The Jupiter Legacy
Not only did Roland's Super Jupiter make a worthy replacement for the Jupiter 8, it is still a sought-after instrument today, as Steve Howell is happy to report.
IT'S NOT OFTEN THAT THE INSTRUMENT A MANUFACTURER INTENDS TO TAKE OVER FROM ONE OF ITS CLASSICS SUCCEEDS IN DELIVERING THE GOODS, BUT ROLAND'S FOLLOW-UP TO THEIR JUPITER 8 CERTAINLY LIVED UP TO ITS NAME - THE SUPER JUPITER.
WHAT MAKES A great synth? For that matter, what makes a great instrument? What actually makes a Fender Strat a professional instrument and a cheap copy a poor substitute? They're both planks of wood with six strings, some electromagnetic pickups, volume and tone controls, a switch for pickup selection and an output jack - so they should both sound the same, right? Obviously not: the copy will have a sound readily identifiable as an electric guitar but it won't have that "quality" that makes the Strat an individual instrument. Does the same principle apply to synths? The answer lies with whether or not a synth can possess a quality that goes beyond its technical spec - and I reckon the answer is 'yes'.
Let's take an example: an analogue synth with two voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs), one highpass filter, one voltage-controlled lowpass filter (VCF), two ADSR envelope generators (EGs), one voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA) and two low-frequency oscillators (LFOs) in a 19" module. The description fits many synths - Cheetah MS6, Bit One, Oberheim Matrix 6 or Matrix 1000 - but the sound of each is quite distinct. And, as you've deduced from the header at the top of the page, we're talking about the Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter analogue synth module here.
The Super Jupiter doesn't have an amazing specification when compared with, say, an Ensoniq ESQ1 or Oberheim Matrix 12, and you could be forgiven for assuming that the aforementioned MS6 or Bit One could produce identical sounds. And up to a point you'd be right, if it weren't for that intangible "quality" mentioned earlier. We're talking Strats, Telecasters, Les Pauls, SGs here - but electronically so.
Like many of the classic synths examined in these pages in issues past, the MKS80 Super Jupiter has that certain "something" that can't be easily put into words - although I'm about to try.
The MKS80, introduced around 1985, was intended to be the 19" MIDI version of the Jupiter 8 with bits of Jupiter 6 thrown in for good measure. Many Jupiter 8 owners would agree that the MKS succeeds in being its replacement, though some JP8 die-hards certainly wouldn't. For my money, the Super Jupiter has all the qualities I associate with the Jupiter series - it's warm, rich, fat, and all the usual analogue cliches - but it is also detailed and has a clarity that old Roland synths always seemed to have, yet other designers failed to capture.
The Super Jupiter has the fast 'n' responsive envelopes Roland are noted for, and its filters are clear and transparent. The oscillators never seem to overload the filter unduly, creating a naturally clean sound, and any 'filth' can be carefully controlled using cross modulation between the oscillators. The result is a synth that is as full of character as the old Prophets and Moogs but, to me at least, the MKS80 is more versatile. Being a 19" rack-mount unit, the Super Jupiter doesn't have the same hernia-inducing factor as the Memorymoog, OBXa or even the JP8... And being rackmounted, you'd guess the expander lacks the control panel immediacy of a "complete" polysynth. And, again up to a point, you'd be right: the MKS80 does use parameter access but it was also the first Roland synth module to have an optional programmer available for it. This takes the form of the MPG80 (which is also rackmounted) and gives you all the knobs and sliders and switches you need for even the most laborious programming session. You have, therefore, the best of both worlds.
LET'S GET DOWN to basics and see what the MKS offers in more detail. The two oscillators are almost identical. Each offers sawtooth, triangle, square and pulse, with oscillator two offering white noise as well. Each or either VCO can be modulated by LFO1 and/or EG1 in varying amounts, and these control signals can be inverted at the inputs of either oscillator if required. Pulse width modulation (PWM) is similarly flexible, with LFO1 and/or EG1 being routable to either or both oscillators' pulse wave circuitry. Again, these control signals can be inverted and the net result of this is very rich ensemble sounds indeed.
