One things for sure, them mini keys get people riled. So this is the new, affordable Analog/Digital Crossover synth from Roland. It's clearly aimed at the MiniNova/MicroKorg market - which surely must be pretty large - I read somewhere that the MicroKorg was the biggest selling synth for years. So mini keys can't be all that much of a turn off..
Anyhow, this guy is packed with features - it's got 128 SuperNatural voices to be shared between 2 Digital synth parts and a drum part (32 kits), plus a single Analog voice - this is unusual in itself with a tri-wave (Saw/Tri/SQ) DCO and an analog filter - 24dB ladder type.
Additionally there's a four track step sequencer, four effects and vocoder (though you can have the analog voice and the vocoder at the same time). USB offers MIDI and simple Audio IO though not class compliant.
The front panel gives you quick tweak controls - Cut Off/Res, level, LFO, Envelope (one knob) and master effect levels. Which are great for grabbing hold of a sound, but there's real depth in the menu system revealing: 3 waves per digital voice, three envelopes, PWM and more, on the analog side Pitch, Amp, Filter envelopes, PWM and velocity routings mean more complex sounds can be programmed, though we're only talking one DCO and LFO.
The SuperNATURAL synth engine really does sound pretty good - better than the analog voice if I'm honest, more filter types LP/HP/BP/PKG(Peaking filter) - one per wave and a host of other parameters can generate complex voices - though I would rather program via an Editor if there could be one please?
The Drum kits are where this starts to perk up even more - with up to four waves per note, each with plenty of parameters to let you customise the kits made up of PCM samples including many classic Roland drum machines.
It's possible to create some pretty out there voicings. Additionally you can set the filter type and FX combination for each key in the kit - nice.
Four effects in chain with depth/mix level for each (global), FX 1 (distortion, fuzz, compressor, bit crusher), FX2 (flanger, phaser, ring mod, slicer), Delay and Reverb.
All effects can be more deeply tweaked via the menu system and can be switched in as all four or FX2, Delay, Reverb/Delay, Reverb/Reverb. It's a shame that the send level is global and not per part as this would help with sound building, but hey ho.
This is the thing that makes the JD-XI the most fun - a four track, four part step sequencer, with real-time or step record you can throw down 1, 2 or 4 bar patterns very quickly. The great thing too is that you can record real-time parameter tweaks per step too for some great animation. Filter, res, Amp/env, LFO speed and depth and FX depth are all recordable. Unfortunately, there is no swing function, it's purely steps only (16/32/12 resolution)
The main drawback, and this may be asking too much is that you can't store patches (patterns/voices/fx/seq data) on the fly, so getting a dope jam together, making a copy on the fly and modifying is not possible. You have to stop the sequencer to make a copy of the patch, then continue on your way. This is where the DSP limitations of the JD-Xi start to make themselves known, certain things you just can't do while the sequencer is running - pattern length, patch storage being two. I did also find that it just crashed hard a couple of times - though this is not the final OS I am using.
But lets remember, this is only £379 (or so) street price so you can't have it all. For the money it's a no brainer if you are just starting out, or even if you are not, some of the sounds are very usable, the SuperNATURAL synth engine sounds pretty good, though some larger PCM multisampled sounds such as pianos and strings are not so top drawer and lack the additional ROM samples. You also get USB audio and MIDI functionality (though not class compliant). But my younger self would have been buying this for sure, heck, my older self is even tempted.
Okay, so if you are a synth purist, then this may not be for you, but for beginners or people who want something low cost to have around for chucking ideas into, or perhaps for the vocoder, or just as a beatbox, it represents great value.
Available May 2015 at around £379 (final price TBC)