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Roland Alpha Juno 1 & 2

Synthesizers (Retro) By Gordon Reid
Published October 1998

Roland Alpha Juno 1.Roland Alpha Juno 1.

Prepare to shed a tear in another near‑miss tale of a desirable analogue synth swept aside by the rise of digital technology.

The Alpha Juno's earliest ancestor was Roland's first true polyphonic synthesizer, the Jupiter 4. Launched in 1978, this was a contemporary of Sequential Circuits' Prophet 5, the Oberheim OBX, the Yamaha CS80, and the Korg PS‑series. Unfortunately, it was no match for any of them. For one thing, it had just one oscillator per voice, and offered only four‑note polyphony played from a four‑octave keyboard equipped with neither velocity‑ nor aftertouch‑sensitivity. While its chorus/ensemble, sample & hold, unison and arpeggiator were first class, these could not disguise its limitations, which ensured that most of its sounds were thin and uninspiring.

On the other hand, the little Roland was affordable. OK, £1,800 was far from chicken feed in the late '70s, but the Jupiter 4 undercut each of its competitors by around 50 percent. Consequently, the list of its owners became a 'Who's Who?' of the era, including Kitaro, Gary Numan, Tangerine Dream, Stevie Wonder, Tomita and, perhaps most famously, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran.

Ultimately, the Jupiter 4's home‑organ styling and sonic underachievement guaranteed that it would never become a classic. That accolade was reserved for the Jupiter 8 — a top‑of‑the‑range instrument with a price tag to match. Unfortunately, the launch of the Jupiter 8 also represented Roland's disappearance from the affordable end of the market. So it was arch‑rival Korg that smashed the £1,000 price barrier with the landmark PolySix. The first 'Everyman's' polysynth, the PolySix used the same SSM oscillator chips as early Sequential Circuits instruments, and also copied their sleek good looks. It was no wonder that it quickly became known as the 'poor man's Prophet'.

Korg probably believed the synthesizer world was at their feet. But it wasn't to be. With a stroke of marketing genius, Roland announced that its next instrument would be a digital synth that would cost less than £1,000. To understand why this was such a coup, you must remember that, in 1981, the keyboard world was besotted with unaffordable digital technologies. Instruments such as the Fairlight CMI and Synclavier II promised almost unlimited sonic creativity, but cost more than the houses in which most musicians lived. So everybody held their breath and waited to see what Roland was planning. The answer was the Juno 6.

When it arrived in 1982, the Juno looked a sure‑fire winner. It was sleek and professional, and its beautifully arranged control panel echoed Roland's flagship Jupiter 8, rather than 'knobbier' synths such as the PolySix. It was six‑note polyphonic, sported a high‑quality keyboard, had well‑placed performance controls and a powerful arpeggiator. It also incorporated Roland's now‑classic (if somewhat noisy) chorus ensemble. At just £699, it was also excellent value. Roland had hit the bull's‑eye.

As we now know, the Juno wasn't a digital instrument at all. It was the first of a breed of hybrid synths that replaced the older voltage controlled oscillators (VCOs) with new, stable, Digitally Controlled Oscillators (DCOs). Despite having the word 'digital' in their name, these retained a traditional analogue synth's ability to create thick sounds, principally by allowing you to use a combination of sawtooth, pulse‑width modulated, and sub‑oscillator waveforms simultaneously.

There were limitations, though. For example, the Juno's filters lacked the powerful 24dB/octave response of the PolySix's filters, while its VCF and VCA shared a single ADSR envelope generator. Nevertheless, it sounded superb. The only thing that it lacked was memories.

Less than a year later came the Juno 60, an instrument in most ways identical to its predecessor. There were a couple of minor changes, such as the shift from a continuously variable High Pass Filter to one with just four possible values. More important was the addition of DCB, a pre‑MIDI interface that allowed Juno 60s, later Jupiter 8s, and Roland sequencers to communicate with each other. But the biggest change, and the one that justified the extra £300 Roland charged for their new baby, was the addition of 56 patch memories. The Juno had come of age.

