Breaking With The Rack Pack
Roland JV880 Synth Module
From the outside Roland's JV880 looks like just another rackmount synth module, but ROM waveform expansion, easy operation and an attractive price tag should set it apart from the crowd. Paul Ireson takes a closer look.
Roland's JV880, a rackmount derivative of the JV80 keyboard synth, seems to have taken a while longer to make its way into the hands of reviewers than is usual — perhaps because people have an alarming habit of buying every single one of the things almost as soon as they hit these shores. The apparent popularity of the unit can be ascribed to the simple fact that this is a very capable contemporary synth module, based on a top-of-the range keyboard, for a quite reasonable price of just under £800.
The JV880 has all of the features you'd expect from a serious rack unit these days: 8-part multi-timbrality, drum sounds, on-board effects and so on. The sound structure is fairly standard sample + synthesis, though in Roland's latest-generation variation on the theme, you get a particularly varied and high-quality selection of samples, plus one or two goodies such as 'frequency cross-modulation', and resonant filters (no synth should be without them — discuss in less than 1,000 words) that ensure that you can do more with samples than merely combine and crossfade them.
There are, however, unique features that set the JV880 apart from the crowd. Firstly the operating system has been well thought-out, making this an unusually easy unit to get to grips with. Secondly, if you're not content with the standard set of 129 on-board Waveforms you can fit an optional expansion board containing a further 224. You do have to open the case to do so, but fitting is so easy that a child of 7 could do it in no time. If you don't have any 7-year olds kicking around the house then you'll just have to do it yourself — I think you'll manage.
The internal Waveforms occupy 4MB of ROM, however the 2:1 data compression that Roland employ means that this is equivalent to 8MB of samples. The expansion board is 8MB, which is likewise equivalent to 16MB of uncompressed data — an expanded JV880 is absolutely stuffed full of sounds. All samples are 16-bit, taken at either 32 or 44.1kHz.
You can operate the JV880 in either Patch or Performance mode, and thereby play either the unit's 'single' sounds — Patches — or 8-part combinations of Patches. There are 128 Preset Patches and 32 Performances, split into two banks, and 64/16 user memory locations. A further 64 Patches and 16 Performances can be stored on memory card. The front panel sports slots for both RAM and PCM cards.
The architecture of JV880 sounds will be familiar to anybody who uses Roland gear of the last few years. Each Patch consists of up to four Tones, each of which consists of a Waveform Generator that plays any of the internal sampled Waveforms (or any from the expansion board, if fitted), plus a full set of modifiers for the Waveform. You only need one or two Tones? Just switch the others off in Patch Edit mode, and build a simpler Patch. The fewer Tones you use, the fewer demands a Patch will place on the JV880's 28-note polyphony. There's also a set of Patch Common parameters that determine how things such as effects are applied to all four Tones.
Each Tone has three independent envelopes, for modulating pitch, TVF (filter) and TVA (amplifier), and there are two independent LFOs that can be used as modulation sources. One of the characteristic differences between Japanese and US synth designs has tended to be an. American preference for extensive modulation possibilities, but the JV880 is quite well-equipped in this respect — you could spend a long time doing nothing more than experimenting with modulation. The two LFOs are well specified, with delay and fade-in options, and modulation, aftertouch and expression data can each be assigned to up to four mod destinations.
In the section of Tone parameters devoted to the Waveform Generator, beside standard stuff such as pitch and Wave selection, you can also set a degree of pitch randomisation (useful for recreating fretless instrument sounds, or just creating a nasty, unmusical racket), and specify pitch scaling — the pitch of a Tone could actually drop as you move up the keyboard, or simply rise more slowly than the standard doubling of pitch every 12 MIDI note numbers. The Frequency Cross Modulation (FXM) facility also lives here. Although there's precious little explanation of how it works in the manual, all you really need to know is that it tends to add a harsh, ringing, metallic edge to a Tone as you crank up the FXM depth, and creates dissonance where before there was none. You'll probably get the best out of FXM by using it in conjunction with the filter, roughening up a sample and then filtering out some of the nastier high-frequency artifacts.
The JV880's filters offer you control over cutoff and resonance. You can choose between a high-pass or a low-pass filter, a choice that not many instruments give you, and select either a Hard or a Soft filter type. The former opens the way to more pronounced resonance effects, and will therefore probably be preferred 99% of the time. Whilst the sound of these filters is hardly in vintage 24dB-per-octave analogue league, pronounced resonance effects, albeit short of self-oscillation, are possible, so the JV880 scores well in this respect.
The TVA offers amongst the familiar envelope and scaling options, and a function that lets you delay the start of a Tone relative to the note-on. You can specify a simple delay, one that will only operate in the time before a note off is received, or a mode in which the delay time is set by the period between two consecutive note ons (provided that time is less than two seconds). If you're having trouble imagining how that would sound, and how you'd use it, just take my word for it that it's an excellent interactive facility — also a facility that's much easier to understand by 20 seconds of hands-on than by repeatedly poring over the 300 words or so that I'd probably take to cover it. In any case, all of the delay modes offer the excellent facility to create complex delay effects in a Patch that a delay line simply cannot manage. You pay the price of more voice-hungry Patches, but you get the benefits of independently panned and pitches delays; even delays that play different Waves.
