Whilst their flagship JD800 synth has inevitably attracted a good deal of attention, Roland have not neglected the entry level user in their new range of products. Julian Colbeck sounds out the small but almost perfectly-formed JX1.
There is only one thing wrong with the JX1. And unfortunately that thing is a major league booboo.
No, nothing wrong with the sounds. Nothing awry with the MIDI spec. Editing? A doddle... What's wrong is that this splendid entry level synth has the names of half its factory presets actually printed on the front panel. The result is that to the casual observer the JX1 has all the slinky hi-tech appeal of Dixon's home keyboard.
Now of course this makes no difference whatsoever to the value of the instrument. It is, as I said, a wonderful little beast. But I fear this will have a large impact on sales.
In time people may come to forgive the JX1 this design foible. Undoubtedly they should, because even at its full list price the JX1 is great value for money — either for someone after a first synth purchase, or for someone who's fed up with multi-timbral midiocy and who just wants a good, simple, new instrument with plenty of good, strong, interesting sounds.
Aside from the aforementioned design matter the JX1 comes across as clean-lined and vaguely new-looking, finished in battleship grey. With the pleasingly-angled end cheeks and indented control panel the instrument has a sort of geometric, almost Deco-ish feel. The case construction is a tad plasticky, and at 5.85kg the instrument is certainly light. I could have sworn that there were strap holders when I first saw the JX1 at NAMM this spring — there are certainly none now. However, I have to say that at this weight and with the title 'Performance Synthesizer' there most certainly should be.
The keyboard is light but responsive — velocity-responsive, to be precise — but there's no aftertouch. As for controls, you have a double bank of tone switches, a smattering of function buttons, four dual function sliders, volume and brilliance sliders, and a standard Roland dual-function modulation/pitch bend lever.
Round the back are stereo output jacks, a phones socket, pedal hold, MIDI In/Out/Thru, and — brilliant idea of brilliant ideas — a pair of stereo inputs. This is ideal for those times when you want to work outside a normal studio-type setup (eg. learn a song from cassette, do some writing with a drum machine...) because you can save a lot of faffing about by feeding an external instrument or other audio device into your JX1 and on out through the JX1's own outputs.
Less totally fab and wonderful is the external AC adapter, with those horrible little 'shaving socket' pronged plugs. But no matter...
Sales leaflet talk can generally be safely dismissed as hogwash. The JX1 leaflet's opening headline of "Amazing sounds for an affordable synthesizer" is, however, totally justified. Most of the sounds are very high quality, both in terms of imaginative programming and delivery. There is little extraneous noise, and the reverb is exceptionally smooth and unmodulated.
Unfortunately 64 of the JX1's 96 basic tones are preset. This means, for the benefit of all you SOS hi-techers who assume that by "preset" I simply mean sounds as programmed ex-factory, that you cannot alter them. Well, I'll re-phrase that: you cannot overwrite them. You can, however, alter them and either leave em in the edit buffer or store them in the JX1's 32-program user memory. This being the case we'd better loiter awhile in preset mode and see if these sounds can be endured for all eternity.
Sounds are divided into two banks: Preset A and Preset B. Suitably-named buttons let you toggle between the two, and pressing the two at the same time takes you into Memory, ie. user program, mode. Not the least redundant aspect of the JX1's preset panel-naming policy is the fact that the names printed above each preset button really only apply to sounds in Preset A. Some of the Preset B sounds loosely correspond — the pianos for instance — but others are way off. As for the user-programmed sounds, obviously these may bear no resemblance to the name whatsoever.
Be that as it may, here, in Preset A, is what you get: a fairly decent acoustic piano, bright and quite ringing except for a slight dead spot around middle C; a warm but bell-ish electric piano; a pair of organs, one clicky and jazzy, the other bristly and rocky; a Syn Clav featuring rather too much syn and not enough clav; a magnificent (if you like this kind of thing, which I personally don't) accordion; possibly the best marimba I've heard; bells with, how can I put it... balls; some rasping strings; sundry brass tones that I'll pass on, thanks all the same; excellent oboe/bassoon; and a good, flute with an excellent attack.
