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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New free EP : Broken Sails

The new EP is here!

It's called "Broken Sails (Life in a Sinking Ship)" and the whole zip with complete CD artwork is HERE
If you liked it, be sure to give me feedback here or by email to khoralnet[nospam]free.fr

Thematically, "Broken Sails" is about XIXth sea travel... not really a concept album, but it's subtitled "Life in a sinking ship" because that's pretty much what the songs are all about... a dark, intense trip to India, set on a broken ship...

I took inspiration from John Cale's song "Captain Hook", the epic but introspective tale I covered some time ago for a compilation, and of course, the Conrad novel which lends its name to the opening track.
Musically, we're in lush analogue pop territory, with rich, warm textures and vintage drum machines.
Looking back, the sound is evocative of Dennis Wilson's incredible "Pacific Ocean Blues" album, with its dense, intricate wall of sound, but also Devo's synth-pop ("Heart of Darkness"), Dylan and REM's folk classicism ("Broken Sails") and Peter Gabriel's organic soundscapes ("The Ghost of India Supreme", which borrows its name from "Captain Hook" lyrics).

It was essentially done with the Prophet 08 as main instrument... if you listen to tracks 1 or 4, for instance, that's pretty much the fantastic synth from Dave Smith Instruments all the way through...
Save for that... well, whenever you hear bass, that's the Moog Little Phatty...
The strings on "The Fortune Song" are Gforce Virtual String Machine and there's some Roland Alpha Juno-1 as well on the instrumental parts for this track.
The opening chords on "Empty the Boat" are Korg Wavestation.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Art of Noise meets Roland D50

Just some fun with the Roland D550 rack...
Nothing serious but a little hommage to L'art du Bruit


Roland PG-1000

Until the time I get to write a review, some hi-res pics of the Roland PG-1000 programmer, which is the dedicated interface for the D-50 and D-550 synthesizers... unless you use a software editor (which I don't find very convenient) or have the patience of a saint, there's no way you can program one of these instruments without this.

Roland D50 patches

It's patch time!
Let me say first that these aren't my sounds... with an interface that crappy, I haven't really had the time and/or the energy to get to serious programming yet.
What I've done, on the other hand, is compiling all string and pads I could in one sysex file.
This was mostly for my purposes in the short term, but then I thought it might be useful to other new owners.
The Bank
So, if you just just purchased a Roland D50 or D550, you can use this sysex to load a complete bank of great factory sounds... it's mostly strings and pads, but note that the bank also features Jarre's sounds for the Revolutions album (the "Industrial revolution" intro sound, etc...)
Please please, remember to back up your own bank before sending this sysex, because everything will be replaced!
Also, if you need a freeware to manage all that stuff, try MIDI-OX/

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Moog in Filterbank mode

Another experiment with the Filterbank 2...
I'm beginning to think that it's not broken after all, but that maybe it needs to be fed a quite clean, mono signal, without too many harmonics
So I passed a simple Moog Little Phatty arpeggio through it and the results were far more musical than my first attempts

On this file, the first seconds are the dry Moog signal, which is quite low because the Filterbank acts a lot like an overdrive unit
Then I switch to 10% dry / 90% wet, and start fiddling with the knobs like a crazed sort of person

Filterbanked Moog

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Un mot en français

All right, this post is mainly to french-speaking visitors, but first, some (english) words of explanation : I've been asked to do music for a series of cinema lessons.

Réalisés par Simon Dronet, ces lessons sont non seulement intéressantes sur le fond, mais tout à fait drôlatiques sur la forme (et un peu le fond aussi)...
Hautement recommandable, et pas seulement parce que j'ai fait la musique.

La Séance de Sergueï #05 - "Le Son"
envoyé par laperitel

Ici, l'épisode 5, et pour visionner le reste : http://www.simondronet.com/

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sherman Strikes Back

Another demo with the (broken?) Sherman Filterbank 2
Processed Electribe EMX and Roland Alpha Juno
Can't Go Back

Thursday, February 5, 2009

In the Twilight Zone

A short "dramatic retro" instrumental...
Sample from the 1960 Twilight Zone episode "The Big Tall Wish".
Prophet 08 and Roland D550.

What the World is Made of

"Little boys with their heads filled up with dreams [...] When do they suddenly find out that there aint any magic? When does somebody push their face down on the sidewalk and say to them, "Hey little boy, it's concrete. That's what the world's made out of, concrete." When do they find out that you can wish your life away?"

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Electribe EMX plus Moog arpeggiator equal Yummy

Just a little fun demo : the Electribe EMX is playing a beat, which is fed into the Moog Little Phatty audio input for some crunchy Moog filtering.
At the same time, the Moog is playing a simple arpeggio, itself synced by MIDI to the EMX
The circle is complete, as Darth would say.
(Oh, and I added some Roland Juno-1 pads in the middle).

Monday, February 2, 2009

Rouge no Dengon

And now for something completely different...
Originally sung by Yuming in 1975 - I tried to keep the retro feeling of the original.
Moog bass, Prophet 08 and Juno pads... and lots of guitar...

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Stately Trees

Originally sung by a certain Regina Mathews.
I ran across her through The Record Robot

It is a children song, from a surprisingly clever and sophisticated album, with tasteful songwriting and simple lyrics verging on the surrealistic
Proof that you can do a children record that isn't stupid and crass (I'm looking at you, every singer who is not Regina Mathews).

Small Stone guitar, piano and Roland D-550