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ICON interview with the Roland Boutique design team

Original Japanese article Translation courtesy Yaruzo

Left to right: Mr Onishi, Mr Tojo, and Mr Toyama

The new series Roland Boutique, announced yesterday, is a new type of product that revives the sound and look of the famous synths Jupiter-8, Juno-106, and JX-3P in a compact size. The originals’ sound is faithfully reproduced using the advanced modeling technology ACB and includes the originals’ synthesis parameters. On top of that it’s possible to create sounds that exceed the originals with the addition of new osc and LFO waveforms, extended parameter ranges, etc. The Boutique series also has the possibility to attach a keyboard unit, a step sequencer, and a ribbon controller that plays scales.

ICON interviewed the developers of Boutique at Roland’s Hamamatsu Research Center and got to hear thoroughly how this unique new product came to be from Mr Tojo, Mr Onishi, and Mr Toyama.

This article is the first part of the interview. The second part, scheduled for publication next week, will include an interview with the legendary developers behind the original synths.

First please explain the starting point of the Boutique series development

Tojo It started with wanting to create a synth that is compact yet genuine, that at a glance looks like a gadget but makes an amazing sound. We wanted to create a synth that is easy to enjoy, has built-in speakers, and can run on batteries. ACB had just been launched with AIRA and JD-Xi had just come out with mini keys so we thought that by combining these we should be able to create something interesting. The idea of creating an easy to enjoy synth based on ACB and using mini keys came up at the end of last year (2014), and we started development in January this year (2015).

Did you have the idea to develop it based on old famous synths from the beginning?

Tojo Yes, we wanted to recreate famous synths that everybody knows with ACB and mini keys. Jupiter-8 and Juno-106 are popular synths even now so they were immediate candidates. We wanted one more in the lineup, and decided on the JX-3P since it has a different type of sound from Jupiter and Juno. The decision to go with these three was fairly easy.

What about these three synths did you feel made them so appreciated?

Tojo The three have truly amazing and different personalities. I think these strong personalities appealed to many people, and gave birth to new styles of music. And you felt the soul of the synth developer.

Toyama I thought once again that the Juno’s chorus is really characteristic. During development of these products we talked with the developers of the originals, and was told the Juno-106 only had one osc to keep the price down, but since the sound wasn’t thick enough with one osc the chorus circuit was added. So that sound was born from devising a way of covering up that it’s just one osc. When hearing that I thought they really turned a potential disaster into something fortunate (lol).

Onishi Among the three original synths the only one I had touched was the Juno, so the sound of the Jupiter-8 and JX-3P was really fresh. When approaching analog synths anew, the changes to the sound when moving the sliders is really nice. I feel I understand why so many people love these three synths.

Tojo I had also not touched a Jupiter-8 before this project so I was happy to play with it a lot.

Is it correct to say that the sound of the original synths is recreated digitally using ACB?

Tojo Yes. There are also no parameters in the original synths that don’t exist in the Boutique series [1]. There might be some layout changes due to panel space, but it basically follows the originals’ design.

Onishi But some parameters have had their ranges extended, and osc and LFO waveforms have been added. For example the JP-08 has added triangle and noise LFO shapes, and VCO-1 has an added sine wave, and both oscs’ range have been extended.

Toyama In the JU-06 the LFO rate range is extended, and the HPF, which had 4 steps in the original, is now continuously variable. So while the sound remains the same, the sound design capabilities go beyond the originals.

Onishi The JX-3P has the most added parameters: two saw waveforms and noise added to the LFO, sine, saw, and noise added to the DCO, whose range has also been extended. There are also three new modes of X-mod added.

Toyama And the JU-06’s chorus 1 and 2 can be activated at the same time. The Juno-6 and 60 had that capability, but not the Juno-106. When talking with synth maniacs, apparently there are people who buy a Juno-6/60 for that, so we thought in that case the JU-06 should support it too.

Tojo The double chorus is like a dream setting for Juno-106 fans? (lol)

Do Boutique and AIRA share the same dev team?

Tojo No, at Roland teams are formed based on the product, so our members are assembled for the Boutique series. But the AIRA devs also helped a little with ACB.

You mentioned before that you interviewed the developers of the original synths...

Tojo ACB can simulate in-depth as long as you have a circuit diagram and the original synth, but during the course of development there are parts that you just don’t comprehend. For example Juno-106’s “low boost” is such a component where we just wonder why the circuits are that way. In those kind of cases we talked with the engineers involved in the development of the originals.

They're 4 voice polyphonic, right?

Tojo Yes, the three synths are all 4 voice poly, and can switch between poly/solo/unison modes. In case 4 voice poly isn’t enough, you can MIDI chain multiple devices together to increase polyphony. With 2 devices you get 8 voices, etc. It’s pretty sweet connecting two JP-08s. I think we recreate the thickness and depths of the originals’ sound well. BTW there’s no particular limit to how many devices can be chained, but since it’s MIDI you might notice latency when connecting too many (lol).

Can devices of different models be chained?

