Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Roland JX-3P Analog Synthesizer Review + Demo (Youtube video)

The Roland JX-3P was released in the year 1983 as a 2-DCO 6-voice polyphonic analog synthesizer. It has 1 LFO, 1 ADSR envelope, cross-modulation and oscillator sync capability as well as an analog stereo chorus effect. Additionally to its MIDI interface (actually one of the earliest synthesizers to sport a MIDI port) it has an inbuilt step sequencer. I have read on several occasions that the JX-3P was designed by Roland's guitar department. That's a really strange move and seems to be unparalleled in Roland's later years.

Roland JX-3P Polyphonic Analog Synthesizer (1983)

The JX-3P was the first Roland synth to cut corners in terms of "knobbiness" in the user interface. That is to say that if you look at some other analog synths that came out before 1983 (Juno-6 / 60, Jupiter 8, the SH Series) they were full of knobs and sliders, giving the user hands-on editing and tweaking capabilities. The stock JX-3P only has a couple of sliders and pots for editing, brilliance, sequencer speed and master volume. The Yamaha DX-7 really took its toll with its futuristic slider-less design. From 1983 on, a synthesizer was considered modern when it had a "digital interface", meaning buttons instead of knobs, ideally with an alpha-numerical display, that was the pinnacle of futurism. Instead of simply grabbing the knob of the parameter you want to change you would now have to select your parameter and then dial in your desired value with incremental +/- buttons, alpha dial or whatever "user-friendly" interface was designed for your "modern" synth. This push toward digital interfacing really took away a lot of fun from the synths that were designed from 1983/1984 on.

Roland PG-200 Programmer

At least Roland came up with a way of giving the user a "knobby" interface for the JX-3P: The PG-200 programmer. This little helper neatly sticks to a spot specifically reserved for it on top of your JX-3P with the help of magnetic adhesive strips. It connects to your JX-3P using a 6-prong DIN cable. The PG-200 gives you direct access to all parameters of the JX-3P right at your fingertips. Roland continued this trend of detachable programmers for synths like the Alpha Juno 1 and 2, JX-8P, JX-10 and their counterparts in the MKS range. The PG-200 really opens up your JX-3P, it really is strongly recommended. It feels sturdy and durable enough, matches the JX-3P`s design and is a worthwile investment. There's one catch though: You cannot use MIDI and the PG-200 at the same time. There's a switch on the back of the JX-3P that selects either MIDI or PG-200, not both unfortunately. So, sequencing your JX-3P via MIDI and tweaking away on your PG-200 at the same time is not an option. There is a solution for those who don't mind modding their JX-3P. One is the Organix MIDI mod, the other one the KIWI 3P upgrade. Both modifications allow simultaneous use of MIDI and the PG-200, along with loads of other improvements.
Speaking of MIDI, the JX-3P's MIDI implementation is very rudimentary. There's not much more going on than note on/off, pitch bend and program change. But hey, MIDI is there, making the JX-3P very easy to integrate into a modern setup.
The JX-3P has 32 preset sounds and 32 user-programmable ones. You might expect the usual 80s preset cheesiness but to be honest, I find some of these presets very usable. At least they're a good starting point for creating your own timbres.
Since my JX-3P came with a PG-200 I have no idea how cumbersome it is to program your sounds with the JX-3P's interface in the long run, but it looks pretty straight-forward to me. At any rate the JX-3P is much easier to use than some later Roland synths that have unnecessarily convoluted operating systems.

So how does the JX-3P sound? Well, if you have read this far you will already have listened to some of the great demos available on Youtube (Retrosound, Analog Audio and WC Olo Garb / Jexus come to mind). To me, the JX-3P is a connecting link between Roland's 70s and early 80s vintage and mid-late 80s sound. It can sound warm and fuzzy if you like it, but it really excels at making those bright 80s sounds that you can expect from a polyphonic DCO synthesizer. To me it sounds more modern than, say, a Juno-60 or Polysix. There seems to be an old debate going on which is better, the Juno-60 or the JX-3P. I would say, if you can afford both, get both! They compliment each other perfectly. If I could have only one, I would most likely take the Juno-60. The JX-3P's 2 DCOs give you a lot of options to combine, tune and detune your two oscillators to create some nice timbres. The lowpass filter (a Roland IR3109 chip) sounds classy and brillant. The ADSR envelope is snappy enough for your everyday needs but it lacks the clickiness of some more expensive synths. The LFO has a reasonable range as well as some different waveforms but it's pretty standard. One word about the LFO delay parameter. It has no effect when sequenced via MIDI, nor does it work when using the internal step sequencer. It only works if you hand-play the JX-3P usings its own keyboard.

