Anyone determined to own those original tools of cool, Roland's TB303 Bassline, and TR808 and 909 Rhythm Composers, has to be determined and rich these days. You'd probably have to lay out a sum not unadjacent to £2,000 to secure all three -- quite apart from the fact that they're tough to find in the first place, especially now that musicians in much of Europe, the States, Canada, and even Japan have figured out that they're desirable. Anyone who's sold a Bassline or 909 through SOS's essential Reader Ads can confirm that German and Swedish buyers find distance no object when they're on the trail of these instruments.
That seller's market could be about to suffer a bit of a blow, though: after years of saying that reproducing one or all of these items would be prohibitively expensive or pointless, Roland have finally released a digital, '90s answer which could become almost as hip as the originals. The MC303 hybrid sequencer/drum machine/synth module/arpeggiator has created a definite buzz in the dance world, and is already sought after, even before any significant press attention or retail availability.
Cosmetically, the MC303 Groovebox is right on the button (or should that be 'knob'?). Roland have cleverly stolen both the TB303's space-age silvery livery and the wedge shape of the Rhythm Composers for the MC, and the whole shebang has an appealing solidity, reinforced by the fact that its top casing is actually metal. It's a symphony in steely greys, blacks, and white, with rubbery, primitive-looking knobs, substantial little buttons with rounded corners and built-in LEDs, and clear, sober front panel screening.
Most MC303 front panel controls do double or treble duty, which results in multiple layers of labels, and can be confusing at first. However, the labelling system is logical: editing functions accessed with the Shift button appear in boxed black type, while all global edit functions (Shift + Function) appear in boxed white type. The real-time control knobs have alternate functions, accessed with the Function button, and these are labelled with reversed-out black text. You soon begin to take this system for granted and navigate the multiple functions relatively easily. As there are so many buttons and functions, and the large picture on this page shows the front panel in such detail, we won't do the traditional front panel tour -- instead, we'll deal with the various controls as they come up, which should be less boring. We will mention, however, that the MC303 has a total of 32 buttons, eight knobs, an alpha dial used for various selection functions, 16 black and white 'keys' emulating a section of keyboard, and a 6-digit LED display. There's none of your fancy graphic displays here -- it's numeric information only, with the occasional cryptic mnemonic.
Back panel connections are relatively sparse, comprising MIDI In and Out, stereo outputs on jacks, a quarter-inch jack headphone socket, a pedal input, and a low-boost knob, which effectively beefs up the bottom end (like bass boost on a Walkman!). As expected, power comes from a 9V external power supply.
There's a lot going on beneath that retro-trendy exterior:
It's a 28-voice polyphonic sound module, with 448 sample-based presets. The sounds are editable in real time in a fairly basic way, with front panel knobs -- you can tweak a simple envelope, filter cutoff and resonance, LFO, portamento, and set two effects for each sound. (The kind of control you get here, bar effects, is similar to what you would have with a real TB303.) However, a sound edited in this way can't be saved into a user patch memory, as you'd normally expect. Instead, the edited sound is saved as part of the sequencer Pattern it's used in, and the original preset remains unchanged.
It's an 8-track, Pattern-based sequencer (one rhythm Part and seven normal Parts) with a capacity of approximately 14,000 notes, which allows real- or step-time note input. Each Pattern can be up to 32 bars long, and there are 133 preset (drum and instrumental) Patterns, and space for 50 user Patterns, plus 300 Variations. The latter are not really different Patterns, but references to the preset or user Patterns with different settings of mute buttons -- you can mute elements of a Pattern with the MC303's eight Part buttons. Patterns are chained together into Songs, of which you can save 10 on board. Note-level editing of Patterns is possible, and quantising comprises corrective Grid quantising, plus Shuffle and Groove Template types. In addition, you can adjust quantisation 'strength'* It's a Real-time Phrase Sequencer (RPS), Phrases in this case being Parts (you can think of them as individual sequence tracks) nicked from MC303 Patterns, which are then assigned to the 16 black and white buttons. These are essentially for triggering and muting in real time, because they don't record as part of a sequence. Up to eight Phrases can be triggered at once, in addition to the eight Parts of the current sequence Pattern, and you can have up to 30 banks of 16 phrases each in memory. Note that Patterns can also be assigned to the black and white keys for real-time triggering.
