Roland Alpha Juno 1
Roland’s latest analogue poly offers no earth-shattering innovations, but is still a welcome addition to the synth market’s ever-expanding lower end. Or so says Simon Trask, anyway.
Roland have repackaged their cheapest analogue polysynth, the Juno 106, and called it the Alpha Juno 1. But will a cosmetic clean-up and the addition of a few clever facilities be enough to stem the digital tide?
Over the past decade or two, the Japanese have consistently astounded the world with their ability to produce consumer goods at astonishingly low prices and in astonishingly large quantities. In the world of hi-tech musical instruments, the Nips now rule the roost at every price level save the highest, where American and Australian innovation (plus the fact that costs are virtually irrelevant) keeps the New World ahead.
At more realistic levels, Japanese industry giants like Yamaha and Casio have revolutionised the way people think about digital music technology in little more than a couple of years. Their instruments are the subject of huge, time-consuming investment programmes, but the results are worth it. And the two companies, locked for some years in a battle for supremacy of the domestic portable keyboard market, are now at loggerheads at the professional end of the scale, too; witness Casio's excursions upmarket with the CZ5000 Phase Distortion poly (soon to be joined by a sequencer-less stablemate, the CZ3000), and Yamaha's pre-Christmas launch of the mini-keyboard DX100, the cheapest FM synth yet.
But where does this leave Roland, one-time undisputed leaders of the polysynth market? The Junos 6 and 60, though still valued, are of a past generation. Similarly, the JX3P and Juno 106 are no longer in production — though you'll still find a few 106s in the shops if you're quick. Meanwhile, the year-old JX8P has been left propping up the £1000 sector of the synth market with not a lot beneath it.
Now Roland have come up with the six-voice, four-octave Alpha Juno 1 as their entry in the race to find the ultimate budget polysynth. As with the new DXs, the Alpha provides nothing new in the sound department — it merely repackages already existing technology in a cheaper (to build as well as to buy) and more 'modern' format. Its role in life is simple: to win back for Roland the prestige, and the final success, the first crop of Junos gave them three or four years ago.
For some obscure reason which must ultimately be something to do with design considerations, only Roland's earlier flagship poly — the Jupiter 8 — has featured eight voices. All their other synths, even the JX8P, have been six-voice. When you consider that the CZs and Yamaha's new budget DXs are eight-voice, that's a disappointment.
The first consequence of the 'modern' approach is that the Alpha employs membrane switches on its front panel, and follows the pattern of centralised digital access. This contrasts with its predecessor, the Juno 106, which had lots of nice individual-function sliders on its front panel. Still, a 16-character LCD is provided, and — wonder of wonders — it's backlit so you can see it in dark environments like between-song stages and dingy rehearsal rooms. Maybe Roland will start a trend.
The so-called 'Alpha dial' is by no means a new feature. The Moog Source, the first digital access synth of all (so that's where the finger of blame should be pointed), had something similar, and more recently, Oberheim's Matrix 12 polysynth has featured infinite rotary knobs for parameter-switching.
I have mixed feelings about Roland's dial. You use it, instead of front panel buttons, to select parameters, which means you have to keep swapping between parameter and value functions for the dial; and you have to be able to remember in what order the parameters come as they whirl past you on the LCD. A single-step option (you know, good ol' increment and decrement buttons) would have been handy to have had alongside the dial, because although having an infinite rotary control allows the relationship between physical distance of dial movement and parameter/value adjustment to be set (by Roland) to what is most convenient, it's still all too easy to sweep blindly past the parameter or value you want. When it comes to changing values, you are at least presented with a display that shows you both the unaltered value and any new value that you set.
Overall it's not a bad system, but it's no miracle cure for the ills of digital access, either.
Much neater is the way Roland have provided a shortcut to editing sound patches. Instead of modifying all the voice parameters, you can edit selected groups of parameters from one front-panel control. The group parameters are modulation rate, modulation depth, brilliance and envelope time.
Pitchbend and modulation are implemented on a single controller similar to that found on the JX8P, with pitchbend controlled by left-to-right movement and modulation by forward movement of the controller; the two can also be mixed.
The Alpha's four-octave keyboard range can be expanded via MIDI reception to eight octaves, or to put it another way, the synth's sound software and circuitry is capable of responding to pitches over an expanded range. Another plus (and a big one at that) for the Alpha is that it's capable of responding to both attack velocity and channel aftertouch over MIDI. All of which helps make the Alpha a good bet as a MIDI slave instrument, in spite of its physical limitations.
"Facilities - Can a Roland be a Roland without a chorus unit? Obviously not; the Alpha's has programmable rate over a range of 0-127."
