Review: Roland JD-XA - KeyboardMag

Review: Roland JD-XA

Review of the Roland JD-XA hybrid synthesizer
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Roland surprised everyone at the 2015 winter NAMM show with the miniature JD-Xi crossover synth (reviewed in May 2015), a hybrid of a monophonic analog synth and a polyphonic digital component derived from their ubiquitous “SuperNatural” sound engine. Now it’s time for the flagship of the line, a polyphonic analog/digital hybrid powerhouse called the JD-XA. Housed behind a seductively shiny black panel brimming with glowing red knobs and sliders, the JD-XA demands your attention and coyly entices you to play it. The JD-XA is reminiscent of the beautiful JD-800, but in a little black dress. As we’ll see, its beauty runs more than skin deep.

Overview

The build quality is solid despite the almost all-plastic exterior. Just two strips of metal decorate the face, one above the keys and one at the very top of the front panel, studded with small raised bolts for an industrial look. The angular sides with their red accents are a cool futuristic touch. Despite being barely over 14 pounds, the JD-XA feels very sturdy. The knobs and sliders do not feel cheap but rather firm and precise.

The full-sized 49-key keyboard is very responsive and a welcome respite from the current minikey craze. I’m very happy Roland didn’t go with 37 keys, as seems to be the direction in the industry these days. Yes, it has channel aftertouch. Another welcome addition is Roland’s well-known combination pitch-bend and modulation paddle, plus two fully assignable mod wheels.

The sound organization of the JD-XA is similar to the smaller JD-Xi. Programs—a word that usually implies single-sound patches—are actually multi-timbral setups here. Programs contain individual Parts, effects settings, and information for the Pattern Sequencer. Programs are stored 16 to a bank, with 16 banks available. The first four banks are filled with factory Programs. The remaining 12 are empty and for saving your own Programs. A USB flash drive port expands the Program storage.

The Pattern sequencer records both individual Parts and knob data. It allows real-time recording and step recording with a variety of bar lengths and quantization levels, including variable shuffle (swing) as well as an independent click output. TR-808-style graphics on the front panel inform you of rhythmic subdivisions.

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Analog Section

The synthesis in the JD-XA is the result of a combination of two different engines: analog and digital. Both engines consist of four Parts. Let’s dive into the analog Parts first.

Roland includes the standard array of inputs and outputs on the back, but also some surprises like two continuous pedal inputs, a dry monaural audio output, and analog control voltage inputs and outputs.

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Part organization. By default, what we have here are four separate monophonic synth voices. Each of these can be individually edited by pressing its corresponding Analog Part Select button, all of which are located in the upper left of the panel. Once selected, the button lights up blue. You can select multiple Parts at the same time by pressing the buttons simultaneously. You can do this in any combination, up to pressing all four buttons so that the control panel edits all four analog Parts to the same settings.

In order to hear the Analog Part that you’re editing, make sure it’s turned on. This is done with the Analog Part On buttons immediately below the Select buttons. These glow red when the part is on and turn green when you press a key.

“But what if I want to use this section as a polyphonic synth?” No problem. To the immediate left is another button labeled Poly Stack. Pressing this assigns one part per note for fourvoice polyphony. This also disables the Part Select buttons, but curiously, not the Part On buttons. Pressing one of these will switch to that particular Part, but the section will still be in Poly Stack mode. You can actually create four different polyphonic sounds per Program this way and switch between them. It’s not that this magically increases the analog voice count to 16 (it doesn’t). Instead, it seems that the Part On buttons become “macros” that can switch between four sets of memorized knob settings.

When Poly Stack is turned off, the sound is monophonic, with all four Analog Parts in unison. With two oscillators per part, that equals eight analog oscillators in unison. Talk about some thick leads and big basses! There’s a Unison button as well. Confused? It’s a bit strange but makes sense. The Unison button is linked to the Poly Stack button. Poly Stack must be on for Unison to function. This dynamically allocates the four analog parts depending on what you’re playing. If you play one note, all four parts will trigger. If you play two notes, each note triggers two parts. Three notes? One gets two parts and the other two get one part each. If you play four, each part triggers one voice per note.

LFOs. The JD-XA includes two LFOs per Analog Part, named LFO1 and LFO2. A select button determines which LFO you’re currently editing. Six waveforms are available per LFO: sine, triangle, downward sawtooth, square, sample-and-hold, and random. A dedicated Rate knob adjusts the speed, which can be tempo-synced via a button. The division of the tempo sync can be 32nd-notes all the way to a full 16 bars. Four sliders allow instant adjustment of key parameters. Fade Time adjusts how soon the LFO reaches its maximum amplitude, allowing the modulation from the LFO to fade in over time. Dedicated Pitch Depth, Filter Depth, and Amp Depth sliders adjust their respective parameters. Finally the PW DST button selects which oscillators will have their pulse width modulated by the LFO. The depth is set by sliders in the oscillator section.

