Roland JD-Xi and JD-Xa: Analog Digital Hybrid Synthesizers

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I have been a big fan of Roland for many years. My first synthesizer was the Roland SH09 that I purchased in 1997. I still have it, and it is one of my most prized possessions. I’ve had several analog and digital synths come and go over the years, but the SH-09 has been very dear to me. I’m a bit of analog-synth geek, so when I was offered to try out the Roland JD-Xi synthesizer, I jumped at the chance. Roland has been very busy with research and development, conjuring up a new line of advanced instruments, which utilize its SuperNATURAL technology combined with an analog synth engine to create a formidable weapon of mass creation.

The JD-Xi is small desktop synthesizer with 37 mini keys and features four sound engines: Drum, Analog, and two Digital. The drum part boasts some 30 drum kits, with much of the content leaning toward electronic music. There are several variations on the Roland classic drum machines, including the 808, 909, 707, and 606. However, there are some rock, pop, and jazz kits that cover a considerable breadth of genres. The two digital parts offer a wide range of sample-based instruments and sound waves, including pianos, organs, leads, pads, bass, brass, sequence synths, FX, and a vocoder. The analog synth engine is a true analog circuit with a single oscillator, sub-oscillator, robust analog LPF filter, envelopes, and an LFO. The JD-Xi ships with a gooseneck microphone that connects to the mic input jack on the upper left of the keyboard panel and offers the standard “robot”-sounding vocal effects. I was pleased to learn that there were dedicated patches and effects for the mic that go way beyond vocoding. There is an auto pitch algorithm for pitch correction and formant filters for gender-changing effects.


The main menu and part selector
 

The front panel offers a sparse but clear layout design, with the most-used parameters having dedicated control knobs. The upper left of the synth has a display, menu, and program controls. Moving to the right, you’ll find the part selection via four buttons. When combined with the Shift key, these four buttons will mute their respective parts. Next, there is a chunky knob for selecting categories of digital synth sounds. This makes finding a particular type of sound very quick and easy. Simply select a part you’d like to use, turn the dial for the type of sound, and use the dedicated tone “+ and –” buttons to progress through sounds in that category.

To the right you’ll find the filter section, with controls for cutoff and resonance, as well as filter type selection controls. A digital multimode filter is available to each digital part, while a dedicated analog filter is used for the analog part. I was happy to discover there are dedicated filters for each of the drum sounds of the drum section. The digital multimode filter offers low pass, high pass, band pass, and band peak, while the analog filter is a low pass 24-dB/octave ladder style filter. It is quite cable of recreating some the classic Roland sounds, including the SH101, MC202, and TB303.


LFO, effects section, and step sequencer
 

The Amp/Env section includes a control for level and works well for balancing the mix of sounds. I would have preferred a dedicated ADSR envelope, but to keep the panel interface uncluttered, Roland opted for a single envelope control. Turning the knob toward the left produces a shorter sound with a stronger attack; turning the knob toward the right makes the attack softer and the release longer. The envelope function works for immediate results, especially when performing a mix on the fly, but serious editing of each part of the envelope can be performed from the Tone menu.

The LFO section can be routed to Pitch, Filter, and Amplifier and offers six waveforms including triangle, sine, upward saw, square, noise, and random. The rate knob controls how fast the LFO oscillates, while the depth controls how much of the LFO is routed to the destination. By default, the LFO is free running, meaning that moving the rate knob will provide a smooth transition when decreasing or increasing the rate. However, it is possible to synchronize the LFO to the tempo via the Tone menu. The sync range is from 16 bars to 1/32 note.

On the right side of the keyboard, we find the FX sections, which are globally available to all sounds, including each individual drum sound. Effect 1 offers distortion, fuzz, compressor, and bit crusher, while Effect 2 offers flange, phaser, ringmod, and slicer. There are also knobs for the dedicated delay and reverb effects. This means you can pick an effect and route any sound from any part or drum tone to them. It’s not as nice as having a dedicated effect available for each sound, but it’s still a clever way to engage the effects and create an overall mix.


Full view of this compact synthesizer
 

The bottom row, just above the keyboard, offers your basic controls with knobs for the master volume, tempo with a tap button, octave up and down, arpeggio on/off, key hold, pattern sequencer controls, and 16 buttons for creating patterns when using the sequencer, or can be assigned to recall your favorite 16 programs.

The sequencer is a lot of fun and has the ability to record in real time, step mode, or be used like the classic TR style XOX drum machine. I found all of the sequencer styles to be useful. It’s very quick and easy to record and edit patterns on the fly.

In use

I spent an afternoon noodling around with the JD-Xi and found it fairly simple to use. I did have to consult the manual for some operations, such as the copying and pasting of patterns, programs, and sounds. However, once you’ve gotten used to the way the system works, its procedures are pretty fluid. I did find that the Parameter Guide, which is available from the Roland website, to be invaluable.