It's a drum machine, with a programming style that puts you in mind of a more sophisticated TR909, and with 12 kits containing sampled sounds drawn from the 909, 808, and CR78, plus lots of other general-purpose drum sounds and percussive effects.
It's a very refined arpeggiator, with 34 basic styles, including traditional single-note arpeggio types, plus complex sequence-type effects involving chords. There are also timing divisions which can radically alter the feel of an arpeggio, and a few other goodies, such as real-time alteration of octave range with a single knob.
It's a 'traditional' 16-part multitimbral sound source for use with a sequencer. To access this mode, hold down the Play mode button while powering up the MC303. None of the front-panel controls, other than the volume knob, work in this mode, all control information coming via MIDI. Apart from drums being assigned to MIDI channel 10, this isn't a hidden General MIDI mode -- the MC303 has emphatically nothing to do with GM, though we hear that its sounds are at least partly drawn from a highly-tweaked and augmented Roland GS set.
The best way to convey what the MC303 is like to use is to talk through creating a track with it. Many people start with a drum track, so that's where we'll start.
At the most basic level, you could simply make use of one of the MC303's preset Patterns as a starting point. But first, you need to copy the preset to a user location. If all you want is a drum Part, just copy that. You can customise the Pattern by applying a new quantise value, muting Parts (rhythm muting has its own function button, which turns the eight Part buttons into mutes for individual percussion instruments), or going into Microscope edit and adding or changing notes (more on Microscope edit later). There's a good choice of dance preset Styles -- everything from trance to jungle, by way of trip hop and house -- and the general quality is very authentic. See the 'Sounds and Preset Patterns' box elsewhere in this article for a fuller list.
Recording a rhythm Part from scratch isn't much harder. There are two modes to choose from: real-time input involves going into record, using the Record button in the sequencer transport control section of the front panel. The metronome starts ticking, and you choose the Part to be recorded, with the dedicated 'R' (Rhythm) Part button in this instance, then set up a range of Pattern parameters: tempo, time signature, Pattern length (up to 32 bars) and Part voice. Tempo ranges from 40bpm to 240bpm and can be controlled in real time by the Tap tempo key, but time signatures are rather limited (to 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4), with the emphasis on dance music, four-on-the-floor style -- fair enough, given the MC303's orientation. Pressing 'Play' starts a 1- or 2-bar count-in (though recording can start the instant you press a note). Record your first pass, then the track continues looping as you add more rhythm parts.
Step-time recording utilises a '90s version of the interface offered by the 808/909. Hitting Play in step mode makes the LEDs on the keyboard pads flash sequentially at the selected tempo, and notes are input by pressing a pad at the desired position -- bum notes are deleted by pressing the offending pad again. In a 4/4 Pattern, the 16 pads are equivalent to a bar's worth of 16th notes. To select another bar in a Pattern, use the 'FWD' and 'BWD' buttons -- these move you one bar forwards or back. There's also a choice of 'Scales', the minimum unit of note that can be input. In addition to 16th notes, you can input 32nd notes, eighth-note triplets and 16th-note triplets, and freely use all four in one Pattern. Individual drum sounds are chosen by pressing Shift and the keyboard pad corresponding to the sound you want. Four velocity values are available; these have Factory settings, but you can edit them.
When you're satisfied with your rhythm Part, there are seven more sequence Parts you can use, for basslines, lead lines, or whatever -- either from the presets or your own work. Recording melodic Parts is similar to recording rhythm Parts: in real time, it's identical, and in step time it involves techniques similar to, say, an MC202 MicroComposer. You choose a minimum step value with the Scale button, as in Rhythm Part recording, but in this case when you press a pad (or a note on a connected MIDI keyboard), the MC303 moves on one step -- a 16th note, say. To input a longer note than the Scale value, press the 'BWD' button, which doubles as a 'Tie' button. To input a quarter note in 16th-note scale, for example, press the required note, followed by three presses of the Tie button. Rests are inserted with the 'FWD/Rest' button. As with the TB303 (and MC202), it's possible to input notes, note lengths and rests semi-randomly, which can produce interesting results. The MC303 differs from the TB303 and MC202 in that a note's length is defined when it's input (although you could edit this later); the older machines both allowed you to define note lengths as a separate operation. As with Rhythm Parts, there's a choice of four velocity values for notes, and in this mode, four of the Part buttons double as 'gate time ratio' buttons -- they define how long the note will hold. Once again, these values are factory set, but can be altered. Chords can be entered in step and real time, and any sound tweaks you make with the knobs while recording are stored with the Part -- excellent.
