Roland JX-03 Boutique Series Synthesizer Module
By Phil O'Keefe |
Roland JX-03 Boutique Series Synthesizer Module
Return of a misunderstood classic 1980s polysynth in Roland's Boutique module form
by Phil O'Keefe
Back in 1983 at the dawn of the MIDI era, Roland released their first MIDI-equipped synth - the JX-3P. The 3P stood for Programmable, Preset, Polyphonic… and it was all three; a six voice dual DCO analog synth that, despite its multiple button / single data slider programming approach was in fact fully programmable, but it was not nearly as hands-on as Roland's previous synths (unless you paid extra for the optional knob-rich PG-200 programmer).
Many people assumed the JX-3P was just a preset synth that couldn't be programmed, but that wasn't the case. The JX-3P had 16 program buttons and four banks (A-D), with the first two banks filled with factory preset sounds and the second two with writable memory locations for storing your own sounds. In other words, it had the heart of a great programmable analog synth, but the interface wasn't very user-friendly without that extra-cost PG-200, which probably explains why it was never as popular as Roland's Juno series synths.
Fast forward to the present day, and to Roland's successful line of Boutique modules that re-imagine some of their most popular vintage models from days gone by. The JX-03 was one of the original batch of three Roland Boutique modules first announced near the end of 2015. Roland says these are limited editions, but never really defined what they meant by that. Now nearly two years later, the JU-06 appears to be sold out and the JP-08 and JX-03 are being sold at reduced prices by some dealers, so now's the time to jump in if you haven't already. Since I recently picked up a pair, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the JX-03 with you.
- As part of Roland's Boutique series of modules, the JX-03 shares the same basic design of all other models in the series , with a beefy metal face and rear panel atop an otherwise plastic housing that measures 300 mm W x 128 mm D x 46 mm H (11 13/16" x 5 1/16" x 1 13/16") and weighs 950 g - that's about 2 pounds 2 ounces. In other words, it's really small and relatively light.
- Like the other Boutiques, the JX-03 can be used with Roland's optional K-25m mini keyboard ($99.99 "street"). A small port on the underside of the JX-03 lets you connect the ribbon cable from the K-25m, and the module mounts directly into the keyboard case, so you can set it flat or angle it upwards to one of two positions.
- Similarly, Roland also offers an optional non-keyboard housing / docking unit called the DK-01 ($49.99 "street" ). Like the K-25m, it lets you set the inserted Boutique module flat or to one of two angled positions for easier viewing and operation. The units will work just fine without the optional keyboard or dock.
- Speaking of operation, despite the relatively small size, everything is surprisingly easy to adjust and control. All the knobs and switches feel robust and sturdy.
- While there's a on / off switch on the rear, there's no power jack. Instead the JX-03 can be powered by four AA batteries (four alkaline or Ni-MH batteries give you about 6 hours of run time), or it can be bus-powered over a micro B USB connector.
- The battery compartment is located on the unit's underside, and Roland includes four AA alkaline batteries in the box. The box is actually pretty cool, and will work as a storage case (although Roland and others offer cases and bags that are specifically designed for the Boutique series modules).
- A small speaker on the bottom pairs with an internal .5 W amp, so you can use the JX-03 practically anywhere.
- The rear-panel Micro USB connector serves multiple functions. Connecting it to a computer bus-powers the JX-03 so you don't need batteries. Or, you can use a rechargeable USB power bank (as described in this article) to power the unit instead of using AA batteries.
- The Micro B USB connector also carries both MIDI and digital audio, giving you a basic 24 bit 44.1 kHz audio and MIDI interface. You'll need a Mac running OSX 10.9 or later, or a Windows PC running Windows 7 or later to use these features. The drivers are available for download directly from Roland.
- The I/O is all on stereo TRS 1/8" (3.5 mm) mini jacks located on the rear panel. Unfortunately the input jack doesn't route external audio through the synth's filters, but it does allow daisy-chaining the signal from multiple Boutique units (or your phone or iOS device) and have all the sound come out of the same speaker. Anything sent to the input jack is also digitized through the A/D converters and sent out over the USB audio interface.
- Prefer using headphones instead of the mini speaker? Roland has you covered with a stereo 3.5 mm headphone jack.
- Also on the back you'll find a pair of 5-pin MIDI DIN jacks - one in, and one out. In addition to standard MIDI functionality, these are also used when daisy chaining two or more units together.
- The JX-03 is a four-voice polyphonic synth, while the original JX-3P was six-voice polyphonic. Daisy chaining multiple JX-03 units is supported through a Chain mode for increased polyphony. Poly, Solo and Unison modes are available.
- Some people might complain that unlike the original, this is not an analog synth. Like many of the other Boutiques, the JX-03 uses Roland's ACB - Analog Circuit Behavior. They digitally modeled the original synth at the component level, and while direct comparisons (check YouTube) between the JX-03 and its predecessor don't always yield exactly identical-sounding results, the similarity is remarkable. In the context of a mix, most people would never be able to tell them apart, and even soloed out, the sound is incredibly close - often practically identical.
- While they're modeled versions, the JX-03's various controls and voice architecture are very similar to the original synth, including two DCOs, a VCF, VCA, LFO, and ADSR Envelope. The chorus of the original is included too, and there's even a second chorus option that you won't find on the original keyboard synth, along with a new digital delay. The chorus has modeled "noise" that simulates the noise of the original, but this can be turned off.
