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Roland MC8

Microcomposer (Retro) By Chris Carter
Published March 1997

Roland's MC8 began electronic music's move away from the limited compositional scope of the analogue sequencer, and left its stamp on some of the seminal pop of the 1980s. Chris & Cosey's Chris Carter, a pioneering MC8 user himself, fires up the 20 candles on the MC8's birthday cake...

This year is the 20th anniversary of what many regard as a landmark in sequencer history, for 1977 was the year in which Roland announced the birth of the pioneering grandfather of the MicroComposer family, the MC8. The advertising byline read A new concept of control for a new era in electronic music composition.

The MC8 wasn't the first digital/analogue sequencer available for the '70s electronic musician: companies such as Emu, EMS and Oberheim also had sequencers available. But the MC8 and its descendants arguably had more impact on electronic music‑making in the 1970s and 1980s than any other family of sequencers. The introduction of the MC8 also saw the beginning of an inevitable move away from the prevalent 'running light' 12‑step analogue sequencers from Moog, ARP, and Roland themselves. While analogue sequencers were definitely sexier looking, especially on stage, they were severely limited in the memory department.

The Birth Of The Cool

First let me enlighten you as to how this '70s electro‑icon came into being. In 1971 Canadian Ralph Dyck developed a prototype single‑channel digital sequencer built from discrete components based on TTL logic circuits. Note information, such as pitch, step time, and gate time was entered using a 10‑key calculator keyboard, and up to 1024 notes could be recorded. Unfortunately, he couldn't find an American company interested enough to manufacture it. Then, in 1976, Roland president Ikutaro Kakehashi saw the prototype and decided to manufacture a sequencer based on Dyck's ideas — but featuring more memory and eight channels, and incorporating what was then a state‑of‑the‑art 8080A microprocessor. The MC8 was born.

It's built like a tank, to almost military specification, and is physically quite imposing, consisting of two separate units: the main MC8 unit and the MC8 Interface, connected together at the rear by a substantial umbilical cord with massive 60‑pin plugs at either end. The main unit has a large, single‑line, 12‑digit red LED display, 30 push buttons for navigating through the various modes, a rotary tempo control, and a 10‑key, calculator‑style keypad for entering data. The interface unit features two DIN sockets and no fewer than 22 quarter‑inch jack sockets for outputting gates, control voltages and MPX signals (see the glossary for an explanation of this), two jack sockets for inputting CV and gate signals, three rotary controls, and a switch for selecting output channels and portamento. Fourteen small LEDs give a visual indication of the state of the gate and MPX outputs, and there's a toggle switch on the rear to select positive or negative gate polarity.

Both units are finished in a beige and grey livery with fetching wooden end‑cheeks. With both units placed side by side (and neither can be used without the other) the MicroComposer measures 27" wide by 15" deep, is 6" high, and weighs in at a very hefty 35lb. Portable it is not.

Interfacing on the MC8 is pretty comprehensive, with CV and gate signals available for all eight channels and a separate MPX gate output available on channels 1‑6. Outputs for channel 1 are also available via a 6‑pin DIN socket, with another, switchable DIN socket for channels 2‑8. These DIN sockets are compatible with the Roland System 700 or System 100M modular synthesizers. On the rear of the main unit are quarter‑inch jack sockets for Remote Start/Stop, Tape Memory Dump/Load, and Sync In/Out. On a few MC8s there's also a Sync 24 DIN output socket (see 'It's in the Sync' box).

Music By Numbers

The instruction manual for the MC8 is a huge tome an inch thick, weighing over 2lb and full of terminology left over from 1960s computer programming. You are expected to understand instructions like: 'Establish an Address' and 'Set a Measure End Flag' but I won't go into detail about how you program the MC8, as it could take up most of this article and would be pretty boring. Examples are included for programming a Brahms waltz, a mambo rhythm, 'Yesterday', and 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen', and blank programming sheets full of grids are provided, for you to work out your own songs on.

