MAN CAVE, a grotesque of mid life crisis
MKS80 Super Jupiter and MPG80 Programmer
It’s been nearly 20 years since I had to sell my MKS80 but now, finally, revenge is mine. This is no simple decision. I’ve bought all kinds of substitutes over the last few years because I wasn’t sure I could justify the small-car cost of the real thing. Some of those substitutes I feel are better than the MKS and I’ll say which below. But the sound of the MKS turns out to have had a notable, distinct place in my musical history, and the price was eventually worth that.
MYTHS AND LEGENDS
I'll start by saying - if you have ever been told that the MKS80 is a Jupiter 8 in a rack, you’ve been mansplained by an idiot and need to towel yourself off. It has ‘Jupiter’ written on the front. If I got a dog turd and wrote ‘diamond’ on it would you be so easily mislead? Some of the guts resemble those in a Jupiter 6 but it should be treated as a development after the two earlier keyboards, as ‘Super’ in Roland talk means an iteration on previous designs – the last one before a jump to the next major design (‘super JX’, ‘super JD’ etc.) There’s also revisions of the MKS chip set, most common being Rev 4 and 5. Some who own both say the difference is negligible. For the record this is a Rev 4, which means it wears blue undies or something.
OLD SCHOOL IS NOT ALWAYS GOOD SCHOOL
It uses VCOs. They fall out of tune, not as tediously as the Moog, but enough that you want to buy a drink for the guy that came up with DCOs. The most wear on my unit is around the Auto Tune button. There are times when the Auto Tune fails, and a voice gets stuck off key. Sometimes a voice is lost. The machine is getting old, and inevitably will become worthless.
The MPG80 controller is both a blessing and a disappointment. It’s easier to use than the menus on the MKS80 itself, but was designed very early in MIDI development and has far too little resolution. The MKS only offers level steps from 0-100 which is particularly noticeable on the filter cutoff, but try the slider on the MPG and it jumps as much as 4 steps at a time. I’ve heard people dismiss the SH32 for level stepping on the controllers – but the MKS is worse and not enough is said about that. You will grab the controller, wait a moment for the processor to notice that you’re moving it, then very carefully move the slider to not overshoot the mark. Very likely you’ll resort to the up/down buttons to get near the level you wanted – but never quite the sweet spot.
On contemporary machine such as the AIRA System 8, some of the controls (like the filter cutoff) have thousands of levels, which is closer to the expressiveness on analogue potentiometers. That is, you can slide to exactly the right cutoff to get the resonant tone you would on a fully analogue machine. The sliders on the MPG80 are 2.5cm (an inch) long, somewhere between tiny 2cm on the Boutiques and 3+ on the AIRAs. They are not particularly firm.
All up if you decided on a third-party controller instead of the MPG you’d be swapping musicality for authenticity – a decent swap.
Once the MKS is warm enough and tuned it enough it starts to make a familiar noise, a bit like a blues singer with a sore throat. It’s far better at big basses and brasses than anything requiring a delicate touch. Compare it to the JP8080 (which so obviously wants to be a more modern version): the JP does light and airy better than the Jupiter once you whack the treble all the way up. But it can’t do the baritones nearly the same. With much to-and-fro, a plausible reason becomes apparent – the MKS is mono, the JP is stereo. Even when the effects are disabled the sound is going through a panning stage. I’m suspicious that any internal stereo pathway might introduce phase cancellations.
One advantage of the JP8080 is that ‘patches’ made up of ‘tones’ contain their own versions of the tones. That is, when you edit a tone already used in a patch, the patch is not affected. Not true in the MKS.
The fun is all in the MKS ‘unison-2’ mode, where available voices are stacked to the extent available – 8 mono, 4 duophonic and so on. Because all the voices are distinct bits of wiring you get a chorus made of individuals, rather than clones. I thought that the ‘condition’ setting on the System 8 would approximate this, it does in a way – but recognisably different. A machine such as this is all about the pressure of the signal as it forces its way through the stages of the synthesis – a little too hot becomes very hot when the unison is on, and like a good curry the burn is part of the flavour. The AIRA machines try hard to get that same burned sound, and I am sure that given some time I’ll be able to emulate it.
DO YOU NEED ONE?
You don’t need one, unless like me, you have a bunch of recordings that you must revisit. More recent synthesisers will give you similar sounds – not identical, and they will be more reliable and more responsive to your touch. Particularly the MPG is optional. I said about the System 8 that it replaces these kinds of machines, that still stands. If you want something that looks rather similar, the JP8080 will make you happy. But if you wanted that sound, a V-Synth is even better. If you just want a lot of balls, the Blofeld will do a great job.
THIS TOY IS EASY TO USE
IT MAKES LOUD ODDLY PITCHED BLARES
THE SOUND QUALITY IS GOOD
IT IS VERY EXPENSIVE AND
IS REASONABLY COMMON
ITS RATING IS DEEP DISH MEAT LOVERS
It was either this or a red car and I think I chose wisely.