The OSC Toy-Box - Roland JV-1080
Updated: Sep 13, 2021
The "OSC Toy-box" articles look at some of the instruments and equipment I use when making my own music. My ethos regards equipment is always to avoid getting the latest product, or whatever is fashionable at any given time. Instead, aim to get something that's more of a long term investment and/or a little bit quirky and unusual. Learn this equipment like the back of your hand and really exploit its every potential.
Whatever you do, don't break the bank or get in to debt. You can make very cool music that's distinctive and uniquely your own sound without spending a fortune on the latest hardware or software. As you read these articles, please remember, this collection of instruments and equipment has been amassed over the course of 15+ years, and wherever possible, I've avoided paying full retail prices, instead opting for second hand, ex-demo, or in some cases even rescuing from the trash!
Roland JV1080 - 64 Voice Synthesiser Module
Picture lifted from a google image search
Anecdotally I’ve heard that this humble rack-mounted synthesiser is on more pop records than any other synth in history. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s not that hard to believe when you start delving into it. It’s a synthesiser that's utilises PCM Wave Files (recorded audio samples) instead of oscillators. Let's take a look at what this means and how it differs from other synthesisers.
In the crudest terms, a conventional subtractive synthesiser's signal flow is as follow (from left to right):
Oscillator - Filter - Amplitude Envelope
Whereas the JV-1080's signal flow is:
PCM Wave File - Filter - Amplitude Envelope
The PCM Wave File takes the place of the oscillator.
If it's just a Wave File player then how therefore does this differ from a sampler? Firstly, you can't upload your own sounds, you have to use what Roland installed in the internal memory banks (these are referred to as "Tones"). Secondly you can layer/stack up to four PCM Wave Files or "Tones" (at Roland refer to them) to create a "Patch", like so:
PCM1 - Filter (Enveloped) - Amplitude Envelope
PCM2 - Filter (Enveloped) - Amplitude Envelope
PCM3 - Filter (Enveloped) - Amplitude Envelope
PCM4 - Filter (Enveloped) - Amplitude Envelope
At this point, we're still only scratching the surface as there is a complex, matrix-like Tone arrangement function (similar to the Yamaha DX synthesiser's Algorithm function) that allows you to stack or layer up to four PCM sounds in varying "Structures". A "Structure" determines where each "Tone" (and it's respective filter and amplitude envelope) place in the signal flow once a note is played. The "Structure" function groups PCM "Tones" in to two pairs; PCM1+2 and PCM3+4, like so:
PCM1 - Filter 1 (Enveloped) - Amplitude Envelope 1
PCM2 - Filter 2 (Enveloped) - Amplitude Envelope 2
PCM3 - Filter 3 (Enveloped) - Amplitude Envelope 3
PCM4 - Filter 4 (Enveloped) - Amplitude Envelope 4
The output of the two structures is summed through the "Common" controls which allow for adjusting overall volume, pan, analogue feel, detune and more.
Let's look at an example of a "Structure" that changes the layout of PCM "Tone" 1 and 2:
PCM1 - Amplitude Envelop 1 - Filter 1 (Enveloped) - Filter 2 (Enveloped) - Amplitude Envelope 2
In the example above, we see Amplitude Envelope 1 placed directly after PCM1 (as opposed to after the filter on the earlier diagrams). The enveloped sound of PCM1 then enters Filter 1 along with PCM2. This means Filter 1 is filtering both PCM1 and PCM2 at the same time. It is at this point the two PCM sounds have been summed.
From here they are jointly processed through Filter 2 and Amplitude Envelope 2. This is just one of ten "Structure" variants available on the JV-1080.
Furthermore, the above example, only covers the first two "Tones". We can repeat the process using the same or different structure for "Tones" 3 and 4.
I won't bog you down with more clumsily typed examples of signal flow, and I'm confident you can start to see the potential that lies within this synthesiser. The number of Tones and Structures, plus the full customisation of filter and amplitude envelope settings mean the variables are almost limitless.
The PCM Factor
A key, defining characteristic of this synthesiser is the PCM sounds themselves. There are 448 PCM sounds to choose from. They range from acoustic instruments to samples of legacy Roland instruments such as the SH-101, Jupiter-8 and D-50. Having such a varied selection of PCM sounds means there is the potential to accurately replicate real, acoustic instruments as well as create thick, warm and rich sounding synthetic sounds. It can range from the authentically sublime to the synthetically ridiculous.
Whilst this may not seem like a big deal today, in 1994 this was pretty revolutionary stuff and this little rack mounted unit was hugely popular in professional studios and hobby studios alike. I feel it's worth noting that given its age (25+ years), some of its strings, bass guitar and piano sounds are still very good by modern standards and perfectly usable today. The synth PCM samples from early analogue and digital synthesisers are also very rich in character.
Wary of getting a little too technical, I won't go into the LFO and effects, suffice to say; there are two LFOs that can be assigned to almost any parameter with a comprehensive modulation matrix, and the onboard effects are plentiful and of high quality for the time. Being a Roland synthesiser, the chorus is especially lush!
To sum up the above points, this synthesiser is frankly a bit of a beast. It's an absolute powerhouse of 90s digital synthesis, utilising PCM wave files in deep and sophisticated ways. It also has the tonal quality to stands up well against digital synthesis scepticism with its warm and colourful PCM samples coupled with further analogue emulation at the "Common" stage of the signal flow. It's a bit like having an SH-101, Juno-108 and D-50 all bundled up with some good quality orchestral stuff, that can then be smashed together to make something the likes of which 1994 had never experienced!
If you're thinking you can just recreate/emulate these structural sound designs by layering multiple samplers and synthesisers in your software sequencer, remember; you will always lack those iconic (and patented) Roland PCM Wave Files that are so synonymous with mid 1990s pop music.
If you're interested in getting your hands on a JV-1080, they tend to sell on eBay for between £150-200. However, Roland have recently released a software version of this synthesiser as part of the Roland Cloud that includes all of the original PCM samples, so it's essentially an identical synthesiser, just virtual as opposed to hardware (the hardware being digital - you're not dealing with actual analogue oscillators and filters so a software version should hold up very well - if not identically - in direct comparison). Plus, the big advantage of having this synthesiser in software format means that Patch editing is much easier, as I will admit that the JV-1080 can be a little fiddly to edit.
A quick word on my JV-1080. I picked up this specimen second hand about 12 years ago for very little money as it was otherwise destined for landfill (believe it or not, with the advent of software synthesisers becoming commonplace, iconic digital synthesisers like this were deemed redundant about 15 years ago).
At the time I didn't really know or understand what it was, but after much research and experimentation I fell in love with it. It’s featured on OSC music since the very start as I’ve made extensive use of this over the years. You can hear it all over my music from digital sounding electric-pianos, D-50 style glossy synth bells, Juno-esque poly synths, leads and more. Recently I’ve used its electric-pianos and orchestra hits on Boys On Boards as well as tracks that will feature on the forthcoming album.