Once you get your head around the concept of writing music by tapping out numbers on a calculator keyboard, the MC8 isn't especially difficult to use. However, when you find that you have to tap out hundreds of notes just to programme a four‑minute song, things get pretty tedious, and you find yourself using the copy function an awful lot. Data must be entered in a very specific order, or the display tells you in no uncertain terms that the MC8 is unhappy by flashing on and off. This is called the Error function. To quote the (sometimes hilarious) manual: 'The Error function is activated whenever you do something which is beyond the capabilities or comprehension of the MicroComposer". Intuitive is not a word you could use to describe working with the MC8.

It's slightly easier to enter notes if you connect a keyboard with CV and gate outputs to the MC8 Interface unit, and play notes in from that. You're also supposed to be able to record from a CV keyboard in real time, but the MC8 insists on imposing its own idea of timing onto whatever is recorded. Playback can speed up or slow down, with notes randomly getting longer and shorter. Only the pitch bears any relation to your input, and the only way of quantising is to edit notes individually. Transposing notes is also very difficult, as — strange though it may seem — there's no transpose function and absolutely no way to transpose parts while you're in edit mode, other than stepping through each note and entering a new amount with the keypad. You could always use the transpose function on your CV synth keyboard or modules, but that would transpose everything.

The MC8 was one of the first sequencers to adopt the technique of cutting and pasting note information from one location to another, and although it's pretty rudimentary, you can perform basic copy, insert and delete functions across all eight tracks. This technique becomes an essential procedure for most users. Of course, we take the cut‑and‑paste approach to song construction pretty much for granted these days, but it was quite an innovative feature at the time.

Remember Me?

Original MC8s with only 4k of RAM have the capacity to hold approximately 1100 notes. This was pretty meagre even in 1977, so an upgrade was offered by Roland, which took the total capacity to 16k. On later models 16k was included as standard, which gave enough memory for about 5300 notes. Using the MPX outputs doesn't affect the memory that much, but using all eight CVs and gates simultaneously can fill up the RAM pretty fast, and when its memory approaches maximum programming, the MC8 tends to get sluggish, and lock‑ups sometimes occur. However, oddly enough, if you assign more than one CV to a single channel (that is, four CVs to one gate output) then more than 10,000 notes are possible. Hmmm...

Backing up data is a pain — very slow, and probably the cause of most complaints from MC8 users. A good‑quality cassette machine is essential (preferably one optimised for data recording) and premium‑quality cassettes are a must. Once you've set up your input and output levels, the process of dumping and verifying can begin. On average, a four‑minute song using four channels and MPX outputs can take in excess of 10 minutes to save and another 10 minutes to verify. If you're in a rush you can dispense with verifying the data, but sure as eggs is eggs you can bet that it will refuse to load up the next time you try. And what happens if the verify fails? You spend another 20 minutes going through the whole bloody process again!

Hands On

Understandably, the MC8 doesn't excel at playing (or recording) fancy stuff like keyboard solos and lead lines. What it does do exceptionally well is tight multitrack sequencing, bass lines and rhythm patterns, frequently all at once. With the benefit of eight separate CV/gate channels, the MC8 can produce very complex polyrhythmic sequences with comparative ease, and you can also manage complex chords without a problem (assuming your synth is multi‑voiced) by assigning multiple CVs to one channel. One of its best features, shared by many sequencers and drum machines, is its rock‑solid timing. In full flow with all 14 channels outputting signals, it always manages to steam along without taking a breath.

The only time the MC8's timing does fluctuate is when the unit is synchronised to tape and its timing is governed by the fluctuations and variations of a tape machine. Synchronising to tape is achieved with an FSK tone, which means always having to start the tape machine from the beginning to achieve proper sync — very irritating. In 1977 many studios were still using 8‑ and 16‑track tape machines, and the MC8 allowed another 14 channels of MicroComposer‑controllable instruments (synths and drum modules) to be synchronised in return for the sacrifice of only one tape channel for the sync tone (see the 'It's in the Sync' box). Although Roland probably had the System 700 synthesizer in mind when they designed the MC8, it's quite content driving much smaller keyboards and synths. I've always used an evolving System 100M and various Roland SH‑series synths with my MC8, but it is just as happy connected to ARP, Oberheim, Prophet and Moog equipment.

