Not simply a stripped-down JV80, Roland's new JV30 has some surprises to add to its minorbuck price tag. Simon Trask test drives a new Roland which could prove a popular buy amongst cost-conscious synth players.
Although its tag would have you think it's a stripped-down version of Roland's new JV80, the JV30 is really something else...
What's in a name? Not always what you might expect. For instance, although Roland's latest sub-£1000 synth bears the designation "JV", it's not a scaled-down JV80 (see review in last month's MT) but a keyboard version of the company's SC55 Sound Canvas module. This means that it implements their GS Format patch-mapping "standard"; the JV80, on the other hand, doesn't. Something which the two synths do have in common is an emphasis on front-panel clarity and accessibility, although they differ in their approach - the JV30's has more in common with that of the JX1, the JV80's with that of the D70.
The JV30's GS conformity means that it automatically has certain features, such as 16-part multitimbrality, 24-voice polyphony with voices dynamically allocated across all 16 parts, a bank of 128 Tones which provides a predefined selection and arrangement of ROM sounds, at least one predefined ROM Drum Set (in fact, the JV30 has nine ROM preset and nine programmable Drum Sets), and General MIDI compatibility. General MIDI Level 1 is effectively, though not officially, a subset of GS, in that GM's one bank of 128 sounds matches that of bank zero of GS's 128 banks, and GM's one Percussion Map matches GS's Standard Drum Set, which is just one of numerous preset and user-programmable Drum Sets possible within under GS.
You can force the JV30 into GM response (bank zero selected, Standard Drum Set assigned to MIDI channel 10) from any state by transmitting the GM System On command to it. The situation regarding polyphony on GS instruments is similar to that with GM instruments except that, where GM specifies a minimum of 24 voices, GS seemingly specifies a maximum of 24. That's how many voices the JV30 has, anyway, which means that if you're using only two-voice Tones you're down to 12-note polyphony.
GS bank zero and GM both provide 16 groups of sounds: Piano, Chromatic (tuned) Percussion, Organ, Guitar, Bass, Strings, Ensemble, Brass, Reed, Pipe, Synth Lead, Synth Pad, Synth Effects, Ethnic, Percussive and Sound Effects. Each group consists of eight sounds which sit within the defining category, so, for instance, the Bass category consists of 'Acoustic Bass', 'Fingered Bass', 'Picked Bass', 'Fretless Bass', 'Slap Bass 1', 'Slap Bass 2', 'Synth Bass 1' and 'Synth Bass 2', while the Brass category consists of 'Trumpet', 'Trombone', 'Tuba', 'Muted Trumpet', 'French Horn', 'Brass Section', 'Synth Brass 1' and 'Synth Brass 2'. The Sound Effects category, you'll be interested to know, consists of 'Guitar Fret Noise', 'Breath Noise', 'Seashore', 'Bird Tweet', 'Telephone Ring', 'Helicopter', 'Applause' and 'Gunshot'.
Unlike General MIDI, GS allows a number of variations on the Tones of bank one to be created. In GS-speak, the Tones of bank zero are known as Capital Tones, the Tones in every ninth bank are known as Sub-Capital Tones, and the Tones of all banks are known as Variations. The idea is that Capital Tones and Sub-Capital Tones with the same Tone number can provide a different instrument within the same instrument category, while the "in between" Variation Tones literally provide variations on their Capital or Sub-Capital Tone. For instance, Tone 22 bank zero is a French accordion while Tone 22 bank eight is an Italian accordion.
The only place where the JV30 makes use of "in between" Variations is in the Sound Effects category, and here each Variation is actually a different sound. So, for instance, where with General MIDI Tone 126 would consist simply of a helicopter, with GS it consists of nine different samples: Helicopter, Car Engine, Car Stop, Car Pass, Car Crash, Siren, Train, Jetplane, Starship and Burst Noise. All in all, the JV30 provides 40 sounds in the Sound Effects category, where a GM instrument could only have eight. There are two ways to select these extra sounds associated with each Tone: from the JV30's front panel you simply keep pressing the Variation button and the synth cycles around the Variations, while remote selection of Variations via MIDI involves sending a Bank Select command (MIDI controller #0) for the Variation and a patch change command for the Tone.
"The JV30 scores with its accessibility and user-friendliness and with the sheer number and variety of sounds it makes available."
