Roland's latest synth combines the power of digital synthesis with the interactive approach of analogue programming. The pleasure of synthesis returns to the player and to Simon Trask.
Front-panel knobs and sliders make a welcome comeback on Roland's latest professional synth. But does the JD800 really have anything new to offer?
IN THE YEARS since Yamaha launched the DX7, digital synthesis and digital parameter access programming have seemingly become inextricably intertwined - leaving the old analogue style of programming, with its dedicated knobs and sliders, consigned to the dustbin of history. Yet, let's face it, when the knobs and sliders disappeared, a lot of the fun disappeared from programming along with them. Synth players traumatised not only by the rigours of FM synthesis but also by the intricacies of Yamaha's programming system began turning to computer-based editor/librarian software, and a new industry was born.
In the ensuing years, manufacturers have tried many variations on the digital parameter access formula, and with practice it's possible to move around today's editing systems with great speed - but most synth players would agree that there's simply no substitute for the immediacy of dedicated knobs and sliders, which not only provide equal and immediate access to all synthesis parameters, but allow you to adjust more than one parameter at the same time. In programming, getting the sound you want typically involves constantly moving to and fro between different parameters, fine-tuning them against one another. By forcing you to focus on one parameter at a time, digital parameter access systems aren't well-suited to this approach - and as a result you have to waste a lot of time and energy poking away at buttons to move you around different parameters in an LCD page, climb up and down hierarchical programming levels and jump between selected pages. We've all been there.
The result is that, for most synth players today, "getting the sound you want" doesn't involve programming so much as hunting through an evergrowing library of pre-programmed sounds provided by the manufacturer and/or third-party companies. The so-called "preset mentality" has taken hold - yet not to the extent that musicians don't still yearn for a return to the old analogue-style front panels. Such yearning isn't the sole preserve of the old-timers, either. Today's young dance musicians cut their teeth on MC202s, SH101s, Juno 106s and the like, and have been equally vocal in calling for a return to the knobs and sliders. Manufacturers may have hoped that the clamour would die out, but musicians just wouldn't let it lie.
In the past there may well have been technical restrictions which made it impractical to provide simultaneous access to all synthesis parameters on digital synths. But in the past manufacturers have also responded to requests for a return to dedicated knobs and sliders with claims that "it would cost too much" and "there are far too many parameters these days for it to be practical" - claims which never really rang true.
The JD800 is proof that if the will is there, so is the way. Not only is Roland's new synth no more expensive than other professional synths on the market, but the company have managed to fit knobs, sliders and switches for every synthesis parameter onto its front panel - and they haven't had to simplify the synthesis architecture in order to do so, either.
But while the JD800 (Jupiter Digital, perhaps?) gets full marks for its "resuscitation" of analogue-style programming, is there really anything else new about it, or have Roland merely taken the opportunity to dress up an all-too-familiar instrument in new clothes - and, if they have, does it matter when the JD800 has such an appealing dress sense?
THE JD800 MAKES 69 synthesis parameters available on dedicated front-panel knobs, sliders and switches. These are all the parameters which make up its synthesis architecture of oscillator, filter, amplifier plus related envelopes and two assignable LFOs - collectively known as a Tone.
However, if you take into account the fact that these 69 parameters are duplicated across the four Tones which make up a JD800 Patch, the total number of parameters accessible in this manner is 276. The four Tone buttons located on the synth's angled System/Patch control panel, near the left-hand end of the synth's front panel, allow you to very quickly assign any Tone or combination of Tones to the knobs, sliders and switches for editing purposes. Successive presses of these buttons assign and deassign each Tone, with pinpoint LEDs built into each button blinking to indicate that the relevant Tone is assigned. When you're up to speed on these you can assign a new Tone or combination of Tones within a couple of seconds.
The Tone buttons also have a second function, Tone muting. In this case, successive presses of the four buttons turn the Tones on and off, while the built-in LEDs indicate the on/off condition of each Tone. A button labelled Layer/Active, handily located just below the Tone buttons, allows you to switch between the two functions. So that you can tell which function is selected, the LEDs for the mute function don't blink when lit.
