Roland JX8P and PG800
Touch-Sensitive Polysynth and Programmer
Criticised in the past for their poor implementation of MIDI, Roland have given their new mid-price polysynth the full works. It sounds good, too, as Paul Wiffen discovers in this exclusive review.
Roland's newest polysynth is by no means a revolutionary design, but there's plenty of evidence that a good deal of thought has gone into determining its range of facilities.
Before we go any further, perhaps we'd better clear up any confusion that may be caused by Roland's current model numbers. The JX8P is, of course, a six-voice polysynth and not an eight-voice one as its name might suggest; the PG800 is not an update of the MPG80 (which is used to program the Mother Keyboard system's Super Jupiter module) but a programmer designed exclusively for this six-voice instrument; and the special cartridge, the M16C holds 32 sounds. Clear?
Now that we've dealt with that possible source of confusion, we can take a look at the products themselves. The JX8P is an update of the JX3P poly, which first appeared nearly two years ago now. We were then reliably informed that the '3P' stood for Programmable Preset Polysynth, but unfortunately nobody at E&MM can think of eight words beginning with P that apply to the JX8P. Ah well. Anyway, the principle advantage the 8P has over its predecessor is that it's keyboard is touch-sensitive, responding both to initial key strikes (velocity-sensing) and aftertouch (pressure-sensing). Both velocity- and pressure-sensing are offered only by the Yamaha DX7 in this price range, so the 8P has little competition in that respect. However, pressure response is not independent to each key: you still have to pay Prophet T8 or DX1 money for that facility.
The keyboard itself spans five octaves C-to-C, and is of the fairly standard Japanese plastic variety. It seems to cope fairly well with the extra duties the touch-sensitivity calls upon it to perform, but a little more travel in the actual keys might not have gone amiss. In the JX's monophonic modes, the keyboard always responds to any new note played, which is useful for solo work because it means the instrument reproduces arpeggios and trills as fast as you can play them
Like the original JX3P (reviewed in E&MM August 83), the 8P has a selection of factory preset sounds in addition to programmable memories: in this case 64 of them arranged in two banks of 32. The first 32 are listed on the touch pads used to select both sounds and parameters. They include a selection of Piano, Organ, String and Brass sounds, most of which are reminiscent of previous Roland endeavours but come to life with the added bonus of velocity-sensing, this being stored as part of the sound. Of particular note are the vocal sounds Choir and Voices, which in certain areas of the keyboard are very realistic indeed and a vast improvement over the 3P's efforts in this area, while the sounds based on the Sync feature are excellent for those screaming Jan Hammer solos.
The second page of presets is accessed by pressing the Preset button again. A small marker comes up on Roland's built-in LCD to show that the second set of presets has been accessed, and these are then selected via the 32 touch pads as before. This second page includes several unexpected sounds such as Log Drum and Marimba (convincing proof of the 8P's ability to handle percussive sounds), and an excellent Flute that makes good use of the built-in Voltage Controlled Mixer (more on this later) to add overtones to voices manipulated by rapid key-strikes. Apart from a few excusable sillinesses (Bubbles, Psycho Mellow, and JX Jet - a hangover from the JX3P, unfortunately), the majority of the preset sounds are very usable, and as always, a little editing goes a long way towards making them more impressive.
One great dilemma that manufacturers face when designing a synth these days is whether to give the user the option of overwriting the preset voices and risk the instrument losing good sounds due to a mains 'spike' or a passing Guitarist reader, or to make sure the presets are irrevocably stored inside the machine in non-volatile ROM. As they did with the JX3P, Roland have opted for the latter solution on their new poly, which means you're stuck with their 64 presets. And although these can of course be edited, they must then be restored in one of the 32 user-programmable memory locations. This arrangement is made less restricting in the case of the JX8P than it was on the 3P by the addition of a RAM cartridge facility that allows an infinite library of sounds to be easily and quickly stored and accessed (so much better than all that tedious mucking about with cassettes).
So assuming you're interested in creating some sounds from scratch, what facilities does the JX8P put at your disposal?
Well, a list of the available parameters is given in the Edit Map at the right hand end of the JX's front panel, but the situation is clarified considerably by a glance at the layout of controls on the PG800 programmer. In brief, the JX8P has two DCOs per voice, a similar number of ADSRs, and a VCF, LFO, chorus facility and the Voltage Controlled Mixer just alluded to.
Each oscillator has four available outputs - sawtooth, square and pulse waveforms and noise. The pulse wave seems to be set at about 20%, and there's no means by which the width can be altered, either manually or automatically. In 1985, this is a fairly serious omission as most of today's analogue synths have this feature incorporated as standard. However, the 8P's chorus device (which Roland seem to be very keen on - almost every keyboard they produce has one) can be used to add the sort of movement characteristic of Pulse Width Modulation, albeit with less user control.
As well as the (not exactly uncommon) provision for modulating the oscillator's pitch from the LFO for vibrato and trill effects, the JX also allows pitch to be controlled by either of the ADSRs, positively or negatively. This would ordinarily allow you to create pitch-change effects such as those provided by syndrums and the like, but is even more useful in the case of the 8P because of the Sync facility incorporated into the design of DC02: some truly wonderful sync sweeps are possible by altering that oscillator's pitch.
"Applying Key Follow to each ADSR shortens the length of the envelope as the pitch rises, itself a property of many acoustically-generated sounds."
A four-stage Key Follow feature is also available, not only on the filter (where it is commonly referred to as Keyboard Tracking), but on each ADSR as well. This latter facility has the effect of shortening the length of the envelope as the pitch rises, itself a natural property of many acoustically-generated sounds. Unfortunately, the effect is not continuously variable: only three positions are selectable via the appropriate control. Still, the feature is there, and it's a useful one.
