It's now over 18 months since the launch of Roland's pioneering retro-style MC303 Groovebox synth/sequencer combo (reviewed in August 1996). It apparently sold in bucketloads, and Roland, no doubt encouraged by the 303's success, are testing the water again, with the heavyweight MC505. MC303 owners shouldn't worry that their purchase is now obsolete -- the 303 is still on the Roland catalogue, giving us the beginnings, perhaps, of a small Groovebox family.
ROLAND MC505 £949
The MC505 is bigger and more substantial looking than the 303, with a top side littered with even more knobs, buttons and sliders, polyphony increased to 64 voices (from 28), the pattern-based 8-part sequencer now offering a total of 714 preset Patterns (with room on board for 200 user Patterns rather than the 303's 50), 512 on-board synth patches and 26 Rhythm Sets, and space for 256 user Patches. The MC303, you may recall, had 448 on-board sounds and 12 drum kits, and no space for user Patches! The MC505's 8-part multitimbrality, though, is unchanged from the 303.
Other facts and figures to fix in your mind are that there are 50 Songs (chains of Patterns) on board, three effects processors (to the 303's two), an enhanced arpeggiator, a RAM card slot, and a novel zero-contact infra-red controller. Read on...
On the looks front, the MC505 has similarities to the MC303 -- it looks a bit like a 303 pumped up on steroids. Central to the new Groovebox are the display area, which is a 6-digit alphanumeric LED display plus a new 2-line x 16-character back-lit LCD, and the fader-heavy Part Mixer area, situated just below it. The display keeps you informed of Pattern names and numbers, editing parameters, mixer parameters, tempo, and more.
The Part Mixer provides each of the MC505's eight sequence parts -- that's seven melodic parts plus rhythm -- with a fader and a backlit mute/select switch. The fader provides control over level, pan, keyshift (+/-48 semitones), and effects send. Another row of back-lit switches beneath the first row allows a selection of individual drum sounds to be muted. The buttons in this row also double as Tone switch and Tone select buttons when you're editing Patches.
To the right of the display area are the synth real-time controls. Use these to tweak the Patch (or Rhythm Set) assigned to the currently selected Part in the current Pattern; control is offered over filter, envelope, LFO and basic waveform. A big alpha wheel and some related editing buttons take up some more space to the right, along with the sequencer transport controls and tap tempo button.
At the bottom of the top panel is a row of 16 square key buttons, which function as a (non-velocity sensitive) keyboard for entering notes and rhythm data. Octave switch buttons give an effective range of over nine octaves, although drum sounds only occupy a range of just over five octaves. Most of these keys, in traditional Roland style, do one or more extra jobs; press the Edit button to make them switch to various editing functions for Patterns, Songs and Patches, and hit Shift to access a range of global functions, such as arpeggiator, quantise, effect and system settings. Different sets of legending help you figure out which functions will be active at any time. Just to confuse you further, there's also a Function button which behaves as a kind of shift key for all the front-panel knobs, effectively providing a whole extra panel's worth of controls.
Look up to the left, and you'll find dedicated, quick-tweak controls for quantising, the arpeggiator, and the 505's three effects processors. A volume control is at the top, and the MC303's Low Boost control has moved from the back panel to a place next to the volume knob on the 505. It has also gained an 'Octave' button that really does add a severe kick to rhythm and bass parts. Be warned: this bass is dangerous. Between these knobs and the display is the D-Beam controller (see 'Beam Me Up' box for details). I'll also point out the Undo/Redo button, which is very welcome.
At the back, a headphone socket and RAM card slot are joined by no less than six outputs, which you can use as three stereo pairs or, with careful panning, six individual outs. On the MIDI front you get the standard In and Out, with the Out configurable as a Thru. There's also a single, but programmable, pedal socket. Power comes from an internal PSU. Great!
Architecturally, the MC505 is superficially simple, yet the way in which synth and sequencer are integrated means that it is sometimes hard to pull the two apart. Let's start with the synth section.