MIDI Cometh

Unfortunately, 1983 was also the year that Roland, Sequential and Yamaha launched the world's first MIDI synths. Roland's own JX3P and, in particular, the all‑conquering Yamaha DX7, appeared to consign the Juno to the trash can of yesterday's heroes. So Roland responded yet again with the Juno 106, a sleek redesign that looks as attractive in 1998 as it did when it first appeared in 1984.

The Alpha Junos' immediate predecessor, the hugely successful Juno 106, introduced MIDI into the range.The Alpha Junos' immediate predecessor, the hugely successful Juno 106, introduced MIDI into the range.

The 106 was significantly different to its older brethren. First, it offered a remarkably advanced MIDI implementation that allowed you to record notes, performance information, and control panel changes, making it possible to sequence the programming controls themselves. Second, the number of patches leapt from 56 to 128. And there was also the introduction of Roland's now‑standard left/right/push performance lever for pitch‑bend and modulation. Not everything in the garden was rosy though. The 106 lost the 60's arpeggiator and one or two minor programming capabilities, but Roland had again hit the jackpot. At just £799, the Juno 106 quickly became Roland's most successful product, and remains one of the best‑selling synths of all time.

In 1985, Roland had two more rabbits to pull out of the Juno's hat. The first was the HS60 'Synth Plus' — a Juno 106 with built‑in stereo speakers. Never a success, this suffered from its similarity to a home keyboard, although it was in every other way an unmodified Juno 106. Finally, there was Roland's first multitimbral expander, the MKS7 Super Quartet, which combined a velocity‑sensitive, seven‑voice bass/poly/lead synth (based on the Juno 106 engine), with the drum sounds of a Roland TR707. At less than £500, the MKS7 might have been the bargain of the decade except for one failing: you couldn't edit and store sounds, even with a computer.

Enter The Alphas

By this time, Yamaha had consolidated its world domination with a huge range of FM‑based synthesizers and modules. Partly because of this, Moog had gone out of business, while Sequential and Oberheim were well on the way to doing so. By contrast, Roland had not only survived, but had managed to prosper by concentrating on producing cheaper, yet desirable, analogue synths. But it was time for a change!

In the winter of 1985, Roland announced two new Junos. These were the four‑octave JU1 (Alpha Juno 1) and the five‑octave JU2 (Alpha Juno 2). These offered many improvements over the original instruments, with several new programming capabilities, backlit screens and, on the JU2, a velocity‑ and aftertouch‑sensitive keyboard. The JU2 even offered a cartridge slot for storing patches. At just £575 and £799 respectively, it appeared that Roland had again hit the mark.

Strangely, the world appeared unmoved, and the Alphas made very little impact. Why? It couldn't have been a reflection upon their quality, because their excellent construction would have graced synths costing much more. Nor could it have been a reaction to a lack of facilities. Although Italian manufacturers Crumar and Siel had already produced cheap touch‑sensitive synths, the Rolands had far better MIDI specifications, more voicing capabilities, a slick keyboard action, and better programming systems. Nor should it have been a consequence of the Junos' cosmetics because, with the exception of Roland's so‑called 'alpha dial' (which replaced the up/down buttons found on most other synths), their top panels imitated the all‑conquering Yamahas. The Alpha Junos even allowed you to connect the optional PG300 programmer, making every parameter instantly accessible and editable with a dedicated slider or switch. OK, so this added £200 to the price, but a quick glance through the adverts of the time shows that a fully featured 'knob‑laden' polyphonic costing less than £1,000 was still something of a bargain in 1986.

So what was the problem? Maybe it was something to do with the voice structure itself? The Alpha Junos' voices were very different to those of the Juno 6, 60 and 106. For example, their DCOs were much more sophisticated than those found on any other Roland, including the top‑of‑the‑range JX8P and Super JX10. They offered 14 basic waveforms including pulse‑width modulation of both the pulse waves and sawtooth, and six sub‑oscillators: four that were pitched one octave down, two that were two octaves down. Many of these additional waveforms were harmonically complex, and they made it possible to create timbres that sounded more 'digital' than ever before. But along with that, the Alphas retained the original Junos' ability to mix a pulse‑wave, a sawtooth and a sub‑oscillator for lush analogue‑style sounds.

