With The Roland JD800
One year after reviewing the instrument that brought back knobs and sliders, Julian Colbeck presents an in-depth user report on Roland's flagship JD800 synthesizer.
Ask your average graphic artist to draw you a picture of a synthesizer and most will come up with something like a JD800. A sea of knobs and sliders and flashing lights, the JD is everyone's common perception of this type of instrument. The truth, to us in the know, is of course very different. The JD is unique amongst modern synths. The panel-full of movable hardware went out as the DX7, and digital synthesis, came in. Since then, not only has synth programming become more like programming a computer, but the sport itself has, not surprisingly, been less and less available (in technological, complexity terms) to the average musician.
Consequently an entire industry has grown up providing 'sounds' — an eventuality that would have been unthinkable, not to say pointless, to the first generation of synthesists in the late '60s and early 70s. This is the background to the philosophy behind the JD800, and in determining how successful it has been in achieving its goal, it is valuable to keep in mind this stated aim, to be found in the owners' manual: "We considered many different ways in which we could bring back the fun of creating sounds, and the result is the JD800".
So, is this a fun synth to own? Are you encouraged to program your own sounds? Do you program your own sounds? More important still, in these cost-conscious times, can you dispense with the whole, invariably pricey business of buying new sound cards? Can any reasonably intelligent person expect to be able to achieve the results they want from this instrument? Finally, you have to ask yourself if the whole premise of stressing the importance of custom, individualised sounds is still relevant these days?
At first there are conflicting signs. Yes, undeniably, the JD800 is an exciting, fun synth to own. But in answer to the question "do you do more programming", the answer, strangely enough, and from the JC camp at least, is "no".
There are various reasons for this. Firstly I think that if you incline towards programming at all, most musicians are now sufficiently familiar with the digital access school of design to get the results they need. Secondly, although on the face of it the JD800 offers instant access to all your sound programming parameters, the 4-tone structure of the instrument is such that you cannot simply lunge at the VCF cutoff slider and produce the sound you want — you must first decide which tones are functioning within the patch and which of them needs editing. By the time you've taken into account tone muting, in order to hear the specific tone you want to edit in isolation, the whole process of JD programming involves almost the same amount of button-prodding as does any other 'normal' synth.
The big bonus is of course being able to see whole swathes of programming parameters at a glance, and effect almost interactive manoeuvres. But I'd be lying if I said that I — or many of the JD owners with whom I've spoken in the course of this research — was always playing about with sounds, editing, programming, tweaking, because in reality I just wasn't.
Clearly Roland understood that this might be the case right from the word go, since they took the very sensible route of offering not only a data card slot for RAM, and invariably ROM sound cards, but also a waveform slot so that you can load in new ROM basic waveforms. I received three new packs of waveform/data cards from the Roland sound library, and it's a fair bet there'll be more from where they came from (and from other sources) in the future. The market for JD800 'sounds' looks to be no less healthy than the market for M1 or SY sounds.
This, then, means either that Roland vastly overestimated the musician's need for expanded user programmability, or that their execution of the idea has failed somewhat. To be fair I think it is a bit of both. To recap on my initial (p)review of the JD a year ago, the basic structure of the JD800 is this: At the heart of the instrument is a bank of 108 samples, ranging from classic synth waveforms such as sawtooth (several variations thereof, in fact — sawteeth?), pulse, triangle, etc, followed by various one-shot and looped samples covering all manner of sounds from strings to vocals, organs, bells, percussion, wind — you name it. Drums, per se, appear to be missing from the list, which is where Roland's three Sound Library packages JD80-01/02/03 come into play. In each, in addition to a brand new set of patches, is a Waveform Data card containing drum waveforms, more about which anon.
Whereas some sample + synthesis instruments provide interaction between the waveforms, here the route is simple and direct. You choose your combination of basic waveforms. You can balance the level between them. You can apply the filters and EGs etc. That's it. And frankly I can't imagine anyone missing any intermodulatory process either, thanks both to tine skill of Eric Persing (sound designer on the JD800 and D50) in selecting such interesting basic waveform data, and the fact that the JD's sound chip delivers its goods at the crisp and cutting sample rate of 44.1kHz. Whether you fall in love with the sounds at first hearing or not, you are never in any doubt that you are in the presence of a top class performer.
The standard JD currency is a patch. A patch comprises a blend of up to four independent, fully programmable tones. In other words each tone can use its own waveform, filter, LFO, and EG settings. You can store 64 patches internally.
Who would dare release an instrument that wasn't multi-timbral these days? Not Roland, obviously, yet the JD800 has but one multi setup, comprising up to five patches plus a special set-up (primarily used as a drum kit) with different instruments mappable across the keyboard range.
As with pretty well all multi-timbral instruments the one giant fly in the ointment is the built-in effects. The problem is that the effects you so lovingly paste onto your patch are instantly dismissed the second you move into multi mode, and what takes over is a global effects setting for all patches within the multi set-up. Try as you might, you will not get the same gloss of sound in multi mode as you did — on the precise same sound — in single mode.
A major contributing factor to this is the fact that in multi mode you don't have the full complement of effects to play with anyway. You can apply reverb, chorus plus reverb, delay plus reverb, and that's it. In single mode you have an Aladdin's cave of effects to choose from.
It all smacks of losing nerve at the last minute — not quite daring to release a non multi-timbral instrument, but neither providing the processing power to implement multi-timbralism in at least as flexible way as does, say, even such an old-timer as the Korg M1.
But is this to miss the point of the instrument? I rather fear it is. The JD800 is designed to be performance-driven, and so to judge it on workstation criteria is being a tad harsh.
