There have been Grooveboxes and user‑friendly MIDI file players, but it's been a while — nine years, in fact — since Roland last added a full‑on hardware MIDI sequencer to their product line up. Now the MC80 seeks to bring the idea bang up to date. Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser take the hard option...
We observed in a recent review that the dedicated sequencer, rather thin on the ground not so long ago, has been undergoing a metamorphosis into the 'groove machine' — Roland's MC505 and MC303 and Yamaha's RM1x being prime examples of the new sub‑genre. The new instruments incorporate contemporary sounds, hands‑on controls and real‑time pattern‑changing features, plus swinging, grooving and general note‑munging parameters previously offered more frequently by computer sequencers — and they've been doing very nicely, thank you.
But what of the traditional hardware sequencer? Is this proud institution, already embattled by computer sequencers, being superseded by its own 'groovier' offspring? Not if Roland have anything to do with it. Their venerable Microcomposer line hasn't had an addition for several years, but that hiatus has now been ended with the launch of the MC80. This new unit incorporates sequencing techniques familiar to MC‑series users the world over but borrows tricks from the groove machines, and from other Roland sequencer‑toting instruments such as the XP workstations.
The '80 has an eye‑popping feature set: the bread‑and‑butter sequencing capabilities expected in a pro machine are augmented by real‑time sequence control and playback features designed especially for onstage use, groove quantising gleaned from the MC303/505, and RPS (Real‑time Phrase Sequencing), an arpeggiator, and the 'Disk Quick Play' feature borrowed from the XP‑series keyboards. Also new for a Microcomposer is the option to add sounds, with the SC88 Pro Sound Canvas‑based VE‑GS Pro Voice Expansion Board. Adding to the deluxe feel are options for an internal hard or Zip drive, and an external Zip drive — wow. Of course, the '80 comes with a floppy drive as standard, and its onboard sequence memory is none too shabby, at 120,000 notes.
That's not all. Timing resolution has been increased from the earlier MC50 MkII's 96ppqn (pulses per quarter note) to 480ppqn for the new machine — probably because this resolution is offered by leading computer sequencers. The backlit LCD is large, there are two sets of MIDI Ins and Outs, for 32‑channel operation, and both MTC (MIDI Time Code, for synchronising to a recorder) and MMC (MIDI Machine Control, for controlling a recorder's transport) are provided. Gone, however, is the MC50's built‑in FSK‑based sync‑code generator.
In contrast to the high‑fashion silver exterior of the MC303 and 505, the MC80 is finished in matte black and looks very smart. It's relatively large, with a clean, uncluttered control surface, and a generous, nicely angled, backlit LCD accompanied by six soft keys. Roland have made the most of the display by including graphics and presenting the functions of the MC80 using a computer‑style interface, with menus leading to editing and utility windows. This aspect of the MC80, however, is not as highly developed as the graphic LCD on Yamaha's QY700 sequencer, which really behaves like a computer screen, even offering a piano‑roll note display.
Above the LCD are 16 Track buttons, flanked by six additional buttons which access a rather random collection of features, including the Arpeggiator and RPS. The remainder of the front panel is divided into fairly distinct areas. There's the obligatory transport section; a 'Mode' section with switches to select Sequencer mode, for composing and editing, or Chain Play, where the running order of a selection of Songs is set; a Song section offering quick Transpose, Tempo and Song Select functions; and a Mark/Jump area with keys to set markers within a Song. There's a cursor‑key array, plus an alpha‑numeric keypad for naming songs and, in a shifted mode, inputting note values and lengths during step‑time recording. Floating free are the Value dial, Tap tempo button, and a Repeat button which activates a user‑definable playback loop. There's also a Shift key, which accesses functions labelled in grey — including Undo/Redo and 'instant fade‑out' — when pressed simultaneously with the relevant button.
An impressive array of MIDI connections (two Ins, two Outs and one Thru) dominates the back panel. These are accompanied by a dual footswitch socket (configurable to start/stop a sequence, punch in/out during recording, and duplicate the Mark/Jump buttons), a metronome volume knob, and a SCSI option blanking panel, along with a stereo audio out and headphone out for use with the sound board option. You won't find an external PSU socket, though, because the power supply is built in!
