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Oberheim/Viscount MC3000 & MC2000

Controller Keyboards By Paul Ward
Published November 1999

Oberheim/Viscount MC3000 & MC2000

Want to get serious about your music? A quality master controller keyboard is a good place to start. Paul Ward looks at two machines that offer a little more than most.

The release of a new controller keyboard will never generate the kind of excitement that accompanies the launch of a new synth or workstation, but for anyone serious about their music a good one can make a world of difference. We're not looking for a bagful of tasty samples, accurate analogue emulation, or cartloads of effects. What we are looking for is a device that makes the best of an individual's playing style and satisfies their control requirements.

The MC3000 88‑note master controller keyboard represents a joint venture between Oberheim and Viscount, and the result is a solidly professional‑looking piece of hardware. It's resplendent in beige and black livery and is so substantial that a truck could probably drive right over it and the only thing you'd have to worry about would be how to remove the rubber scuff marks. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating, but believe me, this is one very chunky customer. I suspect that its design and colouring are intended to conjure up echoes of Oberheim's former glories, but I'd argue that the effect is a tad bland. That never stopped PCs from selling, I suppose!

The power and flexibility offered by the MC3000 is capable of making it a favourite of professional live performers.

Channels, Bays & Ports

There are no fewer than eight separately addressable MIDI outputs on the MC3000's rear panel, offering access to a total of 128 MIDI channels. This fact will certainly endear it to those wanting a controller for stage use. Two MIDI inputs are also provided, each with a dedicated MIDI Thru port, and program changes and System Exclusive messages can be received from either of these inputs. The MC3000 can also use its MIDI Ins and Outs as a simple MIDI patchbay, with operation individually definable within each of its Programs, to enable a reasonably complex multi‑keyboard rig to be brought under control.

A healthy complement of pedal inputs is provided. There are eight in total, three being designated 'system' pedals, which will act across all keyboard zones, while the other five are assigned to duties in specific zones. All of the pedal inputs are able to handle both switch and expression pedal types, but I couldn't find any facility to define the polarity of the switching pedals, and guess what? My switching pedal was the wrong way round. Some manufacturers get around this by making their machines determine the state of attached pedals at power‑on, but sadly that isn't the case here.

An RS232 port is included for the connection of a mouse. The MC3000 is quite fussy about the type of mouse it will accept, requiring a three‑button device with a PC/MS switch that must be set to the PC position. Oberheim have also provided an integral mouse mat to the right of the front panel. While on many instruments I would welcome the potential of a mouse for editing purposes, I can't help feeling that it is somewhat out of place here. At no time during the course of editing (using the front‑panel buttons and wheel) did I feel the need to bring the mouse into play. I hate to be so dismissive, because someone has obviously identified a requirement for this facility and gone to a lot of trouble to implement it, so it may just be down to my personal tastes. Future owners, please let me know.

All that remains of the rear panel are the standard 'Euro' mains connector, power switch and the LCD contrast control, which obviously got lost on its way to the front panel — hmm...

There can't be many master keyboards with a built‑in mouse port, but the MC3000 is one.There can't be many master keyboards with a built‑in mouse port, but the MC3000 is one.

Speaking of the front panel, it's a very workmanlike control surface. To the far left are a sprung pitch wheel and a pair of non‑sprung modulation wheels. These wheels have a chunky appearance and a soft rubber texture, which makes them comfortable and tactile in use. However, they're placed to the rear of the keyboard, a position probably necessitated by the length of the keyboard, and I feel as if I'm stretching to get to them. Maybe I'd get used to it in time.

Zones & Layers

To the right of the wheels is a bank of eight control sliders, with associated 'Zone Key' switches. When a Zone Key is lit, the corresponding zone on the keyboard is active. When a Zone Key flashes, the zone is in a 'standby' state, ready to be brought into play by pressing the switch. When a Zone Key is not lit, the zone is inactive. Simple enough, methinks.

In the centre of the control surface is the LCD, underneath which lurk six 'software' function keys and the Write and Escape buttons. The display, although not large by contemporary standards, is bright and clear. A system option allows it to be switched between 'normal' and 'reverse', where the display effectively goes into negative. I generally found the display more comfortable in reverse mode.