Finally, each Tone can be sent to either the Main or the Sub stereo outputs, panned (as you probably gathered from the above), and you can set send levels to both the Reverb and Chorus effects sections.
All in all, the JV880 offers a considerable number of parameters for each Tone within a Patch. Doesn't this make editing a tedious and baffling process? Not at all. Firstly, the ability to switch Tones on and off as you edit a Patch lets you hear the effects of your edit either on a single Tone or in the context of a Patch. Whilst having independent control over all four Tones gives you maximum flexibility, the facility to select any combination of four Tones for simultaneous editing eases matters considerably on the many occasions that you'll want the same filter or pitch settings for all Tones.
Editing is further eased by a couple of simple but very smart features of the user interface. Both the volume and data entry dials are dual-function — well, sort of. If you press the volume knob you will trigger a single note of the current Patch, thereby allowing you to hear the effects of your edits without having to move from rack to keyboard.
The note played cycles through a series of four; you can specify the pitch and velocity of each one. Don't underestimate the amount of time this will save you, unless of course you always edit rack modules with one hand, keeping the other on your master keyboard.
The data entry dial can also be pushed in, and turning it while pushed increases the scrolling speed of whatever parameter the cursor is currently on — you jump from one group of parameters to another rather than from one parameter to another, if the cursor is on parameter select, or increase parameter values in leaps of 10 rather than 1.
Finally, the cursor buttons have a 'shifted' mode — if you press them whilst holding down the Param Shift button, you can select a new parameter for editing without moving the cursor from the actual value. This saves a good deal of button pushing, avoiding the necessity to use the data entry dial to increase or decrease a parameter, then cursor across to the parameter name, select a new one with the data entry dial, cursor back to parameter value and change the new parameter. OK, more front panel hardware could still make things easier, but this is among the best use of minimal front panel hardware that I can recall.
Enough of Tones: what can you do to the little devils when you treat them as a group in a Patch. Velocity zones let you set up velocity switching between Tones, and you can of course name your Patch. Overall Patch level and pan can be set, and in the 'really useful' category you'll find the facility to choose polyphonic or monophonic mode for a patch. The monophonic mode is made still better by the provision of a legato facility (if you play a new note while holding an earlier note down, the pitch of your held note simply jumps to the new pitch, rather than triggering a new note), and portamento, to make those 'analogue solo' emulations more accurate still.
Also on the analogue front, there's even a parameter called Analogue Feel, which simply introduces random pitch modulation — best applied in small amounts, I reckon. Pitch bend range can be set independently for upwards and downwards bends, which you'll probably find most useful when attempting guitar simulations (semitone bend up, whole octave bend down for those whammy-bar dive bombs).
Each Patch has its own effects setting, using Chorus and Reverb sections which operate in parallel. The Chorus section does just what its name implies, providing three flavours of the effect, with depth, speed and feedback parameters, while the Reverb section offers two Room, two Stage, and two Hall algorithms, plus delay and panned delay — you can only use one of the algorithms at once, of course.
This level of effects provision is perhaps disappointing if you're used to expanders with distortion, flanging, gated reverb and so on, and it might lose Roland sales to competing units with better DSP; on the other hand, the relatively low price will probably win over more potential buyers, and remember that the fewer effects are applied to 'single' sounds the less you appear to lose when using a module in multi-timbral mode. When you combine eight JV880 Patches in a Performance you won't suddenly find that any of the Patches have changed out of all recognition because the effects have changed.
The JV880's Performances let you stack eight Patches together to create either multi-timbral sets for sequencing, or rich stacked combination sounds. Parts 1-7 use regular Patches, whilst the dedicated Rhythm Part uses a special Rhythm set. You set the Reverb and Chorus sections, to be shared by all eight parts, just as you would for a Patch, and you can switch reverb and chorus on or off for each Part independently. The remaining Part parameters let you select MIDI receive channels, voice reserve, part level, pan, tuning and output (ie. main or sub) settings to override those for the Patch, and also whether each Part can receive MIDI program change messages. (Bank select is included in the MIDI spec, allowing you to remotely select any of the internal, preset of card Patches.) You can also specify whether each Part should respond to MIDI hold messages.
Performances editing is facilitated by the simultaneous display of each parameter for either Parts 1-4 or Parts 5-8 — so when you're setting MIDI receive channel, for example, once again you'll find you do less scrolling than you'd expect, and there's a good deal of information on display. When you're in Performance play mode, you can also take advantage of an Info function (accessed via a front panel button) to simultaneously display the reception of several types of MIDI data for each part. These are mod wheel data, MIDI volume, pan, expression, hold, aftertouch, and pitch bend. There's also an option to display the number of voices being used on each part at any time — even if you can't find a use for this, perhaps to find out which part is using up all your voices and thereby causing note-stealing elsewhere, it looks pretty flash to have all those numbers zipping up and down as a sequence plays.
