Beyond Retro: The History of Roland Synths

Roland’s new Jupiter-50 was unveiled at the Frankfurt Musikmesse in March and though it sits at the cutting-edge of new technology, it’s a synth that sits firmly in line with Roland’s synth philosophy and history.

The Jupiter 50 is a streamlined version of last year’s flagship Jupiter-80 and both instruments fit neatly into Roland’s 40-year story of pioneering synthesizer development. As the Jupiter name suggests, these new synths are related to one of most iconic synth lines ever created – the genre-defining Jupiter-8.

Using the most innovative analogue technologies of the time, the Jupiter-8 was released in 1981 and provided musicians with a rich palette of synth textures. Its reliability and ease of use on stage made it a go-to instrument for the electro crowd of the time. Its built-in arpeggiator and deep sonic potential satisfied the synth elite and awed countless Duran Duran fans.

Now, not a lot of people know this, but the original desire was also to provide acoustic sounds, but the limited technology of the day meant that this goal remained out of reach.

This is where the Jupiter-80 and new Jupiter-50 come in. Building on Roland’s original philosophy, they both deliver unparalleled expressiveness and sound creation capabilities. Packing Roland’s SuperNATURAL technology, both models are equipped with the detail and nuance to reproduce acoustic sounds to near perfection as well as the most powerful synthesizer sounds in Roland’s history.

But to understand the future you need to look to the past. From its very first synth back in 1971, Roland has strived to deliver the best sounds and this musician-focused philosophy has produced generations of classic synths and even inspired entire genres of music. Here are some of the best:

SH-1000 (1971)

Roland’s first synth was Japan’s first synth. The SH-1000 was strikingly different from contemporary modular Moog and ARP synths. Although it lacked the duophony, pressure sensitivity and the performance control of its rivals, it more than made up for it in sheer sonic character and personality.

System-100 (1976)

This beautiful semi-modular monophonic synth comprised five modular components, all built around the central Synthesizer 101 module – a self-contained mono-synth with tons of sliders and raw power. Looking more like a telephone exchange than a synth, the System-100 is an ultra-rare and much-coveted beast.

Jupiter-4 (1978)

The Jupiter-4 was Roland’s first true polysynth, and showed how Roland wasn’t worried about following the competition. The Jupiter-4 had just a single Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO) per voice and it only had 10 presets. However, the trademark chorus and arpeggiator knocked spots off its rivals and acclaim quickly followed.

Jupiter-8 (1981)

Unlike anything else, the Jupiter 8 had a split keyboard, oscillator sync, cross modulation and polyphonic portamento. Its broad sonic range meant the electro pop community quickly adopted it as their synth of choice, and it appeared on the roster of stadium-filling artists such as Duran Duran, Heaven 17 and Erasure. Its big, room-filling sounds defined the pop-music of a generation.

Juno-6 (1982)

The Juno-6 was the first Roland synth to use Digitally Controlled Oscillators (DCOs). Traditional VCOs were prone to detuning at high temperatures, leaving musicians bereft onstage – but the new DCOs were completely reliable.

The SH-101 (1982)

Proving that Roland was as stylish as it was advanced, the SH-101 ran on batteries and you could wear it! In a decade dominated by outlandish fashion, the SH-101 was designed for posing on stage. Bizarre hairstyle and makeup optional – and that was just for the guys.

MIDI (1983)

The next innovation to come from the Roland camp was more substantial than a single synth. MIDI was the fruit of collaboration with Sequential Circuits, Yamaha and Korg. These manufacturers invented a uniform connectivity that would enable users to link synths made by any manufacturer.

JX-3P (1984)

Roland’s first polysynth to feature a sequencer, the JX-3P was named after the three Ps: Programmability, Polyphony and Presets. It was followed by the JX-10 (1986), which was by far the most programmable synth of the time.

JD-800 (1991)

The JD-800 combined digital precision with the look and feel of a top-of-the-range analogue synth. Teeming with knobs and sliders, musicians could once again enjoy the tactile thrill of creating new sounds, but with the confidence and control of digital synthesis. The JD-800 was a dream for those who liked to get their hands dirty and was marketed as a return to the roots of synthesis and could be expanded via 8 PCM cards covering various genres. Users include Ken Ishii, Laurent Garnier, William Orbit, New Order and Pet Shop Boys.

XP series workstation (1995)

The XP-series were Roland’s first workstations. They were powerhouse keyboards capable of recreating hundreds of voices. With patches galore, they offered intricate sound creation. Six years later, Roland would evolve the workstation range further still with the Fantom series. Essentially a mobile sample-based studio, the Fantom enables musicians to build and layer their own tracks on the fly.

V-Synth (2003)

Continuing to innovate, Roland assembled its most advanced technology and crammed it all into the V-Synth. It offered a multi-sampling keyboard, real-time looping and tempo-warping. Among other features were PCM oscillators, user sampling, multi-effects and COSM processing. The V-Synth remains a force to be reckoned with to this day, in the guise of the second-generation V-Synth GT, offering synth fanatics an unbelievable amount of sonic power and sheer experimentation potential.

SH-201 (2006)

The SH-201 was a great-value synthesizer, offering quick, fun sound creation through its array of knobs and sliders. However it is the forensic level of sound creation that really set this apart. The SH-201 was Roland’s first hardware synth to offer VSTi integration and came with comprehensive editor/librarian software giving users easy access to hidden parameters, fitting neatly into computer-based studios.

Gaia SH-01 (2010)

Blending digitally-perfect sound with the simplicity of analogue controls, the GAIA SH-01 easily passes for retro, but the concept is radically different from contemporary big hitters. With generous polyphony and a versatile triple-core analogue modelling engine, the GAIA is an authentic, super-affordable synth. It’s also a great way to stay connected with the past glories of Roland’s synth legacy.

Jupiter-80 (2011)

An absolute beast of a machine, combining monstrous analogue-modelling power with pristine, beguilingly-realistic acoustic sounds underpinned by Roland’s SuperNATURAL technology and behaviour modelling. This is a Roland synth four decades in the making – play one and you’ll understand why.

So, the Jupiter 50 might be the most recent Roland synthesizer, but it’s also part of a rich history of innovation. Always focused on usability and value, Roland has consistently delivered cutting-edge performance and inspiring sounds at an affordable price.

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