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Roland JDXA

Analogue & Digital Synthesizer By Paul Nagle
Published December 2015

Roland JDXA

With a large, well–equipped control panel and a gratuitously laden effects rack, the JDXA could be Roland’s most ambitious, hands–on synthesizer in many years.

The diminutive JDXi keyboard marked a welcome, if cautious, step towards putting analogue circuitry back into Roland synthesizers. Its bigger brother, the JDXA, takes the idea and runs with it, pumping in more analogue goodness but at the expense of half the digital voices — although 64 should still be sufficient for a performance synth.

The ‘crossover’ JDXA features a 16-track sequencer capable of driving the internal parts and external gear, which can include a pair of CV/Gate voices. With a large, well–equipped control panel and a gratuitously laden effects rack, this could be Roland’s most ambitious, hands–on synthesizer in many years. So without further ado, let’s light up...

Red Light District

The JDXA is a feast of knobs, sliders and high-quality buttons. Its left/right bender–cum–modulation stick is augmented by conventional modulation wheels, which surely represents the best of both worlds. It’s an easy matter to reassign the wheels for alternate tasks and if, like me, you prefer the Roland stick anyway, it’s tempting to void the warranty, open up and remove the spring of the vertical bender, thus gaining a second mod wheel.

Weighing in at a comfortable 6.5kg, the JDXA shares the looks, dull red text, plastic construction and shiny, dirt–attracting panel of its smaller sibling. If, within the first few hours, the panel doesn’t sport the odd finger print or greasy mark, you’re probably doing it wrong! The red backlit controls bring to mind the shadier end of the Blackpool Illuminations, but via customisation options you can turn off the backlighting of any (or all) of them. Sadly, there’s no way to simply lower the intensity: the lights are on or off.

This is a keyboard you won’t want to stack (even temporarily) against a wall because the plastic triangular edges are as balance–challenged as they are stylish. There’s a plastic lip that extends over the rear connections and gives helpful protection to your cables and any connected USB stick. It does, however, present a minor obstacle if you plan to plug or unplug on a regular basis, as you might if using those CV/Gate jacks.

With such a spacious panel, the two–line amber display doesn’t feel like a major compromise; after all, a similar display was good–enough for the control–rich JD800. Like that venerable synth, a more central position might have been helpful since it’s well nigh impossible to avoid the menu system — this is a deep synth! Fortunately, there are many shortcuts and speed–up options, although, like the JDXi beforehand, a data entry encoder is sorely missed. The panel controls operate in either regular or ‘catch–up’ modes, the latter designed to prevent unwanted value leaps.

The keyboard is 49 keys (four octaves) and features velocity and channel aftertouch. In other words, it’s not quite long enough to satisfy the widely–held beliefs that (a) five octaves is the bare minimum for a polyphonic synthesizer and (b) polyphonic aftertouch is long overdue on a mainstream, flagship instrument. I’m usually content with any keyboard of three octaves or more, but even I felt the JDXA’s should have been longer, given there are eight individual parts — four analogue and four digital — that can be zoned over any span of keys. The keys are slightly shorter than those of my Roland V–Synth, but the action is great — very fast and bouncy. If you happen to have a keyboard capable of sending polyphonic pressure, the JDXA will respond to it.

A particularly noteworthy area of the panel is situated between the two regular wheel controllers and the LFO section. Buttons there select the part (or parts) editable by the panel controls and also — separately — those that are playable by the keyboard. In the case of the analogue parts, the ‘poly stack’ button multiplies a single selected voice for polyphonic playback, but you can’t play a chord in which all four voices are programmed differently. Switch off poly stack and multiple parts can be selected at once, the only limitation being that you can’t edit analogue and digital simultaneously.

The part buttons are lit with multi–colour LEDs and give a constant picture in your peripheral vision of those selected to edit or play, or those that are muted or being triggered by the sequencer.