Programming is clearly meant to be your first port of call and so, as I mentioned in my original review, it is a little disconcerting on first confronting the instrument, to find that your initial slider and knob movements appear to have no effect whatsoever.
Having twigged the procedure of selecting 'active tones' on the top left hand panel, or elucidated the fact from the manual (which is thorough, but painstakingly so, and consequently almost unfathomable and, with its bold print warnings about what you cannot do at the bottom of every single page, ultimately quite discouraging), getting into edit mode will soon become second nature.
There is no initialise function, so programming a sound from scratch is always going to involve finding a relatively innocuous starting point and working your way on from there. What there is, however, is a function called Manual, whereby the current status of the panel sliders can be stored in a special temporary memory, allowing you to have some idea of what a sound will be like from the position of the controls.
A useful trick that you probably won't catch on to at first is the fact that the status of each of the four tone buttons is automatically stored within your patch data. This becomes invaluable should you decide to embark upon a spot of live parameter tweaking since you can then simply press the layer-active button and your pre-destined choice of tone will be the one to blink and so become editable. The JD's impressive list of programming parameters was covered last time round, so I see no point in trotting out the list once again (see SOS April 1991).
In answer to the question "are the synthesis facilities sufficient for producing every conceivable type of analogue-meets-digital sound", I would reply with a cautious "yes". The filter section is quite splendid — three modes are available, with resonance and a dedicated, Roland-type Time/Level based envelope generator. The power of physical controls is never clearer than when operating any of the (three) envelope generators. With the additional aid of a graph above each EG section you can (finally) begin to fathom out where such parameters as the VCF's EG Level 2 actually fits into your sound's overall picture. With both keyboard velocity and key scaling able to exert their influence over filter cutoff, the JD becomes a highly expressive instrument too.
Once you get into the swim of programming — ie. using such useful features as the palette function, whereby one initiated parameter, filter cutoff say, becomes editable for each of the four tones simultaneously via a little 4-slider panel — the JD seems to deliver an almost endless supply of multi-faceted, high quality sounds.
That said, the way that parameter updating via the sliders actually operates can take some getting used to — whenever you nudge a slider the value is not simply added to or subtracted from that already in operation, but rather goes instantly to an absolute value determined by the slider position. The basic problem is that as soon as you do move a slider; there appears to be no way of immediately seeing what that parameter's initial value was — 'cos you've moved it.
Much is made of the JD800's prowess as a performance synth: the real time manipulation of controls; the rarely seen portamento and (mono) solo (left hand button-accessible, both); raucous effects like distortion and enhancer on board. If I had to be shackled to just one keyboard on stage, that keyboard could well be a JD800 as far as I am concerned, but there are still some reasonably serious gripes in this department, none more so than the fact that one whole section of the control panel — on the top left hand side containing the System and Patch buttons — is set in an overlapping fold of plastic which is simplicity itself to prise away from the main casing. If you propose to use a JD800 extensively for live work then you must be aware of this flimsy piece of design, and take steps to minimise the damage potential.
There is also no provision for patch chaining. Worse, there isn't even the offer of footswitch control over patch increment. The upshot of all this is that such control will have to be directed at the JD800 from an external device — from a sequencer sending program change messages, or from a MIDI brain of some sort. Not the end of the world of course; just more things to deal with.
On the other hand there are plenty of performance plusses as well. One of the most tempting must be the opportunity to manipulate controls in real time: open and close the filter, step through the waveforms, enlarge vibratos etc. As mentioned above, you can set up specific active tones to make this easy, but you can also record such manoeuvres in real time into a sequencer, and so have them play back night after night.
If you are into driving, resonant bass lines with plenty of filter movement this should be particularly appealing. But one word of warning: the JD performs these feats with SysEx data rather than employing MIDI controllers, so the amount of sequencer memory required can be frightening. And let's not even talk about clogging.
The main performance asset of this instrument is simply the quality, power and cut of the sounds. The JD is distinctive. It has character; something that for the most part is sorely lacking in the world of keyboards today.
The library cards, programmed, it seems, in Japan, come attractively packaged in CD-type cases complete with a little booklet. The booklet for card 01 contains, amongst other basic info, the disarming admission that "These waveforms are not flashy, but their quality is as high as any specialised rhythm machines." The writer of these words is to be commended for his or her honesty. Indeed the range of 50 odd drum sounds in the first half-size Waveform card is fairly pedestrian — half a dozen kicks, snares, some toms, an excellent agogo bell, and that's about it. The 64 complete patches on the Data card are at best OK.
Card 02 has some valuable early Roland drum machine samples (808, 909, CR78 etc.) and the Data card has some neat pad sounds. Card 03 contains the highest quality patches, but once again pretty standard fare in the new Waveform drum sound department.
New waveform data can be used as part of a regular patch (if you want) or, more likely, to form the basis of a new 'Special setup', to create a drum part. This involves mapping sounds across the keyboard range, with the possibility of programming each sound's key name, mute group, envelope mode, pan, effect mode and all manner of things.
The unfortunate fact remains, though, that I can foresee absolutely no-one plodding through this tiresome programming procedure only to achieve a set of drum sounds you'd normally expect to find within even the most basic drum machines, or as a multi-sound patch on a regular synth. It's not even as if you can do something interesting here, like layer sounds. Thumbs down on that one I'm afraid.
Nevertheless, all things considered you can live with the JD800 quite happily, because at the end of the day the sounds are sufficiently strong, different and interesting to make you forget about or simply deal with its considerable number of foibles. In fact, faults possibly contribute towards one's attraction to the instrument. The JD800 is by no means as straightforward as it may appear. But you'll stand out from the crowd with one of these in your rig. And that's money in the bank from my point of view.
Roland JD800 £1,935 int VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Julian Colbeck
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