The JP-8000 is a keyboard manufactured by Roland in 1996/97 as one of its first entries into the "virtual analog" synthesizer era. Its trademark is the "supersaw" waveform, which gave birth to the chart topping Dutch Trance sound that continues to define the genre in the eyes of mainstream society today. Yes, that definitive "Trance" synth sound that most people know about owes itself almost entirely to the JP-8000, and although dated by today's production standard, it is still sought after (rather overzealously) as "the holy grail of Trance production" by its own devoted cult following.

The Era of Virtual Analog Synthesis

It sounds like a hollow marketing term, and although it was at the time, as more producers have come to accept the idea, it has become the distinguishing mark of the current generation of equipment. The idea was simple; to create a modern day digital equivalent of the behemoth analog synthesizers of old, with expanded functionality and convenience only digital technology can provide. Naturally, many people were skeptical about this idea. They wondered, "How can a discrete algorithm replicate the abberations of the voltage controlled synthesis of the past?" For it was that analog grittiness that so well complemented a horn or guitar at the front of a band, and secured the keyboard's place in recording and stage performance.

It wouldn't be too far off for you to wonder whether or not it was able to deliver what it promised, and these days the vast consensus among most musicians is pretty much "yes". If you watch most bands, young or old, perform live or on television, you can see they're using Nord Leads, Nord Electro, Korg Triton, and so on; all various incarnations of the "virtual analog" concept. Why? I'll get to that in a minute.

For a moment, though, let's go back in time and examine what this era of equipment was trying to replace. Some of the earlier digital synthesizers during the 80s had inspiring sounds of their own, but the lack of people buying them (synthesizers were much more of a niche thing back then) meant less budget for manufacturers. That combined with the comparatively infantile state of semiconductor manufacturing at the time meant that most of them didn't hold a candle to analog. They just didn't have the same warmth (not enough detail and definition to their sound), so keyboard players for Rock and Jazz bands continued to swear by time tested Moog, Oberheim, and Sequential synths, among others.

Then came the mid 90s. The compact disc took a while to catch on, but it proved that while digital technology couldn't dethrone analog completely (I'm talking about vinyl records here, which are still widely in use today), it boasted fierce competition in terms of affordability and convenience. Not only that, but it didn't sound too bad, either. That's an understatement; it sounded fantastic. It makes a perfect parallel with the success of the JP-8000, and other equipment of its generation (viz. Korg Prophecy). I mean, what do you do with your $5000 US vintage Moog if it breaks? If it had a warranty, it expired a long time ago. In light of all these attractive features, digital was really starting to make sense. It meant freedom, and that's worth a lot to a musician.

An Explanation of the Supersaw, the "Rave Synth" Sound

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In order to define "supersaw," we first need to understand the concept of a sawtooth waveform, a classic staple of synthesizer programming. The timbre can be visually represented by what is depicted above, a waveform oscillation with sharp teeth, hence "sawtooth." What does it sound like? As contrasted with the naturalistic sine wave, it is very bright, very harsh. I might even go so far as to say dominating. Nevertheless, in the early evolution of synthesizers when only one oscillator was readily available, this wasn't particularly interesting. By itself, you merely have a thin, brittle periodic waveform with a lot of treble content. Rather annoying, actually.

Some years later, when multiple oscillators were more common, somebody (it is impossible to say for sure who) got the idea to stack two of these and detune them around a primary tone. Say for example your target tone is 440 hz, or A. You set two oscillators to play sawtooth waveforms and detune one 12 cents below pitch and the other 12 cents above pitch. It sounds like A, but it has this incredible thickness to it. The spectral fullness of the saw was now more realized. The two tones "beat against" each other, mixing into an irregular oscillation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Synthesizers now had a commanding presence the likes of which rivaled (and perhaps even surpassed) many live instruments.

Chalk it up to society's perpetual overstimulation perhaps, but it didn't stop there. You guessed it; more oscillators. If it's possible to achieve this effect with two, why not try more? Thus came the concept of the supersaw (which didn't have a name yet, but after Roland's use of the term as a selling point for the JP-8000, this is now what it is called). In theory, any number of oscillators producing a sawtooth wave (or any other waveform) could be detuned off the primary in an orderly (or disorderly) fashion to produce increasingly warmer and richer tones. The first digital synthesizer to serve this concept up to the masses in a convenient fashion was the JP-8000. That's a sound you can build a genre on, and that's what happened.

