Yesteryear's Gear: Roland Juno synths
classic analogue synthesizers for today's acid sounds
Wanna be a synthesizer whizz-kid? Can't afford £1,500 for the latest digital dream-maker? Don't despair: true synth credibility can be yours for a fifth of the money.
PICK UP A price list from any of the main synthesizer manufacturers, and one thing becomes immediately obvious. Synths do not have names, they have numbers. DX7, VZ1, D50, K1M, DX7IIFD, and so on. The most oft-quoted explanation for this is that the synth companies, who these days are almost all Japanese, are anxious to identify their machines in a way which every country will recognise and not be offended by. You could, they argue, call a synthesizer 'System Action' in England and get away with it, but call it the same thing in Spain and you could find that 'System Action' means 'Giant Wart on a Pink Elephant's Bum' in Spanish. So instead, they call the things DX7, VZ1, D50, ad nauseam, and everyone is happy. And confused. After all, things like synthesizers - which have a tendency to look superficially alike anyway - are made more memorable if they have a name, rather than just a number.
Perhaps it's because of this that most "hi-tech" keyboards that stick in the memory have names: MiniMoog, Prophet, Fairlight, Emulator, and so on. True, all those instruments were made outside the Land of the Rising Digit, but there was a time when the Roland Corporation - arguably Japan's best-established maker of electronic musical instruments - marketed a range of keyboards that also had names. Like Saturn, Jupiter, and Juno.
Saturn and Jupiter belong to other stories (not to mention other planetary orbits), and to anyone currently in the market for a cheap synth that still sounds good and won't fall apart after the first rehearsal, the history of the Juno name is of the most immediate interest.
Unfortunately (and this blows the relevance of the intro a bit), the story starts with a synthesizer with no name, only a number: SH101. This was the last in a long line of "monophonic" (that is, they could only play one note at a time) Roland synthesizers that also included such memorable machines (if not memorable numbers) as the SH3A, the SH5, and the SH1. At the time - late '70s and early '80s - there was no point looking at anything other than monophonic machines because "polyphonic" synthesizers (ones that allowed you to play chords) were impossible to use, weighed more than a big BMW, and cost almost as much. So when young synthesizer "pioneers" like Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League, Depeche Mode and Fad Gadget searched for something to play, their gaze inevitably rested on an SH-series Roland. For the money, nothing else could sound so amazing, in so many different ways, for so long.
Yet although they were more convenient than polyphonic instruments, the early SH models were still complicated, heavy and expensive instruments by modern standards. With the SH101, Roland arrived at a keyboard that produced a bewildering variety of different noises, without being bewildering to use, carry, or pay for. Its control layout was simple and easy to follow, it came with an optional "handle" so it could be slung over the neck for guitar-style playing, and it was refreshingly cheap at about £300. In the UK, few musicians other than eccentric producer/performers like Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby took up the option of strutting their stuff with an SH101 on-stage - Dolby even smashed up his red example (it could also be had in blue or conventional grey), guitar hero fashion, at the end of a world tour. Yet despite their reticence to "play" out in the open, synth fans all over the world were getting unbelievable results from their SH101s. "Plink, plink, fizz", they went, and the record-buying public thought it was wonderful and, um, bought a lot of records with SH101s on them.
Meanwhile, Roland were well aware that The Synth Age would not truly dawn until "traditional" keyboard players - musicians brought up on piano or organ - could be tempted by an instrument that would allow them to play more than one note at a time. So the company set about making the SH101 "polyphonic". In the event, they took the simplest course available by effectively building six SH101s into a single box. The result was the (here it comes) Juno 6 polyphonic synthesizer.
Having learned from other people's mistakes, Roland were careful to ensure that the Juno 6 was six times as powerful as the SH101, without being six times as complicated, or six times as expensive. They succeeded. When it was unveiled in 1982, the Juno 6 was no more difficult to use than its monophonic brother, and retailed at a mere £800 - which, if anything, made the SH101 look costly.
Of course, the Juno could make almost all the sounds the SH101 could: lots of bass blips and buzzes, sweeping solo sounds, and general-purpose "special effects". But, simply by virtue of having six times the synthesizing power of the SH, the Juno 6 could also turn its hand to sounds that were closer to those of acoustic instruments: organs, pianos, strings and brass. Not all of these were particularly strong in their "pure" form, but one of the Juno's trump cards was a built-in "chorus" unit which fattened up any sound by adding the tiniest of delays to it. "Plink-plink, plink-plink, fizz-fizz", it went, and the keyboard-buying public loved it and bought a lot of Juno 6s.
For all its versatility and value for money, however, the Juno 6 had two major flaws. First, even though it was dead easy to manipulate its controls to produce new and interesting sounds, there was no means of storing them - the machine had no "memory" onboard. Second, just when the music industry was about to agree on a standard means of connecting one electronic instrument to another (MIDI), the Juno 6 came with a different interface - one of Roland's own inventions called the Digital Communications Bus, or DCB.
