Review: Roland Boutique Series - KeyboardMag

Review: Roland Boutique Series

Review of three new Roland Boutique Series synthesizers.
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Thanks to savvy Internet marketing, Roland’s Boutique series was the talk of the synth world for the better part of Autumn 2015. And rightfully so, as Roland has harnessed their acclaimed Analog Circuit Behavior technology in the service of reissuing three of their legendary ’80s polysynths—the Jupiter-8, Juno-106, and JX-3P—as four-voice table-top modules. Each of the modules can function via MIDI or USB, complete with 44.1kHz/24-bit audio support for keeping everything in the digital realm. Roland also offers a mini two-octave keyboard dock, the K-25m ($99; see Figure 1), which allows for two-stage tilting of the control panel so it’s easier to access when playing. I will cover each synth in its own review, but let’s go over the common features first.

Shared Features

Fig. 1: The Roland Boutique JU-06 synth module is shown here mounted into the K-25m, a two-octave keyboard dock with mini-keys. For starters, the design and construction, across the board, are absolutely stunning, with metal faceplates, silver knobs and LED sliders and buttons that reflect the color palette for each of the synth replicas. There are also two ribbons for pitch bend and mod wheel, with the mod wheel serving exclusively to add pitch LFO. In addition, the pitch-bend ribbon serves double-duty for patch auditioning when no MIDI, USB or keyboard connection is present. Overall, the feel inspires confidence.

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Fig. 2: The rear panel on each of Roland’s Boutique modules includes an audio output, headphone jack, MIDI I/O, USB port, and external audio input. A speaker is located on the bottom. On the bottom of each is a battery compartment, recessed connection for attaching the K-25m’s ribbon connector, and a tiny speaker for using the modules on the go. The back of each unit includes connectors for micro-USB, MIDI I/O, stereo audio output, headphones, and an external input that’s routed straight to the phones for playing along with a mobile device (see Figure 2), as well as daisy-chaining the audio of multiple modules. The audio connections are all 3.5mm mini jacks. The units do not include a micro-USB cable, which can provide power when you want to save on batteries, so you’ll have to buy that separately.

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While each synth engine is unique, all three models have a few common amenities. There’s a simple Roland-style 16-step sequencer that relies on the patch select buttons for note input and adding ties and rests. Frankly, the system for recording and editing is extremely refined and intuitive and my only gripe is that you can’t input chords on individual steps. But since the sequences are monophonic, you still have three voices left for comping or leads.

In addition to the sequencer, each synth can function in solo, unison or polyphonic mode, with polyphonic portamento available too. Solo mode switches to single-voice monophonic, while unison stacks all four voices on a single note. I’ve heard some complaints about the four-voice limitation, but since all units allow for voice chaining, you can just buy more and link them. And with these modules priced in the $300 to $400 range, you won’t break the bank either.

What’s more, you can use chain mode even if you have two different models, though system-exclusive control of the slave modules only works with the same model. That said, chain mode doesn’t kick in until five or more voices are actively played. That is, if you have a patch with extended releases and you’re playing long legato passages, you’ll still be limited to four-voices.

Configuring MIDI, pitch bend range, and velocity behavior requires a trip to the manual, as there are lots of key combinations to press in order to access these features. Also, velocity is a strictly volumebased affair, which makes sense since none of the original synths included a velocity-sensitive keyboard in the first place.

There is also a basic digital delay available in all of the synths. Delay settings can be saved with each patch, but setting it up is a bit tedious.

All in all, it’s amazing that Roland has packed all of these features into such tiny modules and managed to keep the price truly accessible. Besides, who has the space for three more five-octave keyboards these days?

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JP-08

When it comes to vintage analog polysynths, the Jupiter-8 was arguably the leader of the New Wave movement. After all, it was the signature synth on Duran Duran’s Rio album, as well as being a staple in the arsenals of Thomas Dolby, Depeche Mode, and Howard Jones.