The Alphas also retained traditional analogue VCFs. The problem was that these were unable to self‑oscillate, so several traditional Juno sounds became impossible, particularly those that used the filter as a second oscillator. All right, so the Alphas' filters tracked the keyboard and nearly oscillated, so you could create aggressive sounds by adding noise to the sound and tuning the filter to the keyboard's pitch, but it wasn't the same. On the other hand, no previous Juno had a velocity‑ or aftertouch‑sensitive filter. You lost some, but you definitely gained some.

The Alphas' new envelope generator sported seven parameters rather than four, and the additional controls added a huge range of new sonic possibilities. Other additions included a fully variable chorus (which was more flexible but less rich than that on the original Junos), a chord memory function, and four useful tone modification buttons that allowed you to adjust the modulation rate, modulation depth, brightness, and envelope times of a sound without entering the full editing system. There were also three sockets for performance pedals. The first of these was a straightforward sustain pedal. The second offered three functions: polyphonic portamento on/off, chord memory on/off, and the ability to step through eight of the patches in a selected bank. Finally, an expression pedal allowed you to control the overall volume of the synth (but not, as other commentators have suggested, parameters such as modulation depth or pressure sensitivity).

It all added up to an excellent package of performance features, especially when you consider that even the JU1 (which lacked touch‑sensitivity when played from its own keyboard) could be played across eight octaves and responded to velocity and aftertouch over MIDI.

The optional PG300 programmer gave every editable parameter on the Alpha Juno a dedicated slider or switch.The optional PG300 programmer gave every editable parameter on the Alpha Juno a dedicated slider or switch.

What's The Catch?

So maybe it was their sounds that let the Alphas down? Well no, I don't think so. Both instruments incorporated two patch banks, called Preset and Memory. The 64 Presets (stored in eight sub‑banks of eight related sounds) were, as their name implies, held in ROM and therefore inviolate. In contrast, the 64 patches in Memory were held in RAM, so you could edit and replace these at will. Both banks included excellent orchestral and string patches (always a Roland speciality), punchy brass ensembles, and several luscious synth pads. There were also some remarkably usable lead‑synth patches, surprisingly good organ impersonations, and some very fat basses. (This should not be too surprising, as the SH101 was, in essence, a monophonic Juno 6.)

Furthermore, the Alphas produced a range of bright, percussive and FM‑esque sounds quite unobtainable from their predecessors. Of course, they were still restricted by their single oscillator per voice, but this was not as significant a limitation as you might expect. Played through a reasonable effects unit such as an Alesis Quadraverb, the results could be very impressive indeed.

Roland even packaged their new Juno architecture in five different ways in order to address at least three different markets. Like the HS60 and Juno 106 before them, the functionally identical HS10 echoed the JU1 (as the HS80 did the JU2) with the addition of built‑in amplifiers and speakers. There was also the MKS50 rackmount module, which boasted 128 RAM patches, 128 performances (which incorporated a patch and its associated performance data), and a further improved MIDI specification. At just £550, even this didn't sell in large quantities. Some writers have speculated that the Yamaha TX81Z overshadowed the MKS50 which, if true, proves what a fickle bunch we keyboard players are.

So, what is the answer? Why were the Alphas poorly received, and why haven't they been rediscovered in the 13 years since they first appeared? The most obvious answer rests in their lack of extreme filter resonance and self‑oscillation. This has always been a significant factor in a synthesizer's popularity, and there is no doubt that Roland lost the plot when they excluded this from the Alpha Juno's capabilities. Perhaps it was the limited six‑note polyphony. Another possibility lies in the Alphas' lack of endorsees. Fashionable acts such as Bomb The Bass, the Prodigy, Coldcut and Howard Jones have all used one version or another, but none of them have sung its praises in a way that has made players want to rush out to buy one.

Ultimately, I suspect that there was no single reason for their lack of success. In 1986, the public had temporarily tired of analogue technology, and it's probably a credit to Roland that the Alphas sold as well as they did. At least the MKS50 is finally becoming desirable, and I suspect that it's time that the JU1 and JU2 started to appreciate in value.

