Monthly Archives: January 2012

Endless Wire

With apologies to Gordon Lightfoot.

Recently, I notice there was a cable under my desk that didn’t appear to be connected to anything. After tracing it back, I started going through all the cables. I found four that weren’t in use. At all. Two of them, I’m not even sure what they are.  I figured this was probably a sign that I needed to do something about the mess.

The view from the front, after the errant cables had been removed. In addition to the computer, there is an external hard drive, power box, cable modem, Vonage adapter, and a powered USB hub in amongst that mess.  Plus AC adapters for several of them. My headphones have been tossed nonchalantly on top of the pile, just for effect.

And this is the view behind the desk. Screwed or velcro-ed to the modesty panel are a power strip, wireless router, and AC adapter for the printer.  I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think any of this mess was grounded.

The goal was to get all the wires off the floor, get all the little boxes out of the alcove where the actual computer lives, and make everything accessible should I need to change anything. So I got a piece of pegboard, some hooks, a whole bunch of wire ties – both Velcro and plastic – and spend a delightful two and half hours listening to New Wave, sipping coffee, and wondering why I had even started to do this.

I guess this is why. No more cables, no more boxes. The computer partly visible on the right is the media server, which I now have the option of putting next to the main computer and getting rid of the rack that it’s on.  I’d put the hook for my headphones there when I got the desk. This is the first time I’ve been able to use it.

Because the colored ones were cheaper, that's why.

And this is behind the upright. There’s pegboard hung from hooks here and also along the modesty panel. Having hooks means the pieces can be swung out to access behind them, should something need to be moved.

The various items that were in a jumbled pile are all easily accessible. This also cuts down on the potential for thermal issues; I’d noticed it occasionally seemed a little toasty under there.

The components were all placed first, then the power strips, then the wires were run. At that point, I had enough presence of mind to actually turn everything on, to make sure everything was connected properly.

Next, I bundled all the excess cords, and finally anchored the bundles and the cables themselves so nothing flops around.  I can pull the desk out easily to get behind it. There is only the main power cable and the Ethernet cable to the server to worry about.

All in all, I think I spent about $18 on the pegboard and wire ties. Totally worth it, even if at one point I would’ve been happy to junk it all and just use my nice neat wireless netbook from now on. Isn’t everything supposed to be wireless by now?!?

Advertisements

Casio MT-110

The fact that this entry is being made immediately after a post about things that suck shouldn’t necessarily indicate that this is a particularly wonderful device. It does, however, avoid many of those pitfalls and is in fact a very good example of what I’d consider a simple mini keyboard.

This is a mid-size, 4-octave PCM keyboard. It has all of the very basic features one would expect and little else. It is 8-note polyphonic, reduced to 4 when using the auto-accompaniment.  Panel controls are all real buttons, sliders, and switches.

From left to right, there is main volume, accompaniment volume, and chord select switch. “Off” disables the melodic section of the rhythm track, and “fingered” responds to actual notes and chords you play.

The Casio Chord function is present on virtually all of their instruments, and is here as well.  Playing a given key adds a major chord to the accompaniment. Pressing one key to the right of the first changes it to a minor chord, and pressing two and three additional keys change it to a minor 7th and major 7th respectively.

Tones
Piano Elec. Piano
Vibraphone Elec. Guitar
Jazz Organ Pipe Organ
Violin Human Voice
Trumpet Flute
Funky Clavi. Synth. Sound

Most of the voices are usable, as long as one doesn’t expect them to sound too similar to their names. Flute is lovely and both organs are quite good, and Funky Clavi and Elec Guitar are also very usable. There are no modifiers, although some of the sounds do include vibrato. Again, the flute demonstrates this quite well.

I did notice an audible click when pressing the voice buttons. This may be intentional, or the contacts on this particular unit might be a little dirty.

Rhythms
Rock 1 Rock 2
Pops Reggae
Disco 16Beat
Swing Slow Rock
Samba Bossa Nova
March Waltz

Now, the rhythms. It’s important to note that here, the internal speaker does absolutely nothing for the sounds. When using an external amp it may as well be an entirely different keyboard.

There is an intro/fill button, which works as expected, and an end button that has to be hit at just the right moment to sound natural. I recorded about seven demo samples and was able to get it just once; the one I posted is NOT that one. It doesn’t sound bad if you miss, just odd.