Many would say that this sound, and the popularization of it by the JP-8000, also lead to Trance being commercialized (and some would say exploited). The supersaw, when drenched in reverb and delay and played in certain ascending chord progressions, assumes the anthemic proportions that would be one of the major proponents in making "Rave music" mainstream. "Dutch Trance," (so called for its place of origin), "Epic Trance," "Melodic Trance" and so on are some of the various names this late form of the genre assumes (subgenre is based on the presence or absence of vocals, whether the track is oriented towards the radio or club, etc). Example tracks would be "Airwave" by Rank 1, and "Connective" by Nu-NRG.

About the Roland JP-8000 and JP-8080

The keyboard (and rack synth version, the JP-8080) features a dark blue plastic enclosure with orange type designating the various functions of the machine (blue/orange complementary color schemes were common to graphic design at the time, as well as being the preference of Roland). It is highly programmable with a large variety of knobs and sliders to mold its sound to taste, but its signature oscillation is the aforementioned supersaw. It also features primitive TB-303 emulation (there are a wide variety of opinions about how "good" this sounds, the truth of the matter being that the lowpass filter doesn't support the right dB cutoff to reproduce the sound of the 303 accurately).

In terms of fitting in with a studio setup, it should be noted that there is no onboard sequencer except for what equates to more or less a "sketch pad" for your compositions (the issue will have to be addressed by an external sequencer of some kind). The LCD screen is rather small and only serves to show you fine parameter adjustments, names of patches, and the like. Other than that, it is quite useful in the studio. Its polyphony makes possible potential applications as a lead, bass, pads, ambience or anything in between. A feedback oscillator and ribbon control have been included, which can facilitate some really dynamic performances, making this a great synth outside of the studio as well.

What are some appealing aspects?

  • It can be purchased from various vendors on eBay for approximately $450 - $700 US, a fraction of the price of modern virtual analog equipment.
  • Its signature sound is reputed among some as a cultural phenomenon.
  • The teeth of the saw are very well defined. Roland didn't cut corners when designing their algorithm and hardware, as a preview of this synth will readily testify.
  • Very wide popularity, and hence a lot of information, patch banks, and so on are available.

What are its drawbacks?

  • Average price has been increasing as more people discover it.
  • Dated functionality doesn't perform at the level of the modern "heavy weight" in its class, the Access Virus (then again, it is about a 3rd the price used). Whether or not other modern virtual analog synths sound better is a subject of debate.
  • Legacy product, no longer supported by Roland per se (most of their customer service reps probably don't even know what it is).
  • Not particularly expandable; meant to be programmed instead of loaded with various sample sets and expansion cards.

Technical Specifications

Polyphony: 8 voices
Oscillators: 2 Roland Analog Modeling DSP oscillators: Saw, Square (PWM), Triangle (PWM),
Super Saw (7 de-tuned Saws), Triangle Mod, Feedback OSC, noise
Filter: Resonant 12/24dB/oct low pass / band pass / hi pass; ring modulator
Effects: Onboard digital delay and chorus
Memory: 128 preset patches, 128 user patches, 64 performances, 64 user performances
Arp/Sequencer: Powerful vintage-style arpeggiator with beat patterns; Programmable real-time
Phrase Sequencing (RPS) functions
Keyboard: 49 keys (with velocity)
Control: MIDI (2 parts)
Date Produced: 1996
Est. Value: $1,200 (full mint, and you're also likely to find this price in a pawn shop)

Some incredible demonstrations of its sound (provided you don't subscribe to the ideology that mainstream Trance is to be universally reviled) can be heard at http://vengeance-sound.de, which can be purchased as "performances," (i.e. synth patches) if you own one. Those seeking a software equivalent can look into Refx Vanguard (does not adhere to quite the same methods or ideas, but produces amazing sounds along similar lines, also costs money), Superwave P8 (not as interesting, but somewhat more true to the JP-8000), or samples (although you really can't achieve the same effect from sampling the synth). Some samples of it can be obtained at http://www.modarchive.com/waveworld/soundstate.shtml.



Sources:
http://www.sonicstate.com/synth/roland_jp8000.cfm
http://www.vintagesynth.com/roland/jp8000.shtml (doesn't always load)