Roland Jupiter-80
By Stephen Fortner
Mon, 24 Oct 2011
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By Stephen Fortner

You probably already know that the Jupiter-80 is one of the most
anticipated new keyboards of the year, in part because the classic Jupiter-8 is still one of the most hunted synths in the world and invoking its name was bound to create a buzz. Since the public debut at this year’s Frankfurt Musikmesse show, everyone has been wondering exactly how the new Jupiter will handle and sound. I’ve now been living with one long enough to offer a detailed report.

Hardware

Though “Jupiter” is synonymous with “retro” for many synth enthusiasts, the only thing that’s self-consciously retro about the Jupiter-80 is the industrial design: The panel graphics, flat aluminum end blocks, and Jolly Rancher-like rainbow of sound selection buttons are obvious homages to the Jupiter-8. Some people will like the aesthetics (I do) and some won’t, but anyone who sees the new Jupe in person will agree that it’s built like a tank. The controls and keys themselves are about the only plastic you’ll find—all else is thick, burnished metal.

The Korg Kronos’ screen graphics may look prettier, but the Jupiter’s bright, blocky colors and fewer functions on each page make touchscreen life easier if your fingers are any thicker than a Tolkien elf’s. It’s not multitouch, but you can touch-adjust onscreen controls like synth knobs and organ drawbars, and their response is instant and smooth.

The synth-action keyboard is silky, with a feel as the keys hit bottom that I can only describe as “dead in a good way.” It senses aftertouch, and unlike most synths, the sensitivity is adjustable in the same system menu where you’ll find velocity curves. These keys are quiet: Palm wipes cause a little less mechanical noise than on a Yamaha Motif XF (reviewed June ’11), and a lot less than on my 76-key Kurzweil PC3.

The Jupiter-80 is not a workstation. It’s a performance synth that you can also integrate into your studio thanks to MIDI and audio streaming over USB. You can record audio files to a USB stick or play them for use as backing tracks, but there’s no multitrack sequencing, nor does the song player support playback via Standard MIDI files. You can, however, import SMFs into the arpeggiator as patterns.

Organization

The Jupiter-80 (a.k.a. JP-80) is different than most modern synths, which usually power up with a piano sound in single-patch mode. Essentially, it’s always in multi mode, and the main level of organization is the Registration, a setup that saves the entire state of the instrument minus a few system settings. The Registration buttons on the front rail beneath the keys (a location familiar to pipe organists) make it easy to change sounds while playing, but a bit too easy to do so by accident. Sensibly, the system menu includes a lockout for these buttons.

Fig. 1. Full of knobs and sliders, the Synth Edit screen gives you access to three stackable virtual analog synths (called Partials) while using up only one sound program.
A Registration has four parts—Upper, Lower, Solo, and Percussion— each assignable to a different key zone. Here’s where things get interesting, because the Upper and Lower parts in turn contain up to four Tones (single sound programs), a grouping Roland calls a “Live Set.” Each Tone in a Live Set can have its own key zone, independently of those assigned at the part level.

At first this seemed unnecessarily complex—why nest a little multi (the Live Set) inside a big multi (the Registration)? Then, I thought about how orchestras have sections in which the players work closely with each other, and I began to see the logic. Building a string or brass ensemble to work as a cohesive unit in some larger musical context certainly isn’t the only use for Live Sets—just an obvious one. Plus, just as a skilled player tailors his or her tone and style to a specific gig, you may want a Tone to behave differently in a section than if you were playing it solo. That’s why a slew of parameters are adjustable per Tone but saved at the Live Set level: pitch, vibrato, velocity response, filter and envelope off sets, poly/mono, effects routing, and what MIDI controllers each Tone receives, to name a few. For many of these, you can decide whether the setting defaults to the value saved with the underlying Tone, or overrides it.