From the synth itself it's possible to increase the range of the keyboard in two ways. First, there's an octave transpose up/down feature which, because it's instantaneously accessible via two buttons on the front panel, is an effective means of expanding the Alpha's keyboard range in performance. There's also a key transpose facility (an octave either way) accessible from a dedicated front panel button; you alter the value either by twiddling the Alpha dial or pressing the relevant key on the keyboard. So if you thought you were going to be playing your parts in G and suddenly find that they need to be in C# (ditto with a sequence), this option provides an easy way out.
The Alpha gives you a total of 128 sounds onboard. These are divided into 64 in ROM and 64 in RAM, or 'preset' and 'memory' as Roland call them. Each group is organised into eight banks of eight patches, accessed from the front panel by two rows of eight selectors.
The basic voice structure of the Alpha is single-DCO (Digitally Controlled Oscillator), as on previous Junos, passed through high-pass filter, VCF (low-pass), VCA and chorus, with an LFO acting on the DCO and VCF, and an envelope generator acting on the DCO, VCF and VCA. In other words, a synth section that's about as revolutionary as the Snoopy telephone, but which will at least be familiar ground to most synth players. It's easy for novices to work their way around, too, and that's more than you can say for the average DX.
The Alpha presents you with a selection of three pulse and five sawtooth waveforms held in memory. Pulse and sawtooth waveforms can be combined, and there are also six sub-oscillator waveforms available. Pulse wave 3 and sawtooth wave 3 can be further modified by PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) depth and rate parameters. And of course, there's a noise level control (on a scale of 0-3) which the manual says is 'often used for wind or surf'. Too true.
The high-pass filter has four settings including off (which is more of a non-setting, really) and one that actually emphasises, rather than reduces, the lower frequencies. VCF parameters include resonance, envelope polarity and LFO depth (all, of course, related to filter cutoff frequency). VCA settings are confined to level and envelope mode (a choice of envelope or gate). The Envelope Generator offers a straightforward four-stage envelope which, as I've said, can be applied individually to DCO, VCF and VCA.
The Alpha Juno also has a keyboard-tracking facility, applied to VCF and Envelope Generator on a scale of 0-15. The filter cutoff point increases as you move up the keyboard, and the envelope time becomes shorter. It's possible to set aftertouch sensitivity individually for the DCO, VCF and VCA — controlling vibrato, brightness and volume respectively.
Finally, can a Roland synth be a Roland synth without built-in chorus? Obviously not. The Alpha's is a voice-programmable feature, with a chorus rate adjustable over a scale of 0-127. That's a big improvement on the 106's selection of just two rates, if a little OTT; are you ever actually going to use 128 different chorus rate settings? Somehow, I doubt it.
What of the sounds you get on the Alpha? Well, both 64-patch groups offer a healthy selection of voices; you're unlikely to be sorry you're stuck with the preset, ROM-based sounds. The sound 'families' are organised according to the banks, so that bank 1, in both preset and memory groups, consists of brass sounds, bank 2 of strings, bank 3 of piano and guitar imitations, and so on.
The pianos don't have either the presence or the warmth of well-programmed FM, but there's a nice selection of organ voices, including some stunning pipe organ presets that have much of the fullness and acoustic detail of the real thing being played in a cathedral.
"Operation - Critics will pan the Chord Memory feature for being unprofessional, but why not accept it the same way you would a drum machine or a sequencer?"
Predictably, the Alpha also comes up with the goods on its string patches. 'Junostrings' are the best of the bunch because, unlike many string synth patches, they're equally at home in both chordal and solo work.
The Alpha woodwind is thin — weedy rather than reedy, and unlikely to make much of an impression in amongst the contents of a ZTT-scale mix. The bass sounds (especially the synth bass ones, which is most of them) are a lot better, punchy and dynamic, and there's also an array of lead synth sounds; the new Juno doesn't have a synth section strong enough to make the solo voices viable Minimoog alternatives, but they're still OK.
Then there are the sound effects. 'Twilite Zone' is eerie enough for you to suddenly not want to be alone at night (even if it's eleven in the morning), and there's also a rather hackneyed line-up of jets, helicopters and explosions: somehow they just aren't as much fun now as they were when they had novelty on their side, and they're as musically useless as ever.
Percussion sounds (tuned and untuned) are not the Alpha's forte — the DXs and CZs of this world do a much better job. But there are some wonderfully electronic-sounding timpani which sound like something straight out of the Doctor Who theme tune. And you thought you needed a sixties musical telephone exchange to do it...
Needless to say, all the Alpha's factory sounds, even the mediocre ones, benefit from being played from a touch-sensitive keyboard, what with those aftertouch facilities an' all.
And unique to the Alpha among synths in this price range (and a bit higher, too) is afacility for allocating different functions to two of the instrument's three pedals. The pedal switch can control any one of program step-through, portamento on/off and chord memory on/off functions, while the continuous pedal can be set to control volume (swell), dynamics or aftertouch. The aftertouch-on-a-pedal option works surprisingly well; so well, in fact, that I found myself wishing it was more widely adopted on synths that don't have a touch-sensitive keyboard.
