The Jupiter name comes loaded with expectation. Can Roland hit their own high standards?
In 2017 I reviewed the Roland System 8 and concluded that it sounded great; its own synth engine was a revelation, and I was impressed with its Jupiter 8 and Juno expansions. But there were aspects of it that left me cold. My greatest frustration was its four-octave keyboard, which meant that I had to treat it as an expansion module if I wanted to take full advantage of its sounds and, while it doubled the polyphony of the Boutique modules that preceded it, it was still only capable of producing eight voices at a time. It also offered limited patch and performance memories, lacked an XLR microphone input, its screen was tiny, and it was powered by an external power supply that, for me, made it unsuitable for live use.
But now Roland have released the similarly targeted Jupiter X. With its beautiful design and higher quality hardware, five-octave velocity- and pressure-sensitive keyboard, greater polyphony and internal power supply, this seems to be the instrument that the System 8 never quite aspired to be. Consequently, I was delighted to be offered the chance to review it.
Unfortunately, some of my initial enthusiasm evaporated when I tried to find out what was going on inside it. The documentation was of little assistance so, before continuing, I wanted to work out exactly what the Zen Core, the Base Engine, the Instrument Specific Applications and everything else mentioned in the blurb really are.
It took me weeks to fully plumb the depths of the Jupiter X but, having done so, I now feel that I can explain it in just a few paragraphs. It's based upon a new chip called the Behaviour Modelling Core, or BMC. This runs an operating environment called Zen Core that is, in many ways, the equivalent of the operating systems that run on the Intel chips in your Mac or PC. A number of applications running within this environment then provide the various synthesizers and other facilities on offer. The sounds that you generate using these synthesizers are called Tones and, with certain limitations that we'll address shortly, you can insert any Tone into any of the five Parts available. Each Part then adds a dedicated MFX (multi-effect), and the mix of all five Parts plus four global effects is called a Scene. A final EQ and compressor across the outputs complete the signal path.
The first of these applications is called the Zen Core Base Engine. This generates all but one of the effects and also provides a powerful four-Partials-per-Tone synth architecture that echoes many Roland products from the JV1080 onward. It can generate up to 256 simultaneous Partials so, depending on how many Partials you invoke per Tone, that's a polyphony of between 64 and 256 notes if just one Tone is being played. So far, so good... but my confusion began when I found what seemed to be five separate Base Engine synthesizers called Common, PR‑A, PR‑B, PR‑C and PR‑D. Further investigation revealed that all of these have access to all five of the Base Engine's PCM sample libraries and all of them share the same synthesis structure, so I asked the chaps at Roland what's going on. Their explanation boiled down to this: what appear to be five separate synthesizers are merely ways to organise the factory sounds. To add to the confusion, I spent considerable time looking for the Base Engine's virtual analogue synthesizer and discovered that there isn't one. Instead, there's a parameter called OSC Type within what I had perceived to be its purely PCM-based synthesizer. The second of its five options is VA and, if you select this, you have access to nine analogue-style waveforms. Nevertheless, these oscillators' outputs still pass through the same filters and amplifiers as a PCM-based sound.
The Base Engine also generates the Jupiter X's drum kits, and Part 5 of every Scene is dedicated to these. There are 91 kits available and you can modify them using some basic filter and contour adjustments, but no fine editing is possible. In truth, this didn't bother me; the underlying samples are available within the Base Engine libraries and you can build sounds based upon them, but if you want drum tracks in your music there are better ways to obtain them.
The final sound generator in the Base Engine is a vocoder, which is constrained to Part 1 and can't be used with an MFX. It's very simple: plug in a suitable microphone, adjust the input gain, gate, compression and any effects applied to the input signal, select one of two possible carriers, play and sing. Its output is clean, intelligible and very useable.
The rest of the synthesizers offered by the Jupiter X are generated by engines called Instrument Specific Applications. There are six of these and, in principle, they...