A Double Dose of Roland
Roland JV80 & JY30 Synths
Is Roland's new JV80 their best keyboard since the D50? Julian Colbeck thinks it is, as he puts the company's two newest synths to the test.
Presumably the JV80 and JV30 were on the drawing board long before the JD800 was released, so tempting though it is to view Roland's latest generation of synths as representing an admission of failure as far as the viability of full-out knobs and switches synth design is concerned, this apparent reversion to more conventional operating procedures was, most likely, predestined.
The JV80 and JV30 are keyboards. They're black. And they're made by Roland. Try as I might I can see no further link — operational, physical, or in application — between them. I presume, however, that their sounds share provenance, which would go some way towards explaining their shared nomenclature. So, although this review appears as a 'double', in no way should you view these instruments as extensions or contractions of each other, because they're not.
The JV80 is a professional application, multi-timbral synth. Sounds are based upon PCM samples similar in range and quality to those on the JD800. In fact you can even load in JD800 wave cards. Sounds can be processed using the now familiar Roland TVFs, TVAs, and LFOs, along with the odd intriguing new programming concept such as FXM (Frequency Cross-Modulation), random pitch, and more. You can also apply chorus and/or reverb effects. There is no sequencer. The instrument is 7-part multi-timbral, plus drums. Its waveform memory can be expanded up to a whopping 14MB (4MB internal, 8MB expansion board, 2MB on card), and it is extremely friendly in use.
Surprising as it may seem to some, I felt more at home with the JV80 in a matter of days than I felt in months with the JD800. One hears the word "intuitive" bandied about a lot at the moment. Well, I'm sorry, but here it comes again. The JV80 is a genuinely intuitive instrument. It has buttons that are placed, and that function, where and how you need them — Reverb Off, Performance, Patch, etc. As you find your way around the front panel you never get to that frustrating 'alright, let's start again' stage. Time and again I found myself wondering what I could have accomplished five years ago on the D50 if only that had been so well presented. The comparison with that instrument is not lightly made. This is a similarly glossy, quality, 'beautiful' instrument — tailor-made for the New Age boys, for sure, but also an instrument that instantly puts you mind of Dolby, Prefab Sprout, Sakamoto. The JV80's 61-note keyboard is velocity and aftertouch sensitive, and sounds are played with 28-note polyphony.
Though it's no lightweight in terms of its sounds, physical attributes are another matter. The JV80 weighs a mere 9kg to the D50's 11.4kg and the Korg M1's 13.5kg, for those interested in comparisons. The panel has pleasingly rounded edges, as is the current mode, and on either side of the 2 x 40 character backlit screen are blobs of buttons, plus a bank of eight sliders. It may be slightly unfair to say that the overall look veers towards that of a home keyboard, but the uniformity of panel control plus the instrument's basic size and weight does incline you towards that opinion.
The panel is none the worse for that, however, when it comes to understanding, almost at a glance, not only what is available but how to access it and use it as well.
The basic JV80 sound currency is a Patch, which can consist of up to four Tones. Each Tone can use its own waveform, and can be built up into a complete sound component using the filters, envelope generators and so on.
Up to seven Patches plus a Rhythm Set-up can be stored into what Roland call a Performance, which can be used for complex multi-patches, suitable for live use, or multi-timbral set-ups for sequencing. Both Patch and Performance memories have Play and Edit mode buttons to the right of the screen. It may seem simple, simplistic almost, in print but in practice this immediacy, which permeates the whole instrument, is bliss.
In Patch mode you have a choice of 128 presets (A and B sets, each containing eight Banks of eight Patches) plus a further 64 user memories. By presets I do mean just that — they cannot be overwritten. Frankly, it's rather a shame to encounter so many immovable sounds. Half this number would have been sufficient, but there we are. Still, they're there, so let's take a look.
The presets do at least offer the benefit of being grouped in instrument types. Preset A Bank 1, for instance, being pianos. Bank 2 is electric pianos, Bank 5 guitars, and so on. As for the sounds themselves, they're not going to win awards, but then neither do they appear to be trying to. They are just good, solid sounds, almost completely unreliant on effects, which is a welcome, if brave, move.