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The Jupiter’s silky smooth 3109 filter wasn’t the only attraction for the cool kids. The real draw was its dual-oscillator architecture (with both sync and cross-modulation options), two envelopes with flexible assignments, and a discrete highpass filter in conjunction with 2-and 4-pole lowpass modes, making it a must-have for the era. Combine that with the ability to split the keyboard, or layer two sounds for extremely fat textures, and its obvious why the Jupiter-8 commands nearly ten grand on eBay for a pristine unit.

Despite the JP-08’s four-voice polyphony, Roland managed to retain the original’s innovative layering functions, with the caveat that polyphony is further reduced to two voices, which is fine for leads. The rest of its features are identical to the original Jupiter-8’s synthesis engine with a few extended functions that give the JP-08 a touch more sonic range, while remaining faithful to the overall sound.

For those who aren’t already familiar with the synth’s architecture, it has two mixable oscillators followed by a non-resonant highpass into resonant lowpass filter with selectable rolloff. At the end of the chain is a VCA with programmable volume, which is essential for level-matching your patches, especially when layered.

The oscillators are also capable of both hard sync and Roland’s “cross-mod” feature, which is just a nifty name for analog frequency modulation of oscillator 1 by oscillator 2. The original Jupiter’s collection of waveforms—saw, triangle, sine, variable pulse, square and noise—are all present and accounted for, but distributed between the two oscillators differently, adding sonic flexibility. What’s more, oscillator 2 can be switched to low frequency mode for use as a second LFO in conjunction with the above cross-mod feature.

The Jupiter-8’s modulation amenities are another reason for its continued success. While an LFO and two ADSR envelopes may seem conventional by today’s standards, Roland’s approach offered flexible routing, like the ability to select which envelope modulated the cutoff, as well as LFO and/or envelope modulation of pitch, filter, VCA and pulse-width. In addition, it included the ability to add keyboard tracking to either or both of the envelopes, with shorter decays in higher registers. It was this combination of features that put the original Jupiter far ahead of its competitors. In translating these modulation tools to the JP-08, Roland remained faithful to the original, with the addition of a few more LFO waveforms and increased frequency range.

The JP-08’s preset bank is a testament to the accuracy of this emulation, as some sounds are immediately recognizable from classic ’80s hits, especially the pads and a few exotic effects. As for sound design, I had several “a-ha moments” when working with the cross-mod feature, instantly hearing specific textures and finally understanding how they were originally created. I also listened closely to the character of the emulated analog drift in both the oscillators and filter, recording a few examples (available at keyboardmag.com) so you can hear for yourself how convincing this synth is. And for those who will inevitably bemoan the JP-08’s four-voice polyphony, you can always buy a second unit for voice chaining and still come in under a grand.

So, does the JP-08 sound exactly like a vintage Jupiter-8? Well, no two vintage Jupiters sound exactly the same: Such is the nature of analog gear as it ages. A more apt question would be: Does a vintage Jupiter-8 sound $9,000 better than the JP-08? And to that, the answer is a resounding “Nope!” As far as I’m concerned, the JP-08 is an absolute triumph in the quest for recapturing the sound of one of the most sought after vintage synthesizers. So much so that I’m actually going to sell one of my old analog polysynths to make room for the Boutiques in my ever-evolving rig. This could be the best $400 you’ll ever spend on a synth.

Snap Judgment

Pros Absolutely authentic re-creation of the Jupiter-8 sound and features. Extensive modulation options. Highpass and resonant lowpass filters. Expanded waveform selection for oscillators and LFO.

Cons Fader throw is short, which makes programming a bit more challenging than the other Boutique synths.

Bottom Line

Now you can finally afford to have a Jupiter in your rig.

$399 street
rolandus.com

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JU-06

The Juno 106’s predecessors—the Juno-6 and Juno-60—were among the first synths to bring polyphony to the masses back in 1982, thanks to their sub-$2,000 price tag. As a result, New Wave keyboardists on a tighter budget than their Jupiter-wielding siblings quickly adopted them. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the MIDI-capable Juno 106 in 1984 that the Juno series achieved legendary status. More interestingly, the true rise of this particular Juno didn’t happen until the late ’80s, when it was co-opted by the early rave scene and swiftly became the polysynth of that generation.

