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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
multitimbral and sequencing abilities plus a real analog section make
this the new micro-keys synth to beat.
list | $499 street | rolandus.com