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Oscillators. Each Analog Part consists of two digitally-controlled analog oscillators labeled A-OSC1 and A-OSC2. The two oscillators can be set independently via their own dedicated rotary switch to one of five waveforms; ramp-up sawtooth, fixed square, square with pulse width modulation, triangle, and sine. You can’t assign more than one kind of waveform per oscillator. Each oscillator also has dedicated knobs for coarse and fine-tuning. The knobs have a solid center detent for quickly returning to their default values.

Both oscillators have dedicated pulse width modulation sliders, one for the depth of the modulation and one for the actual width. These only affect the sound if the oscillator is set to the asymmetrical square waveform. Each oscillator can be modulated be either LFO.

A-OSC1 also has a Cross Mod knob. This controls the amount of audio-rate modulation (call it FM) into the frequency of A-OSC1 from one of two sources: A-OSC2 or an auxiliary source you select via the dedicated Mod Source button. The sources on hand here are impressive: a separate noise generator oscillator (white or pink), one of the synth’s Digital Parts, or the mic input. Yes, this means you can modulate the analog waveform with a digital waveform or even incoming audio.

Ring modulation is also available, with either A-OSC2 or the Aux as the source. You can even use both at the same time for everything from subtle dirt to bell tones to all-out craziness. Finally, there’s Hard Sync, which forces both oscillators always to begin their waveform cycles at the same time. While it’s most often associated with the “squawk” sound from Cars tunes, that’s just the beginning—especially if you modulate one oscillator or the other.

Pitch Envelope. Rather than the typical ADSR envelope, Roland’s take could be summed up as DAD: Depth, Attack, Decay. The Depth knob adjusts the amount and direction (up or down) of the bend, with Attack and Decay determining the time it takes to reach and return from (respectively) the maximum depth—whether that depth is positive or negative. Independent editing of the pitch envelopes for either oscillator is supported.

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Mixer. Next in line is the mixer section, which is very simple. It contains dedicated knobs for the level of both oscillators and the aforementioned Aux source/noise generator level knob and source selection switch.

Filter. Here, the first knob controls a separate highpass filter. A Drive knob adds some distortion by driving the input harder. Five different filter types (and bypass) are selectable via a large rotary knob: LPF1, a 24dB-per-octave filter based on Roland’s classic designs; LPF2, Roland’s take on the Moog-style ladder filter; then LP3, HPF, and BPF, which are all part of a multimode 12dB-per-octave setup.

The Cutoff knob has a red cap, evidently to catch your eye in the midst of a performance. Resonance, Key Follow, and Envelope Depth knobs round out the top part of the filter section. Below them is a dedicated envelope generator with four sliders for each stage.

Amp. The amplifier section has its own ADSR envelope with dedicated sliders and a knob for the overall level of the part you’re editing.

Digital Section

The Digital Parts are selected via the buttons just below those for the Analog Parts. The same rules apply: Press the corresponding Select button for one of the four parts, and it turns blue for editing.

The biggest difference in working with the digital oscillators is that only the knobs and sliders for A-OSC1 are active (the LEDs for A-OSC2 go dark). But there are three partials (really multi-timbral layers) for that oscillator and each partial can be one of 448 waveforms, including variations on all the basic waveforms available to the analog oscillators as well as a wide variety of sampled content. Each partial can be edited separately or together and there are similar selection buttons for them.

Some other differences include the ability to pan the partials, chromatic portamento, 64-voice total polyphony, and more unison layers. In fact, each Digital Part can be monophonic or polyphonic independently of the other parts. The digital section also has an Analog Feel parameter in the Tone Common submenu.

The digital filter section is expanded to 14 types of filters. There are multiple counterparts for all the analog filters, plus two peak filters.

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Effects and Vocoder

The effects are expansive, and the dedicated knobs for commonly used effects such as reverb and delay are a nice touch. Two global selectable effects slots augment the dedicated reverb and delay, called TFX1 and TFX2. There are 29 different effects to choose from including loopers, bitcrushers, wahs, tape echo, modulation (chorus, phaser, flanger), panning, distortion, EQ, and even a vinyl record simulation. TFX1 and TFX2 each have two dedicated knobs for choosing the effect and adjusting a single parameter, such as chorus depth or delay time.

What’s more, each of the four Analog and four Digital Parts has its own MFX slot, with 67 different effects available. These include more reverbs and delays, rotary sims, electric piano amp sims, filters, lo-fi, and 22 combination chains. The options and quality of the effects is impressive. MFX can be turned off or on per Part via a button but the effects themselves and their parameters are set in the menu system.