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While the 106 was nearly identical to the 6 and 60 in terms of features and sound, there were a few features from its precursors that were missing, notably, freely adjustable highpass cutoff settings. Fortunately, Roland remedied that with the JU-06 (along with a few other niceties), making it a hybrid of the three Junos (with a touch of SH-101 flavor when used in solo mode) to round out the package.

With its sparkling faders and glowing blue buttons, the JU-06 is arguably the prettiest of the boutique series. It’s also the easiest to use, thanks to the Juno’s streamlined feature set, consisting of a single oscillator (with suboscillator and noise generator), non-resonant highpass followed by a 4-pole resonant lowpass filter and a single ADSR envelope for both the filter and amplifier. Just like the original, the filter can self-oscillate with the oscillator off and it sounds spectacular.

There’s also a triangle wave LFO with delay that can modulate pitch, pulse-width, and/or cutoff. It would have been cool if the envelope could also modulate pulse-width, like the Juno 6 and Juno 60, but that’s a minor quibble in light of the quality of this emulation.

Speaking of that quality, the attention to detail in the JU-06 is remarkable. As with the original Junos, there are three chorus modes: chorus, ensemble, and a tremolo-like quiver. These are duplicated here with such precision that, as with the originals, engaging the chorus immediately adds a layer of hiss to the synth’s output. Cheeky? Yes. Accurate? Absolutely. Do I wish there was an option for turning it off in the 21st century? Kinda.

Despite its simplicity in parameters, there’s clarity of purpose in the JU-06. It may not have the widest range of tonal colors, but it makes up for that in the fact that it simply cannot sound “bad.” There’s something about the Juno’s approach to subtractive synthesis that makes it incredibly easy to understand the essentials; it’s direct and intuitive, even for newcomers.

In addition to its ease-of-use as a polysynth, the JU-06 is an extremely capable lead synth when switched into solo/monophonic mode. Adding portamento with the chorus off makes the JU-06 sound a lot like an SH-101, which is no surprise, considering they share the same 3109 filter chip. Yes, there are certain differences between the two models, but the overall sound is strikingly similar in a way that’s unlike any of the other Boutique models. Then there’s unison mode, which stacks all four voices on a single note. Massive.

The big question here is accuracy, and in that area the JU-06 is another hit. To that end, I took the Boutiques to Austin’s synth shop, Switched On Music, to A/B the sound of the JU-06 with the original. Because the vintage unit did not contain original factory presets, I was forced to rely on the front panel of each, so there were slight differences in each synth’s settings. (Check out the audio files at keyboardmag.com.) While I wasn’t able to set the parameters identically for each sound, the end result is obvious: The JU-06 sounds astonishingly close to the original. So much so that in the context of a recording or live performance, the results would be indistinguishable, especially in the filter resonance and low-end.

The JU-06 nails the Juno sound decisively for about three hundred bucks. For that reason alone, it’s worth serious consideration for your collection of vintage gear, unless, of course, you enjoy dealing with a $1,500 price tag and the occasional blown voice chip. The choice is yours.

Snap Judgment

Pros Stunning reproduction of the Juno-106 sound. Continuously variable highpass cutoff. LFO rate now extends into audio range. Lowpass filter can self-oscillate. Chorus/ensemble is authentically noisy.

Cons No envelope modulation of pulse-width as on Juno-60. Chorus/ensemble is authentically noisy.

Bottom Line

The ultimate techno polysynth returns.

$299 street
rolandus.com

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JX-03

With the Jupiter-8 well out of my price range and vintage Junos costing nearly as much as my Prophet, I’d been giving serious thought to picking up an original JX-3P, which can be found for around a grand on eBay. In the ’80s, the JX occupied a peculiar space in keyboardists’ arsenals. For starters, it was Roland’s first MIDI synth (along with the Jupiter-6), itself unique back in 1983. And unlike its immediate predecessor, the Juno-60, it was also a two-oscillator affair giving it a bit more synthesis range. On the other hand, it was the first Roland synth to eschew integrated front-panel controls, requiring you to purchase a PG-200 programmer for full functionality, while offering a small complement of factory ROM presets for immediate gratification.

