How does Roland’s Boutique version of their classic JD‑800 synth compare to the original?
Roland have a proud history of manufacturing polyphonic synthesizers, starting with the Jupiter‑4, a limited instrument that has found huge favour in recent years. This was followed by a larger model that is rightly lauded as a classic; the Jupiter‑8. Thereafter, excellent polysynths and workstations just seemed to pour out of the company’s labs. These included the Junos, the JX series, the D‑50, the JD/JV/XP‑series, the Fantom Xs and the V‑Synths. Today, many of these instruments have been recreated in software or within a series of Boutique hardware modules. I’ve reviewed several of these and, although the limited polyphony of the first three Boutique modules meant that they weren’t for me, two of the more recent ones have since taken up residence in my studio.
Now, two more of the company’s classics have appeared in Boutique form. The first of these (which I’ll be reviewing soon) is based upon the often‑overlooked JX‑8P, while the second draws its inspiration from the short‑lived but gorgeous JD‑800, the polysynth that blazed the trail for large physical control panels on digital instruments and, in no small way, set the scene for the virtual analogue synths that would start to appear four years later.
The JD‑08 follows the same philosophy as earlier Boutique modules, with a control panel that offers the look and feel of the synth that it mimics while being different in many respects. To test it, I set it up alongside my JD‑800, doing all of the usual things to ensure that their signal paths were as close to identical as possible. I then created a simple, unfiltered sound comprising a single Tone on both to check that the initial sound is as it should be. The JD‑800 is a PCM‑based synth so I expected no surprises in this area. I was therefore stunned to find that, while the sounds of the waves seemed correct, waveform 23 in the JD‑08 is pitched an octave lower than it is within the JD‑800, as are waveforms 28, 35, 36, 50... and no doubt others. In contrast, waveform 48 is pitched an octave higher. Why? I haven’t the faintest idea. This was a worrying start.
I moved on to the JD‑08’s multimode filter, passing various waves through it while sweeping it with different amounts of resonance. It took no time at all to reach another surprising conclusion; its resonance, tone and overall response are all different from those of the JD‑800. In other words, it’s not an emulation of the original filter and I suspect that, rather than being specifically modelled for the JD‑08, it’s derived from the company’s existing Zen technologies. While setting this up, I also noticed that, while retaining the JD‑800’s Time/Level architecture, its contour generators each offer an extra Level control for the release stage. Having an extra parameter is good but, having discovered all of this, I gave up on a point‑by‑point comparison of the two synths because there didn’t seem to be much point in it.
Instead, I decided to move on from simple Tones and Patches to see how the JD‑08’s Multi mode compares with that of the JD‑800... only to find that it doesn’t have one. Neither does it have the original’s Special Part (see box). Instead, it offers a much simpler structure with two Parts (A and B), each of which contains a Patch. You can assign these Parts to a single MIDI channel or to separate channels for bi‑timbral use. You can also determine an individual key range for each Tone within them to create simple splits or more complex setups with up to eight sounds split and layered across the keyboard. To be honest, I’m not sure that the demise of the JD‑800’s Multi mode is a huge loss, but it again illustrates the significant differences between the two instruments.
At the end of its signal path, the JD‑08 offers a multi‑effects section. This offers distortion, phasing, EQ and an enhancer in a group called Effect A, plus delay, chorus, and reverb in a second group called Effect B, and you can choose the order of effects within each group. You can apply all seven effects to Part A, but Part B cannot access the Effect B group, which is the one that contains the effects that you’re most likely to want. Although this echoes the JD‑800’s structure in Single mode, it doesn’t emulate its effects structure in Multi mode, which seems unnecessarily limiting. If there’s one place that I would have given Roland free licence to change and improve things, it’s here.
