The recently-introduced Roland Boutique synthesizer line has been one of the most discussed and debated synth introductions of 2015.
A lot of people don’t know what to make of them yet. The Boutique synths are surprisingly tiny, but they offer easy-to-understand ‘knob-per-function’ interfaces and promise to deliver accurate emulations of three vintage Roland synths.
This review, by reader Robert Dorschel, takes a look at the Roland JU-06 synthesizer – a modern take on the Juno-106. It’s not written or structured as a formal review, but – as Dorschel notes – it captures his raw impressions.
I’d like to be transparent and say my first synth was an Alpha Juno-1 (and I still have it— I’m an original owner!); my best friend at the time had a Juno-106. A few years later, I owned a Juno-60.
With this in mind, I’d think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to “that Juno sound.” I can’t say the same for the JX-03 or JP-08. So I’ll stick to what I know.
Roland JU-06 Impressions
Here are my random, raw, in no particular order impressions about it, for your consideration:
- The speaker is powerful enough to really enjoy using it.
- Watch your ears when using headphones; the built-in headphone amp is strong!
- WOW This thing sounds full over my real studio rig (Yamaha HS8 plus HS8s sub). +1 for virtual analog realism here.
- How big is it? If you’re older like me: The same exact size as a “CD longbox.” If that helps you, then go ahead, feel old like me.
- I have no idea what I would use the input jack for other than daisy-chaining audio from other units. I guess. I don’t think there is any other purpose. It doesn’t feed the sound through the filter as far as I can tell. Except: the units do act as a 24/44.1 audio interface in USB mode, so there’s that.
- Right off the bat, as soon as I turned it on, I immediately smiled. The tell-tale chorus noise is actually emulated and fully present (when it’s on). They actually took the time to model the chorus noise. LOL
- By the way: You CAN turn on BOTH Chorus 1 AND 2 at the same time. Fun stuff. I remember doing this on a 106 back in the day. Glad to see you can do it here, too.
- They include 4-AA batteries, but not the mini-USB cable. Then comes the annoying part: the mini connector is that Android type. Which I have exactly zero of in my house. I have dozens of the other mini type. This is relevant because it’s powered over the USB line when/if you’re not using batteries. So this unit will force me to actually buy a USB cable for the first time… ever. So I can’t test that until I get a cable tomorrow. UPDATE: Ran out to my local dollar store. They had what I needed. $1. Standard micro-USB “works with most Android phones.” Problem solved.
- Build quality: solid. Seriously. They did a fantastic job with this. The sliders have just a little side-to-side wobble, but sit well. They give just the right amount of resistance. Please note the JU-06 has the longest slider throw of the Boutique bunch. The toggle buttons are great too, not wobbly in their holes. nice and bright. The three switches for DCO LFO/Man, VCF polarity, and VCA gate/env are also solid, although I can see those being the first to wear out over time. I wish they had made those toggle buttons with lights, like the System-1/1m.
- Playing the unit as a standalone via the pitch bend is good for preset surfing, or, entering notes into the sequencer. That’s about it. Don’t bother trying to play a song.
- The sequencer mode: SOOOO easy to use. I didn’t have to read the manual to figure it out except for how to change the tempo. Need to see if it will sync well with external units (although online videos confirm this already). Use the pitch and mod sliders to control the division unit (1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32) and note gate accordingly. Hold some buttons for swing settings. Piece of cake. Twiddle some sliders. Instant gratification. Not sure if the unit transmits the sequencer or not, to be determined as of this writing. GREAT unexpected feature, honestly. UPDATE: Nope, doesn’t send out sequencer notes.
- The mod slider is an annoyance to me, since it doesn’t stay in place (it snaps to zero). However, this is right in line with the original 106 (think, Roland pitch/mod stick). It’s best use is to enter portamento time, or gate time for the sequencer. So what I’m trying to say is: play it from a real controller.
- It has the same exact presets of the original Juno-106. (Except now there’s a built-in delay, and the delay settings are saved per-patch, not globally.)
- Speaking of which: It has a delay built-in, but doesn’t have any dedicated panel controls. I was confused for a minute about that while patch surfing (“where is that delay coming from?”) and had to RTFM to find that out. Thank goodness for searchable PDF manuals. Speaking of which, it came with one of those giant fold-out manuals like what came with the TR-8 and System-1m, so I can only assume that’s Roland’s new thing for printed manuals– those giant your-dad’s Oldsmobile glove-compartment roadmap-style manual.
- I got some pretty impressive squeaks out of the filter. It seems a little different (slightly) than what I expected, meaning it has a faster response than the original Junos somewhat. That’s subjective and just my opinion.