Key Follow is switchable to affect either VCO1 or VC02, but not both simultaneously. Using this control it is possible to set fractional scaling for the one VCO and, although this isn't a facility that you'll use every day, it can be very handy for creating interesting waveshapes that depend on keyboard position when the two oscillators are synced together. PWM can also be controlled using keyboard position, which again throws up many interesting possibilities.
Cross modulation exists such that VC02 can be used to modulate VCO1 for "pseudo-FM" and other tonal possibilities. Furthermore, cross modulation amount can be controlled by Envelope one for "shaped" FM effects. Both oscillators can be sync'd either way (VCO1 to VC02, or VC02 to VCO1) which is a curious facility but not without its uses. Both oscillators can be tuned and detuned in large or small amounts for intervals and chorus effects. All these facilities add up to a tremendously large palette of textures, tones and waveshapes, and a synth that's significantly more advanced than any analogue synth you're likely to find these days.
An oscillator mix control balances the two oscillator levels before they pass onto the high-pass filter. This is a static filter (it cannot be dynamically controlled from any modulation source) and its basic task is to remove excessive bottom end from a patch. It's not something you're going to find yourself using too much when programming, but it can be indispensable when you're trying to separate sounds in a mix.
The VCF offers manual control over cutoff frequency and resonance with modulation from LFO1, ENV1 and the keyboard. The MKS80 follows the Jupiter 8 tradition in that the filter does not self-oscillate at extreme resonance settings. This is a limitation, as there are some things for which oscillating filters are essential - those long Tangs filter sweeps and acid house rhythm tracks, for example. Envelope modulation is invertable, allowing a far greater range of noises to be made and the filter can be controlled using either envelope.
As well as the expected control via envelope two, the VCA can be modulated using LFO1. This is not a facility found on any of the Super Jupiter's competitors, and it allows a wide range of tremolando effects as well as many special effects to be created.
The two EGs take ADSR format (attack, decay, sustain level and release) and also offer variable rate scaling and control of dynamics. Both envelopes have a switch for velocity on or off and overall dynamic range (velocity amount) is governed by a non-programmable control in conjunction with a programmable control. In practice it's best to leave the non programmable control at full and program everything. Dynamics can also be used to control attack time, and a programmable control is provided to govern exactly by how much. I suppose the only limitation with the way in which the MKS80 handles velocity and dynamics is that the Time and Level controls affect both EGs identically. But then it's never presented me with any problems...
"ALL THESE FACILITIES ADD UP TO A SYNTH THAT'S SIGNIFICANTLY MORE ADVANCED , THAN ANY ANALOGUE SYNTH YOU'RE LIKELY TO FIND THESE DAYS."
LFO1 offers the usual sine, sawtooth, square and random waveforms for modulation. You have control over rate and delay, with depth being set at the input stages of the VCOs, VCF and VCA. There is another LFO but more on this later.
Now all this constitutes what Roland called a Tone. A tone can be stored in any one of 64 locations (eight banks of eight) and a further 128 can be stored in an optional cartridge, the M64C.
You'd think that all these parameters would be enough for creating good sounds, but there's even more you can do with a Tone once it has been created. It's possible to set five play modes on the Super Jupiter: Poly 1, Poly 2, Unison 1, Unison 2 and Solo. Furthermore, you can set splits (with freely assignable split point) and layers of two sounds on the same or separate MIDI channels. Of the play modes, Unison 1 was designed to kill - all 8 voices are layered on one key. Also associated with the Unison modes is the Unison Detune control which sweeps from a slight phase shift to out-and-out nasty. Solo mode turns the MKS80 into a standard monophonic synth which is useful, as the name implies, for solo lines. Triggering for Unison 1 and Solo can be either single or multiple depending on whether the Env Reset button is switched on or off in Tone Edit.