The unit is well-built and heavy. There is a standard 1/8″ headphone jack. The keyboard is also surprisingly solid and responsive. While pretty well packed with circuitry, there is certainly enough room around the edges to add switches and contacts if one is so inclined. The bottom of the main board staring at you practically begs to be messed with.

Pros: Some sounds are quite good. Intro and end buttons. Headphone jack. Rugged.

Cons: Fixed accompaniment pattern. No sound modifiers.

Casio MT-110 Demo  Just a small snippet of the accompaniment and a small sample of Flute and Pipe Organ.

I was unable to locate a manual for this on-line. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that you probably won’t need one.

Top 10 List: Mini Keyboard Features that Stink

Well, at least features that *I* say stink.

So I like to collect them, but what exactly are these mini keyboards? Are they instruments? Toys? Musical scratch pads? Cacophonous time wasters? Does anyone really know for sure?

The very early models tended to be very basic. This was for both technological limitations, and also because in a brand new market it was uncertain as to which features would be important to consumers.

As time went on, manufacturers seemed to have been intent on cramming as many representations of whatever technology was available at the time into these little noisy boxes. Doing so as cheaply as possible, though, meant that shortcuts were often taken. On top of that, they needed to be visually appealing to your average non-musical consumer (Oooo….shiny!)

In the time I’ve spent over the last thirty-odd years working with keyboards, these are the top ten things that consistently annoy me about them. It is highly unusual to find any model that doesn’t contain at least one of these annoyances. And I can think of a few models off the top of my head that contain all of them. Your mileage may vary, of course.

10) Non-standard AC adapters

Yes, they're all different.

Yamaha and Casio have opposite polarity adapters. Usually. However, even within these two major manufacturers there are still some oddball units, with either strange plugs or weird voltages. Other manufacturers, such as Kawai, tend to have their own standards. Trying to keep track of all the various  ones for specific units is a real pain. For testing, it’s usually far easier just to throw some batteries in, since most use either C or AA.

9) Poor internal speaker(s)
There’s a difference between “inexpensive” and “cheap”. A difference you can hear, in the form of rattles, buzzes, and a miniscule frequency range. On some keyboards, the speakers are sometimes chosen specifically to mask deficiencies in the sound generating method employed. Which does help to explain item 3 below.

8) No rhythm/accompaniment variations
Fill & end buttons would be nice. Tempo being adjustable over a wide range is good, too.

7) Too many / lousy rhythms
A couple of dozen well-constructed ones would be preferable to a hundred that stink. Get rid of fixed-pitch percussion that requires you to play in the same key. And ditch the waltzes. Ditch the front-panel drum pads, too, unless you can assign different voices to them.

The next few are specifically voice related.

6)  Really bad sounds
And by “bad” it can mean sound quality, choice of voices, or both. There’s no reason some of these should sound as horrid as they do. Square wave, sampling, PCM, additive synthesis, FM…it doesn’t matter that you’re using the latest technology if it still sounds like crap.

What? No Crunchy Frog?!?

5) Too many sounds.
No one needs a 37-key mini keyboard with 240 anemic sounds. A few dozen quality voices that sound good should be adequate for most needs. This would also eliminate the need to devote huge swatches of control panel real estate to nothing more than a list of all the patch names.  And unless the thing is specifically targeted towards kids, all of the “cute” or “funny” sounds are unnecessary.

It also might make sense to take all those cool sound effects and combine them into one patch, where each is assigned to one key. What is the point of being able to play the sound of a jet plane over the entire range of the keyboard?

4) No sound variations
Vibrato, chorus, or maybe sustain. A pedal jack is unnecessary (and frankly silly on a mini keyboard). A button is fine. As above, provide the user with a few good sounds and allow them to be easily modified.

The maid called out this week.

3) No output jacks & other case flaws
Lack of a headphone jack is often cited as a simple cost-saving measure. This is somewhat difficult to believe. Most units have plenty of room; drill one hole and put in a switching jack.

The other major case issue  is unnecessary  cosmetic features such as  grilles, vents, serrations, or anything else that serves no real purpose other than to collect dust.  Recessed controls are particularly annoying, just as they are on full-sized keyboards, because they’re extremely difficult to clean.

Along with those standardized AC adapters, it would have been nice if they could have decided on a standard-sized battery door, too.

