The Juno-Stage is a versatile synthesizer that delivers the Fantom sound engine at a down-to-earth price.
If you're shopping for a new keyboard, Roland's flagship Fantom synthesizers offer plenty of power, but they may be more than the average gigging musician needs. Roland recently revived the name “Juno” for a new line of more affordable keyboards based on the Fantom sound engine. They include the Juno-D, Juno-G and now the Juno-Stage, a 76-note keyboard with a focus on live performance features.
One of the Juno-Stage's live performance offerings is the Song Player, which lets you stream MIDI and audio backing tracks from a USB flash drive. You also get a built-in Rhythm Pattern machine, a special Piano mode, a microphone input for adding vocals, stage-friendly patch navigation and more — all in a lightweight, affordable instrument designed for the gigging musician.
Sounds Center Stage
To fill the keyboard spot in most working bands, an instrument needs to be able to cover the big five classic keyboards: acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, Hammond organ and the Hohner Clavinet. Those were the presets I checked out first.
The Juno-Stage comes with 128 MB of onboard wave memory (twice that of the Juno-D or -G), and two 64MB SRX expansion board slots let you expand it to 256 MB. The synth does an impressive job of spreading around built-in memory to cover a wide palette of instruments, including more than 1,200 preset patches, and a fair portion of the memory is devoted to acoustic pianos. That said, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the 88StageGrand, which Roland touts as its “flagship 88-key stereo multisampled piano taken from the Fantom-X.” I'd have no problem using it live, but I didn't find it especially inspiring. I actually prefer the GermanGrand and Studio Grand presets, each based on separate sample sets. For even better options, two optional SRX boards are available, each devoting its entire 64 MB to a single multisampled piano.
While I'd give the acoustic pianos a solid B, the Rhodes earns an A or A+. You get a nice range of realistic and expressive Rhodes patches, including some with classic MXR-style phase-shifting, a sound heard on many hits of the 1970s and used heavily by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan (see Web Clip 1). I was less impressed with the Wurlitzers, which lacked sustain and smooth velocity layering, though I was able to improve things with a little patch tweaking. I found greater satisfaction in the Clav department, where you get a tasty selection of tone and mute settings, as well as phased and processed patches.
Because the Hammond organ can produce such a range of expression, it is a given that you're only going to get a smattering of snapshots. But I was happy to find some of my favorite signature sounds, including X Perc Organ, which nails that “Green-Eyed Lady” sound (although I had to tweak it to add the Leslie effect — unfortunately not programmed by default on many presets; see Web Clip 2). I also liked HardRockORG1, which uses samples from Deep Purple organist Jon Lord's Hammond. With enhancement from COSM guitar amp emulation, you're ready to rock some serious B3 power riffs.
Beyond those five essentials, you get many other high-quality sounds. The acoustic and electric guitars, bass, synths, strings, horns, sitar, harmonica, and acoustic and electronic drums were just a few of the many patches that I found highly impressive and useful as I was creating a series of demo tracks (see Web Clip 3 and Web Clip 4).
With USB ports and bundled software such as the Patch Editor (shown), the Juno-Stage comes well equipped for integration with a computer studio environment.
Spotlight on Performance
Virtually every aspect of the instrument has been crafted for live performance needs. Seventy-six keys allow for maximum playability without transposing, and yet overall weight has been kept low for easy portability. I immediately fell in love with the feel of the keyboard itself, which may be the best semi-weighted synth action I've ever played. Unfortunately, it can't transmit aftertouch. Ten patch-category buttons simplify patch navigation. User Favorites let you set up banks of your most needed patches for instant access during a live set. Patches can also be selected hands-free using an optional footswitch. Dedicated buttons make it easy to set up two-way splits and layers.
A dedicated Piano Mode button takes you into a simplified stage-piano interface for acoustic or electric piano (with options such as a graphically adjustable piano lid). The MIDI Controller mode is designed for controlling external MIDI devices, making the Juno-Stage a suitable master controller, unless you need aftertouch.
Real-time expressive control options abound. They include the pitch-bend/mod lever, assignable S1 and S2 switches, a full-featured arpeggiator, a D Beam controller and the Sound Modify section, which provides easy-to-grab knobs for envelope, filter, EQ and reverb. Also included is a microphone channel (with dedicated volume and reverb levels) that you can use to mix in vocals or control the onboard vocoder.
The Song Player
The Song Player lets you play Standard MIDI Files, or WAV, AIFF or MP3 audio files from a USB flash drive. Copy files from your computer's hard disk to a flash drive and then plug it into a USB port, which neatly tucks away inside a little hatch. You also have the option of playing backing tracks from a portable audio device, such as an iPod, via an integrated external stereo mini input. The onboard Rhythm Pattern player holds 256 preset and user drum beats.
The Song Player effectively integrates the keyboard workstation with computer software, which makes MIDI sequencing so much easier. Bundled software includes Cakewalk SONAR LE (Win), as well as patch and playlist editors for Mac and PC (see screenshot below). However, when I tried to create sequences using the Juno-Stage as a multitimbral sound module, I discovered that Performance mode (which has been streamlined for creating splits and layers) worked differently and was not quite as user-friendly as Roland's traditional Performance mode. My confusion was compounded by a near-total lack of documentation on multitimbral sequencing in the manual. Thankfully, after I e-mailed Roland tech support, they graciously created a YouTube video demonstrating the procedure, which filled in a lot of details.
Take a Bow
With its great-playing keyboard, groundBREAKing performance features and top-quality sounds, the Juno-Stage offers a unique product in the midrange keyboard market. Even if you're not primarily a live player, it deserves a serious look for affordable access to killer Roland sounds and the world's most extensive expansion-board library. The SRX boards hold some of Roland's all-time best stuff. With 12 great boards from which to choose, I only wish you got more than two expansion slots. The Juno-Stage is a versatile synthesizer for both the live stage and the computer age at the right price. It won't BREAK your back on the road or bust your bank balance.
Babz is a composer, multi-instrumentalist and music technology writer in New York City.