The Story of the Synth that Changed Pop Forever
We investigate what it is about Roland's Juno-60 that's made it one of the most important synths of all time.
This article was originally published on THUMP UK.
John Foxx had one. As did a-ha, Billy Idol, Berlin, Eurythmics and A Flock of Seagulls. No, we're not talking about hairstyles held up with so much hairspray that they damage several o-zone layers, but something else synonymous with the early eighties —a polyphonic synthesizer that has, in the last few years, experienced something of a revival with indie and electro bands. In fact, they're proving so popular that getting hold of one via eBay'd set you back at least a grand. And think of all the tat you could buy on there for that!
But rather than ending up with a load of Stella Artois t-shirts and back issues of The Face you'd have been in possession of a Roland Juno-60, an unsung hero of electronica. In a world obsessed with digital, the Juno-60's a little something from the increasingly-less-recent analog past that bands and artists are still using to this day.
Before we get to exactly why that might be, a brief history lesson: Roland rolled out the Juno-60 for just three years in the early eighties. It was sold as a cheaper alternative to other analog synthesizers that were available at the time, and it was that relative affordability that brought it to the masses. Roland's previous synth—the Juno-6—was going to head to head with the Korg Polysix, and Korg were winning the keyboard war. Roland had to fight back. So they added a bigger memory bank and better programmability tools to their hardware and the Juno 60 was born. The only real difference between the 6 and 60 was a larger RAM memory capable of storing 56-programmed sounds. While they're pretty much identical—provided you're able to play keys of course —it has warmth to its output that digital synths struggle to match. It's basically a hand made instrument full of capacitors, resistors and really rad effects. All good things come to an end and the production of the Juno 60 ended in February 1984, to be replaced by the Juno-106.
But 30 years on, it's become the synth of choice for contemporary acts looking to harness a uniquely analog sound. Everyone from Oneohtrix Point Never to Tyler the Creator, Animal Collective, and Neon Indian's a fan. So why do bands love it so much anyway? We asked a couple of people for their thoughts on the polyphonic analogue synth and how dependent they are on the Juno-60.
Joseph Mount, the front man and brains behind Metronomy, one of Britain's most loved pop acts in recent years, is someone who's got mad love for the 80s synth. He explains how thanks to the seminal noughties synth band, Late Of The Pier, Mount figured that "if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for us," when it came around to shopping for new equipment. Until quite recently, it was an affordable synthesizer and for that very reason, it made sense that bands used the Juno. So what exactly is the instrument's enduring quality?
"The first one we bought was £400 with a flight case!" Joe explains. "It seemed steep to me, but I reasoned the flight case alone was worth 80 or 90 pounds. We needed something to tour with that was versatile and you could store presets in and the Juno 60 was the only sensible option. It is still a fantastic keyboard for touring bands, but it's not really the affordable option any more. I imagine that we've prompted a few groups to get them too."
Joseph goes on to explain that with regards to analog instruments in broader terms, "they literally don't make synthesizers like that anymore." And with a new album from Metronomy coming out in July, Mount states how much they owe to the Juno 60:
"It's very important. On the new album I really wanted to use some modern synthesizers, just to help give some songs a modern sound, but in the end I went back to old ones—the Juno included. It's actually to do with 'space' in a track; the new synthesizers never sit well with 'real' Instruments. The old ones know their place. You just have to pick up a modern equivalent to feel how empty of stuff they are. It's not even really a techy or geeky thing, my dad would be able to tell that the analogue ones sound better. Most new ones aren't analogue."
Claire Harrison of The Sterling Roswell Band is an experienced dab hand with all things synths. From using all sorts of different synths and keyboards in bands, Harrison describes the Juno-60 as being "THE 80's synth". She also credits the Juno for majorly contributing to the unique sound of early Chicago house. "You can get deliriously lost in the dream sounds and musical textures of polyphony!" Claire enthuses. "Brasses, strings, organs, basses, punchy, rich, arpeggio, earthly. There's also great patch storage, a simple and beautiful arpreggiator too. You get the classic Roland analog high pass and low pass filter, which shapes those warm textures as found on the Roland Jupiter 8 and Jupiter 6. Plus the sub oscillator and analogue chorus will send you to pad heaven with minimal effort."
So why is the Roland Juno-60 so loved by musicians past and present?
"It's a great synth," Claire says. "It's just so easy to use and program and produces the most amazingly warm, classic and powerful analog sounds. I've got friends who still have theirs which they bought brand spanking new in the eighties and which work magnificently, still! Ultimately, you can guarantee that you'll always get a great sound out of it. The Roland Juno-60 is a proven, timeless piece and sonically extraordinary for its limitations. I mean, who hasn't danced along to The Cure and sung along to the synth as well as the lyrics?"
In a nutshell, people like Joe Mount and Claire Harrison amongst many other musicians love the Juno-60 for its simplicity, reliability and affordability. As time and technology moves on, some things remain timeless. In an increasingly digital world, it's an analog synth that sets the standard.