I think if you were to ask most synth fans which analog polysynth they’d happily donate a kidney for, the most common answer would be a Roland Jupiter 8. It’s one of those classic synths that not only sounds the part, but looks it too. Big in sound AND in physical size, it commands hefty prices on the used market and sharp intakes of breath when those prices are discussed. But there is a very good reason for such lofty values. It is, plain and simple, a true classic synthesiser. And as time wears on, and more and more begin to surrender to the ravages of time, the value of those remaining will probably only ever go up. But their legend and allure remain to this day, still coveted by those of us who were around at the time they first graced our ears, to the younger generation, brought up on the history of such groundbreaking machines. I remember seeing the cover of Howard Jones ‘New Song’ and as well as coveting his amazing hair, it was the Jupiter 8 at his feet that had me hooked and as green with envy as the flashes on his Dunlop trainers!
As software instruments became more prevalent, and as technology became more powerful, it wasn’t long before someone tried to recreate a JP8 on-screen. Arturia stepped up and delivered their Jup-8 V using their TAE modelling technology. Despite looking very much like the original hardware, it was often derided as not sounding particularly authentic. But it was a useful tool nonetheless. So the search went on, and many soft synth designers tried to come up with a JP8 clone. Some got closer than others, and Arturia pressed on, updating their effort to this day. But it was pretty much accepted that, for a true JP8 experience, there was only one, albeit expensive, solution.
Roland themselves even tried to cash in on the JP8 magic, releasing a number of hardware synths bearing a similar name, or similar design, but these all fell short of delivering on the promise of a new, authentic JP8 vibe.
Fast forward to the present day and Roland have very recently delivered not one, but TWO recreations of the Jupiter 8, and this time, there’s no skirting around the brand. This time, Roland have properly gone for it. Using their latest ACB Modelling (Analog Circuit Behaviour), the Jupiter 8 is not the only Roland classic resurrected from the archives. And these resurrections take the form of physical and virtual tools, but it is safe to say that it is the one that has drawn most attention. I will come back to the virtual recreation in a bit, but let’s focus on the hardware.
Recent hardware devices to rise phoenix-like from the flames include the ARP Odyssey from Korg, or Yamaha’s Reface range that includes modelled recreations of the CS and DX lines, as well as a YC organ and CP electric piano. One thing these all share is the reduced form factor. They’re all smaller than the originals and feature smaller keys. The merits of this design is another debate for another time, however. So what of Roland? Well, Roland launched their Boutique range of modelled hardware recreations, including new hardware versions of the JX-03 (a miniature JX3P), the JU-06, (a shrunken Juno 106) and…. [drum roll], the JP-08. Except unlike Korg and Yamaha, Roland went one step further and removed the keyboard altogether! The Boutique range are simply desktop modules, with an option of being mounted on a bespoke device, called the K-25m, which delivers 25 mini keys with which to play your Boutique device of choice. This instantly generated a lot of “Hmmmmmm…..” from my mouth, with me not being entirely convinced this was a good thing at all. Well, let’s see how long and frequent my “Hmmmmm’s” are after playing and living with a JP-08 for a few weeks.
The JP-08 is about 30cm across by 12cm deep and stands a few centimetres high. The top surface and back plate are metal (aluminium, I imagine, given the lightness) and the rest of the body is plastic. To the rear are 2 full size MIDI ports (In & Out), 3x 3.5mm jack sockets (Audio In, Out and Phones), a small volume rotary, USB Micro B socket and a power switch. There is also a Kensington Lock socket should you wish to tie the JP-08 down for security reasons. The underside of the unit has some strange mouldings, presumably for fitment to the K-25m. There is also a small speaker, literally 3cm in diameter, behind which sits a 16 pin slot to connect to the aforementioned keyboard. Oh, and there is a batter compartment that houses 4x AA battery cells. I have to wonder which type of synth user would require such a puny speaker, especially connected to a machine designed to replicate one of the biggest sounding synths ever. In practice, it lacks so much in terms of depth and quality with virtually zero bass response, that I tried it once and never used it again. I suppose the inclusion of batteries and a speaker is designed to appeal to the hipster millennial, desperate to create their tunes on the go. I’d love to be enlightened as to a practical use of the speaker because I can think of none. The use of batteries, however, does have its benefits, and one benefit in particular, which I will come on to later. What would’ve been nice to have is a small, built-in kick stand so that the unit can sit atop a desk and have controls easily visible. And guess what? Roland thought of that and you can, at additional cost, get an additional accessory dock, the DK-01, with such a thing built in! I can hear the cash tills a-ringing. There is a small lip, running the width of the unit at the front which has a small socket on one end and a sprung lever on the other. These are to locate and fix the unit in situ within the K-25m or DK-01. But for those of use without that accessory, and with the miniaturised form factor, we have to place our heads directly above the unit to see the nomenclature clearly.