There's no new technology behind the sound-generation system of the MC505: it's based firmly on samples, with 505 on board. The collection consists of raw basic synth and classic drum machine waveforms, many from Roland's own units, plus traditional instruments, sound effects and percussion.
Now you might not be getting a JV2080 when you buy an MC505, but the synth engine of the Groovebox is definitely from the same family, with a corresponding improvement in editability over the 303. Up to four elements (Tones) are available per Patch (the more Tones used, the less polyphony), with a choice of Tone structures where pairs of Tones interact with each other, frequency cross-modulation (FXM) and ring modulation. Each Tone benefits from a familar Roland collection of envelope generators (amplitude, filter and pitch), filters and LFOs. Patches can be fully polyphonic or monophonic (you change from one to the other using the Solo button on the front panel), and portamento is also available. Your final, edited Patches can be named; there is space for 16 characters, but names are limited to 12.
The 512 preset Patches, arranged in four banks, are a dizzyingly diverse collection, though biased towards analogue synth and dance-oriented sounds. In fact, the first 21 Patches are aggressively TB303-based. The traditional sounds -- basses, pianos, brass, saxes, strings, and so on -- are clearly from the Roland family (ie. good), and worth having, but there isn't the variety you'd find on a dedicated modern synth.
|"For hands-on, immediate synth-music production and spontaneous live work the MC505 is the business."|
One of the MC303's negative points was its lack of real user memories for customised Patches. This shortcoming has been remedied on the 505, which offers 256. Edited Patches were saved with Patterns on the 303, and you can, if you like, do the same on the new Groovebox: any tweaks you make while a Pattern is recording can be saved with the Pattern, extending the sonic palette of the MC505 even further.
Rhythm Sets can also be comprehensively customised: each drum voice has access to pretty much the full range of synth parameters, though they don't respond to pitch-bend from an external keyboard, which is a bit strange for a Roland product. Also worth noting is that individual drum sounds can be routed to any of the three pairs of audio outputs
The arpeggiator is a beefed-up descendant of the MC303's. You can easily manage simple arpeggiations, whereby you hold a chord and each note is played in turn, in time with the current Pattern. But there's much more: first, choose a Style from the 43 available (plus 10 user Styles). These vary from normal note divisions -- quarter-note to 32nd-note, with triplets -- to a selection of pattern types (glissando, strumming guitar, bossanova, and more). More variety is provided by 38 Motifs, which specify the order of note playback. Traditional combinations of up, down, up/down and so on are augmented by chord and bass/chord options. Further sophistication is offered by a huge collection of Beat Patterns (which vary the accent location and note length within an arpeggiation), a variable shuffle rate, accent, and a range of up to three octaves up or down. Note that certain Beat Patterns can only be selected for certain Styles.
The more sophisticated arpeggiations can produce some convincing, instant results, but they do come perilously close to the single-finger auto-accompaniment patterns found on home keyboards. Fed the right notes in the right context, however, they might be just the thing to give your track a little boost. Note that you can also record arpeggiations into an MC505 Pattern.
As I said earlier, the 505 has three effects processors. The reverb is fairly simple, though it sounds good, and offers two choices each of Room, Stage and Hall; variable reverb time (with a range of 1-127, not absolute time); high-frequency damping; and reverb level.
The delay is also simple, but first Roland make you choose between short delay (0.1 to 275ms) and long delay (200 to 1000ms), which is a bit odd. The long delay gives you instant access to timed delays, which sync to the tempo of the current Pattern or Song, with a range of note values from half-note down to 16th-note, plus dotted and triplet options. You can also control feedback, high-frequency damping and delay level.
Now to the third effects processor, EFX, which offers an eccentric collection of effects, some of which are quite ordinary -- 4-band EQ, enhancer, compressor, overdrive, phaser, tremolo, chorus and flanger --and some of which are quite unexpected. These include Radio, which simulates the sound of a radio being tuned; Phono, which adds vinyl disc noise to your music, for that instant rare groove feel (with 33, 45 and 78rpm options); and Slicer, which rhythmically cuts the sound up, in the manner of a triggered noise gate.