This makes up half of the A presets. The second 16 comprise more overtly synthy patches: Fantasia (à la D50 — I A/B-ed it out of interest, and it's pretty authentic, the real D50 sound being a bit more harmonic-laden and brighter); Synstak, a multi-layered wash; Prologue, an heroic 'analogue' patch; Neptune, a sort of whistle-ended soft attack electric piano; some 'syn' sounds of varying degrees and types of atmosphere; Woody, a swampy form of oboe; Sweep, a responsive and sweet synth sound; Epilogue, a dissonant fluted organ; sawtooth and square waveforms; and finally a couple of classic lead synth patches, the first a classic Moog type, and the second a hard-sync growl.
Preset B sounds, under the identical names, occasionally cover similar territory (pianos, and brass, the latter an improvement on Preset A's), and the rest of the time the sounds bear no resemblance to the front panel names. However, many Preset B sounds are first class. Personal favourites include the Syn Clav (this time with a superb bottom end), the flute (almost a shakuhachi) and most of the Neptune/Prologue etc. entries.
The 'maximum' polyphony (my quotes) of the JX1 is quoted as 24-voice. From this wording I think we can assume that not all tones will permit this, but certainly you are never aware of any lack of polyphony — not even, I have to say, when layering two sounds. If only one could say the same of a D50 or even an M1. This is impressive stuff. Did I mention layering? Any two tones from the same Preset bank can be layered. You simply press the buttons for the two sounds simultaneously. Nothing could be easier.
The Memory bank is reserved for user-programmed (or more accurately, 'edited') sounds. The editing process is completely foolproof: there are four sliders marked Cutoff, Color (yes, American spelling), Attack, and Release. A dual function button also allows these sliders to control Vib(rato) Rate, Vib Depth, Rev(erb) Level, and Rev Time.
Having found a sound you want to edit, the sound creation process involves waggling the odd slider until you like what you hear, then pressing the Write and Preset buttons. One slight limitation is that you can only store in the space from which your preset sprang, thus you cannot create whole banks of strings, for example.
In answer to the begging question of how much four sliders can possibly affect a sound, you may be surprised to hear that the answer is, "a considerable amount". Take the piano sound: the Cutoff slider varies it from blanket dull to honky tonk; the Color (sic) slider, functioning as resonance, can be manoeuvred in real time along with Cutoff to great effect in a sort of 'Won't Get Fooled Again' type of way. Hardly practical, you may think, until you discover that this type of realtime manipulation can be recorded over MIDI via Sys Ex. Press the MIDI button, then the Sys Ex button, and off you go!
Moving along, the Attack slider turns your brittle, hard-edged piano into slow metallic strings, the Release from 'backwards tape' to dreamy mush. Serious programmers may not want to hear this, but courtesy of these humble parameters, you can cover an awful lot of ground.
Vib Rate and Depth are self-explanatory, but be warned that the depth parameter is hardly subtle — from 'nothing' to 'drastic', one might say. The reverb controls may not be the most comprehensive you've ever come across, but the length and underlying quality is there. In addition, reverb has an on/off button, alongside which are chorus on/off (speed and depth are preset), and octave down buttons.
You are, by the way, free to edit sounds in layered mode, but you can only modify one of the tones at once.
The last sound modifying control is the Brilliance slider, which operates in real time only — its setting cannot be recorded in a user program.
In microscopic writing beneath the preset buttons is a whole bunch of hieroglyphics relating to various JX1 modes of operation and behaviour, namely Tuning (A=438Hz to A=445Hz), MIDI (reception on any of the 16 MIDI channels; no multi-timbrality, not even keyboard splits), Velocity Sensitivity, Pitch Bend Range, and Transpose.
It wouldn't be difficult to find omissions on the JX1. But that is missing the whole point of the instrument. It has clearly been designed as an immediate source of sounds/pleasure/inspiration, and on that score it delivers the goods.
The 'performance' aspect of the JX1 puzzles me though. Where are the performance features? I can see that the instrument is quick to use and has lots of immediately playable sounds, but so what?
If I were to get picky on this point I'd say that without a display screen, supplied as it is with an external power supply, no aftertouch, no strap handles and so on, the JX1 is no better suited to 'performance' than anything else on the market. I rather fancy the Roland marketing team were a little flummuxed by the JX1, and a loose tag like 'performance' just got them out of a jam.
But don't be fooled by this, or by the presets. This is a masterly little synth and one which will provide those canny enough to know a good thing when they see it with years of fun and hassle-free creativity.
£535 inc VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Julian Colbeck
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