To the right of the display are the cursor buttons, Increment/Decrement buttons, and 'Dynamic Encoder' wheel for entering data values. Further to the right are the numeric keypad and mode buttons for entering the MC3000's various play and edit modes. On the far right is the built‑in mouse pad, which could arguably come in handy even if you don't plug a mouse into the MC3000 itself.

The MC3000's clear display is useful in setting the keyboard up; the MC2000 features a slightly smaller LCD.The MC3000's clear display is useful in setting the keyboard up; the MC2000 features a slightly smaller LCD.

The black and white bits at the front comprise the weighted 88‑key A‑to‑C keyboard, with aftertouch sensitivity. The weighted action seems reasonably comfortable to these fingers, but this is probably the one aspect of a master keyboard that is inevitably down to the individual to evaluate. For what it's worth, I'd say that the feel is somewhat lighter than a typical piano response, which is probably a reasonable compromise, given that that the majority of these machines are unlikely to spend their entire lives triggering piano patches. Each of the instrument's eight zones can be assigned its own velocity and aftertouch response curve, from a ROM palette of 16 variations. As if that wasn't enough, a further 48 curves can be stored by the user, and these are subsequently selectable on a per‑zone, per‑Program basis. Any response curve can be automatically mirrored, typically for crossfading purposes.

The machine powers up in Program mode, where MC3000 Programs are selected by way of the wheel, Inc/Dec buttons, or numeric keypad. Since Program mode is where average users will spend most of their time it's worth taking a look at the functions available from this screen:

  • The LIST function displays up to 10 MC3000 Programs on screen, to make selection easier in some circumstances.
  • VIEW shows a graphic representation of the current Program's keyboard zones.
  • INFO yields details of the various parameters defined for each zone, such as output port, channel, volume and program change, and also shows the MIDI controller numbers currently assigned to the pedals and sliders.
  • PRG allows a bank/program change message to be sent to any connected device, regardless of the program changes defined in the current MC3000 Program — a kind of 'scratch pad'.
  • SOLO keeps the currently selected zone active while deactivating all others.

Chains & Programs

The current status of the output ports is displayed in the top right of the LCD. Active ports are displayed as a circle, while ports in standby mode are greyed out. When MIDI activity occurs on a port, the circle becomes a black dot. Inactive ports simply don't show up on the screen. This is all useful information, but it would be more useful if the port icons were numbered on screen for easy recognition. For long‑term use I suspect I'd resort to a small sticker to provide a numbered overlay.

A total of 128 Chains of Programs, each up to 256 steps long, may be programmed within the MC3000 — ideal for live use. Chains can be named, and steps may be added, deleted, or inserted. Several methods of stepping through the Chain are available, including use of the first three attached pedals, function key F6, the 'Enter' button, the Inc or Dec buttons, the cursor keys, the numeric keypad, or an 'A0' note from the keyboard.

Program editing is relatively simple, but it requires some thought with so many ports and possibilities to hand. A port, MIDI channel, low and high key are defined for each zone, along with a transposition amount, key mode (mono or poly), and portamento switch. Once this has been done, screens lead the user through bank/program selection and values for volume and pan. For those sound modules which allow it, reverb and chorus amounts can also be set here.

Rather than relying solely on bank and Program numbers, each zone may have a Program‑name list assigned to it, chosen from a built‑in selection, or from one of 48 tables which can be defined by the user. As standard, the MC3000 offers a GM list and several others for popular machines, including Roland's JV2080 and the Alesis QSR. Once a list is assigned to a zone, selecting patch numbers from the MC3000's screen causes the corresponding patch name to be shown too. It's nice to see patch names as you work, but there's no way to perform name searches, or to automatically import user bank names, so the usefulness of this facility is somewhat limited.

Each zone has an associated set of 'Aux' messages that do not really form part of the zone data itself, but allow messages to be sent to devices such as mixers or effects processors. The MIDI port and channel of these auxiliary messages are independent of the zone and, in addition to a program change, a user‑defined controller message is also available. Finally, an option to attach a System Exclusive message to each zone is provided. These SysEx messages can be defined by the user, although a few useful examples are provided for good measure.

Each of the eight control sliders can be set to generate a specific MIDI controller number and an initial value within each Program; this initial value will be transmitted when the Program is selected. The same is true of the pedals.