Tojo Yes, but when chaining the same model the parameters are correctly linked. When chaining different models it’s just that the polyphony is increased. [2]

Toyama There’s a stereo mini in, so when chaining the output sound can be collated too. The audio in gets played by the built-in speaker and output from the USB interface.

There’s a USB audio interface as well?

Tojo Yes, MIDI and audio gets sent through the USB port.

The sample rate is 96kHz on the AIRA series but 44.1kHz for Boutique?

Tojo Yes, sound quality was stressed for the AIRA series, but we got a lot of user feedback saying it was hard to use. For Boutique we have gone with the most standard 44.1kHz because we wanted to make a product many people can enjoy.

Onishi Regarding audio in/out and headphone ports, we listened to the opinions of lots of people and went with stereo mini. It should be easier for connecting speakers and smartphones.

No AC adapter, eh?

Onishi The means of getting power is through USB. So you can use a generic USB adapter. We can’t guarantee it, but since it’s USB it can also run off a mobile battery.

What about making the device a desktop module and the keyboard separate?

Tojo In the beginning we were developing it with integrated keyboard, but we thought there would be people who wanted only the sound module, and that having a separate keyboard makes it easier to carry with you, so we changed to this style. The dedicated keyboard unit K-25m has 25 velocity-sensitive keys and connects to the Boutique synths with a 16 pin flat cable.

Onishi And the K-25m can hold the sound modules at 3 different angles. At first we didn’t think of this functionality, but when seeing a sketch with a raised panel we thought it looked analog synth-ish, so we changed it to support 3 angles. At that time the development was already far progressed and it was hard on the manufacturing planning staff. They said the inspiration for the raised panel design came from a child’s toy.

The keyboard is 2 octaves, but how did you decide on the general size of the sound modules?

Tojo We thought we wanted to make it A4 sized with the keyboard attached. It’s the size of an easy-to-carry laptop.

Toyama So it also fits in a laptop bag (lol).

Tojo And we’ve also refined the packaging design, we had a “book style” as an image. Like when you’re not using it, you would put it in the package and store it on a book shelf.

Is there any feature that is not easily noticed at a glance?

Tojo Even without the K-25m attached, the ribbon controller can be used to play notes. By default it’s chromatic, but you can choose from a number of preset scales. There’s also the 16 step, 16 pattern sequencer. The steps can be rearranged, and it syncs to MIDI clock, so there’s a lot to play with. The ribbon controller can also be used for sequencer input.

What aspect would you say you elaborated on especially on during development?

We wanted it to appeal as an item to own. So we made the casing metal and put LEDs in the sliders etc to give it a “boutique feeling”.

They look like miniatures of the originals. They’ll trigger everyone’s GAS (Get A Synth: One’s desire to buy a new synthesizer), eh?

Tojo Yeah, we felt that the originals have strong personalities, not just the sound but also in the design, so we wanted to incorporate the essence of this look.

Was there any rough part during development?

Tojo Using the ACB technology so of course that was a lot of work, but not something to phone home about. If anything, the panel-raising mechanism. It’s also hard to fit all the circuits in this size.

Onishi And the battery power part. At first we wanted it to run on two AA batteries, but for the internal speaker and to get better signal-to-noise ratio in the analog parts we went with four batteries. They last about 6 hours.

Tojo He used to be in the R-09/05 field recorder team, so he has a lot of know-how on battery powering devices. [field recorder stuff...]

How do you feel as devs now that the product is completed?

Toyama I think we got an instrument that the generation who doesn’t know the originals, like me, can enjoy.

Tojo When showing the finished product around inside the company, everyone says they want one. I think a product that everyone wants is rare. I want it too (lol).

Onishi It’s a limited production run so those who want one should reserve one fast (lol).

Can we expect Boutique versions of TR-808/909, TB-303 as a continuation of this series?

Tojo Hmm... after product launch we will listen to customer feedback and consider the next step.


^ Note 1: While strictly correct, there is one parameter value missing in the JP-08: The Jupiter-8 has the ability to give VCO2 a noise waveform, either white noise or pink noise. The JP-08 compensates for this by allowing ACB-VCO1 to generate white noise, and for the LFO to also generate noise. Note that the JP-08 does not, unlike the Jupiter-8, have a pink noise generator.

^ Note 2: This isn’t really clear, so let me clarify based on the contents of the JP-08 manual and an online video from Roland Australia. The manual states that “If Chain mode is on, the fifth voice and subsequent notes are passed “thru” via MIDI OUT.”

This means that it doesn’t matter what’s after the JP-08. If you hit a five-note chord and have a JP-08 and a Jupiter-8 with MIDI retrofit, the first four notes will be played on the JP-08, and the fifth note will be played on the Jupiter-8. Ditto if the synth after the JP-08 is a DX7 (or Reface DX) — but the fifth note may end up sounding a little different.

Now, if the critter after the JP-08 device is another JP-08, moving the sliders on the JP-08 will affect the second JP-08; see this video for details.