Each effect section also has some extra routing options; the EFX and delay sections can be routed through the reverb, for example, and the EFX pages hide something more interesting: how to route each Part to any of the three pairs of outputs. Turn to page 104 of the Owner's Manual for instructions. I've just saved you from hunting around for this information; it's referenced in the index as 'Part EFX/output assign', which wouldn't have been my first choice either.
This is essentially an 8-track, pattern-based device, which comes with 714 preset Patterns and plenty of room for your own work (200 Patterns, with a maximum of 95,000 notes overall). We could argue the validity of preset Patterns all day, but the bottom line is that people are going to use them, and these are actually pretty good (a credit to Roland's composers, who are all named, biog'd and pictured in the Quick Start guide): if you heard some of them on a record, you'd buy it. They can also be quite educational, covering the range of all contemporary dance styles, with reggae, Latin and jazz Patterns also available.
Let's have a closer look at how the sequencer works:
Patterns, which can be up to 32 bars long, can be recorded in real time or step time. You're free to select a time signature (2/4 to 9/16) and input quantise value. You're also free to leave the Pattern running, changing parts as you like, and erasing bum notes on the fly (press the Real Time Erase button and select a note, or range of notes, to be erased). Notes can be input from the MC505's little keyboard, the D-Beam controller (see 'Beam Me Up' box) or an external MIDI controller. Most front-panel knob movements can be recorded as part of a Pattern as well, and that includes fader movements. A tempo (of between 20bpm and 240bpm) can be saved with a Pattern too. Interestingly, a new Pattern isn't automatically recorded into a user memory location: it resides in a temporary buffer until you save it. The same goes for any edit you make. The downside is that once you've gone to the temporary buffer, getting back to your original Pattern can be tricky: press the User Pattern button, and you find yourself back at Pattern 001.
Step recording is pretty simple: using the LCD, choose a note length, velocity (eight preset values, selected with the Part select/mute buttons), gate time, and the note (or even a chord) itself. A second step-time option uses a grid analogy, and is rather like programming a Roland TR909 drum
|"The D-Beam infra-red controller is a unique selling point and could make the 505 a cult item in future."|
Global editing -- copying, erasing, deleting, inserting bars and Patterns, changing velocity and transposition -- is done by pressing Edit and one of the keypad buttons. It's also possible to thin out controller data, move Pattern data backwards or forwards in time, and fix a quantise value. The re-clock option is pretty nifty: this halves or doubles the timing of a Pattern, such that four bars at 120bpm becomes two bars at 60bpm. Actual MIDI data editing follows Roland's familiar 'microscope' system, whereby a list of events is scrolled by on the LCD, and you change, move or delete events as necessary.
The quantise and groove quantise options on the MC505 rival those found on software sequencers. Quantising can be used to simply tidy up a sloppy performance or to drastically alter the feel of your work, through the use of groove templates.
* PATTERN SETS The MC505 can sync to or be sync'd from MIDI clock; timing sounds tight to me, although the Play button can feel a little sluggish at times. The sequencer can also play external sound sources (as well as or instead of internal sounds), and the internal sounds can be played from an external source. Song Position Pointers are transmitted and recognised.
One disappointing thing about the MC303 was that all its front-panel knob and button movements weren't transmitted over MIDI, for recording into an external sequencer. That's now changed for the 505: virtually all controllers on its front panel transmit MIDI Controller or System Exclusive data. When playing the 505 over MIDI, you don't have to worry about what MIDI channel your external keyboard is on: whichever Part is selected in a Pattern is what you play. All sounds respond to velocity, pitch-bend, mod wheel and aftertouch; drums only respond to velocity.
