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.
Zen Core & The Base Engine
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.
Instrument Specific Applications
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 can run on any other instruments based upon the BMC/Zen architecture.
When I first heard of the Jupiter‑X I was delighted to learn that it was going to host a piano derived from the RD-700GX. But I was later surprised to discover that its RD Piano engine is based upon nothing more than 18 samples in the Base Engine's ID:E library. What's more, it shares the same parameter map as the Base Engine synthesizer. Consequently, I couldn't see why Roland describes it as an Instrument Specific Application, nor why it should be constrained to Part 1 of a Scene. The answer appears to lie in its dedicated effect. Rather than allow an MFX to be used, a Sympathetic/Cabinet Resonance effect is provided and the chaps at Roland claim that it's this that restricts the RD Piano to Part 1. This makes no sense to me, but I ended up looking at it like this: you can program Tones using the ID:E samples and sympathetic resonance in Part 1 or the same samples and an MFX in Parts 2, 3 and 4. Alternatively, you can insert anything else from the libraries into an RD Piano Tone in Part 1 to take advantage of the sympathetic resonance effect. But a huge amount of confusion would have been avoided had Sympathetic Resonance been programmed as a standard MFX.
Moving on, I was hoping that the XV engine would be based upon a dedicated XV5080 sample library, but it isn't, and comparing the original's waveform list with the Jupiter‑X's libraries reveals that its PCMs are scattered throughout them. What's more, the XV engine again shares the same parameter map as the Base Engine synth, so there's nothing to suggest why it's any different from it. The answer appears to be that the filters, contours and LFOs of the XV engine are based upon the XV5080, whereas those of the Base Engine synth are not. Certainly, the XV factory sounds are very similar to those of the original but, since the parameter map is different, you may have to find appropriate compromises if you want to recreate your own XV5080 sounds on the Jupiter‑X. On a positive note, you can use all of the Jupiter‑X's PCMs within the XV engine to create what is, in effect, a greatly expanded XV5080.
Now let's look at the physically modelled engines. These are not based on the ACB algorithms used in the System 8 but on a less power-hungry technology called ABM (analogue behaviour modelling). Roland describe ACB as being 'ultra-precise' whereas ABM offers 'a more holistic and dynamic recreation' of vintage synthesizers; in other words, the company's engineers have attempted to obtain similar results without modelling in as much detail as before. So... how successful have they been?
I compared the Jupiter engine in the Jupiter‑X to my Jupiter 8. Not to put too fine a point on it, the ABM engine sounds gorgeous but it's not quite as accurate as the ACB version. However, I'm not about to complain about the difference, especially since the ABM engine offers a maximum of 32-note polyphony, responds to velocity and aftertouch, has a slightly expanded parameter set and has a wider range of values for the LFO rate as well as the filter cutoff frequency, resonance and filter envelope depth, all of which add to the engine's capabilities without in any way detracting from its Jupiter-i-ness. What's more, despite some significant differences in the layouts of the two synths, programming the Jupiter‑X can feel much like programming a Jupiter 8, and that's no minor accolade.
The same is true of the Juno engine. While the ABM parameter map is more accurate to the original than the ACB map, there are occasions when it doesn't quite hit the spot. For example, the Junos' organs (created using the sub-oscillator for the 16' drawbar, the oscillator for the 8' drawbar, and the self-oscillating filter for the 5-2/3' drawbar) are classic sounds, but the Jupiter‑X doesn't recreate them perfectly because the filter doesn't sync to the oscillator in the same way. Furthermore, the MFX Juno Chorus isn't quite the same. It can sound excellent, but it's not precisely the same.
Next we come to the JX (JX8P/JX10) engine. My Super-JX10 was my primary keyboard for nearly a decade so I liberated it from storage, placed it next to the Jupiter‑X and performed a detailed comparison between the two. While it's still quite close, I found JX to be the least authentic of the Jupiter‑X's engines. Some of the differences are functional — for example, there's only one sync mode rather than two — while others leap out when programming; things such as the difference in how cross-mod affects DCO2, or the maximum filter resonance, which is far more aggressive on the original. Would this bother me if I were approaching the Jupiter‑X without having programmed a JX10 to within an inch of its life in the 1980s? No, it wouldn't; it's an excellent synthesizer even if it's not a perfect recreation of the original.