2) Poor quality controls
Membrane switches lack tactile feedback. While tearing or puncturing isn’t usually an issue, either graphics being worn off or the surface being scratched or scraped are common. Buttons tend to feel “squishy”, and sliders (if present at all) are rarely smooth.

And the #1 thing I hate, the thing that almost always guarantees a quick trip to the “For Sale” section of my equipment cupboard…

1) Digital access controls
Instead of an actual slider or button, a particular parameter is controlled by either typing in a number or by hitting up/down buttons. This is normally coupled with a lack of indicators. By that, I mean nothing to indicate the current patch, or rhythm track, or tempo, or in the worst cases, nothing to indicate the unit is even turned on. The settings are also volatile, so that each time you turn the unit off and back on again, everything has reset to the defaults.

Volume is the worst offender. It usually defaults to a too-loud setting, so the first thing you have to do after turning the unit on is to turn it down. Second is patch selection. This typically requires at least two button presses and you can’t tell what you’ve typed in until you actually play. Hitting these types of buttons usually results in some sort of audible click, which can be annoying. Increments are typically fixed, too, so that instead of a smooth range of volume or tempo you’re stuck with a number of discrete intervals.

I understand that most – if not all – of these gripes are designed in as a way to save money. Very few are the result of technological limitations. It’s easier to control the functions through software and dedicated logic chips than to use discrete components. It’s a tradeoff, though, and I think consumers – and certainly musicians – end up with the short end of the stick. It always feels as if the marketing departments decide to cram as much as possible into as small a space as possible while keeping costs down, and then the engineers are forced to come up with ways to make them work. Which results, of course, in all of the items listed above.

So the question is, what are some features that DO make sense? Are there any mini keyboards that avoid most of these pitfalls while still remaining interesting? Hey, Relic, are there any your grumpy old ass actually LIKES?

Yep. Stayed tuned.

Synth Prices 1/20/12

Couple of days late on this one. Bi-weekly price update. N/S indicates there were no recorded sales during the time period. Percentage column shows the or decrease from the last period. The larger values here may not be reflective of actual trends, since there may have been only one sale in the period.

I’ve actually begun to track many more models, and can see average pricing over a longer period of time. If nothing else, it gives a good sense for whether or not something on Ebay or craigslist is fairly priced, or whether the seller is under the influence of pharmaceuticals.

Averages based on Ebay sales data from 1/2/2012 to 1/15/2012.

Roland
SH-101 $742.06 -1%
Juno 60 $933.09 16%
Jupiter 6 $2,110.50 -5%
JP-8000     $527.50 -3%
Juno 106 $582.42 9%
SC-55 $81.00 27%
Alpha Juno 1 N/S
D-50 $335.71 -20%

The SH-101 continues to astonish me. It’ll be interesting to see if the release of the Moog Minitaur and the Arturia MiniBrute have any effect on mono synth prices.

Korg
Polysix $385.00 -49%
M1 $461.39 -10%
Poly 800 $260.00 0%
Microkorg $237.78 -7%
X50 $406.50 5%
MS-2000 $503.17 -7%

The Polysix only had one sale; whoever it was got a good deal.  Although it’s still too early to be sure, the Poly 800 appears to be stable – another head-scratcher.

Yamaha
DX-7 $276.11 4%
MM6 $338.09 -5%
AN1X N/S
CS1X $235.63 89%
FB-01 $71.00 37%

The AN1X may not have been a good choice for this list. I like it, but the sales volume has been really low.

Moog
Minimoog $2,972.50 6%
MG-1 $566.33
Prodigy N/S
Rogue $517.50 -20%

Need to rethink this list, too. The MicroMoog has more sales than the Prodigy.

Casio
CZ-101 $144.08 -10%
MT-500 N/S
RZ-1 $107.38 6%
SK-1 $41.59 -8%
VL-1 $32.05 -52%

The VL-1 appears to have corrected; the average price for the past few months has been around $44.

This seemed like a good idea at the time, but I’ve found the 2-week interval is too short for some of the lower-volume keyboards. Instead of this, I may change to doing it monthly but with an expanded list of models. Again, if you have any suggestions let me know.

Yamaha PSS-190

Well…what have we here? Looks like Yamaha’s answer to Casio’s SA-21. Looks like it – but doesn’t sound like it.

