I'm always surprised when I'm reminded that Roland actually have an Italian manufacturing base; this is the source for the company's line of home keyboard style auto-accompaniment keyboards, which take Roland technology and give it a friendly front end. It's this factory that brings us Roland's latest 16-bit sampler, the JS30, a large and chunky desktop unit that just invites you to play with it -- a 'keyboard', made up of 12 large pads, dominates the middle of the unit (along with a large, four-character LED display), so you can use the sampler independently of a normal MIDI keyboard. The keywords for the JS30 seem to be simplicity and immediacy -- having noted the popularity of their W30 sampling workstation with DJs, Roland seem to be addressing the DJ market once more, though the JS30 is equally suited to less-demanding studio sampling uses.
In addition to the 'keyboard' mentioned above, the JS30 sports a collection of buttons in various shades of grey: sample recording, editing and playback parameters are accessed by a collection of buttons in the upper left-hand corner, and an alpha dial and data-entry buttons to the right of the display. Between the display and the keyboard pads is a strip of buttons for controlling the on-board sequencer, a basic device, which, like that on the MS1 (reviewed SOS March 1995), simply records your pad presses in real time and plays them back in the right order.
My first surprise when I started to examine the JS30 was the discovery that the basic machine samples at 8-bit resolution, somewhat unusual in 1995. However, worry not -- an easy to install 4Mb upgrade not only doubles your sampling time, but brings the JS30 up to full 16-bit operation. (Sampling time with the standard unexpanded 1Mb allocation of RAM is a total of 22.5 seconds at 44.1kHz and 45 seconds at 22.05kHz, by the way, with the user RAM split however you like across two banks, with 12 sample locations each). The second surprise is that the JS30 is supplied with a factory selection of 36 loop and hit samples, in ROM. These are OK as far as they go, but given their dance/techno bias, the samples could tend to date the machine in a year or two -- and isn't the whole point of having a sampler that it allows you to get hold of original material?
As mentioned, it's fairly obvious that the JS30 has been designed for real-time DJ applications, and it's also perfect for general live use and grabbing quick samples in the studio. To this end, the input is on stereo phonos, for connecting a cassette deck or a CD player (although there is no RIAA input for connecting a turntable), with an output that sends the stereo signal through the instrument. There is also a mic input, with sensitivity and EQ controls. There's even a fader on the front panel for switching between the input signal and the JS30's samples. Note that, despite the stereo connections, the JS30 is strictly a mono sampler, as evidenced by the single LED bar graph input level meter, next to the main display.
Other DJ-friendly features include an Input/JS30 fader, a cue facility that allows you to check out a sample in your headphones before sending it to the main output, and a 'scratch' facility over MIDI (although the manual is remarkably quiet on exploiting this). Another good point for live use is that the User RAM can be split into two banks, and one bank can be loaded while one is being played. A Hold button to the right of the keyboard plays a sample endlessly without you having to hold the button, and a 13th pad in the 'keyboard' array (labelled Mute) lets you mute sections of a sample without actually having to stop it from playing.
The JS30 operates in one of three basic modes, and has the buttons to prove it: Play, Record and Edit. A little careful thought should tell you that Record puts you into sampling mode, Edit lets you access sample editing functions, and the button labelled Play covers playback functions.
Sampling is simple: press the Record button (next to the central display panel), and all available (or remaining) sample time is automatically assigned to the first or next available pad/sample location. Check your level, making sure the level meter doesn't stay in the red too long, and press the large Sampling button (lower right) to sample. Press again to stop. Your sample is looped automatically, and is ready to go. Carry on like this until you run out of RAM.
Although you soon get the hang of getting good looped samples on the fly, you will often not get it quite right, so fortunately samples can be easily truncated and re-looped afterwards to suit your needs. Each sample can also be given a basic ADSR envelope, retuned, assigned its own MIDI channel and high and low note limits. About the only thing you can't do is reverse a sample, which is a shame.
Editing can be rather fiddly. Several Play or Edit functions require double button pushes and are momentary -- the buttons must remain depressed while you alter a value, which isn't comfortable. However, I discovered that if you press the sequencer's Play button when you select a parameter, it's locked, so you can change the parameter with one hand. This is useful when choosing loop points and sample start and end points on the fly. The keyboard pads can also double as a numeric keypad for entering parameter values.
