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Reconstruction of a classic synthesizer

Review: Roland JU-06A - The perfect Juno clone?

Published 9:51 am on Wednesday 11th November 2020 by Beat Magazine

When Roland launched the Boutique Series a few years ago, representing us with replicas of the Jupiter-8, Juno-106 and JX-3P synth classics, opinions were divided. In particular, the miniaturization and the digital sound synthesis (which could only deliver four voices) scared off many buyers. Moreover, the price seemed to be too high for such a perceived toy. Thus, the boutique series met a similar fate to the legendary TB-303. Some time after the start of sales, dealers started selling off these limited boutique synthesizers - sometimes drastically reducing the prices. 

However, as soon as the shelves were empty and no new products were available, the second-hand market prices suddenly jumped. In particular, the clone of the Juno-106 (called JU-06) suddenly fetched double the price of a new instrument! Not surprisingly, Roland gave this model a complete makeover. In addition to improvements in detail, the JU-06A (Checkout on Amazon) offers a special highlight in the form of an additional emulation of the equally popular Juno-60 which, in its original form, already commands second-hand prices of 2,000 Euros and more.

Faithful Reproduction

The JU-06A operates with purely digital technology, which promises a faithful reproduction of analog circuits. In terms of its exterior design, the JU-06A is basi- cally the same as the other synthesizers and drum computers in the Boutique series and reproduces the originals in a scaled-down form. With dimensions of 300x128x49mm and a weight of about one kilogram (including batteries), the small metal box is not only solid, but also quite portable. Battery operation and a built-in mini loudspeaker further support this.

Upgradeable to Mini Keyboard

The JU-06A is compatible with the optio- nally available DK-01 boutique dock and the K-25m mini keyboard. It‘s particularly interesting when combined with the keyboard, as this turns the JU-06A into a practical little synthesizer with a foldable control panel. In this combination, there is another innovation that stands out, namely the omission of the modulation wheel and pitchbender. On the JU-06, the two touch strips on the left side of the desktop housing could be used for this purpose, but on the JU-06A they were omitted without replacement. However, Roland used the space that was freed up here to add playing aids that should have at least as much use in practice.

Chord Memory, Arpeggiator

On the one hand, there are three new keyboard functions that can be activated by individual keys. Three red LEDs indi- cate the current status and thus prevent operating errors even on dark stages. The Hold function holds the played keys even when released, which is especially interesting when combined with the Arpeggiator. Chord activates a chord function. This allows you to grab and save any chord and then play it back with just one key. There are 16 memory locations available for this, directly accessible via the step buttons in the lower area. If the Note key is active, you can also use this lower row of keys as a simple keyboard and play the synthesizer without a connected keyboard.

On the right is the arpeggiator, which was mis- sing on the JU-06. The arpeggiator can be switched between up, down and up-down; and the arpeggio can run over one, two or three octaves. There’s also a special behavior in the Juno-60‘s arpeggiator, which mainly affects the note length, that can be selected as an alternative.

Faders, MIDI Controllers

The control elements correspond in form and layout to the originals but, of course, in a reduced form. Due to the somewhat more limited sound genera- tion, the JU-06A manages with 17 faders. In contrast to the JP-08 or SE-02, for example, the controls are, in spite of the limited space on the surface, quite useful for people with larger hands and even allow relatively controlled tweaking on stage. The backlit buttons for DCO, octave and waveform are easy to hit. You can also use the small faders to adjust the proper resonance value of the filter, which is responsible for many of the Juno-60‘s unique sounds and, where even small deviations change the sound, with surprising accuracy.

All knobs send and receive MIDI controllers, so you can tweak, record and edit on a MIDI track in your DAW. There is even a special mode where you can use the JU-06A as a controller for the plug-ins from the Roland cloud. The internal sound generation is then disabled.

USB Audio,MIDI Interface

With the exception of the clock input, which allows the sequencer and arpeggiator to be synchronized with analog equipment such as a drum machine, all connections are located on the rear panel. In addition to the mini-jack connectors for the line and headphone output with its small volume control, Roland has also built-in a mix input that allows you to easily loop external signals (e.g. a drum computer like the TR-09) through to the output. Of course, it would have been even nicer if the input would have been looped into the sound generator before the filter or at least before the effects. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Two MIDI DIN jacks are used to connect to MIDI equipment. The Micro-USB connector not only supplies power, but also handles communication with a computer. This is not only used to exchange MIDI signals, but the JU-06A can also operate as an audio interface with 44.1 or 96 kHz resolution. We already know this from the other Boutiques, and it makes the small desktop synthesizer a welcome partner for laptop users.

Two Synthesizers in one

The sound synthesis is easy to understand and, as already mentioned, corresponds to Juno-60 and Juno-106, which are both identically constructed; therefore, combining them in one device was a good idea. In spite of their identical construction, the originals sound quite different - each with special strengths. The Juno-60 has the warmer, rounder vintage sound with a low master clock and discrete construction, the Juno-106, on the other hand, has a somewhat cleaner sound.

A DCO with Sub

The JU-06A has an oscillator with rectangular waveforms with adjustable pulse width and sawtooth. For a fuller sound, the square wave can be modulated in pulse width by the LFO or the envelope (PWM), and both waveforms can be activated simultaneously. Additionally, there is a sub oscillator, which adds a square wave either one or two octaves lower to provide sufficient bass foundation. The pitch of the oscillator has a range of 16‘ to 4‘ and allows both deep bass and high arpeggios. For percussives, the infinitely variable noise generator is useful.