Getting Started

A sketchy printed manual is provided and there’s a Parameter Guide you can download to discover more, but there’s no immediate need for either. Any synthesizer enthusiast worth his or her salt will soon be playing, tweaking and saving their creations intuitively. I found I occasionally needed to refer to the display to verify some of the controls’ values. On the review model, not all were accurately calibrated: for example, at the physical mid–point notch of the (bi–polar) filter envelope knob the value was +2 rather than 0.

Roland JDXAThere are 256 internal programs stored in banks A–P, and if you have a spare USB flash drive, it can hold a further 256. Only the first four banks are populated with example sounds and I think it’s fair to say these aren’t guaranteed to secure cash from a quick audition. However they prepare you well enough for the analogue and digital tones ahead and contain echoes of recent instruments such as the Integra 7 as well as nods to older machines such as the JD800, D50 and JP8000. When you start to populate the empty banks, there’s no need to start every program from scratch: you can copy parts, patterns, partials and tones (the latter having been exported from an Integra 7 or FA06/FA08) from elsewhere, although it’s not the friendliest copy process ever devised.

In parallel with your early explorations, you’ll get a feel for the underlying architecture. At the top level is a program, which can hold the complete settings for the eight synth parts, plus all sequencer and arpeggio data and the effects. Each part has its own MIDI channel and keyboard zone, plus a dedicated EQ and multi–effect (MFX). Then, for the entire program, there are two ‘total effects’ (TFX), a reverb and finally a delay. While you can’t divide parts into velocity zones, it’s nevertheless a serious amount of split and layered synthesis power.

Each of the first four parts is a single analogue voice, while parts five to eight share the 64 voices of the Supernatural synth engine.

Fantastic Four?

An analogue voice consists of two oscillators (DCOs), a choice of filters, a pair of wide–ranging LFOs, an LFO dedicated to the mod wheel, plus envelopes for the filter, amplifier and pitch. Each oscillator may be offset by +/– two octaves and has a reassuringly chunky waveform selector. Other than the obvious stacking and detuning opportunities, the main advantage over the JDXi’s single DCO design is in interactions such as sync, cross–modulation and ring modulation — important sonic seasonings.

Increasing the flexibility still further, the source for ring- and cross–modulation can be switched from the second DCO to ‘auxiliary’. This translates to either the microphone, white or pink noise, or the digital part located immediately underneath. When you cross–modulate with a digital voice, the results are potentially far wilder and stranger. This is because the source is the whole voice, which includes the effects of the envelopes, filter and MFX. The same holds true for the ring mod. In contrast, I found that cross–modulation between two analogue oscillators was a bit tamer, but still able to provide those wacky, often atonal twists and turns. Oscillator sync sounded suitably ripping and pulse width modulation also trumped its Supernatural counterpart for blissful fuzziness.

The signs continued to be positive as I explored the filters. Each can be dirtied up in its own way using the Drive control and, to carve out the excess slush, a (non–resonant) high–pass filter is always on tap. The main filter selector offers three very different choices comprising two low–pass designs and a unique multi-mode filter, the latter demonstrating that Roland haven’t run out of analogue surprises yet.

The first selection is typical Roland, with its powerful resonance and rich, even sweeps; it instantly reminded me of that old favourite, the SH1 filter. The second is a Moog–flavoured transistor ladder that has (to my taste) a more restrained and musical resonance. Both are 24dB filters and well suited to beefy bass and classic lead roles, but the third is something else entirely. The Parameter Guide describes it as ‘a relatively standard circuit’, but that’s a serious undersell. A 12dB multi-mode design, half the time it sounds broken, but in an entertaining way — like an elderly relative who’s taken to barking at the postman. Introducing resonance gives the impression of modulation by noise and, as you add more, you progress through the sound of frying bacon and into weird, almost bit–reduced territory. Just when you thought the depths of evil, grungy mayhem had been fully plumbed, the drive control adds more.

In its other two modes, the filter delivers high–pass and band–pass responses that, although they can appear fairly normal, soon attain the same madness levels when resonance is applied, turning positively psychotic under the influence of drive.

