When Roland announce a new synth, endowed with a new breed of synthesis, it's time to sit up and take notice. The 'Analogue Modelling' JP8000 appears to offer the power and flexibility of digital control applied to analogue‑type sounds. Can it be too good to be true? Paul Ward tries to stop tweaking long enough to tell us...
Roland's vintage synths have a fanatical following among the retro‑junkies of the late 1990s. Models from the Jupiter series, such as the JP6 and JP8, are justifiably some of the most respected synths around. Now Roland have seen fit to dust off the old 'JP' prefix and adorn their latest offering with this pair of letters that has become part of synth history — a hefty responsibility for a digital synth to carry.
Meet The New Kid
Yep, that's right. This synth, despite its looks, is most definitely of the digital persuasion. But the JP8000 lives to produce analogue‑type sounds. Several other manufacturers have already attempted to reproduce the synths of old, offering up their waveforms in an S+S (Sample + Synthesis) package with varying degrees of success. More recently, some companies have turned to physical modelling for their retro‑sounds. Roland are keeping their cards close to their chests when it comes to what is actually under the JP8000's bonnet, but have at least given it a name — 'Analogue Modelling'. What this name implies is currently open to conjecture.
But the aspect of this synth that is arguably of more immediate interest is the user interface. This is an instrument bristling with knobs, buttons and sliders. Personally, I find it quite appealing to look at, although the 'built‑like‑a‑tank' feeling of the older, metal‑clad JP series is somewhat lacking here. The velocity‑sensitive keyboard has a four‑octave span, which seems to leave it an octave short in my opinion — especially given the JP8000's 8‑note polyphony. Stranger still, and perhaps more worrying to many, is the lack of keyboard aftertouch. For a synth with the amount of control possibilities that the JP8000 offers, I would have placed a hefty bet that aftertouch would have been included.
To the left of the keyboard are the ubiquitous Roland bender/modulation lever and the most welcome sight of a ribbon controller. Around the back you'll find the AC mains socket with attendant power switch, a headphone socket, and a pair of master left/right outputs on standard quarter‑inch jack sockets. Extra control sources can be attached by way of inputs for both a switch pedal and a continuous control pedal. MIDI In and Out sockets are provided, although there is no Thru socket, which seems rather mean on a synth of this price.
What A Performance
Before delving into the workings of the JP8000's controls, I really need to explain the concept of Patches and Performances, since this is directly relevant to how the settings of the controls are stored. The most basic currency of the JP8000 is a 'Patch'. There are 256 Patch memories, divided into 128 user Patches, which can be overwritten, and 128 preset Patches, which can't. A 'Performance' is basically a pair of Patches (making the JP8000 an essentially bi‑timbral sound source) with certain performance parameters that govern how the Patch will respond to the keyboard, arpeggiator and other performance features. In the past I have berated manufacturers for the system of patch 'pools', whereby altering a patch for the benefit of one Performance irreparably damages any other Performance using the same patch. Well, I want to hug the Roland design team, because here they've got it right! Patches within a Performance become part of that Performance memory and can be edited to distraction without altering the source Patch in any way — unless, of course, that's what you want to do! I can't express how much joy this brings to one such as myself who has experienced first‑hand the horrors of the JX10 and the Korg Wavestation.
Within a Performance, Roland have retained the Upper/Lower 'Part' system in a similar way to that of many of their earlier synths. Each Part consists of a Patch, together with its performance parameters, such as MIDI channel, transposition, and various synchronisation options for LFO, delay and chorus. Also within the Performance are a number of parameters common to both Parts, such as relative detuning, voice number assignment and output assignment. Parts may be split (with definable split point), layered, or played singly across the whole keyboard.
Set The Controls...
First, a look at the controls that affect a Patch. Immediate tactile control is one of the main virtues of old analogue synths. Reach out with those grubby fingers and opposable thumbs, tweak the myriad knobs and buttons and experience the delight of real‑time control. The 1980s witnessed the disappearance of the control‑laden panel in return for the power and diversity of digital control. Well, times have moved on, and players are again demanding the return of real‑time physical controls to breathe life into their music. The JP8000 rises to the challenge in no uncertain way, with a control panel that for all the world looks as if it belongs to a synth many years its senior.
Anyone familiar with analogue synths will find little to trouble them here. Two audio oscillators are provided, each with a selection of waveforms. Oscillator 2 is the simpler of the pair, with selectable square/pulse, sawtooth and triangle waveforms. Synchronisation to Oscillator 1 is offered, so you can get those searing sync‑lead sounds or ripper basses. The initial pulse width of the square/pulse waveform can be set manually and also modulated by LFO 1 for rich, chorus‑like effects — a favourite trick of old single‑oscillator analogue synths. Through a combination of the coarse and fine tuning controls, Oscillator 2 will cover a span of ±4 octaves, although fine beat‑tuning is restricted to within 2 octaves.