The best is yet to come, however.
While several competing synths already offer the Sync/Pitch-to-Env combination and Key Follow was present on the old MemoryMoog, I don't know of any other synth that possesses a Voltage Controlled Mixer. This allows the level of DC02 to be controlled either by an ADSR or by the velocity of keystrokes. The former routing is particularly effective when used with percussive envelopes, while the latter is a great help if you're seeking to imitate certain acoustic characteristics, as evidenced by the Flute preset that adds the harmonics caused by over-blowing when a key is struck hard. Other effects can be created by adding DC02 at a different pitch or best of all by using it in conjunction with the Sync and Dynamics features for some really impressive solo sounds.
Thus far I've made no mention of the 8P's much-vaunted after-touch facility. This is because it's one parameter that can't be programmed within individual memories: instead, the feature has a section of its own at the extreme left-hand side of the synth. The parameter's assignment procedures are also a bit rudimentary, with only level, vibrato, and brilliance (ie. the filter) being controllable via additional playing pressure. Then again, they are the most logical parameters to control. Mind you, I would have appreciated the addition of a further facility for the control of oscillator pitch (preferably for each oscillator individually), as bends and sync sweeps would then be accessible direct from the keyboard. On the plus side, though, the amount of after-touch can be programmed with some degree of subtlety through the appropriate slider.
Also at the extreme left-hand side of the keyboard lie the JX's real-time performance controls. Bend and Portamento amounts can be programmed and then introduced via their respective switches. Personally, I rather wish Roland would call their performance device by a name other than Bender ('performance device' doesn't sound any better to me - Ed), as more far-reaching - and decidedly last-minute - design changes are by no means out of the question if this area of the JX's layout is anything to go by. To explain, the Bender has a joystick ball-type housing that looks at first as if it should be used to introduce the LFO in a fairly radical fashion. In fact, that housing is only present for aesthetic purposes (or so it would appear), though it's still possible to accomplish a reasonable range of variations in vibrato level.
We haven't finished with the 'not storable in memory' side of the JX8P's layout, either, as it's this section that allows the synth's six channels to be triggered in different ways. First mode we come to is Poly which, not surprisingly, allows normal six-voice polyphonic playing, while Unison puts all the voices on one note for lovers of full-frontal solos. Like Unison, Solo is also a monophonic mode, the difference being that it uses only one voice channel.
The best thing about the 8P's key mode choices is that when Unison is selected, the instrument's Master Tune parameter can be used to detune the voices away from each other, in addition to detuning oscillators apart: the LCD helps out here (something it does very often, in fact) by showing how many cents the various pitches differ by.
By now, you're probably thinking what a shame it is that the Roland's aftertouch, performance control amounts and key modes can't be stored as part of a sound. Well, you're right - it is a shame. But there is a compromise solution in that any voice - complete with settings for any or all of the parameters mentioned above - can be stored away as a Patch. Unfortunately, there are only eight spaces available for these Patches, and they have to be accessed in sequence (hence 'Chain', I guess). Still, you shouldn't have much difficulty programming your particular octet of voices in a sequence that matches a concert running order, for instance.
"I don't know of any other synth that possesses a Voltage Controlled Mixer that allows the level of an oscillator to be controlled either by an ADSR or by the velocity of keystrokes."
The JX8P has been blessed with Roland's most comprehensive implementation of MIDI so far. Besides the now standard features such as Program Change, Bend Enable/Disable, and Mode changes, the 8P can also accomplish some more recherché things along the MIDI bus, viz Mode Send, Volume Change, adjustment of Dynamics, and two forms of message completely new to this reviewer - one called Local that allows the 3P's voices to be turned off so that only the sounds from a connected MIDI slave unit (eg. an expander) are played from the keyboard, and another called Active Sense that helps eliminate the problems that can occur if MIDI connections are severed, for whatever reason.
And the JX8P can transmit/receive on any of 16 MIDI channels, while the customary In, Out and Thru sockets are on the back panel. Pretty impressive stuff, all in all.
There's some more goodies at the new Roland's rear, besides, like an output level selector that enables easy matching between the JX and a wide variety of performance environments such as stage, studio, rehearsal and so on; stereo outputs (the right-hand one provides a mono signal if that's what you require); sockets for stereo headphones and a Hold pedal; and a Memory Protect switch and five-pin DIN connector (for the PG800) to complete the rear panel arrangement. Incidentally, the programmer is held in place on top of the right-hand end of the 8P's front panel by magnets, which seems a sensible solution.
A synth that's of a sufficiently flexible nature to appeal to several different sorts of keyboard player, I'd have said. For the pianist in search of a collection of usable synth sounds that can be played with velocity sensing, it should prove a strong competitor, even in DX7 territory - even more so if a fat, analogue-type sound is what's wanted most of all.
In the world of conventional analogue polysynths, there's little or nothing to rival the 8P (with the possible exception of the limited-availability Bit One) on a value for money basis. It is a little tedious to program in the absence of a PG800 module, but at least the separation of synth from programmer means that the purchase of the latter can be delayed until finances allow: not everybody can be Geoff Downes, you know.
The news on the voice storage front is somewhat mixed, of course, because although storing sounds on cartridge is a lot easier than dumping them to tape, it's still a great pity that Roland's designers couldn't endow the instrument with more than eight memory locations capable of storing after-touch and performance control data.
You'd be right in thinking that the JX8P incorporates little in the way of revolutionary design principles, but in a lot of cases, evolution is preferable to revolution, and there's no doubt that the new Roland's implementation of MIDI, for instance, has been well worth waiting for.
RRP of the JX8P is £1250, while the PG800 programmer is a further £180.
Review by Paul Wiffen
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