The Rhythm Part of a Performance is a little different in that it can only play a Rhythm Set. A Rhythm Set is different to a regular Patch in that you only have three Sets to play with (two Presets, plus one user-programmable Internal set), or four if you're using a RAM data card. Each Set contains 61 drum sounds, mapped to MIDI notes C2-C7. Each of these notes can be edited in much the same way as the Tones in a regular Patch, with the notable difference that you don't have the same real-time modulation options. Other than that, you're free to choose whatever Waveforms you like, and use the same TVF and TVA tricks as before — there's no FXM, however.
Each note can be independently assigned a reverb and chorus send level, pan, and output assignment, and can have its own pitch bend range. One addition specifically intended for use with drum sounds is Mute Groups, which allow you to create up to 31 groups of notes out of which only one can play at any time — essential for creating realistic hi-hats, congas and so on.
One of the few areas in which I felt the JV880 could obviously be improved was in respect of the number of Rhythm Sets. Two Preset and one user Sets is hardly generous, and the provision to create and store 16 or so user Sets would have been very useful, especially given the extensive creative possibilities that Rhythm Set programming allows. A missed opportunity.
Most of the JV880's factory Patches in Preset Banks A & B tend not to stray that far from the territory mapped out by the Waveforms in ROM — there are 129 of these, including around 45 drum and percussion samples, which leaves a selection of instrument sounds with a handful of sampled synth waves.
The Patches include a good selection of electric and acoustic pianos, which are versatile though definitely best suited to rock and pop styles. Basses of all varieties abound — electric, fretless, acoustic, synth — and there are all the basic string, brass, organ, woodwind and tuned percussion sounds without which it seems any synth expander is naked. One or two of the guitar Patches use velocity switching to increase their versatility and playability.
In addition to all these hearty staples are a few side orders of tasty pads, shimmering bell-like tones and chunky lead sounds. The Internal Bank covers much of the same ground as A & B, with further piano, string and synth bass variations, for example, though there are more original synth sounds, and on the whole rather more sounds to capture the imagination and persuade you to try programming the JV880 for yourself. Favourites from among this Bank included 'Von Greece', a Vangelis wannabe, the gorgeous 'JV Strings', and 'Stratosphere'. There are only one or two of those tedious "play one note and I'll do the rest" sounds, leaving you with a box full of useful, players' sounds.
Subjectively the JV880's Patches are by turns as authentic, ethereal, or in-your-face synthetic as they should be. I was particularly taken with many of the pads and solid bass sounds; the only real disappointment lay in the muted brass sounds, which seemed rather too organ-like for my liking.
Though the JV880 in its basic form is a good enough expander, the optional expansion board is a very worthwhile investment, with an extra 224 Waveforms that extend the original set's capabilities in several directions. Firstly, there are hard and soft sets of both electric and grand pianos, sampled at several points on the keyboard (in the regular internal set you get a single multi-sampled grand, for example, albeit a very good one). You also get more basses, organs and some excellent extra guitar samples, including power chords and distorted lead samples.
More miscellaneous brass, strings, woodwind and ethnic samples get a look in, but things get really interesting with more synth samples and single waves. A special mention goes to the Sync Sweep Waveform — Roland have taken the trouble to multi-sample this so that the speed of the sweep appears to be constant over the whole keyboard (though it does of course change slightly over the few semitones of each sample). Finally, you'll find a whole load of extra drum sounds, both single sounds and a handful of multi-sampled sets that have a handful of drum sounds mapped onto several notes.
On the subject of the fidelity of the Waveforms, the data compression doesn't seem to cause any problems — there's no reason to think you're listening to anything other than 16-bit, 32/44.1kHz sounds. The samples are dynamic, clear and full-bodied. The pianos, for example, clearly benefit from the large amount of ROM made available by compression in that they don't run out of steam at the far ends of your keyboard.
I liked the JV880. The basic Waveforms sound excellent and are well chosen to allow the unit to be a very capable main unit in a MIDI setup, though it could equally well add spice to an already well-equipped studio — this is not just a workaday, 'one of everything' toolbox. Whether you're looking for an expander to provide all of your basic sounds, or manage just a handful of sounds in a bigger canvas to full effect, take a good look at the JV880. 28-note polyphony may not look so impressive now that Yamaha's TG500 offers 64 voices — but the JV880 is a good deal cheaper, and 28 voices do go quite a long way.
Though the limited effects section means that external processing will be required to really get the best out of the JV880, it also means that you'll get fewer surprises when you switch from Patch to Performance mode for sequencing. This is a damn good expander, so don't let the fact that it won't add the distortion that you could get from a £50 effects pedal put you off.
The Waveform expansion board takes the unit still further, and is more than worth the extra outlay, though note that you will have to program in some new Patches to actually use the Waveforms. If you know that you're going to be too lazy to do anything more than use the Presets, don't bother. Taking account of all this, plus the JV880's considerable ease of use, Roland have a real winner on their hands here. Overlook it at your peril.
Roland JV880 £799 inc VAT.
SRJV80-01 Waveform Expansion board £250 inc VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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