The pianos are important because everyone needs a good piano sound. There are eight variations in the acoustic bracket, ranging from a standard grand piano, through mellow and 'pop' (ie. bright) versions, to my own favourite, the impressively large 'MIDIed Grand'.
The electric pianos are nothing to be ashamed of, and there's a particularly interesting and chunky guitar patch called 'Guitar Rhodes'. Other worthies would include 'Flanged Nylon', which adds some silky smooth JP8 strings and the odd eerie vocal to a pleasant nylon string guitar sample, and a most authentic 12-string.
In Preset B, you'll find more than a few highly usable string sounds, from standard washes through to pizz strings, to an aggressive Marcato. Brass patches felt a bit thin (both sonically, and on the ground), but there are one or two effective pads in Bank 8, 'EP+EXP Pad' and 'JP-8 Pad' in particular.
The user Patches included many that I would say had more character than the presets, but one of the most impressive aspects of the instrument is just how easy it is to tweak, tailor, edit — call it what you will — sounds into custom items that you can call your own.
Returning to the preset Patches for a moment, my first minor quibble with the JV80 concerns the use of one of the pan control options on sounds. Each Patch can contain up to four Tones, and within each Patch you have control over the pan position of each Tone. One of the options, aside from various left/right configurations, is Random, whereby a Patch spins around all over the place, which is impressive enough in the rose-tinted setting of lone review or music shop inspection but would almost always be a thorough pain in real life, ie. in the context of a band performance or recording.
Unfortunately, many of the presets have been programmed using this random pan setting, which means you'd either have to re-save sounds in a user or card location, which is a bit of a waste, or you'd have to continually re-set the pans every time you want to use a Preset which has this configuration.
The JD800, with all its myriad knobs and sliders, is supposed to set even the most reluctant of programmer's fingers a twiddlin'. Only in my experience it doesn't. If the same is true of the JV80... let me see, do I have a hat I don't mind eating at the moment? No, seriously folks, you will end up programming this instrument, mainly because pretty well anything you do sounds good, and more than occasionally something you do sounds quite superb. Roland's new-found instant edit system of sliders and buttons is not only powerful, but quick, and obvious too.
The system is based around a panel of eight buttons on the far left hand side of the control panel. In orange, these buttons are marked Level, Panel, Course Tune, Fine Tune, Cutoff, Resonance, Attack, Release (they also have blue markings, which indicate the buttons' functions when you're in Performance rather than Patch mode).
Press one of these buttons and the screen will display the current values of a parameter for all the Tones within that Patch. To make changes you simply manoeuvre one of the first four sliders, whereupon you'll see and hear changes taking place. If you want to hear just one of the Tones (maximum of four, remember?) in order to make some changes, simply turn off the others using the Tone switch buttons beneath the display screen. You want to (temporarily) kill the effects? Fine, just turn them off by de-activating both the dedicated reverb and chorus buttons.
To give you an idea of the sort of level of power and lack of complexity we're talking about: take a sound like 'Rubber Bs 3', a nice round, rubbery bass sound whose conglomerate filter cutoff appears to open up nicely with increased keyboard velocity. Select the Cutoff parameter and move slider 1. Immediately this opens up the filter on the hollow, buzzy tone within the sound, introducing an interesting, more electronic feel. Slider 2 opens up the filter on the hard fundamental tone, giving the sound a bubbling top end. Slider 3 does the same for the same sound panned right. You could have saved edits at a hundred different points within this simple exercise, and all permutations sounded valid. Better still, there was no technical skill involved.
Now if the JV80 offered you access to just these eight (sets of) parameters it would still be a useful and quick way to make simple sound changes. But it goes further. The buttons in effect take you to title pages for a whole host of edit parameters that you can flip through via the up/down arrows.
Button one, Level, takes you to the first of seven pages of level-related operations: basic tone level, velocity range, velocity curve type (one of seven), TVA LFO 1 and 2 depth (in other words tremolo level), TVA key follow, and a parameter called tone delay which, as you might, expect, can delay the start of a Tone.
The Pan button covers not only controls for each Tone's pan position (including the seductive if irritating random option), but subsequent pages govern the dry, unprocessed level of each Tone, the level sent to the chorus, and reverb, and finally pan key follow — an unusual parameter that has the same attraction to the listener as Random, yet it has the distinct advantage of being controllable as far as you, the performer, goes.