Finally there's the SH engine. Again I made a direct comparison with the original to assess the transition from ACB to ABM. On this occasion I was impressed with the accuracy of ABM. Sure, there are small differences, but I could almost always recreate the sounds of the SH101. Furthermore, the additional facilities offered by SH take it to places that no SH101 ever knew existed.
All of the vintage emulations also have access to a facility that I haven't mentioned yet; a set of three buttons in the filter section marked R, M and S. Up to this point, I had only been using the R mode that provides models of the original Roland filters, whereas the other two options refer to models of the filters offered on vintage Moog and Sequential synths. As you might imagine, changing the filter type can make a significant difference to the timbre, and this opens up a whole new set of possibilities for each engine.
At the other end of the philosophical spectrum, the Jupiter‑X provides two functions that make the vintage synth engines behave badly. The first is ageing which, in theory, emulates the deterioration of the components in analogue synths. The second is Warm Up, which offers several parameters to make the pitch drift as the internal temperature of the Jupiter‑X increases. Only people who never played in the 1970s would dream of reintroducing these problems; we were ecstatic to leave them behind nearly 40 years ago, and to reintroduce them here is madness. It would be like buying a modern superbike with oil leak, drum brake and excessive vibration options. Insane!
With its three-octave mini-keyboard and redesigned control panel, the Xm is a cut-down Jupiter‑X. Various sources have claimed that, except for the panel, it's identical with its larger sibling and that's nearly true; despite a few minor differences they appear to be the same synthesizer in different clothes. My first reaction to the Xm was to wonder why it wasn't the rackmount module that its name suggests but, having played it, I realise that there are many who will like it just as it is. It packs a huge amount of functionality into a small and light instrument and, if you can live with mini-keys, it can be great fun.
Once you've inserted a Tone into a Part, you can choose a single MFX to affect it. The list of these is impressive, with 90 options including emulations of revered units such as the CE1, SBF325,and SDD320, plus more from other manufacturers. The Scene then offers four global effects to modify the sum of all the Parts. Thankfully, the order shown on the panel is not the order in which they are applied. Instead, the output from each Part can pass through the overdrive or direct to the output, and also in parallel to the chorus, delay and reverb busses. These three effects are then applied in parallel, with the exception that the output from the chorus can be routed through the reverb. This is not dissimilar to previous effect architectures from Roland, but it would be much easier to understand with an on-screen diagram!
There were numerous times during this review when I found myself preferring the Jupiter‑X to the Jupiter 8, Juno 106, Super‑JX10 and SH101 sitting alongside it.
You can assign each Part within a Scene its own MIDI channel and direct it to two independent digital audio channels. This means that, despite the Jupiter‑X only offering stereo analogue outputs, you can use it multitimbrally. It works like this... The USB port carries both MIDI and audio. To take advantage of this you have to download and install the appropriate driver but, once this is installed, you'll find that the Jupiter‑X appears in your I/O list with four inputs and 14 outputs; 1+2 carrying the stereo mix, 3+4, 5+6, 7+8, 9+10 and 11+12 carrying the signals from the five Parts, and 13+14 carrying the raw signals from the mic or auxiliary input. To test this, I set up a Scene with a Jupiter engine in Part 1 and an SH engine in Part 2 with no MFXs on either Part but lots of Scene effects. Played through my monitors from the analogue outputs the sound was the expected swirly, echo-y and reverb-y mix of the two. I then created a project within Digital Performer 10 and directed channels 3+4 to track 1 and channels 5+6 to track 2. When I recorded the Jupiter‑X I now obtained two independent, dry recordings of the two Parts, ready for studio effects and mixing. In contrast, the best that you can achieve in the analogue domain (which, let's face it, is where almost all live performance will occur) is to select Dual mode and send two Parts individually to the left and right outputs.
By this point I felt that I had mastered the Jupiter‑X, but programming it was still not as simple as it should have been. While its physical control panel is gorgeous and the 10-bit control resolution makes the knobs and faders feel very smooth, its overly large multi-function buttons are used for engine, Part, Scene and effects selection as well as when programming the arpeggiator, and are begging for mistakes to be made. I also have an issue with the screen. Because oLEDs are so sharp, manufacturers think that they can get away with installing tiny screens hosting seemingly endless menus. To be fair, there are several shortcuts to get you to where you want to go, but the Jupiter‑X cries out for a large, clear display rather than a minuscule 128 x 64 pixel one. At the very least, it should be capable of displaying the values of a given parameter in all four Partials in the PCM engines. After all, the JV1080 could do this in 1994.