The first problem was cured by Roland when they introduced the Juno 60. This was identical to the Juno 6, except that it was able to remember a number of different sounds programmed by the user - 56 in total. Since the 60 cost only slightly more than the 6, the latter was killed off almost overnight, which explains why the Juno 60 is a much more common find in today's classified columns.
The second problem was half cured by Roland when they brought out a clever DCB-to-MIDI box, the MD8, but this was expensive and awkward to use. A little later, a small British company called Groove Electronics produced a "MIDI retrofit" - a simple circuit board which slotted into the Juno's case and was then wired to new sockets mounted on the back panel. (The board is still available today from Groove, (Contact Details).)
But the problem was only properly solved by the arrival of yet another Juno, the 106. This had a full complement of MIDI connections and features, and unlike many of its contemporaries, actually made the job of joining electronic instruments together (which is what MIDI was originally intended for) quite a straightforward affair.
The Juno 106 was the best-selling Juno of all time, yet today, nearly five years after its launch, it's not quite as sought-after as the earlier models. The main reason for this is that although the 106 was almost the same internally than what came before, and was actually better in many ways (it had 128 patch memories instead of 56, for instance), it never sounded quite the same. Maybe it was all psychological, and the only thing the 6 and 60 had that the 106 lacked was novelty. Maybe there is more to it than that. Whatever, the fact remains that the Juno 106 doesn't quite possess the mystique of the machines that preceded it.
The same can also be said (shouted, even) of the machines that ended the Juno line: the Alpha Juno 1 and Alpha Juno 2. By the time these arrived (1986), synthesizer fashion had moved on a stage or two, and digital synthesizers like Yamaha's DX series and Casio's CZ range ruled the roost. Their sparkling, crystalline sounds became more fashionable on records, too.
Technologically speaking, the Alpha Junos were more advanced than their predecessors. Both offered a much more detailed list of programming options, while the Juno 2 added a touch-sensitive keyboard (the harder you played, the louder it sounded) and the chance for maniac programmers to store literally thousands of new sounds on cartridge.
But the world had caught up with (and overtaken) the Juno series, and neither of the Alpha Junos really caught musicians' imagination. Eighteen months later, Roland "went digital" with their D-series synthesizers, and haven't looked back since.
So, here we are on the threshold of 1989, and to all intents and purposes, the word on the synthesizer street is still "digital". Where do the Junos fit in? Why are so many people trying to seek out secondhand examples in neat condition? Why have you read this far into the feature?
The answer to all these questions is simple. The word on the street may be "digital", but "analogue" is making one hell of a comeback. Now, all the Junos - like all the SH series before them - are "analogue" synthesizers. In other words, they produce their sound by means of "oscillators" whose output is then modified by various filters, amplifiers, and other bits of electronic gadgetry. The result is, quite simply, a lot of weird and wonderful noises - a lot of "plink, plink, fizz".
House music - with its reliance on old-fashioned, Kraftwerk-style synth sounds - has helped to bring this back into fashion. And now Acid House - with its reliance on constantly shifting synth textures - is helping even more. But even in traditional styles of pop and rock, people are becoming bored with the cleanliness and clarity of digital synthesizers. They want something dirty. Something unpredictable. Something analogue.
And if you're serious about playing a "real" synthesizer and have neither a great deal of money nor a large number of degrees , in Maths, you want something analogue, too. The question is: which Juno to go for?
Basically, the older the better. For not much more than £300, and conceivably quite a lot less, you could waltz out of a music store with a five-year-old Juno 6 or 60 in fine "never gigged, home use only" condition. It may not have MIDI, the keyboard may not do wonders for your technique, and the wooden end cheeks may be very much Last Decade's Thing, but the machine will work, and work well. It'll give you hours of playing fun, and if it's a 60, it'll make a fine introduction to analogue programming into the bargain.
If tracking down a synth that old becomes difficult, a slightly newer Juno 106 shouldn't be ignored. As well as having MIDI and a bigger memory, it'll also have the advantage of being newer and therefore (probably) in better nick. It shouldn't cost much more than a 60, either.
An Alpha Juno will cost you rather more, and to be honest it probably won't be worth it. These instruments still have the much-loved, much-imitated Juno sound, but their control panels lack the mass of knobs and sliders that made previous Junos such a doddle to tweak (the so-called "Alpha dial" is no substitute) and somehow the character just isn't there. Still, if digital synth sounds are as much a turn-off for you as they are for me, a (not very used) Alpha will still be preferable to any Yamaha or Casio rival. And nobody will laugh at your machine looking old, either, since both Alpha Junos still look très chic.
Not that you should let such things worry you, anyway. If other keyboard players start taking the mickey out of you and your Juno, just remember that, among programmers who earn their living by creating sounds for record producers, "analogue" is still the system for producing any sound that might be called "warm", "lush", "fat", or "punchy". Warm bass snatches, lush washes of strings, fat solo sounds, punchy piano patches - you name it, a Juno can do it. And probably a whole lot better than its modern-day, digital counterparts.
Plink, plink, fizz.
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Feature by Dan Goldstein
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