Review: Roland JD-Xi

Powerful, Simple Hybrid Synth
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It used to be that compact keyboards came with compact sounds and modest features. But this is 2015, and Roland’s latest offering is the JD-Xi, a diminutive keyboard that packs an impressive array of features and great sounds into a small and surprisingly affordable package. Boasting 129 voices—one analog voice and 128 digital voices— the JD-Xi assembles four synths within a portable instrument along with a 4-track pattern sequencer, an arpeggiator, a vocoder, and USB connectivity.

FOUR OF A PERFECT PAIR

The JD-Xi is part of Roland’s new line of Interactive Analog/Digital Crossover Synths, which combine analog and digital engines—in this case, two digital PCM-based synthesizers, a drum synth, and a monophonic analog synth. The overall idea is to provide enough features within the instrument to sequence an entire song, perhaps using the analog synth for bass or lead parts, a digital synth for chordal parts, and so forth. Yet, the JD-Xi was designed to be a powerful performance instrument with an interface that is simple and easy to use.

The digital sound engine includes Roland’s SuperNatural technology to add modeling to the PCM sound set. With the help of four resonant filter types—highpass, lowpass, bandpass, and peaking—the results are rich and varied, providing instruments that represent some of the best timbres of the ’80s and ’90s.

The analog synth provides beefy basses and sharp leads using a single oscillator with selectable sine, square, or triangle waves and pulse-width modulation. Add the sub-oscillator one or two octaves below and use the dedicated, resonant analog filter to fatten up your sound as needed.

The drum synth holds 33 drum kits, each containing 26 sounds that you play from the lower half of the 37-note mini keyboard. The kits showcase a variety of solid-sounding electronic and acoustic setups that cover a lot of ground. Roland included timbres from its vintage drum machines, such as the TR-808, 909, 707, 606 and 626 and even the CompuRhythm CR-78. Unfortunately, there is no way to adjust the entire drum track on the fly. Instead, you have to select sounds one at a time and adjust their volume. An overall level control for the drum synth would be a welcome addition.

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Each of the four parts—Digital Synth 1 and 2, Drums, and Analog Synth—have dedicated Mute buttons. The large data wheel selects the instrument bank (Leads, Bass, Brass, Strings/Pad, Vocoder/Auto Pitch, Keyboard, FX/Other, and Sequences), and individual patches are chosen with the Tone buttons. The Amp/Env knob adjusts the volume on the part you have currently selected.

Fig. 2. In addition to standard MIDI I/O, the JD-Xi includes a USB port that carries audio and MIDI data. The audio input jack can be used with the onboard vocoder and handles line- and instrument-level signals.

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Each part can be assigned to its own track in the pattern sequencer so you can create complex looping patterns quickly and modify them on the fly.

The JD-Xi includes a gooseneck microphone that plugs directly into the top of the keyboard for use with the built-in vocoder. In addition to the wide assortment of vocoder-based presets, the keyboard has an audio input with switchable gain that can accommodate any external source you want to use with that effect—line- or instrument-level (e.g., electric guitar). And be sure to check out the Auto Note feature, a vocal pitch-tracking function that generates synthesized voices when you sing into the mic, but without requiring you to play the pitches on the keyboard.

ALL HANDS ON DECK

The JD-Xi has a remarkably simple interface that puts the main parameter controls directly under your fingertips. For example, a single knob controls the envelope generator: In the 12 o’clock position, you get a staccato, on/off response, whereas a fully counterclockwise setting yields a sharp attack with a long decay, and setting the knob fully clockwise provides a slow attack and long decay. Although this doesn’t give you full ADSR functionality, the single control makes it easy to adjust the volume contour to taste.

The LFO, on the other hand, offers several parameters. Individual knobs control speed and depth; there are six wave shapes to choose from, and you can route the LFO to modulate pitch, filter, or amplitude.

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The effects engine provides four simultaneous effects, shared between all four synths: Effect 1 (distortion, fuzz, compression, and bit crusher), Effect 2 (flanger, phaser, ring modulation, and a slicer), delay, and reverb, in that order. Each effect has its own send/level control, but a single button toggles the effects off in order from 1 to 4. That means you cannot combine, say, Effect 1 with reverb, or Effect 2 with delay. Fortunately, the two most useful effects—delay and reverb—are the last in line, so you can use those together.

The JD-Xi synth lacks deep editing capabilities. Instead, Roland relies on the depth of its presets, and there are plenty of good ones to choose from. With eight banks of 64 presets, 512 ready-to-roll sounds are at your disposal, each with its own unique settings and sequences. Pulling up a new sequence recalls all four parts with it, making it easy to audition sounds. Additional sounds are downloadable for free from Roland’s Axial tone-library page (axial.roland.com).

Fig. 3. The JD-Xi includes a gooseneck mic for use with the vocoder for vocal-processing effects.CROSSOVER POINT

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Overall, the JD-Xi is fun to play and it's packed with inspiring sounds and sequences. (So much so that I had to tear myself away from the instrument to finish this review.) In the studio, the JD-Xi provides a welcome substitute for plugin instruments, with its big polyphony count, voice expandability, and ability to handle audio and MIDI over USB. As a stage instrument, it is quick on its feet and versatile enough for most types of modern synth-based music.

Although the JD-Xi’s small footprint and portability worked well for me, its mini keys might be a problem for some players. But if you're adding JD-Xi to an existing keyboard rig, I don’t think you’ll have a hard time finding a spot for this synth, both physically and sonically. The Roland JD-Xi is a real winner.

STRENGTHS
Direct control of features. High polyphony count. Great sounds. Excellent value.

LIMITATIONS
Limited editing capabilities. No manual provided. No master volume for drum synth.

Roland JD-Xi $499 street
rolandus.com

Reek Havok is a sound designer, drummer, producer, and tech for hire. His credits include everyone from Mötley Crüe to Yes.