This is another 2-operator FM keyboard. 100 voices (more on that later), 22 rhythms, 15 demo songs, 4 dedicated front-panel drum pads, plus all the associated selection buttons. As would be expected,  the only physical switch is the three-way power/accompaniment slider.

Now, I’d expect that any given FM-based Yamaha keyboard would basically sound like any other. However, this isn’t really the case. The voices are all facsimiles of natural instruments. Unlike the PSS-170, the brass, woodwinds, and mallets are quite good. Organs & pianos, not so good – very bell-like. It is FM, after all.

Although the panel lists 100 voices, they are divided into groups of 40 single, 10 ensemble (added chorus), 3o dual (layered) and 20 split. If I had to guess, I’d say there are about thirty actual distinct sounds, which are then  combined in various ways. It is 8-note polyphonic, but obviously choosing the layered voices cuts that to 4-note. Of course, the layered voices are also the more interesting ones.

00 Trumpet 25 Jazz Guitar 50 Brass Duo 75 Carillon&Banjo
01 Horn 26 Rock Guitar 51 Sax&Toy Piano 76 Steel Drum&Harp
02 Trombone 27 Acoustic Bass 52 Drop 77 Marimba&Recorder
03 Tuba 28 Electric Bass 53 Harp&Panflute 78 Sax&Bass
04 Soprano Sax 29 Cello 54 Sax Duo 79 Banjo&Guitar
05 Tenor Sax 30 Banjo 55 String Duo 80 Bass/Sax
06 Clarinet 31 Mandolin 56 Violin&Cello 81 Bass/Piano
07 Bass Clarinet 32 Harp 57 Glocken&Piano 82 Guitar/E.Piano
08 Oboe 33 Violin 58 Sax&Clarinet 83 Piano/Trumpet
09 Piccolo 34 Carillon 59 Trombone&Horn 84 Harpsichord/Flute
10 Flute 35 Timpani 60 Banjo&Flute 85 Glocken/Marimba
11 Panflute 36 Steel Drum 61 Guitar&Trumpet 86 Bass/Clarinet
12 Recorder 37 Glockenspiel 62 Organ&Piccolo 87 Bass/Rock Guitar
13 Ocarina 38 Marimba 63 Jazz Guitar&Organ 88 Accordion/PanFlute
14 Piano 39 Vibraphone 64 Funky Synth 89 E.Piano/Sax
15 Electric Piano 40 Brass 1 65 Crystal 90 Piano/Violin
16 Toy Piano 41 Brass 2 66 Recorder&Bass 91 Toy Piano/Ocarina
17 Reed Organ 42 Chime 67 Carillon&Ocarina 92 Bass/Banjo
18 Pipe Organ 43 Honk-tonk Piano 68 Rock Guitar & Bass 93 Guitar/Sax
19 Jazz Organ 44 Woodwind 1 69 Steel Drums&Organ 94 Bass/Clavi
20 Harpsichord 45 Woodwind 2 70 Harp&Accordion 95 Accordion/Piccolo
21 Funky Clavi 46 12String Guitar 71 Banjo&Horn 96 Piano/Harp
22 Accordion 47 Marimba 72 Mandolin&Oboe 97 Organ/Jazz guitar
23 Acoustic Guitar 48 Strings 1 73 Slap Bass 98 Cello/Flute
24 Hawaiian Guitar 49 Strings 2 74 Piano&PanFlute 99 Bass/Piano/Percussion

There are a few voices that I quite like. Brass Duo (#50) is a very analog-ish sawtooth-y kind of generic synth sound. Rock guitar (#26), more like a Clavinet than any guitar, is buzzy and edgy.  And if you’re looking for a quick way to throw together a creepy melody, you can’t beat Toy Piano/Ocarina (#91).  Generally speaking there are a fair number of decent sounds. The Harmony button on the front panel makes the selected voice monophonic with three layers – kinda like Unison mode.  There are no other modifiers – no sustain, or vibrato, or chorus.

Rhythms
Pop Rock Funk
Boogie Woogie Techno Rock
Rhumba Shuffle
8Beat Samba
16Beat Jazz Waltz
Rock ‘n’ Roll Reggae
Hard Rock Country
Rock-a-Ballad Tango
Disco Waltz
Bossa Nova March 1
Swing March 2

Rhythms are very basic, and selected via the keyboard keys. There’s no intros or fills. The ad-lib button on the front panel plays a little melodic fill for as long as it’s held down.