That’s not the whole story either, because any digital part can be diverted into the analogue filter. It’s a process that can lead to confusion, at least until you’re used to it. Switching it on is simple enough: in the analogue voice’s mixer stage, set the Aux input to ‘Digital Part’. The confusion I mentioned can arise at a later date when you return to your program and select a digital part to play, having forgotten its routing. If the above voice isn’t also set to be played, or is muted, its filter closed, etc, your digital efforts will seem to be in vain, but this is a small price to pay for the option.

The Digital Voices

Each Supernatural part is built from up to three partials, their waveforms taken either from the collection of modelled oscillators or from samples. There are 450 of these sources and they cover Roland’s ‘VA’ favourites such as ‘Supersaw’, extending to the flutey chiffs and log drums of a typical workstation. Don’t expect any complete drum kits though — if you require drums you’ll have to synthesise individual voices.

The rotary selector is used to pick the analogue–modelled waveforms with the sample–based majority accessed from the ‘Variation’ button and the +/– keys. As you’d probably expect, there is an emphasis on synth and keyboard tones, with some notably fab organs and very diverse digital waves. I appreciated the many noise samples, ‘breathy vox’ and choir types, although more variety for the latter would have been nice. For example, I’d have willingly given up any (or all) of the doos, baps and dats for a Mellotron choir, but who knows, there might be a host of jazz fiends out there waiting for a chance to coax scat from a knobby synthesizer! Speaking of taste conflicts, there’s more synth brass than I’d ever personally need, but the ensemble and synth strings were a soothing highlight. Amongst these, several are stereo samples (requiring two partials per patch), their warmth and spaciousness suggesting the JDXA has a solid future as a pad machine.

With a fair cross–section of bread–and–butter sounds, it’s odd there’s no acoustic piano. Ordinarily I’d be the last to care about having a piano in my synth, but with a JD800–type present, plus a load of excellent electric pianos, I figure ‘why not?’. This is a keyboard instrument after all, and if there’s space for guitars, marimbas and gamelans, it’s a pity to leave out the ubiquitous acoustic grand.

The remaining parts of the digital voice are roughly comparable to its analogue counterpart, except that there’s no second LFO or second oscillator, which rules out cross–modulation and sync. Ring modulation is offered, though, assuming two partials are active. The filters are varied and extensive and, if they never quite tug at the heartstrings like their analogue cousins, they are pretty good — and you get 64 of them! Manual filter sweeps are more obviously steppy and the resonance is a touch more abrasive, but there’s plenty of shaping potential to explore, and old favourites such as the PKG (peaking) filter are present too. The drive control is dimmed, indicating it isn’t an option.

There are a few last points I should mention before moving on, starting with the four program–level controllers. The sources include most MIDI CCs, the pitch–bender, aftertouch, velocity, etc, and each can modulate up to four destinations (eg. the filter cutoff, pulse width, volume and LFO modulation depths). Finally, if you want to strike out beyond the well–tempered scale, there are nine alternate scales including Arabic, Equal Temperament and Pythagorean. If none are to your taste there’s a custom tuning table.

Effects

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that the JDXA is an effects monster. It has a program–level reverb followed by a pair of TFX (Total Effects) and delay. Before hitting this chain, each of the eight parts is processed by a unique MFX (multi–effect) and EQ. A system–wide master EQ is also present.

The reverb is workmanlike and reasonably tweakable, offering six different algorithms and a maximum time of 10 seconds. The delay is boosted by its front–panel controls (including a tempo sync button), but it differs from the reverb in that it’s a blanket effect, without individual part sends.

Between the reverb and delay are those twin TFX, with 29 effect choices for each. The list includes yet more reverb and delay, (with a maximum delay time of two seconds), plus fun stuff such as pitch–shifters, formant filters, phasers, bit crushers, loopers and many more. From the front panel, you can quickly select the effect type and make a single control’s worth of modification before delving into the menu for fine–tuning.