Course Tune — dear me, did you really imagine it would just let you nudge up and down the scale? — also allows you to tap into pitch envelope depth, pitch LFO 1 and 2 depth (vibrato), and pitch key follow.
Fine Tune, aside from offering the obvious, offers control over one of my personal JV favourites: random pitch. This is a great feature whereby you can, progressively, determine a level of pitch randomisation for each time a note is repeatedly played. As offered in this instance, ie. per Tone, as opposed to per Patch as a whole, it is a little unwieldy, but on a single Tone or unified Patch the facility allows you to play, say, just a succession of fast notes up and down a scale, and hear a succession of fast notes all over the keyboard range. Eat your heart out Conlon Nancarrow!
The Cutoff button covers not only filter cutoff, but also TVF envelope depth, TVF velocity sensitivity, TVF LFO 1 and 2 (filter vibrato) depth, filter type (low pass or high pass), and filter cutoff key follow. Resonance not only covers the obvious, but also resonance mode — hard or soft.
The Attack and Release buttons govern the strength of envelope generation over their respective parameters for both filter and amplifier.
You'd be forgiven for wondering what on earth is left for 'real' editing, if this is just quick editing. But bear in mind that these parameters primarily cover depth or strength aspects; there is still plenty of fine setting to be done. In fact I did actually miss one parameter grouping that would in my opinion have been most helpful at this stage, namely control over each Tone's basic waveform.
The reason for this is that many Patches just use two or the maximum of four Tones. If you want to add a third or fourth Tone to the Patch, or, for that matter, even see precisely which PCM sample is being employed on which Tone, you'll have to dive headlong into Patch Edit mode for real. Nevertheless, even this process, generally a daunting one for most people presented with a new synth, turned out to be easily fathomable here on the JV80.
Once you hit the Patch Edit button you have seven edit buttons to the right of the display (labelled in orange lettering — once again a secondary name, in blue, applies to the instrument in Performance mode) at your disposal: Common; Effect; Control; Wave/LFO; Pitch; TVF; TVA. As with the quick edit buttons over on the other side of the control panel, these buttons are merely the title pages, the up/down buttons taking you sometimes six or seven pages deep into the heart of the instrument.
At the very core of the JV80 is its already well-stocked but still expandable bank of sampled waveforms. Because you can instantly switch off the effects and, selectively, listen to each Tone in turn, it is very easy to peel back layers of sound and signal processing so that you can hear a single, neutral Tone and so scrutinise the waveform generator's multifarious offerings.
First on to the grid are nine keyboard types (a standard, fullish piano, a couple of Rhodes, clavi, organ), followed by guitars (nylon, a wonderful guitar harmonic with just the right amount of 'spit' at the front end to make it interesting and punchy, muted guitars, Strats of one sort or another), and finally a harp.
"The JV80 is nothing if not a fun, encouraging, and hands-on type of instrument. The sounds are classy, and programming is as easy as it gets — at present."
There are no real surprises in the next department: basses. Indeed, I'm sure I recognise that fretless from U110 days! The wind group comprises plenty of orchestral sounds, flute, trumpet, a burbling French horn, followed by some ethnic bottles and pipes.
There aren't too many string samples, which makes it all the more impressive that the Roland programmers managed to prepare such a full bag of string sounds in the Patch presets. That said, the basic string samples are lush and full, so there are plenty of frequencies to work with. A vocal bank features some unusual samples, including the articulated pop voice, which is clearly responsible for one of the more ear-catching internal user patches ('Doowah Diddy').
After a succession of bells, marimbas, and log drums, come some handy synth waves, and bringing up the rear is a collection of single shot 'component part' samples such as organ click, white noise, something called 'Anklungs' (a less pitched but nonetheless similar sound to the M1's 'Bamboo Trem'), plus sundry drums and percussion.
This all takes up 4MB of ROM, but as I said you are not limited to just this. You can fit an 8MB wave expansion board (£215), and in addition to this you can have access to a further 2MB of basic waves from cards. The first of these, a piano card, will be available shortly and will cost £55. Expect many more. Finally, JD800 wave data cards can also be used. The dedicated JV cards will come in pairs, one containing Patch data and the other containing basic waves.
