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REVIEW: Roland JU-06A

A classic synth re-revisited

2019 Sep 29     
2 Bit Thugs

This updated 'boutique' take on the Juno-60 adds chord memory and built-in delay, but lowers the voice count from six to four

Over the past few years – as most of you will be well aware! – Roland has released compact 'boutique' versions of many of its classic synthesizers. One of the first to get the treatment, back in 2015, was the Juno-60, which was reborn as the JU-06 – and now the machine's had an upgrade, and is reborn as the JU-06A.

We'll come to the relative merits and demerits of the new synth in a second, but first, a little bit of history

In the beginning
It was in late 1982 when Japanese synth lord Ikutaro Kakehashi unveiled the Juno-60. The synth would go on to help shape the sound of the 80s, finding its way onto hits by artists as diverse as Madonna, A-ha, The Cure, Wham! and INXS. And its impact is still being felt on dancefloors today, because the Juno sound, like that of the TR-808, TR-909 and TB-303, is deeply embedded in electronic music’s history and culture. From deep thick bass, sharp stabs and lush strings to attacking percussive timbres, there’s little it can’t cope with in the analog realm. 

Back in 1982, however, there was little to compare to the Juno-60. The Korg Polysix was the only real contender at this price point, and price was key: new manufacturing techniques allowed Roland to make this the most affordable full-featured polyphonic synth then seen, putting it within reach of actual musicians and not just super-rich prog rockers. The Juno was a truly egalitarian machine that has justifiably sustained its popularity by cropping up on records of all genres for over 37 years. 

There have been a few revisions of the design over the years. 1984 delivered a restyle in the shape of the Juno-106, which brought MIDI and a memory bank that could hold a massive 128 stored patches, though dropping the arpeggiator was a major drawback. Then came the Alpha Juno, which took the lead from Yamaha’s new kid on the block the DX7, making sound design and performance considerably less fun by removing all the sliders, forcing you to edit the sounds with a membrane keypad and a single Alpha wheel. This didn’t stop the Alpha from producing the hoover sound, which is a rave classic in its own right and still vaguely fragrant of Vicks Vaporub to this day… 

Today, any one of these retro machines will set you back some serious cash, and is likely to require a fair degree of maintenance to keep it running, which of course is why Roland released the JU-06 four years ago. Now, with over 20 years of Juno experience and having owned all the above models at some point, I decided it was time to put this latest incarnation through its paces.

Taking the Juno aesthetic very seriously, the look of the JU-06A is very much in keeping with that of the originals. The slider controls are organised in similar fashion to the original Juno-60, with the LFO followed by the signal oscillator, the HPF, VCF, VCA and ADSR. As with the rest of the boutique range the sound is generated by Roland's ACB technology, which emulates the original instrument’s analog circuitry in digital form. 

There’s a sound mode select switch to change between the 60 and the 106, which mimics the unique filter behaviour of the two machines. Connectivity is comprehensively handled with USB, MIDI and external clock input which will allow you to connect with most other external hardware you might own. Handily, it’s powered via mains and battery and has a small speaker, which is ideal for annoying the drum circles that terrorise parks during the summer months. 

The pros
What Roland have done with the JU-06A is pack all of the best features from the 60 and the 106 into one tiny unit, and the fact that we can carry around a pimped Juno in a backpack is a tribute to the age we live in.

The three-octave arpeggiator is a lot of fun and hours can be lost making driving arp lines and tweaking the filters. The addition of chord memory is also a huge plus: I can see a lot of ideas being generated using this, because it’s almost 'instant Detroit' on tap! The legendary Roland chorus has always been a thing of swirly, noisy loveliness and here it sounds pretty much identical to the original. It makes a very basic sound come to life in a way that just feels right… and did I mention there is a built-in delay? No? Well there is, and it’s very good. Ideal if you're taking it to gigs and don’t want to carry external FX processors as well.

But how does it sound, I hear you ask?! It sounds very nice indeed, actually, and everything you have come to expect from a Juno is here. Warm, swishy pads, wobbly basses, driving arp lines and sharp 80s synth stabs can all be dialled in very quickly, thanks to the elegant simplicity of the design. 

The cons
It’s great that Roland is revisiting some fine heritage pieces, but a shame that it's offering them in sometimes compromised form. The main cause of consternation here is the reduction of the original’s voice count from six down to four. This somewhat took the wind out of the JU-06A's sails for me personally – would an extra two voices really have killed them in 2019? But others perhaps may not feel that this is an issue. 

The diminutive size of the unit could potentially bring in its own problems. I personally have the pale, slender fingers of a hand model, of course, but others with more agricultural digits may find precision editing fiddly! The mini-jack output is another backward step for me, as mini-jacks can be prone to more noise than a standard quarter-inch. The lack of a keyboard will also be off-putting to some, though of course you can always add Roland's own K25M, which was designed especially for use with this and other boutique recreations from Roland. 

Lastly, while Roland bestowed the SH-01A (a mono synth) with a polyphonic sequencer, they've reduced this (a polyphonic synth) to a mono sequencer. Which seems curious, to put it mildly

The verdict
The overall sound and feel of this pint-sized prince is very close to the original machines. A-B'ing this unit alongside the originals, the sub had a bit of a wobble to it here when  in 106 mode, and overall I found the original 60 had a little more bite. But such differences would be less audible in the mix with other instruments, and you easily could fool the ears of even the most discerning vintage aficionados.

Given the price, you're getting quite a lot for your money: a great-sounding synth, chord memory, arp delay, the (ahem) mono sequencer, the 106/60 switch emulation. The same money would get you a Waldorf Blofeld, or for £200 more you could have an Elektron Digitone, and either would give you wider sonic scope in the small synth category. But this is still a very nice unit with a lot going for it, and whether you’re in search of that classic Juno sound specifically or just want a compact synth with intuitive performance features, I would suggest you add the JU-06A to your shortlist. 

Review score: 3.5/5

Words: Chris Lyth

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Tags: Roland, Juno, JU-06A, Juno-60, boutique synth, synthesizers