- Did I mention the chorus noise is modeled? I swear this is the first time device noise makes me happy, on a nostalgic level. However as far as I can tell from playing it, and the manual, there is no way to have the chorus effect without the noise (in other words, you can’t turn off the chorus noise itself). That’s the price of authenticity I guess.
- BAM hit that 4-note polyphony ceiling immediately after hooking up a full keyboard controller over MIDI. I may have to get a second unit just for this fact.
- Yes, it has Portamento and Portamento Rate. It’s just hidden. While in patch mode, hold down Chorus2, then the pitch slider becomes a toggle (on/off, top half for on), and the mod slider becomes the Portamento rate control (higher for longer slide time). Not a fan of this, but it works. Sidebar: you can’t just jump to it while in sequencer mode; you have to go back to patch mode first. Meh.
- Discovered there are 16 patterns in the sequencer mode, not just one active memory slot. Yippee! However, any changes you make to a sequence, or, any sequence you make? Does not save on powerdown. So remember to overwrite that pattern before you shut it off.
- This thing has some heft. Not too heavy, but it certainly won’t slide easily on a table. It’s got 4 little rubber feet on the bottom. Since I don’t have the accessory keyboard unit for this, I’ll have to make some sort of Lego contraption to temporarily tilt it on my desktop (not a fan of flat surface synths). On that note, I’m looking at the engineering of how the unit will be held at an angle in the optional keyboard unit: small plastic arms that pivot. I’ll bet these will break quickly by some of us ham-fisted synth people that press the buttons too hard or grab the sliders too quickly, or press too hard on the ribbons. Time will tell.
I found one potential dealbreaker for some folks: it does not send any of its sliders or buttons over MIDI (5-Pin or USB).
For me this is no big deal, just record in real time. I also doubt there are MIDI CC commands per parameter either. So all things considered… it’s not a MIDI powerhouse: it’s a synth module. Period. So I guess folks will have to learn how to play on the fly, and record twiddly parts direct to audio, live. (Although, who knows, this could change with a firmware update.)
(Editor’s note: Other readers have noted that the JU-06 sends CC commands when in Chain mode. )
Another odd behavior, and potential dealbreaker for some: When you enable Chain Mode, this is what happens:
If you’re holding down the sustain pedal, and when you play that 5th thru 8th note, wow, hey, it works. But when you hit note #9 and up? It will voice steal from the slave synth. There is no feedback back to the master synth over MIDI; so the first four notes will continue to sustain. Not quite what people will expect from a last-note-priority synth.
Also, Chain Mode appears to only work over 5-PIN MIDI, not over USB MIDI.
Note: I tested this with one unit, but watching the MIDI data stream using “MIDI Monitor” app on OSX.
How Does It Sound?
To my older ears (40-something), it sounds EXACTLY LIKE THE JUNO-106.
Did I mention the chorus noise? The eye-roll of having too many Roland “E-Piano” patches? The low-end ball-shaking bass? Thick pseudo-analog strings that you can chew on?
So in closing:
- Worth the wait, worth every penny, worth buying.
- Nostalgia! Technology (no more bad voice chips)! Convenience!
- Sounds exactly like the Juno-106 (and Juno-6/60 and Alpha Juno by extension). That could be a strength or weakness depending on your point of view.
- I would have bought the unit without the sequencer mode. It’s definitely an enhancement in this regard, and at this price point.
- I hope someone (Roland or 3rd party) will whip up a rack mount adapter for these, or, tabletop angle mount for multiple units. That would be incredibly effective. It’s unknown to me if the optional keyboard accessory would be worth it or not; but I’ll consider this a “Pro” as Roland gives us this option.
- Mini-USB cable is not included (you’ll need that rounded-corner micro-USB Android type)
- 4-Voice Polyphony. Dammit. This, and not including the micro-USB cable are probably my only two gripes about the unit. Having said this… Getting two units and chaining them together for an 8-voice Juno-106 for just $600? It’s still a bargain.
- No MIDI per control sent. At all. Period. (Let’s hope a firmware update changes this? But not holding my breath.) (Editor – see note about Chain mode above).
ON THE FENCE:
- Mini jacks. Use good thick 1/8” stereo cables, folks. But not terribly concerned about this since audio-over-USB is an option.
Hope you get something out of this review. Off to go write some music now!
Have you used the Roland JU-06 synthesizer? If so, share your thoughts on it in the comments!
About the Author
Robert originally shared his thoughts on the JU-06 via Facebook; we’ve reproduced them here, along with his photos, with his permission.