In terms of full scale editing the essential ingredients missing from the instant edit's supply of parameters, aside from the above-mentioned waveforms, begin with LFO controls. These comprise waveshape, time, rate, synchro, delay, fade (in and out), offset, delay, and level controls as regards LFO modulation of pitch, tone, and volume.
Synchro allows the LFO's phase to be tied to key on events, or not as you require, which means that modulation can be unified no matter what keys are being played, or set to re-start each time a new note is played. A small point, maybe, but one that helps to make the JV the subtle, expressive instrument that it is. The other interesting parameter here is offset, whereby you have control over positive/negative emphasis within the LFO cycle.
There are three pages of pitch-related parameters — not just coarse/fine tuning of course, but pitch key follow, pitch envelope, velocity control over pitch, and my old favourite the random pitch option.
The filter pages comprise type (low-pass or high-pass), cutoff, resonance (plus a hard/soft mode option), and key follow. Of course, the filter is a Time Variant Filter, as Roland call them these days, ie. one that can be shaped using an envelope generator. The amplifier, too, is the TV variety; additional parameters within the TVA pages comprise basic level, key follow, velocity curve, pan offset, and tone delay.
There may be little radically new in these main editing pages, but the list is impressively complete. What is new, though, is a facility on the basic waveform page entitled FXM. What essentially this does is cross modulate two selected waveforms so as to produce a cutting and burbling new waveform. As with all such systems (remember FM?) the trick and/or problem and/or beauty of it all is in achieving unpredictable results.
Without having spent too much time in this department I'd say that this is a handy device to have up your programming sleeve, but I'd be unlikely to stay awake at nights doodling with it.
Before we leave the subject of editing, a quick word on the Presence slider, located just above the familiar Roland modulation/pitch controller. This seems to simply add a little more top to the JV80's sound — it could be something more along the lines of an 'enhancer', though it's hard to tell. Given that it subjectively does indeed give most sounds more presence, and never has an adverse affect, I'd tend to leave it cranked fully up — almost a waste of a slider. Next to Presence is a second slider marked C1, which can be used to generate MIDI continuous controller data, and also used as an internal mod source.
The JV is impressively streamlined in respect of its effects. You have a chorus bank. You have a reverb bank. Each is quite respectably programmable, and you have full control over the amount of effect being applied to Patches, both in single Patch terms and in Performance mode.
The chorus comes in three types: regular; a slow, almost flanged type; and deep. Naturally, levels, rates, and feedback levels are fully controllable. The reverb types comprise two rooms, two stages, two halls, a delay, and a pan delay, with, again, all obvious features like time, level, and feedback under your control.
There is also a strange facility entitled Analogue Feel, which has its own dedicated page with a depth parameter. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it simple slow modulation that, progressively, induces a feeling of nausea as you wind it up to maximum level of 127? Take your pick. Quite a neat trick, whatever.
And that's it on the effects front. I, for one, am not sorry about it either. So often an instrument's range of effects can become a disadvantage when it comes to using the instrument multi-timbrally. Most instruments, after all, can only muster up a pair of effects processors, whereas you'd need eight pairs (or whatever one's multi-timbrality rating is) in order to preserve 'single' sounds in their originally programmed state. Here, the effects are not only good, but relatively innocuous, yet there are regular edit functions, such as the facility to delay tones, that go some way towards alleviating the feeling you might be lacking in the effects department.
The pay-off comes when using the JV80 in multi-timbral (Performance) mode, because although you are still restricted to using a single chorus plus reverb setting for all instruments within a Performance, because you have not become so reliant upon effects you don't suddenly feel the bottom dropping out of your carefully selected Patches.
A Performance can comprise up to eight Parts — seven regular Patches plus a special drum Part — and you have considerable power over the Performance in terms of zone, velocity, effects on/off, MIDI data etc. The JV splits its Performance parameters into three categories: Part parameters, in other words the level of each part, its pan, pitch, etc.; transmit zone parameters, which govern MIDI volumes, and the MIDI transmitted pan position, program change, transmit channel, transmit velocity sensitivity and curve, and MIDI note range; and internal zone parameters, that control an identical range of features but with respect to the JV's internal voices only. I'm not sure that I fully appreciate the need to split up all these pieces of information thus, but no doubt extended use of the instrument will be more revealing.