Most impressively, there are eight individual, high-quality MFX — and with 67 algorithms to choose from, you can totally perk up every analogue and digital part. The list is as long and comprehensive as only a Japanese giant could assemble, with consideration given to the performance control of important parameters. Some of the effects are combinations such as flanger/delay or overdrive/chorus, and there are many other beauties to try out, including the half-dozen different phasers, an excellent set of rotary speakers, some superior delays, plus pitch–shifters, step filters, slicers and so on. As a collection they’re a sound designer’s dream and their number and diversity easily compensate for the global nature of the TFX.

It doesn’t end there either since, adjacent to the effects controls, is a Mic section. Unlike the JDXi you don’t get a free microphone, but it’s well worth finding one to attach. Roland have produced some outstanding vocoders since the VC2 Vocal Designer card for the V–Synth and, more recently, the VT3 Voice Transformer. Here, any or all parts can act as carrier and it’s handy to have buttons ready to flip between the duties of vocoder, modulator or just plain vocal delivery. A separate reverb processor is provided exclusively for the microphone and phantom power is supported, although needs to be enabled for each session.

In vocoder mode, you can choose between a fast and accurate vocal envelope, a softer, more blurred choral mode and a more vintage–sounding emulation. While there’s hours of quality vocoding fun for the taking, it’s unlikely you’ll want to vocode all the time, which is why the second option ‘mod’ is so cool. Select this and you can use your voice to modulate key parameters of the analogue synth including the filter cutoff, resonance, volume, cross–mod amount and about a dozen other parameters.

The Sequencer

Tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner is a 16–track Pattern Sequencer capable of driving each of the eight internal parts, plus eight external parts. The sequencer can memorise a unique tempo (and even tempo changes) for all 256 programs.

All tracks share a common length of between one and four bars and your patterns are assumed to be in regular 4/4. Recording is either real–time or note–at–once step input and it shares the JDXi’s Scale options, in which 32nd notes can be selected, thus imitating eight bars at half tempo.

The JDXA’s shiny front panel will keep your fingers — and your duster — busy.The JDXA’s shiny front panel will keep your fingers — and your duster — busy.It’s clear that some thought has gone into the sequencer because there’s the luxury of a separate click output, which almost never happens. However, just as the excitement is rising, you encounter the first stumbling block. In common with the JDXi, you can’t write a program without first stopping the sequencer. While I was adjusting to this, I encountered a second drawback — and this time it wasn’t so easy to find a workaround. It’s not possible to switch to another program while the sequencer is running, which effectively confines you to one pattern at a time.

This is a shame because the sequencer is fast and genuinely enjoyable to use. You can record knob and slider movements as easily as hitting record and letting rip, or record notes, chords or parameter tweaks directly into a step. Individual tracks may be muted using the shift key and part select buttons and muted parts flash helpfully as reminders. Quantisation is, unfortunately, an option you must take prior to recording, as is shuffle, but with quick-erase functions on hand if you don’t like the results, these aren’t terminal limitations.

I couldn’t immediately work out how to access the eight tracks intended for sequencing external gear, but here the ‘MIDI Ctrl’ button comes into play. At a press, those eight part-selection buttons now select external gear, simultaneously widening the JDXA’s scope as a zoning master keyboard. You can pick a MIDI channel for each part, picking up those two CV channels in the process. Interestingly, the sequencer also offers the import (and export) of Standard MIDI files (SMF) of type zero — within the four-bar limit.

If the sequencer isn’t quite as comprehensive or flexible as you might desire, the arpeggiator is a cracker, either stand–alone or played along with your sequencer tracks. It’s a well–specified beast with around a dozen different modes including the replay of a user pattern of up to 32 steps (complete with ties and rests). It works just like a transposable mini–sequence, which is pretty neat in my book. Its only drawback is in being key–sync’ed: ie. it’s initiated by the first keypress. Therefore, unlike classic Roland arpeggiators, it’s possible to fire off a 16th-note arpeggio that is not perfectly locked to a 16th-note sequencer pattern, as my sloppy playing soon revealed.