So what are the bonuses of the new model? In my view, there are three significant ones. Firstly the polyphony is now... umm, well, what is it? Roland have, for reasons that escape me, failed to tell us on their website, in the blurb, or even in their online documentation. My tests were showing that the JD‑08 has much greater polyphony than the original so I did some digging, and it turns out to be 128 voices. So why don’t Roland say so? Anyway, when using four Tones per Patch, the polyphony is 32 notes and, when you use the JD‑08 bi‑timbrally, it can drop to 16. If this sounds a bit low, don’t forget that a JD‑800 offers six and three notes respectively when used in these ways, so it’s a big step forward.
The second is the addition of an arpeggiator. This offers the usual up, down, up/down, random and ‘as played’ modes, with programmable rate, range, transposition, gate length and velocity, plus Hold. Some of my favourite moments with the JD‑08 occurred when I played something on the JD‑800 and had the module generating a complementary arpeggio.
The third is the addition of a 64‑step, two‑track (Part A and Part B), polyphonic sequencer with memories for up to 128 Patterns. You can input your notes in four groups of 16, either in real time or as individual steps, and you can program things such as velocities, gate lengths, ties and shuffle. You can also sequence control changes, but bear in mind that these will operate on all of the Tones in the relevant Part when you do so. There are six replay modes to make things more interesting, as well as a random performance generator. In addition, you can select Patterns using Program Change messages on the System MIDI channel (of which more in a moment), allowing you to create extended songs. Finally, a clock input on the top panel allows you to synchronise playback to an external analogue clock. Despite the arcane programming needed to get the best from it, this is a creative tool that some users will love.
Unfortunately, the JD‑08 is a pig to edit. I’m not referring to the control panel with its 10mm faders because it’s not hard to obtain the value you want as long as you watch the screen to keep an eye on what’s happening. Instead, I’m referring to all of the things that have been buried in menus that are almost impossible to navigate or read because the module’s four‑character display is inadequate for the task.
To compound the problem, you don’t even have a manual to help you decode the gobbledygook. The quick‑start guide has been truncated into a single page of A4 that tells you nothing about editing sounds, and the manual... hang on, what manual? There isn’t one; Roland have decided to forego this and provide just online hyperlinked pages. Surely the writers could have spent a day or two compiling them into a PDF document that you could download — after all, Roland would still have saved on paper and ink — but they didn’t, and not only is information hard to find, it’s sometimes so sketchy as to be almost useless. Oh yes, and there are errors. Referring to a non‑existent Shift button is just careless. And what if you can’t get online wherever you are? In short, you’d be stuffed. I’m shocked that Roland have adopted this approach.
So let’s assume that you know everything you need to, and move on to the layout of the panel. Despite looking like a miniature JD‑800 control surface, it isn’t, and a number of lesser functions are either reduced to menu items or haven’t been implemented. Had I been on the JD‑08’s design committee, I might have proposed that Roland omit eight or even all 16 of the bank/number buttons and reinstate at least one of the JD‑800’s screens as well as its cursors and data‑entry slider. I wouldn’t have minded if the sequencer was then relegated to menus, but I recognise that this suggestion might be anathema for other users.
Now let’s talk about USB, MIDI and automation. You have to download and install a dedicated driver to obtain access to the JD‑08 over USB, and only operating systems from Mac OS 10.14 and Windows 10 onward are supported. If you’re still running earlier systems to protect legacy applications, you’re going to be rather annoyed by this, especially in these days of class compliance. However, there is a significant advantage to obtaining the audio via USB if you can do so; the whine disappears.
Hang on a second... what whine? Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of the JD‑08 is the noise it generates at its analogue audio output when a loop is completed via a USB cable. I started this review with my MacBook Pro powering it and with the analogue outputs of both devices connected to the same mixer, and the resulting whine was most distracting. The only solutions were either to disconnect the Mac from the mixer, to power the synth differently, or to obtain the JD‑08’s audio over USB. In the end, I powered the JD‑08 from batteries which, while quiet, was less than ideal. I recognise that the JD‑08 is far from the only synth to suffer from this, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.