- Some other aspects are also different in a good way. Roland has added extra Sine, Sawtooth and Noise waveforms to the modeled DCOs that weren't present in the JX-3P, along with giving the DCOs in the JX-03 extra range, with new 2' and 64' settings. There are also two new sawtooth waveforms and a noise option added to the LFO, as well as three new cross-modulation modes.
- There are some other new and / or hidden features in the JX-03 such as portamento, velocity sensitivity, layering and keyboard split, which Roland spells out on this web page.
- The basic control arrangement bears similarities to both the JX-3P and the PG-200 programmer, with a similar layout. All 24 knobs from the PG-200 programmer are included right on the front of the JX-03, making it much easier to use than a JX-3P sans programmer. And the JX-03 can receive MIDI even while you're using the knobs to control it - something the original JX-3P and PG-200 couldn't do, since the PG-200 plugged into the JX-3P's MIDI input.
- The preset and memory buttons (which are also used for the step sequencer) are also similar to the ones on the original keyboard. Where the original JX-3P had four banks (two preset, two memory), the JX-03 only has three, and omits one of the memory banks, giving you only 16 internal memory locations to save your own patches to instead of the 32 of the original keyboard.
- There are two touch-sensitive ribbon controllers on the front - one for pitch bend, and the other for modulation. The modulation can be set to spring back to zero (stock) or so that it stays where you last had it, even after you take your hand off it. Pitch bend range is also adjustable.
- The ribbon controllers can also set the tempo of the built-in step sequencer… and for note selection if you don't have the K-25m or a MIDI controller keyboard connected.
- With only four voices, the JX-03 has two less than the original JX-3P, but you can chain multiple modules for greater polyphony. While buying two modules doubles the cost, a pair of JX-03's will cost less than half of what a JX-3P and PG-200 usually go for on the vintage synth market, and will give you eight voices instead of six. You can also use them as two four-voice synths running different patches - bi-timbral operation is something else the original JX-3P did not offer.
- When daisy-chaining two JX-03's the volume level controls have to be set differently in order to achieve unity volume between the two modules, which is annoying.
- The JX-03 has half as many onboard memory locations for storing your own patches as the original synth. You can offload and load them over USB, but for live use, 16 may be a bit limiting.
- You'll probably want a K-25m, DK-01 Dock, or a stand of some sort, which will add somewhat to the price. 3D printed stands and even oak stands for multiple Boutique units are available from third parties on the usual auction sites.
- The onboard 16 pattern, 16-step monophonic sequencer is nice to have, but decidedly a step or two down in capabilities from the polyphonic step sequencer found in the original JX-3P.
- Roland currently doesn't offer any computer editor / librarian software, although such software is available from third parties.
- Knob control isn't handled by MIDI CC commands, so it's difficult to impossible to use most MIDI controllers or DAW commands to manipulate the onboard knobs. Fortunately, moving them by hand gives smooth results, with no audible stair-stepping.
- You can chain dissimilar Boutique models (a JX-03 and JP-08, for example) but each synth will make its own sounds, depending on what patch is called up, leading to sonic differences when you play the fifth note in a chord. When you chain two modules of the same model, control changes made on one will also affect the second / slave module, and all 8 chained notes can share the same patch (or not) if you wish.
- The included manual is pretty weak - just a fold-out paper with very small text that doesn't really cover all the features as well as it could. Fortunately a user named Sunshine Jones has written a more comprehensive manual on his own, and offers it freely to all JX-03 users. You can find it right here.
There is so much to like about the JX-03, including the fact that it has extra oscillator range settings (2' and 64') and extra waveforms for the virtual DCOs and LFO. It's capable of making all the sounds of the original synth, and more besides. It's also great that you get the full complement of controls from the PG-200, making it a much more inviting synth to program. Best of all, Roland really nailed the character and rich sound of the original synth. It may be digital modeling, but I don't care - it sounds terrific! They've packed a lot of features into these really small modules, so they not only won't take up much space in your studio, they're well suited to use on the go.
Like most things in life, the JX-03 is not perfect. Some will lament Roland's decision to use 1/8" jacks for the I/O, although this does allow the Boutiques to interface with smart phones, tablets and modular / Eurorack synths much more easily than if Roland had opted for 1/4" jacks. Others will miss the lack of the original's six voices, but stacking two modules provides eight voices - and bi-timbral flexibility the original six voice synth lacked - and for much less than the JX-3P and PG-200 now cost. The original had a more powerful onboard sequencer too, but with modern computers and DAW software, that's less of a limitation today than it would have been back in 1983.
The Roland Boutique synths and drum machines that I've tried have all been very impressive, and I just couldn't resist the charms of the JX-03 - it's my personal favorite of the three original Boutique modules. But they won't be around forever, and it appears that dealers are starting to blow the original Boutique modules out at reduced prices - I got my second JX-03 from Sweetwater (which came with their usual candy and great customer service) for only $199, which no matter how you look at it is a fantastic deal. Grab yours quickly while you still can - or you'll regret it later. -HC-
If you have comments or questions about this review or just want to talk about the Roland JX-03, then be sure to click on this link and join the discussion in the Keys, Synths and Samplers forum right here on Harmony Central.
Roland Boutique Series JX-03 Synthesizer Module ($299.00 MSRP, currently as low as $199.00 "street")
Roland's Boutique series web page
Roland's JX-03 product web page
You can purchase the Roland JX-03 Boutique Synth Module from:
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.