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Roland JX8P

Article from One Two Testing, March 1985

programmable, touch sensitive, mega MIDI

"DON'T THINK of it as a souped up JX3P", echoed the snappy rhetoric as the door to the demo room clicked shut. "It's more. You'll see."

Hate to take up the glove from the start, but on first encounter the 8P does seem to be less than you would expect. Only six note polyphonic, y'see, not the conclusion you might draw from the '8' in the title, but then the JX3P isn't a three note so we won't count that as a first fall.

The 8P is a fairly clear example of territorial infilling offering more facilities than the 3P, extra memory, a far sticker appearance and a velocity sensitive, second touch keyboard with lead inserts beneath the keys to lend a feeling of weight. Otherwise it follows JX lines closely.

There are 64 factory presets in two banks of 32, a further 32 internal spaces for your own programmes and the facility to drop an M16-C RAM cartridge (about £40) in the top left hand corner of the steely grey control panel to hold an additional 32. Even in a darkened room with two black eyes it's possible to work out that the 8P has no knobs or sliders. The voices and the parameter sections of the synth itself, are called up using the same rows of buttons. On the JX3P they were 'physical' switches with integral LEDs, on the 8 they are the now common (and cheaper to manufacture) bubble switches sitting beneath a white membrane. The names of the first 32 presets are written on the membranes plus a number (1-32), the first nine of which are used to call up the parameters.

In addition, the 8P has a 10 character green, alpha-numeric display window dead centre on the control panel which spells out what's going on. Yes you can write out titles for your own sounds and yes I'm sure most of them will be rude. Roland stick to polite things such as 'Piano 1'.

Should you prefer to push controls around, there is an add-on programmer box which connects to the back panel via DIN leads and attaches to the right hand corner of the 8P via magnets — again, same principle as the 3's PG200 (this one's called the PG800) but bearing an enlarged number of sliders.

After a quick reccy I had a nagging feeling of a certain absentee. It was, the smarter of you will already have realised, the sequencer. There isn't one. While the 3P's polyphonic sequencer was much like the Scotman's purse — small and difficult to get into — it could produce some neat if unpredictable effects. I liked it, and will miss its quirkiness on the 8.

You can never have too much memory space these days so the 8's uprated store is a boon, if requiring a greater feat of human memory to recall what you put, and where. To this end the display is invaluable and with 128 sounds knocking around at any one time, the ability to name them prevents early age lines around the eyes and forehead.

The performance controls have been gathered into a single strip down the left hand side of the five octave, C to C keyboard. The pitch bend and vibrato control has taken root in a strange, dome-like extrusion. The toggle on top now resembles either the peak of St Pauls or something I won't mention in mixed company. It stays traditional in operation, acting as a pitch bender to left and right and switching on the vibrato when pushed forward. In place of the 3P's wide/narrow switch is a handy, click stop slider locking at intervals of a tone, 3rd, 5th or octave, and travelling steplessly inbetween. Here also resides the slider for portamento and, above that, three further controls for overall volume, touch sensitivity for the keyboard and an edit slider for reprogramming the parameters.

This review is becoming a trifle switch-ist, but a few more specs will clear the decks. The second touch can bring in vibrato, brilliance or volume, selectable by three orange buttons, but only one at a time.

The performance and second touch information cannot be written into the individual memories and neither is it cancelled when a fresh memory is requested. Once you've decided on, say, second touch brilliance, that's what you get on all sounds, until you either nullify it, or swap to one of the other options.

To assist in live performance the 8P does have a small patch chain memory which will recall the key mode (poly, solo, etc), after-touch assignment, bender range and portamento for a particular, defined preset. It stores eight of these 'maps', and you step backwards or forwards to the one you want using two blue buttons.

Finally, there are the write and tape dump controls for the memory (in red) and programming function switches. Without the PG800 the 8P is not in permanent edit and you do have to request parameter operation, carry out your work and then cancel parameter mode to return the synth to normal all-noises-at-your-disposal playing. Happily there is a recall facility — a sort of sonic sketchpad — where you can edit in some changes, return to the original in the memory to see how they compare, then come back to your altered version without having wiped away your talented tinkerings. Extremely useful and highly recommended.

The 8, like the 3, has two banks of digitally controlled oscillators so the heart of the system stays the same. But from there the 8 grows considerably — two ADSR envelope generators instead of one, cross modulation of oscillators for metallic clangs, syncing, and a variety of touch-response effects, plus a voltage controlled mixer, again driven most effectively by the touch keyboard. I found it a bit of a pity that there should only be four levels of touch response on the 8. It does mean that the jumps in volume go from say, quiet to medium loud instead of quiet to slightly less quiet to medium loud. By comparison you'll find seven levels in a DX7, and while the 8P's performance is better than naught, it can be a little... er... bold on its announcements.

The ADSRs exhibit a trick that dates back to early JP8/JP6 days known as key follow — a useful little tool for close imitation of brass voices, especially across a five octave keyboard. Notes on the top end of the keyboard will be given a faster attack time than those at the bottom — trumpets get going more quickly than tubas. Works, too.