There's also an octave shift variable from -2 to +2 - handy for transposing a sound without having to retune oscillators. Next, there's a glide control for setting portamento. Glide, unlike some synths of this era, is available in all play modes, Poly, Unison or Solo. You also have control over pitchbend amount on each oscillator and a second LFO can be called upon for vibrato. Unlike LFO1 with its multiple waveforms, LF02 only outputs a triangle wave and this is introduced either via the mod wheel or aftertouch. You have control over LF02's rate and maximum modulation amount which goes to both VCOs simultaneously. The beauty of having two LFOs is that one can be used for vibrato whilst the other deals with PWM, filter sweeps, sync sweeps and so on, and Roland's decision to make LF02 a simple one makes sense. A switch labelled VCF does not, as you'd assume, route LF02 to the filter - instead it routes the mod wheel or aftertouch to the filter for real-time control of the cutoff frequency using these two controllers. This can be very effective for brass and other swell effects.
These parameters constitute a Patch in Roland parlance. The beauty of this system is that one Tone can become several other sounds. One Tone could be in a Patch played polyphonically with glide. The same Tone could be used in another Patch, the same Tone could be combined with another Tone in a layer or a split. Lots of possibilities for the creation of sounds exist in Tone Edit but in Patch Edit, even more things are possible.
ALL THIS PROGRAMMING power is available through the MKS80's parameter access. But getting around it with four buttons is not recommended. Enter the MPG80, which effectively endows the Super Jupiter with knobs 'n' faders. To use the MPG, simply connect the MIDI Out of your master keyboard to the MIDI In of the MPG80 and then take the Programmer Out (a special Roland lead) from the MPG to the Programmer In on the MKS80, match up the two units' MIDI channels and away you go. There's an interesting possibility opened up by this setup, as the information coming from the MPG is echoed by the MKS80's MIDI Out and so can be recorded as part of a sequence (via a MIDI merger into your sequencer). This allows sound parameters to be modified in real time during the sequence. If this appeals to you, however, beware of a few things - firstly, watch for MIDI feedback loops and secondly, watch that the amount of SysEx data coming out of the MKS doesn't clog up your sequencer.
The net result of all this? To use the phrase, "all you'd ever want" of an analogue MIDI synth module sounds so passé that I won't use it. But it's true. Rich strings and pads, big brass sounds, killer basses and leads (especially in Unison 1), detailed metallic noises and a myriad special effects are all part of the Super Jupiter's vocabulary. And all from one convenient 19" box.
The optional but highly desirable programmer puts all this at your fingertips. What's more, unlike many of the MKS80's contemporaries, it's very reliable and requires only occasional pressing of the Autotune button to keep it in tune.
I speak as a long-time admirer of the MKS80 - I wanted one for years but couldn't afford one. Instead I tried the Bit module, the Cheetah, the Oberheim and other synths but have never been totally happy. After the instrument was discontinued, those who had them kept them. Recently, however, a chance glance through the classifieds in Melody Maker saw me penniless but happy. Now, my Super Jupiter has replaced nearly all my analogue synths because it is that versatile. In fact, you'll soon see some of my old synths in the MT classifieds.
I don't know whether the MKS/MPG80 was a huge commercial success for Roland. All the people I speak to who have one love it with a passion, but I don't think Roland sold skiploads of them. Perhaps the two grand price tag and the fact that people weren't used to the idea of paying that sort of money for a 19" box put some people off. Nowadays, I'd venture to say that if Roland dusted off their production line and reintroduced this little beast, they could do very well with it. The only modifications I'd suggest would be greater polyphony (say, 16 voices) and multitimbrality - on the condition that the actual voice circuitry remained exactly the same.
And talking of prices, you can expect to pay anywhere between £1000 and £2000 for an MKS80 and an MPG80 second-hand even today - making it one of the few old instruments that has really retained its value. In fact, in relative terms, it's gone up. That must say something about the quality of the noises it makes.
Despite my admiration for the Prophet 5, the Memorymoog, the Oberheims and other classic analogue polysynths, I have settled with the Super Jupiter and programmer as the classic analogue polysynth. Whether you play acid house or heavy rock, funk or cabaret, reggae or new age, there's a place for the MKS80 in your music. The MKS80 is a serious investment, and one that would never be out of date in your rack whatever musical trends come and go. Is it the ultimate analogue polysynth? I can't account for your personal taste but I'd say that if any synth is going to win such an accolade, the Super Jupiter does it for me.
Gear in this article:
Retrospective (Gear) by Steve Howell