No major structural changes. More models and a few new vendors added.
As always, the “Range” column represents the year-to-date average taking into account the availability of that particular hardware along with the difference between the high and low prices. A wide range indicates either low sales volume or large gap between the high and low (or both).
Given that there are plenty of resources available for most of the sound-generating gadgets discussed on this blog, one may wonder why I even bother. Well, there are a few reasons. I tend to run across various oddball models and think it’s worth getting the pictures and demos out there as a resource. Since you can pick many of these up for a few dollars, a quick overview and assessment by someone who’s actually got one sitting in their lap might be of use. Finally, since I’m a hardware geek I like to relate my own experiences and perspective with some of this gear.
This particular piece is one of my all-time favorites.
I mentioned my experience with the IBM PC Music Feature in the K1000 post. Basically, it was a Yamaha FB-01 on a chip. Early soundcards were primarily focused on gamers, and the IBM card was one of the few that you could actually make real music on.
In 1987 the actual FB-01 module, along with the Roland MT-32, were among the first dedicated stand-alone MIDI modules. With limited editing capability, they provided the user with a large assortment of good-quality sounds. But…
Although the concept was the same, these boxes were not interchangeable. Sounds were arranged differently, banks were numbered in different orders, and voice allocation was handled as each manufacturer decided. The initial MIDI standard described how data would be transmitted and received between devices. There were, however, no standards that described what should be done with that data. In 1991, the General MIDI standard changed that.
The MIDI Manufacturer’s association and the Japan MIDI Standards committee decided upon a specific set of voices that would be mapped to specific program locations on any keyboard or module that met the GM standard. There were also specifications for number of voices, polyphony, and many other items. The Roland SC-55 Sound Canvas was the first GM compatible device, released within hours of the official adoption of the GM standard. Not surprisingly, as Roland was one of the more vocal proponents of GM.
The SC-55 module generates sound using both PCM and a variation of Roland’s own LA (linear/additive) synthesis. For compatibility with existing games and other applications, there are also a bank of MT-32 voices. There are 317 instrument patches and 9 drum kits. It is 16-part multitimbral with 24-voice polyphony, and built-in reverb and chorus, individually selectable for each MIDI channel.
Along with the SC-55, Roland released the SB-55 Sound Brush, a basic MIDI sequencer/playback unit the same size and style as Sound Canvas. The two units could be rack mounted together as a complete composition and playback unit.
In addition to the various part controls, the front panel includes a headphone jack with volume control and a very handy front-panel MIDI-In jack. Rear interface consists of RCA L/R audio in & out, MIDI in, out, and thru, and the power jack.
I have yet to run across anyone who actual used it. Regardless of the intended function, the primary purpose of the remote seems to have been to get lost. I do still have mine, not through any particular care on my part but because I duct-taped it to the bottom of the unit.
There are limitations. Since this is in fact the first GM device, the specifications are spot-on. Many of the voices use more than one partial, cutting the 24-note polyphony down.
A common complaint is that the sounds seem “dull”. There is definitely a certain lack of high-end sparkle to many of the voices, but (as always) in a performance situation this is not that noticeable. Listening critically to each voice in isolation, there are other noticeable flaws. The decay times may seem unnatural, and there is some noise associated with several patches.
It should be kept in mind, however, that the unit was design to operate multitimbrally, and this is where it really shines. All of the voices blend together extremely well. The Yamaha TG-100, a relative GM contemporary of the Sound Canvas, has better drums, but files played back don’t seem as polished; some instruments seem out of place in the final mix.
I’ve found that when working with MIDI files in Sonar, I frequently have to reset the Sound Canvas, particularly when using any of the alternate sound banks (power on the unit while pressing Instrument Up and Down, and then Yes to initialize). If I switch songs, it doesn’t always respond properly to program change and the voices won’t change. It’s not a big deal.
There’s a little trick I’ve found with the guitar voices, admittedly some of the weaker ones present. The Steel Guitar has a nice attack and tone, but no bottom end. The Jazz Guitar is fuller, but the attack is mushy. Layering the two, with the Steel at about one-third higher volume, gives a very credible acoustic guitar tone. Of course, in doing so you lose a voice and a MIDI channel.
The 24-note polyphony has been cited as a limitation, but in 20+ years of using it I can recall exactly one time when I had to deal with audible drop-outs due to exceeding this limit. Nowadays, since you would most likely be using a DAW to record the parts it wouldn’t be a problem.
Even with all the higher-end virtual instruments and a plethora of physical hardware to choose from, this is still my go-to device for arranging new material and orchestrating existing pieces. The sounds all feel like home to me.
In part 2, we’ll take a look at some of the other versions of this well-loved box, and hear some demo songs.
Format is the same, for a change. Added a couple of new manufacturers and a bunch of new models. I have several manufacturers with just one or two models; I may add them primarily to use as filler to make the pages come out even.
As explained in a previous post, the Range column represents a range of prices based on the high and low to date, but also takes into account the volume of sales. If the range is really narrow, either the item is very popular or the prices are always pretty close. Wide ranges indicate either a big disparity between high and low or a small volume.
In either case, it’s reasonable to assume that if you want to purchase something, seeing a price somewhere close to that range is a good thing.
Commentary to come later, but for the moment here’s the list. As usual, it’s grown a little.
A much more recent synth – at least for me – and another sleeper. Still twenty years old (released in 1992), but I’d really rather not think about that. There’s simply no way the nineties were that long ago.