Selecting Patterns for real-time playback can be a real-time drag using the alpha dial, so Roland have provided 30 Pattern Sets, collections of 16 Patterns assigned to the keyboard, which is then used to trigger the Patterns. You can even modify a Pattern -- change levels or Part mute status -- before saving it in a Set. Pattern Sets would be good for live work, as you can do real-time tweaks over the top of Patterns, whilst you can't over the top of a Song (see next section).
The MC505 can sync to or be sync'd from MIDI clock; timing sounds tight to me, although the Play button can feel a little sluggish at times. The sequencer can also play external sound sources (as well as or instead of internal sounds), and the internal sounds can be played from an external source. Song Position Pointers are transmitted and recognised.
Song mode is a doddle: you simply chain Patterns together and go. There's a limit of 50 steps per Song, but remember that Patterns can be up to 32 bars long (that makes 1600 bars in total). Each step can have its own mix and effects settings, so one Pattern could be repeated and varied for an entire Song. Note that you can't overlay real-time tweaks on a Song -- you really have to do your tweaking at Pattern level. Some sort of 'master track' would have been useful, so that mix settings and synth tweaks could be recorded over the top of a Song. This technique is used successfully on Quasimidi's 309 Rave-O-Lution, and is perhaps more in sympathy with the way in which many musicians prefer to produce a finished Song.
* REAL-TIME PHRASE SEQUENCE
RPS offers a similar function to Pattern Sets, except that you're triggering individual parts of Patterns (phrases): one key could trigger a drum pattern, another a bassline, and another an arpeggiated lead sound. You have the option of creating Patterns on the fly with just these elements, or using them as 'fill-ins' over existing Patterns. There are 60 RPS Sets, and you can assign any Part from any Pattern to any of 16 keys in a Set. In fact, the vast majority of the Preset Patterns (249 to 714) are designed for RPS use.
Megamix is a new real-time feature vaguely similar to RPS. When a given Pattern is playing back, rather than selecting new Parts from the keyboard, you use the Part Mixer's faders to select Parts. Pressing the Megamix button on the front panel automatically assigns to the faders the Parts from Patterns 10 positions either side of the current pattern. If you were using Pattern 127, for example, you could access Parts from Patterns 117-137 with the faders. Moving the faders, even randomly, easily produces unique mixes of Parts, and if you find a mix you like, you can save it as a new Pattern. This feature is mainly intended for use with the preset Patterns, but you could use it with your own Patterns -- although you'd have to make sure you had grouped them according to length, key, and voice assignment (always put your bass parts on Part 1, chords on 2, lead on 3, for example) if you wanted to produce consistent results.
In operation, I didn't find much to dislike about the 505: saving Patterns and Songs seems to take forever, and some edits take a while to confirm as well. I'm also not too keen on the fact that switching from the temporary Pattern buffer back to a preset or user Pattern causes a reset to position 001. There are a couple of other anomalies like this: for example, there's no way of telling if the Pattern you're trying to write to already has something in it. Newcomers to music technology might also find the front panel a little daunting, but these are relatively minor points unlikely to put off potential purchasers.
What is likely to put some people off is the price, and I must admit to difficulty with this myself. I think it's a bit steep -- many a feature-packed workstation synth is within hailing distance of the £949 price tag. Of course, you can still pay almost this much for a vintage TB303, which doesn't do nearly as much, and the D-Beam and six audio outs also help balance the value equation. All I can recommend is that you try it out -- it will impress you -- and perhaps haggle for all you're worth. Cast your net wide, and shop around.
For hands on, immediate synth-music production and spontaneous live work the MC505 is the business, and anyone who has a feel for the way electronic music gear used to work will also appreciate the MC505's sound and interface. Whenever I review an instrument such as this, I invariably have a really good time. I come up with stuff that probably wouldn't have occurred to me with a software sequencer. I love working in this way, and although I do have the occasional nostalgic pang for older gear, I prefer '90s stability. So why don't I buy an MC303 or an MC505? I'm asking myself the same question...