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Page 2: Roland Jupiter X

Polyphonic Synthesizer By Gordon Reid
Published July 2020

The Jupiter Xm

The three-octave mini-keys-equipped Roland Jupiter Xm.The three-octave mini-keys-equipped Roland Jupiter Xm.

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.

In Use

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...

Conclusions

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.

Connectivity

Roland Jupiter X rear panel connections.Rear panel connections.

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.

I-Arpeggio

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

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.

Memories

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.

Pros

  • 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?

Cons

  • 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.

Summary

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.

information

Jupiter X £2199, Jupiter Xm £1199. Prices include VAT.

www.roland.com

Jupiter X $2499, Jupiter Xm $1499.

www.roland.com