Ian Boddy on the Jupiter 6
Solo electronic music composer Boddy gives a personal overview of Roland's mid-price polysynth.
With the advent of FM and digital synthesisers at prices that put them well within the reach of many electronic music-players, conventional analogue instruments have taken something of a back-seat in recent months. Composer and multi-keyboardist Ian Boddy thinks such a state of affairs is unjust, and here examines Roland's mid-price Jupiter 6 polysynth as a prime example of well-applied analogue technology.
Basically, the JP-6 is a 6-note, 6 voice, 12 VCO programmable polyphonic synthesiser that has been designed to fall between the very expensive Jupiter 8 and the more affordable Juno 60. However, it is not just a scaled down version of the former because, although it has two fewer voices, it also has several refinements over its bigger brother including a couple of surprises normally reserved for modular synths. Its' recommended retail price of £2,250 is still fairly hefty, but it actually sells at considerably less than two grand. However, this could still put it out of the range of many people who might prefer to opt for one of the host of synths around the £1000 mark, so why spend the extra on a JP-6?
There are two main reasons. First, it possesses a sophisticated split-keyboard facility that can effectively transform it into two instruments in one, and second, some of the functions available have only previously been found on keyboards costing the earth.
This runs along the top of the control panel and contains some excellent features, the filter and VCO modulation sections being particularly notable. Let's start at the extreme left however, where we find a rotary knob for overall volume. Unfortunately, this can't be written into the instrument's memory, and this can make balancing your program levels a bit awkward.
The main Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO) has the usual two sliders for rate and delay-time. The latter can be set to a maximum of 2.5s but has no effect on either Pulse Width Modulation or VCA modulation. This is a shame as you don't often find VCA modulation (ie. tremolo) on a synth and it would have been nice to have been able to delay this effect. A red LED gives a visual indication of LFO rate and four small buttons switch between the four available waveforms: triangle, ramp, square and random.
The Jupiter 6 has two VCOs per voice, and this of course gives it considerably greater scope for sound production than the smaller, single-VCO Juno 60 or 6. Both VCOs have unusual octave range controls: a complete break from the familiar rotary knobs with click-stops for the different footages. The JP-6 redesign is free-running and has a 'dead-zone' around each octave setting, so that turning the knob slightly to the left or right has no effect. However, once outside this area the pitch increases in semitone steps which makes tuning the two VCOs apart to a musical interval refreshingly easy. Furthermore, VCO2 has the additional features of expanded low (1.5-50Hz) and high ranges and a rotary knob for mild detuning from VCO1. Full marks to Roland then for putting fresh thought into a function that has been unchanged for many years.
The waveforms available are: VCO1; triangle, ramp, pulse, and square, and VCO2; triangle, ramp, pulse and noise. A pity no sinewave is provided; it's a bit of a surprise on so sophisticated an instrument (even the humble SH2 has one). These waveforms are selected by small push-buttons, as for the LFO, and can be mixed by pressing two or more down simultaneously, though no facility is available for balancing the relative waveform levels. Both VCOs can be phase-locked together, providing a sync function that's particularly good at producing screaming synth solos (even more so if you use the bender to alter the pitch of the VCO being locked). A simple mixer section allows the relative volumes of the VCOs to be adjusted.
Extensive oscillator modulation controls are provided in the shape of VCO, Pulse Width, and cross-modulation. The first has two sources, the LFO and Envelope 1, with sliders for modulation amount and push-buttons for selecting whether the VCOs are modulated together or individually. The PWM section has two sliders, the first of which sets the pulse-width and the second the amount of modulation. The source of PWM, again selected by two small push-buttons, is either LFO or Envelope 1. The final modulation function is cross-modulating VCO1 by VCO2, the amount again being set by sliders. The modulation can either be continuous or, alternatively, the modulating output of VCO2 can be controlled by Env-1. For those not familiar with the term, what crossmodulation means is that VCO1 is being modulated by an audio frequency (ie. VCO2) rather than an LFO (ie. vibrato). This is more correctly called frequency modulation or FM (go to the bottom of the class if you haven't read about FM synthesis recently!) and it's rather good at synthesising pseudo-ring-modulated sounds and other unusual tones.