Conclusion

Bathing in its red glow, the JDXA is as lustworthy as it is enigmatic. It isn’t quite well–enough stacked to take on the analogue polysynths currently in circulation, but its quartet of voices isn’t to be sneezed at (especially as you’ll be forever cleaning the panel). The filters, in particular, sound great and for a one–handed chord machine or as a series of monophonic synths to be layered or switched in performance, it’s very flexible. Of course it’s difficult to resist speculating about the excitement Roland would have earned by giving us twice as much analogue for the same cash and leaving out the digital voices altogether.

However, the JDXA’s hybrid nature gives it a wider remit than any straight analogue. When you’re used to its foibles, this is one of Roland’s more capable polysynths and it grows in stature the more you dig in. Perhaps filling it with indifferent factory sounds isn’t such a bad idea either, because the sense of accomplishment in making your own is so much greater. It’s way too much fun cross–modulating the voices, or processing those digital waves via the selection of analogue filters. In its day, the JD800 was a highly accessible, fully digital synth packed with quality sounds, but this new generation JD, with its crossover personality, is light years beyond it.

The sequencer isn’t to be confused with that of a workstation or even a humble groovebox. You can’t switch patterns, save during playback or use weird time signatures, but within its limitations, there are many positives. With 16 tracks to link up the internal parts with external MIDI gear and analogue synths, it shouldn’t become boring too soon. When you factor in the arpeggiator and the ability to record panel tweaks, it starts to look a lot healthier, even if it’s not the Elektron Analog Four slayer it might have been.

Ultimately, in spite of the shortish keyboard, the plastic, the external power supply and the features that didn’t quite come top of their class, I liked the JDXA a lot. For its mix of synthesis, its effects, its knobby accessibility and its huge performance potential, it could be Roland’s finest creation since the V–Synth.

Alternatives

The rugged metal Analog Keys from Elektron could be an alternative if your priority is the sequencing of analogue voices, but its three octaves and sparse controls (not to mention lack of a polyphonic digital section) probably rule it out for standard synth duties. If sequencing is not important, the more expensive Prophet 12 is a hybrid worth checking out, while at the other end of the scale you might consider sample/synthesis machines such as the Studiologic Sledge 2. Otherwise, any search for alternatives could lead in the direction of workstations by Roland, Yamaha and Korg.

Rear Notes

The rear panel sports stereo and headphone outputs, plus a raw, unprocessed output for the analogue voices. Unusually, the sequencer’s metronome click is directly available too. The CV and Gate outputs support a pair of (Oct/Volt) synths and the MIDI output is configurable as a soft–thru. Roland’s usual USB Audio/MIDI interface is supplemented by an optional ‘Vendor’ mode, providing class–compliant MIDI if you don’t need audio functionality. A slot for a memory stick or flash drive doubles the internal program capacity. Disappointingly for a flagship synth, power is via an external adapter.

CV/Gate

The analogue outputs are simple but welcome inclusions. The gate output is fixed at 5V and only the Oct/Volt standard is supported. You’re given a four–octave (C0 to C4) choice of the note to act as 0V, plus scaling and fine–tuning to compensate for imperfectly calibrated synths. At the program level or globally, you decide which MIDI channels are routed to the two CV ports and therefore played by the keyboard or sequencer. There’s not a great deal else to say except that it works.

Pros

  • It’s a quality analogue/digital hybrid with a panel full of accessible controls.
  • Each analogue voice has a choice of three varied filters.
  • It’s kitted out with more and better effects than most.
  • Includes a 16-track sequencer.
  • Can sequence/play external gear too, including two channels of CV/Gate.

Cons

  • The looks and plastic construction don’t do it justice.
  • Instead of a starring role, the sequencer has a rather awkward cameo.
  • External power supply.
  • Occasionally menu–bound.

Summary

A flexible hybrid synthesizer with more layers than a middle–management onion. Its deep digital engine, four analogue voices, powerful effects and 16–track sequencer all combine to form a coherent and sweet–sounding whole. A programmer’s delight.

information

£1599 including VAT.

Roland UK +44 (0)1792 702701

www.roland.co.uk

$2199

Roland Corporation US +1 323 890 3700.

www.rolandus.com

Published December 2015