A unique feature for the time was the inclusion on the MC8 of programmable tempo which could vary from note to note if needed. Other innovations included a real‑time display showing minutes and seconds, and a 'Total Time' button. When this mode is used, the MC8 can calculate the length of a song for you — but, more interestingly, if you adjust the tempo control the MC8 will recalculate the length of the song until you find the length you want, with accuracy to a tenth of a second — ideal for film and TV work. This was a pretty innovative use of technology at the time, and it's easy to see why it caused such excitement.

Who's Who?

For classic examples of outstanding MC8 programming, just listen to early 1980s albums by electronic bands such as Kraftwerk (The Man Machine), Human League (Dare), and Landscape (From the Tea Rooms of Mars). Other notable users of the time were myself and Cosey, Tangerine Dream, producer Martin Rushent (Altered Images, Pete Shelley, Human League), Hans Zimmer, Toto, Tomita and Suzanne Ciani, the last pair employing assistants to enter note numbers for them! A number of artists used multiple‑MicroComposer setups. Tomita used at least two, one being the first model off the production line, plus an MC4. Toto used three, each one extensively modified by the original designer Ralf Dyck. Hans Zimmer used three, one for each of his various Moog and Roland modular systems, while Martin Rushent used an MC8 and an MC4.

Happy Birthday

A lot of people (OK, 300) have sweated blood over and cursed this machine through the years — I know I have. But even with the ever‑present lure of the mouse and monitor, I often find myself strangely drawn to the MC8. These days I tend to program it to play some fab sequences or bass lines, leave a DAT in record and then sample from DAT later, but that's another story. My MC8 has made an appearance on at least half of the 30 or so albums and singles I've released, the most recent being last year. Sure, it's beginning to show its age now, but until it actually packs up I'll continue to go back to it.

All together now... "Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you..."

How Much?

In 1977, the Roland UK price list put the cost of a new MC8 at £4,522.85p, whereas in the States it was listed as $4,795, approximately half the UK price. Roland admit that they under‑estimated production costs and it actually cost more to manufacture than it sold for, which is probably why they hiked the price up in the UK. Only 300 were manufactured; but, while the MC8 may have been a financial failure for Roland, it was an undoubted milestone in sequencer history and was the first of a line of distinguished and sometimes quirky MicroComposers.

The advertising literature of the time often showed the MC8 with a Roland System 700 modular synthesizer, and the MC8 manual often refers to specific System 700 modules and connections to them. So how much would a setup like this have cost you in 1977? Well, allowing for a UK list price of £9,038.46p for the full System 700, plus the cost of the MC8, you get a total of £13,561.31p for an up‑and‑running system. For that much you could probably have bought a house, a car and a decent meal.

What Price MC8, MC4 Or MC202?

I bought my MC8 in 1982 for £1400 secondhand (from Landscape) — but how much would an MC8 cost today? The simple answer is: I don't know, and I don't know a man who does know either. Colleagues and dealers I have spoken to haven't seen any for years, and the last MC8 I saw for sale was in a free ads paper about six or seven years ago for £500. Unless you are an avid retro collector, however, or run a museum, a more reasonable price would probably be around £200‑£300, mint. MC4s, on the other hand, do turn up occasionally (in the January issue of SOS, no less), sometimes with an MTR100 data recorder. The MC4/MTR100 combination is probably a better buy than an MC8 in terms of features and backup speed, but make sure an instruction manual is included. Expect to pay about £200‑£300. The other alternative is an MC202. These appear more frequently but are not as collectable as they used to be, so their price has come down in recent years. Don't pay more than £100‑£200 for one in mint condition.

If you come across an MC that suits your price range, and you aren't afraid of getting your hands dirty, give it a chance. Don't forget, though — no MIDI, no undo, no monitor screens, and no mouse... Can you handle it?

It's In The Sync

The MC8 has basic and sometimes frustrating synchronising facilities, which encouraged users all over the world to find ingenious and resourceful ways of hooking up supposedly incompatible equipment with it.

