Roland have finally released the rackmounting version of their much‑vaunted JP8000. And what is this? A mic input? Paul Ward adopts his best Kraftwerk pose for a spot of modern nostalgia.
Roland have certainly had something of a hit on their hands with the JP8000 Analogue Modelling synth (see SOS March '97). Its warm sound, tweakability and ease‑of‑use have endeared it to many users, myself included. All that was lacking was a rackmounting option — which, true to form, Roland have now delivered. Just as true to form, they have also taken the opportunity to upgrade their newcomer and add a few more tricks into the bargain.
I must firstly congratulate Roland on producing a very solid piece of engineering in the form of the JP8080's casework. The build quality is exemplary. Gone is the bendy plastic casing of the JP8000, replaced by confidence‑inspiring metal. The textured blue finish and clear legending are also very appealing to the eyes.
Considerable thought has obviously gone into the physical design, and the JP8080 is equally at home as a desktop device as installed in a rack. Although 6 units in height, it is actually only 9 centimeters deep at its maximum. When sitting on its feet the control panel presents itself at a jaunty angle towards the operator.
A recess in the back panel contains the necessary socketry, all of which points upwards to allow for desktop use. At first I baulked at the thought of trying to access these sockets once the device is installed in its rack, but enough space has been left to make this a fairly painless task. The JP is quite sparse on connections: a standard 'Euro' mains connector, left/right audio outputs, mic and instrument audio inputs (more of which later), two MIDI inputs, and one MIDI output. In keeping with the JP8000, Roland have not included a MIDI Thru socket, which I consider to be penny‑pinching at its worst in a machine of this price, although a software Thru option does make up for this somewhat.
The JP8080 features the same analogue modelling technology which made its debut on the JP8000, but adds a complement of new and upgraded features. Let's take a tour of the basic architecture and I'll point out the differences from the JP8000 as we go.
The fundamental building block of sound in the JP8080 is a 'Patch'. There are 512 Patches, 128 of which are available for storing your own creations. Two Patches, with an array of performance options secured around them (such as MIDI channel and transposition), constitute a 'Performance'. Patches defined within a Performance are totally divorced from Patches held elsewhere, meaning that you can edit the Patch data within a Performance without affecting any of your other sounds — bliss! Of the 256 Performances in the JP8080, 192 are preset and 64 can be overwritten by the user. The data within the JP8080 is arranged into 'Groups' of 64 accessed by a dedicated Group button. This, together with the 16 bank/number buttons, makes selecting Performances and Patches on the JP8080 considerably easier than on the JP8000.
The two Patches within a Performance may be split or layered across a keyboard, and detuned for a fatter sound. The JP8080 also includes the ability to set all of a Patch's voices into Unison mode, with definable detune, for an even thicker sound — a feature missing from the JP8000. In common with most DSP versions of analogue synthesis I have come across, the results are not as thick as you'd expect from a real analogue, but the effect is pleasing all the same.
Although physical modelling provides the technology behind the front panel, the user is presented with a familiar analogue synth interface. The JP8080 is a 10‑note polyphonic, two‑oscillator synth — giving it two more notes of polyphony that the JP8000. Both oscillators have the option of sawtooth, square, triangle and noise waveforms (the JP8000's noise waveform was available only on oscillator 1), but oscillator 1 takes things a step or two further, with its 'Super Saw' emulating seven detuned sawtooth waves, and monophonic 'feedback' waveform. Roland have taken advantage of their DSP technology to provide each waveform with further wave‑shaping controls. In the case of the square wave, for instance, this takes the form of simple pulse width modulation, whilst the triangle wave can be fundamentally bent and twisted by a wave‑shape offset amount (essentially a waveform 'wrap' facility). When passing an external signal through the JP's amp and filter, in addition to losing two notes of polyphony, the use of oscillator 2 is also lost — seems a fair compromise.
A pair of LFOs are available for cyclic modulation duties. LFO1 has a choice of triangle, sawtooth, square, or random waveforms, whilst LFO2 is a dedicated triangle wave used to impart modulation from external control sources, such as a keyboard's mod wheel. The LFOs may be simultaneously assigned to such duties as filter, pitch, and amplitude, with negative or positive modulation amounts.
Further waveform‑bending features appear in the form of a ring modulator, oscillator sync, cross modulation, and a simple attack/decay pitch envelope.
The JP's filter is a very flexible implementation, with options for low‑, band‑ and high‑pass types. The resonance goes all the way up to self‑oscillation, just as on an analogue device, and the provision of a 12dB or 24dB response means that a wide range of reasonable emulations is possible, from aggressive Moog leads to those sadly overworked, bleepy‑farty TB303 bass lines. Cutoff modulation is available in variable positive or negative amounts from keyboard tracking, the LFOs and the filter envelope.