The Solo and Percussion Parts contain a single Tone each. Percussion is further divided into Drums/SFX and Manual modes. Drums/SFX accesses more than just drum kits; I often used it to add acoustic or synth bass when the Lower part was doing something more demanding. Manual Percussion reserves the bottom 15 keys for triggering various one-shot hits such as TR-808 drums and Fairlight-esque orchestra stabs. The Solo part is intended for sounds you’d likely play in the topmost range of the keyboard (perhaps monophonically) but you’re not restricted to doing so; put a grand piano up here and shift it down three octaves if that floats your boat. Given this flexibility, you could think of the Solo part as simply “supra-Upper” and the Percussion part as “sub-Lower,” subject to some limits. For example, you can’t assign an organ with full drawbar control to a Solo or Percussion part, because the touchscreen page of drawbars resides at the Live Set level for Upper or Lower parts only. I didn’t find this to be any practical hindrance.

You might look at those colorful sound selection buttons above the keys and think, “Am I limited to the sound categories printed on the panel for each part?” No, you’re not. Each selection button calls up a main and alternate Live Set (for Upper and Lower parts) or a main and alternate Tone (for Solo and Percussion), and you can set defaults for these in the system menu. While the main sound for a given button is limited to things more or less in that category (pianos for the Piano button and so on), you can set a category-spanning range of sounds as the alternate. Also, the “Other” buttons in the Lower, Upper, and Solo sections are similarly inclusive.

Tap any Live Set/Tone button twice, and a sound browser comes up onscreen. With the Upper and Lower parts, the buttons select only Live Sets, not individual Tones. When assigning individual tones within a Live Set, you double-tap on the Tone field to bring up another sound browser, then make your selection on the touchscreen. A number of Live Sets have only one Tone active to speed things up when all you want is, say, a nice piano or upright bass.

Honestly, navigating the JP-80 and creating your own Registrations is more complex to read about than to do. A good deal is immediately obvious: Want one of those alternate sounds I talked about? Hit the Alternate button for the desired part. Want to split off a zone on the keyboard? Hit its Split button. The overall paradigm is different but musical—as if Roland intended that you could plop Leonard Bernstein in front of this thing and he’d take to it almost as quickly as Rick Wakeman.

Sound

On previous Roland instruments, “SuperNatural” denoted select sounds that were maximally realistic and rich in articulations that responded to your keyboarding. (Technical point: Any samples used in SuperNatural sounds were and are unlooped.) The goal: Letting you think like a keyboardist but sound like a “native” player of whatever instrument you’re emulating. The JP-80 labels all of its individual Tones as SuperNatural, suggesting they’ve upped the game across all instrument types. For the most part, that’s true.
SuperNatural Synth. A serious virtual analog synth resides in the JP-80, and at the bottom of the editing hierarchy is a vintage-looking interface called Synth Edit (see Figure 1). Rather than cloning the Jupiter-8 signal path, it’s set up more like the Gaia SH-01 (reviewed July ’10), with three independent, stackable, single-oscillator synths. Each has its own multimode filter, volume and filter envelopes, and two LFOs, one of which is hard-assigned to the modulation paddle. This is a more advanced synth than the Gaia, though. First, it sounds better—more cream, less fizz. Features you won’t find in the Gaia include a unison mode that can get quite huge (at the cost of some polyphony), a waveshaper that adds anything from a little grit to a chainsaw buzz, and the option for any oscillator to use either virtual analog waves, noise, or one of 363 PCM samples.

Hiding in Pro Edit view (a simple list of parameters and their values) are an “analog feel” setting and separate highpass filters for each of the three synths. That’s cool because the independent highpass filter in the Jupiter-8 was a distinctive aspect of its sound. Another hallmark was that you could affect oscillator pitch with an envelope. The JP-80 covers this with a separate pitch envelope one edit level up—independent per Tone, but saved as part of a Live Set.

