Is the Zen‑powered X the best Juno Roland have ever made?
I reviewed the Jupiter‑X and Xm in the Sound On Sound July 2020 issue, and spent the first part of the article discussing how Roland’s BMC hardware and Zen software could be combined to create a range of instruments based upon a single technology. Since then, we’ve seen the release of numerous small Zen‑based products as well as larger ones including a new series of Fantoms. But now there’s another Zen synthesizer that — apart from physical differences — appears to be little different from the Jupiter‑X. Where does it fit into the Zen universe?
The Juno‑X is again based upon the BMC chip and is again akin to a digital photo album of Roland’s Greatest Hits, this time offering three flavours of Juno (instead of virtual analogue models of the Jupiter‑8, Juno‑60/106, JX‑8P and SH‑101) alongside a modified XV‑5080, RD piano, Vocoder and generic Zen Core synthesizer. Behind the buttons that select these, you’ll find the legend Preloaded Models and, during the course of the review, it became possible to replace the installed instrument‑specific engines with your choice of synth engines from the Zen universe including, somewhat perversely, the Jupiter‑8. However, in parallel with a newer and more powerful Jupiter‑X engine that is restricted to installation in the Jupiter‑X hardware, the new Juno‑X engine is exclusive to the Juno‑X hardware. This is certainly a way to differentiate the two synths from one another and from other Zen products, but it’s an entirely artificial one and only time will tell whether the company will be able to resist the pressure to make these engines more widely available if they come under pressure to do so.
Despite the different choice of pre‑installed engines, the underlying facilities of the two synths are pretty much the same. Cynics might therefore suggest that Roland is trying to sell us two synths for the cost and effort of developing just one, and they would be right. Nevertheless, there are numerous exemplars for this, of which the most obvious is probably the huge family of Yamaha 4‑op FM synths released in the 1980s. The justification for the existence of the Juno‑X therefore seems to be that it provides a simpler and more intuitive interface for controlling the synth engines than is provided by the Jupiter‑X, the new Fantoms and the Zenology software environment.
I can see how Roland reached this position. When they launched the System 8 in 2017, they received numerous compliments regarding the instrument’s sound and flexibility but widespread criticism concerning its short keyboard and unusual control panel. Consequently, it must have made a lot of sense to develop a wider synth with a more expensive feel as well as a programming interface modelled on a revered vintage synth. We can therefore view the Jupiter‑X and the Juno‑X as two variants of essentially the same instrument that allow us to choose between a larger, more complex panel, or a smaller and simpler one. That’s not as daft as it might sound. I have already spoken to people who claim to prefer the more basic Juno panel and are happy to work within its limitations while leaving the heavy lifting (whether through a larger and more detailed control panel, menu‑diving or an editor) to someone else.
I’m not going to review all of the synth engines available for the Juno‑X, nor delve into things like its five‑part arpeggiator, multiple MFX effects generators, global effects, integrated speakers and Bluetooth connectivity because I’ve covered much of this ground before. But it behoves us to take a few moments to consider the new bit, which is the Juno‑X synth engine itself. I suppose that one could describe this as a reimagining of the original Junos with a few extra parameters thrown in. But that would be to undersell it considerably.
I carried out a detailed comparison of the Juno‑60, 106 and X engines, and those “few extended parameters” include (take a deep breath...) a choice of LFO waveforms, LFO sync with a large range of clock ratios, LFO amp modulation, variable waveform levels rather than on/off buttons, envelope control of the pulse width, a SuperSaw option with manual as well as LFO and...