Staying on the subject of MIDI, it was apparent from the start of this review that I would be unable to use my JD‑800 to programme the JD‑08. This is because the former outputs SysEx when you move a control, while the latter expects MIDI CCs. This has an important benefit — it’s much easier to automate the JD‑08. But be aware that, while a good selection of CCs are understood, they control all of the Tones in a Patch simultaneously, so you can’t (for example) open or close the filter in one Tone while leaving the others unaffected. Unfortunately, the MIDI implementation has two problems, and I’m gobsmacked that the first wasn’t trapped in testing before the product was shipped. Let me explain...
The JD‑08 is supposed to respond to three MIDI channels simultaneously. As delivered, these are channel 1 (the System channel), channel 2 (for Part A) and channel 3 (for Part B). But if you set your controller keyboard to MIDI channels 4 or 5, you are able to play a ‘hidden’ monosynth lead sound. It’s very nice, but you can’t edit it and it shouldn’t be there. To my relief, I discovered that you can make it go away by pressing the Note and Tone B buttons simultaneously but, until I did so, I had two unwanted monosynths cluttering both of those channels. Moreover, when I set Parts A or B to either channels 4 or 5, I obtained a layer of both the wanted Patch and the unwanted lead synth. All of this suggests that somebody forgot to disable something in the Zen architecture. Let’s hope that a firmware update sorts this out.
The second MIDI problem is that while you can set the System MIDI channel to ‘Off’, you can’t do so for either Part A or Part B. This means that, if you want to use just one Part, the JD‑08 unnecessarily hogs a MIDI channel. The solution seems to be to disable the Tones in the unwanted Part, but it’s still a ridiculous state of affairs.
Before completing the analytical phase of this review I noticed one further anomaly. When harnessing my inner prog god to play rapid monosynth solos, strange and unwanted pitches sometimes appeared at the upper end of the keyboard. Releasing all of the keys and starting again cured this, but that’s not something that you can do live, so it’s another bug that Roland have to find and swat.
You might think that I’ve been quite hard on the JD‑08, but I would like to finish on a positive note by talking about the sound of the JD‑08. Let’s be clear; it’s not a drop‑in replacement for the JD‑800, not just because of the changes in the oscillator waveforms, filters and other sound‑shaping functions, but because the underlying mathematics of the synth engine is different. You can demonstrate this by creating unfiltered, high‑pitched sounds; you’ll find that the JD‑08 is less prone to aliasing and the character of the sound at the very high end is different. (Don’t misunderstand me, this is a good thing.) Nevertheless, the JD‑08 can sound surprisingly similar to its inspiration. Stepping through the factory patches that occupy 99 of the 256 onboard memories, I found that the underlying character has survived, which means that the JD‑08 can excel at shimmering carpets of sound, D‑50‑esque pads, percussion, bells and chimes, evolving effects, all manner of glassy patches, plus strings, brass, leads and basses that somehow seem to sit between ’80s analogue and ’90s digital. Despite its problems, the JD‑08 is a very capable synthesizer and a very nice sounding one too.
The JD‑08 is a very capable synthesizer and a very nice sounding one too.
Rather than the misnamed D‑70 (which was much more closely related to Roland’s U‑series synths and modules), the JD‑800 was the true successor to the D‑50. It had a gorgeous, silky sound, and it’s finally achieving the respect it deserves. Sadly, it suffered from a significant problem; its keyboard. After a while, notes could go missing in action and it has an unreliable velocity sensing mechanism. The idea of a Boutique JD‑800 must therefore have excited many prospective owners, myself included. But does the JD‑08 live up to its promise?
I hate to say it, but I don’t think that it does. I really, really want to love it, but my problems started when I saw Roland describing it as an “Authentic recreation of the Roland JD‑800 synthesizer” that “perfectly recreates” various aspects of the original, which it isn’t and doesn’t. But if we ignore this, how does it fare in its own right as a bi‑timbral synth based upon the JD‑800 sound engine? In truth, it’s a very fine sounding instrument. It needs a proper manual and a significant firmware update but, if these things happen, it will be a cracking little synth. Given its polyphony and its price — which are (respectively) considerably higher and lower than those of a second‑hand and potentially unreliable JD‑800 — I have no doubt that Roland will sell quite a few.