Finished Patterns, preset and user, in any mixture, are chained into Songs; memory permitting, a Song can have up to 999 Patterns.
For a bit of instant track creation, you might well choose to use the arpeggiator, since its output can be recorded into a Pattern -- though it can also be used during Pattern playback. The MC303's arpeggiator is dizzyingly well-specified, far out-performing those found on most analogue synths. There's a choice of 34 styles (including unexpected styles such as Rhythm Guitar, Walking Bass and Reggae), but this number is really no limitation, since a variety of other facilities allow you to customise them almost beyond recognition:
Accent Rate is tricky to explain; the manual describes it thus: "By modifying the force of the accents and the note lengths, you can change the 'groove' of the arpeggio". The effect is to shift the apparent emphasis on certain notes in the arpeggio.
Easier to comprehend is Octave Range: this gives the arpeggio a range of up to three octaves in an upwards or downwards direction.
The Motif setting determines the sequence in which the arpeggiated notes will be played; there are 34 options, but not all are available with all styles.
Beat Pattern changes the location of accents and the length of notes; again, not all 73 beat patterns are available for all styles.
Shuffle Rate is fairly self-explanatory: higher values add more 'swing' to the arpeggios.
As you can see, the number of possible combinations of settings is vast; you need never have the same type of arpeggio twice.
Two types of sequence editing are available: Global and Microscope. Global operations affect whole Parts or Patterns and include change velocity; change gate time; shift clock (+/-99 clocks); quantise, which fixes the current quantise value for the whole Pattern, as set by the front panel Play Quantise controls; and transpose (+/-24 semitones). Transposition can also work on note ranges within Parts or Patterns, and is even available from the front panel as a 'real-time' control. This can be preset to a desired value and activated every time you hit the Transpose button. The manual makes much of this function, but some way of emulating the sequence/arpeggiator transpose function on an SH101 would have been much better, where you press a button followed by a note corresponding to the shift amount desired.
The Global options can be applied to one or more Parts within a whole track -- to give a rhythm Part a bit of a push while leaving the other Parts alone, shift it forward a little using Shift Clock. In addition, you can erase and copy Parts or Patterns, as well as deleting unwanted bars or adding blank bars.
At any time during step recording, you can access Microscope editing by pressing the Record button again. Here, you can move, modify and delete recorded notes, and insert new ones. While not as sophisticated as the Microscope mode on an MC50 (the MC303 hasn't got much of a display, remember), quite comprehensive note manipulation is possible. In Microscope mode, you can also create the slide effects (by adding portamento events) that are so important when trying to replicate a genuine TB303-style sequence. The result can be very convincing, but only with a TB303-like voice.
Real-time Phrase Sequencing is a device found on other Roland instruments, including the XP50 workstation. As mentioned, Phrases are Parts borrowed from Patterns and assigned to the MC303's 16 black and white keys (you may borrow from preset or user Patterns, but not variation Patterns, since these, like Phrases, are themselves simply data references to Patterns). The Phrases can then be triggered however you like, up to eight at a time, for real-time embellishment of Songs. This is really only a Performance tool, as Phrases don't form a permanent part of a Pattern or Song, and don't output over MIDI. However, it's a very effective device, and great fun to use. Live, it would allow you to be very spontaneous, and of course you could record an extemporised RPS performance to tape or into an audio sequencer.
Though the MC303 easily lets you produce finished tracks without other instruments, it will also work as part of a MIDI system. For example, you can use the MC303's sequencing capabilities with sounds from another MIDI instrument by setting a Part (or Parts) in a Pattern to 'External'. This allows the Part(s) to be played by another synth or sampler, and you can also arpeggiate sounds from other MIDI instruments with the MC303's arpeggiator. Alternatively, you could use the MC303's sounds with a software sequencer, using 16-part multitimbral mode, where it acts like a normal sound module.