Demo Songs
Joy to the World Die Lorelei
Brother John Camptown Races
The Old Folks at Home When the Saints
Go Marching In
House of the Rising Sun
A Little Brown Jug Brahms’ Lullaby
Silent Night Yesterday
Jingle Bells Hey Jude
Ave Maria Venus

Demo songs are also selected via the keyboard keys. Hitting the demo button while one is playing will disable the melody part, allowing you to play along.

  

The built-in stereo speakers aren’t bad, although there’s very little bass response. Some of the more resonant tones are quite capable of generating some seriously impressive buzz and distortion if the volume is up. There is a headphone jack, which was surprising enough but the fact that it’s a 1/4″ jack instead of the now-standard 1/8″ was also unexpected. There is some noise when running into an amp.

As on the SA-21, all of the controls are soft buttons (blech!). Accessing sounds is particularly annoying. Not only do you have to key in the 2-digit number, but you have to hit Enter after each one (which I keep forgetting to do). There is an audible “click” when a button is pressed, but it’s not nearly as loud as it is on the Casio. And like the Casio, there are no indicators, so you have no idea which voice, rhythm, demo, or anything else is selected.

Pros: Good sounds, with the split and ensemble voices being very usable.  Real headphone jack.

Cons: Soft buttons. No tone modifiers. No way to adjust relative volume of the rhythm track. Dedicated drum buttons are cute but of little use. No indicators.

Bottom line: Forget about the rhythms & just use the sounds.

Fun fact: Holding down the two right-most keys while powering up puts it into test mode. Hitting any front-panel button then generates a note. Why you’d want to do this, I have no idea.

PSS-190 Demo Recorded straight, no effects.

Yamaha PSS-190 Manual

Casio CK-10

Casio doing what Casio does. In this case, grafting a wonderfully cheesy keyboard to a portable AM/FM radio. Or, if you prefer, grafting a radio to a PT-1 keyboard. This is the baby of the CK line, the other end being represented by the absurd and inexplicable CK-200 boombox.

First – the radio. It’s a radio. Both AM and FM (woo-hoo!) It sounds good for the size. I have the thing sitting on my desk as I write this, cranking out classic rock at a decent volume level. Now, it makes perfect sense to ask whether owning a radio makes any sense in this era of iPods and streaming music. For me, it certainly does. If I’m out on the back deck painting, I don’t like wearing earbuds and my WiFi doesn’t reach the back of the house. So for a little background noise, it’s perfect.

The keyboard section is functionally and audibly equivalent to a PT-1, which is itself a slightly crippled version of the original VL-1 (VL Tone).  It is monophonic. There are four voices (Piano, Fantasy, Violin, and Flute).  I find the piano somewhat useless, but the other three tones are interesting and worth fiddling with (so to speak).  The ten rhythms, which are too silly to justify me making a table, are March, Waltz, 4 Beat, Swing, Rock 1, Rock 2, Bossa Nova, Samba, Rhumba, and Beguine.  The sound will be instantly familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of early Eighties music.  Trio, anyone?

The rhythms are selected from the keyboard keys. There is a small recorder, which has the surprising ability to edit recorded sequences. Not easily, of course, but still… You can also play back the sequence one note at a time. There is a headphone jack, and also a manual pitch adjust pot on the bottom. Also on the bottom is a flip-down stand which allows you position the unit upright, so to better hear the radio. A nice touch, that.

Despite the tiny keys and ridiculous rhythms, it’s still a lot of fun to play with. I can’t conceive of a circumstance where you’d actually want to play along with the radio, so it’s best to think of it as one or the other.

Although I know the PT-1 can be modified to enable some of the features that have been disabled, I’m not sure if the CK-10 has the same circuit boards so that might not be an option. Besides, this little pupster is unique enough that I really wouldn’t feel right messing with it.

Pros: The radio is fine. The sounds are cute.

Cons: It’s be nice to be able to adjust the relative volume of the rhythm track against the main voice.

Bottom line: This one’s a keeper. I may not be composing any film scores with it, but it’s still nifty.

Casio CK-10 Demo Recorded straight with no effects.

