It's Juno In January!
Roland Alpha Juno-1 Six-Note Polyphonic Synth
Roland's latest gets the Nick Graham 'Micro Marvel' award.
'Small is Beautiful' has become a cliched catch phrase, but that is exactly how I would describe the new Alpha Juno-1 six-note poly synthesiser recently launched by Roland U.K.
Despite the fact that it has a shorter keyboard (4 octaves) than previous Juno models, its updated features and lower price make it a vast improvement on what was already a highly useful and successful musical instrument. In terms of control and sound production, the new Alpha is a much more powerful tool than the 106, and when used as an expander its capabilities are further enhanced, because although its own keyboard isn't touch sensitive, the synth itself is. This means that when controlled from a keyboard which transmits dynamics and aftertouch it can respond to these parameters.
Apart from the keyboard itself, there are two important physical differences which distinguish the Alpha Juno-1 from the 106. Firstly, all the basic functions are accessed by means of those now familiar membrane switches. Secondly, parameters are selected and their values changed using an entirely new device — the Alpha Wheel. This is situated at the top left hand corner of the instrument and, when spun using one finger, either steps through the available parameters or edits their values. It's a a very easy system to use, and facilitates fast but subtle changes to your settings even under performance conditions. While we're on the subject of performance, it's worth mentioning that the pitch bend/modulation lever has also been modified for the better. When it's pushed forward it not only brings in modulation, but the pressure applied controls the depth of the modulation.
But what of the sounds themselves? Well, the Juno-1 has the same number of sound generation components as a Juno 106, and they're linked in roughly the same way However, many of these component parts have been considerably redesigned. Let's take these one by one, starting with the DCO block.
Three types of pulse wave, five types of sawtooth and six types of sub-oscillator waves are promised here. As you might expect, one of the pulse waves is variable, allowing LFO or envelope control of the pulse width, but, interestingly, one of the sawtooths is also variable; in fact all the sawtooth waves are built up from a series of graded pulse waves, giving fine degrees of variation throughout the harmonic spectrum. Similar subtleties are available with the sub-oscillator, which provides either one or two octaves below the original signal. A powerful noise generator rounds off the comprehensive features of the DCO.
The envelope generator on the Juno-1 is a completely new design which now has eight parameters (4 times, three levels and a key follow). Sounds can now be made to follow a more complex shape or tonal pattern than was ever possible with an ADSR envelope. It's also more difficult to edit than an ADSR (DX-7 owners will vouch for this!), so Roland have incorporated a quick edit section, the 'Tone Modify' buttons, giving immediate access to the Envelope time. Incidentally, three other parameters can also be accessed quickly using these buttons: Modulation Rate, Modulation Depth, and Brilliance (VCF cut-off point), and the idea of easy editing of the most often used parameters is a good one — other manufacturers, please take note!
The functions of the VCF and VCA are much the same as on previous Juno models, except that it's possible to programme them to react to key velocity and aftertouch. Thus the loudness of the sound and its tonal characteristics can be considerably altered according to the player's touch. Even the DCO can be controlled in this way, and because both DCO and VCF have normal and inverted envelope shapes available, some unusual and very expressive effects can be set up. Remember, though, that these particular touch effects are only possible if you have a touch-sensitive keyboard MIDI'd up to the Alpha Juno!
In any one-oscillator analogue synth (even one as sophisticated as this), chorus is always an essential treatment. Roland have been incorporating chorus in their instruments for some time now, but this one distinguishes itself in its richness, and also because it has a finely adjustable rate control which greatly increases the range of effects. Using the Alpha Wheel to edit during performance, it was possible to simulate the sound of a Leslie cabinet (do you remember them?) speeding up and slowing down, or even to produce a nasty (but nice!) growl during solos. When I was using the synth I never turned the chorus off, as it seemed to enhance every sound.
As I mentioned at the outset, the Alpha Juno-1 only has a four-octave keyboard; but this didn't prove to be a problem, as the Octave Transpose button shifted the whole keyboard down one octave when required. Using the Key Transpose function (range ±1 octave), then, the possible range of any given sound in the Juno is 7 octaves. Still more amazing is the 88-note capability which the Alpha Juno has when played from a suitable mother keyboard. Its potential as an expander was stunningly demonstrated when I used the Roland MKB-1000 to control it - the dynamic response, coupled with the extended range, made a very complete sound indeed!
Finally we come to the memory section, which comprises 64 preset sounds and 64 user memories. The presets are on the whole very good, providing a stock of strong basic sounds from which to work. Although these remain in ROM, they can be edited and moved to user memory. Of course, sounds can also be built from scratch, but I've more than a suspicion that many of the preset sounds will be used again and again! Storage of sounds is achieved by dumping on to standard cassette (hurrah!) and data can be transferred in bulk between two or more Alpha Junos, using MIDI exclusive. Information you may have programmed concerning MIDI functions and timing etc. stays in the machine's back-up memory. Up until now I've been so enthusiastic about the performance of the Juno-1 that I've forgotten to mention that in appearance it's functional, rugged, and features a 16-character LCD illuminated display. It also costs £575 RRP, but you'll certainly be able to pick it up for less. So what are you waiting for? You couldn't make a better buy!
RRP £575 inc. VAT
More details from Roland (U.K.) Ltd., (Contact Details)
Review by Nick Graham
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