Oscillator 1 forgoes the tuning controls, but adds a wider range of waveforms, and a pair of control sliders with which to make fundamental changes to the waveforms at source. The pulse/square wave, for instance, utilises the control sliders to provide pulse width and pulse width modulation, in much the same way as Oscillator 2. The similarity ends there, however. The sawtooth and triangle waves can have their shapes changed by control slider 1; slider 2 sends a variable amount of shape‑change modulation from LFO 1. 'Shaping' basically means altering the strength of the wave's fundamental — something that varies among the waveforms of real analogue synths. With the JP8000 I was able to get fairly close to the sound of my old Roland synth waveforms, as well as producing passable imitations of Prophets and Moogs. The noise waveform comes with its own cut‑off and resonance settings, courtesy of the control sliders. The 'triangle mod' wave offers what essentially amounts to a 'wrap' feature, where the energy of the waveform wraps back on itself to produce a larger number of overtones. Theory aside, the resulting sounds are similar to passing a square wave through a phaser. Control slider 1 sets an initial point and slider 2 specifies an amount of modulation from LFO 1. The 'feedback' wave features control of the level and frequency of the harmonics, to produce anything between a sawtooth being gently flanged to the kind of feedback more usually associated with a guitar being held close to its amplifier. I could enthuse for quite some time about this one!
...the JP8000's real magic begins to show where analogue emulation ends and the wonders of digital performance control begin.
'Super Saw' ostensibly amounts to the effect of seven sawtooth waveforms being played in unison. The control sliders allow you to vary the level of the six extra oscillators against the original and also to detune them for subtle — or not so subtle — thickening effects. Of all the waveforms on offer I was most disappointed with this one. Perhaps I had expected too much of it, but I couldn't quite get my brain to accept that I was listening to seven oscillators. Put three real analogue waveforms together and the result can be powerfully rich. The JP8000's Super Saw sounds like the kind of thing you'd achieve with a good chorus processor — not bad, but just not as dramatic as you might expect.
In the Oscillator Common section the balance between the two oscillators is set, and both can be passed through a ring modulator to get those time‑honoured clangorous and pseudo‑distorted effects that were such a staple of the '70s sci‑fi genre. LFO 1 modulation of oscillator pitch is available here, along with a simple attack/decay pitch envelope. LFO 1 and envelope pitch modulation can be sent to both oscillators, or oscillator 2 only, and are fully variable between both positive and negative modulation amounts. Additionally, if oscillator cross‑modulation is selected, LFO 1 and the pitch envelope will vary the amount of cross‑modulation.
How LFO Can You Go?
The JP8000 actually has two LFOs, although LFO 2 is dedicated to the modulation lever. LFO 1 offers a choice of triangle, sawtooth, square, and sample/hold (or 'random' as some users know it). Rate and fade‑in time are adjustable and it is also possible to sync the LFO, along with the chorus and delay time, to external MIDI clock messages. LFO 2 is a simpler affair, allowing adjustment of rate, positive or negative depth and assignment to one of pitch, filter cut‑off, or amp. As the bender lever is pushed forward, the LFO imparts more of its modulation to the specified destination. Pressing the lever to left or right produces pitch bend. While we're on the subject, I ought to say that I have never really got on with Roland's bender levers, since the amount of travel is just too small to allow for much finesse. Indeed, I have never found anyone else with much good to say about them either, but Roland are sticking with the mechanism, so someone out there must like them! On the model I had for review I also found that the lever had trouble resetting to zero when it was released from a pitch bend — this is one aspect of analogue synths that I was hoping hadn't made it into the digital age!
The JP8000 is generous with its filter options. Three basic filter types are available — low‑pass, band‑pass and high‑pass. With a response switchable between 12dB and 24dB per octave, you should find it possible to emulate most of the classic filter effects your ears could desire. A notch filter option would have been nice, but very few synths, short of the mighty modulars, ever sported these, so it would be churlish of me to call it an omission. Alongside the basic cut‑off and resonance sliders are the filter envelope controls. A straightforward ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release) system is employed, which I still prefer to the often unnecessary complexity of many of today's multi‑stage envelopes. A trio of knobs adjust positive or negative filter cut‑off modulation from keyboard tracking, LFO 1 and the filter envelope.
Another set of ADSR sliders adorn the amp stage and a level control defines the patch's programmable volume. A selector switch decides whether LFO 1 will modulate volume or pan position (by positive or negative amounts), or whether the modulation control will act as a simple manual pan pot.
Usefully, near the end of the Patch's audio chain there's a pair of bass/treble tone controls. These really do a useful job, serving to emphasise deep sub‑basses or add a searing edge to a lead sound. Full marks to Roland on this one.