As I mentioned, the eighth Part in a performance is reserved for drums. Drums, of which you have three basic keyboard maps to choose from (preset A and B, and internal user), can (though I use the word hesitantly) benefit from extensive re-programming in terms of pitch, envelope, filter, and amplitude. Personally I belong to the school of programming that says if you don't like a particular drum sound, sling it and find another. Drum sounds are not difficult to come by, and I see little point in in-depth chiselling in a setting such as this. However, an interesting aspect of the JV is that since you can load in JD800 wave cards you will be able to avail yourselves of some of the splendid new drum and percussion sounds that Roland have released for the be-knobbed and be-switched one. As it is, the JV drum sounds are by no means bad, and you have a massive arsenal of traditional drums, ethnic percussion, and classic Roland drum machine (808 and so on) at your disposal.
Having set up a Performance, one of the most encouraging aspects of the instrument is being able to mix, in real time, the levels and pans of the Performance's patches using the panel's eight sliders. I'm not sure just how useful this facility is in the long run, because you will presumably want to store such settings somewhere eventually. But it all makes for lively playing.
The JV80 is nothing if not a fun, encouraging, and hands-on type of instrument. The sounds are classy, and programming is as easy as it gets — at present — if you want to program as opposed merely to tweak. Especially taking the upgradability factor into account, I shall be most alarmed and disappointed not to be commenting on new JV software or what-have-you in the year 1995.
And so, eventually, to the JV30. As I hinted at some time ago at the start of this review, these two instruments have about as much in common as the Queen Mary has with a banana. But they're both JV synths, so here goes!
Possibly the most important thing to note about the JV30 is that it adheres to the GS standard, Roland's own brand of the recently ratified General MIDI, which sets out to cure the age-old problem of incompatibility between where different types of sound are stored as presets on different instruments. This 'problem' is hardly one that professional musicians will recognise, but at the domestic, 'home entertainment' end of the market (and also perhaps for multimedia), it matters.
Accordingly the JV30 offers its quotient of 128 Capital Tones, along with 61 variations on these Tones, plus the chance to store up to 128 user-edited sounds. The instrument also has a special MT32 mode whereby 128 Tones mapped a la MT32 can be called up. This makes some 445 Tones in all (is this a record?), which can be played at 24-voice polyphony over the JV30's 61-note velocity (but not aftertouch) sensitive keyboard.
Essentially this instrument is a semi-editable GS tone-bank receptacle with a keyboard. Editing is covered by three sliders that, via a cunning system of modes, can control envelope attack, decay and release, filter cutoff frequency and resonance, and vibrato rate, depth and delay.
As on the JV80 you can apply both chorus and reverb to the Tones, and switch these effects on and off by the simple means of a dedicated pair of buttons. Effects on offer include four types of chorus (including a flanger, with feedback) and eight 'reverbs' (rooms, halls, plate, a delay, and a panning delay).
The sounds themselves are generally strong. They are grouped in banks comprising pianos, chromatic percussion, organ, guitar, bass, string/orchestra, ensemble, brass, reed, pipe, synth lead, synth pad, synth SFX, ethnic, percussive, SFX. There are also some 18 drum kits.
Clearly the JV30 is made with sequencing in mind. The instrument is 16-part multi-timbral, and designed to offer instant access to a vast palette of tone colours with the minimum of hassle.
A nice touch is the provision of four key modes: Fat; Octave; Dual; and Split. The latter two are self-explanatory. The first adds in available tone memory at minutely pitch-shifted levels so as to, well, fatten the sound. Octave can create the same effect by simply adding a Tone one octave below normal pitch, so fattening, or thickening the sound.
Obviously any instrument that advertises its modes thus is not destined for extensive pro use. But that said, the JV30 can deliver some interesting sound colours, and of course the number of Tones on offer cannot be faulted.
Most will use the JV30 in Performance mode, ie. multi-timbrally, where you have eight locations into which you can store your various sounds. You have control over MIDI channel, level, pan, and effect level. The JV30 is surely destined to become a mainstay instrument for the minimalist computer owner in need of good sounds and a MIDI keyboard.
Roland JV80 £1,249 inc VAT.
Roland JV30 £745 inc VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
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Review by Julian Colbeck
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