Portable analogue/digital crossover synth hits the spot

The sub-£500 synth space is booming nowadays, with offerings from all the usual names finding favour among musicians. From the evergreen Korg Microkorg through to the superb Arturia Microbrute, there are plenty of tempting options if you’re looking to bolster your rig with all manner of high quality synth sounds. These instruments are rich with heritage too, as seen with the gloriously well-received org MS-20 reboot, and the Moog Minitaur. Synth fans have never had it so good.

Still, there’s one name missing from the above list. A name so steeped in electronic music history it can actually say it has defined entire genres. Enter the new Roland JD-Xi.

The JD-Xi is a 37 key portable synth which packs in a ridiculous amount of features and tools to tinker with. It features two separate, individual digital synth channels, powered by Roland’s superNATURAL sound engine, a drum channel boasting samples lifted from the classic Roland drum machines, and a fully analogue – yep, genuine analogue – synth engine to crown everything off. Essentially, it’s a four channel music-making machine which, best of all, is incredibly fun to play.

Let’s start our Roland JD-Xi review by breaking the feature list into a bit more depth. The two digital synth channels, which can be switched between quickly using the dedicated channel select buttons, offer a selection from a list of common synthesizer tones. There are patches covering brass (maligned – fairly or otherwise – but obligatory), keys, bass, leads and strings, each being selected using the large rotary dial in the centre of the unit. The two digital channels can each be programmed independently of each other, meaning channel one could be your strings with channel two covering bass or keyboard sounds.

Each channel can be further tweaked through a filter and LFO, before being fed into a bank of on-board effects. The filter knobs cover cutoff and resonance, while a button allows you to toggle through the selectable filter types like low and band-pass. The LFO can be programmed to control pitch, filter and envelope, bringing some life and movement into the sounds.

The effects bank is well-stocked with the usual delay and reverb channels, along with two separate channels offering various types of gain and distortion in the first slot and modulation types in the second. These can be combined into different combinations using the on/off button, which cycles through the channels.

The drum channel offers a range of generic kits, e.g. house, techno, hip hop, but more interestingly, it also includes samples inspired by the TR-808, 909 and CR-78. I’d imagine these are a double-edged sword for Roland in that the purists might argue that these are just digital recreations of those sounds, but how could they possibly not reference them in some way. Take it for what it is – great sounding drums as part of a wider package of great sounds.

An interesting addition here is the 16 drum pads, laid out horizontally, with which you can programme sounds in step-sequence or use the keyboards to play it in real time. Again, these can be fed through the effects rack so things like the slicer and ring modulator come into their own on this channel.

The analogue channel, which is probably the thing people are most excited here, doesn’t disappoint. It’s a gloriously chunky, rich monophonic synth perfect for bass tones. It does away with most of the controls, instead offering access only to three oscillators, a sub-oscillator which adds further low end, and a filter which delivers a basic low-pass function. It can’t make use of the effects, nor the LFO, but that’s beside the point. If nothing else, it frees up one of the digital channels to do something other than bass. And when the analogue bass sounds as good as this, you’d be mad not to take advantage of it.

Roland JD-Xi

There are the usual extras found on any synth, including modulation and pitch wheels, a programmable arpeggiator and tap-tempo. Perhaps the single best feature though, the one which elevates it above its contemporaries, is the pattern sequencer. It’s not overblowing things too much to say this puts it firmly into band-in-a-box territory.

It’s completely within reason that you could write entire tunes using just the JD-Xi, switching between two digital synths, an analogue synth and great sounding drum samples. No flitting between different hardware units, or recording synth tracks into your DAW to access your plug-in drum synths (although you could do that via the USB.) Therefore, as a creative sketch-pad, the JD-Xi takes some beating.

Add into the mix the vocoder, which substitutes one of the digital synth channels for a voice transformer, and you’re looking at a lot of versatility in such a small box. A gooseneck mic is included too, so you’re ready to start mangling your singing chops from the off. This expands further by the way you can choose the line source on the vocoder channel – as an experiment, I hooked up a Boss GT-001 and played guitar over it and it worked perfectly.

It must be said that guitar/vocoder/line-in sources can’t be recorded, although it may be that this is included as a firmware update in the future. For now though you’ll only be playing these over the top of your recorded drum and synth parts.

The included 256 sounds are like a whistlestop tour through Roland’s rich synth history, with Junos, JPs and the aforementioned drum machines well represented. Further sounds are also available to download from Roland’s online Axial portal. As a self-confessed tweaker, it’d be nice to have access to even more editing options, perhaps using a computer interface via the included USB slot, but that goes against the point.

The JD-Xi is a super compact yet fully featured unit, boasting more than enough sounds and potential to inspire anyone. It’s elevated above its peers by virtue of the amount of stuff which is included from the moment you open the box. A fully analogue synth, two superb digital synths, a drum channel with 16 step sequencing, a vocoder with line-in processing power and the ability to make use of these by recording onto four separate tracks. All for under £400. You’d be mad not to check it out.

And, of course, if there’s not enough functionality in this little box, you could always check out its big brother…