Casio PT-10 Manual I was unable to find the manual for this exact model, but the PT-10 manual explains how to use the recording and editing options. If you need a manual to operate the radio, you have no business owning this to start with.

Yamaha PSS-120 & PSS-130

Just like everyone else’s mother did, my mom always said that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything. Knowing that I’ve always tried to do just that goes a long way towards explaining why I’m as quiet as I am, especially when I’m at work. However, if I followed that advice here, this would an extremely short post.

It was actually somewhat of a surprise that I found so little to appreciate about the PSS-120 and 130. While I found the Casio SA-21 somewhat frustrating because it did a lot of things, but none of them well, these models do very little and do that little extremely poorly.

The PSS-120 was released in 1986 and was replaced by the PSS-130 in  1987. Seperate posts aren’t warranted here because except for exterior cosmetics these are exactly the same keyboard. The 130 has a glossy control panel overlay with slightly different graphics, and the Yamaha logo on the back is now white. These are the only differences – internally they’re identical.

It is 2-note polyphonic (duophonic?). Except for the power switch, the control panel is all membrane switches. There are eight voices under in the ironically-named Orchestra section, and eight rhythms, such as they are. The obligatory demo button( Yankee Doodle), volume up and down,  and the record/play controls for a 110-note sequencer (“Melody Memory”) complete the list of controls.

Orchestra
Clarinet Piano
Oboe Banjo
Violin Harpsichord
Xylophone Electric Guitar

On power-up, the volume is set at maximum and the clarinet voice is selected. The volume control has just four increments. One would think that the voices would be FM-based, but one would be very wrong. They are muddy, buzzy, and certain notes tend to distort the built-in speaker at any volume level. I initially thought the speaker was either loose or damaged, but both of my units do the same thing.

Rhythms
Pops Swing
Disco Slow Rock
16-beat March/Polka
Latin Waltz

The drums are just bland squirts of digital noise. The cymbal sound in the rhythm tracks is more like a cowbell, and it is also distinctly pitched, so hitting certain notes on the keyboard sound off-key when played against accompaniment. Tempo is adjustable within a range of sixteen increments.

A sequencer might seem out of place, but there is a very basic 110-note one on board. It’s volatile, of course, so you lose the sequence when the power is turned off. You also lose it if you hit the record button again.

There is no headphone jack, or indeed any jacks other than the power adapter. One could certainly be added, as the case is roomy enough, but I don’t think there’d be a lot of impetus to do so. Just for giggles I tapped into the audio out contacts & tried running the signal into an amp in the hopes that the sound quality might be improved. There really wasn’t a heck of a lot of difference. For the record, there were no giggles, either. The odd speaker-induced distortions disappeared, but the now-audible digital noise was just as irritating.

While I’m not into circuit-bending, I’m also not entirely ignorant of it – it’s just not my thing. So when I say that there is little or no opportunity to circuit-bend this, it’s not because I’m not familiar with the process, it’s because the thing is effectively based on one chip (YM2410). There is more circuitry devoted to power handling and amplification than to actually generating the sound, as seen above.

For me, a lot of the little home keyboards generate a fair amount of head-scratching. Often I have no idea what the designers intended to be done with the instrument, and I’m just as often puzzled by the implementation of features. This, however, is not just baffling but one of the very few keyboards I actively dislike.

Cons: 2-note polyphony. No output jacks. Noisy, simplistic rhythms. Noisy, muddy-sounding patches. Noisy internal speaker. Little or no opportunity for circuit bending.

Pros: Either model would be unlikely to kill you if it fell on you from out of a tree.

Bottom line:  I added strap pegs to one of my two PSS-130s and use it as a costume prop; drilling holes in it was very cathartic. That one’s a keeper. The other 130 and the 120 are going into the “to be sold as quickly as possible” pile.

Yamaha PSS-130 Demo The demo song, followed by a couple of measures of each of the eight rhythms.

Yamaha PSS-130 Manual

Roland Alpha Juno 1 (JU-1)

Okay – had to get away from the cheezy l’il keyboards for a bit & do a real synthesizer post.

This particular unit sort of snuck into my collection. It was given to me by a friend who snagged it from their place of employment where it was going to be thrown out(!).  Not cool. While I did test it to make sure it worked, it otherwise stood in a corner by my desk for a quite a while.

