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Studio Icons: Roland Juno-6

The little polysynth that could

2021 Nov 09     
2 Bit Thugs

Launched in 1982, the Juno-6 brought polyphonic synthesis within grasp of the ordinary musician

The precise reasons why Ikutaro Kakehashi stirred the theological sediment of ancient Roman waters have never been determined. But thanks to the synths he designed in the early 80s, the names ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Juno’ have cemented themselves in electronic music folklore just as firmly as they did in the imaginations (and the marble) of our ancestors.

Few have shaped the musical future like Roland did in those perversely fondly-remembered Cold War, nuclear fallout days of the 1980s. The legacy of those machines has bled like a shot dissident journalist into the fabric of popular culture and provided a shimmering backdrop for many classic electronic tracks.

In the beginning
While the behemoth Jupiter could be considered the Ferrari of the polysynth world and has always been ferociously expensive, the Juno was more of a Volkswagen. 

In designing polyphonic synths, a balance must be struck between price and specification, and although the first Juno-6 was a bargain compared to the Jupiter it still cost around £500 in 1982, which was a hard tax on the pocket. It did, however, blaze the egalitarian trail for polyphonic synths: the Juno-6 and the more expensive Korg Polysix (£700) were the first to fall within the realistic reach of most musicians.

Unlike the TB-303 and other classics that absolutely flopped when first released, the Juno was well received, and was used extensively on hit records by the likes of Madonna, Duran Duran, A-Ha and other badly dressed 80s chart-botherers. It was sturdy and was the first Roland poly to use digitally controlled oscillators (DCOs), which made it way more stable and consistent than traditional analogue designs. 

Prior to the arrival of DCOs on the scene, the tunings of older machines could drift wildly due to temperature. A folk duo could easily take an unexpected diversion into the unsettling, often atonal world of Krautrock if the barman stuck a heater on during a frosty midwinter session. DCOs were the solution to this problem of pitch drift.

Don’t break my arp
While we are all now very used to hearing arpeggiators, in 1982 the arpeggiator was a somewhat revolutionary concept,. They’d been used before, sure, but never had they been placed in the hands of musicians to use so easily. Soon the sound was all over, and it's not an exaggeration to say that it changed the face of popular music as we know it, as these arpeggios became the defining characteristic of many electronic sub-genres.

With hypnotic, driving arpeggios available at the flick of a switch, the Juno's simplicity and musicality shone through. Its arpeggiator section had three modes – Up, Up & Down and Down – and could be clocked by a drum machine, which meant it could be tempo-locked. Again, today we take these things for granted, but 40 years ago this was a big deal and was gleefully exploited by forward-thinking musicians. 

This was a raw, no frills, get-the-job-done kinda synth, and its arpeggiator was the perfect embodiment of that core principle.

A simple design
I've never come across a synth with a lusher-sounding filter than the Juno. Its elegance as a sound-sculpting tool is unsurpassed, to my ears, and the calibration of the circuit is incredible in its musicality. It can go from high, open and bright to the warmest, most cotton wool-like lushness and all points in-between. 

In electronic music circles the Juno has always been in demand for its pads. The number of house and techno tracks that have used lush Juno pads for background atmospheres is incalculable. But creating a complex-sounding pad with the Juno is made very straightforward thanks to its very basic and intuitive layout. It's an absolutely flawless architecture, and it's no exaggeration to say you can shape and program a great sound in under a minute once you are familiar with it.

The chorus is legendary, too – so much so that there have been hardware and plug-ins made devoted to its unique aquatic hues. Grab a free (and possibly the best) version here

A Juno is basically all you need to write a great track – you could just use a Juno for every part except drums. Great on bass, pads, arps, leads, stabs and FX, if you could only have one synth to do your heavy lifting this would be at the top of the list. 

Never give up on a good thing
There have been a few revisions of the design over the years. The Juno-60, released just a few months after the 6, built on its predecessor’s shortcomings by adding a 56-patch memory bank and the ability to add a sequencer using Roland’s DCB protocol, which was an ancestor of MIDI. 

1984 delivered a more radical restyle in the shape of the Juno-106, which brought actual MIDI and a memory bank that could hold a massive 128 stored patches. The 106 criminally dropped the arpeggiator, but MIDI and patch storage was enough to drag it kicking and screaming into the hall of greats. 

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 and forcing you to edit the sounds with a membrane keypad and a single Alpha wheel. The Alpha is the spicy younger brother of the Juno, and the one most likely to go to jail – it can produce sounds that others simply can't, due to its peculiar analogue/digital hybrid. 

Without the Alpha, there would have been no Hoover sound, Joey Beltram may have ended up working in insurance and hardcore wouldn't have been born. However, it was – and legend hath spoken that hardcore will never die. It's a bold claim, with little in the way of hard statistical evidence, but even the wisest of us simply cannot say. The Alpha Juno can still be had for a decent price secondhand and is worth its weight in hoovers.

The spirit of the Juno lives on today via Roland’s Boutique JU-06A, and in the digital realm via a Roland Cloud subscription and the Arturia Jun-6 V, which is very good indeed and has added a few bells and whistles of its own. 

Meanwhile, the impact of the original Juno series can still be felt on the dancefloor to this day. While it's old enough to have seen a good few golden summers, its sound, like any classic, is absolutely integral to electronic music culture.

Words: Chris Lyth





Tags: Roland, polyphonic synths, classic synths, polysynth, Juno-6, Juno-60, Juno-106, Alpha Juno, Joey Beltram, hoovers, Yamaha DX7