26 voices, 8-part multi-timbral. Sound quality is excellent. The pianos and strings are gorgeous, the basses thumpy and resonating, the brass brassy, and the percussion…percussive. The guitar patches are also standouts.
Those looking for traditional analog-style synthesizer patches should probably look elsewhere. There are a few, along with the obligatory sound effects, but the focus is definitely on more traditional acoustic instruments. That said, there are at least a dozen add-on cards out there, so if you want vintage keyboards or dance sounds, they are available.
This particular unit was another rescue. Despite my previous unpleasant experience with purchasing a keyboard in untested, as-is condition, it was inexpensive enough to be worth taking a chance on. Several keys were missing and the original ad indicated it wouldn’t power on. It’s far more likely that the owner didn’t have the requisite Roland power cord, because it powered right up for me. The interior was filthy, and half the keys didn’t work at all. I cleaned it, replaced the missing keys, checked the battery, cleaned all the key contacts, sliders, and buttons, and thoroughly tested it. The only thing I didn’t do was replace the stupid Roland 2-prong power jack with a standard IEC connector – I was out of them.
As a side note, I find working on all of the Roland keyboards from the early to mid-nineties to be quite painful. First, they need to be opened from the bottom, and I usually forget about the pitchbend lever until a nanosecond after I’ve turned it over. It’s amazing I’ve never broken one. Second, it’s difficult to remove the keyboard assembly, which is particularly annoying as bad key contacts are the most common problem. Finally, the circuit boards tend to be stacked on top of each other. Which means, of course, that the one you need to access is always on the bottom.
I spent far more time playing it than I normally would because even after cleanings some of the buttons were a still little sticky. They did eventually all started responding correctly. I really had second thoughts about selling it – the sounds are just that good. The keyboard, although having somewhat lighter action, was very responsive, and as always I found the aftertouch to be so much more intuitive to use than the mod wheel for introducing modulation effects.
Both the velocity and aftertouch features are used to great effect on several of the performance patches. Hitting the keys faster triggers a different sample, so for instance a slow attack will play strings, but slightly faster will add a piano note on top. There were also a couple where the aftertouch introduced another completely different patch.
Patches can be comprised of up to eight tones. The eight sliders and associated buttons allow the relative volume of each tone to be adjusted or disabled entirely. This makes changing the character of a given patch immediate and fun – everything is in real time. There is a brightness slider and an additional slider whose function changes depending on the patch. The excellent built-in reverb and chorus can be easily switched on and off.
For more specific changes to envelope and filter settings, diving into the menu system is necessary. The buttons and sliders do make it a little easier, but without the manual locating any particular parameter would be difficult.
Even with the manual, it took me a good five minutes to figure out how to change the polarity of the sustain pedal. This is required when using a non-Roland pedal. Commiting all the settings and options to memory would have required too much brain space, which is another reason I ultimately decided to part with it.
For the sounds themselves, I can always avail myself of a JV-1080 module.
Pros: Great sounds. Aftertouch. Well-built. Many available add-on cards.
Cons: Very deep menus. Historically unreliable keyboard mechanism. Some patches sound dated. Few analog-style patches.
Demo songs. These nicely demonstrate the range of sounds this beastie can produce, and its multi-timbral capabilities. I have to admit, though, that either the arrangements or the patches themselves sound a bit “nineties”.
As indicated – the full list. Since the list has grown quite a bit, I may just post this from here on out, instead of dedicated posts for each section.
The price displayed is the average selling price for that particular model for the month of February. The percentage is the difference between the current and year-to-date average, which is an indicator of the direction the price is going. As per the last column, that direction is either “-” for down, “+” for up, and “0” for staying (relatively) the same.
|Alpha Juno 1||$246.43||-3%||–|
|Alpha Juno 2||$285.00||0%||0|
|SC-55 Mk II||$119.74||9%||+|
A couple of comments. I’m amazed – as always – by the high prices commanded by the PG programmer units. In the case of the Alpha series and the JX-8P, the programmers sell for more than the synths. What makes that particularly odd is that those models are relatively easy to program, especially compared to the JX3P.
There are still some really good deals out there on non-vintage gear, particularly the RS-5 and JV-80 synths, the R-8 drum machine, and the JV-1010 module.
Finally, I really don’t understand the continued stratospheric price for the SH-101. The highest recorded price in February was over $1500, for a mono synth that sold for $495 new. I’ve played them…from a musical standpoint there’s really no justification for it. However, at this point it appears to be more of a status/collectibility issue than anything else.
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.
|Alpha Juno 1||N/S||–|
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.
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.
The AN1X may not have been a good choice for this list. I like it, but the sales volume has been really low.
Need to rethink this list, too. The MicroMoog has more sales than the Prodigy.
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.
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|
|Bank #5||Bank #6||Bank #7||Bank #8|
|1||Brass 1||LeadSynth2||Bells 1||Tron Blast|
|6||Velo-Reso1||E Bass 1||Syn Koto||PolePositn|
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|
|Bank #5||Bank #6||Bank #7||Bank #8|
|2||Poly Pulse||Lead 6||EchoXplosn||Helicopter|
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.
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.
|Alpha Juno 1||$219.83||6%|
Added the D-50. The Sound Canvas makes me kinda sad…I still love that pupster & use mine all the time.
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.
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.
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.
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.