I also have to mention its MIDI implementation, which is more limited than you might imagine. The top panel sends SysEx rather than MIDI CCs, so the only way to be able to edit automation is to create the automation curves elsewhere then assign the resulting CCs to the Jupiter‑X's performance controllers or the limited number of software controllers, and then direct these to the desired voice parameters. It works, but it's not sensible and I can see it being a deal-breaker for many prospective users.
However, my biggest problem with the Jupiter‑X is that, even when you're programming a Tone, you're still in Scene mode. This seems to be a growing paradigm for synthesizer interfaces, but I really don't like it. If I'm editing a Tone in one Part I don't want to be listening to a Tone in another, or even to multiple Tones because I've pressed the wrong buttons. The other thing to remember is that the Jupiter‑X uses pots rather than encoders, so the values on the control panel probably don't reflect the sound that you're playing. This isn't a problem unless you bump against a knob or fader when playing, whereupon the parameter value might jump instantly to something you don't want it to be. Not a problem in the living room, this could be a real embarrassment on stage at Hammersmith Apollo, so a panel lock function would be a welcome addition.
Unfortunately, there are huge swathes of Jupiter‑X parameters and capabilities that I haven't had space to discuss here. These include important functions such as how its mono, unison, split and dual modes work, how to set up the performance controllers, how to tailor velocity and aftertouch, how to adjust the brightnesses and colours of the buttons, how the input and output audio streams are mixed and handled, how to transfer sounds from one Zen Core synth to another... and much more. The documentation isn't always helpful, so I'm afraid that you'll have to discover many of these for yourself.
But all is (mostly) forgiven when I play the Jupiter‑X; its Base Engine synth is impressive and its vintage emulations are even better. You may believe that all digital emulations of analogue synths sound dry and lifeless but, if so, I fear that you need to visit your audiologist or, more likely, your psychologist. Does it always sound exactly like its inspirations? No it doesn't, and if you spend your life looking for differences you'll find them. But it always sounds excellent and, for me, its various engines can even be improvements upon the originals because they offer meaningful enhancements without damaging the underlying sounds and philosophies of the originals. Then there's the polyphony; with the VA engines offering up to 32 voices, you can layer them to create fabulous soundscapes. And as for value, I recently saw a Jupiter 8 sell for £16,500...
With its 61-note keyboard, internal power supply, balanced outputs, and classic design, I had preconceived the Jupiter‑X as some sort of System 8 Pro, but it's nothing of the sort. While the System 8 and its expansions strive for the most accurate recreations of Roland's vintage synths, the Jupiter‑X pays homage to them but instead hosts superb new synthesizers that are similar to, but not clones of, the originals. Indeed, revealing a sacrilegious streak that might see me burned at the stake, there were numerous times during this review when I found myself preferring the Jupiter‑X to the Jupiter 8, Juno 106, Super-JX10 and SH101 sitting alongside it. Add the Jupiter‑X's PCM-based engines to all of this and you have a gem.
Nonetheless, I can't give it a clean bill of health. I think that the way that Roland has presented the PR‑x and Common synths, the RD Piano and the XV5080 engine is confusing, I don't like the fact that you're always working within a Scene, the MIDI implementation is not helpful, and the documentation is often inadequate. So the Jupiter‑X is at best a flawed gem. But then there's the sound. Come on Roland... sort out the shortcomings, and I'll beat a path to your door.
Credit: I would like to extend my thanks to Andrew Pimblott at Roland UK who was indefatigable in his efforts to help me understand the Jupiter‑X.
The Jupiter‑X's rear panel starts with 5-pin MIDI In and Out/Thru sockets followed by quarter-inch inputs for a sustain pedal and an expression pedal. The next seven sockets provide analogue audio I/O, starting with a 3.5mm stereo input followed by a combined quarter-inch/XLR microphone socket with its associated input level control. Unfortunately, phantom power is not provided, which reduces your choice of microphone considerably. Stereo outputs are provided on both quarter-inch and balanced XLR sockets, and a quarter-inch stereo headphones socket carries the same audio. A 3.5mm headphones output at the front of the instrument echoes this. To the right you'll find two USB sockets; an 'A' for a memory stick and a 'B' for computer connection. Power is supplied using a standard IEC socket.
