Roland's latest synth module boasts an impressive spec, including a 32‑bit RISC processor, 64‑voice polyphony and the ability to host up to four expansion cards simultaneously. Could it be the only synth you'll need? Dave Crombie finds out.
The JV1080 is Roland's latest, newest, super‑est synthesizer module, coming, as it does, under the Super JV banner. We've seen a lot of 'Super' instruments and modules from Roland over the years (most notably the Super Jupiter), none of them particularly enhanced by the addition of this irksome adjective, which has had its day, in my opinion, and should be left to the likes of UK Gold.
My first impression (and second and third impressions) of this sound module was that it is a remarkable unit at a very attractive price. Like most people when they get hold of a new piece of kit, I plug it in, wind up the volume and let rip. The sounds in this instrument are exceptional for an Sample + Synthesis (S+S) system, and on the whole have an audio quality way beyond what you would expect for the price.
The JV1080 has an impressive specification. It uses a 32‑bit RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Chip) processor running at 66MHz — that's some engine. It generates 64 voices of polyphony and is 16‑part multitimbral, which is what is required of a good workhorse sound module these days. It's interesting to reflect that to make the instruments affordable, early polysynths had just 5‑voice, or maybe 8‑voice, polyphony played from a 5‑octave keyboard. Now we have devices with more voices than those synths had keys.
Like its progenitors, the JV90/80, 1000 and 880, and the JD990, the 1080 can accept the SR‑JV80 Series of expansion boards. The new module is housed in a standard 2U rack, with an 'inspection plate' which, when removed, allows the insertion of up to four expansion cards. The physical business of inserting the boards is simple and as fool‑proof as I guess Roland can make it; it's certainly a better system than externally mounting these boards.
In addition to the extra sound potential offered by expansion boards, the JV1080 also has two slots for memory cards. One accepts PCM cards (SO‑PCM 1 Series) which provide additional waveforms, and the other Data Cards (PN‑JV80 Series), used for storing or loading patch information. Providing such a comprehensive array of expansion options gives the JV1080 the edge over its main non‑Roland competitors, and if Roland continue to bring out new cards, they will extend considerably this unit's life as a major player in the market.
The JV1080, especially when fully stuffed, has an awesome timbral capability.
From an ergonomic perspective, the JV1080 suffers somewhat from the need to look good, to the detriment of its efficiency and ease of use. The controls are positioned around a central, stepped alpha‑dial which determines data values. Positioned beneath this are up/down, left/right cursor buttons, with increment and decrement buttons located nearby. To the left of this 'central command post' is the inevitable 40‑character x 2‑line backlit LCD display — a good one, though, with a very wide angle of view.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about those sad illuminating buttons Roland persist in using — tiny momentaries with a built‑in red LED, which can only be effectively seen when looked at virtually from directly in front. You can't tell if the light is on or off when you're actually pressing them either, and I find them rather too small and located too close together. I know that ergonomics isn't the most important attribute of a modern synthesizer, but when you're likely to spend hours programming your vital portfolio of sounds, these buttons do make the job somewhat more laborious, especially since most of us are unable to position all our rackmount equipment right in front of our faces.
Beneath the display are the main window selection buttons. Initially, confusion reigns; most have five labels (for example, Part Switch Select (screened in blue), Tone Switch (in orange), Common (in orange), Common (in blue), Set‑up (in grey). Everything's fine and makes sense when you've spent a while sorting matters out with reference to the manual, but I do think things could initially have been made clearer.
To the right of the big value knob is a series of buttons for selecting play modes, global and effects utilities and memory locations, and entering and exiting specific areas. However, it's the volume knob which incorporates a great little feature (originally found on the JD990). This can be pressed in to act as a preview button, and you can set it up to step through an arpeggio of notes or play a chord; whilst holding the control you can also perform certain edit operations. This is a really neat idea if you want to check out a sound and you've got the JV1080 hooked up to a sequencer with no direct link to a keyboard.
At any moment in time, the JV1080 is in one of six modes:
Patch (Play/Edit) Mode: for playing (or editing) single patches — the units of sound you would generally select for normal playing.
Performance (Play/Edit) Mode: for stacking, layering or splitting patches, or for setting up the module to respond multitimbrally to a sequencer.
Rhythm Set (Play/Edit) Mode: for playing (editing) percussion instruments from a MIDI keyboard or sequencer.