You may have noticed that we haven't yet addressed a pretty important issue: just how many tracks the MC80 offers. This is because it's slightly more complicated than the 16 Track buttons indicate. The MC80 can transmit data on up to 32 MIDI channels at once, courtesy of dual MIDI Outs. So how does it manage to squeeze 32 tracks of MIDI data into 16 sequencer tracks? Simple: by recording parts using different MIDI channels, or by 'Merging' two (or more) tracks' worth of data, onto one track. If two parts, say, are recorded with different MIDI channels on one track, those two parts are still independent. If the other MC80 tracks are similarly filled up, eight of them (containing 16 MIDI channels of data) can be routed to each MIDI out, resulting in a sequence with 32 independent, fully editable parts. The compromise is that since there are only 16 Track buttons, which can be used to mute sequencer tracks, where a track contains two parts they will not be independently muteable. And, incidentally, it's easy to demerge data that's been merged onto one track, using the 'Extract' operation. Now that's out of the way, let's take a look at Song construction on the MC80.
Both real‑ and step‑time recording are offered, and both have their strengths, but anyone unschooled in step recording will probably choose the first option. After sequence tempo and time signature have been set, it's possible to choose loop recording (where the MC80 cycles around a definable sequence length as the user overdubs new parts, changing MIDI channels on the fly if necessary), and Mix or Replace recording (which mixes new data with a track's existing contents or replaces them with the new data). This is also the time to set up the arpeggiator, if required. The Record page offers two options for quantising while recording, too: conventional Grid quantise, which simply drags notes into line according to a chosen note value, and Shuffle quantise, which adds a triplet feel. In both cases, a strength percentage parameter allows quantising to be applied more loosely. There's even a real‑time erase option that lets you delete notes, or ranges of notes, without stopping the recording process.
The MC80 isn't exactly cheap, but it is a deluxe machine, sympathetically modernised, and an excellent alternative to a software sequencer on stage or in the studio.
Step‑time recording offers different advantages to different people. For those without traditional keyboard skills it provides a method of inputting notes in a very exact fashion. It also allows experienced sequencists to be very precise about which notes go where. The results can be very robotic and mechanical — but not necessarily. And, of course, you can take the random approach, mixing note values and lengths in a haphazard fashion and hoping for the best!
The Step recording setup screen clearly shows note values, which are chosen using the keypad. There's also a gate‑time parameter (dictating how long the note will play), and a velocity parameter to set. If notes are input from an attached keyboard, however, their velocity values can be derived from the keystroke. Actual notes can also be input, fairly laboriously, using the Shift button and the keypad, and tied notes and rests added using soft‑keys. Chords can be added, and 'Pattern Call' events, which cause a Pattern to play at the chosen point in the track, inserted (more on Patterns later). One anomaly is that if you try to use Step record on a track that already has data recorded to it, that data doesn't show up in the display.
When a multitrack Song has been recorded, tracks are muted (or solo'd) with the Track buttons, which light when active, flash when muted, and stay unlit if no data is present. You can mute/unmute tracks with the buttons as a sequence plays back, but there's no option for recording mutes. Surely it's about time this useful feature (easy‑peasy on a software sequencer) became more widespread on hardware sequencers. However, tracks could be muted and unmuted manually while the MC80's output is recorded to DAT, say.
The Track Info window has a neat display showing which MIDI channel or channels a track's data is on, a track's mute status, which MIDI Out it's routed to, whether there's SysEx data present, and whether Pattern Call messages have been inserted. It's a bit like how Cubase shows track data, though simpler, and could be especially handy if you've loaded a foreign MIDI file and want to see what's what.