I started by programming a simple beat with an 808-drum kit preset. This loop is 1 bar, but decided that I wanted it to be 4 bars with a fill at the end. The procedure was quite simple. From the Menu page, I tabbed to Pattern Length and hit enter. It asked me how many bars, to which I set the maximum of 4 bars, and it asked if I wished to copy the data to the 4 bars, to which I said, “Yes.” I went ahead and programmed a drum fill in Bar 4.


Main menu LCD screen, up close 
 

A nice feature for programming drums is the ability to view each bar while the sequencer is running. If you press Shift without the “Favorite” button enabled, you’ll see the first four buttons light up, indicating the number of bars in the pattern. By pressing the fourth button, I was able to view and edit the fourth bar.

Next, I added a simple eighth note closed high hat to the pattern. A unique feature of the drums is the ability to adjust the Filter Cutoff independently of all other drum sounds. I played around with the filter and added a bit of delay to the pattern. I copied the program to another user slot and programmed a 16th note high hat pattern to bring up the energy.


I copied the pattern again and added a Rim-Shot pattern. The example below is the dry pattern without effects. I did record some knob tweaks with the Filter Cutoff.


The pattern needed some spice, so I engaged the Delay and edited the delay time in real time until I was happy with the results. The process for editing the delay is simple. Select Menu and navigate to Effects Edit>Delay Time and make your adjustment. In the recording below, you can hear me adjusting the delay in real time with a bit of swing.

I copied the pattern again and selected Digital Synth 1. I then used the large preset dial to select the Keyboard category and used the “+ and –” Tone buttons to search through the available tone presets. It’s worth noting that each digital synth engine is broken down into a single partial with a complete synth voice and includes a staggering number of digital tones, filters settings, modulation routing, envelopes and effects. To keep things simple, I settled on a preset Bell tone and used the real-time sequencer to record a simple Bell pattern. I also added some delay and reverb.


I copied the pattern again and selected the Analog Synth part. Instead of picking a preset, I decided to select an Init Tone and work something up from scratch. The Analog engine does not use a partial, but instead features all the sound manipulation controls on the front panel to craft a sound. There are some hidden functions in the Tone menu that give access to parameters not found on the panel, but the main gist of the sound is programmed from the panel. I used the Square Wave with a Sub Oscillator and adjusted the PWM from the Tone menu. I then engaged the LFO and routed it to the filter to create a pulse effect and added some reverb and delay.


I copied the pattern again and decided to mute the 808 Kick Drum from the sequence by selecting the Drum Part and then the Kick Drum sound. I used the Filter Cutoff to remove the sound, but one could use Amp Level as well. It’s worth noting that if you are making any changes to a program, you’ll need to save it before moving on, or you’ll lose the edits, programming, etc.

I thought it might be fun to add some FX in real time to the pattern sequence. I chose a Riser FX from the FX/Other category. While manually triggering the sounds, I used the Key Hold function to free up my hands to engage the filter cutoff, LFO Rate, and LFO Depth.


I also played around with a noise FX called Tuned Winds from the FX/Other category. For this, I also used the Key Hold button to free up my hands to adjust the Filter Cutoff knob while increasing the Reverb to create a noise sweep.


Once I had all of the elements together, I assigned my six patterns to the first six pattern slots on the “Favorites” section to recall the programs in order easily. The final recording was done in one take with the Riser and Tuned Wind FX being triggered manually.


When I started working on this article, it was to be just the JD-Xi, but luckily for me, the JD-XA became available, so I’ll be looking at both synthesizers and comparing their feature sets, performance controls, and sound design capability.

The JD-XA is a much more substantial instrument, with 49 full-sized keys and a wealth of onboard controls. The analog outputs offer the standard L/Mono and Right, but also includes a dry analog output for routing the analog synth engine separately for further processing. There is a combo, spring-loaded pitch/mod joystick, as well as dedicated mod and pitch wheels, all of which can be programmed to transmit different messages. There are programmable pedal inputs that offer the standard expression and sustain functions, but also have the ability to interface and control aspects of the sequencer. The JD-XA exhibits much of the same layout as the JD-Xi, but with some major additions and a few minor omissions.


The JD-XA in its natural habitat
 

For the additions, we find that the sequencer has been upgraded to 16 tracks and eight onboard parts; four analog parts and four digital parts. The other eight tracks can be used to sequence other synthesizers or modules. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are two CV and Gate outputs on the back panel of the JD-XA, which allows for the sequencing and interfacing of analog synthesizers and modular without MIDI. This definitely ups the ante for the JD-XA, as it can serve as the nerve center of a sophisticated hardware setup.

Analog parts

Each of the analog parts offers two oscillators, two LFO, a multimode filter, a pitch envelope, a filter envelope, and an amplifier envelope. There is a mixer to control the balance of the two oscillators before the filter. Additionally, there is an aux input that feeds white noise, pink noise, a digital part, or the mic input into the mixer, as well.

