Sometimes I get the feeling there's nobody out there with fingers. Well, maybe just two on each mitt. Could it be the flood of polyphonic sequencers that causes me addled nut to stumble in such a direction? Does no one want to HIT the keys any more? Do the numbers have to do everything? Will I ever get around to talking about the JSQ-60?
Okay. It's Roland's latest budget sequencer. They obviously intend to pursue the same philosophies of affordability and availability that have marked their synths and drum machines. The prices of poly sequencers have tumbled rapidly from the £1,000 frighteners of two and three years ago, to the £250-odd deals of today. Naturally, this is a reflection of the prices of polyphonic synthesisers themselves working their way down to three figures.
Certain keyboards already contain this sort of device. The Casio CT7000 has a built-in unit. In fact they match well where features are concerned. Both are sold on the idea of being digital keyboard recorders since they're able to memorise one polyphonic line and then three overdubs. But whereas the Casio's is part of the keyboard and can only drive itself, the JSQ-60 is an external machine, utilising Roland's DCB system (Digital Control Buss), and has greater potential.
DCB supplies virtually the same information as MIDI, but it was incorporated into Roland keyboards before the format of MIDI was finalised by synth manufacturers. Thus Roland were ahead of the rest of the pack, even if they now need to introduce DCB to MIDI interface boxes such as the £265 MD8.
The JSQ-60 is a free standing black box, about 9in square, 2in high and tapering at the front to provide a sloped surface for the controls. It reminds me of a DR-55 Dr Rhythm Drum Machine that has reached full adulthood.
The 14 pin DCB lead is hardwired into the back panel which carries two sync outs for drum machines, mini jack sockets for dumping to and loading from tape, two patch shift sockets (more later), a start/stop footswitch socket, and a DC input. The sequencer runs from a 9V DC source but doesn't contain batteries. Instead, Roland include a mains plug shaped adaptor.
As with all such creations the JSQ contains no sound forming circuitry of its own (with the exclusion of the integral, electronic metronome which can be turned to high and low volume levels, and thankfully, completely off). Unless the JSQ is linked to a keyboard, it's as much use as a black light bulb.
You can record into the JSQ in two ways — real time and step time. In the first you connect up your keyboard (we used a Juno 60), move the mode switch to load/play, and then select either 4/4 or 3/4 measures. The electronic architecture of sequencers can vary. You could have one that treats everything you give it as a continuous stream of information — a six page sentence without full stops, but so that we don't all crack up, it's easier to divide the words into understandable lumps. That's why the JSQ works as a drum machine does, with the metronome registering the end of each bar with a bleep louder than normal.
Once you've set the JSQ recording, the metronome delivers four countdown beats and then you begin to play on the keyboard. The JSQ stores the pitch and timing information as represented by your fingers.
If you want to compose a pattern that will eventually be repeated — say a bass line — it's important that you listen closely to the metronome and end precisely on a measure, otherwise the JSQ will fill in the rest of that bar with silence and that gap will also be repeated.
Where Roland do deserve praise is in the intelligence of the JSQ. You don't have to tell it when to cease recording by frantically diving for the stop button. Merely finish playing, and the machine will know. That's good.
Five LEDs in the top right hand corner of the panel tell you how much memory is left. Green ones light when 25, 50 and 75 per cent is filled, an orange one comes on at 90, and red means you're a greedy fat boy. If you do something wrong, such as not pressing the record buttons in the proper order, all five will blink and the metronome yodels.
How much is a memory worth? Hard to say, it depends barely at all on how long you play, but on what you play. For me, about a minute's worth of busy, funky, five part chords with a shifting bass line occupied 25 per cent. Yet the same amount of memory was only just filled after five minutes of gentle, sustained string chords. It's the number of events, the key depressions, that exhausts the space.
The overdub facility is unusual and somewhat new on sequencers. You're able to go back over the same piece three times adding in extra lines of notes or even chords. BUT you can't exceed, at any one instant, the maximum quantity of notes the polyphonic keyboard can produce (six in the case of the Juno 60). Neither is it possible to change the mix of these overdubbed lines, nor the sound that they trigger. It just saves you playing everything on the first go. Also, perhaps because of the newness of this technique, there's one hitch. You can start adding the extra notes anytime you like, but once you've begun, you have to continue to the end of the track. Stop short and the JSQ will wipe any part of the original recording that continues past that point.
A restriction to bear in mind, but overdubbing does allow you to build up sequences of technical complexity which the pork sausage suppleness of your fingers wouldn't stretch to.
Back in the younger paragraphs I mentioned the patch shift sockets. It's possible on certain Roland keyboards to step through the programmed memories one at a time with a footswitch. For example, on the Juno 60 you start at "one" and end at "eight", but you cannot change the banks, just the patches within them. If you connect a footswitch to your JSQ and shift the sound while you're playing, then that request is stored in the sequence and repeated when played back. But it is only a request. The keyboard is told to move one memory higher. It doesn't know which bank to use, nor where to start, unless you tell it.
Incidentally, the JSQ leaves you free to play the rest of the keyboard while the sequence is sounding, providing you don't exceed the (in this case) six note capacity. If you do, you'll find it's the lowest notes — either those in the sequence or on the Juno 60 — which are lost first.
Strangely enough, when I'd overdubbed a couple of fast moving tracks, I was convinced I'd managed to get seven or eight notes out of the Juno, but it was only psychological.
The JSQ's second method of loading is step time, a by now well established sequencer process of loading pitch and timing information separately using notes on the keyboard then tie, rest and quarter, eighth, sixteenth note timings on the sequencer. It's slow, exact, and frequently results in a (desired) mechanical and rhythmically precise form of music. I prefer real time, but the JSQ offers you both, and step is a more efficient use of memory space.
The step system does have one or two tricks worth investigating. When you're loading the pitch information you can play one note or a chord, but if it's a chord, all the notes have to be depressed at the same instant, unless...
...Unless you turn on the Juno 60's hold facility. Then it's possible to construct that chord one note at a time, so building up a spread of frequencies across the keyboard that one, two, even three hands couldn't manage at one go.
It's in the step mode that Roland introduce the concept of editing, but compared to facilities offered on their duophonic MC202, it's a very limited service. You can chop into the middle of a recorded piece and supply a new ending. You cannot insert fresh material and leave the rest intact, nor can you edit individual notes. And there's certainly no way of shifting completed bars around.
Similarly, the JSQ has only one memory, even though there are five lights for it. It's not possible to load a short sequence into the first 25 per cent and second into the next 25 and so on.
If you accept that a sequencer is there to reproduce pieces of music which you either don't want to or can't play, then the facility to get it note perfect seems fairly important.
It's in this area that the JSQ-60 has economised. The designers have obviously concentrated their efforts on producing a real time polyphonic sequencer that stores your expression rather than your compositional ideal. And it does.
Review by Paul Colbert
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