Roland Juno 6
Non-programmable six note poly with arpeggiator
Of all the synth wars currently raging, it's the battle between the Roland Juno 6 and the Korg Polysix that's using the most ammo. Competition between the two is fierce. Roland have a comfortable edge on price — a recommended retail of £699 compared to the Korg's £1200 — but the Polysix, reviewed elsewhere in One Two, has a few more facilities and the definite bonus of 32 programmable memories.
Both can play up to six notes at once, but whereas the Polysix is something of a new animal, the Juno already has a history and would feel familiar under the fingers of Roland owners.
If you think of it as a polyphonic version of the good old SH09 mono synth, then you won't be far out of the frame. It's picked up some tips from the much more sophisticated and expensive Jupiter 8 such as the arpeggiator and the modulator push button, but the sound is obviously not in the same arena.
All the controls are on sliders, colour coded for identification. Much like the Korg there's a single ADSR envelope generator, a 24dB filter with cut off, resonance, frequency, amount and keyboard track levels, a switch to invert the envelope and an additional high-pass filter with a single slider for the frequency.
The Juno-6 uses DCOs or digitally controlled oscillators rather than the voltage sorts found on most synths. To be honest I could detect no difference in tone between these and the older variety and where the digitallity comes in, I'm not certain. Yet there's no arguing Roland's claim that DCOs tune up instantly (they did) and are immune to drift (they didn't). There are sawtooth and pulse width waveforms and they can be mixed, though with no control over the balance.
A sub oscillator adds a square wave an octave down (the Polysix went to two octaves) and has a slider for level (the Korg's was pre-set). Pulse width mod can be controlled by the LFO or the ADSR, and the LFO has sliders for rate, delay and a switch to route it direct to the electronics or via the performance controls at the left hand of the keyboard.
These comprise a "bender" — a wheel mounted from left to right with a spur on top; it's not as good as a pitch wheel for slow bends, but it's great for sudden blips in pitch — and a LFO trigger which brings in a preset amount of modulation. The only fault here is that it doesn't override any delay set on the LFO. It would be better if the panel was set up for one modulation feel and the trigger brought in another.
The bender can alter pitch or VCF frequency, both blessed with sliders to pre-determine the amount of bend — a maximum of a fifth compared to the Korg's octave. Yet it does have a transpose switch shifting the keyboard up or down an octave, and that's missing from the Polysix.
The arpeggiator goes up, down or up and down over one octave, two octaves or the entire keyboard, and a hold switch will sustain your last notes. There's a chorus unit with two speeds (actually three if you hit both buttons at once and whip it into overdrive), though it doesn't handle phase or ensemble. One final addition not found on the Korg is the key transpose that lets you fiddle any tricky pieces of music. Your fingers play in C while the Juno sings in A flat or whatever.
That more than any other feature points out the difference between the Korg, aimed at musicians who might like a Prophet but can't raise the two grand, and the Roland, designed for new players more interested in making music than developing startling technique.
The case has imitation teak ends and the usual outputs, though not the din syncing socket that connects to Roland sequencers or microcomposers.
The sound is undeniably Roland—bright, clean and modern, instantly associated with the League (Human, not Anti-Nowhere) or Soft Cell.
It's at its best on short, percussive sounds, particularly those with a piano quality. Strings are fine when they're high and clear but tend to muddy up if you go for a softer and moodier voicing. The chorus really helps out here and still stays quiet.
The filter is twangy, ideally suited for bristling pew-pew effects, and it tracks exceptionally well, staying in tune over the full length of the keyboard. It's not as sweet as you'd find on a Moog and when slapped into oscillation, the results can be a touch squeeky and metallic at the low end of the keyboard. But it does add a great raspy tickle to high, harpsichord style playing.
The pulse width mod is one of the strongest I've heard, in fact when it's left up to the envelope generator to whizz through the wave, then it comes across almost as powerful as syncing with a razor edged attack behind it.
The Juno-6 loses its advantages when you try to get a solid, thumpy-sounding bass line out of it. The Polysix's extra unison talent, where it locked all six oscillators onto one note, left the Roland standing in this respect.
Even with the sub oscillator fed in, it doesn't really have the oomph to make a good bass work. Quite often chords at the top end of the keyboard tended to swamp bass lines unless you made judicious use of the keyboard tracking control to keep them in balance.
The keyboard is smoother and faster than the Polysix which initially gives a lie to the £500 difference between the two. It feels a slightly classier instrument, though doesn't look as awesomely control laden as the Korg.
The joy of the Juno is that if you're used to the SH09, the transfer is almost instantaneous. All the controls react in the same manner and are laid out in an associated pattern.
The Polysix is programmable with 32 memories, the Juno-6 is not — the major reason for the gap in price. Roland argue their device doesn't need programmability because it's already so fast and easy to change settings.
I think that's something of a smokescreen, because it's no speedier to set up than a mono synth and the better you know it, the quicker the changes will come, though there will always be occasions when only the act of hitting one button is rapid enough. It's unnecessary to beef on the score since the two machines will both carve out their own niches in the market.
Obviously players who haven't been overwhelmed by the voice of Roland in the past won't be sent staggering by the Juno, yet you shouldn't dismiss it on old preferences. The chorus has fattened the tone and it IS more than simply the sum of six SH09s.