Following right along are the effects parameters. Chorus is added by a simple level knob. In reality, 12 different modulation‑type effects can be applied, and these are selected in the numeric key panel's menu system. Of particular note is the Deep Flanger, which is as good as any I've heard. No editing of any of these effects is possible, other than setting the modulation speed to sync with LFO 1 or an external MIDI clock. Delay may also be added, with basic control over time (up to a maximum of 1.25 seconds in mono), feedback and level. Again, a selection of delay types is available under the key panel section, allowing various right/left ping‑pong delays, short flutter echoes or a simple mono delay.
To the left of the keyboard are controls to set mono/mono legato and portamento on/off and rate. Portamento may be triggered by legato playing, but is fixed to time‑based settings, making it problematic to get an exact emulation of the portamento/glide found on many monosynths (such as the Minimoog). Assuming that that this is a function of the JP's software, I'd encourage Roland to add a fixed time/fixed rate option in a future software revision.
So far we have seen what might pass for a reasonably endowed analogue synth, though a fair amount of digital trickery is being employed to create the illusion. But the JP8000's real magic begins to show where analogue emulation ends and the wonders of digital performance control begin. All of the JP8000's synth controls are capable of being transmitted as MIDI data and received on playback. In other words, you can twiddle those knobs to your heart's content and hear all of your twiddles played back. This alone kept me enthralled for so long that the review deadline was in danger on more than a couple of occasions! But the JP8000 has more in store...
For a start there's the friendly little arpeggiator, which also features Roland's own RPS (Real‑time Phrase Sequencer) technology (see the 'Arpeggiation for the Nation!' box for more details). Then there's the Motion Control feature. Put simply, this allows you to record the movements of any number of controls on the front panel for up to eight measures and play them back, either as a free‑running loop, or as a pattern that repeats each time a key is pressed. All of the JP8000's control slider and knob movements may be recorded, with the not unreasonable exception of the tempo and volume knobs. Four Motion recordings are stored in memory, although only two can be accessed from the main control panel at any one time. This really is a superb feature, capable of producing evolving patterns of ever‑changing subtleties, or complete pandemonium! In keeping with the JP8000's overall philosophy, the data generated by the Motion Controls are transmitted from the MIDI Out for recording to an external sequencer.
And so to that lovely little ribbon controller. Far from being the simple pitch/filter bender to which most ribbons find themselves assigned, this device holds the key to a world of sound control that boggles the mind. The ribbon is capable of being assigned to virtually every knob and slider on the JP8000's front panel — simultaneously! While some parameters increase as the ribbon is pressed left to right, others can be made to decrease — each with its own programmable control range. My gob was well and truly smacked. The potential for this amount of real‑time control is breathtaking. Cue another hour or two of trying to tear myself away from the JP8000 and back to the word processor... The response of the ribbon may be set to act relative to the point at which your finger first touches it, or to instantly change control values depending on where pressure is applied — great for those hammer‑ons! When released, the ribbon's control values will reset to neutral, or can be set to hold.
In much the same way as the ribbon controller, velocity can be applied to the same multitude of programmable control destinations. With a combination of ribbon and velocity, the JP8000 has the capability to produce a very animated sound palette, from gentle filter sweeps to avant‑garde cacophonies. This seems to make it all the more sad that Roland have not seen fit to provide a keyboard with aftertouch response. Using the ribbon is all well and good, but how about those of us who still want to play with two hands? To their credit, Roland do allow a continuous control pedal, as an alternative to jobs such as expression or panning, to take on the duties of the ribbon controller. Additionally, if you connect a master keyboard that is able to transmit aftertouch, these messages can also emulate the ribbon controller.
Another Performance feature worthy of attention is the Individual Trigger function. When you make use of Individual Trigger, the Upper Part is de‑coupled from triggering its filter or amp envelope. This triggering function is then taken over by the Lower Part, either from a specific note or from any notes. Although this sounds a little esoteric, it merely means that you can hold down a chord with your right hand which will not generate any sound, and then trigger it by pressing keys with your left, at which point the chord will be heard. The trigger notes can also be received from a specific channel arriving at the MIDI In socket, allowing for some dazzling stuttered chords in perfect sync with an external sequence.
The JP8000 has a very flexible MIDI specification. Each of the Parts in a Performance can receive on its own MIDI channel and will respond to individual patch change messages. A separate MIDI channel may be defined as receptive to Performance changes. All of the JP8000's internal settings are available for transmission as MIDI System Exclusive data. By far the most useful dump type is that which transmits the temporary storage area, allowing a sequencer to record and restore the Performance and Patches used in a song, even if the original Performance memory has been overwritten. Any external controller can be made to adjust any number of the JP8000's knobs and sliders.
All Good Things...