Next we come across the filter which, as with most Roland synthesisers, has five sliders for VCF frequency, resonance, envelope modulation, LFO modulation and Keyboard Follow amount. This latter controls the amount of the keyboard CV being routed to the filter frequency, allowing high notes to be as bright as low ones on low filter settings, and can be set to a maximum of 120%. Four switches are provided, two to select which of the two envelopes are being used for modulation and two to select the filter mode. It's this latter mode that provides a degree of sophistication not normally found on anything other than modular systems, in that the filter can be either low-pass or high-pass or, if both buttons are depressed, a band-pass filter...
The VCA has two sliders for Envelope 2 and LFO modulation amounts, while at the extreme right of the instrument is the dual Envelope Generator module. Both have the usual four sliders for attack, decay, sustain and release. Envelope 1 can be inverted if required, and both have sliders for Key Follow to allow higher notes to have shorter decay times than lower ones: this is particularly useful for synthesising piano-type sounds, for example.
This section is to the left of the keyboard (which is just where it should be) and houses the familiar Roland bender which can be used to control the VCOs and VCF, the amount of effect on each being set by two sliders. Three white buttons allow the bender to be selected to control either VCO1 or 2 (or both) or to select a special wide range of over 3 octaves, if you're feeling in an extreme mood! A second sinewave LFO can be brought into play by pressing down on a large white push-button and four small rotary pots cater for VCO and VCF modulation amounts, rate (1-10Hz) and rise-time (the time required for the LFO2's modulation to reach the depth set). This second LFO is nice for momentary effects brought into play with your left hand during a performance, but you can't keep the effect on continuously without actually keeping your finger on it (another use for my lead weights?).
This section runs the whole length of the instrument just above the keyboard, and houses all the programming and keyboard mode facilities, plus some other assorted effects. At the extreme left is a rotary knob for balancing the relative levels of the lower and upper sections when in Split mode, and a push-button for switching the bender on or off. The latter is used when programming in Split mode if you only want one half of the keyboard to incorporate bend functions. The Glide section has a choice of portamento or glissando, as well as a Glide Time knob, and when in Split mode these effects can also be assigned individually to the lower and upper sections. The arpeggiator allows the JP-6 to sequence any notes played on the keyboard in the order they are played. The range can be varied from one to four octaves, but only one push-button caters for this. This can be a problem if you're arpeggiating over a two-octave range and want to go back to one octave range, for example, as you have to press this switch three times to step through three, four and then back to a one-octave range. Up and Down push-buttons allow for four arpeggiator modes of Up, Down, Up & Down or Down & Up. The last two sound very similar in practice, and a more useful option (I feel) would have been the inclusion of a random mode. The arpeggio rate is set by a rotary pot and this can of course be synchronised to an external clock, such as a trigger from a drum-machine, via the rear panel.
The Jupiter 6 has five assign modes which determine how the six synthesiser voices are applied to the keys played. The Solo mode turns the JP-6 into a single-voice synth with last-note priority, while Unison mode has a variety of effects. If one key is pressed all six voices sound, while two keys give three voices each, and three keys have two voices each. Four to six notes played give one voice each. The Solo Unison mode is (surprise, surprise) accessed by pressing the solo and unison mode buttons simultaneously, when the JP-6 is turned into a monophonic synth, which in the Whole mode assigns all six voices to each key. Finally, two Poly modes are provided which assign one voice to each key played. However 'Poly 2' has the added advantage that only the last note or notes played together receive their natural release length, which makes it suitable for performance with portamento or glissando. A rotary knob provides oscillator detuning for ensemble effects, and a further push-button provides Key Hold, the level being determined by the sustain level of Envelope 2.
Three Key modes are provided to give Whole mode and two Split modes, where four voices are applied to the lower section and two to the upper or vice versa. Two panel mode push-buttons allow the upper and lower sections to be programmed individually when in Split mode. The split point is automatically set at C to give a lower section of 2 octaves and an upper of 3, but this can be changed if desired. Unfortunately, this information cannot be stored in memory.
The remaining right-hand half of this memory panel section is taken-up by the programming controls. It's possible to use either 48 patch memories or 32 patch presets. Six blue buttons (labelled A-F) determine which bank of memories is being utilised, each bank having 8 memories selected by white push-buttons (note that with patch presets, only banks A-D are available). No LED display is provided as it is on the Jupiter 8 to monitor which programs are in use, but all the push-buttons incorporate small red LEDs that serve much the same purpose.