ADSR envelopes are provided for both amp and filter — far better than all that messing around with multi‑stage envelopes.
Panning and level duties are handled by the Amp section, wherein lie the joys of auto‑panning and amplitude modulation (tremolo). For overall sound‑shaping, a pair of simple bass/treble tone controls apply to the Patch as a whole — not exactly exciting, but welcome all the same.
Next in the audio chain is a simple delay effect, with control over time, feedback and level. A variety of delay types can be chosen, with options for panning and stereo ping‑pong delays amongst the offerings. The maximum delay time comes with the basic mono delay of up to 1.25 seconds.
Thirteen different modulation‑type effects can be added to the Patch, including various types of chorus and a new distortion effect, which does a pretty good job to these ears. I still very much like the Deep Flanger that impressed me so much on the JP8000. These are preset effects, the only editing options being to synchronise the modulation speed with LFO 1 or an external MIDI clock.
Mono and legato modes are provided for expressive solo lines, and portamento for smooth glides between notes. I still have to gripe about portamento being restricted to a fixed‑time setting. An option to emulate Moog's fixed‑rate portamento would be near the top of my wish list. In a software‑based synth this should not be too hard to implement, surely?
I could go on to describe all of the performance features on the JP8080, but suffice it to say that little has changed from the JP8000. The friendly MIDI‑clockable arpeggiator still delights me, and the RPS (Real‑time Phrase Sequencer) still leaves me a tad bemused — does anyone make regular use of this feature on their JP8000? Let me know... The relationship between the arpeggiator and the JP's two MIDI inputs needs a little explanation. The idea here is that the JP takes both a MIDI input from a keyboard, attached to the 'Remote Keyboard' MIDI input, and another from a MIDI sequencer, attached to the 'normal' MIDI input. The connected keyboard becomes much like part of the JP8080; its messages being used by the JP to provide control input, which it then re‑transmits, interpreted and re‑channelised, at its MIDI output. In this way, for instance, the JP can be encouraged to transmit its arpeggios as MIDI data. The drawback to this approach is that the arpeggiator itself cannot be accessed from the 'normal' MIDI input. 'OK', you may be thinking, 'then I'll just plug my sequencer into the remote keyboard MIDI input and access it from there'. Well, this will work, but Roland have poisoned the watering hole by permitting full SysEx reception only on the 'normal' MIDI input! I, like many users, will want to store SysEx data at the start of a song to set up the JP for playback (Roland even encourage this practice in the manual). I fail to see why Roland have taken this step since anyone not wanting to dedicate a keyboard to their JP8080 (and I think this includes most of us) is forced to make provision for both of the JP's MIDI inputs to enable full and proper use of the machine. Frustrating.
Motion control, where movements of the JP's control knobs can be recorded and played back in performance, is also implemented on the JP8080. Roland have upped the number of bars to 99 for the new boy. This is one of the most impressive features of the JP8080, allowing complex tonal changes to happen whilst freeing up MIDI bandwidth into the bargain.
So, if you were expecting the JP8080 to provide a rackmounting alternative to the JP8000, then I can happily report that you will not be disappointed. I A/B'd the two, for safety's sake, and found nothing to differentiate between them. SysEx messages happily transferred between the machines, once I had figured out which MIDI input socket to use (see above)! But the JP8080 has some other fascinating features that the JP8000 lacks, not least of which is the new vocoder. Did I say vocoder? I meant to say, 'Voice Modulator'. I don't know why Roland shy away from using the term 'vocoder', but, in essence, a vocoder is what we have here — and a very good one it is too.
This is clearly not the place to go into the theory of vocoder operation, but suffice it to say that this is a 12‑band device with the capability to accept both line and microphone inputs, and impart filtering characteristics onto an external signal if required. When operating in Voice Modulator mode, the twelve envelope control sliders double up as cut/boost controls for the formant filters, giving a great degree of control. After the usual obligatory round of 'Sparky's Magic Piano' and 'Mr. Blue Sky', I plugged some drum loops in and discovered a whole world of inspiration for the next album. The results are clean, clear, usable and easy to achieve, unlike those from some older 'classic' vocoders I could mention.
For those who want to get into the details, the JP offers a mind‑boggling array of options and parameters to hone the Vocal Modulator to exacting requirements. Roland have provided a logical diagram of the internal structure, which helps out when the head scratching really begins. Options include the ability to switch between front and rear panel inputs for the Carrier and Modulator inputs, to balance the external input with the internally modulated sound, to add delay and ensemble effects, to vary the bandwidth characteristics of the filter banks, and to vary the level and cutoff of the noise element that is added to the modulated sound (to synthesize sibilants). To go into all the detail here would take at least the 12 pages that Roland dedicate to it in the manual. One specific worthy of mention is the internally generated 'Robot Voice' oscillator that can be added to the signal. This comes with pitch and level controls, and is actually quite good, if you like that sort of thing. With so much control at hand, Roland have thoughtfully provided a series of 'Voice Modulator Initialise' functions to get results quickly. These initialisations go by the names of Vintage, Silky, Huskyvoice, Breakbeats, Robot, Huskyrobot, Standard, Radio and Morph Ctrl, and provide a good starting point for most uses. Roland have also provided a number of Performances with examples of the use of the Vocal Modulator and the filter banks, and refer to these in the manual where appropriate.
