In the Spotlight: Roland Juno-106

Roland's polyphonic Juno-106 was one of the world's first MIDI synths. Its MIDI implementation is impressive: panel controls transmit SysEx; the unit
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Roland's polyphonic Juno-106 was one of the world's first MIDI synths. Its MIDI implementation is impressive: panel controls transmit SysEx; the unit receives and sends on all 16 channels, and you can selectively filter MIDI data.

Even so, the Juno-106's sounds and the speed of access it offers have kept the flame alive through all the years since it debuted in 1984. An edgy, almost digital-sounding analog synth, it sounds considerably less warm and fuzzy than its immediate and non-MIDI predecessor, the Juno-60, but the 106 garners just as much admiration as the 60 for simple and highly tweakable sound and processing parameters.

George Michael used the Juno-106 extensively for the warbling synth tone and the gated synth part of "I Want Your Sex," and William Orbit admits to merciless use of the Juno-106 throughout Madonna's Ray of Light album.

Popular throughout the 1990s as a cheap source of dance sounds, the Juno-106 achieved de rigeur status in the goa, trance, and industrial music scenes. Sadly, as a result, units occasionally command silly prices.

FeaturesThe Juno-106's basic voice architecture is similar to that of the Juno-60 and JX-3P synthesizers. The Juno-106 begins with the digitally controlled oscillators (DCOs) that offer a choice of variable-pulse or sawtooth waveforms. Pitch is selectable with 16', 8', and 4' settings. You also get a suboscillator (which gener-ates a square wave) and a noise generator. Individual sliders control the levels for each of these parameters.

The voltage-controlled resonant lowpass filter (VCF) can self-oscillate and can be shaped by a 4-stage envelope generator, albeit one shared with the VCA. You can also control the VCF cutoff point in real time using the pitch-bend wheel, and if you want to be really cool, you can transmit that information over MIDI. (Set the MIDI Control switch to 3.) The separate highpass filter is controlled by a single slider.

Roland made the most out of not much with the Juno-106. The two-position chorus fattens up the single-oscillator-per-voice architecture, and portamento adds interest and movement to the shared (filter/amplifier) envelope generator. A Unison mode - good when used in conjunction with portamento - harnesses all six oscillators and is excellent for rich, spiky bass lines. There are 128 patch memories.

SoundsDefinitely clearer and more defined than a Juno-60, the Juno-106's sound elicits strong opinions among vintage-synth users. What some people find clean and sharp, others hear as thin and flat. The Juno-106 lacks the timbral richness of, say, a Minimoog, but its deep sine-wavey bass sounds are classic in their own way.

When it comes to pads, you won't get the drifting, shifting beds of a Prophet-5, but in shimmering atmospherics, the Juno-106 holds its own with the best. Although you can generate plenty of spectacular filter sweeps, self-oscillating whistles, and whines, the Juno-106's power is its fundamental simplicity and sonic precision. The Juno-106's sounds sit well in a mix; they tend not to clutter. Programming and hearing this instrument is not complex. "Amen to that," many say.

ProblemsThe Juno-106 generally enjoyed a trouble-free ride, but like any 15-year-old synthesizer, it's not immune to problems. Dis- appearing polyphony remains the most common glitch, thanks to a production run that used some bad ICs. The MIDI response can seem slow, and it will be slow if you're transmitting a lot of SysEx data. Keyboard problems (such as notes sticking or spiking) are also not unheard of, and caps often fall off the panel hardware. Solving these problems is still possible, though irritatingly expensive and time-consuming.

SupportThe Juno-106 is not a rare instrument. In fact, it was Roland's biggest seller until the D-50. Although it's unlikely you'll get much support from Roland itself, the Web is a rich resource for help, advice, and even a downloadable owner's manual. Check out the Juno-106 Connection (www.hinzen.de/ midi/juno-106) for patches, editors, librarians, and more.

Orbit's much-publicized use of the Juno-106 poured fuel on an already hot market, and in spite of a very vocal Juno-106 backlash contingent - mainly Juno-60 users - this instrument remains deservedly, if not preeminently, desirable within the techno/electronica scene.