Roland MC202

Microcomposer (Retro)

Published in SOS August 1995
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Reviews : Hardware Sequencer

Almost overlooked in the rush of people desperate to get their hands on a Roland TB303, the MC202 is just beginning to find favour with the all-analogue dance crowd. TOM CARPENTER explains why he's never forgotten the diminutive MicroComposer.

 

The Roland MC202 hardly goes down in synth history as a classic resplendant in the Analogue Hall of Fame on a golden pedestal, but it is a great bass machine, and an excellent source of standard analogue bleeps and squirts. It is a synth that has only recently become appreciated, mainly by those in the dance sector. Users have included The Human League, Vince Clarke, Bomb The Bass and K-Klass, although I doubt it ranks as a favourite even amongst these self-confessed analogue fanatics.

The MC202 was in production for a mere 17 months, having been released by Roland at the same time as their SH101 synth, back in 1983. The 202 could be described as a keyboardless expander version of the SH101 (assuming you ignore the small, rubbery, Casio VL Tone-like attempt at a keyboard), but unlike the 101, the MC202 includes a two-track sequencer. One of these tracks can play the internal synth section, while the other track (or both tracks) can run external synths via the 202's CV and Gate sockets.

The MC202 can be run off batteries and used with headphones, so it's ideal for working on your latest track whilst you're on the move. Does this make it one of the earliest 'walkstations'?

One of the problems with analogue synths is that they take up so much space for just one (often monophonic) sound. Buy another analogue synth and it's 'hell, where do I put this?'. Most end up on their side, propped up against the wall. Compared to such outsized analogue beasties, the MC202 is conveniently sized. It takes up no more space than this copy of SOS, and sits nicely on top of my master keyboard.

THE SYNTH SECTION

The MC202's synth section is almost identical to the SH101's, except that you lose the noise source (shame), and the LFO only has a triangular wave shape (only a problem if you want obscure sounds or effects) -- but you do gain LFO delay. Other than that, the 202 has all the same synth controls, laid out in the same logical fashion -- the signal is generated on the left by the VCO, moves through the mixer and the filter in the middle, then leaves through the VCA and envelope on the right-hand side.

The controls on offer include triangle LFO with delay, pitch modulation, a 2/3/4/16 octave switch, pulse-width modulation (either manually, via an envelope, or by LFO), sawtooth, a sub-oscillator (a square wave one octave down, and narrow pulse-widths one or two octaves down), a 24dB low-pass resonant filter (with envelope, LFO, and key-follow modulation), a single ADSR envelope, and a choice of a gated or enveloped VCA.

The MC202 will never give you the versatility of a modular synth, and it may not have character like, say, a Minimoog, but it is a cut above the Roland SH09, Moog Prodigy or Korg MS10 for bass. The MC202 sounds very similar to the SH101, as the circuits they have in common are almost identical. Like the SH101, the MC202 is an instant bass machine, producing sub-sonic power which can send your bins shaking with its throbbing, warm pulse-width bass, or the dry-sounding 303 sawtooth sound with a touch (or loads, if you desire) of resonance. You can also obtain the traditional range of lead synth sounds.

THE SEQUENCER

The other half of the MC202 is the sequencer, or, as it is correctly termed, the 'MicroComposer'. The sequencer has two channels, and can store 2600 notes in volatile memory -- batteries must be fitted to preserve the sequences! Alternatively, sequences can be backed up onto tape.

Entering and editing sequences is daunting at first, but after a read through the manual and a few trial runs, it becomes clear enough -- and it's certainly easier than programming a TB303. The LCD display is also helpful, displaying note numbers, gate and step times, and other useful information.

To enter a sequence, you just select channel 1 or 2, go into pitch edit mode and enter the notes on the MC202's rudimentary 'keyboard'. You then enter step edit mode to alter the step and gate times of each note. The step value determines, in musical time, when each note is played, while the gate value represents how long the note will play for. The step or gate times can be anything from a whole note down to a 32nd note. Rests can also be entered.

 

"Like the SH101, the MC202 is an instant bass machine..."

 

Portamento (the correct, but less cool term for slide) and Accent can also be entered whilst in step edit mode. The Portamento time and Accent level are varied by two knobs, and the Accent can effect either the VCF cut-off and VCA (volume), or just the VCA. This is when you can make the MC202 sound like the TB303, which is expensive, and yet primitive by comparison (see the 'TB Or Not TB' box for more on making the 202 sound like a 303).