The on/off status of each Tone for both mute and assign functions is automatically stored when you Write a Patch into memory, and recalled whenever you subsequently select the Patch. So, for instance, if you know that you want to do a live sound edit on one of several enabled Tones within a Patch, you can set Tone assign to default to that one Tone when the Patch is selected. Equally, if you want to be sure that a Patch can't be changed during performance (by accidentally knocking a slider, for example) you can deassign all four Tones.
Knob, slider and switch settings on the JD800 are absolute, which means that editing a parameter causes all assigned Tones to be set to the same value. This comes in useful if you want to program the same amplitude envelope for several Tones - by assigning the relevant Tones to the front panel you only need to set the envelope parameters once. Incidentally, all your front-panel synthesis edits can optionally be transmitted via MIDI as SysEx data, and so recorded into a MIDI sequencer for subsequent playback.
Tucked away in the upper left-hand corner of the main editing panel are four sliders collectively known as the Palette. D70 owners will be familiar with the term. These sliders are assigned to Tones 1-4, and allow you to edit each Tone individually, regardless of which Tones are assigned to the dedicated parameter sliders (knob and switch parameters can't be edited from the Palette). Because the Palette sliders aren't dedicated to a particular parameter, you have to select which one you want to edit; there are several ways of doing this, but on balance the best way is to use the Page up/down buttons to "scroll" to it.
Palette and dedicated sliders take effect the moment you move them, causing the parameter value to jump from the programmed value to whatever value is indicated by the physical position of the slider. Depending on the parameter and on how far apart the two values are, this jump can be quite noticeable. But at least something happens immediately. By contrast, a D70 Palette slider only starts to work once you've passed it across the programmed value - you avoid the jumps, but at the expense of immediate response.
Inevitably on any programmable synth the physical positions of the sliders aren't going to bear any relation to the actual programmed values when you call up a different patch. On the JD800 this applies even more so because you can call different Tones onto the sliders within a Patch. In fact, as you switch between different Tones while programming, it's all too easy to forget which Tone, if any, the physical position of a slider refers to. For some reason it's still tempting to think that the slider positions do actually correlate to the programmed values, but, when you call a Patch up, the sliders tell you as little as a digital parameter access synth does.
Dedicated sliders which can set positive and negative values helpfully have a centre detent to help you identify the zero (central) position, though in some cases they're so slight that you can easily miss them. The sliders themselves have just the right degree of resistance in their movement, giving them a solid but responsive feel and allowing you to make subtle value changes by nudging them.
THE JD800'S STRENGTH lies not just in its return to analogue-style programming but in the way that it combines this approach with digital parameter access. While the knobs and sliders take care of the sound programming, digital parameter access deals with the other aspects of the modern synth, such as MIDI and multitimbral setups. However, there is one aspect of sound programming which isn't on the knobs and sliders: effects programming.
"It's not only the knobs and sliders which recall synths of old, the JD800's architecture bears a remarkable resemblance to traditional analogue synthesis."
Running along a strip just above the keyboard are some familiar features of digital parameter access: an Exit button, a data entry slider and increment/decrement buttons, a two-digit LED display for the currently-selected program number, two backlit LCD windows, Page up/down and Cursor left/right buttons, an Int/Card selector button, eight Bank and eight Number buttons for Patch selection, and buttons providing direct access to Compare, Copy, Manual, Write and Data Transfer functions.
Using Compare you can check on the unedited parameter values, while Copy allows you to copy all the data of a Tone to any of the other Tones, and Manual allows you to copy the parameter values determined by the current physical positions of the front-panel knobs, sliders and switches to any of the four Tones. Unfortunately, Copy and Manual don't allow you to limit their operations to selected synthesis components (amplitude envelope only, for example).
The right-hand LCD window is reserved for displaying the four Tone values of the currently-selected synthesis parameter. You can use the Page up/down buttons to scroll through the parameters which, for instance, allows you to select a parameter for the Palette sliders or check on the programmed values of a parameter without having to move the relevant slider or knob.
