For some time now Roland's synthesizer range has been lacking a flagship model worthy of the Jupiter 8's reputation. Mark Jenkins believes they finally have one in the form of their very latest 12-voice JX-10 Super JX polysynth. Read why...
Mark Jenkins examines Roland's new top-of-the-line synthesizer - the JX-10.
Every fleet needs a flagship, and the Roland keyboard line has been lacking one for some time. Admittedly, the JX-8P introduced around a year ago has some powerful features, but it's hardly in the tradition of the groundbreaking Jupiter 8 - it isn't even splittable.
So it comes as no surprise to hear that Roland have launched a new flagship model, although there will be some doubts as to its viability. With the success of recent budget digital synths such as Casio's CZ101, Yamaha's DX100, and Roland's own versatile Alpha Juno 1 and 2, the prospect of selling a £1900 analogue synthesizer must be somewhat daunting.
As we'll see, the JX-10 has some unusual features and several sonic capabilities denied to the conventional analogue synth, but in market terms, its closest neighbours must be the Oberheim range - the American thoroughbreds which took analogue synthesis where no keyboard had gone before. Oberheims are massively respected in the world music market, but are hardly big sellers in the UK. It looks as though the JX-10 is Roland's attempt to win back those prestige synth customers. Let's look at what it offers.
In many ways, the JX-10 (known also as the Super JX) is similar to the JX-8P. In fact, its 'voice architecture' is almost identical with two oscillators, two envelope generators and one filter per voice. White noise is available in addition, but the JX-10 has 12 voices rather than six or eight, and so approaches the chordal prowess of the 16-voice Yamaha DX7.
Unlike the DX7, however, the JX-10 can be split to form two 6-voice synthesizers. These can be layered together (played 6-note polyphonically) or placed either side of a programmed keyboard split defined by the user. There are not one, not two, but FOUR audio outputs, allowing notes each side of the split point to be recorded in stereo with Chorus. Furthermore, the two sides of the split can be assigned to different MIDI channels both for receive and transmit operations, so the JX-10 may well have some useful applications as a MIDI mother keyboard. Its six-and-a half octave, C to G, semi-weighted keyboard is a great advantage here, which adds further to its appeal.
The basic JX-10 voice offers sawtooth and pulse waveforms which can be combined to form more complex waves (and thus more complex sounds). But where this machine really comes into its own is in the application of its performance parameters - Program Change, Pitch-Bend, Modulation, Portamento Rate, after-touch control of Vibrato, Brilliance and Volume, plus velocity control of Volume, Brilliance and (in Dual Mode) of Cross-Fade.
This last feature is typical of some recent sampling keyboards and allows the user to produce some startling effects denied to those with simple performance controls. Strike the keys hard and you have a swiftly attacking string sound - hit them gently and you have strings which fade in slowly. Alternatively, you could opt for two completely different sounds for cross-fading, but either way, the effectiveness of the system depends upon the ease with which you can call up your pairs of sounds.
Luckily, the JX-10 follows the Jupiter 8/Jupiter 6 route of providing patch memories in addition to the conventional voice memories. There are 64 such patch memories which can each store one or two sounds, as well as any split point, keyboard mode and all performance settings. Obviously this is a boon for stage work, since a keyboard with so many modes available would otherwise be difficult to set up quickly.
Another major point is the provision of preset patches on the JX-10. This rather old-fashioned idea was re-introduced on their JX-3P and JX-8P synths, leading many to believe that Roland have two completely separate design teams for the Juno and JX lines (after all, they don't even look similar - the synthesizers that is, not the design teams).
Why bother with preset sounds? ROM can't be that much cheaper to install than RAM surely? And while we're about it, why do Roland (and Korg) limit their synths to 64 (8x8) patches when the Americans (Sequential, Oberheim et al) consistently offer 100 (10x10)? 64 patches seems a lot, but if you want to arrange your sounds for various sets or performances without messing about with tape dumping, it suddenly becomes a very small number. Like the JX-8P, the JX-10 presets offered are pretty decent (pianos, strings and bell-like tones) but the space would be better used for a second bank of programmable memories I feel. End of lecture, back to the special features.
Once you've called up a patch on the JX-10, you can take advantage of the built-in real-time sequencer and what Roland term the Chase-Play mode - a sort of MIDI digital delay.
Up to 32 notes can be held for between ten milliseconds and three seconds via this Chase-Play facility. Programmable parameters are: Level, Dynamics Time Follow, Lower or Upper keyboard mode, or Upper/Lower Alternation.
