An analogue synth with a hefty price tag has to have a pretty good excuse these days. Jim Betteridge believes this one has
A few years ago £1900 for a big analogue synth such as the new Roland JX-10 would have seemed reasonable, if unaffordable, to most people. Today, with the likes of the Roland Alpha Juno One and the Casio CZ101 costing £345 and £395 respectively, and the Ensoniq Mirage at under £1300, the immediate reaction might be less favourable.
The price revolution within synths has meant great empowerment for many musicians. For a few hundred quid you can now have a genuine polyphonic synth to put under your arm and on your demo. The only thing is, amid the price cutting and simplification, we're in danger of forgetting the power and musical satisfaction that can be obtained simply from having lots of oscillators singing together within a single well structured system. Certainly, you can MIDI a number of small instruments together, but to get the same facilities and degree of control found on the JX-10 would cost considerably more than £1900.
In outline the JX-10 is a 12-voice, dual oscillator (24 DCOs) synth with a 76-note, velocity and pressure sensitive, splittable plastic keyboard. It has a simple real-time sequencer (up to approx 1600 notes), 50 factory preset sounds in internal ROM, 50 internal RAM memories and a plug-in cartridge facility for storing a further 50 sounds. It could be seen as a 12-voice version of the JX-8P, but in fact it does have some features unique to itself, as will soon become apparent.
Each of the two banks of oscillators can produce saw tooth, square and non-variable pulse wave forms in octave steps of 2', 4', 8' and 16' – 8' being standard pitch. I do think it would be reasonable to expect variable pulse width and PWM at this price, but no. There are two sets of EG's, and a single set of VCF's; various combinations of crossmodulation and sync between the two banks of oscillators is possible, as is detune. The DCO mix facility found on the JX8P is still present and allows you to apply the two EG's independently to each of the DCO banks and then mix their relative levels thus giving rise to a whole range of voicings through the combination of percussive and smoother sounds.
Having a lot of voice memories is all well and good, but with an even mildly complicated synthesizer featuring a wide range of performance control variables, it can be necessary to do a great deal more than simply select a new voice before playing your next line. For instance, key assign (poly, mono, unison, split etc); if you're using a split keyboard there's the split point and the two relevant voices, the range and applications of the pitch and mod wheels, effects parameters, keyboard touch, and so on. Although the JX-8P has 128 internal voice memories it only has eight 'patch' memories in which voices plus all such performance data can be stored. In the case of the JX-10 the 150 available sounds can be organised into no less than 64 'patches', where a patch consists of two sounds and a set of performance parameters. For live use it's invaluable. The sequencer data is also stored on the RAM cartridges – approximately 400 notes on an M16C (£45) and 1600 notes on an M64C (£85).
It seems that the recently introduced Alpha Wheel is to prevail as a means of edit control over most if not all Roland keyboard products for a while. The Alpha Wheel is a free spinning, infinite travel, continuous action, doesn't-stop-going-round type wheel which is like a central incrementor as used with standard digital access edit systems, but even more centralised – it does more or less everything. In the 'Parameter' mode, spinning the wheel will sequence you through the various adjustable parameters, the names of which are clearly displayed on the large LED indicator. Having got hold of the relevant parameter, another button gets you into the 'Value' mode, wherein a spin of the old Alpha Wheel will see the numeric display of the parameter's value whizzing up or down. As well as the wheel there is a calculator-type keypad to the right that can be used to select the desired parameter (they're all numbered) leaving the wheel for value adjustments. With your left hand on the wheel and your right on the key pad, operations can get quite snappy, and the restrictions of digital control are somewhat ameliorated. The great things about the Alpha Wheel, especially in conjunction with such a large clear display, is that you don't have to remember which number relates to which parameter, you simply spin the wheel until the relevant title appears in the window. Of course, with as many variables as there are here and a possible 0-99 degrees of adjustment to spin through, this has its own peculiar form of tedium to offer – it can take an awful lot of spinning. So with the key pad it can be much faster, as long as you know your numbers or can look them up quickly on the chart.
If all such digital means of control are unacceptable to you, you can feel free to splash out a further £199 on a PG800 programmer unit, just like the one used with the JX8P. This is a small box that sits atop the synth connected to it by a six-pin DIN lead, and offers individual knobs and sliders for each function – just like the good old days.
Even without the PG800 the JX-10 features a 'Quick Edit' section that allows certain key variables to be adjusted quickly such as basic key assign mode, tone number, chase play and there are also a couple of assignable controls which will be explained later. Operationally, then it's quite smooth.
The velocity sensitivity can be applied to the DCO, VCF and VCA and, as with the JX8P, its sensitivity can be adjusted from 0 (static) through three degrees, which some people might find a little coarse. The after touch facility has been made simple; it is adjustable through 0-99 and can be applied to vibrato, brilliance and/or volume, which is doubtless what the average player requires.
As mentioned there are some new facilities unique in the Roland range to the JX-10, one of which is 'Chase Play'. It works in the dual mode where two voices are selected to sound together when any key is pressed, and allows a variable delay to be introduced so that the lower voice of the split sounds later than the upper. In addition to being able to adjust the delay time and relative levels, you can select one of three modes which determine the order in which the sounds are output: U-L-U, U-L-L or U-L. If the same sound is selected for both upper and lower voices, it can be used as a repeat function, or alternatively two different sounds will bring life and complexity to the simplest line. There isn't anything akin to a 'feedback' control as you would find on a DDL, and it isn't possible to vary the number of repeats, but it's so often only a simply single or double repeat that's wanted on a synth line that in practice this isn't such a limitation and saves you from having to tie up a valuable DDL that might be used elsewhere. There are four outputs in all providing the possibility of normal stereo or stereo for both sides of the split.
Another new feature is that of being able to apply an inverse envelope to one of the two voices in the dual mode. In other words, if you play the key softly you get one voice alone and if you hit it hard you get the other – the other voice, that is... There are two modes in which this takes place: Touch Voice, where at a certain touch threshold there is a sudden switch from one voice to the other, and Cross Fade, where one voice gradually fades as the other becomes louder. This functions independently for each voice so that you can be holding down a softly played chord of strings and stab some brass over the top with your other hand – or the free fingers of the same hand if your technique's up to it.
Two more controls that you won't have seen on a JX synth before are the two Control Assign sliders. Each of these can be assigned to affect any one of four variables: upper/lower balance, portamento time, total volume, and MIDI volume (upper and lower). Similarly, a footswitch can be assigned to effect patch shift, portamento on/off, chase play on/off, and upper and lower hold. Definitely a big plus.
The JX-10 is a powerful and pleasing synth to play, with a few new and useful/exciting facilities. It isn't inexpensive but for what it offers it has to be good value. Sounds and features like this don't come cheaply.