Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Roland Alpha Juno-1 and PG-300

First, a reminder... my new analogue pop free EP is out and if you haven't got it, well, you should because it's a good one, so browse that page down and come back!

Now to business...

The Alpha Juno-1 is a 1986 analogue polyphonic synthesizer from Roland.

It is actually a hybrid analogue, meaning that it features analogue oscillators with a digitally controlled tuning.
It's also a very underestimated instrument.

Browsing the web isn’t very informative. There are two comments I’ve read pretty much everywhere, one of which is debatable, the other downright wrong. First, that the Juno-1 sounds “colder” than the other Junos. Second, that the Juno-1, since it has DCOs (analog oscillators controlled digitally) rather than VCOs (the traditional voltage controlled analog oscillators), sounds “digital”.
The latter argument is irrelevant and probably uttered by persons who either have never actually played a Juno-1, or else have rotten burgers in lieu of ears. Since I can’t believe that there might be people on the internet with nothing better to do than bashing instruments they didn’t really play, I can only assume there is a rampant wave of burger infection affecting the synth-oriented population.
DCOs have received a considerable amount of scorn from analog purists all along the years. I don’t think they deserve it, because they made possible cheaper analog synths that regular musicans could actually buy, and reliable analog synths that regular musicians could actually bring on tour without having to fear night after night that the big fat analog chord that was supposed to bring the audience to their knees would come out as a pathetic yoink because of a nasty oscillator detune. Good DCOs don’t compromise sound quality as much as their detractors pretend. I actually read in a Juno-1 online review that since this Juno moved to DCOs, it sounded more digital than the VCO-based Juno-60. This, of course, is wrong, since all Junos are DCO-based. The reviewer could nonetheless tell the difference between the Juno-1’s DCOs and the Juno-60’s imaginary VCOs.

About the alleged coldness of the Juno-1, to be frank, these endless debates about “warmth” and “fatness” are somewhat tiresome to me, and trying to figure out by ear which Prophet revision sounds “warmer” is more likely to put me to sleep than a Lars Von Trier movie (I’m kidding, of course, I’ve seen “Dancer in the dark” and there’s no way you can fall asleep when assailed by such vapid nonsense).
Warmth, for one thing, is very subjective, and when discussing synths, it’s always useful to remember than our perception of analogue synthesizers as being “warm” relies on the way our ears are trained to grasp subtle nuances in audio quality. To most people, all synths pretty much sound “synth-ish”, and we all heard time and again music lovers averse to electronic instruments say that they were cold and lifeless, and I’m talking about the very same beloved analogue gear we know to be “warm” and “fat”.

Furthermore, you rarely tend to hear a synthesizer alone. A particular synth might be slightly “warmer” than another in a direct comparison, but provides the same general impression within the whole song mix. In that respect, I believe that the Juno-1 is true to the classic Roland Juno sound, and instead of “colder”, I would use words like “grittier”, “darker” or even “murkier” to describe how the Juno-1 is different from a Juno-60. I would also say that in most uses, I seriously doubt that anyone, listening to a song, could tell the difference between a Juno-1 and a Juno-60 string pad. You are, of course, free to believe otherwise. And also that the imaginary VCOs of the Juno-60 sound warmer than the DCOs of the Juno-106.
But I digress… how’s that Juno-1 anyway?

The Alpha Juno-1 is very compact, quite a small instrument with a four octaves keyboard. Very unfortunately, it isn’t velocity or pressure sensitive (unlike the bigger Alpha Juno-2), which means that although it’s not a rack, you might want sometimes to control it with a master keyboard.

The interface, let’s face it, is an abomination. All parameters, displayed on a tiny screen, are accessed by a combination of the big dial on the left, and the value button. This is, ha, I can’t even find the words to describe how unconvenient it is, so I’ll invent one, it is the one of the schprotziest synth interface I ever seen. There’s worse, but not many. Picture yourself programming a sound on the Juno-1. First you push “Parameter select”, then turn the dial clockwise to get to the parameter you want to modify, let’s say the chorus effect. Then push “Value”, then the dial again to change the value. Then “Parameter select” again, then the dial again to get to the next parameter, say the sub-osc level. Then “Value” again and the dial again to modify the value. And so on… That is tedious, dull, boring, well, total schprotz.

Juno tweaking

What you want to do for serious programming is get the PG-300 programmer along with the synth itself. The prices fly high and it’s not unusual to find the programmer at the same price than the synth. Now, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Roland “made programming optional” (I’ve read that in an ebay bid some time ago). If you’re dedicated to creating your own sounds, I think you can cope with the schprotz, and there are some software editors to help you.

You’d be ill-advised and lazy to stick with the factory presets. But bring along the PG-300 and everything changes, because you’re back in secure analog-style interface land.

To set it up, connect the Juno-1 MIDI In to the PG-300 Out, then push the MIDI button on the Juno-1 and set the channel to 1. When it’s done, push again the button until you come to the MIDI EXCL parameter, and change it to ON. Now, the PG-300 panel allows you to control the Juno-1. Push Manual on the PG-300 to have the Juno-1 instantly follows the current knob configuration. Very easy to use, but note that there is heavy stepping on some parameters.