The two more unusual diversions within the 8P's spec are the VCM (Voltage Controlled Mixer) and frequency respondent DCOs (kicked about in pitch by your velocity attack on the keys).

With clever application, the VCM can fool you into thinking there are two different sounds overlayed, something the 8P isn't physically capable of doing. Just supposing you've got a percussive piano sound. Are you supposing? Right. DCO 1 we use for the basic tone and DCO 2 goes an octave higher but is only allowed through the mixer in a short sharp burst of initial attack, determined by one of the ADSRs.

You get a tight, pokey, overtone kick at the beginning of the note. Or you could set the ADSR so DCO2 faded up in level as you were holding a chord. Tuning DCO2 to a higher or lower interval can change the texture of the sound so you begin to approach the blossoming effect that digital machines can demonstrate as sine wave operators begin to 'interfere' with each other. That's not to say the JX8P sounds digital, it's quite definitely an analogue machine, but with the VCM tricked up, it can appear to behave that way a bit.

Linking the VCM to the touch sensitivity presents another string to the JX8P's bow. Roland quote the example of a soft flute setting which will add an overblown fifth from DCO2 when you lay into the keys. Whatever effect you work out has to be based on the extra level or note the second DCO contributes. Both oscillator banks are still going through the same filter networks, after all, so they're not going to be radically individual in tone.

Monkeying with the frequency of the oscillators needs extra care. Because of the fairly coarse steps in the dynamic range, the frequencies can leap about too dramatically as you hammer the white and blacks. The most successful application is shifting the pitch while the two banks are synced together for that growling, phase-locked effect. The harder you hit, the stronger the growl becomes. Or you can fix it so the effect is only introduced when you lam into the keyboard — a powerful sound change without having to take your fingers off the keys to select a fresh voice.

Also good to see that the 8's dynamic ability has a degree of intelligence. If you are already holding a chord with your left hand and sustaining it, you could go in hard with right hand solo lines without the sustained notes leaping in volume, brightness or whatever in an attempt to keep pace.

In terms of sound the JX8P stays rigidly true to recent Roland breeding — bright, clear, and efficient precision, but reliant on its on-board chorus unit for the grander backdrops. Strings, whether orchestral or solo, become noticeably thinner when the chorus has its life support unplugged. Even detuning the oscillators doesn't warm the 8P beyond body temperature, but does at least prove how precise its detune ability is. It's quite possible to separate DCO and 2 by such small amounts they come to sound like a very slow phase — not always possible on other keyboards and a tribute to the rock solid tuning of Roland's oscillators.

And how do we get at these oscillators? If you've invested in the PG800 programmer then the 8 will be in permanent edit. Moving any of the sliders will cause that control to jump back to its manual setting while arranging for the control panel display to show what parameter you're changing and the value you now have on the freshly tweaked slider.

Without the 800 you're back to the original JX3P approach. The top right hand corner of the panel has an edit map which gives each 'imaginary' control a code number. Punching the synth into parameter mode leaves you free to call up a particular code using the first membrane buttons (11 is 1 and 1, you can't press membrane 11 and hope to get away with it, the instruction will be ignored).

The display then lights with the parameter number, name and present value. The edit range is 0-99 — plenty of room for fine degrees of control — and it can be changed using the aforementioned slider to the left of the keyboard.

Admittedly this form of programming isn't the fastest in the world and is preferably carried out when you have plenty of time at home. That's why the large amount of memory is essential. You do have the space to load several variations of any sound you like, so when the urgent moment arrives in the studio or on stage, you've got a handful to suit the occasion or acoustics rather than feeling what you really need is more resonance, less filter, a touch of noise, just a fraction more decay, and so forth.

The 8P's MIDI spec is remarkably comprehensive, Roland describing it as their best to date. The device can be told to send (or not send) info on channel no. send/receive, programme change, after touch, pitch bend, mod wheel, portamento, hold, volume (Roland exclusive), mode, mode-send, dynamics, local (for silencing the 8P and playing only the satellite keyboard), and system exclusive patch details for displaying memorised settings on a computer screen.

Whether the 8 will be quite such a runaway success as the 3 is not so certain. The JX3P offered a lot at a low price and for the first time — two DCOs, a good supply of memory and a sequencer. While the 8 is certainly an update and an improvement — the richer MIDI spec alone will give some keyboard players their first full night's sleep in months — it is something of a second bite at the apple. The theme for this month's One Two (and perhaps for '85) is one of consolidation... witness the Linn 9000. The same description could be applied to the 8P. No new technology, but better use of the old. That's what the industry has to offer, it will be a few months before anyone knows if you or I are going for it.

ROLAND JX8P synth: £1250

CONTACT: Roland UK, (Contact Details)

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Aria Wildcat

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Drummers Drumming

Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Mar 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter

Gear in this article:

Synthesizer > Roland > JX-8P

Gear Tags:

Analog Synth

Review by Paul Colbert

Previous article in this issue:

> Aria Wildcat

Next article in this issue:

> Drummers Drumming

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