Review: Roland Juno-DS

Feature-rich workstation priced for the musician
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Feature-rich workstation priced for the musician
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In the seven years since Roland introduced the Juno-Di—itself a successor to 2005’s Juno-D—the synth has dominated the affordable workstation market, thanks to its ability to nail the trifecta of features, price, and roadworthy construction. Seven years is a long time for a product to remain relevant in the synthesizer market, so it was high time that Roland released a successor to the line—the Juno-DS.

Wisely, they kept the original features, while adding modern amenities—the ability to load your own samples into its synth engine, additional controls for parameter tweaking, eight pads for triggering sequences and samples, and pitch quantization to go with the built-in vocoder. Rounding out the package is an integrated stereo audio interface. I received the 61-key model for review; a version with 88 semi-weighted keys is also available.

SOUNDS, SYNTHESIS AND EFFECTS

The Juno-DS, available in 61- and 88-key models, includes a vocoder with pitch quantization, trigger pads, and a stereo audio interface. In addition to a full range of presets, Juno-DS offers the ability to load additional sounds downloaded from Roland's Axial website. The DS is packed to the rafters with presets; over 1200 synth patches along with 30+ drum kits and 64 performance slots for customizing sound sets, sequences and the new phrase pads for specific songs in your repertoire. If you’re a current Juno-Di user, you’ll be pleased to know that its sound-bank is represented in the new DS. Moreover, several of the new pianos and organs are compelling in a live performance context.

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In addition to the original Di sounds and more than 200 new ones, the DS can load sounds from Roland’s Axial website, which includes over 1,000 well-crafted downloadable presets. I checked out the factory sounds and a few Axial add-ons, and the overall vibe of the collection is solidly in the workstation camp—perfect for gigging, commercial and video work, and studio tasks. The only real downside to the presets is that the “analog” sounds have a decidedly in-the-box feel; but hey, that’s what the Roland Aira line is for, right?

The Juno-DS’s synthesis engine remains largely unchanged from the Di’s, with every patch consisting of up to four layered tones, each based on a different sampled instrument, with digital resonant filters, detailed time/level envelopes, and a pair of LFOs. Editing these from the LCD is challenging. But with so many presets, you’re bound to find something that can be quickly shaped using the four front-panel knobs, which include essentials like cutoff, resonance, attack, release, and effects, as well as custom options.

If you want to create your own sounds, the original Juno-Di’s free, downloadable editor works flawlessly with the DS. Once downloaded, I was quickly up and running, crafting my own sounds and checking out the onboard collection of multi-sampled data, which is quite deep. In fact, the synth features really come to life when you import your own samples into its engine. (The supported WAV file resolution is 44.1kHz/16-bit.)

The Juno-DS also includes a massive array of effects. Everything from phasers to pitch-shifters to modeled piano resonances are available, in addition to the usual chorus and reverb options. The caveat is that insert effects that are tied to patches can be lost when those patches are applied to the DS performances (which have their own effects assignments). Not a deal-breaker, but definitely something to note.

Each performance can consist of up to 16 parts, which include patch information, a few parameter offsets, adjustments to portamento and vibrato, and effects send routing. You can split the keyboard up to sixteen ways, allocate parts for sequencing, and create custom 12-tone tunings for every individual part. Granted, you wouldn’t realize this from squinting at the LCD panel, but in conjunction with the Juno-Di’s software editor, everything becomes crystal clear. I hope Roland creates an updated DS editor to access its newer features.

SEQUENCER AND PHRASE PADS

The Roland Juno-DS (the 61-key model shown here) can run on AC or batteries. It includes a 1/4" mic input with level control, audio over USB, MIDI DIN I/O, an external audio input, stereo outs and headphone jack. In addition to playing back complete songs from a connected USB stick (AIFF, WAV, or MP3 format supported), the Juno-DS includes an 8-track pattern sequencer optimized for live performance. The pattern-based system makes creating eight-part looped sequences a breeze. I was able to whip up credible quantized backing tracks that were easily manipulated in real time via the new Phrase Pads. I could envision creating different song sections with the sequencer and switching between them quickly in a performance situation. If you’re in a band and the guitarist decides to vamp for an extra 16 bars during the final choruses, these pads could be a lifesaver.

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As for the sequencer itself, Roland markets it as a scratchpad, and it’s great for that. But with some forethought, you can do clever interactive tricks with it, too.

EXTRAS

Whereas the Juno-Di offered vocoding and reverb for its microphone input, the Juno-DS ups the ante with a pitch quantizer for pop, R&B and EDM. While some may tire of this sound, it’s now as essential as distortion on a guitar for certain genres.

As a bonus, the Juno-DS includes basic DAW control for a variety of platforms including Apple Logic Pro, Cakewalk Sonar and Steinberg Cubase. With this you can integrate sync, transport, and some basic control surface features. Unfortunately, there’s no baked-in support for Ableton Live or Avid Pro Tools, though a user-configurable mode is available if you don’t mind spending the time to set it up.

Moreover, the Juno-DS supports audio over USB. The resolution of this interface is conspicuously absent from both the website and manual, but since the Juno’s preferred audio format is 44.1/16, it’s a safe bet that that’s the specification.

FOR ALL OCCASIONS

I didn’t get around to checking out the Juno- DS61’s price until late in the review, and I was completely blown away to find it priced around $700. Between the 128-voice synth, pattern sequencer, phrase pads, sample loading, and integrated audio interface, it’s no exaggeration to say that this keyboard workstation is a genuinely affordable Swiss Army knife for casual gigs, small theater work, school bands and house-of-worship duties. The Juno-DS resets the standard for price vs. performance in a keyboard meant for light gigging.

STRENGTHS

128-voice synthesis engine. User-loadable samples. Massive collection of presets and drum kits. Pattern sequencer. Phrase pads can trigger samples or songs, or toggle sequencer tracks. Stereo audio interface.

LIMITATIONS

Analog sounds have a decidedly digital feel.

Juno-DS61, $699 street
Juno-DS88, $999 street
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