January/February 2009

Roland’s JUNO-STAGE & GW-8 Keyboards

Two of Roland’s newest synthesizers share an undeniable synergy.

By themselves, the GW-8 workstation and the JUNO-Stage synth are formidable instruments. But together, they complement each other’s strengths to create an impressive array of tones and backing tracks.

At $999 list, the GW-8 is a fairly well-rounded keyboard that won’t break the bank. Backing tracks are its biggest advantage—it faithfully recreates a number of different genres, with a focus on Latin rhythms. The live-performance-oriented JUNO-Stage lists for a good deal more, $1,599, but offers a far-reaching batch of classic and cutting-edge leads. Pair the GW-8’s beats with the JUNO-Stage’s presets and you can crank out solid soundscapes.

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Roland Juno Stage Keyboard
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The back of the Roland Juno Stage Keyboard
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Roland GW-8 Keyboard
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The back of the Roland GW-8 Keyboard

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You certainly don’t need both keyboards, though. While the GW-8 is more studio-oriented, it was also designed with one-man-band performances in mind. And by itself, it’s a decent one-stop shop.

Surprisingly, the GW-8 is smaller, lighter and more portable than the JUNO-Stage. Sounds a little backwards, doesn’t it? Whereas the JUNO-Stage weighs in at a few ounces shy of 22 pounds, the GW-8 is just more than 13 pounds. The JUNO offers more range—76 keys to the GW-8’s 61—but the added weight is a purchasing factor. When it comes to set up and break down, only drummers take more time and lug more gear than keyboardists. And if you’re a regularly gigging keyboardist, every inch and pound can count.

If the GW-8 is being used in a studio, it’s probably not going to have to be moved that often. To that end, it doesn’t matter how large or hefty it is. But since the GW-8 is also geared towards live performance, I understand why the folks at Roland wanted to make it portable. I just wish they’d made the GW-8 a little bit bigger, which would have given room for extra knobs.

As it stands, both keyboards have sound-modifying knobs (attack, release, resonance, chorus, etc.). The JUNO-Stage has a dedicated knob for each effect. The GW-8 only has two knobs, which toggle between effects. In the studio, you have more time to tweak tones. But when you’re playing live and adjusting effects on the fly, you don’t want to have to think about which effect is selected first. You just want to twist a knob.

Both keyboards are outfitted with Roland’s signature D-Beam interface. 10 years ago, Roland introduced the D-Beam, an infrared light that reacts to motion. To work it, hold your hand about 12 inches above the sensor on the upper left side of the keyboard and move your fingers. You can program the D-Beam to react a couple different ways, so that waving your hand over the sensor turns the tone into a wall of wild oscillating noise or just bends it a little bit.

The D-Beam takes some getting used to. Learning how to handle it doesn’t take too long, though. Granted, you could just use the D-Beam to make conventional tweaks like pitch bending. But it’s much more fun to play sound wizard and twist the tones into crazy static without touching the keyboard (look, Ma, no hands!). It’s a little gimmicky but sure to please a crowd for a couple of minutes.

Both the GW-8 and JUNO-Stage have a USB port on top, covered by a hinged flap. The flap is a nice touch, especially when you consider how, in a live setting, drinks, sweat and dirt have a way of clogging up these kinds of sockets. You can upload tracks to a USB memory card and easily import them to both keyboards. Both keyboards have sizeable LCD displays, too.

The GW-8 has much tighter action than the JUNO-Stage. The 61 keys are touchy, and it’s easy to slide up and down them. The JUNO-Stage’s 76 keys are higher quality, with more spring and give to them. They’ll feel more familiar for piano players than the GW-8’s keys.

Recording at a moment’s notice is pretty easy on the GW-8 compared to some other workstations. You don’t have to set parameters like length ahead of time if you don’t want to. You can cut one track for a few measures, lay another track on top of it and go from there. That’s important for producers and songwriters, because when they come up with a hook or riff, they need to be able to get it on tape fast and without a lot of hassle. Otherwise, it could slip their mind.

The GW-8 also lets you hear a track in any of the tones. Say you recorded a run using one of the organ presets and thought it might have sounded better on piano. You can just flip the knob to the piano preset and hear your same recording played as a piano or horn, instead of an organ.

Some of the GW-8’s backing fills sound thin, but the percussion is spot-on. Few keyboards have such an extensive selection of Latin settings—including merengues, salsas and bossa novas. All of the percussion instruments, from the drums to the triangles, sound authentic. And each backing track has four different settings—each with slightly different instrumentation.

When it comes to presets, the question is quality versus quantity. While both have 128-voice polyphony, the GW-8 has a seemingly limitless pool of presets. Some are pointless but others are worth hearing—most notably the compelling Wurlitzer imitations, nylon-stringed guitar tones and organs. Most of the brass settings sound awfully cheap and unrealistic, but trumpets and the like are often the hardest instruments to recreate.

The JUNO-Stage has less overall presets, but what it does, it does well. The pianos are top-notch. So are the organs and synthesizers. When you plug them both into the same amp, it’s startling to hear just how much more complex and deep the JUNO-Stage’s presets are. That’s across the board, form gurgling synths to percussive organs.

Nobody makes biting electric guitar presets quite like Roland. They have some downright dirty settings that don’t sound like a guitar per se, but have a scathing, distorted tone. Both keyboards have a handful of these settings, but the JUNO-Stage really shines. It also has a mike input with a reverb button, so you can karaoke to your heart’s content while onstage, if need be. The JUNO-Stage’s biggest drawback is its limited selection of mediocre-sounding backing tracks. All the bases are covered: You have your generic rock, pop techno and Latin beats. They’ll do in a pinch, but they’re nothing to write home about. Players would do better to use the Stage’s USB input and run their own backing in MP3, WAV and other formats. (The USB also gives the JUNO studio capabilities.)

Switching to master MIDI mode is easy on the JUNO-Stage, too—it has a dedicated button that lets you make program changes at a glance. The other controls are pretty self-explanatory and easy to navigate.

If you’re in the market for a relatively inexpensive, versatile new keyboard, the GW-8 is a good go-to. It’s user-friendly, and has a remarkable assortment of presets for the price. For one-man-bands, especially ones that focus on Latin music, the price tag is justified. And even though the JUNO-Stage costs significantly more, the quality of its presets is striking. In an ideal world, I’d have them both. But each has its strong points, and they’re both worthwhile buys.

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