GM (Play/Edit) Mode: for playing back songs that have been programmed in General MIDI format.
System Mode: for setting up global parameters relevant to the operation of the module.
Utility Mode: for housekeeping jobs such as data storage.
The base unit of sound is a Tone. This is like a simple synthesizer module, with a waveform generator feeding into a filter and then an amplifier; these three elements can be modulated by their own envelope or from one of the two low‑frequency oscillators. The prime component here is the waveform generator, which utilises 8Mb of ROM data to construct the array of 448 possible waveforms — more than any other Roland synth, I believe. Tones can also be used in pairs, allowing for the signal flow path to be changed.
The signal flow algorithms are known as Structures, and to give you an idea of what they offer, let's consider the JV1080's Tone Structure 4. Here Tone 1's Wave Generator is fed directly into its amplifier, then combined with Tone 2's Wave Generator and fed into the first filter. The result is then fed through the Booster effect (a new parameter from Roland, used to distort a signal) and into Tone 2's filter and amplifier. A ring modulator circuit is also available for additional processing. The Structure algorithms give a totally different effect to simply having two sets of 'generator‑to‑filter‑to‑amplifier' configurations, and add dramatically to the sound creation options.
The heart of any digital synthesizer has to be its wave generation. The JV1080 offers 448 different core waveforms as basic building blocks; however, these can be multiplied manyfold by the addition of the aforementioned SR‑JV80 series expansion cards. The quality and range of these samples is of a very high standard, and they give a very wide spectrum of sounds.
Effects are playing an increasingly important part in the shape of today's synthesizers. In a way, they're becoming the fourth building block after the waveform generator (oscillator), the filter and amplifier.
The JV1080 would normally be played in Patch mode — a Patch is a combination of up to four Tones, combined with an effect. The Tones can, of course, be positioned and/or layered over the operating range of that Patch, so as to facilitate splits, stacks and crossfades (both positional and velocity). Performance modes let you take up to 16 Patches and arrange them either into a big stack for a monster sound, or to set them across the MIDI Channel spectrum for multitimbral use. Again, once you've mastered how the soft keys work, the process is fairly simple.
As one would expect, there are Rhythm Sets incorporated into the JV1080 — 10 altogether — consisting of groups of 64 percussion voices mapped across a five‑and‑a‑bit octave MIDI note range. Two of the Sets are fully user‑programmable. The actual waveforms for the percussion voices are chosen from the basic internal waveform data banks from which the chromatic tones are derived, so percussion waveforms are interchangeable with those other sounds. In Performance mode, one of the 16 parts is assigned the Rhythm Set. Overall it's a tidy system, well thought out, and easy to use.
Effects are playing an increasingly important part in the shape of today's synthesizers. In a way, they're becoming the fourth building block after the waveform generator (oscillator), the filter and amplifier. But to really become an effective part of an instrument they have to be integrated into the voice production circuitry — for example, placing a reverb before the amplifier, not just tagging it on at the end of the line.
Roland have gone part of the way towards achieving this. Their effects aren't yet consolidated into the basic signal path, but the JV1080 does allow you to select from a range of MIDI controllers and use them to dynamically direct specific effect parameters
The effects section consists of three parts: a chorus unit, a reverb unit, and a multi‑effects processor designated EFX. The effects routing is fairly complex, but it is clearly explained in the manual, and it does give you an unprecedented amount of versatility — you can specify actual effect amounts for each Tone in a Patch. The chorus and reverb units are straightforward, the former offering rate, depth, delay, feedback, and level controls, whilst the latter offers eight reverb algorithms, each with programmable time, level, feedback, and high‑frequency damping.
There are 40 different EFX algorithms, ranging from simple parametric stereo EQ to: Overdrive for valve amp simulation (quite good); Enhancer; Compressor; Limiter; Rotary speaker simulation; Space‑D, a very pleasing type of stereo chorus; Tap Delays which follow your playing; and all manner of reverb, delay and distortion combinations. All of these effects are fully programmable, and most are very musical. This section is easy to use, has a wide range of options and routings and truly adds to the power of the unit. For example, some of the distorted organ sounds processed by the Overdrive sound brilliant, and the Cathedral Organ, utilising the Stereo EQ and a Hall reverb, is far and away the best such sound I've heard from a synthesizer — though the excellent sample waveform used does contribute greatly.
