Roland Jupiter-50 Stage Synth Reviewed

May 8, 2013
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If you knew nothing about Roland’s Jupiter legacy, you would immediately appreciate the Jupiter-50 for the colossal, deep, and incredibly useful stage instrument that it is. If you’re familiar with the Jovian ancestry, you might compare it to its analog forebears, or more likely its most recent older brother, the Jupiter-80 (reviewed Oct. ’11). Like the 80, it offers a three-layer virtual analog synth, a full clonewheel organ, and a host of Roland’s best keyboard and acoustic instrument sounds. Also like the 80, it’s not a sequencing workstation; it focuses instead on letting you split and layer all those sounds on the fly. Most importantly, it does so at a price that far more working musicians will find approachable. Comparisons aside, it stands on its own as a do-it-all gig powerhouse.


 CLICK HERE for editor Stephen Fortner's first look videos from 2012.


Sound Organization

The Jupiter-50 is always in a turbocharged “combi” mode, letting you call up extremely dynamic soundscapes with one button press. If you’re unfamiliar with how the new Jupiters “think,” the two models are alike enough that our review of the Jupiter-80 is required reading. Click here to read it.

The highest level of organization in the Jupiter-50 is the Registration, which saves the entire state of the instrument. Then you have parts, which correspond to three settable keyboard zones: Percussion/Lower, Upper, and Solo. Single sound programs that can occupy these parts are called Tones, but wait—there’s more. Where the Percussion/Lower and Solo parts are single-Tone affairs, the Upper part can group up to four Tones in what’s called a Live Set. Live Sets can be saved as their own objects (amounting to four-way templates for building Registrations) and have their own split and layer settings for the four Tones. Hit either Split button (there are two), however, and you’ll be playing only the Lower or Solo part in the corresponding key zone, not anything in the Upper part.

So, think of the Upper part as your main well of layered sounds, and Percussion/Lower and Solo as what you’d bring in way down low and way up high, respectively. The Jupiter-80’s Lower part was separate from its Percussion part, and could also contain a four-way Live Set. Other than the lack of a touchscreen, that’s one of the biggest downscales from the 80: one less Live Set, so six-Tone multitimbral capability instead of ten. 


Panel Tour

The Jupiter-50 appeals to the graphic artist in me: It’s an intentional contrast of black metal sprinkled with Halloween hard candies, capped at its ends with silver plastic trapezoids. Roland’s ever-present D-Beam, two assignable knobs defaulted to filter cutoff and resonance, two assignable buttons (that often switch articulations on acoustic instrument sounds), and sliders to mix the three parts are all on hand. On an instrument this targeted at gigging pros, I think it’s fair to want a few more controls still. For example, even Yamaha’s little MX gives you 12 possible tweaks with its four knobs times three rows of functions. The Jupiter-50 does have a “Tone Blender,” though, which is a macro that sweeps several parameters at once. You can scale entry and destination values for each parameter (allowing for, say, a big cutoff sweep but just a little more resonance), and the Resonance knob does the sweep. 

Beneath the knobs are the arpeggiator triggers as well as the transpose/octave shift buttons. The arpeggiator is much like that on the Jupiter-80: it has “played” phrases appropriate to various Tones as well as up-down retro synth fare. It also stores 16 of your own arpeggios.

Rounding out the top of the panel is a song recorder that captures everything you do on the Jupiter-50 as a stereo audio file to an inserted USB stick, or play audio backing tracks from same. Owing to the Jupiter-50’s six-part capability (as opposed to the usual 16), it doesn’t do multitimbral playback of Standard MIDI files. 

Unlike the Jupiter-80’s touchscreen, the 240 x 64 monochrome display won't allow quick live adjustment of the drawbar organ or virtual analog synth, but I found in-studio adjustments and editing to be an intuitive breeze.

If you use the D-Beam—which can do volume swells, pitch dive-bombs, or be assigned to a destination of your choice—its location on the upper left might make it tough to put a second keyboard above the Jupiter on a two-tier stand. Given the Jupiter’s layering and splitting capabilities, though, it may be all you need to take to the gig, but this depends on how attached you are to your other keyboards. 

The Registration section has moved to the lower left of the panel from its pipe organ-like place below the keys of the Jupiter-80. Next, a Manual button is useful for basic patch browsing and forcing a kind of non-combi mode. This is an improvement over the Jupiter-80, where the always-multitimbral approach made a lot of keyboardists go, “How do I get just a piano? Or a Clav?” One answer was that you created a Live Set that contained your desired single Tone and made sure the other slots were turned off. Though this was fairly quick once you knew how, but here, you just hit the Manual button and browse sounds using the category buttons. Hit one of these a second time and you get a list of single Tones that you can scroll through. Many of the categories hide multiple sub-lists (straight pianos versus ’80s ballad-style layered pianos, for example), which you get to by arrowing left or right.

The Perc/Lower and Lower Tone buttons toggle between drum kits and standard pitched sounds; the Percussion/Lower part can contain one or the other but not both at the same time. The adjacent Split button zones this part leftmost on the keyboard.

Next up are the category buttons for the Upper section (Piano, Bass, Strings, etc.). Since the Upper part contains the four-way Live Set, these buttons select Live Sets by default as opposed to single Tones—which you’d choose by pushing in one level deeper to a slot in your Live Set. An “Alternate” button does a quick patch swap to a programmable sister sound, and is useful for backing off to just a grand piano (for example), then going back to your big layer. Why not just change patches altogether? Because you might want to keep everything else about your Registration in place during that song.