What all this means is that in Dual Mode your playing can be echoed by the synthesizer, either with the same sound, or a different sound selected on the other half of a split, or both. Whatever the choice, you can programme how loud you wish the echo to be in relation to the original. Some very intelligent note-pinching goes on in Chase-Play mode, since obviously if you play a 10-note chord there won't be another ten voices spare to play the 'echo' part. Chase-Play can thus be used to simulate a single-repeat digital delay, or to double up parts in a different voice with a slight delay, or to create quick ADT effects. It can even produce cascading patterns. Perhaps not something you'd use every day of the week, but at least it's unusual and usable.
The JX-10's sequencer is handy too. It's a simple real-time design with a storage capacity of 650 steps on the M16C RAM cartridge included with the machine. Roland cartridges are a little on the expensive side - the M16C is £45 and the M64C, which allows you to store 2600 steps, is £85 - so this isn't a facility which is going to alllow you to build up vast banks of sequence files unless you have a fat wallet.
However, as a scratch sequencer it's useful, with Single Play or Loop functions, Overdub and Punch-In at any point in the sequence. There are no other editing controls so you won't be able to compose complex songs on it, but you can run it either from an internal clock or externally via MIDI.
On the subject of RAM cartridges, the same M16C and M64C models can be used to store sounds as well as sequences. An M64C takes you up to a total of 128 patches and 150 sounds. Since the JX-10 doesn't offer tape dump of its patches, this looks like being a vital purchase.
As you might have guessed, the JX-10 follows recent Roland traditions (as seen on the Alpha Juno 1 and 2 and the MC-500 sequencer) in using an Alpha dial for all parameter selection and editing. In Parameter mode the continuously rotating dial calls up the available parameters (or 'factors' as they're called in the latest Roland terminology) one at a time for whatever sound you're altering. Hit the Value button and the dial then alters the level of that parameter, whether it's from 0 to 99 or simply on and off. The system is economical but could be slow, so all the important parameters such as Decay Time and Brilliance (filter opening) have their own 'quick access' edit buttons which immediately place the Alpha dial into edit mode for that particular parameter.
The alternative is to go out and spend another £199 on a PG800 Programmer, which Roland first introduced along with the JX-8P keyboard and which also edits Roland's GR77 bass guitar synth. This allows you to edit sounds simply by twiddling knobs, which of course is ten times faster than using the Alpha dial. The PG800 unit sits neatly on the right-hand side of the JX-10, just above the parameter list printed on its top panel. To the left of this list is a keypad for calling up sounds, and to the left of this, two rows of buttons to call up your patches. The Chase-Play and Sequencer controls come next, then the Key Mode and Quick Edit buttons and finally the Alpha dial.
On the left-hand panel of the JX-10 you'll find the usual performance controls to switch Portamento on and off and so on, plus faders for Upper/Lower balance, Portamento Time, overall Volume and Upper/Lower Volume via MIDI. The main performance controller is the same pitch-bender provided on the JX-8P - a chunky left-to-right device with a microswitch which activates modulation when a slight forward pressure is applied. Obviously this can be used any way you like in conjunction with the keyboard sensitivity controls - if you're going to have a hand spare to use the modulation/bender, you may prefer to programme it to affect filter opening rather than modulation on the after-touch section.
The JX-10 has the advantage of a very large (illuminated!) 32-character display which allows you to compose names for the non-preset memories, and shows the current keyboard mode and parameter values. This is a great advantage for stage use, particularly if the JX-10 is being used as a mother keyboard, although of course Yamaha have recently been wise enough to add an illuminated LCD option to the DX7 as well.
In terms of accessories, the JX-10 is well provided for by way of footswitch and pedal sockets. A DP-2 footswitch will start and stop the sequencer, shift patches or switch Portamento and Hold on and off, while an EV-5 pedal will control volume, portamento time or even sequencer speed. A stereo headphone socket is also provided.
Overall, the JX-10 is difficult to fault sonically or as a performance instrument. The Alpha dial is, of course, economical but if you can't get on with it the PG-800 Programmer isn't too expensive an accessory. Dumping sounds and sequences to cartridge is expensive but those entrepreneurial folk at Skyslip are coming up with a cheaper alternative to Roland's own cartridges I am reliably informed, just as they did for the Yamaha DX7.
The JX-10's keyboard is very pleasant to use - a little firm for the school of cheap plastic keyboard lovers but sufficiently resilient to give the pianist something to work with, so the JX-10 could be favoured as a mother keyboard. Fast and easy to use on stage, its sequencer and Chase-Play facilities both represent a significant bonus.
Unfortunately, the JX-10 is bound to suffer in sales terms with the velocity and pressure-sensitive Alpha Juno 2 at only £799 and the splittable Yamaha DX21 at £700 or so. Is there room left in today's market for a £1900 analogue synth? Roland obviously think so. If there is, the JX-10 deserves to be it.