As mentioned earlier, the arpeggiator transmits notes over MIDI, so you can record arpeggios into an external sequencer. You might be hoping to record whole MC303 Patterns or Songs into an external sequencer, too. You can, but when you play them back using the MC303's sounds, two things happen. First, all the newly-recorded tracks in your sequence will play back on just the currently selected Part on the MC303 (if that Part uses a bass sound, the whole sequence will play back with that bass sound) and all the front panel knob tweaks will be missing, since they're not transmitted over MIDI. There is no solution to the second problem, but the first can be tackled by putting the MC into Sound Module mode, whereupon it becomes multitimbral, and the sequence plays back properly. All you need to do now is insert Bank Select and Program Change messages at the beginning of each sequence part, so that your desired sounds are selected.
You might have spotted that the MC has no MIDI Thru, a bit of an odd omission that could restrict where you can place it in a MIDI setup, though most people will probably get around this fairly easily. Finally on the MIDI front, you can dump the MC303's memory to a MIDI storage device, although this is rather slow.
Several current TB303 clone instruments feature a MIDI-CV interface to make it easy for people to use their old analogue gear with the newcomer -- the Syntecno TeeBee, reviewed in SOS July '96, is one example, and it has a DIN Sync output too, for syncing pre-MIDI Roland drum machines or sequencers. The Novation BassStation rack also has a MIDI-CV interface and a CV/Gate input. You can't really criticise Roland for not providing anything similar, but it would have been nice to see them helping musicians integrate the MC303 with the pre-MIDI gear many of them will already have. Roland probably see the MC303 very much as a self-contained musical tool -- which, to be fair, it is.
We've spent much of this review explaining how and what you can programme with the MC303. However, if you don't want to programme at all, you may never have to. Even if you can't play a note, you'll produce something worth listening to with the MC303 just by relying on the excellent preset Patterns. Chaining presets together and muting different Parts, as well as using the RPS and arpeggiator over the top of Patterns that are playing back, plus tweaking sounds in real time, all help to quickly and easily create something new from the material provided by Roland.
But this would be a bit of a sad way to spend your £565, since creating something completely new with the MC303 can be so rapid and spontaneous. The many tools provided by Roland, including the remarkably good arpeggiator, RPS, advanced Groove quantise options (see box), real-time knob sound control, and wide-ranging collection of current sounds, make it easy and fun to produce highly contemporary music in the dance (or simply dance-influenced) vein. It's not a TB303, TR808 or 909 -- but it is a very well-designed '90s take on all three, which will surely be turning up on many a stage and in many a studio.
You really could use the MC303 without a MIDI keyboard, playing and triggering with its black and white key switches, and no doubt some will. When you get frustrated with this method, an excellent partner for the Roland unit would be the Yamaha CS1x keyboard (our review of which follows this piece, starting on page 92).
448 PCM sample-based sounds
12 drum kits
Reverb/Delay, Chorus/Flanger effects
8-track sequencer, 14,000 note capacity, 96ppqn resolution
Real-time Phrase Sequences
133 preset, 50 user, 300 Variation Patterns
6-digit LED display
Real-time sound control knobs
Arpeggiator with 34 styles
71 Groove Templates
One word: authentic. Sometimes, though, the Patterns seem almost too musically 'good' for the style of music. Styles range from trance, Goa trance, techno, and house, to hip hop, jazz funk, jungle, and trip hop, with a couple of salsa and samba Patterns for good measure, and numerous flavours of each style.
The MC303 features a lot of specifically dance-orientated synth sounds, especially in banks 1, 2, 4, 5, 18 and 19, most of them very good, very appropriate, and very well suited to real-time tweaking. However, everyone needs more standard sounds, and there are lots of these available too -- pianos, organs, bells, guitar, brass, and lots of weird percussion. Some of these show their GM/GS provenance, right down to their names in the manual.