Pitchbend and Modulation control data can be routed to provide dynamic changes in certain of the EFX's algorithm parameters. The integration of the effects unit can further be seen by the way in which MIDI Clock pulses from an external sequencer can be used. The delay time of some of the effects can be synchronised to the incoming clock, so that a 'musical' delay is obtainable. Similarly, effects such as Step‑Flange, which produces rhythmic pitch changes, can be sync'd to a sequencer. All these small extra facilities combine into a very big 'whole', making this effects section the best I've come across on a Roland synth.
Little things mean a lot. I've mentioned the neat volume control, which includes an audition facility. The alpha dial, like the one on the JD990, also has a push switch incorporated into it. In this case, double clicking the alpha dial resets any parameter that you may have just changed back to its original value — simple, yet so so useful.
Another excellent feature, which must have been generated as a result of end‑user feedback, is Wave Gain, which can be used to boost or cut the actual level of the output of the Wave Generator. Say you're running in Performance mode (or equivalent), and instruments are getting lost; normally the only way to bring up their presence would be to rein in the amplitude of all the other signals, and consequently introduce a little more D‑to‑A distortion. The Wave Gain feature gives you the option of increasing the level going into the filter of a Tone, and consequently lifting that instrument.
The LFOs, like the EFX section, can be synchronised to incoming MIDI clock or MIDI note (TAP) information, and as well as the traditional modulation waveforms, Roland include their rather nicely‑named Chaotic Wave (CHS). I'm sure you can guess what that is.
I would describe the JV1080's manual as OK, a bit daunting on first appearance, but functional, though rather dry. Having said that, however, the Quick Start section is very good, and I particularly like Roland's 'How‑to' index at the back of the book , which simply lists a series of 'How‑to's' (for example,'I Want to Make a Sound Stand Out', and where to find the answers.
The JV1080, especially when fully stuffed, has an awesome timbral capability. It also has an array of features that make it one of the best synthesizer modules currently around. Having said that, there's no one 'must‑have' feature that makes this unit a winner. It's solid, clean and compliant, and very attractively priced — is that what you're looking for? Super.
The JV1080 has a superb range of sounds and overall the fidelity of the output signal is as good as you're going to get at present. Three main things help to contribute to the JV1080's precise sound. Firstly, the D/A (Digital‑to‑Analogue) convertors, which ultimately turn the numbers into sounds, are of a high standard. Secondly, the 8Mb of waveforms, which are extremely well structured and recorded, give the instrument very strong foundations on which to build. Finally, the envelope generators should be considered. They are particularly smooth and responsive, with not a hint of glitch or stutter, not a trace of delay or sogginess. Envelope Generators are often overlooked in favour of more glamorous things like Wave samples or exotic tunings. They haven't been on the JV1080.
There are five expansion cards currently available:
- SR‑JV80‑01 Pop: 224 waveforms and 145 patches. This features a wide range of instruments (basses, guitars, organs, pianos, strings, brass, percussion, and so on).
- SR‑JV80‑02 Orchestral: 174 waveforms and 255 patches. This card offers a full range of classical instruments, including strings, pianos, horns, keyboards and percussion.
- SR‑JV80‑03 Piano: 73 waveforms and 111 patches. This includes acoustic and electric pianos and other stringed keyboards.
- SR‑JV80‑04 Vintage Synth: 255 waveforms and 255 patches. Includes numerous old analogue instruments and electronic effects.
- SR‑JV80‑05 World: 255 waveforms and 255 patches. This card offers a range of refreshing third‑world instruments, including many great percussion patches.
With four of the five cards fitted, you can have around 1500 possible Patches available, and well over 1000 digital sample waves — so a look at all these is impractical; however a few of the most interesting have made themselves known to me...
Many of the JV1080's sounds have a very powerful bass end, making this a killer module for dance work. 'Alternative' (User 002), has a really punchy bass attack, followed by an industrial Sample & Hold body of sound. Even when you play a bottom C, making parts of the sound sub‑audio, the overall gut‑grabbing feel is still there. This sound is incorporated in the 'Techno Loop 1' Performance and the effect is even more dramatic.
Although 'stabs' are a bit passé, 'Impact', a very bright, challenging orchestral stab, does demonstrate the aforementioned points relating to powerful bass end and uncluttered sound. It's an impressive illustration too. Horn Swell has a very mellow, well‑rounded timbre, of a quality you seldom get from a digital synth. It's a classic Copeland (Aaron that is, not Stewart) voicing.