The left-hand LCD window normally displays the mode (Single or Multi), the currently-selected Patch and the MIDI transmit channel (together with the Part number in Multi mode). However, this LCD is also used for displaying parameters associated with some of the buttons on the angled control panel mentioned earlier. These include Patch Edit Common and Effects, and Multi Part Edit, Special Setup and Effects. When you select these modes, the Page up/down buttons allow you to step through their software pages, while the data entry controllers allow you to edit the parameters. In most cases there's one parameter per page, but where there are more the Cursor left/right buttons come into play. All in all, Roland seem to have found a good balance of function buttons and software pages, so that the different functional areas of the JD800 are clearly presented and you don't have to get too deep into hierarchical levels or endless reams of software pages - not something which can be said for all Roland's instruments.
Perhaps someone at Roland has been studying colour psychology, because the company have taken the unusual step of using orange pinpoint LEDs (associated with the front-panel switch parameters), an orange two-digit LED and orange LCD backlighting. Apart from being easy on the eyes, the resulting orange glow - particularly from the LCD windows - conveys an impression of warmth. Couple this with the associations of old-style analogue programming and you begin to wonder if you're being manipulated on a subconscious level. Or maybe I'm just being cynical.
LET'S GET ONE thing clear. The JD800's front panel may be laid out "analogue-style" but the actual synthesis processing it employs is wholly digital.
Yet it's not only the knobs and sliders which recall the analogue synthesisers of old. The JD800's synthesis architecture bears a remarkable resemblance to the traditional model of analogue synthesis. But this is no return to a former way of doing things. In truth, the classic architecture of oscillator, filter and amplifier with envelope and LFO modulators has always remained at the heart of the synthesiser. Yamaha with FM synthesis are the exception, of course - except that even they introduced digital filters when they designed their SY77 flagship synth.
The real developments in sonic flexibility over the years have taken place at the oscillator stage of the synthesis chain, made possible by the introduction of digital oscillators. From synths like the Casio CZs and Korg DWs which expanded the vocabulary of waveforms, through the D50 with its sampled attacks, to the M1 with its multisampled instruments and the Wavestation with its wave sequences, it's the sound source which has created the real changes. In the case of the SY77, it could be said that FM synthesis is actually a glorified oscillator stage!
Of course, the synthesiser has developed in many other ways. Increases in polyphony, increases in the number of oscillators playable by a patch, the steady development of multitimbrality, MIDI controller facilities, the advent of the workstation synth with its onboard sequencing, drumkit sections and digital effects processing... All have played their part in changing the synthesiser over the years.
The JD800 is firmly of its time in terms of its polyphony (24 voices), multitimbrality (five Parts and a drumkit-like Special Part), digital effects processing (not only chorus, delay and reverb but also distortion, phasing, spectrum and enhancer) and wide choice of source sounds (108 Waveforms). It's also perfectly timed to pick up on a desire which seems to be in the air at the moment for a return to "creative" synthesis.
In the Roland scheme of things the JD800 picks up on the D70's Super LA Synthesis, the first significant development of LA synthesis since the days of the D50. But there are a number of differences between the two instruments other than obvious ones like the front panel layout (the JD800 attains what the D70 was reaching for) and the span of the keyboard (61 notes on the JD800, 76 on the D70). For example, the JD800 has two LFOs to the D70's one, 24 voices to the D70's 30, more sophisticated effects processing, a different collection of source sounds (and six less), and omits the D70's Differential Loop Modulation and Analogue Feel. Considering that the JD800 is supposed to be about reaffirming the values of creative sound synthesis, the absence of DLM is particularly disappointing. I hope Roland aren't going to let it drop after just one instrument.
Lurking somewhere under the Waveform knob on the JD800 are its 108 source sounds - in fact, a mixture of waveforms, attack samples, percussive samples and looped samples. These are divided into ten categories: "analogue" waves (13), digital waves (22), samples (10), percussive sounds (16), enhanced overtones (9), pianos (4), attacks (17), winds (6), noise (9) and effects (2). Further sounds can be played from a plug-in Waveform card (SO-JD80 series). As befits a "real" synthesiser, the emphasis is on sounds which can be used creatively rather than recreatively - no endless samples of pianos, guitars, string sections and bass guitars. There are plenty of waveforms and plenty of percussion and percussive samples and odd noises. And, bearing in mind the possibilities for combining up to four sounds within a JD800 Patch, there are source sounds well-suited to adding a splash of high-end digital shimmer to a Patch.