You may well have noticed the studious avoidance of the words 'disk drive' or 'storage' so far. There's a reason: the JS30 doesn't have a disk drive. The pocket-sized MS1 sampler (see review in March 1995 SOS) was similarly drive-less, but had Flash RAM and the option to use Flash RAM cards. Not so the JS30: you lose everything when you power down. The options for external storage are as follows:
Dump the memory contents over MIDI; this takes ages, and you need a large amount of memory to hold the resulting dump.
You won't believe this, but you can save the JS30's memory to tape -- this is a most bizarre option for a hi-tech product of the late 20th century.
Buy a hard disk or an optical drive; the JS30 thankfully implements a SCSI port as standard equipment. Note that the largest disk accessible by the JS30 is 600Mb.
To give it its due, the tape saving option appears to be quite robust, if time-consuming. It's certainly not the hit-and-miss procedure often encountered with pre-MIDI equipment, such as Roland's MC202 sequencer or Yamaha's CS40M synth, for example. Note that the SCSI option also allows you to load in samples from CD-ROMs meant for the Akai range of samplers.
What the JS30's spacious front panel and layout mean is that Roland have produced one of the most approachable and easy to use samplers on the market. Although complete beginners may still be baffled, getting familiar with the manual and prodding a few buttons should get you through.
There is much that is admirable about the JS30, but much that defies description. Its manual is not the best I've come across (being a quadrilingual effort, with text placed side-by-side across a double page spread rather than segregated into logical linguistic sections -- and having no index), factory preset samples are anathema to me, and I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone this far into the 20th century would include a tape back-up system on a sampler. This lack of a disk drive was my biggest disappointment with the JS30, although the inclusion of a SCSI socket goes some way to countering this. I also found the LED display to be a little inscrutable; however, although a traditional liquid crystal display would probably have been more informative, it would not be very visible on stage.
Sound quality is good -- in 16-bit mode, carefully recorded samples can be subjectively indistinguishable from the input source, bar a lack of stereo. I recommend that you bang in the extra 4Mb and go 16-bit as soon as funds allow; the extra three 1Mb SIMMs (80 nanoseconds or faster) should only cost about £150, but try and negotiate with your friendly hi-tech retailer. The basic 8-bit machine loses a little in the high frequency department and gains some noise. Actually, I found noise to be a problem even in 16-bit mode; the output is a little hissy on both the main and headphone outputs.
As an easy to use, on-the-fly live sampler, the JS30 hits its target dead centre: DJs will love it, although those completely new to technology should still be prepared for a short acclimatisation period. At the other end of the spectrum, studio musicians who want fast and friendly access to sampling -- for grabbing loops and effects, spinning in backing vocals and so on -- will also be interested.
Though the JS30's non-time-referenced sequencer is about as basic as it could be, it still provides a surprisingly effective and intuitive way to build up a finished piece. The sequencer has four tracks, and polyphony is limited to eight voices at once. One neat feature is being able to assign a sequence of key presses to just one of the keyboard pads; up to four sequences can be so assigned to one pad each.
As a scratchpad, the sequencer is great. In fact, I foresee hit records being created with its assistance -- only the monophonic output of samples gets in the way of this goal. And of course, it's possible to use the JS30 with an external sequencer; each sample can be given its own keyboard zone, MIDI channel and pitch-bend value. Advanced uses include a feature called 'Synchro Sampling'. When used with an external MIDI sequencer, the JS30 can record a sequence track that, on playback, will tell it when to start and stop sampling. This can happen as many times as you like, until you run out of sample RAM. It's a great way to record vocals, although there may not be quite enough RAM for really long songs. It's almost like adding one track of digital audio to your sequencer.
Easy to use.
Built-in basic sequencer.
Long basic sample time.
Akai CD-ROM compatibility.
No disk drive.
Memory not backed up.
Some operational aspects a bit fiddly.
Mono sampling only.
16-bit sampling only available if you buy the memory upgrade.
A good, if slightly expensive, machine, ideal for live or DJ use.
If you can't use a JS30, you don't deserve a sampler.
£ JS30 £899 inc VAT.
A Roland (UK) Ltd, Atlantic Close, Swansea Enterprise Park, Swansea, West Glamorgan, SA7 9FJ.
T 01792 702701.
F 01792 310248.