Unlike the JD-Xi, the JD-XA does not ship with a microphone for the vocoder. But it does have phantom power on an XLR input, enabled in a menu. Also unlike the JD-Xi the vocoder does not disable the analog section. The modulation destinations are functional, including filter cutoff and resonance, amp, pitch, and various parameters for the LFOs.

In Use

Roland really did a spectacular job with the interface of the JD-XA. With the number of parameters in the analog section alone, a frustrating experience might be a real risk for synth newcomers. But this is avoided due to the number of dedicated controls and the ease of switching between the four Analog Parts for editing. Holding the Exit button and moving a knob or slider automatically displays the value for that knob or slider on the LCD, letting you quickly check a parameter without changing it, a handy inclusion.

A few small quibbles: Some parameters are hidden in the menus, including filter velocity sensitivity and many of the modulation matrix values, but overall the most commonly needed parameters are at your fingertips thanks to all the dedicated controls.

Also, the two engines are completely separate, with the exception of modifying the first analog oscillator with its corresponding digital oscillator. You can’t route the digital section through the analog filters or vice versa. A scroll wheel or data slider would be welcome. And as snazzy as the illuminated front panel looks, the actual red-on-black labeling can be hard to read onstage, made more difficult by the intense red glow around the knobs and sliders.

Finally, in monophonic mode, you can pan the individual Analog Parts in the stereo field but when you enter Poly Stack mode that panning disappears and the Analog Parts are all centered. I would love to be able to create a nice four-voice analog pad with the different voices panned across the stereo field.

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The Sound

If I had to summarize the sound quality of the JD-XA with one word, it would be “massive.” The analog section can sound raw and wild or contained and smooth. The oscillators are lovely, with beautiful sine and triangle waves and thick sawtooth and square waves, effortlessly creating gorgeous leads in unison mode. The analog filters are varied and warm, capable of intense sound-shaping. The envelopes are snappy and the modulation options cover the basics. If Roland released an eight-voice version of just the analog section (a true Jupiter-8 successor?) they’d give the boutique analog synth makers a serious run for their money.

The digital side of the synth is also powerful and flexible. And it sounds every bit as good as the analog side. It’s like having an amazing virtual analog synth combined with a real analog one; truly the best of both worlds. It’s almost comically easy to program sublime pads in a matter of minutes. Punchy round basses are easy, too. And I already mentioned the leads, which are spectacular. A generous assortment of bread-and-butter sounds are included in the digital waveforms, including EPs, organs, guitars, electric basses, Clavs, bells and tuned percussion, and strings. They’re not what you’d buy this synth for, but it’s good to know you can reach for them if needed.

The arpeggiator and sequencer add movement and rhythm to the sounds, all tempo-synced internally or externally, and the enormous variety and routing of the effects round everything out, adding shimmer, space, atmosphere, and grit.

Layering the two engines together is a joy. Just when you’ve nailed that analog pad, you can add some digital spice to it. Or dial that digital sound in and add some real analog warmth and thickness. By connecting a DAW or with creative use of the onboard pattern sequencer, you can drive all eight Analog and Digital Parts independently on their own MIDI channels.

I do wish the JD-XA had some of the drum machine features of the JD-Xi. The JD-XA lacks drum samples completely—an odd omission given that its little brother is effectively a standalone groove production station in addition to being a cool synth.

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Conclusions

The Roland JD-XA is an amazing synthesizer. It’s both a great analog synthesizer and a great digital synthesizer, but also a refreshingly sincere return to the concept of synthesis for the sake of synthesis. It isn’t trying to be a do-it-all workstation. Instead it generates the kind of warm, lush, cutting, other-worldly sounds we want to hear from great synthesizers. Despite its large complement of filter types, it’s not trying to directly emulate a vintage Oberheim or Moog. It’s sonic signature is proudly Roland—both vintage and modern—which is a very good thing. The JD-XA is an inspiring synth with an exciting potential and sound to match its beautiful looks.

Snap Judgment

PROS Real analog polysynth with great filters, plus powerful digital engine. Beautiful front panel with extensive dedicated controls. Lush and varied effects. Fantastic sound.

CONS Maximum of fournote polyphony in the analog section. Unlike JD-Xi, no drum sounds.

Bottom Line

The new JD-800? The real new Jupiter? Four SH-101s plus a good chunk of a JP-80? All of the above, but far more than the sum of its parts. A real synth for real synth players.

$2,499 list | $2,199 street
rolandus.com

MIDI IMPLEMENTATION

The JD-XA handles MIDI on separate channels for each part. So each Analog Part and each part of the digital section gets its own channel. When in Poly Stack mode, the four Analog Parts merge into channel 1. The JD-XA can also act as an eight-channel MIDI controller. By selecting the corresponding part, you can transmit messages via MIDI out or USB to outboard gear on channels 9 through 16 from the knobs, sliders, and even the 16 sequencer buttons. The front panel no longer controls the internal sounds while in this mode.