Roland Alpha Juno One
Is small beautiful? Jim Betteridge knows
The use of a '1' in a name tends to suggest some kind of absolute: ie, it's the first, the last, the biggest or the smallest; though seldom all four simultaneously.
The Juno range has been going for some years now, and has managed to consume a credibly large piece of the consumer action during that time, with the excellent Juno 106 really quite dominating the analogue market within its price bracket. So are we now looking at the final offering from the Juno stable, or is this the start of a new range of alpha-style Junos? Keep your eyes on this space.
The Juno-1 is a six-note, MIDI equipped polyphonic synthesizer with a single bank of six DCO's, six VCF's and six VCA's — a full compliment.
There is a single LFO and a single EG which can be applied to the DCO, VCA and the VCF. It has a comprehensive MIDI spec with IN, OUT and THRU ports, and stereo audio line outputs for recording or for connection to external amplification (there are no internal speakers). There are an impressive 128 memory locations, 64 of which are permanent factory presets that will remain in memory forever, although once selected they can be edited to create your own personal voicings which can then be stored in the remaining 64 user memories. The contents of this user memory can be stored (recorded) on a standard audio cassette allowing a larger library of sounds to be built up. If your mate subsequently also buys a Juno-1, you can use the MIDI link to transfer your sounds (the product of endless hours of intense button pushing) from you synth to hers/his — the test of a true friend.
At an RRP of approximately £575, the Juno-1 is clearly intended as direct competition for Casio's noteably successful CZ-1000 which is similarly priced. In comparison the CZ provides eight-note polyphony as compared to the Juno 1's six, it can operate in the 'Mono' mode of MIDI (access to individual voices) as compared to Juno's limitation to either 'Poly' or 'Omni' modes, and of course it offers its unique range of 'Phase Distortion' based sounds. The Juno 1's sounds are also unique — even within the Juno range, due to a newly expanded wave form table (more on that later) and it also offers the distinct advantage of being able to receive velocity and after-touch information through MIDI, although its own keyboard is actually static. This is a facility that few low-cost analogue synths offer and if you want to MIDI it up with your DX-7 to get the best of FM and analogue worlds (and many of you will doubtless bethinking along those lines), this must be a major consideration.
The beauty of the Junos to date has been their use of the 'one knob per function' (OKPF) editing format, as opposed to the relatively dreaded centralised digital access control approach, whereby any individual parameter desired must be selected before it can be adjusted via a single central incrementor of some kind. The Alpha Juno-1 breaks this laudable OKPF precedent to take onboard the digital access system, but in its own unique way — the Alpha Wheel. This by any other name is actually a central incrementor wheel but, when in the 'Parameter' mode, it can also be used as a means of selecting the desired parameter as well as a means of adjusting it.
An illuminated 16-character LCD display is your focal point as you spin the alpha wheel to run through the list of possible parameters. When the relevant name appears in the window, eg 'LFO RATE = 89', you drop a casual finger onto the 'Value' button which then switches the function of the wheel to that of altering, in this case, the LFO's rate.
Accordingly, the display will change to show 'LFO RATE 89-89'. As you spin the wheel the right hand figure will change to show the new value whilst that on the left remains the same, thus affording a reminder of where you started from — especially useful should you decide that it sounded better before fiddling commenced. For instance, having slowed the LFO rate down, the final display might show 'LFO RATE 89-60'. The effect of any adjustments can be heard as they are being made.
The digital access format is used simply because it keeps costs down, and compared to the OKPF approach this alpha wheel system is still somewhat laborious and leaves you feeling a little disconnected with the sound you're modelling. In good lighting conditions, I don't think it necessarily offers any great advantage over rows of push button selectors, as found on other synths, but in low lighting it is substantially easier. I think this is because there are only two main areas to concentrate on: the display and the alpha wheel, and both of these are large and easily visible, even in the shadows at the back of the stage. This cuts out a great deal of half-blind dithering around trying to locate the correct button. Overall a good idea.
An important addition to this standard set of edit facilities is a bank of four buttons coming under the heading of 'Tone Modifiers'. These basically take four of the most commonly needed variables and make them easily selectable. They are modulation rate, modulation depth, brilliance and envelope time, this last one effects both the attack and release time and will effect both the amplitude and the VCF where applicable. The adjustments are made, as usual, via the alpha wheel.
Taking a leaf, to some extent, from the book of the CZ range, the single bank of six DCO's offers three types of pulse wave, five types of sawtooth and six types of pulse wave for the suboscillator, each with its own increasingly complex harmonic make-up and hence its own distinctively different sound from which to start editing. Any combination of the three basic wave forms can be created, or any one can be used in isolation if desired. This undoubtedly gives a broader base from which to start programming your own sounds, and the strength of some of the factory voices, not to mention the the built-in chorus, help you forget that this is a single oscillator per voice instrument. As usual, though, there is a strong tendency to leave the chorus switched in on everything to avoid the apparent thinness that ensues on turning it off. On the whole, though, the sounds are strong, especially in the more 'synthy' areas that Junos have always been good in. As far as accurately replicating acoustic instruments (particularly percussive ones) is concerned, Yamaha's FM is still way out in front, and you will still need to spend a little more money. As an inexpensive means of capturing a little of Roland's famous analogue power, however, this is an excellent proposition.
Though the keyboard is only four octaves, an octave transpose button gives you a little extra and if you are MIDI'ing up to a full 88-note mother keyboard, it will facilitate the full register — and don't forget that you'll also have full velocity and after-touch sensitivity.
Again, in keeping with the current trends, the form of the Juno-1's single envelope generator is described in terms of four levels and four times (see diagram two) which, on the positive side, gives you more control, and on the negative side, makes simple adjustments more complicated. All in all, however, it has to be a good thing.
A chord memory allows you to enter a basic chord shape, and then play it by the depression of a single note, with the note you depress determining the root of the chord. We're talking instant technique, and probably something akin to cheating.
This is undoubtedly the most Juno Roland have ever offered for the money. The fact that it provides touch sensitivity via MIDI makes it an excellent choice for those wishing to add some analogue sounds to their existing touch-sensitive system — DX-7 owners and Mirage/Prophet2000 are obvious examples. But also as a synth in its own right it has a great deal to offer, both in terms of sounds and the high level of control that allows over its programming and performance parameters. A credit to the Juno range.
Review by Jim Betteridge
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