The JX-3P's controls: buttons instead of knobs

Let me elaborate a little on the JX-3P's sequencer. It can store up to 128 steps with 1-6 notes, rest or tie per step. That's an awesome feature. You might think "well, I can do all of this with MIDI using my DAW, right?". Sure, but it's not as badass as using the JX-3P's onboard sequencer. It's so easy to operate, making it a great tool to quickly come up with a sequence or capure a musical idea, and it's polyphonic! It's also really useful for jamming. And if you try to avoid using your DAW for MIDI as much as possible (as I do), using a synthesizer's own arpeggiator or sequencer is always welcome. And timing-wise it's rock solid and stable. Ah yes, I forgot to mention the fact that the JX-3P's sequencer can't be synced to incoming MIDI clock. It wants analog clock pulses or triggers. Audio signals might work as a trigger source, but it is highly recommended that you use proper analog trigger pulses from a MIDI to CV/Gate interface, modular synth, clock generator or drummachine (for instance using the trigger outputs on your Roland TR-606/707/808).
If you clock your JX-3P's sequencer with a signal that is not periodical or steady but rhythmically changing, you can end up with nice ever-changing sequences that can be very inspiring.

Wrapping it up, the JX-3P is a real workhorse! If you are into 80s inspired music (Synthwave, Italo, Synth Pop, Soundtrack) or 90s Techno and Electronica, the JX-3P is still a very viable and usable synth. It sounds classy and has a presence that makes it stand out in a mix.

Let me share a youtube clip with you that I made earlier this year. It features the JX-3P for all synth sounds and a Linndrum for the, you guess it, drums! I multitracked my JX-3P parts using its internal sequencer and by hand-playing on its keyboard. Some external effects were used to spice up the track. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Linndrum – A gold mine for 80s beats

Linndrum: At last! I have been yearning for one for quite a while. They are incredibly rare here in Germany so it's a very difficult endeavor to find one. This June, I was leafing through eBay Kleinanzeigen and tried looking up "Linn" as a search word. Wow, look what's there! A Linndrum, here in Berlin! The ad was just a couple of days old and had about 55 page views. The price was more than humane, actually I was afraid that it was a scam, the price was that good! Anyway, I immediately sent the seller a message, declaring that I could drop by any time to collect the Linndrum for cash. I had to wait a couple of painful hours for the seller to reply to my message, but later that evening, he did, and: the Linndrum was still available!

So, the next morning I set out to collect the cash needed for the transaction from my bank's ATM. This is when the trouble started, since my bank was having issues with double bookings and false bookings, 13 million customers' accounts were affected, it was a huge outrage. So my account was suspended that day and I couldn't withdraw my own money! I was starting to panic... I was afraid that my Linndrum would be gone by the time I showed up at the seller's home. Totally unwarranted as it turned out, hehe... So I somehow managed to scrape all that cash together from some other account that I own, and with only 1 hour delay I showed up with a wad of cash in my wallet at the location where the Linndrum was staying, and my fears of it being a scam were swept away when I met the seller. I realized that I knew him! He used to work at a large music store here in Berlin and I had chatted with him many times before. We had the usual synth small talk and he let me try out the Linndrum which was wired up and connected to a pair of speakers. Half an hour later I left for my studio with a very heavy Linndrum under my arm and a big grin on my face!