Notes can be recorded in real time from an external 1-Volt-per-octave keyboard plugged into the MC202's CV and Gate inputs, following the MC202's metronome. If a mistake is made, or editing is needed, notes and whole bars (or several bars) can be inserted, deleted and copied. Finally, the MC202 has a tape sync in and out, so you can record a sync signal, and synchronise the 202 to your multitrack.

INTERFACING

The MC202 can be synchronised to other Roland equipment, or a suitable MIDI converter that can handle Sync24. The 202 has one Sync24 input, but was designed more to be the master of your setup, having two Sync24 outputs. This is fine if you like programming the MC202, which, although it's easier than on the TB303, can still be a pain.

The MC202 has two sets of CV and Gate outputs; one set can play an external synth, while the other will play the same pattern as the internal synth. CV and Gate inputs are also provided, for recording sequences in real time from an external source, but problems will be experienced using these to play along in real time with another sequencer (via a MIDI-CV converter, for example). The CV and Gate voltages are processed by the MC202's micro-processor, stored in the memory, then played as notes by the 202's own synth. This all takes a finite amount of time, and the response time of the Gate is fairly sluggish; long enough that most people cannot live with it. Also, due to the CV being converted into digital data by the processor, the CV is quantised into semitone steps -- so smooth pitch-bend is not possible. Finally, the MC202 has a meagre three-octave range via its standard inputs.

Fortunately, it is possible to have CV and Gate sockets fitted to a MC202 which bypass the processor completely, and trigger the synth section directly. It is also possible to have filter cut-off and portamento control inputs fitted for additional direct manipulation of the internal synth.

PRICES

It wasn't long ago that you could pick up an MC202 for around £100. Few people knew what the MC202 was capable of, and thought that it was just a dodgy sequencer with a dubious built-in synth and a horrible rubber keyboard. However, time passes, and word of this competent little SH101 expander has spread. Now, MC202 prices have caught up with those of their keyboard counterpart, and the MC202 can sell for £200 to £250. They are not in short supply, but are now in demand, like SH101s.

Just about all the MC202s I've come across have been in good condition. Maybe as they do not have a 'real' keyboard, they are not abused like most synths. But as with all second-hand equipment, check that all the sliders and knobs work correctly, and are not too worn or crackly.

If you come across a MC202 whose sequencer does not appear to work, do not despair! If CV and Gate input sockets have been fitted to bypass the sequencer section of the MC202 and tap directly into the analogue circuits, you can use the synth via a MIDI-CV converter, but you lose the on-board sequencer. In this case, check to see if this sort of retrofit has been carried out -- if so, that's why the sequencer's not working. Of course, 202s with this retrofit do give you the opportunity to haggle with unsuspecting salespeople; "Oi mate, it don't work. I'll give you a tenner."

So remember, if you have difficulty in finding a TB303 (or just can't afford one), or if you like the sound of the SH101, but want to save some space, try the MC202. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

 

TB OR NOT TB: THE MC202 VS. THE TB303

Everyone loves the sound of the TB303 Bassline synth. It does have a certain something that you can't quite put your finger on. But you'll be lucky if you can find one for less than £500 -- and that's a lot of money for a synth with only 10 knobs.

This will probably upset the bassheads and 303 purists out there, but few people realise that you can get the MC202 to produce a sound which is very close to that of the TB303, and probably closer than most of the 303 clones on the market. Believe it or not, it's true.

It's just a case of good programming. Don't use any control on the MC202 that the 303 doesn't have. For example, avoid the LFO, the pulse-width, and the sub-oscillator with shorter pulse widths -- and don't use the square and sawtooth waveforms together, as you can only have one or the other on the 303. In addition, don't use envelope modulation or key follow on the filter, and keep sustain to zero. You must also make sure the release time is set to the same as the decay (the 303's decay works more like release), and try to keep the decay and release times short, as the maximum time offered on the TB303 is short in comparison to that on the MC202. Finally, use plenty of slide (portamento) and accent!

If you're still not happy with the results, there are a couple of possible reasons why. Firstly, people love the sound of the 303 because it is such a bugger to programme. Because of this, people often come up with excellent (and sometimes strange) basslines by pure accident. The other possible reason is the distinctive slide. But hey, the MC202 has portamento too. Just programme a few slides into your MC202 sequence, and hey presto -- it's a TB303!

"But the TB303 still has that certain something", I hear you cry. Well, perhaps, but get your MC202 sequence down onto CD, and no one will know the difference except yourself. Given that you can buy two or three MC202s for the price of one TB303, I think it's worth considering -- and remember, the MC202 can do much more than just emulate the ubiquitous silver Bassline.

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