The Upper part’s Other button initially presents seven families, including most of the synth pads and special effects sounds. Arrow around a bit, though, and you’ll discover that “Other” can actually access every sound in the machine. One analogy is that if the category buttons are like those tiles on the Windows 8 desktop, the Other button is like clicking on your C drive. 

The Solo section accesses several families of mainly monophonic string, woodwinds, and brass Tones, but also has an Other button, which you could use to send any Tone to this part.

 

Sounds and Performance

Roland’s term “SuperNatural” refers to a combination of sampled raw materials, modeled sonic details, and realtime articulations based on how your fingers interact with the keyboard and other performance controls. As on the Jupiter-80, SuperNatural Synth refers to the virtual analog synth (it's parameters can all be seen and tweaked in the JP Synth Editor iPad app), and SuperNatural Acoustic refers to everything else—even Tones that aren’t technically acoustic. The synth actually consists of three “Partials,” or independent oscillator-filter-amp signal paths, and you can stack up all three while only using a single Tone.

If you prefer a joystick to wheels, you'll be happy with this one—it’s durable and lively. The silky semi-weighted 76-key action made gigging on the Jupiter-50 a very rewarding experience. There’s a snappy quality to the keys that makes racing up and down scales effortless. Expressive performers will miss aftertouch, which seems like a blaring omission on a synth that emulates acoustic instruments so well. In spite of this, the overall sonic flavor is as delicious as the candy-coated panel suggests.

I appreciated the dedicated buttons for the rotary effect, which become active if you’re using a drawbar organ Tone somewhere. These are derived from Roland’s V-Combo organs, and you do get individual drawbar control if you’re okay with some menu-diving. By today’s dedicated clone standards, the rotary effect is good but not great. A puzzling omission is that there’s no vibrato/chorus effect—something you’ll find on every Roland clonewheel going back to the VK-7.

Using the solo and ensemble strings, brass, and woodwinds, you can whip up outrageously good orchestral arrangements. Strings in particular have always been a real strength for Roland, and here they’re just stratospherically advanced. It’s not like they’ll replace high-end sample libraries used on feature films, but the SuperNatural engine makes it eerily easy to just “play keyboards” and get a result that sounds like you spent time massaging articulations in a DAW. 

The main piano is essentially the same SuperNatural sound that debuted in the RD-700NX stage piano (reviewed Mar. ’11) and that has appeared in the Jupiter-80 and Integra-7 (reviewed Mar. ’13). It’s full, rich, bright when you want it to be, and every bit the premium piano sound a professional stage keyboard should have. Vintage electric keys like Rhodes, Wurly, and Clav likewise leave little to be desired in terms of variety and attitude.

Guitar sounds make use of the SuperNatural engine to voice realistic strums, note orders in chords, harmonics, mutes, and more. It takes practice to achieve an artful, convincing performance, but it’s do-able. Reproducing every physical nuance of strings or wind always puts more pressure on the performer than on the digital origin of the sound itself, and the Jupiter-50 is no different in this regard.

The Harmony Intelligence feature adds notes to your right-hand lead based on your left-hand chords. Depending on how you use the presets geared to different styles of music, it can sound as cutting-edge as something you’d do on a modular synth or as cheesy as a vintage Lowrey organ. [Hey, Gotye used an old Lowrey and he won two Grammys! –Ed.]

The Jupiter-50 maxes out at 128 voices of polyphony compared to the Jupiter-80’s 256. It was a bit easier than expected to bump against this ceiling when doing a lot of layering, especially if the analog synth was involved, as this engine seem to use more resources.

JP Synth Editor App

Like the Jupiter-80, the Jupiter-50 has a big space on the right with nothing but the logo. One thing you could put there is your iPad, controlling the virtual analog synth (but at this time, not the other sounds) using the free JP Synth Editor app. Pros will want more physical knobs and sliders, but unlike hardware, an app can be easily updated. We hope such updates add drawbar control for the organ, and some graphical editing of SuperNatural acoustic sounds like in the ARX expansions for Roland’s Fantom-G.

 

 
Conclusions

Physically and metaphorically, the Jupiter-50 bears a resemblance to the monolith from Kubrick’s film 2001: It’s full of vast power and potential, and signifies evolution. Specifically, evolution of how we think about arranging and accessing sounds in a professional keyboard. Its standout quality is that realism and playability are exemplary across all of those sounds, acoustic and synthetic alike. If you’re shopping for a “main keyboard” for your rig and don’t need a workstation, the Jupiter-50 should be on your short list of instruments to audition.


PROS

Seemingly bottomless well of sounds. Rich, multi-way splitting and layering. Gig-friendly weight for a 76-key instrument. Full drawbar organ and virtual analog synth engines. Orchestral realism is unmatched in a gig-oriented keyboard.

CONS

Layering potential can outclass the 128-voice polyphony. Small screen and few physical controls not ideal for controlling drawbar organ and synth sounds. No aftertouch.


Bottom Line

Uncommon excellence across all sound categories and a fresh approach to splitting and layering make this a compelling instrument for pros—at a sensible price.

$2,399 list | $1,999 street 

rolandus.com

 

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