking. The Juno's display does its job well enough, but if you insist on a full patch overview there's no substitute for a computer screen. The program resembles that previously made available for the Fantom X and XR (reviewed in the August 2005 issue of SOS).
A second CD is also bundled in, containing Sonar LE — should you wish to combine your hardware workstation with a software one.
OK, I'll come clean and admit I never elbowed my way to the front of the reviewers' queue pleading 'me, me, me!' for this one. Yet, despite being another spin-off product, the Juno G was actually a pleasant surprise, only yielding the full extent of its riches after careful exploration. In the weeks it's been here, I've frequently turned to its effective sound set and built-in rhythm patterns — the latter a useful ideas generator when used in conjunction with the arpeggiator and chord memory functions.
Apart from its keyboard action, the Juno G offers everything I'd personally look for in a workstation, and it's practically a sampler too — lacking just a few vital extras (such as multisampling and crossfade looping) to get a tick in that box. Roland have chosen well: sufficient polyphony, a useable sequencer (special thumbs up for its audio tracks), sample import and USB connectivity, plus classy effects implementation and a few knobs and sliders to boot. Add a half GB DIMM and the wave expansion board of your choice to get a very powerful package at an attractive price.