The combination of Juno-1 and PG-300 should probably be considered like the complete Alpha Juno synthesizer, and very often you’ll find both on sale as one package. The Juno-1 itself may be one of the cheapest analog synth on the market (I’ve got mine on ebay for 180€). Add the PG-300 and you jump to the prices of a reasonably priced Juno-106 or Juno-60, which begs the question : why would you buy an Alpha Juno instead of a Juno-60, for instance?

Let’s begin to say that it does have that special 80’s analog Roland sound. Is it a Juno-60? Well, the answer is in the question. People who criticize the Alpha Juno for not sounding exactly like the Juno-60 must be the same kind who criticize the Prophet 08 for not being a Prophet 5. Just as the Prophet 08 is a Prophet, not the Prophet 5, the Alpha Juno is one kind of Juno, with a distinctive quality shared by all Junos, but in a darker, muddier flavour.
Whether it’s a good choice depends on the kind of sounds you’re after. It’s true that the Alpha Juno lacks the visual appeal of the other Junos. It is a rather bland, unremarkable black thing. It’s also true that it lacks an arpeggiator. But sound-wise, the difference is a matter of taste. The Juno-60 sounds more “educated”, while the Alpha Juno seems to drift closer to SH-101 territory. I love that actually. There’s a special gritty quality to the Alpha Juno that eludes the other Junos, and which I find very complementary to my smoother Prophet 08.

The Juno-1 works on a single oscillator with a choice of sawtooth and pulse, but also noise and 6 sub-oscillators. This is quite sparse, so a built-in chorus is added to fatten the sound a bit. Of course, it has been suggested that Roland needed on-board chorus in order to make the synth sound good. So what? There is no such thing as “cheating” in synthesizer design. The aim is to make a good-sounding instrument, right? How you achieve that aim is irrelevant. The chorus is intregral part of the audio chain that makes the Juno sound, and arguing that they wouldn’t sound as good without the chorus is like criticizing the Minimoog for not sounding as good without its third oscillator.

It's a good chorus, but you can choose to bypass it and put your own external effect unit. On the following example, the first part is played with the on-board chorus. The second and third are played with the on-board chorus off, and the Juno-1 passing through a Electro-Harmonix Small Clone pedal at two different settings.

Juno chorus

There’s a very useful chord memory function. Simultaneously press the chord memory and write button, then hit a chord. When you release the keys, the chord is memorized. Switch chord memory on, and each key triggers the whole chord. This is more than a fun gimmick, as it allows you to play chord blocks like you would play a mono line, with the voices being instantly reallocated to each new chord.
If instead of memorizing a chord, you memory a single note, what you get is a mono Juno…. But then try memorizing something like C1-C2-C3 and you’ve come across a nice way of creating complex mono leads.

Juno chord memory 1

Juno chord memory 2

Overall, the Juno-1 is a great instrument, with plenty of character, and in a way it’s thankfully underestimated, because that allows for a very affordable street price. I found it to be reliable, although my unit has a tendency to “forget” its first 8 user presets from time to time. The oscillators are of course very stable, but they remain analog… the Juno-1 may sometimes sound a bit odd in the first minutes, until it gets warmer. It is definitely a bargain polyphonic analog, that I would recommand any time against VSTs in the same low price bracket.


Anonymous said...

Nice review, demos and pictures of this little gem.

I have an MKS-50 (hooked to a Behringer BCR-2000) and if a nice Alpha-1 or 2 comes along, I would still pick her up :)

khoral said...

Thanks, it really has a character on its own, and is perfect for dark, lo-fi analogue textures

Jordan H said...

Awesome article man. This really helped me understand and appreciate my Juno 2 more. I just recently discovered that the PG-300 existed.. Faders>Parameter Select Dial.

Possibly you could write about how to write your own patches on the Alpha Juno? Being a Reason user I don't understand if you use a Preset as the starting ground for creating a patch or if there is a way to somehow "Initialize Patch" similar to Reason.

Keep it up!

khoral said...

The layout of the text is a bit messed up, there's been some blogspot update bug, I guess. I'll repost it proper.

It's a great synth. I had to sell it some time for lack of space, but I do miss it, that special dark 80's atmosphere, I have nothing in my current setup that matches it.

I'm trying to remember if there's an init patch procedure...
I think so, but I'm not sure, I'll check that out.

lesserbeing said...

For me it is a desirable instrument. Analogue is analogue. So many anal retentive people in the synth community.

khoral said...

Damn right it's a great instrument with a very special sound.

scapeghost said...

great article! I just want to chime in and say that I use a Novation Zero controller to control my Alpha Juno, and it's just sublime. Here's a link to a template for the Remote Zero;


Skicoslav said...

Thumbs up! Another Alpha lover and owner here. Just got friend's PG-300 for a test and found your instructions in a second.
The best combination for me are PWM sounds, sub and gentle DCO LFO.