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The original JX-3P’s sound was unique, if a bit less well known. Whereas the Jupiter-8’s drifty VCOs had a warmer overall character and the Juno’s integrated chorus and pulse-width modulation imparted richness and depth, the JX-3P’S DCOs had a more straightforward sound. This meant that it could cut through a mix with ease, especially in synth-centric tracks. It was bright and punchy, though at the expense of a certain thickness, despite its integrated stereo chorus. For me, that’s part of its identity and charm. I love synths that have a specific flavor and the JX-3P certainly fits the bill.

The JX-03’s architecture is surprisingly capable, with a few modulation idiosyncrasies that enable some impressive tricks. The original 3P oscillators had three waveforms—saw, rectangle and square—with an additional noise mode on oscillator 2. The JX-03 includes faithful replicas of those waves and adds sine, triangle and noise options on both oscillators. In addition, the original 3P offered hard sync and a mode called “metal” on oscillator 2. Here, there are two sync modes and two metal modes, along with a new ring modulator. While the sync options deliver obvious results, the metal effects are more unusual. To my ears, they’re not simple FM or ring mod tricks, and they work best when tuning the oscillators to harmonically relevant intervals.

Speaking of tuning, the JX-3P’s DCOs were renowned at the time for their pitch stability, with absolutely zero drift when tuned to the same frequency. Nowadays, that sound has a distinctly digital flair, but for the metal and ring mod effects, it makes for some really unusual digital tones that would be hard to re-create by other means.

As with the other two Boutiques, the JX-03 filter is a highpass plus resonant lowpass affair, but in the 3P implementation, the resonance is considerably tamer. Yes, it can squelch nicely, but you can’t push it into self-oscillation. Again, this is part of the synth’s identity, not a shortcoming.

When it comes to modulation, the JX-03 does some interesting tricks with just a single LFO and ADSR envelope. For VCA duties, the envelope can be switched off, with a simple on/off gate taking its place in the same manner as the Juno, allowing the envelope to be used on modulation elsewhere. The JX-3P’s LFO originally offered sine, square and random (sample-and-hold) options, whereas the JX-03 includes up and down sawtooth waves along with noise, which is great for adding grit to the filter, especially with higher resonance settings. In the case of the filter, the LFO and envelope both include independent knobs for blending the two modulation sources.

The JX-03 approach to pitch modulation is where things get interesting. Here, there are two global amounts for both oscillators, with the unusual ability to toggle sources within each oscillator. For example, you can set the envelope to control one oscillator’s pitch while the LFO modulates both simultaneously.

Using this simple approach you can do clever tricks like modulate the pitch of oscillator 1 with the envelope while using oscillator 2 as a noise source, then modulate the filter cutoff and amp with the same envelope. This results in a convincing Simmons tom emulation (an example is at keyboardmag.com). Another cool trick is to subtly modulate the pitch of one oscillator with a sine wave, leaving the other’s tuning intact, which is great for chorusing effects.

Speaking of chorus, the JX-03 includes the same stereo chorus effect, complete with a touch of hiss, as the original JX-3P.

As with the Juno, I took the JX-03 to Austin’s boutique Switched On music for a direct A/B comparison with the original. Again, the Boutique version was nearly indistinguishable from a real JX-3P, with the possible exception of the modeled sound being a trifle more transparent than the 30-year-old edition. That, to me, is a big plus and frankly makes the JX-03 even more enticing.

While many gear heads are going to gravitate toward the more popular JP-08 and JU-06 Boutiques because of their familiarity, it would be a mistake not to take a very close look at the JX-03, because it’s an extremely versatile workhorse when it comes to classic ’80s sounds.

Snap Judgment

Pros Indistinguishable from a real JX-3P. Refreshingly flexible modulation options. Additional waveforms and cross-mod modes increase sonic range. Expanded LFO. Integrated stereo chorus.

Cons As with the original, chorusing adds a touch of hiss to the output.

Bottom Line

A surprisingly versatile vintage synth worthy of the Roland name.

$299 street
rolandus.com