It's possible to edit any of the memories without permanently re-writing the program, and a further white Manual switch gives access to the Manual section. The patch memories are for the pre-programmed sounds provided (or your own tone-colours), whereas the patch presets store a combination of patch memories with key and assign modes and various performance parameters, which is ideal for live situations. In other words, a patch memory can only hold one sound, whereas a patch preset can hold two if operating in the Split mode. Furthermore, performance parameters such as portamento or the arpeggiator cannot be written into the patch memories because if you call up a patch preset in Split mode and these effects are applied to both the lower and upper keyboard sections, the rate must be the same in both.
A Memory Protect switch is located on the rear panel and must of course be turned off to rewrite a program. A battery back-up maintains the memories when the instrument is turned off. Programming and writing new data is very easy, achieved simply by using the Manual and Write buttons: an accompanying LED glows red when the Memory Protect switch is on. As an added safety precaution, it's possible to protect either the patch memory you are working with (orange LED) or one you're not (green), the latter being particularly useful for arranging the order of the patch memories. Indeed, it's possible to re-order memories very easily by copying different patch memories into the same bank, for example. Furthermore, if you use two tapes (one to hold all the memories and the other to hold rearranged banks) it is possible to rearrange all the memories from a totally disorganised state into eight prearranged banks, which can then be used for eight separate songs, for example.
The last three controls in this section are for tape memory, auto-tune of all 12 oscillators and overall tune.
Two sockets are provided on the rear panel for saving and loading patch memories and patch preset data onto an ordinary cassette recorder. When the tape memory button is held down, memory buttons 6-8 each take on a second function; number six becomes Save, seven Verify and eight Load. It is recommended the user gives a data name to each set of programs stored by using a bank letter, as this enables loading to be accomplished that much more easily. It is also possible to save selected bank memories rather than all 48 together.
Several external control options are provided on the rear panel, of which the Arpeggio Clock In has already been mentioned. Patch Shift allows a foot pedal (eg. Roland DP-2) to step through patch numbers in the same bank but not to change banks. Pedal Hold allows switching this function on or off again via a DP-2, or alternatively a foot volume pedal (eg. Roland FV-200) can control the VCA and VCF. The MIDI In and Out DIN sockets appear on the rear panel as well, the information available being Keys Played, Auto Tune and Patch Preset Selection. The rear panel is completed by a headphone socket and an unbalanced output (switchable high, medium and low) and a balanced output. It would have been nice to have had a stereo output option by incorporating a stereo chorus (as in the Juno 60) and it's debatable whether the Oscillator Detune function can make up for this omission.
The JP-6 is a fairly large keyboard (1.06m (W) x 0.12m (H) x 0.43m (D)) and weighs a fairly hefty 35lbs. As with all Roland products, both the external and internal construction are to a high standard, the instrument being smartly finished in matt black with silver end-cheeks, and the overall appearance is that of a well-designed, well-thought-out synthesiser. The large number of controls certainly looks impressive but could at first be rather daunting. However, the manual is mostly very clear and once the various assign and key modes and programming facilities have been mastered it should be plain sailing from there on in. The keyboard spans five octaves (C-scale) and is pleasant to play, having a nice spring to the keys. Sadly, though, no touch-sensitivity is provided.
The Jupiter 6 is a very versatile instrument, and I'd say it's particularly well-suited to live work. The large number of controls in the Manual section allow sounds of great complexity and subtlety to be created, while the comprehensive programming facilities allow quick and easy arrangements of patches to be stored for retrieval, either during performance or in the studio.
The Split facility is particularly powerful in allowing the various performance parameters to be assigned to the lower and upper sections individually. For example, you could have the lower section playing a funky bass via the arpeggiator and the hold facility, thereby freeing the left hand for using the bender and/or the LFO2 pushbutton. The upper section could then have a string sound with up to four voices and be programmed for portamento and pitch-bend, thus effectively making the JP-6 two instruments in one.
The overall sound is typically analogue, being particularly good for full, 'fat' ensemble-type sounds and powerful solo voices. Several people have asked me recently which is best: analogue or digital synths. My answer is neither. They both have individual merits and characters of their own. You wouldn't ask whether a piano was better than an organ: they are both keyboards but their methods of sound production are completely different. So if you're looking for a programmable polyphonic synthesiser with sophisticated sound-production capabilities and powerful performance options including a split-keyboard facility - and you're after the 'analogue sound' - then give the Jupiter 6 a close look; it could be the synth for you.
Review model supplied by Rock City Music, (Contact Details).
For further information on the Jupiter 6, contact Roland (UK) Ltd, Great West Trading Estate, 983 Great West Road, Brentford, Middx. TW8 9DN. Tel: 01-568 4578.
Review by Ian Boddy
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