The Linndrum

The Linndrum, what a classic! It was released in 1982 by Roger Linn, the inventor of the groundbreaking LM-1 a couple of years earlier. By the way, there is no such thing as an "LM-2", it was never called that way. It's called Linndrum, period. The Linndrum is all over the 80s, so many artists and producers were using it at that time. Its sounds really hit the spot if you are after synth pop or 80s disco drums. Bassdrum, snaredrum and hihat are simply gorgeous. The backbone of your 80s rhythm seciont! I also heavily rely on its toms, cowbell, clap and ride. Some of the other sounds are not that essential to me but it's still great to have them. I have it hooked up to my trusty old Ibanez RM80 mixing board. The Linndrum has a load of single outputs (one for each instrument), so you can treat each single voice differently with your mixer channels and outboard processors. Additionally, the Linndrum has an inbuilt stereo mixer for all instruments, so this way you can even mix and pan all instruments on the Linndrum without the need for a large mixing board.

The Linndrum I bought doesn't have MIDI. This is not a problem at all since it can be easily synced externally via its clock input. There IS one catch to external clocking, though: Linndrum wants a clock signal that has the format 48PPQ, meaining 48 analog pulses per quarter note. Most available MIDI to clock converters offer a maximum resolution of 24PPQ (the same as DIN Sync and MIDI clock), so if you feed your Linndrum a 24PPQ clock it will run at half speed. If you can live with this, and it is certainly possible to work this way, fine. I found a solution (thanks to Martin Sternrekorder for pointing me at this): My Kenton Pro Solo MK3 has a MIDI Clock to 48PPQ conversion option. It works very reliably!

This way, clocking the Linndrum externally, I started using the Linndrum's internal sequencer to drive this wonderful classical drummachine. Programming patterns and fills, chaining them up using the song mode. This is the real oldschool way, the way the Linndrum is supposed to work! And the timing and punch of the Linndrum when sequenced internally is simply impeccable. It's just fat as hell!

The controls. Oldschool, baby!

It does have a couple of quirks though. First of all, the Linndrum is notorious for its underpowered power supply. My My Linndrum vibrates audibly when it's powered on, I suppose it's the transformer which is vibrating heavily.
Next, the song mode takes some time getting used to. Say, you want to edit position 7 in your song and replace it with a different pattern. To accomplish this, you need to go to position 6 and THEN enter the pattern number you want AFTER position 6, thus changing position 7. A very weird concept. Also, when syncing the Linndrum externally (i.e. slaved to an external master clock), each time you stop your master clock and the Linndrum stops, you have to manually reset the Linndrum by pressing Play/Start twice so it will start from the beginning of the current pattern when you restart your master clock from the beginning of a bar. The logic behind this is that in the early 80s when the Linndrum was designed, it was supposed to be slaved to a tape machine. And of course,  if I stop my tape machine and then press play again I want my Linndrum to continue from the same position. But today, with your DAW acting as master clock in most cases, it's pretty annoying to have to reset the Linndrum every time you reset the master. Well, I guess I will have to live with it. These nitpicks aside, using the Linndrum is a breeze. I only had to to look up the manual a couple of times in the very beginning. Later on, everything was pretty hands-on and self-explanatory. 

So, why would anybody want a sample-based drummachine that costs 1-2 grand with a potential risk of failure (It's over 30 years old,after all), when all of this can be had "in the box" or with a cheap 90s hardware sampler? Well, my answer is this: first of all, the sound. The Linndrum sounds very crisp. Its snaredrum, toms and congas can be tuned individually using their own tune knob. If you wanted to faithfully sample the Linndrum, you would have to painstakingly sample each tunable sound with lots of different tuning settings. And the hihat is a special case. The hihat sample is based on a loop that cycles endlessly within the Linndrum. When you trigger the hihat, what the Linndrum does is actually open an analog envelope-modulated VCA (nerd detail: the VCA is located on a Curtis CEM3360 chip) to gate the infinitely-looping hihat sample. So, everytime the hihat gets triggered, it sounds slightly different. Also, the hihat has a decay parameter (controlling the VCA envelope), so this is difficult to emulate correctly in a sampler as well.

Also, the internal sequencer is a huge plus on the original Linndrum. Hell, the whole ergonomy is awesome. Large buttons, volume faders, single outputs, ease of use... And most of all: It's beautiful to look at and is loads of fun to use!

To sum it up: If you love the Linndrum's sound, if you don't mind fiddling around with analog sync, an internal sequencer and dealing with an ancient operating system, if you're not afraid of buying vintage hardware. And if you love working with old instruments in the oldschool way, using a piece of music history: Look for a Linndrum and buy it by all means!