Extended LFO

Compared to the original, the LFO has been extended by a few waveforms and offers not only triangle, rectangle, ascending and descending sawtooth, but also two random variants. The LFO can be synchronized to the tempo and run freely or restart on each keystroke. The latter is especially useful for filter modulation, because when using a random waveform, the filter is opened or closed with a random value for each new note in a sequence. In addition to the filter frequency, the LFO can also modulate the pitch and pulse width of the oscillator.

Convincing Filter Emulation

Sawtooth, rectangle and suboscillator can be mixed with the noise generator. The result first goes into a static high-pass filter without resonance, which can be used to thin out the bass range. This can be especially useful for polyphonic pad sounds. This is followed by a 24dB low pass filter with the typical Roland sound. The filter can sound creamy soft, but also snap shut. It thins out a little even at high resonance and is therefore perfect for crisp, round basses. In any case, the resonance parameter is an important factor in the sound and is partly responsible for the popularity of the originals, because it allows you to create very nice harmonic distortion and piano-like sounds. When the resonance is turned all the way up, the filter is set into self-oscillation. This produces a sine tone, which can be played cleanly in tonal mode when the keyboard tracking is turned up.

The JU-06A (Checkout on the Amazon website) only has one ADSR envelope, which is responsible for both filter and amplifier simultaneously. For more flexibility, however, a simple gate can be used for the volume, so the very fast envelope becomes available for filter modulation alone.

Again only 4 voices!

One of the biggest limitations of the JU-06 compared to the originals has unfortunately not been removed from the JU-06A. Even the new model has only 4 instead of at least 6 voices. This means that with ambidextrous chords or long fading sounds, it quickly becomes scarce and the sounds are cut off. In addition to polyphonic playing with the four voices as well as mono for monophonic playing, there is a unison function that layers all four voices on top of each other for a fat sound.

Chorus, Second Functions

Of course, the legendary Juno chorus with its three variations, which is indispensable for the typical Juno sound, is built into the effects. The digital chorus integrated in the JU-06A sounds excellent and reproduces the sound of the originals better than most other replicas, be it analog or digital. For extra realism, it even roars like the old Juno.

Fortunately, this can be deactivated. Like many other additional functions, this can be set by a key combination with the lower tap buttons. Unfortunately, Roland has neglected to print these second functions on the user interface, so that the „ operating instructions „ (the now common leaflet) must always be next to it.

Fortunately, for 14 Euro including shipping, there is a stick-on overlay from a resourceful Ham- burgian (www.mxpand.com), which makes things a lot easier. In addition, the JU-06A has a great sounding delay, which can be adjusted in volume, delay time and feedback and can be synchronized to the song tempo. This is especially beneficial for sparkling arpeggios, which are one of the strengths of the JU-06A anyway. The effects are stored with the JU-06A, and 64 memory locations are available for each mode (Juno-60 or Juno-106).

Step Sequencer

Unlike the originals, the JU-06A also has a built-in step sequencer. It has 16 steps, which can now also be played step-by-step. Unlike the SH-01A, the sequencer is unfortunately not polyphonic, so chords cannot be recorded. Single steps can be switched on and off with the 16 buttons. You can edit the pitch and note length (gate) for each step of a sequence you have entered. Combined with the different playback directions, this allows you to create dynamic sequences, especially since the arpeggiator can be activated in parallel. Speaking of dynamics: only the volume can be influenced by touch dynamics. This is much more than the original, but velocity on filter frequency would have been a nice addition.

The sequencer also outputs the notes from the sequencer and arpeggiator via MIDI, so you can use it to control external synths or plug-ins.

Sweetspot Synthesizer

The Juno Series synthesizers are especially popular because of their clear synthesis with only a few controls, yet they are very flexible in sound. The whole concept is very well thought out and they are true sweetspot synthesizers. Even beginners can hardly get a bad sound out of them. Floating and full pads are created just as quickly as crisp basses, punchy leads or beautiful arpeggios. The JU-06A is especially suited for the hip 80‘s synthwave revival, but it can basically create all classic analog sounds for any genre.

Modernised 80s Sound

It seems astonishing that Roland has added a Juno-60 to the proven Juno-106. Because of their very similar construction, one could assume an almost identical sound. This is not the case, however, either with the original synthesizers or with this digital emulation. You can already hear differences at oscillator level, for example in the sound of the suboscillator and when mixing sawtooth and square wave.

The envelopes are tuned differently and the filter sounds different, especially at higher resonance values. The option to choose between the two models, therefore, multiplies the sonic possibilities more than one might think at first. Of course, such a replica also has to face comparison with the original. In direct comparison, a Juno-60 sounds a bit fuller, more bass loaded. The JU-06A captures the sound character in all details, but sounds a bit more transparent, clean and hi-fi. This makes it even easier to integrate in the mix than the original.

Verdict

The successor to the limited edition JU-06 is impro- ved in every respect. In addition to the Juno-106 emulation, the JU-06A (Checkout the product on Amazon) can also convincingly emulate a Juno-60 and thus covers a lot of classic analog sounds. A very good chorus and delay complete the very convincing synthesis.

The arpeggiator, which was painfully missing from its predecessor, has been added and the sequencer has been revised. And with batteries and the optional K-25m keyboard, the JU-06A becomes an ultra-portable synthesizer. On a laptop, it can be used as a USB audio interface.

If you can live with the compact design and only four voices, you get a very potent little synthesizer that doesn‘t need to hide behind its analog competitors in terms of sound.


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