It surprised me to find that Roland’s engineers failed to extend the JD‑08’s ROM to include the JD‑800’s expansion cards. After all, they did this when they released the D‑05 module, making it an almost irresistible alternative to an aging D‑50 or D‑550.
Indeed, I would have suggested that the company step over the JD‑800 and design a Boutique version of the JD‑990 (the JD‑800’s rackmount sibling) with a control surface inspired by the keyboard version, an expanded ROM including the cards, plus the 990’s ring modulation, sync, cross‑mod, extended filter options, improved modulation, analogue feel and enhanced Multi capabilities. This could have been a killer product — especially if Roland had modelled the original’s filters rather than taking the easy way out.
Given its size, it’s not surprising that the JD‑08’s rear panel is sparse. There are 5‑pin DIN sockets for MIDI in and out, and three 3.5mm sockets providing a stereo output, a headphones output and an audio input. Note, however, that the sound from the input is passed directly to the outputs so there’s no way to mangle it using the JD‑08’s filters or effects. The final holes are for USB C and a security lock to deter someone from walking off with your pride and joy. A power on/off switch completes the panel.
The choice of USB C looks to the future, but I can see it frustrating some musicians for a while because, in general, we’re still wedded to our USB A and B sockets. It also means that you may have to buy a dedicated USB C power supply because Roland don’t provide one with the synth. Also, be aware that the JD‑08 doesn’t switch over to battery power if there’s a USB power failure. If you want to power it from batteries you have to switch it on with no USB supply connected.
Given its lack of a proper screen and its impenetrable and unreadable menus, the JD‑08 needs a Mac/PC‑based editor. Not only would this remove a vast amount of confusion when trying to create sounds (should I be adjusting the r9bor the r9dL parameter right now?), it would allow users to take care of all manner of housekeeping and librarian functions much more easily.
Given the existence of the JD‑800 soft synth on Roland Cloud, I’m surprised that the company haven’t already done this.
The fundamental building block of a JD‑800 sound is called a Tone. This comprises a PCM wave generator, a multimode HP/BP/LP filter and an audio amplifier, each with a dedicated contour generator. Two LFOs provide modulation and can be directed to each of the three audio blocks. A Patch then comprises four of these Tones, all of which can be programmed independently to create complex sounds.
There are then two ways to use Patches; either in Single mode or in Multi mode. A Single mode sound, as its name implies, contains a single Patch, and this is directed through a common EQ and the synth’s effects before being passed to the outside world. In Multi mode, there are six Parts, the first five of which each contain a Patch and its dedicated EQ together with additional parameters for level, pan, output assignment and effects. The sixth Part is called the Special Part and allows you to allocate a separate Tone to each key, again with the additional parameters for level, pan, output assignment and effects.
- It’s a very nice sounding instrument with much of the character of its inspiration.
- It adds an arpeggiator and an interesting step sequencer.
- It offers more than a five‑fold increase in polyphony over the JD‑800.
- It uses MIDI CCs rather than the JD‑800’s SysEx.
- It feels solid and robust.
- It’s cheaper than a second‑hand JD‑800.
- Despite Roland’s claims, it’s not a JD‑800.
- I don’t read hieroglyphics, and you’ll need to be able to do so if you want to edit it.
- The documentation is woeful.
- There’s no software editor/librarian.
- It’s not USB class-compliant and it can suffer from the dreaded USB whine.
- It has bugs, so a firmware upgrade is needed.
The JD‑08 is a lovely sounding synth and a worthwhile addition to the Boutique range. It’s not a drop‑in replacement for the original and there are many things about it that are not quite right but, if Roland address its issues, it could be great.