A common method is programming short gate pulses on spare MC8 channels to drive the sync inputs on other sequencers or drum machines, though this can seriously eat into the available memory. It requires some experimentation to achieve the correct sync signal, but once this is accomplished the code can be saved to tape and loaded in when needed. Another popular trick is using an MPX output to trigger the start/stop function of a drum machine or sequencer set to the same tempo as the MC8.

When I bought my MC8, Roland UK were providing a modification that installed a Sync 24 DIN socket on the rear panel. This worked fine with all manner of drum machines and sequencers but was only an output, which meant that the MC8 could not itself be driven by a sequencer or drum machine. However, some years ago, and quite by accident, I came across a way of synchronising the MC8 to MIDI and Sync 24 even though the MC8 doesn't have a sync input. The MC8's tape sync system uses a standard Roland FSK signal and will respond to an FSK code recorded onto tape by another Roland drum machine or sequencer. If you connect the tape sync output from a Roland drum machine such as a TR707/727 to the tape sync input on the MC8, the two machines will sync up. The TR707/727 is an ideal bridge between old and new technologies, as it incorporates MIDI In/Out, Sync 24 in/out and tape sync in/out, and will output all the signals simultaneously to drive all manner of equipment.

Terms And Abbreviations

  • CV: Control Voltage.
  • MPX: Multiplex.
  • MEASURE END FLAG: Signifies the end of a bar — the measure end flag would be the eighth note in an 8‑note riff.
  • FSK: Frequency Shift Keying, a synchronising code.
  • SYNC 24: A synchronising interface used on most pre‑MIDI sequencers and drum machines.
  • STEP TIME: The length each note is held before moving on to the next. A channel must have a step time programmed before it can accept CV information.
  • GATE TIME: The length each gate is held at 15V before moving on to the next. Gate time is never longer than step time.
  • VCO: Voltage Controlled Oscillator.
  • VCF: Voltage Controlled Filter.
  • VCA: Voltage Controlled Amplifier.
  • DIN: Small multi‑pin connector.
  • RAM: Random Access Memory.
  • EMS: UK Synth manufacturer.
  • ARP: US Synth manufacturer.

Other Pre‑MIDI Microcomposers

  • MC4: A single‑piece unit with fewer channels than the MC8, but in most respects an improvement on it. Includes a transpose function, much better synchronisation, CV input calibration and 48k of RAM, enough for 11,500 notes. Optional extras included the MTR100 digital data recorder and the OP8M CV‑to‑DCB/MIDI interface.
  • MC202: A battery‑operated, 2‑channel MicroComposer with a built‑in SH101 synth, a mini keyboard and very comprehensive interfacing. A very underrated machine, apparently Roland's worst‑selling product. (See the SOS retro in our August 1995 issue.)

CV, Gate & MPX

  • CV
    CV signals produce a programmable voltage of 0‑11V. A value of 0 equals 0V, 12 equals 1V, 24 equals 2V, 36 equals 3V, and so on, with a value of 60 being equivalent to middle C on a keyboard. The MC8 has eight CV outputs and can control eight VCOs (Voltage Controlled Oscillators) simultaneously. Alternatively, output 1 could control the pitch of one or more VCOs, output 2 the tone with a VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter) and output 3 the dynamics with a VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier). More than one CV can be assigned to a channel. You could, for instance, have channel 1 simultaneously controlling four CVs (two VCOs,VCF,VCA), a gate signal and six MPX signals.
  • GATE
    A gate signal produces an output of 15V for triggering envelope shapers or other triggerable sources. The length of the gate is programmable:




... and so on. The MC8 has eight gate outputs, and the polarity of the gates can be set (globally) to positive (for Roland and ARP equipment) or to negative (for Moog and Korg equipment, for example).

  • MPX
    MPX is a feature unique to Roland MicroComposers and is essentially six additional gate signals assigned to one channel. Each time a note on the specified channel occurs, you can assign up to six MPX triggers to output a 15V signal at that step event, with the length of the note deciding the length of all the MPX triggers at that point. There is also a seventh MPX signal to switch the portamento function on and off for channel 1 only. MPX outputs 1‑6 are capable of triggering various drum pads, electronic drums, percussion modules, envelope generators, or other sequencers and drum machines.