Sunday, 20 September 2015

New Roland Boutique range

It's been a busy week for all concerned in the Roland world, with lots of speculation on Roland's Boutique new range of synthesisers - presumably from the video based on their popular JP-8, Juno 106 and JP-3X synthesisers from the 80s.

Despite people looking at and enhancing the end of the video for further insights into the trailer, very few details were forthcoming from Roland about their new product lineup - not even a date when the next teaser or announcement would be made. 

Much to the chagrin of Roland, that all changed over the weekend.

In a probable scheduling mistake, music site Zzounds managed to mistakenly post photos and specs of the entire range on their website over the weekend for about an hour before they were taken down again - more than enough time for them to be indexed on Google and for fellow fans to download, reshare and blog about the new machines ahead of any official announcement. I know the pain of a mishandled marketing campaign from my own work, but when products are hotly anticipated like this it only benefits a community eager to discuss new product releases.

As lots of blogs and imgur are spreading the photos already, I feel justified in sharing them myself. All three are rather sleek units with plenty of blinkenlights, knobs, sliders and touch pads and definitely get your GAS going. It's clear that they take after the existing System 1 eurorack modules and it's great to see a synth condensed into a small package.

So what do we know about them? 

All three machines are virtual analogue recreations rather than all-analogue machines and employ the same ACB technology that powers the AIRA range. This would not be unexpected given the size of the machines and the recent track record Roland has in using VA synthesis.

They are all rather small - at 14 x 7 x 3 inches for the modules alone, these are aimed at both mobile musicians and fans of the eurorack format (though I don't see any CV I/O jacks which is strange). As for me, a smaller but more capable synth is always welcome in my cramped house as desk space is at a premium!

The keyboards are optional - the 2 octave keyboard controller seen for all three is an extra purchase for the units, plus built-in sequencers. As there is a backlash against mini keys it's good to see that Roland can give us the choice and I certainly would use them as external devices sequenced in Bitwig anyway.

Great connectivity - full sized MIDI In and Out, USB for MIDI and power (or use AA batteries), powered audio hub and mini jacks for input/output/headphones. The mini jacks may upset some but are perfect for most.

The JU-06 is a limited edition - based on the press release information bundled with the leak, the Juno 106 recreation seems to be a limited run. This may also extend of all three of them and I welcome clarification from Roland, which I expect to hear this coming week in a no-doubt hurried official announcement!

Most are 4 voice machines - this is slightly confusing as the Juno 106 had six voices and the JP-8 had eight, though for most this should be enough to get some of the classic sounds out of these units. Roland also adds in the pre-release material that units of the same type can be chained together to add further voices, which depending on your budget and the eventual price may be possible.

Pricing according to the Zzound posts puts them at USD$399 and $299 depending on the model, which means they will be around £200-£300 street once they come out in the UK. Judging by the release of this announcement, this puts them firmly in the affordable end of the musical spectrum and just in time for the Christmas rush as well. Like the Korg Volcas, these are relatively cheap and capable synths (as long as they sound as good as the original units they are modelled off of) and barring most foul ups should sell like hot cakes. 

Speaking of sound, it's also worth noting that until we get further demos and hands on feedback from the usual sites like SonicState, it's not worth putting down your preorders just yet. I for one am very much looking forward to hearing how these sound and what you can do with them, especially the JU-06.

In terms of price and features, these seem to go toe-to-toe with Yamaha's recent ReFace offerings; a range I have kept an eye on but have not bothered to write about. The ReFace range doesn't seem to fill a requirement that anyone wants: they have great sounding units in VA but charge more than USD$500 for each of them and come with a lacklustre three octave mini keyboard despite being designed for piano and organ players. Sure you can trigger them externally with a larger and/or better keyboard, but if that is the case, why bother with the keyboard at all?

From recent comments I have seen is that these are yet more VA recreations rather than full analogue reissues and to a certain extent I see where the desire for more analogue creations comes from. However, I do want to see more useful units being made available and having to go down the second hand market route for the originals is a bit of a ballache, especially as the originals have all the classic problems with analogue synths, including tuning drift, lack of MIDI or proper implementation, battery problems, scratchy sliders and more. 

In the case of the JP-3X, while you might be able to get one for around the same price, you do need to get the programming module as well, putting another £200 on the cost of the unit, as well as the space to store it. For people like me who will never be able to buy the original, can't be bothered with maintaining the units and are running out of space, these will be perfect.

To Roland, I say well done. You've successfully fanned the flames of gear heads all over and I look forward to hearing further news shortly. Just don't be too hard on Zzound for the leak - I think they will be responsible for plenty of good press in the coming days.