If I was to be picky, I might suggest that the JP8000 can often sound a tad on the thin side. A little detuning, chorus or layering helps, and a quick turn of the tone controls can work wonders. But you have to apply a little work to reach a meaty sound, which is in direct contrast to those real analogue dinosaurs, where more often than not the object of the exercise is to thin the sound out! I had the advantage of playing the JP8000 alongside my old Rolands, Prophets and Moogs, and I was pleasantly surprised to find how close I could get to all of them, given a couple of minutes' fiddling. Roland include some very evocative sounds in their presets. Performance 27, 'Legato TB303', will be of interest to anyone still under the spell of the little bleepmaster, and Performance 54 will delight the ears of anyone who once sold a Juno 6 and regrets it. Try to play 'The Star‑Spangled Banner' on Performance 14 while making heavy use of the ribbon and bender lever to bring out the Hendrix in you. Roland run the whole gamut with the onboard presets, from dance‑oriented squelchy basses to sweeping new‑age strings. Most of the presets are perfectly usable straight out of the box, but the ease with which changes can be made positively encourages you to hone and customise.
There is so much to like about the JP8000 that its shortcomings are easy to forgive. The lack of keyboard aftertouch stays as my main gripe and some of the meatier polysynth sounds had me MIDI‑ing up to a longer keyboard to hit those octave span left‑hand bass parts. But I just couldn't help liking this machine. The instant gratification of reaching out for those controls and knowing that your every move will be played back from your sequencer is so inspiring that you just can't put the thing down! All of the analogue sounds that you know and love are probably in there somewhere. The overall sound is probably slightly more 'refined' than that of a real analogue synth, but I'd defy all but the most golden‑eared to tell the difference in a blindfold test. The JP8000 does have a certain sound quality that is all its own — not as plummy as Korg's Prophecy, perhaps, but richer than any of the sample‑based synths I've come across.
For anyone who is currently contemplating one of the newer analogue or analogue sound‑alike synths, or scouring the classifieds for a vintage original, the JP8000 is certainly worth checking out. The sounds are there, the amount of control is awesome, and the price is very reasonable, in my opinion. I have a feeling that Roland may have a future classic on their hands.
Arpeggiation For The Nation!
It's no secret that I have a passion for arpeggiators. Designed properly, they are a simple and inspiring way to add a little stardust to a production. There isn't the level of sophistication here of devices such as Quasimidi's Motivators, but what the JP8000 lacks in sophistication it makes up for in immediacy. In its simplest form, all that is required is to hit the arpeggiator on/off switch and hold down some notes. Tempo is adjustable over a 20‑250bpm range, notes can be repeated over a range of up to four octaves and sorting options allow for up, down, up and down, and random note order. Hidden behind the numeric key panel are further options for defining which of the two synth parts will arpeggiate, and for changing the beat pattern of the arpeggiator from simple values such as quarter notes or triplets to named patterns such as 'echo' or 'walking bass'. These beat patterns will also accent the arpeggios in various ways. The arpeggiation options are stored along with a Performance. Unlike certain other synths I could mention, the JP8000 transmits the arpeggiated notes from its MIDI Out.
A further mode of the arpeggiator takes us into the RPS (Real‑time Phrase Sequencer) capabilities of the JP8000. RPS is a function that lets you assign various musical patterns, up to four measures in length, to each key on the keyboard, and play them back with one finger. When recording these patterns it's possible to quantise your playing, and add as many overdubs as necessary (as long as you don't go over the 8‑note polyphony limit, of course). Unwanted notes can be erased and whole patterns may be copied to other keys or erased entirely. RPS patterns can even be recorded from an external MIDI device. I'm sure that RPS will have its champions, but I can't help feeling that it's a little out of place on a synth of this nature.
8‑note bi‑timbral polyphonic.
64 user Performances, 64 preset Performances.
128 user Patches, 128 preset Patches.
Delay and chorus effects.
RPS feature for single‑finger playback of recorded patterns.
Ribbon controller for real‑time control of multiple parameters.
Single, Split and Dual key modes.
2‑line x 16‑character backlit LCD.
Dimensions (mm): 925(W) x 349(D) x 113(H).
- Very realistic 'analogue' sounds.
- Friendly operating system.
- 8‑voice polyphony.
- Extremely powerful real‑time modulation possibilities.
- The immediacy of real knobs, sliders and buttons.
- Keyboard not capable of producing aftertouch.
- No MIDI Thru.
- Very basic effects section, with no reverb.
This is a synth that will get you very close to the analogue sounds you've been after, but goes much further, to provide a level of real‑time control that positively inspires creativity and experimentation. Sure, the JP8000 has its faults, but so do all the best synths. The bottom line is that it sounds good and performs impeccably. If you've been looking at a Nord Lead or a Korg Prophecy — or wondering when the new Minimoog is going to make an appearance — then you owe it to yourself to check out this machine too before making a choice.