Each oscillator offers a Tune knob with a -24 to +24 semitone range and a Fine knob with a range of -50 to +50 cents for detuning. Each oscillator also features an upward saw, square, pulse-wave, triangle, and sine waveform. The pulse wave includes dedicated sliders to control the pulse width (PW) and pulse width modulation (PWM). Oscillator 1 includes a cross-modulation knob and a modulation source selection of either oscillator 2 or the auxiliary input. Additionally, there is a button to engage a ring modulator that multiplies the frequency of oscillator 1 and oscillator 2. Oscillator 2 offers Osc sync to Oscillator 1.


The oscillator section
 

The multimode filter offers three types of low pass filters, a high pass filter, and a band pass filter. The usual filter cutoff and resonance knobs are there to craft your sound. The dedicated filter envelope offers the standard ADSR sliders and an Env depth knob to apply the envelope either positively or negatively to the filter. A key follow function allows the filter to track across the keyboard. Additionally, there is a dedicated high pass filter with its own knob.

The amplifier section has a dedicated level knob and a dedicated envelope with ADSR sliders. The two LFOs offer triangle, sine, upward saw, square, noise, and random waveforms. There is a dedicated slider for pitch, filter, and amplifier, as well as a fade time slider, which delays the onset of the LFO. All destinations are available simultaneously, which makes for some pretty astounding effects. Each analog part can be sequenced together, assigned to different sections of the keyboard, or poly-stacked to create a massive analog poly-synth with 4 notes of polyphony.

Digital parts


Analog and digital part selection
 

Each of the four digital parts is broken down into three partials. This offers huge sound design potential, as each partial can have its own waveform and filter setting. That’s a total of 12 waveforms that can be played together. Now, imagine routing each part through its respective auxiliary inputs of the analog parts and you’ll start to get the picture of how powerful a synth the JD-XA really is! You can also use the unison mode to add up to 8 voices to each digital part. It’s insanity!!

The effects


The effects section
 

The effects section has been beefed up, as well, and features 67 multi-effect algorithms with additional combination effects and part EQ. Some effects, such as step filter and slicer can be sequenced using the onboard sequencer. There are dedicated controls for the tone effect selection, with an additional control for parameters. The dedicated delay has a tempo sync button and dedicated delay time and depth controls and there is a dedicated reverb control.

The sequencer

The sequencer offers the same capabilities as the JD-Xi, but with some additional features. There is a dedicated pattern length button to change the length quickly, up to 4 bars. There is also a dedicated scale function that allows you to change the length of one step with input ranges of eighth and 16th note triplets, as well as 32nd and 16th notes. The sequencer also offers the ability to enable and disable auto-quantize during real time recording. The arpeggiator offers 16 variations with velocity, swing, accent, and octave range. 

The microphone

The mic input has moved to the rear of the keyboard, but still offers the same vocoding and auto-pitch functionality. The built in preamp offers 48V phantom power, to be used with condenser microphones. You can also route the mic into the mixer on the analog part mixer section and use it as a modulation source. Just like the JD-Xi, there are several presets and patches designed to work with the microphone.

Sound examples

There is so much to cover with the JD-XA, it’s hard to know where to start. I’ve included a few of examples of some presets to give you an idea of what the synth texture sounds like. This first example is a multi-part program that is utilizing a basic drum pattern with a gated-style bass and synth part.


This next example is of another multi-part program utilizing both the analog and digital parts.


The following example demonstrates the poly stack function of all four analog oscillators.


In conclusion

My only complaint with the JD-XA is the omission of the dedicated Drum part that the JD-Xi offers. It is a true beast of a synthesizer, having the ability to program analog drum sounds, but it uses up three to four parts in order to achieve a drum track. I really liked the sounds of the drum bank on the JD-Xi and found that it was quite a capable synth engine. I suppose you could get both, and have your cake—and eat it too!


Rockin' out with the JD-Xi
 

Both the JD-Xi and the JD-XA are fantastic instruments that would be a welcome addition to any production studio or live performance rig. The JD-Xi is aimed at the performing musician or artist on a budget. Its compact size and feature set make it an attractive piece of kit. The JD-XA is insanely powerful and fun to program. It may be out of many musicians’ reach, but it is well worth saving up for. Personally, I really like where Roland has gone with this new series of instruments, and I think you will, too.

1 Comments

Hah! My first synth was a Roland SH-09 in 1980. I loved that thing and played it for many years for both music and sound effects used in the theatre. My friend bought one and we would use the gate and CV's together for a ton of fun. I later bought a Roland SH-101 but the sound was full of noise and the case felt all wrong. Here is a multi-track piece from 1981 done all on the SH-09: https://soundcloud.com/jimmy-thimble/downtown-downer-1 Thanks for a great review.

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