As for the top surface, well, it is adorned with numerous sliders, a few rotary pots and a string of illuminated buttons the size of tic tacs (more like tiny Fox’s Glacier mints, but I’m taking the confectionary based analogies a bit too far!). If you imagine the Jupiter 8 layout, split it in half and then place those two halves one on top of the other, you have the layout of the JP-08, so everything has a familiar feel to it. But that’s where the similarity ends. Every slider has a 20mm throw from one extreme to the other. They also each feature an orange LED and pretty pointless step lines either side. With 20mm, it is nigh on impossible to get any kind of accuracy based on these surface markings. Everything is done by ear. The rotaries are assigned to waveform selection or oscillator tuning and when you have four of them close together, those of us with fat fingers start to get a bit frustrated with knocking other things. The eight little switches that complete the tactile features are very small and don’t have a feel of longevity about them. There is also a 2 digit LED panel in the middle that is mainly used to display patch numbers.
Finally, to the left are two ribbon sliders in lieu of pitch bend and modulation wheels. These both have dynamic LED lights to the right of each strip, that show whereabouts your finger is pressing on scale. When not connected to a MIDI device, the Pitch Bend ribbon also doubles up as a note input generator, moving up the scale the further up the strip you go. Much like the speaker, I cannot envisage where any normal musician might find this useful. And when it is being used as a pitch bend, it has a serious failing there too. You see, a physical pitch bend wheel automatically centres, by way of a sprung mechanism. it is always in the centre and a push up or down will bend the sound in the corresponding way. But with this ribbon, you have to guess where centre is, and trust me, it is not an exact science. Every time I used it, as soon as I placed my finger on it, the note instantly dropped or was raised because my finger hadn’t landed on dead centre. So for everyday use, this became really frustrating and much like the speaker, was soon avoided like the plague.
One interesting thing about the Boutique range is that they each feature an audio interface. Now this is a really useful thing. Or at least it would’ve been had it not thrown up a serious flaw in the internal design. Firstly, I think it is a great idea to build an audio interface into these things. It saves on having an extra box attached, especially useful for laptop based musos on the move. But it is of no use whatsoever if it generates the most annoying hum in the audio path! Quite simply, if you connect the JP-08 to the USB of your computer, the unit emits a very annoying, high-pitched buzz in the audio. This buzz is present on both the main audio output as well as the headphones and renders them pretty useless, unless your music thrives on that sort of thing (Gescom, Autechre, anyone?). I simply couldn’t live with this at all and this is where the battery power option comes in useful, as I alluded to earlier. Had it not been for this, I would’ve packaged the unit right back up and returned it to Roland HQ. How on earth can anyone seriously embroiled in music making be happy with audible defects on the audio path? I Googled the issue and it is widely reported on all the other Boutique units too. Some people suggested buying USB cables rolled on the thighs of the finest Geisha Girls in Tokyo, and Roland themselves advise against using cheap USB charger cables. Luckily, I have a collection of well made USB data cables and none of them eliminated this bug. So, this issue renders not only the audio interface useless, but also means you have to resort to the old fashioned MIDI ports. And thank the designers that they are there! When reviewing this product, I had to use two traditional MIDI cables, four rechargeable batteries and forego all audio I/O capabilities, which sort of makes the simplicity of this thing a bit of a moot point. And it is also worth pointing out that the audio coming out of the 3.5mm jack at the rear is quite hot too. Maybe these things are all connected, maybe not, but it wasn’t a very good start. Finally, Roland do not supply a USB cable with this item. I thought maybe it might have been left out of my review unit, but it was confirmed to me that it didn’t come with one. This was backed up by the instruction sheet that advised on what sort of cable should be used. Quite frankly, if the quality of the cable is so important, the least Roland could do is supply one.
Uploading patches to the unit is fairly straight forward, as the device can be forced to show up as a drive on your computer. However the process is a bit fiddly and requires rebooting of the unit. I had no problems loading in some third party patches (Vintage Sounds Collection, highly recommended!) and was up and running in no time.
I also discovered a really useful third party application that delivered the JP-08 experience on my desktop as a VST, allowing me to control all aspects of the hardware via the plug in. Made by Jimdo, this small application works as a VST plug in as well as a standalone app and I would say is a must have for any JP-08 owner. They also produce similar tools for almost all of the Roland Boutique gear, as well as some Korg stuff too! And the application costs a measly €5.90, so it’s a no-brainer really.
It does make you wonder why Roland didn’t come up with this themselves, though.
Ok, so maybe things will improve now that I’ve got it hooked up and connected to a keyboard. Hmmmm….
