Roland JD-Xi reviewed

May 12, 2015

Rejoice, synth enthusiasts, for another contender enters into the analog resurgence. With the release of the miniaturized JD-Xi, Roland presents its first foray into analog synthesis since 1986. But wait, this isn’t solely a monosynth like the Korg Monotron or Moog Phatties or Arturia’s Brute family. The JD-Xi boasts a hybrid design with an integrated (and powerful) polyphonic digital sound engine and sequencer, designed for professional players and non-keyboardist producer types alike.


Overview

The JD-Xi has four multitimbral parts in total. One of these is the analog section, which consists of a single monophonic oscillator with three selectable waveforms, a sub-oscillator that can be set one or two octaves down, a pulse width modulation knob, and an analog 24dB-per-octave lowpass filter.

That’s accompanied by two PCM-based digital parts and a dedicated drum synth that share 128-voice polyphony between them. Add four digital filters for the digital sources, a concise and usable effects section, a vocoder, and a sequencer with up to 32 steps for each of the four Parts, and the JD-Xi is a very powerful little beast.

It feels like a lot of thought went into the layout of the JD-Xi to ensure that navigation is as intuitive as possible despite the small footprint. Some functions are accessible only via menu-diving, but the four Part Select buttons (which double as part mutes) are prominent and glow red when engaged. Select a part, and all the other shared control sections (labeled Filter, Amp/Env, LFO, and Effects) change only that part.

One of my favorite features is the big Category knob, reminiscent of the MicroKorg. This knob cycles through different categories of sounds for the two digital parts. That's helpful as Roland has packed over 256 sounds for these digital parts into the JD-Xi, with more promised on the new Roland Axial website.

The two digital parts and the analog part (but not the drum part) each get their own LFO. The main parameters are accessed via knobs on the front panel with a button to determine the modulation destination. All destinations can be used at once but they all share the one LFO for that Part. Tempo sync and alternate modulation destinations are available in the menu.

Also onboard is a mic input for the vocoder (a gooseneck mic is included), a line or guitar-level input on the back for same, octave up and down buttons, and a capable arpeggiator with 128 varied patterns but no user pattern slots.


The Digital Side

As mentioned, the JD-Xi is divided into four Parts. The first two are Digital Synth 1 and 2 and these utilize Roland's ubiquitous “SuperNatural” synth engine; this is essentially sample-based, but with intelligent articulation switching in response to how you play. All the sonic bases are covered: acoustic and electric pianos, organs and pads, strings and brass, analog emulations, guitars, tuned percussion, and one-shot FX sounds. The variety and quality of the sounds is surprisingly good. The acoustic piano is certainly not going to replace your weighted stage piano, but everything is more than usable within the context of the target market. Analog emulations such as “JP-8 Strings” and “Poly Brass” are especially noteworthy. Some beautiful pads, atmospheric electric pianos, and playable leads are also standouts.

The vocoder tones are really fun and work great with the included mic. A neat feature of the vocoder is a button under the mic labeled Auto Note. This detects the note you’re singing and plays it automatically as if you're playing the keyboard.

Filters for the digital parts include lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and peaking with resonance. Each part gets its own filter. Although digital, the filters have a wonderfully vintage sound.

Each digital part also has its own envelope generator with two knobs on the front panel. More control over the envelope and a filter envelope per Part can be accessed from the Tone Edit menu.

Each part also has a separate LFO with six waveforms, three panel-accessed modulation destinations, and dedicated knobs. Again, more options are available in the menu including other destinations and tempo sync. The tempo sync feature is fantastic and allows instant “wobble” effects by twisting the LFO Rate knob.

Next on the digital side is the Drum Part, which is definitely not an afterthought. It boasts 33 kits based on samples of Roland classics like the TR series and the venerable CR-78, as well as acoustic, house, EDM, and hip-hop kits. Each kit has 26 tones including three kicks, four snares, toms, percussion, and miscellaneous sounds. The filter and amp envelope controls in the drum section are per note; meaning you can adjust them for kick, snare, claps, or other sounds individually. At present there doesn’t appear to be any way to apply changes to the entire kit at once, so you can’t do epic whole-kit filter sweeps. You can, however, edit each note of the kit right down to the waveform used, and create your own custom kits.


The Analog Side

As mentioned, the monophonic analog section consists of a single oscillator with either a sawtooth, triangle, or square wave with variable pulse width modulation, plus a 24dB four-pole lowpass filter. It really reminds me of the TB-303 bass synth: raw and immediate with a funky edge. Unlike the TB-303, however, the filter will self-oscillate at high resonance settings. The filter’s four-stage ADSR envelope is not accessible via the front panel but rather in the Tone Edit menu.

In fact, there’s quite a bit more buried in the menu such as another ADSR envelope for amplitude, which can be controlled by the single envelope shape knob--see the sidebar on page XX for more on how this works.

The menu also opens up access to portamento, legato, LFO tempo sync, pitch-bend range, filter and amplitude key follow, and depth of pulse width modulation. You can assign the PWM to the LFO in the menu. The 64 factory presets illustrate the variety of sounds the JD-Xi’s simple yet effective analog section is capable of creating.