The manual takes the unusual step of naming its programmers and saying who programmed what. So when you're grooving to the excellent Goa trance set, you've got Masayuki Kurihara to thank for it! It's about time -- musicians get their names on records, we get our names on our articles, but synth programmers are the unsung heroes of the music world. So come on down, Tokyo techno artist Masayuki Kurihara (Masa); American (we think) musician Ryeland Allison, who "makes electronics groove at the speed of sound"; Naoki Matsuura (GigBag) former session musician and currently Roland's director of SMF Music Data and Demo Song Productions; Shigeyoshi Kawagoe (Shige), Berklee College of Music graduate and now composer, arranger and MIDI programmer; Kazuhiro Terada (Terra), a member of techno and performance outfits Polaris and Techno Heaven, responsible for the MC303's "aesthetics and sounds"; and Kazumi Sagawa, a club performer with an outfit called White Room, who has recently had a 12-inch released on Bold Records.
If manufacturers told us more often who we have to thank for the neat stuff they make, we'd thank them more frequently!
Although basically stable, the MC303 has one or two non-fatal idiosyncrasies. When inputting Parts in step record, especially drums, other sounds sometimes trigger in error when placing hits -- we regularly heard an open hi-hat hit when none was being input. These misfires aren't recorded, but they can be disconcerting.
Also, if you mute Parts before going into step record, when you've finished, all the muted Parts will be unmuted again. Weird. The same thing happens following edit functions. On the knob front, twiddling the Quantise Timing knob occasionally causes a playback glitch, and when tweaking effect parameters, you don't hear the effect while you're moving the knob.
Roland haven't seriously tried to exactly copy the TB303, or the TR808/909 -- if they'd wanted to make a digital duplicate, they probably could have. Rather, they've produced a box which is much more versatile and may become as fashionable a musical tool as these instruments, though it would take ages for the MC303 to attain the rarity (and thus collectability to some) of the TB and 909. There will always be those who 'must have' the real thing, but lots of people have never even used a TB303/TR808/909, and they won't waste any time listing what the MC303 doesn't have when compared with its vintage forebears -- they'll register that it allows them to make the right kind of sounds in the right way, and get on with the music.
If all you want is to mimic the TB303, you can: stick with the TB303-derived square and sawtooth sounds, the only two waveforms which were available on the TB303. The control knobs on the MC303, which then alter these sounds, are similar to those found on the TB303: the TB has Cutoff Freq and Resonance knobs, which the MC equals, but Env Mod and Decay functions, which have a knob each on the TB303, are replaced by a single Envelope knob on the MC303, and this provides a more sophisticated three-stage (Attack, Decay and Release) envelope. Purists may decry the lack of a dedicated TB303-style 'accent' control -- but remember, you have access to four levels of velocity while recording Patterns. Other TB303 controls and functions are available on the MC303, although some are mutated or enhanced. Actual note entry is more sophisticated -- more MC202-like, in fact -- and as on the TB303, note pitches and durations can be programmed more or less independently, although the MC303 doesn't allow you to 'tap' in note duration after notes have been recorded, as do the TB and the MC202.
Although the real-time front panel controls can be used to treat drum voices, the MC303 doesn't provide the same kind of individual control over drum sounds as did the TR909 (nor does it have individual drum voice outputs).
MC303 Groove quantise approaches the sophistication provided by software such as Steinberg's Cubase. 71 templates are provided, including 'normal', 'heavy' and 'pushed' dance, fusion, reggae, pops and rhumba, each with light and hard accenting and light and hard swing. In addition, there's a variety of exotic options including samba, salsas, quintuplets, and lagging triplets. The Timing knob adjusts quantisation 'strength' in percentage terms. When used with Groove Templates, this knob can also adjust the degree to which note velocities are moved towards Template velocities.
Completely self-contained dance music tool.
Good sounds and excellent preset Patterns.
Very well-specified arpeggiator.
Spontaneous, immediate real-time Part muting and RPS sequencing.
Effective real-time sound control.
Doesn't transmit everything over MIDI, as you'd hope.
No real user patch memories.
Multi-layer user interface may be confusing for newcomers.
No individual audio outputs.
Only 50 user Pattern memories.
The MC303 will walk out of the shops without any help from us -- and it deserves to.
£ 565 including VAT.
A Roland UK Ltd, Atlantic Close, Swansea Enterprise Park, Swansea, West Glamorgan SA7 9FJ.
T 01792 702701.
F 01792 799644.