Specs are available all over the web, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. Released in 1986, it’s got 6-voices, 2 oscillators plus a sub,  64 presets plus 64 user memory locations, portamento, chorus, and a 24db lowpass filter. It’s also got the funky Roland joystick pitch/mod thingy, which after all these years I still can’t decide if I like or not. The Alpha Juno 2 adds an extra octave to the keyboard, along with aftertouch, velocity, and an expansion cartridge slot.

 

The other thing it has, which is off-putting for a lot of people, is the Alpha dial, which is used in conjunction with membrane-switch parameter buttons to actually program or modify sounds. You press the parameter select button and dial the number in for whatever you want to change, then hit the value button and change the actual stored value. Tedious? It can be, especially if you’re creating sounds from scratch. Complicated? Not by a long shot.  For those with less patience there are four dedicated Tone Modifier buttons, which allow you to quickly modify presets by changing the modulation rate & depth, brilliance, and envelope time.

You’ve got all the expected analog synth sections -DCOs, envelope generator, LFO, filter, and VCA. There are also buttons for key transpose – handy on a 4-octave keyboard – plus portamento and a nifty chord memory button that does just what it says. The minimalist display is perfectly adequate, and the ability to name patches is handy.

Factory Presets (ROM):

Bank #1 Bank #2 Bank #3 Bank #4
1 PolySynth1 HighString Piano 1 Organ 1
2 JazzGuitar TeknoStrng E Piano 1 Organ 2
3 Xylophone StringOrgn E Piano 2 CheesyOrgn
4 LowString Fast String Piano 2 PipeOrgan1
5 LeadSynth1 LongString E Piano 3 PipeOrgan2
6 ChorusGuit Cello Clav VoicePad
7 SynthBass1 SoloViolin Harpsichrd sinusoidal
8 ElectroDrm Pizzicato PianoPad Voices 1
Bank #5 Bank #6 Bank #7 Bank #8
1 Brass 1 LeadSynth2 Bells 1 Tron Blast
2 Syn Rise LeadSynth3 BellChime1 NoiseShots
3 Spit Valve Flute BellChime2 TwiliteZne
4 Fat Synth LeadSynth4 Syn-Bello Scratchin
5 Arpeggiatr Sax Marimba Syn Echo
6 Velo-Reso1 E Bass 1 Syn Koto PolePositn
7 Big Brass SynthBass2 StlDrumBnd –U-F-O–
8 Pad 1 SequencrBs Harp Timps

User Presets (RAM):

Bank #1 Bank #2 Bank #3 Bank #4
1 Brass 2 BowdStrngs Piano 3 Organ 3
2 Brass 3 RichStrngs E Piano 4 Organ 4
3 BrassHorns Orchestra E Piano 5 ChowaOrgan
4 FatBrass1 SynOrchsta Piano-FX PipeOrgan3
5 Trumpets StrngSweep Clavichord Accordion
6 BrassSwell SoloVioln2 Harpsi 2 Vocorder
7 PolySynth2 DblBasses AccGuitar Voices 2
8 PolySynth3 Ominous BassPiano Harmonica
Bank #5 Bank #6 Bank #7 Bank #8
1 SynthSweep Lead 5 Machines Jet
2 Poly Pulse Lead 6 EchoXplosn Helicopter
3 CosmoSweep Inv-Solo ooops DogsBark
4 ChrusPluck Clarinet Jet Chord WET
5 Bells 2 Oboe Take-Off ooohSCARY
6 Vibe SynthBass3 Whistle What the
7 Koto SynthBass4 Surprise SynthToms
8 BellChime3 UpriteBass Oct Jump SoloSynth3

The presets are either perfectly usable on their own, or need just a little tweaking to make ’em that way.

 

From left to right: Memory protect switch, tape load/save, foot control, pedal switch, pedal hold, headphones, and left & right audio out.  Although there’s a tape input, patches can still be loaded via SysEx. MIDI includes a Thru jack, something that is increasingly rare in these days of USB MIDI.

You are limited to a perfectly reasonable 10-character name length. You’d think the small display would make things harder to figure out, but the abbreviations all make sense and seem logical. The manual is a help for programming, though, but even so I was able to switch MIDI channels and disable omni mode quickly and easily without ever having looked at it.

