Photos: Mark Ewing
The semi-official definition of the word Groovebox, at least according to whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry, is "a self-contained instrument for the production of live, loop-based electronic music, with a high degree of user control facilitating improvisation". Credit goes to Roland for inventing the word as a description for the first-ever instrument of this type, the MC303, which they launched back in 1993. Since then 'groovebox' has gone on to become almost a generic term, used to describe various groovesome instruments which fulfil the above criteria. But it's really Roland that have remained at the forefront of refining and developing the concept. A few years back they seemed to have surpassed even themselves with the magnificently specified — and indeed magnificently priced — MC909 (reviewed in Sound on Sound in March 2003) which for the first time added sampling to the potent Groovebox mix.
The MC808 is the latest model in the Groovebox dynasty and as both its price tag and the numerical component of its name might indicate, it represents a scaling back of the MC909's grand designs. But only slightly so, as it still offers a similar armoury of sampling, 16-part multitimbral synth, 16-track sequencer, oodles of effects and plenty of hands-on controls to, er, lay your hands on. In fact, the progress of technology, coupled with lower production costs, means that although it ships at much less than half the price of its older brother, the new arrival still manages to trump it in a number of areas.
Firstly, at 128 notes its synthesis/sampling engine offers double the amount of polyphony of the MC909. Secondly, it can take double the amount of sample RAM: a maximum of 516MB if you count the onboard memory. And thirdly, although it has fewer hardware knobs and switches overall, the eight faders which comprise its principal real-time controls are motorised. Not only is this good for the 'bling' factor, it means that the positions of the faders always reflect the actual values of the parameters that they happen to be controlling at the time: essential when you're manipulating an instrument like this during a live performance. And for these more sophisticated performances, there's also the ability to hook the MC808 into a V-Link system (Roland's proprietary video control format), to allow the manipulation of images via the MC808's front panel. Other features intended to augment the live experience include a D-Beam controller, Roland's modern take on the Theremin, whereby the wave of a hand can be used to variously control the pitch of a monosynth sound, the tempo of a pattern, or the values of synth parameters such as filter cutoff and resonance.
Housed in a plastic chassis with an aluminium front panel, the MC808 is light enough to be easily transportable, but appears robust enough to survive more than a night or two on the tiles. The lion's share of the surface area is taken up with the motorised faders, with sequencer controls to the right and the 16 buttons for individually triggering and programming beats and sounds below. The faders themselves, which, apart from a value dial and the rotary input and output volume knobs, are the only significant twiddleable bits on the front panel, operate in various modes. For example, they give you control respectively of the volume and pan of the different parts within a pattern or they can be switched to control the synth parameters of individual parts. And it's as you switch between these modes that you begin to appreciate the value of having the faders automatically jump to the correct position. What's slightly scary is that they seem to rattle quite noisily while doing it, though if you're worried about their long-term robustness you can always switch the motors off.
Other aspects of the MC808's design very much reflect the fact that the Groovebox concept is all about live performance, often in less than ideal conditions. For example, all buttons are backlit and a brightly illuminated blue panel shows exactly which matrix of parameters the faders are controlling. Along with the LCD screen (which gives you the detailed information on patch names, parameters and functions), there are three large LED displays which separately show crucial performance data such as tempo and the numbers of the current and next patterns.
Round the back you'll find the main stereo outputs plus two extra direct outs. Audio input duties are handled by a couple of quarter-inch jack sockets. These are nominally line level, though the left/mono input can be switched to handle an input from a dynamic mic. Some traditionalists might like to see a dedicated turntable connection, though this is a slightly moot cause for griping these days, given the growing popularity of CD decks and iPods for DJ'ing. Other connections include MIDI In/Out, headphone socket and a USB port, of which more later.
Conceptually, the operation of the MC808 is very easy to get your head around, with dedicated buttons enabling you to switch between its principal operating modes: Song, Pattern, Patch/Sample and System. Some vital statistics to be aware of at this stage include the fact that patterns can consist of one to 999 measures, with up to 16 parts per pattern. A total of 256 patterns and 50 songs can be saved in memory, with the option to use a Compact Flash card (maximum size 1GB) if you need more onboard storage. Like the MC909, sound generation comes courtesy of a highly programmable sample and synthesis system. There are two sound-set types: rhythm sets which comprise up to 16 drum or percussion sounds, and melodic patches. Melodic patches are made up of up to four 'tones' which in turn can each be made up of two waveforms. The MC808 gives you 896 patches and 128 drum sets, all made up from a set of 622 waveforms that were devised specifically for the instrument.
As you might expect from an instrument with the word 'Groovebox' stamped across the top, this translates into a set of presets designed very much for contemporary music making. This means that techno, trance, R&B, drum & bass, ambient dub and indeed emerging underground genres which probably haven't even been given a name yet, are very well catered for. The sounds and patterns have been commissioned from an eclectic bunch of US, European and Japanese young-blood DJs, whose cutting-edge status is probably best indicated by the fact that I've never heard of any of them! (Their biographies are included in the accompanying Sound & Parameter list booklet if you're interested.) Acidic basses, searing leads and waspish pads and thundering drums: the MC808 is not there to take any MOR prisoners, which is something you begin to really appreciate when you run the machine through an amp of decent wattage.
Probably one of the main reasons why the MC808 does sound so in-your-face is a healthy complement of onboard effects. There are two excellent multi-effects processors for insert effects, each offering 47 effects types. The algorithms are wide ranging, with filters, modulation and chorus effects, lo-fi settings, loads of delays, and also distortion and amp simulation. Like the MC909, the MC808 also offers two separate compressors (one at the beginning of the effects chain and a mastering multi-band compressor at the end) and a separate reverb. Along with the programmability of the effects themselves, there is considerable control over the mix of the effects with the parts.
Of course, no one just sticks with presets (do they?), so time to move on to DIY programming. The sequencer offers four different programming modes: Real-time, Step, Tempo and something called TR. Tempo allows you to record tempo changes and mutes/unmutes on a separate track. TR mode is akin to programming a drum machine where you press one of the 16 keys to allocate the current sound to the corresponding step in the pattern — like the TR drum machines of old. Fader movements can also be recorded as part of a pattern, which allows you to build in volume changes, filter sweeps and the like. By using all four modes you can achieve some very precise programming indeed, particularly as you can zoom in and edit individual sounds and their respective parameters at a microscopic level.
The creative potential of both pattern recording and playback is further widened by an excellent arpeggiator (which offers 128 programmable styles) and a chord function which allows you to trigger entire chords just by pressing a single pad. There are buttons to allow you to also trigger a separate set of patterns or phrases (known in Roland-speak as RPS) alongside the sounds that make up the pattern proper in playback mode.
The editing software basically provides a user-friendly way to edit the MC808's parameters, in the form of a graphic user interface. Unlike some software editors for hardware equipment which give you access to additional 'hidden' functions, the MC808's editor simply serves as an alternative interface, meaning that you won't lose out if you're not able to use it with a computer. However, anyone who can should take advantage of this facility, as it's much simpler to perform certain actions — editing sample waveforms, for example — on the computer screen than it is to work within the confines of the MC808's LCD screen.
The editor also makes it much easier to perform detailed editing of the synth sounds, as everything is laid out before you and you don't have to scroll through pages and pages of parameters. The down side is that the software-hardware experience is not quite as integrated as it is with some other programs of this nature. It would be great, for instance, to be able to operate the editor as a plug-in within your sequencer, rather than having to deal with it exclusively as a stand-alone program.
In its bare-bones state, the MC808 has a rather measly 4MB of onboard sampling memory, enough for 45 seconds of mono sampling (22.5 seconds in stereo). You can expand this up to a maximum of 516MB by making use of the single internal memory slot, which takes RAM in either PC100 or PC133 flavours. A fully loaded MC808 offers a very respectable 97 minutes of sampling time in mono. Sampling frequency is fixed at 44.1kHz, so you can't, for example, adopt the old-school approach of squeezing more from your RAM by opting for lower frequencies. Sample format is strictly 16-bit too, with the MC808 able to read and write in both WAV and AIFF formats. The aforementioned USB connection can be used to load and save samples to and from your PC or Mac. The USB connection also acts as a MIDI interface and, in addition, bundled editor/librarian software allows you to program the MC808 from the comfort of your computer chair. For more on that, see the box on the next page.
In addition to the standard 'external input' sampling, there are five different sampling modes, including plenty of resampling options: the ability to sample signal from the internal sound generators, with or without internal effects, for example. Editing features include the usual truncate and loop, plus more sophisticated effects such as time-stretch and chop, the latter designed to slice rhythm loops into their component beats. Anything you sample can be instantly assigned to the current pattern, which means that you can build up your own signature loops very quickly. The only proviso is that somewhere along the line you save everything to the Compact Flash card, as any samples in RAM are lost as soon as the unit is switched off.
The Groovebox concept is all about building up tracks by flying loops in and out of the mix while simultaneously manipulating individual sounds and rhythms. The MC808 remains true to its origins simply by being great fun to play with. However, like the MC909, this new machine has plenty of features that suit it to much more detailed pattern and sound creation. Indeed, add a MIDI controller keyboard to it and for certain types of music you wouldn't really need much more to create some really stonking live and studio sets.
The motorised faders are far from a gimmick either; they really do add to the experience of 'playing' this instrument live. It's just a shame that the MC808 couldn't have been equipped with a large, hi-res LCD display, similar to that found on the MC909. In practice I found that the MC808 suffers to a certain extent from multifunctionitis: that hi-tech disease of which the main symptom is that far too many combinations of button pushes seem to be required for anything but the most basic of operations. Getting to grips with its finer points didn't prove easy, and things are not helped by the fact that the manual is rather sketchy in certain areas.
The antidote comes in the form of that USB port and the bundled editor program. I would guess that many users are going to take advantage of the MC808's computer connectivity to do all the tweaky stuff back at base, and then use the unit itself as a playback device.
To sum up, with its brilliant sounds and impressive facilities the MC808 represents a great addition to the Groovebox lineage, particularly as it gives you the sophistication of the MC909 at a considerably lower price. As loop-based composition continues to extend its influence over all styles of music, the Groovebox concept remains alive and certainly kicking.