Taking into account both the Capital Tones and the Variations, the JV30 provides a total of 189 Preset Tones. A further 128 Tones are available in a special MT32 mode (selectable from the front panel by pressing the Performance and Variation buttons, and via MIDI by sending Bank Select 127) which uses a bank of Tones mapped in accordance with the MT32's Tone organisation, and assigns a CM64/32L Drum Set to channel 10. Roland have also given the JV30 a bank of 128 User Tones into which you can store your own edited versions of the Variations. All you have to do is press the Write button and then press the relevant Number button on the synth's front panel (its built-in LED prompts by winking at you). As on the JX1, you can't store to a Tone location other than the one you've edited, which means you can only store one edited version of one of the Variations associated with each Preset Tone.
To switch between Preset and User Tones from the front panel, you press the buttons labelled Preset and User. However, via MIDI there's no means of selecting User Tones as opposed to Preset Capital Tones or vice versa - both are addressed as bank zero using the MIDI Bank Select command. It seems there are only two ways to ensure that you select the Tone you want, either Preset or User, on each MIDI channel. One is to ensure that a Tone from the relevant Bank is already selected on each channel; you can do this by creating a Performance (see later) which has the relevant Preset and User assignments. The other is to take advantage of the fact that, in addition to bank select and patch change settings, the JV30 transmits the programmed values for all eight editable sound parameters via MIDI (as non-registered parameter numbers) each time you select a Tone or a Variation. If you record this data into your sequencer, then each time you play the sequence back you're effectively "programming" the sound live. Although this means each patch change entails transmitting an 83-byte chunk of data, in practice I didn't encounter any adverse effects when incorporating such changes into multitrack sequences - though, obviously, too many patch changes happening at once could cause hiccups.
The JV30'S 61-note keyboard is sensitive to attack velocity only, though the instrument can respond to both channel and poly aftertouch via MIDI; although the keyboard is a fairly standard synth-style affair, it does have some substance in its feel, unlike some keyboards I could mention. The synth's rear panel provides a bog-standard collection of sockets: MIDI In, Out and Thru, L(Mono) and R audio outs, stereo headphones output, sustain pedal socket, and power input socket for the external AC adaptor, together with, of course, the power on/off switch.
The JV30 is easy to get to grips with, thanks in part to the fact that it's not a very complicated instrument, and in part to the fact that its capabilities are presented on the front panel in a clear, accessible way. Essentially, you step in either direction through the 16 Parts using the dedicated Part Up/Down buttons, and all the other buttons affect whichever Part is currently selected. Each Part can be given its own level, pan, MIDI receive channel, chorus depth, reverb depth, chorus on/off and reverb on/off settings. The latter two are particularly easy to set: once you've selected a Part, all you have to do is press the dedicated buttons labelled Chorus on/off and Reverb on/off (pinpoint LEDs within each button light up to indicate the "on" setting). Equally accessible are two performance features, Solo and Portamento, which can be switched in and out per Part from dedicated buttons. This clear visual correlation between parameters and buttons is typical of an instrument which brings just about everything to the surface. Other parameters programmable per Part are bend range, modulation depth, key shift, velocity sensitivity depth, velocity sensitivity offset and voice reserve (if you have an important musical part which mustn't have notes stolen from it, you can "reserve" a fixed number of voices for it). A useful global parameter allows you to specify whether the JV30 should transmit on a fixed MIDI channel or whether it should transmit on the receive channel of the currently-selected Part.
Sixteen Bank and eight Number buttons allow you to select a Tone from the bank of Capital Tones, while, as mentioned earlier, successive presses of the Variation button cycle you around the Variations (if there are any, that is) for the selected Tone. The 16 Tone Groups are listed on the front panel to the right of these buttons, so you don't have to struggle to remember which Bank button (Group button would perhaps have been a better label) selects the Guitar sounds or the Synth Lead sounds.
"Even if you're not using the JV30 multitimbrally, Performances can still be useful as a way of grouping together up to 16 Tones at a time."
Assigning a Drum Set to a Part is equally straightforward: press the Drum 1 or Drum 2 button, then either go with the selected Set or use the Preset, User, Number and Variation buttons to choose a different Set. Drum Sets can be assigned to any Part, but no more than two Sets can be active at once. The JV30 also lets you edit the pitch, level, pan and reverb depth settings for individual sounds within the Preset Drum Sets (though you can't change the mapping of sounds) and then Write the results into one of the RAM memories.
Like the JX1, the JV30 makes a limited number of sound parameters available for editing, puts them on a "mini" Edit Palette of three assignable sliders, and lets you select the active parameters by pressing the Vibrato, Filter or Envelope button. So, one moment you can be editing the filter cutoff point and the resonance amount, the next you can be editing the attack, decay and release settings of the filter and amplitude envelopes. Obviously there are a lot more sound parameters which Roland have hidden from view. One of them is presumably filter on/off, because editing cutoff and resonance on some of the Tones has no effect; in particular, many of the Sound Effects Tones don't respond to cutoff and resonance edits, something which I found a bit frustrating. As ever, there's a trade-off between simplicity and immediacy on the one hand and depth and flexibility on the other. The JV30, of course, majors on the former.