In addition to the standard vocoder features, Roland have also added a 'Vocal Morph' option, which puts multiple front‑panel parameters under the control of the audio input — much like the 'Motion' control feature. Imagine modulating filter cutoff and resonance by spluttering incoherently into the microphone, or sweeping oscillator pitch for searing sync‑lead solos by reciting 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. Virtually all of the JP8080's controls can be set to respond to morphing, in a positive or negative direction and by a definable range. Heady stuff, huh? The control signal is, in fact, derived from frequencies around the 1.2kHz region, or the vowel 'ah' sound, so making noises around this vowel will have most effect. The information generated by the Vocal Morph is also transmitted as MIDI controller data for use in an external MIDI instrument. How musical the results will be depends largely on how much effort you make in setting up the Performance. I have to say that my patience ran out long before I arrived at anything particularly usable.
The manual is pretty good, despite a few 'Japanglish' translations. There are sections dedicated to the understanding of sound and sound‑creation tips, which should give even newcomers a good grasp of the basics. Cross‑references are included where useful, and reference is made to Patch and Performance numbers where examples can be found.
Before I run out of space, I ought to mention a couple of other new features. The first is the SmartMedia memory‑card slot, sadly lacking from the JP8000. Roland offer a choice of 2Mb or 4Mb card for storage of up to 4096 Performances and 8192 Patches, plus RPS patterns, Motion Controls and system settings. These cards are quite tiny, and Roland have included a screw‑in bracket to prevent your card being, er, borrowed. Secondly, the Preview feature turns the JP8080's 16 selection buttons into a mini polyphonic keyboard — not the way I'd like to play the next gig, but useful when you're writing a review away from the studio!
This is a machine with depth that belies even the generous amount of controls adorning its front panel. The problem is not how good this machine is, because the answer is 'very good indeed'. The problem is the quality of the machines against which it is now competing. The JP8000 had a fairly easy time of it, but things have moved on apace.
The JP8080's most immediate rival has to be the Novation Supernova, which scores mightily with its three‑oscillator (with virtual sync oscillator), 16‑voice architecture, more advanced effects, eight‑part multitimbrality and eight separate outputs. The JP8080 counters with its vocoder, RPS, Motion Control and assignable control features, but is this really enough? I can't help feeling that this time around Roland are most definitely up against a serious contender.
This is an excellent device, put together well and with enough flexibility to keep you tweaking for months. I certainly had a great time playing around just rediscovering the joys of analogue synthesis, and making a fool of myself with the vocoder. That this is a very capable and powerful machine is beyond question, but this time around I certainly wouldn't buy before I'd checked out the competition.
- 10‑note polyphonic (8‑note when using Vocal Modulator).
- 64 user Performances, 192 preset Performances.
- 128 user Patches, 384 preset Patches.
- Programmable arpeggiator.
- Delay and chorus effects.
- RPS feature for single‑finger playback of recorded patterns.
- Single, Split, Dual and Unison key modes.
- Dimensions (mm): 482(w) x 88(d) x 264(h).
- Weight: 4.5kg.
If you want to hear the JP8080 in all its glory, check out the following Performances:
- P1‑11 'Chariots' — Sounds better than the original to me.
- P1‑42 'Fanfare' — Turn it up and feel the combined attack of deep, solid bass and searing top end. One to scare toddlers with.
- P2‑53 'Unison Bass'/P2‑63'Fat Bass Synth' — Watch those speaker cones!
- P3‑26 'Fibreoptics' — A high‑pass filter doing what it does best.
- P3‑42 'Talisman' — Simply huge.
- Look in P2‑80 to 88 for examples of the Vocal Modulator.
- Realistic, powerful analogue emulation.
- Built‑in Vocal Modulation features.
- Controls transmit as MIDI messages.
- Flexible and inspiring modulation possibilities.
- Immediacy of real‑time control.
- External input to filter.
- Memory card slot.
- Button‑keyboard' preview function.
- Lacks features, polyphony and multitimbrality compared to some of its contemporaries.
- Quirky use of two MIDI inputs.
- No dedicated MIDI Thru socket.
- Sharp learning curve for many of the Vocal Modulator features.
Another excellent synth from Roland, and one that is genuinely enjoyable to use. Vocal Modulator features are more than welcome, but it remains to be seen whether this and the other new features will be enough to compete with the new breed of modelling synths appearing on the market.