In most ways, I’m quite at home with modern technology. I’ve always gotten along fine with computers, smartphones, modems, routers, Bluetooth and other techie stuff. My newest vehicle is one of those “every bit of technology they could possibly squeeze in” machines. But when it comes to keyboards, I clearly have been happily stuck in the distant past.
MIDI? What’s that? Filters? LFOs? ADSR? Not a clue. (I was thankful that my Classic Keys co-author David Robertson was quite well-versed in those things.) I’ve been most comfortable – and drawn to – keyboards produced in the 1950s through the mid-1970s, mostly organs and electric pianos. But I am easing my way into synthesizers.
The first tentative step was acquiring my Minimoog a couple years ago. It’s a great-sounding instrument, a true classic, and a great way to learn about synthesis. But a monophonic Minimoog is really early ‘70s technology. Surely, I ought to at least experience a polyphonic synth, right?
So, I recently took that step. I thought about getting a Roland Juno 60, but for reasons I can’t explain, prices on them have skyrocketed. Acting on the advice of a friend (thanks Nathan!), I found a like-new Roland JX-3P for about 20 percent of what I might have paid for a Juno 60. It’s a 61-key, six-note polyphonic synth capable of making lots of sweet, analog sounds. And my friend explained that, in some ways, it’s actually superior to the classic Juno 60, including that it has two digitally controlled oscillators and a 128-step sequencer. I bought one off eBay for a very good price, and it arrived looking — and playing — like new. Mine was built in December, 1983. So, my collection finally has representation from the 1980s!
It comes with 32 factory-installed, pre-set sounds, and has room for storing 32 more sounds the owner creates. The built-in sounds vary from gorgeous string and brass sounds to some really poor Hammond, electric piano and Clavinet emulations and — hold for it — accordions and Big Ben-like chimes. But there are plenty of usable sounds in the factory pre-sets. Also, many JX-3P owners have posted audio files on the Web that can be downloaded and loaded into a JX-3P. To give me a head start on using the instrument, I did load into my “J” a very nicely done set of 32 sounds. Eventually, I’ll probably create my own sounds to overwrite my least favorites. But most seem to be keepers.
The JX-3P came out at about the same time as a Juno series, but was aimed at users who preferred using pre-set sounds, kind of like the Yamaha DX-7. Programming your own sounds is accommodated, but neither keyboard makes that easy. On the JX-3P, instead of just turning a knob to change a parameter, you have to follow this procedure: You consult with a chart printed above the keys, and determine which editing bank the parameter resides in and its number. Then you press the appropriate button to activate editing of that bank, then press the number corresponding to that specific parameter, then you generally use a slider to set the value you want. If you want to re-adjust four or five parameters of a pre-set sound, you’ll need to keep repeating that sequence. It’s not quite as hard as that sounds, especially after you start to memorize where the various parameters reside. But it’s hardly made for tweaking sounds on-the-fly.
But Roland offered an optional solution: Its PG-200 controller, which allows you to set the various parameters by turning knobs and pushing switches designated for each parameter. In my mind, this gives you the best of both worlds: 64 presets and the ability to easily change parameters while playing.
These controllers are in relatively short supply, and tend to command very high prices. But I got lucky and found one in excellent condition at a very attractive price from a legendary Los Angeles studio that had recently closed. It came complete with the original cable to connect it to the synth, with a connection that locks it in place. Oh, and I kept the studio’s property sticker on the back as a reminder that someone famous may have used it.
Adding the PG-200 really was an invitation to explore the instrument far beyond its pre-sets. It also encouraged creativity and the kinds of “happy accidents” you can get by twirling a synth’s knobs.
Then Nathan suggested that to hear the synth at its best, I needed a stereo setup to enjoy its gorgeous stereo chorus. That might have meant buying a pair of high-quality powered speakers, a mixer, speaker stands, maybe a subwoofer, and some cables. But I opted for a less expensive, but excellent solution. I had been enjoying playing the JX-3P through a Peavey KB-100 keyboard amp. They are inexpensive and easy to find – and surprisingly good in some applications. So, I bought another like-new KB-100 for $125 on Craigslist and now use my two as a stereo pair. The 15 -inch woofers and horns really sound nice with the JX-3P.
I added a Yamaha sustain pedal, which makes it easy to hold a sound and start changing parameters.
Unlike many of my other instruments, this keyboard and its controller arrived in a fully operational state. (How disappointing! No joy of the restoration process!) But I did open-up the JX-3P, and solder-in a new battery, just to guard against it suddenly losing its memory.
I bought a z-stand for it, which looked like it was made to match the design of the keyboard. In fact, while I’m usually a stickler for keeping things original, I couldn’t resist throwing a couple of Roland decals on it, which matched the color of the red accents on the keyboard and PG-200. I love the way it looks.
A lot of people complain that the JX-3P doesn’t have deep bass sounds. Hooking it up to two powerful amps with 15″ woofers helps, but my friend Nathan taught me a trick that adds considerably to that: If you turn the tuning knob all the way counter-clockwise, it lowers the pitch of oscillator 2 by an octave. So, if you set oscillator 2 on 16-foot, and twirl that tuning knob all the way to the left, you get a 32-foot pitch. It works in the other direction, too. Set oscillator 2 for the 4-foot pitch range, twirl the tuning knob all the way clockwise and you get a 2-foot voice.
I play this keyboard differently than my other instruments. It really lends itself to dialing-up a beautiful sound, simply holding chords, and doing a little dial-twirling on the PG-200 to vary the sustained sounds. I feel like I’m creating atmospheric, emotional, movie-style music.
The JX-3P has very basic MIDI implementation, which I’ve not yet tried. In fact, there is so much to explore on this keyboard, and I’m really enjoying doing that.