At the heart of the JD800 is Roland's latest-generation digital filter, as used on the D70, S770, MV30 and S750. This provides a choice of low-pass, band-pass and high-pass filter modes and resonance control (which can drive the filter into self-oscillation) together with envelope amount and polarity, key follow, LFO select, and LFO and aftertouch mod amount parameters. Coupled with these parameters are a five-stage envelope "hard-wired" to the filter, and velocity, time velocity and time key follow parameters for modulating the envelope settings. This array of parameters typifies the sort of detailed programming you can get into on the JD800. The filter itself is extremely powerful (check out the resonance in particular), and to my mind the best digital filter around at the moment. Shame you can't also modulate resonance on it, though (the Microwave is the only modern instrument I can think of which allows resonance modulation).
The two LFOs each provide a choice of five waveforms (triangle, saw, square, sample and hold, random) together with rate, delay, fade, ± offset and key trigger on/off parameters. Fade is interesting when applied to amplitude for allowing you to create "cyclic" crossfades between different Tones, a la vector-type enveloping (Wavestation, SY22). All in all, the two LFOs coupled with the modulation routing options provided for them add greatly to the creative programming flexibility of the JD800.
"The JD800's filter is extremely powerful - check out the resonance in particular - and to my mind the best digital filter around at the moment."
Roland's latest synth also includes their most sophisticated and flexible implementation of digital effects processing yet. In Single Mode you get two Effects Sequences, A and B, per Patch. Sequence A allows you to program up to four effects processes: distortion, Phaser, spectrum (sort of an equaliser, but more for twisting sounds out of shape than for tweaking bass, mid and treble) and enhancer. Not only that, but you can program the order in which the effects occur. Sequence A can then be routed into Sequence B, which consists of three effects: chorus, three-tap delay and reverb. Again, you can program which of these effects you want to use and the order in which you want them to occur. None of the effects are overburdened with parameters, but they're flexible enough to greatly enhance the sonic versatility of the JD800. Also included is a three-band equaliser at the output stage for boosting and cutting low, mid and high frequencies.
In Multi mode the situation is rather different. For a start, you lose Effect Sequence A - so, for instance, that wild distorted guitar Patch turns into a wimpish whine. There's no getting around the fact that if you want to use the JD800 multitimbrally you're going to have to do without the sort of wildness that the distortion, phaser, spectrum and enhancer can bring. More positively, you can set an effect level for each Part and choose whether it will be routed dry, through reverb only, through chorus plus reverb or through delay plus reverb. In addition, for the Special Part - which allows you to assign a different Tone to each note, drumkit-style - you can set the effect routing and level per Tone/note. One set of effect parameter values can be programmed for all six Parts of the Multi setup.
Incidentally, a distinct lack of regular kit and percussion samples in the internal Waveforms means that the JD800 isn't best suited to conventional rhythm parts as it stands - though perhaps a Waveform card will provide these sort of sounds at a later date. There again, the Special Part can be put to much more interesting uses.
THE JD800 HAS 64 onboard RAM Patches and can play a further 64 from a plug-in data card. The 64 factory-programmed Patches which come with the synth are stored in onboard ROM and can be called back into the RAM as a bulk transfer at any time.
In addition to the Tone structure and the synthesis parameters already described, each Patch can have a number of Common parameters programmed for it. You can set a 16-character name, an overall Patch level, an independent note range for each Tone (within C1-G9), a bender range (up: 0-12; down: 0-48), aftertouch bend sensitivity, solo switch on/off, solo legato on/off, (monophonic) portamento on/off, portamento mode (normal or legato) and portamento time. The last five parameters all relate to the Solo and Portamento buttons located to the left of the keyboard, near Roland's familiar bend/mod controller.
There are also a series of MIDI transmit parameters which can be programmed per Patch: mode (whole, split or dual), splitpoint, upper and lower transmit channels, MIDI patch number(s) to be transmitted on the relevant channel(s) when the Patch is selected, and Hold pedal transmit (Upper, Lower or Both). As these MIDI settings function independently of the internal Tones, you can, for instance, turn off all the Tones within a Patch and use the JD800 purely as a MIDI controller.