Everything I’ve described, triple synths and all, uses just one Tone. With a Live Set, you can multiply that times four, taking advantage of many additional parameters including overall off sets for the filters and envelopes. The sound design possibilities here are so huge it’s scary.
SuperNatural Acoustic. Everything that’s not the virtual analog synth—grand pianos, vintage keys, and orchestral instruments alike— comes under the SuperNatural Acoustic umbrella. Upright basses are among best I’ve ever played—all the nuances seemed to fall under my fingers without my thinking about it, showing that the SuperNatural engine is indeed doing its job. Th e same was true of the solo and ensemble strings: I haven’t lost myself in playing for this many hours since Kurzweil released their first orchestral ROM for the K2000.

Acoustic pianos sound so much like Roland’s high-end RD- 700NX stage piano that I’ve reposted our March ’11 review at keyboardmag.com/october2011 for your perusal. The JP-80 doesn’t use the all-modeling technology of the V-Piano, but the same one-two punch of unlooped samples and modeled details as all the other acoustic sounds.

The dedicated rotary buttons on the panel would lead you to think there’s a full clonewheel organ inside, and you’d be correct (see Figure 2). It uses Roland’s latest-generation COSM (Composite Object Sound Modeling) to model individual tonewheels, and sounds just like their best standalone clone, the V-Combo VR-700 (reviewed June ’10). So does the Leslie simulation, which resides in one of the multi-effects slots. I thought it sounded a bit electronic at first, but I got much more realism by slowing down the rotor speeds from the factory settings. Oddly, I couldn’t find the usual scanner vibrato/chorus (which the VR-700 does have) on the drawbar page, among the effects, or anywhere else. This is a significant omission for organ players, so let’s hope Roland adds it in an OS update.

 Fig. 2. The tonewheel organ and rotary simulation sounds much like Roland’s standalone VR-700 keyboard. You can push and pull drawbars right on the touchscreen.
The Jupiter-80 simulates divisi playing after a fashion, via a per-Tone toggle (in Live Sets) called “Layer Section.” Play a single note, and every Tone you’ve enabled will voice it in unison. Playing multiple notes allocates the Tone in layer 1 to the highest note, layer 2 to the next note down, and so on. To approximate a string quartet, you’d put violins in layers 1 and 2, viola in layer 3, and cello in layer 4.

This works with most SuperNatural Acoustic (but not synth) sounds. It’s not perfect, but it’s the only solution I’ve seen in a hardware synth that lets you direct divisi proceedings without deep programming.

Specifications

PROS SuperNatural really does work, yielding many of the most expressive and realistic acoustic sounds ever heard in a hardware keyboard. Monster virtual analog synth. Full clonewheel organ built in. Registrations facilitate musical arrangement in an inspiring way. Superb build quality.

CONS Not all SuperNatural sounds are equally stunning. Most SuperNatural acoustic sounds don’t let you tweak many deepestlevel parameters. No vibrato/chorus effect for organs at this time. More knobs and sliders would be nice.

CONCEPT Live performance synth combining multiple synthesis technologies aimed at absolute realism of every instrument type.
SYNTHESIS TYPES “SuperNatural” comprises multisampling, realtime articulation management, and various types of modeling.
POLYPHONY 256 voices.
MULTITMBRAL PARTS Internally: 10. Playable from external sequencer: 4 (corresponding to main Registration parts).
EFFECTS 8 multi-FX ( 4 Upper, 4 Lower), 3 reverbs (Upper, Lower, Solo/ Percussion), 2 compressor-EQ-delay chains (Solo and Percussion), global 4-band semiparametric EQ.
WEIGHT 39 lbs.

PRICE List: $3,999
Approx. street: $3,500

rolandus.com

 Tone Blender
This macro control lets you sweep multiple sound settings for up to four Tones (programs) at once with a single twist of one of the four assignable knobs. Settings are volume and pan, filter cutoff and resonance, an attack/decay/release envelope, and sends for the four effects and global reverb. The white boxes are where you set limits on parameter changes— set the source value higher than the destination, and that parameter will go down when you turn the knob up. The Shuffle function sets random values for everything, within the limits you’ve set. You get two Blenders: one for the Upper Live Set and one for the Lower.
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