First up, it does sound authentic the moment you start flicking through the presets. That is until you start trying to play more than 4 notes at a time. You see, the JP-08, despite its name and despite its heritage, is only a 4 voice synth. Yup. Seriously. This device which touts itself to be a faithful recreation of a classic 8 voice synth, is 50% weaker in the voice department. Who sanctioned this decision? Why on earth did anyone think this was a good idea? As soon as you find one of those classic pad-type presets and play a three note chord on the right hand, you have one note left to play a root bass note with the left. Try doubling up that chord and notes start dropping out all over the place. It is VERY disconcerting. And isn’t that what a Jupiter 8 is all about? Being able to play big layers of sound, huge analog chords and pads? And surely the name itself is a misnomer? If this had been called the JP-04, it would’ve at least been accurate. But I guess that wouldn’t sell units.
I guess I’m coming across as being on a big downer on this unit, and you would probably be right. I had high expectations of this, despite knowing the voice limitation, but it really is another own goal for me. As for manipulating the sounds via the control surface, this isn’t as bad as some people may expect. You very quickly become accustomed to the miniature nature of the controls and you do actually start to get quite accurate with them. And there is no doubting that the sound is incredibly authentic. I mean really very close indeed. But I increasingly found myself hitting limitations and just got the feeling that the whole package wasn’t as intuitive as the original. I just began to get very frustrated very quickly when using it. I’m all for working within the limitations of a tool, but when those limitations spoil the expectancy of what is on offer, I just feel a bit let down by it all.
And here’s the really disappointing thing. It wasn’t all that long ago that I would happily prefer hardware over software, dismissing the latter as a pale and dull imitation of the former. But coincidentally, when the JP-08 landed here for my review, Roland launched their cloud service, which included a Jupiter 8 Plug Out/Plug In. I signed myself up to the trial and compared the software Jupiter 8 and the JP-08 module, both of which use the same ACB Modelling technology. And my, how the tables have turned. The software Jupiter 8 is, in almost EVERY aspect, the perfect recreation of the original hardware. Oh, how the irony burns! Sure, at present, you have to subscribe to the Roland Cloud to get it, or buy a far more expensive System-8 keyboard if you want a tactile control surface, but at least it gets close to replicating the original. And to add insult to injury, Roland even suggest that you buy a second JP-08 and chain the two together to get an accurate replication! By the time you’ve done that, you may as well have saved up the extra for the System-8!
Does the JP-08 provide a convincing, affordable and practical alternative to the original?
In many ways, the JP-08 sounds like a Jupiter 8. And in many ways, it doesn’t. As soon as you start hitting that 4 voice limit, the good vibes start drifting away. From a user interface perspective, so long as you’re cool with the miniaturisation, then yes, it pretty much works in the same way. If you’re familiar with a Jupiter 8, you will almost instantly feel at home here. That said, if you’re familiar with a Jupiter 8, then you probably own one, or at least have regular access to one. So why would you need a JP-08? But how about if you’ve bought this to satisfy your need for compact, powerful hardware synthesis and an audio interface to boot? On paper, it ticks all the boxes, but in practice, the USB hum will annoy the crap out of you.
I cannot help but think that all of these Boutique synths are simply a way of creating or capturing a niche market populated by bearded hipsters and people with far too much money. Every time I look at it, use it, walk away and come back again, it honestly feels like that was Roland’s manifesto when creating these Boutique units. As a viable, powerful studio and creative tool, it pretty much fails in my opinion. Sure, it looks cute. But it’s supposed to sound great, and be great to use too. And because of that annoying USB hum, lack of 4 voices and fiddly controls, it really falls short. It feels like a toy. And that is a real shame. I was desperate to be blown away by this. Desperate to be wowed by a powerful, wee beastie that punched way above its weight. What I ended up feeling was cheated and reminded how far software has actually come that it now consistently trumps hardware efforts. Is that because software is better or because less effort is going into hardware? That’s an interesting question worthy of further investigation on another day.
I’m no fan of subscription services. But for the price of the JP-08, you will get approximately 20 months access to Roland Cloud, which gives you a full on Jupiter 8 recreation in software, plus a bunch of other great tools to boot. When you look at it in that way, especially if you are seriously considering buying a JP-08, it makes more sense to go the way of the cloud. I don’t think Roland will ever deliver us a full sized Jupiter 8 recreation, but if you want to go down that path, the System-8 and its ability to host the Jupiter 8 Plug Out gives you all you need. Sure, it might not look as cool as the original, but synths are about the noises they make, and that Plug out certainly makes the right noise.
I don’t get the chance to do many hardware reviews, and after this, I may not get offered the chance to do many more, although I am willing to be proved wrong! I just feel that the JP-08, and all the other Boutique instruments were created not for serious musicians, but as expensive little toys for millennials. I started off doing a lot of “Hmmmm”-ing when I first became aware of the JP-08. Right now, I’m afraid all of my “Hmmmm’s” may have turned into a “Nope”.
Massive thanks to Oliver Davis at Roland UK for organising the hardware for review.