Sooooo…the big question. How does it compare to the Juno 106? (which I also own)

Let’s deal with the easy one first. The Alpha Juno has digital access controls instead of knobs and switches. So it’s neither as easy or as fun to program as the 106. Someone with no knowledge of synthesis or programming can start grabbing sliders and punching buttons and not only create interesting sounds, but also gain an understanding of how the various controls interact and what affect they have on the sound. The Alpha? Not so much. You really need to have some knowledge of synthesis before you can start dialing in parameters and changing values.  And let’s face it – it also doesn’t look anywhere near as cool as its slightly larger and far more colorful relative. Nor does it afford as much – or indeed any – opportunity for physical customization. No blue LEDs for you.

There is a programmer available (PG-300), but anymore all of the Roland programmers sell for more than the synths they’re used with. Better to learn to use the Alpha dial

How about sound quality? Well, I’m not going to get into that. I’m really, really not interested in the nit-picky comparisons about  filter warmth and how “fat” or “thin” the sound is that often become the entire conversation when comparing two instruments.  The Alpha doesn’t sound exactly like the 106. The 106 doesn’t sound exactly like a Juno 60, either. They all sound analog, despite being DCO based, and they all sound good.

The Alpha does have some advantages. It’s very well built. The presets are good. You’ve got an extra oscillator to play with. If you know how analog synths work, even on a basic level, programming it is not hard. I’m not aware of any major hardware issues, such as the failing voice chips on the 106. And it’s much, much cheaper – about a third of the price, in fact. Currently, a Juno 106 is going for around $600 while the Alpha Juno 1 is around $200.

Pros: Small. Well-built. Good presets. Relatively inexpensive. Real analog sound.

Cons: Digital access editing. Membrane switches. Small display. No velocity or aftertouch.

Bottom line: I was very impressed by the sound, and the programming method doesn’t bother me. A vastly underrated little machine.

Alpha Juno-1 Demo  Probably unnecessarily long, but fun all the same. If only I could sing…  All parts are the JU-1, except, of course, for the drums. These are the factory ROM presets, recorded straight to Sonar with no effects. Sounds pretty analog to me.

Alpha Juno-1 Manual

Synth Prices 1/3/12

Bi-weekly price update. N/S indicates there were no recorded sales during the time period. A couple of other units were suggested, which I added. Also added a column to show the percentage increase or decrease from the last period.

Averages based on data from 12/19/2011 to 1/1/2012. Overall volume was lower due to the holidays.

Roland
SH-101 $753.33 -7%
Juno 60 $804.33 -20%
Jupiter 6 $2,217.00 17%
JP-8000 N/S
Juno 106 $536.13 -18%
SC-55 $63.92 -35%
Alpha Juno 1 $219.83 6%
D-50 $421.84

Added the D-50. The Sound Canvas makes me kinda sad…I still love that pupster & use mine all the time.

Korg
Polysix $760.00 14%
M1 $513.24 23%
Poly 800 $260.33 73%
Microkorg $254.71 3%
X50 $386.71 -6%
MS-2000 $542.50 19%

Microkorg and X50 seem pretty stable. I’m still a little surprised by the Poly 800; I almost wish I’d kept the ones I’ve fixed over the years.

Yamaha
DX-7 $251.81 -12%
MM6 $355.72 4%
AN1X $478.67 15%
CS1X $125.00 -37%
FB-01 $52.00 37%

Although the price listed is based on just one sale, and isn’t therefore really statistically  relevant, the CS1X is still somewhat underrated. It’s a bargain.

Moog
Minimoog $2,800.00 -46%
MG-1 N/S
Prodigy $780.00 11%
Rogue $649.66

Added the Rogue. I’d include more Moog models, but the sales volume is so low that I don’t know if the numbers would mean anything. It also just occurred to me that the MG-1, Prodigy, and Rogue are all basically the same synth.

Casio
CZ-101 $160.67 -20%
MT-500 $47.77 -18%
RZ-1 $101.25 107%
SK-1 $45.28 -9%
VL-1 $66.25 68%

Another one I don’t get…what’s the appeal of the VL-1? It’s of historic interest, certainly, and cute, but at that price? If I found one at a yard sale for $10, yeah, but otherwise I’m happy to stick with the VL-1 VST.

Protected: Fifteen Drawers in a Dead Man’s Chest

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below: