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Roland JD-990 revolutionary concept two decades later

It’s been 22 years since its release and the unit is still going strong. Even the latest in Roland’s series, Integra is in fact based on the DNA of the legendary JD-990. But let’s get back in the the 90s for now and see how it all happened. First of all, it should be noted that when model 990 came out, market (at least the Roland’s portion of it) was already dominated by the JD-800, D-70 and the quite popular JV-80 which came year earlier in 1992. Being there at that time i can tell you we considered JD-800 as a Rolls Royce, way out of our reach, but JV-80 was definitely second best, and it sounded incredibly good (for that time) with nice juicy digital resonant filters, for all of us who were into electronic music back then. Just a year later 990 came out. But for some reason it went under the radar for the most of us. It was mostly taken by studios and the pro’s. Little did we know how powerful this synth was (internet was very limited back then, there was no such thing as Gearslutz) while reading some brochure isn’t going to tell you much about it neither.

In fact it wasn’t until JV-1080 which came year later that everyone turned their heads into the direction of Roland with a big wow(!) all over their face. For start it was one of the first synths with 64 polyphony and we were all ready to sell our kidneys to obtain one. The JD-990 came out in kinda unlucky moment, jammed in between JD-800 release in 1991 and JV-1080 released in 1994 it somehow remained unnoticed by many. While those who have heard of it assumed it was just a module version of the JD-800. And because in 1994 we already had 1080 on the market, there was nothing to think about – go for the JV-1080! (myself included)

But there was another group of people, like film composers, producers, you know people who can recognize certain things such as good audio quality right away. Many of them kept their JD-990 despite JV-1080 being the star of the show with all the spotlights focused when it came out. The reason was simple JD-990 was soundwise class above 1080 and those who had it didn’t want to let it go that easy. Technical differences between 990 and 1080 are explained here. Unfortunately JD-990 wasn’t perfect and had some drawbacks compared to JV-1080 which is why some studios and composers decided to use both (such as for example Vangelis did). Drawbacks are obvious smaller waveform ROM content compared to 1080 ROM, and nasty digital distortion at higher resonance values. This is why in model 1080 Roland implemented variable waveform gain to avoid such scenarios happen ever again (unless you intentionally want them).


Image copyright: Cloudschatze

It is a know fact that Super JV’s architecture is based on the JD-990. On top of that it comes with the same type of aggressive filter (as opposed to other JV series like JV-80, JV-90 and JV-1000 which had mellower filter resonance) and it came with the now legendary “structures”. When the XV series came out, Roland continued the DNA line of the Super JV. The only thing “different” was that its SYX patch data was based on JV line of synths. Hence why XV can normally load Super JV patches via sysex, yet is unable to load the JD-990 patches. Then the Fantom came out, which again is based on the same concept. And now we have the Integra, which continues where XV series left, maintaining full compatibility and architecture of the Super JV. All of these synths are based on a revolutionary concept of a JD-990 synthesizer. And this is what makes it so special, along with its wide lush sound.

While a lot of extras were added with XV and Intergra series, the core structure is based on what was originally designed in a JD-990 synthesizer. Some may ask, ok but where is the JD-800 in all this? Well, the truth is, it has nothing much to to do with JD-990. It can be described as a D-70 with sliders on it with only difference of having a new effects processor and tones which are now part of a patch, and no longer separate thing. But when it comes to 990 these two synths have practically nothing in common except the first 108 waveforms and the mentioned JD effects processor which consists of two blocks. I will now list all the additions that 990 gave over the model 800:

  • Wave ROM was expanded to 6MB (vs 4MB on JD-800) with 195 PCM waveforms (vs 108 on JD-800).
  • Pan inside each Tone was added. On the JD-800 you can NOT pan individual tone for wide stereo sounds.
  • Matrix modulation was added on the JD-990. Let’s explain this – on JD-800 you can’t: increase cutoff point of Tone 1, decrease cutoff of Tone 2, increase resonance of Tone 3, decrease pitch of Tone 4 – all at the same time by moving the modulation wheel.
  • Multiple sources for the same destination added. On JD-990 you can for example use two different LFOs for the same destination – i.e. pitch, filter, TVA. This can create complex modulations. On JD-800 you can only use one source for the same destination.
  • SR-JV expansion card support. Next to standard JD-800 series card slots, there is additional card slot to use a 8MB expansion boards from SR-JV series. (i.e. Vintage Expansion, Orchestral, SFX, etc.)
  • Roland JV-80 patch import.
  • The LFO section has additional waveforms: sine, trapezoid and chaos.
  • Osc Sync function was added. It lets you synchronise two oscillators – a feature found in many analogue synthesisers.
  • FXM was added (Frequency Cross Modulation) – again found in some analogue synthesisers. It has 8 positions (labelled Color) that actually control the frequency of the modulating signal, and a depth setting 0 – 100 that controls the amplitude of the modulating signal.
  • Ring Modulation, for creating all kind of metallic percussion and strange effects.
  • This synth features 6 types of ”structures” which among many other things let you stack two filters in series, for building complex filter textures.
  • 24 dB filter (using structures), next to standard 12 dB which is always available.
  • Outputs increased to 8 total.
  • Polyphonic portamento.
  • Tempo MIDI sync delay.
  • Analog Feel. Which adds a random modulation to the sound to recreate an analogue synth’s “drift”. Not just on the pitch, but varying amplitude also.

