Roland is on-record in an interview about the new JUPITER-X & Xm that they’re not planning an analog remake – but that’s not actually what’s most revealing in the story.
It’s encouraging to see that the CEO of Roland, Jun-ichi Miki, is also an engineer. His latest comments on the Jupiter site are likely to frustrate fans who want analog remakes of Roland gear – and it comes with especially poor timing, as Behringer has just announced an analog remake of the TB-303 and profits from other low-cost analog remakes of other Roland gear.
But let’s read what he said and pick it apart:
We are very aware of the very strong passion that synth fans have for the JUPITER-8, and some continue to wait for us to introduce a true analog version. This is something we do not plan to do. Our founder Mr. Kakehashi always said, “Never chase a ghost”, and I really understand his meaning. “Chasing the ghost” of the original JUPITER-8 or TR-808 does not make sense as we will never catch them, and this effort would not align with our vision for the future.
The JUPITER-X & Xm Story [official Roland Blog]
I actually like the “chase the ghost” line. Now Synth Anatomy for its part points out (correctly) that Roland is remaking its past instruments, just using digital tech. But that descends into a predictable analog versus digital argument.
Here’s the thing: the digital remakes are a step forward. They allow battery power and completely stable tuning. The Boutique series are pretty conservative, adding modest features like new voice architectures or sequencing or the JUNO-106/60 switch on the JU-06A, all arguably part of that digital remake.
But on instruments like the TR-8S, you in fact get a big benefit from the digital reboot. I get an instrument that is A/B comparable to the sound of an original TR-808, but I can also mix my own samples and onboard effects, save elaborate presets, and take advantage of new sequencing and customization features, all in ways that the 808 can’t do.
It’s just not entirely clear what people want from analog remakes. Plenty of new instruments have proven that both analog and digital implementations can be viable, affordable, and musical. When it comes to remaking old analog circuitry, there are modeling efforts – Roland’s own circuit behavior tech being just one – that can produce compelling results.
It’s not likely to inflame as many online commenters, but I think the more telling admission from Roland is about their most recent crop of hardware.
We invested a huge amount of time and money to develop a new system-on-a-chip called BMC, which stands for Behavior Modeling Core. Proprietary to Roland, BMC contains a large array of DSP and CPU core blocks plus hardware logic; it is incredibly powerful.
ZEN-Core is an expandable and customizable synthesizer engine running on BMC, and is the heart of the new JUPITER, FANTOM, and GROOVEBOX synth instruments. The combination of BMC and ZEN-Core are like a highly tuned F1 racing engine for sound synthesis.
At the base level, ZEN-Core integrates next-generation PCM and Virtual Analog, with advanced features such as new Virtual Analog oscillators, precisely modeled filters, ultra-fast and smooth envelopes and LFOs, high-resolution parameters, and expandability. The JUPITER-X Series uses one of the first product-specific expansions to the base engine, Analog Behavior Modeling or ABM, which is the technology behind the Model Bank feature. For your interest, the second product-specific expansion to ZEN-Core is V-Piano on the new FANTOM synths.
Here’s where we get into some Roland logic. Roland has two technologies now, one called Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) and another is now called Analog Behavior Modeling (ABM). The name ABM is newer, but the actual tech for ABM appears to be older. But there’s a hedge here – ACB does more to actually emulate the way physical circuits behave. This isn’t only significant to remakes; it can also be employed in new instruments, as was done on the SYSTEM-1 and SYSTEM-8. And it brings Roland’s sound engines beneath the hood closer in line with recent developments in modeling filters and other features now found in current-generation desktop software instruments, software modular, and even some digital hardware modules.
Roland seems to have backpedaled on their more computationally expensive and innovative ACB, and the superior sound of the Boutique and AIRA products, and gone back to just cramming gear with a bunch of PCM and previous generation virtual analog.
Now to be fair, they reveal why – customers want more polyphony and more features. And sure enough, the response to the new FANTOM synths has been positive.
I can’t really argue with what the market wants – though it also sort of proves the point that you should tune out some of what you see on forums.
Still, it’ll be disappointing if Roland is abandoning some of what has powered some of their best hardware of the last couple of generations. And it’s doubly disappointing when that gear is being unfairly knocked for using digital technology.
Look, there is nothing wrong with employing PCM or repurposing old tech. And to look to another Japanese model, Nintendo has done amazing work by chasing real functionality for customers rather than spec sheets. The problem is if that becomes a stand-in for fresh design, because then usability can suffer. (Nintendo is both a role model and a cautionary tale at the same time, depending on how you look at it.)
Instruments in the AIRA line – including the SYSTEM-1 and SYSTEM-8 – were driven around new sound engines and hardware workflows built around those sound engines. The positive reception for the new FANTOM series suggests Roland can both incorporate their full sound library and build a workable interface while satisfying users on sound, all at once.
The GROOVEBOX line are similarly powerful, do-everything machines, but there are some caveats, too. I really want to like the GROOVEBOX – I’m finishing my review of the MC-101 now, and it shows some potential. But part of why it’s taking me so long is that this product has some disappointing limitations and confusing workflow elements that are side effects of this recycled approach. (As some veteran Roland sound designers noted, the MC-101 even has banks of sounds from the FANTOM line.) And it means we won’t get what might have been the perfect new Roland gear, incorporating both the models of the TR-808 in the TR-8S and the new sequencing, clip launching, and time stretch/repitch features.
Or, for that matter, imagine if the GROOVEBOX line had the ability to load longer samples, or to stream from SD card, or to load samples from the computer, as almost all of its competitors can. Or imagine if there were a working desktop or browser editor (think what Novation did with the much cheaper Circuit). Or, to get greedy, what if there were an ACB-powered synth engine in a GROOVEBOX? That would be a must-buy.
From my perspective, there’s way too much in the new FANTOM and GROOVEBOX products that comes straight out of Roland gear from 10 years ago or even further back. (It’s terrifyingly easy to compare the new grooveboxes to ones from before the turn of the century.)
The new FANTOMs, for their part, are well received partly because that engine is reflected on the main panel. The GROOVEBOXES remain interesting to me, but there is a slight collision between the two approaches – the ACB-based AIRAs and “legacy” groovebox bits, plus new ingredients.
Roland may not be chasing ghosts, but they run the risk of repackaging them. And the industry isn’t standing still – that could put them at a disadvantage to other gear makers embracing a more futuristic approach.
That said, I recognize none of those things is actually about ZEN-Core per se. So even if Roland is porting their old stuff to a new system-on-a-chip, mainly what we need to see is a modern architecture around the central processing power. And yeah, the SYSTEM-8 with its 8-voice polyphony makes sense for that synth. People who buy a FANTOM – and I’ve never been that sort of person – do benefit from expanded polyphony. So the question now is really more, can Roland make things like Roland Cloud work with samples storage and presets on the TR-8S – and can it give us less of a sense of 90s and early 2000s feature sets once we start diving into sound design on the GROOVEBOX and new Fantoms.
This is all of course way more nuanced than the analog versus digital debates you’ll see – but also more relevant to how people actually use the gear in, you know, making music.
So yeah, don’t be afraid of clones. But, Roland, some of us are really rooting for you to protect innovation and innovative teams in the company.