As I've mentioned, the Cathedral organ sound is the best I've ever heard, though it might not interest too many of you. Roland have also done a number on the Fuzz Organ sound, which again is spot on. Overall there is a good balance of imitative, abstract, techno/industrial and effect sounds, complemented by some excellent drum voicings which, again, benefit dramatically from that great bottom end.
Roland's expansion cards have been discussed in this magazine before (see JV90/50/35 review in March 1994), and I would recommend them all. However, there is a degree of overlap between some of the cards and the sounds that come with the unit. The presets that come with the unit are so good that maybe you don't need to fork out £1999 to get four extra cards at a bit of a saving.
- Polyphony 64 voices (max.)
- Multitimbrality 16 Part (15+1 Drum)
- Patch 384
- General MIDI Sound Set 128
- Performance 64
- Rhythm Set 6
- General MIDI Rhythm Set 2
- Patch 128
- Performance 32
- Rhythm Set 2
- Wave Memory: 8Mb internal
- EFX 40 types
- Chorus 1
- Reverb/Delay 1
- 40‑character, 2‑line, backlit LCD
- Mix Out x2
- Output 1 x2
- Output 2 x2
- MIDI In/Out/Thru
- Expansion Board Locations x4 (internal)
- PCM Card Slot
- Data Card Slot
With the increasing use of GM files, Roland, who really pioneered the GM concept, have fully equipped the JV1080 to maximise the potential of the format. There is a specific GM mode which sets up the instrument to play back GM Scores. To enter it, you press Shift + Performance, though you can send a GM System On message from your sequencer to automatically activate GM Mode. There's a separate bank of good GM sounds, with limited editing capabilities.
SOS contributor and occasional Roland demonstrator Nick Magnus was to be heard raving about the JV1080 at its July British Music Fair showing. Since he's had long‑term exposure to the new module, we asked him for a few words...
Perhaps it's a psychological illusion caused by the seductive nature of any exciting new box, but the JV1080 seems to have a remarkably clear, uncluttered sound, even with many parts playing simultaneously. Illusion or not, this clarity has also been observed by various independent sources.
One major feature that makes this synth stand out is the quality of its envelope generators. Never before have I heard digitally‑generated envelopes sound so smooth and natural (dare I say analogue?), without a hint of quantising or glitching, no matter how fast and severe you set them to be — and they can go fast. Clearly, the calculations necessary to perform this feat are a breeze to the 1080's 32‑bit RISC processor, whilst presumably working out the Unified Field Theory with whatever spare processing power remains. This high‑speed computing power also means that there appear to be no discernible timing problems, regardless of how much data is thrown at the unit.
Of the many new features, these will find favour with JV fans everywhere:
- MIDI‑clockable LFOs and certain effects. This does for filters, amplifiers, pitch mod, panning, audio delay, tone delay and flanging what the Wavestation did for wave sequencing. Pure sex.
- Optional 'Boost' voice structures, enabling any TVF following the Boost to be overdriven. Not so much distortion, more a 'Rude' switch. Think Odyssey.
- Up to 12dB gain available for each waveform — invaluable in the Rhythm section for rescuing sounds that are otherwise easily lost in a mix.
- 40 different insert effects, all with generous editing possibilities.
- New PKG filter mode. Used in conjunction with resonance, this enables the filters to be used as static, additive EQ for individual tones or within voice structures.
- All six outputs can be used without sacrificing the effects.
- Separate effect send levels for each multitimbral part.
- Effects are routable to separate outputs.
One wonders where the JV series could possibly go from here. It seems that the majority of the features that could have been employed to improve the JV S+S concept have been included on the 1080. As far as this particular synth engine goes, the only things left on the wish list would be simply more of the same: 32 MIDI channels, 32‑part multitimbral effects, an obscene amount of polyphony, 32 stereo outputs, PCM reading direct from CD ROM... Most of these, I hasten to add, are unlikely to appear for at least... oh, the next few weeks at any rate. So is this the pinnacle of the JV series? This time next year, we may know the answer.
- Superb sound quality.
- Good effects section.
- Great value.
- Control buttons and layout could be better.
- No keypad for entering values.
A very classy act. This module is Roland's best yet, at a very attractive price. There's nothing radically new here, but the quality and features offered have evolved to new heights.