The JD800 has only one Multi setup in its internal memory, while another one can be stored on a data card. However, when you're slaving the synth from a MIDI sequencer you can send it patch changes on the relevant MIDI channels to call up different Patches per Part.
The synth's voices are allocated dynamically across the Parts, and Patches can overlap one another within a Part (selected internally or via MIDI). Presumably this is due to the Sequence A effects being absent in Multi mode, because Patches can't overlap one another in Single mode - selecting a new Patch cuts short any active notes.
Each Part in Multi mode can be assigned a MIDI receive channel (1-16 or off), a volume level (also editable in real time via MIDI using controller seven), a pan position (L30-R30), an output (either the synth's Mix or Direct stereo audio outs - the latter bypass the internal effects) and, as mentioned earlier, an effect mode and effect level. In the case of the Special Part, each note/Tone can be given its own ten-character name, a mute group assignment (off, A-H - for setting up mutually exclusive sounds), an envelope mode (sustain until note off, or one-shot), and a pan position (L30-R30) together with its own effect mode and effect level settings. Internal and Card Tones can't be combined within a Special Setup, but otherwise you have complete freedom in deciding what Tones you want to put together on the keyboard.
Front-panel Part ± buttons allow you to step through the Multi Parts. The Patch which you've assigned to each Part is automatically called onto the keyboard when the Part is selected. Also, very usefully, you can edit the currently-selected Patch from within Multi mode, and so tailor it within the context of other Patches - though Tones within the Special Part can't be edited in play mode.
There are two more functional areas of the JD800, again accessed via dedicated buttons on the System/Patch control panel: Tune/Function and MIDI. Both of them set global parameters. Tune/Function allows you to set master tuning, transpose switch on/off (referring to the Transpose button next to the Solo and Portamento buttons), transpose amount (±12), the internal parameter controlled from a footpedal via the rear-panel Ext Cont jack (volume, mod, pan or aftertouch), bass, mid and treble cut/boost amounts for the Mix Out filter, and chorus on/off, delay on/off and reverb on/off. Global MIDI parameters include local on/off, SysEx unit number, receive channel (for Single mode), SysEx parameter edit transmission on/off and selective enabling and disabling of patch change, aftertouch, volume, breath controller and Exclusive reception. And as you should have realised by now, although the JD800 reintroduces knobs and sliders it doesn't skimp on the features expected of a modern synthesiser.
WHAT IT COMES down to is this: the JD800 is a pleasure to program and a pleasure to play. The immediacy and spontaneity that come from programming with dedicated knobs and sliders lead you off in different, more imaginative directions, encouraging you to be experimental and to just have fun. You can make it sound wild and weird or calm and peaceful - there really is a lot of diversity to be had from it (especially when you add in the digital effects).
The JD800 not only makes you want to program, it also makes you want to carve out your own sonic identity on it. Roland have pitched the instrument's synthesis capabilities at a comfortable level - not so deep that you give up trying to fathom its complexities, but not so shallow that you soon start to feel constricted by it.
On the other hand, just because there are knobs and sliders galore on the JD800's front panel and the synthesis architecture looks familiarly analogue, don't think that you've found a modern-day replacement for your treasured Jupiter 8 or JX8P. The JD800 is a digital instrument and at best it can sound analogue-ish but not analogue, if you see what I mean. You can also make it sound very digital and you can combine the digital and the analogue-ish. The JD800 is best considered as a '90s synth designed in the spirit of its distant predecessors.
Looking at the broader picture, the JD800 could be the start of something good. Roland have shown that it's possible to put a large number of sliders on a digital synth, that it can be done without appreciably adding to the cost of the instrument, and that knobs 'n' sliders and digital parameter access programming can complement one another very effectively, thank you. It's the moment of reckoning: musicians have pleaded long enough for a return to analogue-style programming - will they now respond by embracing or turning their back on the JD800? If they embrace It, other manufacturers will have to start thinking seriously about how they're going to present their synthesis systems to musicians in future. And that can only be a good thing.
Price £1699 (including VAT at the old rate of 15%).
More from Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask