The purpose of my blogs is to bring you back to the zeitgeist of the instrument in question and to put things into the era's perspective. I will cover features and other details about the instrument as well, but there is already a wealth of information out there that is more specific. Here you will get a more global picture of what the instrument meant back in the day and how valid it still is today. Enjoy the read.
This great Roland synth is way underrated and undervalued and deserves some more attention. Considering it is a vintage, analog synth that’s well on the south side of $1000 and has almost every sound design features of the Jupiter-8, includes MIDI, velocity sensitivity and aftertouch, it is possibly the most amazing bargain out there. I still have this synth and have put it up for sale a couple of times, as I also have the MKS-70, but it’s such an inspiring instrument, that I keep holding onto it. Nobody wants to buy it either and the reasons for that might become clearer in this blog. So why is this synth not getting the admiration and acknowledgement it deserves? We’ll have to go back in time and look at the impact it had.
The JX-8P was one of the many attempts by companies to ride on the success wave of the Yamaha DX-7. The DX-7 is mentioned a lot in my blogs, because it pretty much ruled the land and had set an impossibly high benchmark. Roland’s answer came in early 1985 with the JX-8P, which arrived a tad late to the party. Bearing strong resemblances to the DX-7, it was still relying heavily on the technology of yesteryears. The Touch-Membranes, Cartridge option, Velocity-Sensitivity and Aftertouch were all obvious features that the DX had introduced 2-years earlier, but the JX was still using Analog Subtractive synthesis and with only 6-voices of polyphony. Every type or form of synthesis had been explored by that point and analog/subtractive was the oldest of them.
The factory presets all resembled the sounds that made the DX-7 famous, like the Marimba, Bells, Flute and EP’s. Even the X in the model name is sufficient evidence of mimicry. The only thing the DX-7 was not good at was analog type sounds, so I guess Roland had a void to fill there. By 1985 analog was still being used, but not selling anymore due to changing trends, placing the JX in a bit of a vacuum. Apparently it managed to be the best selling synth of 1985 in Britain, according to SOS magazine.
The JX is not a feature rich synth, but still more mature than the Juno-106 that Roland released a year earlier, which surprisingly became more popular. The biggest difference is that the 8P is a 2-oscillator synths with 2-envelopes, as opposed to the single oscillator and single envelope on the Juno-106. This would put the JX somewhat closer to the design of the Jupiter family of synths, with the exception of the 8P having DCO’s instead of VCO’s. VCO’s tended to sound more lively, as DCO’s (as its name indicates) uses a Digital circuit to regulate pitch-drift. This made the JX sound somewhere in the middle of a DX7 and a Jupiter. With Jupiters slowly getting out of fashion and the DX7 still being the best at what it did, the JX-8P was seen as a stylish, slick new alternative to the large, knob-laden Jupiter and Juno synths. Other things that set the JX apart from the Juno series, was that it had Cross-Modulation and a Pitch Envelope. The latter created those typical Roland stabby brass and hollow voice sounds. Cross Modulation provided that metallic attack to compete with the DX-7. The 8P could not split or layer voices.
Unlike the JX-3P, where the 3P stood for Polyphony-Programmable-Presets, the 8 in the JX-8P’s model number doesn’t refer to anything, or at least not to my knowledge. The only feature that goes up to 8 are the number of Patch memories, which is pretty meagre and slightly quirky to perform, but these can be chained for live performance, which is a feature borrowed from the Memorymoog. The Patch memories can store Aftertouch and Key-Mode settings, which cannot be programmed with individual presets.
Like the 3P, the 8P also had a fixed bank of 64 factory Presets. There are a measly 32 freely programmable memory locations to store your own sounds in. The reason why the JX-3P and JX-8P has fixed presets, is that the majority of synth players back then were gigging with the instrument and power surges/spikes could possibly wipe out its internal volatile memory, so by providing non-volatile memory as well, the keyboardist would always have the factory patches to resort to in case their own sounds got lost. These days with a myriad of back-up options, such as USB, Computer and Cloud storage, this isn’t a factor anymore, but in 1985 one had to either have an extra M-16C cartridge or back up on cassette tape, with the latter also being very unreliable.
In the mid 80’s DCO’s were no biggie and only later on started to be considered inferior. DCO debates are still in fashion today and there is definitely merit in the opinions people have about them, but as it’s my intension to put things into perspective, we need to remember a few things. Remember, there were a lot more gigging keyboard players in the 80’s than producers, so reliability on stage was important. The most important factor was stability. Tuning your synth in changing climates was no fun. If you were living in a cold climate and the front and back door of a club opened up, the cold draught would instantly cause you to play in a different key. DCO’s instantly solved those tuning issues, but also gave the instrument a more clinical sound. This is something we only started to become aware of later, when the 2nd hand market grew bigger, with synths exchanging more hands and ears. When we were all more focused on new sounds and less on the quality of them, we never initially questioned the DCO. I cannot remember anyone back then moaning about the fact that a Juno had DCO’s. The introduction of the DCO back then was of course also the main reason for prices of poly synths to drop, so people had no reason to complain. This has unfortunately also put the JX-8P in the “not so wanted” category of synths these days. If it had VCO's it would be a completely different story.
The DCO’s produce 4-types of Waveforms, with a Ramp-up Sawtooth, Square, Pulse and Noice for each oscillator. However, the Pulse waveform is fixed like that on the Minimoog, so PWM is not possible on the JX-8P, which gave the Juno’s a more evolving character, but the 8P had its own way of getting the sound to evolve.
Envelopes with a twist
For me personally the Envelopes are the most important part of any synth, as this shapes the sound to the way you play it. A synth either has very fast, accurate and snappy Envelopes or it has very sloth-ish envelopes that are impossible to find a sweet spot on. Unfortunately the 8P possesses the latter type. This is perhaps why it’s not as wanted as a Juno-6/60, as you cannot make snappy drum sounds with it. There is a Simmons drum type preset on there, but the envelope slope is simply not fast enough to get any other convincing drum sounds happening. For bass sounds snappy envelopes are also essential, hens why the 8P is not a popular bass synth. On the other hand, it also gives it its own character and it even has a trick up its sleeve that no other synth of that era featured. Keyboard-Tracking or Key-Follow, usually only applies to the Filter Frequency, where the notes become either brighter or duller as you play up and down the keyboard. The JX-8P applies Key-Follow to the Envelope amount as well. What’s the point of that? Well, acoustic instruments also change in envelope when going up and down in pitch. Say a piano for example, the lower strings are longer, thus ringing out longer, as opposed to the higher strings which are shorter and vibrate for a much shorter time. This was what Roland had in mind with the 8P, which I have not come across on any other analog synth.
The 8P has Unison mode which stacks all 12-oscillators and these voices can be detuned from each other. Solo mode simply turns the synth into a mono instrument, but unfortunately only uses 1-voice, so you cannot use Unison in mono for fat, legato leads or basses. Then there are the two Poly modes that were found on the Juno-106 and Jupiters, with one of the modes using legato on polyphonic playing. This means that when striking a new chord that has a longer release, the release of the previous chord will be cut off.
An almost obligatory feature on the more affordable Roland synths is the Chorus effect. Even though the JX-8P has a 2-oscillator voice architecture, a chorus was still included and gives it that typical Roland character. Without the chorus the synth can still sound big enough, but it’s that chorus effect that instantly tells you it’s a Roland synth. The reason for why I think the chorus was included, is that the percussive sounds like the Marimba, Bells and EP’s needed a sharp, spiky attack, so the 2nd oscillator had to be pitched up a couple of octaves to produce the attack. The Chorus would therefor need to act like a 2nd detuned oscillator to fatten the sound. This was actually a pretty clever solution in order to make the JX-8P sound like a DX and still being able to produce fat analog sounds as well.
The chorus has two fixed modes, slow and fast and there is no level-control, but this doesn’t really matter as it sounds perfect the way it is. Also worth mentioning is that the Chorus on the JX-8P is not as noisy as those on the Juno-6/60 and JX-3P. Because the Chorus is Stereo, the 8P has stereo outputs, which the DX-7 didn’t have.
JX-10 & MKS-70
Roland realised that the JX-8P was too much of a DX doppelgänger, so they had to think of something else. In 1986 they released the JX-10, a large behemoth of a synth with 76-keys and a dual JX-8P synth engine. Yamaha had released the DX-5 in 1985, which also had 76-keys and a dual engine, so again Roland were not ashamed to continue their mimicry. Because the Super JX had two JX-8P engines, it was possible to play both via separate MIDI channels and audio outputs. This meant that both engines had their own dedicated Chorus and Chase effects as well. Whole mode allowed you to play one sound combining all 12-voices. When using the two engines separately, in either split or dual mode, you have to store the sound as a Patch. To edit each sound individually you enter the Edit-Tone mode. This made the JX-10 and MKS-70 somewhat less enticing to program and play than the JX-8P. Speaking of editing, the JX-8P, JX-10 and MKS-70 could all be controlled with an optional PG-800 programmer.
As programming through page-editing had become the norm by the mid 80’s, with almost everyone using a DX-7, not everyone saw the need for having a PG-800, causing an imbalance in the number of synths and programmers sold. Programming the JX through page-editing is not as bad as editing the DX7, it’s actually quite easy. Once you start to memorise the numbers of the main parameters, making quick tweaks is not that much of a hassle. The PG-800 is absolutely worth acquiring though, but as mentioned earlier, has not been sold in equal quantities. Quite possibly only half the number of JX-8P, JX-10 or MKS-70 sold. People would first buy the synth and consider a programmer later, as the factory presets initially gave them enough material to work with. This imbalance has caused the PG-800 to be sold for steep prices on the 2nd hand market. The PG800 can also be used on the GR-77 Bass guitar synth, which is a pretty rare instrument.
With more people valuing knobs and sliders these days, the hunt for PG-800’s will only get worse, but small companies have come to the rescue, building alternative programmers, such as the Kiwi Technics Patch Editor, which also works on other Roland synths like the Super-Jupiter, Alpha Juno and JX-3P. The BRC-2000 controller can also be configured as a programmer, but this requires some investigating and trialling before it works properly. There are also iPad editors available, but I have no experience with those. Then there is a recently developed MPG-70 programmer for the Super-JX, which also works for the 8P. This controller looks absolutely amazing, but also has an amazing hefty price tag. It’s available as a kit as well.
As was standard by 1986, a rack version was also introduced. The MKS-70 was really the rack version of the JX-10. The model number doesn’t refer to anything. I presume it was a number that hadn’t been used yet, after the MKS-7, 10, 20, 30, 50 and 80. The only difference between the MKS-70 and JX-10, apart from the keyboard obviously, is the sequencer. The sequencer on the JX-10 was of the scratch-pad type. By 1986 multitrack MIDI sequencers had become commonplace, so it’s not quite clear why Roland included one, as the sequencer on the JX-10 doesn’t have any unique features, like quantisation or note editing. It is however possible to punch notes in and out and the sequencer can be clocked via MIDI. There is no sequencer or arpeggiator on the JX-8P by the way. The MKS-70 was given a short manufacturing run, with the more popular D-550 following soon after in 1987, thus making the MKS much harder to find.
Like for the Juno-106 and JX-3P, there is an upgrade for the 8P as well, from New Zealand Company Kiwi Technics, who also make the aforementioned universal programmer. This vastly expands on the capabilities of the 8P. Personally I am not a great fan of any upgrade, as the instrument loses its original charm and simplicity is often what drives musicality more than bells and whistles, but this can be a whole different topic of discussion, one I might write about in the future.
Where can the JX-8P be heard?
Despite of what I said about the DX-7 being more popular and being featured a lot on the records of the time, I often hear heaps of 80’s tracks that heavily featured the JX-8P. Especially on Dance oriented tracks. There is a really cool track by Tululah Moon, called “If You Want Love” which heavily features the JX-8P. The JX-10 can also be heard a lot on Pop records and even more on Jazz Fusion records. Pat Metheny’s keyboard player “Lyle Mays” even had a factory preset named after him, which he has used a lot on the late 80’s, early 90’s Pat Metheny Group albums and on his own solo albums. Nik Kershaw was also a big fan of the JX-10 and featured it loads on his albums “Radio Musicola” and “The Works”. Russel Ferrante of Jazz Fusion giants The Yellowjackets used the JX-10 on their Four Corners album, Politics, The Spin, Live Wires and Greenhouse. Russel was a big fan of that airy horn factory preset that you can hear a lot on the aforementioned albums. One of my favourite R&B bands Mint Condition, used it as their main bass synth on their debut album "Meant to be Mint" from 1992, despite of what I said earlier of the envelopes not being fast enough for bass sounds.
Then there is of course the one very famous track that put the JX-8P centre stage. The main Horn melody of the 1986 world wide smash hit “The Final Countdown” by Swedish Metal band Europe, is possibly one of the most popular play-along melodies of all time. It’s a melody and sound that’s still familiar with even young people today and yes, that sound is a JX-8P factory preset. Playing that melody on the JX-8P in public is at one’s own risk.
The JX-8P is a totally unique sounding synthesizer and there is no other hardware synth that sounds remotely similar. However, there is a VST out there that can give you an almost one-on-one JX-8P experience and it’s completely free. This VST is called the PG-8X. I don’t think I have ever heard a VST that sounded so close to the original. It sounds almost identical. It even allows you to exchange sounds between hard and software, so you can also use the PG-8X as a software editor and storage medium for your hardware JX. You can get a Super-JX happening by layering two instances of the PG-8X. You’re then of course not limited to just two layers. All the factory presets, plus sounds programmed by various other people, are all available for free to download if you do a search.
Availability and issues
There are more JX-8P’s than Super JX’s, as Super JX’s were more expensive and too big to carry around. The MKS-70 is even less common and will therefor have a higher price on the 2nd hand market. As mentioned before, the PG-800 will be the hardest to find. The biggest problem JX’s have in general is with the Aftertouch. This requires cleaning of the aftertouch bar underneath the keys. Although doable, this is an incredibly time consuming and tedious job, which might even result in little improvement when not done thoroughly, as I have experienced myself. Getting a technician to do it for you may end up costing a lot, as they would also have trouble doing it. If you are handy enough and you can find the time and patience to do it, then you will probably succeed, but again, do enough research and don’t approach the job lightly. Of course, this will not be an issue with the MKS-70 rack version, but even the keyboard versions can of course be used as a module through MIDI.
Their cosmetic conditions can most often be appalling. I have rarely or never come across a 2nd hand JX in pristine condition. Due to its flat-top design they are often used as work benches, so scratches, dings and punctured membranes are unfortunately mostly the norm. Because the side panels are made of plastic, the modulation section on the left is often discoloured, due to people resting their hands on the pitch-bender, causing sweat of the hand to abrade the plastic and paint. The touch membranes on the 8P can tare over time, if the instrument was used intensively or carelessly. Thankfully on the Super JX Roland had learned that the touch membranes, (like Yamaha did with the DX-7) are not durable enough, so they used buttons instead on the JX-10 and MKS-70. These buttons are also not exempt from issues, as dust and gunk builds up inside, but at least this can be cleaned. I'm not aware of any company making replacement membranes for the JX-8P, but one solution may be to get the Kiwi upgrade, which comes with a new overlay.
Originally the JX came with a Patch and MIDI Edit-Map magnet-strip that you could place anywhere on the metal chassis. Where the PG-800 is suppose to be placed, there is another printed chart of the Tone-Edit-Map. The purpose of this magnet was probably to be able to shift it elsewhere if a PG-800 was placed on top of the instrument. Unfortunately these magnetic strips get lost as the instruments change hands, together with the instruction manual.
The same goes for the M-16C memory cartridge that came with the JX. These are often missing when seeing a JX for sale. Therefor a trade in cartridges has become a nagging trend. The M-16C is a 16kb memory card used for storing your own patches or backing up the internal sounds. That’s 16-Kilobytes BTW, just to give you an indication of how scarce and expensive memory was at the time. Expect to pay hefty prices for them now, especially for an M-64C. There was a UK company called Skyslip that made cheaper alternatives, but I have yet to spot one of those on the 2nd hand market and am not even sure if they were ever sold.
As stated in the intro of this blog, the JX-8P arrived a little late to the party. It picked up a bit more interest during the resurgence of analog, but was still suffering from the popularity of the higher regarded Jupiter and Juno series. It was unfortunate that a valid instrument such as the JX-8P was already starting to become obsolete at its release, with analog synths already becoming less popular. So why purchase a real JX if the VST version is just as good? You can use more than one, which is not possible with the hardware version. I ask myself these questions all the time. What if I sell my JX-8P or MKS-70, spend the money on something else and happily continue with the VST? I’d earn some extra dosh, create more space and don’t need to connect it to an audio-interface and MIDI. With the VST I can do everything in the box, retaining all the settings and being able to travel with it. A hardware JX will need to be recorded as audio when I want to take the sound with me out of the studio.
Then I soon realise the following. Who can guarantee me that the VST will be supported by future operating systems, DAW’s and the developer of the VST themselves? How often haven’t we already fallen into the trap of compatibility issues? 32-bit to 64-bit, DAW’s having to adapt to the changes Apple or Microsoft make to their OS’s and the VST developer giving up on continuing to code to VST-3? We will never be able to foresee these changes, as software technology is ever changing. These built-in redundancy aspects are forever looming. With a hardware JX you can pretty much be guaranteed that it hasn’t got that expiry date. Yes, there is always a probability of the unit breaking down, but finding back another unit in great condition will become increasingly more difficult over time, as its low price make people care less about the condition.
Recording the hardware synth as audio into your DAW can also be considered as a plus. It forces you to learn more, as you do more of the engineering and by committing to a sound, it pushes you to think harder and challenge your creative limits, which is not the case with software, where changes can be made later, making you more complacent and indecisive. With hardware you have to pay more attention to getting it right, thus improving your skills. I often play the 8P live into a track, as whatever sound I find always seems to work.
The JX-8P may not be as classic analog sounding as the Jupiter-8. This is still very much a true analog synthesizer though. The DCO’s are still analog-generated, they’re just kept in tune by a digital circuit. This means it still has a smooth sound, without any digital aliasing harshness. The downside to this is that the oscillator cycles and the way the envelopes react to them are not as unpredictable and do not produce that snap that the Jupiter-8 has. This makes the JX-8P sound a bit lazy, but in some ways it can sound even better than a Jupiter, especially brass and pad sounds are bigger and warmer sounding.
This synth is serious fun, even without the Programmer. Accessing and changing the parameters is really easy and as soon as you spend some time learning the machine, the sooner you realise that you don’t really need the Programmer. Because the JX-8P is an analog synth, there are not many parameters to learn anyway, unlike on the DX-7. However, as mentioned before, working with the touch-membranes can result in wear and tare, so a PG-800 might be a wise consideration. The JX is a very compact instrument, with a great feeling keybed, but its sound is what should be the main reason for getting it. It’s very warm and lush sounding. Strings and brass is probably what is does best, but don’t dismiss the other sounds it can do, which are virtually impossible to create on any other synth. The shimmery Bells, Organs, Flutes and even the EP sounds are highly useable and full sounding. This is not a sound designers wet dream, the JX-8P is more an instrument than an FX machine. No routing Matrixes here. It’s a very plain and simple instrument to use, which is exactly why I think it’s so much fun. The same way the Juno series of synths are fun, it’s their simplicity and great sound that invites you to play it.
As far as other alternatives go, there are a couple of other synths that reside in the same league, from around the same era. The Akai AX-80 is one of them, which came out in 1984. In 1986 Oberheim released the quite similar sounding and looking Matrix-6, which has way more editing capabilities than the JX-8P, but is not as good sounding to my ears. Perhaps more available in Europe than elsewhere around the world, are the EK-22 & EK44 from Italian company ELKA. Same sort of deal in terms of specs and also released in 1986. Then there is the Korg DW-8000 from 1986, which had digitally sampled waveforms, thus not sounding as warm as the JX. From Roland’s own stable, there’s the Alpha Juno, which can sound quite similar to the JX-8P, but lacks a few of its sound shaping features.
Roland have reissued almost every single one of their classic synths in the form of a Boutique or Cloud based plug-in/out, but the JX-8P is just not one of them. This is somewhat peculiar, as the Juno-106 and JX-3P sound quite similar to each other. The 8P offers a more unique character. I guess the synth is not popular enough to be worth modelling for the masses. The more reason for you to snap one up and add its unique tone to your arsenal.
Thanks heaps fro reading!!!!