Some people asked me about my opinion on JD-800 so i will give it just a brief info on why i never became an owner.I find JD-800 good as a performance synth and that’s about it. I’ve played JD-800, really liked the UI, thought of buying it, but got distracted by the fact there’s no even basic modulation matrix i.e. you can’t set modulation wheel on JD-800 to open the filter and apply some resonance. In fact there’s no even mod wheel on JD-800. Also, all the modulation buses on JD-800 are pre routed. You can’t use two or more sources to modulate the same destination (for complex modular style modulations). On top of that JD-800 is monaural per patch, there’s no pan feature per individual tone – so you can forget wide pads evolving through stereo field, which is a signature of many JD-990 sounds.

Deep FM bass on Roland JD/JV/XV series

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Compatibility: JV-80 and up

Although Super JV/JD have the FXM section that is based on a frequency modulation, it is actually quite limited terms of real FM sounds – it is more oriented towards spicing the sound with a specific character (or making it more ‘wild’ as Roland manual says). For real FM sounds we must look elsewhere.

Super JV/JD is not an FM synth, but it has a nice LFO that can run pretty fast, and with a little experience in real FM programming it is not hard to recreate some basic FM sounds. Please keep in mind that we talk about really basic FM sounds created from only two operators (Yamaha DX-7 for example has 6 operators). And even those ”two operators” we will build on Super JV/JD are very primitive, compared to any real FM synth.

Deep FM Bass
We will create one of the deepest basses ever, that goes subsonic, much below 20 Hz. I first built this bass on the Yamaha SY-77 some long time ago, but since it requires only two operators, i recently came to idea to try to emulate it on the JV/JD synth. Ok, it will not sound as powerful as the real one, but it will demonstrate that it is possible to do some primitive FM on the JD, JV, XP, XV synth line.

We will be using two operators. The WG (tone generator) will be the carrier, and LFO will be the modulator. Sound will be made by the classic two point down ramp envelope applied on the modulator – that is, the modulator level starts loud and then fades away. On the real FM synth you would do that with an envelope. Unfortunately on the Super JV you can’t apply an envelope (ENV) to modulate the level of LFO, so on the first sight it appears our FM sound won’t function properly. But there is a workaround for that issue. We will build the envelope on the LFO using ramp, which Roland just calls LFO Fade In/Out function. In other words you got simple two point envelope that can be applied to LFO – i know it is primitive, but better something than nothing. With this ramp you can create dozens of bells and metallic percussion, if used the right way. Here is detailed procedure:

  • Initialize the sound
  • Enable T1, disable all other tones
  • Go to Control and set Key Assign to MONO
  • Set WG1 to Sine
  • Go to Pitch, set Coarse Tune to -12
  • Go to LFO and set it to SAW-DW
  • Jump to TVA1 and disable velocity (V-Sens=0)

You probably noticed that we used Saw wave in the LFO instead of Sine wave. We had to use the saw to add more punch to the sound, because JV is not a real FM synth, and with a sine wave LFO, the sound becomes too muddy in the low C1-C2 region. However, later you can try switching LFO to sine wave and try C2-C4 notes that will sound better with it. You will also use sine wave in the LFO for all metallic and bell sounds. Or to be precise, you should use sine wave LFO in almost all FM sounds, except those in low pitch range where you will use SAW-DW wave to compensate the lack of punch.

  • Within LFO set Depth Pitch: +50
  • Set Fade Mode: ON-OUT (this is our ramp down envelope)
  • Go to TVA and make a short sound using following parameters
  • Time: 0 20 42 42
  • Level: 127 127 0
  • Now hit A1 and C2 few times
  • For shorter and more distinctive bass set time to: 0 10 42 42

Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason. – Leonardo da Vinci