Talk of performance controls brings us nicely on to an offbeat feature of the Alpha, namely its Chord Memory. This isn't a chord sequencer, but simply a means of playing a chord from a single pitch. The facility only works if you play a single note on the keyboard (so you can play 'monophonically', if you see what I mean) but it also assumes single-trigger operation, so you can achieve legato chordal effects quite easily. The system works by accepting any notes from the Alpha's keyboard until all notes have been released, so as long as you hold down at least one note, you can take all the time in the world constructing the chord of your dreams, up to a maximum of six notes. Unfortunately, once you've switched the Chord Memory feature on, the keyboard becomes dedicated to it and thus can't be used for anything else at the same time, so this is not the road to easy chordal accompaniment unless you've got another synth to hand.
Still, it is an easy way of obtaining effects your playing ability might not otherwise enable you to attain. And the chord effect can be triggered by incoming single notes from MIDI (complete with touch response if the source keyboard is generating it), and transmitted over MIDI Out from the Alpha's keyboard, so you can layer each of the chord's notes, and load auto-chords into a MIDI sequencer. Some critics will doubtless pan the Chord Memory as an unprofessional feature on an otherwise professional instrument, an easy way out that has no right to be where it is, but I'm not so sure. The Alpha is cheap enough to be snapped up by a lot of keyboard newcomers for whom any helping hand in the direction of musical prowess has to be a blessing. So why not accept the Chord Memory as a useful aid to modern music-making the same way you would a sequencer or a drum machine, and forget the Playalongamax home-organ connotations?
More good news comes in the form of the new Juno's MIDI setup, which is at least as good as the one on its bigger brother, the JX8P. It follows the earlier machine in providing a decent set of data filtering controls for individual users to make the most of as they see fit, unlike the newer DXs, which tend to lump everything into two groups. With the Alpha, you can filter out pitchbend, modulation, volume pedal, aftertouch, sustain (hold), program change, portamento and system exclusive information, all individually of each other. And with the obvious exception of aftertouch, these filters work for both transmission and reception of MIDI data.
"Sounds - The Alpha has all the sonic strengths and weaknesses of previous Junos, though it does sound better than its predecessor, the 106."
As well as the obvious MIDI channel selection of 1-16 for transmission and reception over MIDI, the Alpha lets you override individual channel reception by setting Omni on. This means the synth transmits on the set channel but receives on all channels, which is a sort of halfway house to having separate transmit/receive channels. These parameters are storable during power-down (though you have to write them into the backup memory first), but are not programmable for each patch.
Of more potential significance is the fact that the Alpha is the first synth to make use of handshaking communication for patch data transmission/reception over MIDI. 'Handshaking' is the term used to describe what happens when two ends of a communications link (in this instance, two Alphas or an Alpha and a computer running patch-dump software) pass messages to and fro in order to tell one another when to transmit, and when data has been successfully received. Thus the Alpha can tell a receiving unit that it wants to send patch data, can respond to a request for such data, can send an acknowledgement of successful or unsuccessful reception, and can even send a rejection message for real-time discontinuation of transmission or reception. These features are all part of a new protocol agreed by the MMA (MIDI Manufacturers' Association) for transmission and reception of sample data, and so far implemented only on the Prophet 2000 sampler. But this form of communication will probably become a standard on synths as well, so full marks to Roland for putting it on such a low-cost instrument.
Aside from storage over MIDI, there's the inevitable cassette storage but, sadly, no cartridge option. So if no suitable software becomes available, it looks like it's Back To Tape for Alpha Juno owners wanting to store more than 64 of their own sounds. Ah, well.
So, we've discovered that the Alpha Juno 1 is a useful addition to the polysynth market's lower end. As a source of typical 'analogue' synth sounds, it goes down well next to the digital crispness of the cheap DXs and CZs. Only trouble is, there isn't a touch-sensitive keyboard between them. With the Alpha responsive to attack velocity and aftertouch over MIDI, it's obviously intended to shine as second fiddle to a touch-sensitive synth — as became apparent when I slaved it to an Oberheim Matrix 6 (see review elsewhere this issue).
The Alpha has all the traditional sonic strengths and weaknesses of Roland analogue polys — though subjectively, it does sound better than the machine it replaces, the Juno 106. The six-voice limitation is still a worry, and no matter from which viewpoint I view the synth's sonic capabilities, I find myself wishing the Alpha's designers had come up with a sound-generation system that was just a bit more inspiring than the one the company have been using for the last four years. The Alpha's factory sounds are of a high overall standard, but most of them have been heard before, and not just on machines in higher price brackets.
But Roland have introduced a number of worthwhile refinements such as the backlit LCD, assignable performance controllers, and a flexible MIDI implementation. There's enough on it, and in it, to make the Alpha attractive to the first-time buyer, yet it's really at its best as a second synth. It should do well.
Review by Simon Trask
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