The Jupiter‑X also receives audio over Bluetooth, and I'm currently listening to music transmitted from my Mac to the synth and then to the PA in my studio. There have been a handful of audible bumps, but most of the time it seems to work correctly. It's a shame that it doesn't transmit Bluetooth audio because that would be useful for wireless headphones, but it does transmit Bluetooth MIDI so you can use it as a keyboard for suitable applications running on mobile phones and tablets.
Roland claim that I-Arpeggio uses AI to analyse your performance and create optimal patterns based upon what you play. Really? Artificial Intelligence in an arpeggiator? If so, I had better keep it away from my toaster otherwise all hell could break loose. Such nonsense aside, there are two major parameters that determine the nature of an I-Arpeggio. The first is the Type, and there are 56 of these ranging from simple up/down patterns to more complex phrases. The second is the Rhythm played by Part 5, and there are 45 of these. I'm not a fan of the factory Rhythms because they are dominated by four-on-the-floor grooves that (for me) got tired in the last century.
Once you have chosen the Type and Rhythm there are numerous other parameters that allow you to tailor the output. Some are simple — tempo, range, gate length and so on — but others such as those that determine how the arpeggio follows the notes and timing of your performance take longer to grasp. The most recent four loops are continuously recorded within the Jupiter‑X and you can recall and edit one of these within a step editor, saving the edited pattern or exporting it to your DAW. You can also create new patterns from scratch. I doubt that I would use I-Arpeggio as anything other than a conventional arpeggiator. Perhaps I'm missing the point, but it seems to me that there are easier ways to achieve its more complex functions. Nonetheless, it's there if you want it.
Zenology is a plug‑in for the Mac and PC. Currently, it's a version of the Zen Core Base Engine synthesizer with very limited editing capabilities, but Roland are promising that it will soon support all four of the Jupiter‑X's vintage synth engines. A Pro version with full editing capabilities is also scheduled for release later in the year whereupon I can see it becoming the 'big screen' for the Jupiter‑X, allowing you to program your sounds more easily before loading them into the hardware.
You can obtain Zenology without charge if you sign up for a 30-day trial of the Roland Cloud. If you later decide not to pay the monthly fee, you can keep the Zenology Lite player for free. Ultimately, I can envisage professionals who own Zen Core hardware also paying for Zenology, designing and swapping sounds between platforms as needed.
The number of factory Tones provided is impressive. There are 116 for the Jupiter engine, 122 for the Juno, 117 for the JX and 102 for the SH. And, while there are just five RD Tones, all seven factory banks from the XV5080 are recreated, totalling 896 Tones.
The list for the Base Engine is even more extensive, with 239 in PR‑A, 459 in PR‑B, 128 in PR‑C, 1109 in PR‑D and 837 in Common, some of which are based upon PCMs alone, others upon the VA oscillators alone, and yet others that use a combination of both. There's also a small bank of 15 sounds called JP‑X INI in the printed list but JP‑X INT in the menus, and it's still not clear to me where these fit in.
Nonetheless, I have to question the number of user memories provided; there are only 256 slots for user Tones, which I view as miserly. Similarly, there are only 256 Scenes, arranged as 16 banks of 16. On delivery, seven of these banks (five in the Xm) are filled with overwritable factory Scenes while nine are empty and waiting for your creations.
- The sound.
- It looks gorgeous.
- The sound.
- It feels solid and robust.
- The sound.
- It's inexpensive for everything that it offers.
- Did I mention the sound?
- The documentation is too brief and doesn't tell you everything that you need to know.
- You're always in Scene mode, which lends itself to errors and confusion.
- It needs a larger screen and shorter menus.
- It offers limited user memories.
- The control panel sends SysEx rather than MIDI CCs.
There will always be those who crave classic synths and can afford to pay for them but, if you're in the market for some vintage Rolands today, you have to audition the Jupiter X. Despite some flaws, it sounds wonderful and, were you to go that route, you could use the price difference as the deposit for a small house.
Jupiter X £2199, Jupiter Xm £1199. Prices include VAT.
Jupiter X $2499, Jupiter Xm $1499.