As mentioned earlier, you can Write the edited Tone into one, and only one, User Tone location. This can become frustrating when you want to use differently-edited versions of a Tone at the same time, but there is a workaround for this situation. I mentioned earlier that whenever you select a Tone on the JV30, the synth transmits not only the relevant bank and patch numbers but also the stored parameter settings for the Tone - effectively a Tone dump, except that the values are conveyed as controller data (Non-registered Parameter Numbers and Data Entry values) rather than SysEx data. All you need to do is record this information into your sequencer on the relevant MIDI channel(s) and then edit the Data Entry values for whichever parameters you want to change, using your sequencer's Event List editor. On playback, the same Tone can be given different parameter settings on different MIDI channels - and you have the advantage that the settings can be stored as part of your sequence.
Take things a bit further and you can have dynamic parameter edits recorded within your sequences. What you can't do, sadly, is record dynamic edits into a sequencer from the JV30's front panel, because Palette and Data Entry slider movements aren't translated into MIDI data by the synth. So all that mad slider wiggling may be great for live performance edits (changing the filter cutoff point and resonance amount on 'Synth Bass 1', say), but it won't get you very far when you want to sequence your edits.
"All in all, the JV30 provides 40 sounds in the Sound Effects category, where a GM instrument could only have eight."
On the subject of performance, the JV30 includes four Key Modes - Fat, Octave, Dual and Split - which can be called up individually from dedicated front-panel buttons located below the central LCD window. As you might guess, Fat and Octave both provide ways of beefing up a sound. To do so, they "take over" the Part below the currently-selected Part - if you were sequencing that Part, it would drop out while one or other of these Modes was selected (an interesting approach to track muting). Dual and Split also require a second Part, only in this instance you can select any one of the other 15 Parts, and its Tone is placed on the keyboard along with that of the current Part. You can change the Tone assignments, and in the case of Split, set the keyboard splitpoint yourself; if the global TX Channel parameter is set to Part, each Part transmits on its own MIDI channel, so you can address up to two MIDI channels from the JV30's keyboard.
I did encounter one rather unfortunate software bug. If you set the keyboard Local on/off parameter to "off" - as you're likely to do if you're using the JV30 with a sequencer - and then select one of the four Key Modes and play on the keyboard, the JV30 immediately seizes up and locks you out completely. This is most definitely not something you'd want to have happen to you in a gig situation, especially if the JV30 was playing back a multitrack sequence at the time. Turning the synth off and back on again (which is all you can do in the circumstances) sets it back on its feet, but doesn't cure the problem. Only Roland can do that - hopefully sooner rather than later.
Effects processing on the JV30 is limited to chorus and reverb, as it is on many Roland synths. You get a choice of eight Chorus types - Chorus 1/2/3/4, Feedback Chorus, Flanger, Short Delay, and Short Delay with Feedback, and eight Reverb types - Room 1/2/3, Hall 1/2, Plate, Delay and Panning Delay. For both Chorus and Reverb, globally programmable parameters are limited to effect type and level, while per Part, as I mentioned earlier, you can set on/off and depth.
Settings for many of the JV30's global and Part-specific parameters can be stored in a Performance, allowing you to call up, say, a completely different set of 16 Tones in an instant. You can program up to eight Performances, and call them up by pressing and holding the Performance button and then pressing one of the eight Number buttons. However, while active notes can overlap Tone changes on an individual Part basis, calling up a new Performance cuts short all active notes, so Performance changes while a sequence is running aren't really feasible, which is a pity.
Even if you're not using the JV30 multitimbrally, Performances can still be useful as a way of grouping together up to 16 Tones at a time. Instead of selecting Tones using Bank and Number buttons, all you need to do is step through the Parts. However, one potential disadvantage of this approach is that active notes are cut dead whenever you step to a different Part.
The JV30 implements SysEx dumping of User Tones, User Drum Sets, all or individual Part settings and Performances, so you can expand beyond the onboard storage capabilities of the synth.
While it's not a synth for anyone who wants to get into some serious programming (or take advantage of others' serious programming), the JV30 scores with its accessibility and user-friendliness, with the sheer number and variety of sounds it makes available, and with an attractively punchy, sharp sonic quality which has plenty of verve and sparkle to it - if it lacks a little in depth and warmth. Overall, Roland's new synth is a well thought out and well balanced instrument which does more than enough to make itself appealing to budget-minded recording musicians and performing musicians alike.
Price £799 including VAT.
More from Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask
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