Roland JD-Xa Digital/Analog Synthesizer – Gearjunkies review

News of a new analog synth from Roland, the JD-Xa, has made heads turn around the world of synth aficionados. This new synth is not an just a revamp of an old format for the analog revival. It’s the lovechild of a threesome with Roland heritage, comprising of analog, virtual analog and sample based synthesis engines, enabling users to combine these synthesis methods in a single unit. A 4 voice 2 oscillator part combined with a maximum 64 voice digital waveform part (roughly based on 1/3 of the Roland Integra), combined with a 16 channel step sequencer, arpeggiator and a 5 octave keyboard. Just like it’s little brother, the JD-Xi, it’s a hybrid synth with a contemporary look and a very hands-on approach. The unit we tested was an advanced prototype with a very basic manual, so we were able to test many but not all of the features that will be shipped in the final product.

The Analog Part
The 4 voices of the analog engine comprise of two oscillators which have the standard square, triangle, pulse and saw waveforms, including pulse width modulation and a sine wave. You can also add white/pink noise in the mixer section. Unlike the JD-Xi, there’s no sub oscillator, which seems a bit odd to me. If you want to create bass sounds, you might have to resort to using the second oscillator as the sub oscillator. You do have the options of cross modulation, sync and ring modulation for the oscillators. For the ring mod, you also have the option to use a digital source, which is the unique feature of this synthesizer.

The analog engine gives you a wide pallet of analog sounds and (just like the old analog synths) it depending on your own personal creativity, you can get some very organic sounding patches going. The analog filters variants comprise of a high pass filter and a multiple variants of low pass, high pass or band pass filters. Variants are a 12db filter, a moogish ladder filter and a more screamy 18dB filter. The test unit didn’t have the gain tweaks for the analog filters, so you had to adjust the gain depending on which filter you used. The filters sound very warm and organic with a resonance that goes well into self oscillation. When dialing in the filter, you can hear some zipper noise, which may be adjusted in the final product.

The envelopes for the oscillators and filter are your basic ADSR envelopes. For an analog synth, they are not particularly snappy though. You also have two low frequency oscillators that are tempo sync-able which can be assigned several parameters. The speed of the LFO’s is fairly descent but doesn’t go wide into the audio spectrum. You can either stack the four voices in unison or layer them.

The Digital Part
Just like the analog section, you have the basic waveforms (including the super saw) but virtual analog. The variation has a large selection of natural, mostly bread and butter sounds. Unlike the JD-Xi, there’s no drum kits though. You even have a ring modulation option for the digital section as well, along with two envelopes and two LFO’s and that’s pretty much the same as the analog section. The filter section is of course digital and sounds digital in a natural way. With some smart layering and using LFO’s in a creative way, you’re able to get some interesting sounds, similar to vector synthesis.

The Sequencer
The sequencer comprises of a 64 step 16 track sequencer that’s stored with every patch. You can choose between 4/4 or triplets and record per step or play real-time. The usage of the sequencer is limited to the extent that you cannot chain patterns, so it’s merely meant for creating looped sounds or soundscapes which you can apply during live performance. You do have the ability to use the step sequencer with different tracks to sequence the 3 separate partials, so if you want, you can create a patch with electronic drum section, a bassline and a melody too.

The Arpeggiator
The arpeggiator is straightforward. It also allows you to program 64 of your own patterns, which are fairly ease to record, similar to the step sequencer. In comparison with other arpeggiators of competing products, the JD-Xa seems to be more flexible and easier to use.

The Effects Section
For each patch you have a master effect section with the choice of 67 types. In addition, you have two optional effects, each with the choice of 29 types. There are reverb and delay effects. The effects are tempo sync-able as well, which is helpful if you play with the sequencer of arpeggiator. The effects quality range from decent to fairly good. They can be really helpful in adding some flavor to a patch or add a little nuance that makes it more fun to play with.

User Interface
A fair bit of the synth has dedicated knobs and switches. For the more deeper editing of parameters you can dive into the menu of the 16×2 LCD screen with the cursor and data entry keys. The position of the LCD screen and keys are on the left side feels a bit weird to me. If you are a leftie, you may love it. There’s no dial or slider for fast data entry, but you can use the shift to decrease/increase in steps of 10. Roland had to make choices to this extent, to choose which functions would get a dedicated controller and (on the whole), they made sensible choices. The contrast of the text on the controls is not optimal in a live setting. The level of the led lighting should be adjustable. The keypad itself feels nice and has good velocity sensitivity. The after touch to me seemed a bit off. The modulation ‘joystick’ needs some time to adjust to and I personally preferred to use the modulation wheels. The look of the JD-Xa has its own contemporary esthetic. The weight of the synthesizer will make roadies very happy because it’s fairly light but yet sturdy plastic.

The Back
The connectors on the back have the standard power input, phones, main stereo outputs, a dedicated analog dry and click output, foot pedal and mic input. You also have two CV out/gate outputs that use Oct/V (not Hz/V). Midi in/out and USB connector. The USB can be switched to generic or Roland specific format. You also can use a usb key to store patches (I don’t know if you also can store more on there). There will be an editor for the JD-Xa but at this moment we don’t know on which platforms it will be release. Mac/PC seem to be covered but iOS and Android also could be possible.

Pros
+Warm analog sound
+Layering of sounds (analog/digital part)
+Arpeggiator
+Elaborate effects section

Cons
-Analog bass sounds
-After touch
-Placement of LCD
-Contrast of labels

Conclusion
When you spend a certain amount of time with a synthesizer, you start to see what it’s made of. In this particular case, I started with a fair amount of scepticism. However, after a while, I really started to enjoy the sound. I started to create my own patches and get a creative vibe that enables you to write songs. The 4 banks of presets provided with this synth do it no justice whatsoever. The final product will get more patches and (to be fairly blunt), the analog synth part is not particularly special compared to many analog synths out there. The digital part is fairly straightforward, with the very good, natural sounds. But, when you start combining it with the digital part, you get the best of both worlds and create more unique sounds. That is what this synth makes eligible for a wide variety of sounds in a wide variety of applications – in the studio, on stage or anywhere else – for a long time.

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