Effects

Roland has included a small but useful variety of effects. All effects sends are global, but you can bypass each effect independently for each part. The four busses are Effect 1 (distortion, fuzz, compressor, or bit-crusher), Effect 2 (flanger, phaser, ring modulator, or slicer), Delay, and Reverb.

Overall, these effects sound great. Delay can be tempo synced to numerous subdivisions of the beat or run free with delay times going all the way to 2,600ms. Six reverb types are available with a maximum decay time of around four seconds. The modulation effects are rich and have a lot of options in the menu. Distortion and grunge are obligatory in today’s synths and the JD-Xi offers a good selection.


Sequencer

The sequencer is quite versatile despite its simplicity. Echoes of the TB-303 are especially apparent here. The steps can be set to eighth-note triplets, sixteenth-notes, or 32nd-notes and can be one, two, or four 4/4 measures in length, set in the menu. Note-value bars printed on the panel above the 16 backlit TR-Rec buttons illustrate these subdivisions. Each of the four Parts gets their own sequencer track. The Drum Part functions as expected; each note (drum sound) gets its own track. You can record in step mode or real time, and a menu provides a click that can be audible either on record, playback, both, or continuously. The click can also be assigned to the right output only.

I found the sequencer very intuitive to use: Select the part you want, press the Real Time Rec button, and play. The notes are automatically quantized and the recording stopped at the end the pattern while the playback loop continues. Step Record is also very easy with the help of the 16 red-highlighted buttons representing the steps. While a menu lets you set pattern length to one, two, or four bars, there doesn’t appear to be any way to set odd step lengths (a straightforward procedure on Roland’s Aira TR-8 drum machine) for proggy time signatures.


Driving the Hybrid

The combination of all four parts is called a Program, which includes any information played into the sequencer (a Pattern). There are eight banks of 64 Programs each in the JD-Xi. The first four banks are factory presets and can’t be overwritten; the next four can. It doesn’t appear to be possible to save individual parts separately from Programs. If you create a new sound with just the analog part, for example, the only way to save it is within a Program, with all other Parts and sequencer data along with it.

I found the JD-Xi remarkably easy to use considering all the different sections and parameters available. It’s very simple to get going and create a new Program with a drum track, a nice monophonic analog bass or lead synth, and some chordal instruments from the digital side. The sounds themselves are very high-quality. Although rudimentary, the analog section has a lot of character. You can coax a wide variety of timbres from it with ease.

The vocoder is fun, and a gooseneck mic is included. You can also plug in a guitar or other instrument and use that as the vocoder’s modulating signal. You can’t sequence the vocoder for obvious reasons—the JD-Xi is not a sampler. You also can’t use the vocoder and the analog synth at the same time, which would imply that the vocoder uses the analog section as its carrier signal. But the vocoder is capable of chords whereas the analog part is monophonic, so that’s not what’s going on. In fact, the JD-Xi has sufficient CPU resources to manage four multitimbral parts, so it’s simply that the analog side is what gets turned off if you bring in the vocoder.

I do have a few minor issues with the JD-Xi. The amount of menu diving required to access certain parameters is sometimes a little frustrating. For example, editing the filter envelope generator—a toggle button to switch the Amp/Env between amplitude and filter would be a nice touch. Once you’re in the menu hierarchy, changing the value of parameters is time consuming because you have only the + and - increment buttons; a data dial would be most welcome here. The lack of the famous Roland ensemble effect or even just chorus is also odd. Adding chorus to a single analog oscillator is a quick and easy way to fatten it up. Finally, I wish the level of the sub-oscillator were independently adjustable.

Conclusions

Roland has delivered an exceptionally fun and powerful little synth in the JD-Xi. The sound quality is stunning, and the variety of sounds is immediately useful. I can see myself using this synth in many roles: as a scratch pad for song ideas, as a lead and bass synth both live and in the studio, and as a very functional and quick drum machine. The hybrid concept is not only intriguing and smartly executed, but also offers much more instant gratification for beginning musicians and producers (keyboardists and non-keyboardists alike) than any of the recent monophonic-only analog synths. However much Roland’s marketing of the JD-Xi skews towards “groove” or “EDM,” the real story here is that you get a two-part multitimbral digital synth, plus a real analog monosynth, plus TR-style drums and sequencing, all usable at once, in a package that’s the price of an iPad and not much bigger. That makes it the new king of the mini-synth hill and a clear Key Buy in our book.

 

PROS

Huge amount of high-quality sounds and features in a small footprint. Hybrid design is very flexible. Includes real analog monophonic synth section plus two polyphonic digital sections plus drum machine. Fun to play.

CONS

Some menu-diving is required to maximize synth’s capabilities. Effects sends are global only. Vocoder disables the analog synth section. Tiny keys feel clumsy to seasoned keyboardists.


Bottom Line

Powerful multitimbral and sequencing abilities plus a real analog section make this the new micro-keys synth to beat.

$599 list | $499 street | rolandus.com 

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