That this hasn't yet happened is to your advantage, as you can still pick up a JU1 for around £100, and a JU2 for as little as £175. I recommend that you do so. They're warm, responsive and, short of encountering a large lump of Kryptonite, they'll carry on forever. Two of the analogue world's undiscovered little gems.

Juno The Right Retrofit?

Nowadays, a MIDI‑less synth is of limited value. Fortunately, you can upgrade even the earliest Junos with a MIDI retrofit. Back in 1980s, the now‑defunct Groove Electronics offered such upgrades for the Juno 6 and 60, but these had a reputation for poor workmanship and unreliability. In all likelihood, you should avoid instruments with these fitted. A safer bet would be a Juno 6 or Juno 60 incorporating a retrofit from Kenton Electronics. These offer more control, have proved to be very reliable, and are backed up by a well‑known manufacturer.

Alternatively, if you prefer not to dig holes in your vintage synth, Kenton provides a MIDI‑to‑DCB interface that allows limited control over a Juno 60 using MIDI and also allows you to play MIDI modules from the Juno. The Juno 106 needs no such upgrades, but common wisdom suggests that its sound is not equal to that of the Juno 60. Although I hate to get caught up in these fashion‑dominated arguments, I must say I have to agree. I can't describe the difference, but there is something more involving about a Juno 60.

The current disinterest in the Alpha Junos is thoroughly undeserved. With their increased programming capabilities plus touch‑ and pressure‑sensitivity, they are more flexible and more articulate than the earlier instruments. Having owned a Juno 6, two Juno 60s, an HS60, and an Alpha Juno 2, I would recommend that you consider two models. Like an old sports car that does not go as fast as a modern model, and is neither as comfortable nor as reliable, the Juno 60 is a classic. On the other hand, the Alpha Juno 2 is a superb little instrument that offers far more than its conservative looks might suggest. With a PG300, it's an excellent analogue synth that complements rather than conflicts with modern digital workstations and expanders. It's easily controlled, immediate, and offers a wide, if not all‑encompassing, variety of analogue sounds. If you're prepared to step outside the bounds of today's dance grooves and fashionable obsession with squelchy filter sweeps, you should try one. You may be surprised.

The Benefits Of DCO

Back in the good old days, we frowned upon the now‑revered deficiencies associated with the Voltage Controlled Oscillators used in analogue synths. The pitch stability of these VCOs often left a lot to be desired, and their tuning was usually temperature‑dependent, so you could end up adjusting your synths many times during a gig or recording session. Not so annoying in the studio, this was murderous on stage. What we now regard as 'organic' and 'full of character' was, in 1981, simply a pain in the arse... sorry, ear.

It was, therefore, not the flexibility offered by early digital synthesizers (such as the preset‑only Yamaha GS1) that appealed, but their precise sounds and ultra‑stable tuning. Unfortunately, not everybody could afford the hyper‑expensive digital technology of the day, so the analogue world responded by inventing the DCO, an analogue oscillator controlled by a digital circuit. This ensured far greater tuning stability than the VCOs hitherto used. It seems incredible today, but the Junos were probably the first analogue polysynths that you could carry on to a stage, switch on, and immediately start to play with complete confidence that (first) the patches would sound correct, and (second) that the instrument would be in tune.

Juno The Right Price?

The following table lists all the instruments employing Roland's Juno architectures. Prices depend, of course, upon condition, but beware the plague called 'fashion' that causes £20 notes to disappear as if by magic.

MODEL

YEAR OF RELEASE

SECOND‑HAND BARGAIN

SECOND‑HAND RIP‑OFF

Keyboards
Juno 6

1982

£100

£175

Juno 60

1983

£175

£350

Juno 106

1984

£250

£350

HS60 Synth Plus

1985

£200

£350

Alpha Juno 1

1986

£100

£175

HS10 Synth Plus

1986

£100

£175

Alpha Juno 2

1986

£175

£300

HS80 Synth Plus

1986

£175

£300

Modules
MKS7

1986

£100

£200

MKS50

1986

£150

£250

Published October 1998