Roland Alpha Juno-1
If you're not an FM fan, but are looking for a low-cost polysynth that can double as a MIDI expander, you won't need to look further than Roland's new Alpha Juno-1 according to Mark Jenkins.
Roland's Alpha Juno-1 is the company's most compact polysynth to date. Mark Jenkins assesses its role as vanguard of a new breed of Roland keyboards...
In the shops well before the Frankfurt Music Fair, the Alpha Juno-1 acts as a pointer towards Roland's new synthesizer range. At the time of writing we already know about the Alpha Juno-2, which adds velocity and pressure sensitivity and an extra octave of keys to its smaller brother's design, and about a couple of sampling keyboard innovations. But the JU-1 points the way from the lower end of the keyboard market, onwards and upwards.
The Alpha Juno-1 is six-voice polyphonic and bases itself, sonically-speaking, on the well-established Juno 106 analogue voice, but introduces a new control system, the Alpha dial, to help you programme that voice. Apart from dispensing with most of the Juno 106's slider controls, the JU-1 also (unusually for Roland) offers preset sounds. There are 64 such presets which can be used as the starting point for developing your own sounds to be stored in the 64 programmable memories.
The JU-1's budget price is largely due to the saving in control costs represented by use of the Alpha dial, a single continuously rotating control (a la Moog Source and Synclavier) which both selects and adjusts parameters to be edited. There are still a few parameters which have their own dedicated controls for faster editing, and logically enough these are assigned to the functions you'll need most - specifically, the 'Tone Modify' controls for Mod Rate, Mod Depth, Brilliance (filter cut-off) and Envelope Time. To change any of these parameters while playing or programming, you simply hit the relevant button and turn the Alpha dial.
To edit other parameters, you go into Edit mode for selection of the correct parameter first, then Value mode to adjust it. The system's not as complicated as it may sound, despite the fact that the Edit section has four main functions too — Parameter Select, Value, Name, and Write. The first two we've touched on, and the latter pair are fairly self-explanatory: the JU-1's LCD display, being backlit (Yamaha please take note), is easily read and allows you to assign any programmed sound (Name mode) a specific name, up to 16 characters long, whereby the Alpha dial simply calls up the upper and lowercase letters of the alphabet in order, with a few numbers and symbols being thrown in for good measure. The Write function allows you to save a newly-modified sound to any of the 64 user memories.
OK, so you have a lot of sounds with appropriate names. How do you call them up? The JU-1 has two sets of eight DX7-type membrane switches on its sleek front panel which allow you to select programmable sounds in eight banks of eight, while another pair of membrane switches take you from Program to Preset mode to use the 64 preset voices. If you run out of memories or require long-term storage, sounds can be dumped to tape, which is cheaper but slower than a cartridge-based method.
The main difficulty in using the JU-1's Alpha dial/LCD combination lies in the large number of parameters available. The filter, oscillator, envelope and memory functions of the JU-1 are expanded as compared to the Juno 106, and that means a lot of dialling before you find the parameter you want displayed on the LCD. This process should hopefully speed up with familiarity of use though.
More encouragingly familiar are the synthesizer's performance controls; you can quickly switch in Portamento or a 'single-finger' programmable Chord Memory, which thankfully can be written and remembered as part of a patch if desired. You can pitch the keyboard down an octave, in addition to having programmed pitching, which is very important on a four-octave keyboard like this. If your music demands more keys, you'll need to go for the Roland Juno-2, though using the JU-1 simply as a MIDI expander provides you with an eight octave range - a point on which we'll expand, if you'll pardon the pun.
The JU-1 has a very full set of MIDI functions, and responds to both velocity and after-touch transmitted over MIDI, which further enhances its suitability as an expander unit. Operating in Omni or Poly MIDI modes, it can transmit whole patches over MIDI (channels 1-16) to other JU-1s, and since it's relatively compact (without having mini keys or becoming a keyboardless rack unit, on which it's rather difficult to play spontaneous lead solos) it could be an ideal expander - perhaps for someone using a DX7 as their main synth. Those who appreciate the value of multi-timbral synths, however, will be disappointed to learn that Roland (just like Yamaha with their DX100) persist in ignoring this worthwhile avenue of synthesis, and have not implemented MIDI's Mono mode on this instrument. Had they done so, they would probably have grabbed some of Casio's CZ101 customers along the way.
On the subject of the DX7, the Juno-1 has a DX7-style envelope chart emblazoned on the right-hand side of its control panel, which is handy since the machine uses a new multi-stage envelope design. Not as complex as that of the DX7, hardly surprising considering the price differential, it offers a couple of new possibilities in each patch with regard to the fading in of effects and internal movement of the sound.
There are also added oscillator options, with three combinable pulse waves, five sawtooth waves, and a sub-oscillator (LFO) with six pulse wave options. So the basic Juno brass, rich strings and twangy synth effects are still there, but with greater subtlety, boosted further by a programmable rate parameter on the chorus unit - a vast improvement over the dual rate chorus on the Juno 106.
The lush analogue sounds of this Juno are a perfect counterpoint to Yamaha's cleaner FM sounds, and the velocity and pressure response make the JU-1 and DX7 ideal companions - that's what MIDI does for you! But the JU-1 will still be attractive to the relative beginner as a first keyboard, one which is likely to be retained rather than replaced as a set-up expands. It's a very respectable polysynth (as long as four octaves of keys and six-voice polyphony doesn't restrict your playing), it's versatile and it comes in at a reasonable price.
Certainly the machine is just the first of a new generation of instruments from Roland that adopt the Alpha dial approach - already in evidence on the Alpha Juno-2 and forthcoming MC-500 MIDI MicroComposer. Don't expect the world from the Juno-1 and you'll be very happy with it. If you want the world - well, there's always the Alpha Juno-2, the massive JX-10, the Planet-S, the MUSE composer software, the Super Jupiter...
The Alpha Juno-1 retails at £575 including VAT.
Review by Mark Jenkins
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