Retro: Jupiter-8

If you’re in the business of naming hardware synths, a suitably lofty moniker for your creation is paramount. Think big. In fact, the bigger the better. We’ve seen some grandiose titles through the years, but surely none compare to Jupiter, the name Roland chose to bestow on their biggest – and undoubtedly most collectable – decade-defining polysynth of all time…words: Oz Owen.

God complex?

Launched in 1981, the Jupiter-8 (or JP-8) is an analogue behemoth that became the pinnacle of Roland’s ‘Roman’ range of synths. In Roman mythology Jupiter was /the/ god. Not just “a” god, but the “king of the gods”. (‘Juno’ being the female god of gods and Jupiter’s counterpart, fact fans.) And with a launch price of £4,000, while it wasn’t exactly cheap it delivered a big bang for your buck. The ‘8’ in JP-8 denotes the number of voices, and with a weighty two oscillators per voice this subtractive analogue monster is capable of making a truly formidable sound. Each voice can be augmented with a range of modifiers, including cross-modulation and oscillator sync, while classic Roland hi- and lo-pass filters added (subtracted?!) to the party.

The JP-8 was groundbreaking in many ways, not least of all due to the massive bank of 64 patch locations and split-keyboard mode that allowed two different patches to be played across that five-octave keyboard. That’s right, two patches /at the same time/. Hey – this was 1981, remember!? A unison mode even stacked all 16 oscillators into one super-layered mega-voice. No wonder JP-8 became the number one sound device for an entire generation of synth-pop addicts. It isn’t all about sounding massive, though. The JP-8 is adept at a huge range of synth sounds, also finding favour amongst sound designers and performance keyboardists alike for the range and quality of sonic flavours that could be elicited from that sizeable frame. Howard Jones has even name-checked the JP-8 as his favourite synth of all time.

Control freak

But the best bit about the JP-8 has to be that front panel, festooned as it is with knobs and sliders that allow for instant access to the powerful sound-sculpting tools that lie within. The JP-8 is immensely powerful, but just as incredibly quick and intuitive to tweak. Ethereal pads, layered strings, bubbling arpeggios, bouncing basslines, punchy leads, and complex, cross-modulated and evolving soundscapes. All are available in spades, and easily editable without a menu in sight! The JP-8 was without doubt a magnificent and versatile machine.

Frozen planet

On launch the JP-8 received a frosty reception, a now familiar story for many Roland products that would go on to become classics. Why? Because the Oberheim and Sequential Circuits synths of the day were well established, so the new kid on the block was immediately viewed as an interloper to this party. The fact that the JP-8 is still revered as an analogue sound generator over 30 years later suggests that upon its 80’s debut it was way ahead of its time. The polysynth’s fortunes u-turned in 1982 with the improved Jupiter 8A that offered more stable tuning and the added DCB (Digital Control Bus) capabilities that allowed the JP-8 to interface with a couple of Roland’s hardware sequencers. This changed the playing field completely, as musicians could now record whole sequences to external (DCB-enabled) hardware devices. The Jupiter-8 remained Roland’s flagship polysynth until it was discontinued in 1984. But by that stage it had been picked up by legions of musicians eager to explore the vastness of the JP-8’s sonic universe.

Used and abused

Many factors make a synth a classic, but one of the greatest indicators has to be the list of artists who fall under its spell. And for the JP-8 the list is not only long, it is also very distinguished. All of the usual suspects – Jarre, Faltermeyer, Moroder, Vince Clarke, OMD, Human League, Foxx, Dolby – are, of course, present and correct. But the wealth of less obvious artists and producers who were lured in are legion. Michael Jackson, Abba, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Paul Simon and Phil Collins and Queen all carved out hits with the JP-8. And, of course, Charanjit Singh, who’s Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat used a JP-8 alongside a TR-808 and a TB-303. As a nod to its ongoing appeal, more recent credits continue to pour in from the likes of Lady Gaga, The Prodigy and Damon Albarn, to name but a few. Not everyone can own an original, but there are alternatives…

Get that sound

Despite the Jupiter-8’s age it’s still a hugely sought-after synthesizer, and there’s really no substitute for this original analogue behemoth. Units in good condition, however, can command prices upward of £3,750 at auction. For anyone wanting a more modern interpretation, the more recent Jupiters are capable of fantastic sounds, and go way beyond the usual classic analogue sound set. I guess that’s progress for you! If you’re interested in recreating that sound while staying within the Roland stable, you could scout around for a second-hand VariO/S hardware unit that can emulate this sonic beast. Expect to pay around £250+ for the rackmountable hardware.