Two styles of sequence editing are available, each with its own applications. Track Edit deals with parameters affecting a whole track or a section (as little as one bar) thereof, such as transposition and post‑recording quantise. This is also where operations such as copy, delete and erase are found. A comprehensive set of 15 editing options is presented in this screen, and when one is chosen, another screen with an appropriate parameter set appears. In the case of Change Velocity, for example, the user can specify which track and MIDI channel the operation concerns, set the range of measures and notes to which it will be applied, and define the desired velocity curve. An animated graph helps with the last procedure.
The Change Velocity screen is quite representative of the other Track Edit screens in terms of its complexity and the degree of control offered. In fact, it's probably the most complicated one, so as you can imagine, Track Edit is not too difficult to get your head around.
Microscope Edit accesses track data one event at a time. It not only provides minute control over an individual note's value, position, velocity and gate time, but also allows insertion of any MIDI data — program changes, control changes, SysEx strings and, of course, notes! Multi‑MIDI channel sequence tracks can easily be edited here on a per‑MIDI‑channel basis, by 'masking out' unwanted channels. Microscope mode resembles the average software sequencer's event list, so it's text‑heavy and you need your thinking head on, but it is very powerful. Those who shy away from such power will only need this mode for basic tasks such as changing individual bum notes or inserting program changes. This point is rather less true if the optional sound board is installed and you want to select or edit its voices, however, because Microscope mode is the only way to do this.
The MC80's post‑quantising is extremely good and rivals that available in software sequencers. As well as the basic grid and shuffle methods mentioned earlier, there are detailed Groove facilities. Seventy‑one templates, whose rhythmic feel can be borrowed to enhance your own work, are offered, including different variants of Dance, Fusion, Reggae, Pop, Rhumba, Samba and Salsa (16 user templates are also available). There's a strength parameter, too (0‑100 percent), for adding just a hint of 'Lagging Triplet' (for example!) to a track. You could have hours of fun listening to what these templates do, and there's a preview facility for checking them out before committing to anything.
Users of software sequencers and some other hardware sequencers will be familiar with pattern‑based sequencing — recording short sections and then chaining them to produce a Song. The MC50 had a stab at this, with a drum grid and rhythm track for recording and chaining drum patterns to form the backbone of a sequence. The MC80, by contrast, offers full‑fledged pattern facilities: each Song has space for 100 Patterns, but each Pattern can contain any material — from one bar of 4/4 kick drum to 16 bars (or any length) of multi‑part backing, for example. All the record and edit options available in Song mode are available here. The one downside is that if you do record a multi‑track Pattern, it's limited to 16 parts.
Patterns can be used in a couple of ways. Firstly, they can be assigned to tracks in a Song, using 'Pattern Call' events. This is particularly useful, since a Pattern called repeatedly in a Song uses no extra MIDI data — it's 'ghosted', if you like. Secondly, Patterns can be assigned to the keys of an attached MIDI keyboard — one on every key, if desired — for real‑time triggering. This is ideal for a little extempore composition at a gig, or for actually creating sequences: when Patterns are triggered with an MC80 Song in record mode, the Pattern Calls are recorded to the current track. Pattern Calls can also be inserted in Microscope Edit. In addition, Patterns can be physically copied to Song tracks, and Song tracks can be copied to Patterns.
The MC80's well‑specified arpeggiator has much in common with that on the MC505. First, you choose one of 41 'Styles', which split a held chord with a wide variety of note values, in traditional fashion, or impose a pattern‑like effect. Choices include typical synth and slap‑bass patterns, rhythm guitar emulations, and Latin rhythms. The arpeggiator setup window also displays other parameters, including Motif (38 options, which select the note order of the Style), Beat Pattern (around 90 options, which vary accent and note length), accent and shuffle rate, octave range and key velocity. In the case of Motif and Beat Pattern, each Style has access to one or several options that Roland deem suitable for the current Style. For a fully configurable arpeggiation, choose the Limitless Style. Arpeggiations can be recorded directly into a Song, though there can be a little jump when recording starts; allowing an empty bar at the beginning of a Song, or playing the chords to be arpeggiated during the metronome count‑in, helps.
The results are good and plenty of fun, especially from the traditional up‑and‑down arpeggiations, and the pattern‑like Styles can provide inspiration by doing things with your chords that you might never have thought of
File handling and storage are two areas in which the MC80 scores over previous Microcomposers. Out of the box, a high‑density floppy drive is fitted, but an internal hard drive (any laptop IDE drive should do — contact Roland for details) or Iomega Zip drive can be fitted, and a SCSI option allows connection of an external Zip drive. This potential for massive storage has implications for live sequencists — floppy disks won't have to be swapped mid‑gig, for a start. Another innovation is the way in which the MC80 plays native and MIDI Files direct from disk, using 'Disk Quick Play' and providing access to as many Song files as your chosen storage medium can hold. The downside of this feature is that there is only one Song memory on the sequencer itself, but with hard or Zip disks functioning as near‑instant virtual memory, this isn't such an issue.
Hardware sequencers have always been the best bet for live use, and the MC80 is especially suited to the task.
Another side‑effect of the potential for large hard drives is the introduction of a logical folder‑based file structure, just like a computer. A hard or Zip drive‑equipped MC80 also needs to be 'shut down', again like a computer, at the end of a session. Irritatingly, this operation requires three button pushes.
The MC80 can also load files from other Roland products, including previous Microcomposer family members and XP‑series workstations, though such files can't be edited, nor accessed with the Disk Quick Play function. You'd have to load them first, and re‑save them in MC80 format.
The MC80's user‑installable sound option is the VE‑GS Pro card developed for the A70/A90 master keyboards, which is essentially an SC88 Pro General MIDI/GS sound module (see SOS review, March 1997). It offers that module's excellent sound set, with over 1100 patches, very serviceable effects (two global and one insertion), 32‑part multitimbrality and 64‑voice polyphony. Incidentally, the MC80 can send data to all 32 parts of the sound board, to 16 sound board and 16 external parts, or to all 32 external parts; you are not getting an extra 32 parts of multitimbrality with the VE‑GS Pro installed.
The most frustrating aspect of having a sound source installed in one's sequencer — certainly the way Roland have done it, anyway — is the lack of sonic control. It's simply not possible to edit sounds in the way you'd hope, and neither does the MC80 have a dedicated sound‑mixer window for easy setting up of levels, pans and effects. The solution — for selecting patches, changing level and pan values, configuring effects and tweaking sounds — is to insert the appropriate data into Song tracks manually, using Microscope Edit. To Roland's credit, they've provided a reasonably comprehensive list of the relevant controller numbers in an otherwise poor manual (though a separate, unsupplied, MIDI Implementation document is required to access all effects parameters). Another useful feature is the option to scroll through the VE‑GS Pro's GM/XG patch list before confirming a program change event. However, sound editing would be much more bearable with an external hardware controller box, which seems a bit mad. The option of a sound board, and such a good one, is fantastically useful, but Roland could have tried harder to unlock its power. Perhaps they're assuming that the person who's likely to buy such a super stage sequencer with built‑in sounds is also someone who plays covers in clubs, using commercial MIDI files, and won't want to edit sounds. To be fair, the quality of the sounds, as they stand, is wonderful and, in our opinion, at the top of the tree as far as GM goes. But it would have been nice to be able to easily tweak parameters, such as envelope decay and filter resonance, that make a difference.
One last point prompted by the existence of the sound option is that had Roland given the MC80 a set of front‑panel buttons laid out like a mini‑keyboard (as on the MC303/505, and Yamaha's QY700 sequencer), the machine would have been a fully self‑contained writing tool.
The MC80 isn't exactly cheap, at £849 without sound board and £1099 with, but it is a deluxe machine, sympathetically modernised, and an excellent alternative to a software sequencer on stage or in the studio. Unlike software, it doesn't require the expense of a computer, it takes up much less desk space than a computer (and doesn't generate fan noise), and it has obvious portability advantages. Creating a composition is straightforward and quick, with the flexibility of three different methods, and editing features are well thought out and logical to use. There are nice touches and shortcuts to be found, and the large display is used to good advantage. The MC80 also offers a lot for the money: just look at the length of the features list on page 184!
Setting aside an awful manual, and the occasionally long‑winded operating system (it takes four button‑pushes to save a Song), the MC80 is as much of a joy to use as the MC50, but feels considerably faster. It would have been pretty much perfect with the addition of a mini‑keyboard and a few real‑time control knobs or sliders for sound‑source tweaks and generating MIDI or mixer data — or at least a page in the OS for graphic sound and effect editing. Does anyone remember Roland's 1991 MV30? That provided MC‑style sequencing, RPS, a built‑in editable sound source, and a hardware mixer section. Perhaps Roland were wary of making the MC80 too much like their own current MC505 (which has some of the items off our wish‑list) in terms of facilities.
Still, the MC80 really is an embarrassment of riches for the hi‑tech musician. It's marred by a few omissions, some of which can perhaps be addressed in software updates, but essentially provides everything anyone could need for creating the most sophisticated of compositions and performing them live. It's destined to become as steadfast a friend to its owners as was the MC50 before it.
Those looking for a sequencer/sound source that is not a 'groove machine' will find that the MC80's closest equivalent is Yamaha's QY700. Costing £999 on its launch (see SOS November 1996), it now sells for £849 including built‑in sounds. It features a mini‑keyboard, huge squarish LCD, and sophisticated graphics, plus a mixer page and software‑like editing of its XG sound source and effects. Non‑volatile RAM stores up to 20 songs, and there's a floppy drive, but no option for mass storage connection. Up to 48 tracks are available from the sequencer if 16 trigger the internal sounds, and though there's no super‑duper arpeggiator, which the MC80 has, there are quite sophisticated auto‑accompaniment facilities.
Hardware sequencers have always been the best bet for live use, and the MC80 is especially suited to the task. There's RPS, discussed in the main part of this review, whereby Patterns can be triggered from a MIDI keyboard, and Chain Play, which allows a list of songs to be defined and played back, from disk, with no further intervention from the user — ideal for a set's worth of backing tracks. If you need a break during your set, pressing the 'Wait' soft key finishes playing the current song and causes the MC80 to hang around patiently until you press Play. The mute buttons can also be used live to do a little on‑the‑fly remixing, but for more serious Song reorganisation, turn to the Mark/Jump buttons. There are only four, helpfully labelled Verse, Chorus, Break and Ending, but hitting these on the fly creates instant markers, so you can jump around rearranging your Song in real time. You can even make a new set on the fly by pressing Shift, to clear the old ones, and starting again. And when the Song is nearly over, how about a fade‑out? Press Shift + End/Fade Out, and the Song fades out over a user‑definable interval.
One last performance facility is the odd 'Music Minus One'. As the name suggests, this mode is for people who want to solo along with a backing track — but surely something like this would be easy enough to set up without a separate mode, simply by muting the track you'd like to play?
- 480ppqn resolution.
- Large backlit LCD.
- 3.5‑inch floppy drive.
- Real‑time, step‑time and Pattern‑based sequencing.
- Track and Microscope Edit.
- Standard and Groove quantise.
- 120,000‑note memory.
- Comprehensive arpeggiator.
- Assignable footswitch socket.
- MMC and MTC compatible.
- Live performance features (Disk Quick Play, Phrase Sequencing, Fade‑Out, Chain Play, real‑time Markers).
- Two MIDI outputs allowing 32‑channel compositions.
- Optional internal 2.5‑inch IDE hard drive/Zip100 drive; optional SCSI for external Zip.
- Optional VE‑GS Pro sound board providing 1117 GM/GS tones, 42 rhythm sets, effects.
- Tempo and Time Signature tracks.
- On‑line help.
- One level of Undo/Redo.
- Dimensions: 358 x 303 x 88mm (WDH).
- Weight: 3.3kg.
Until the release of the MC80, Roland hadn't updated the stand‑alone sequencer concept since the release of the MC50 MkII in the early years of this decade. As a dedicated long‑standing user of the original MC50, I was keen to see what the new MC had to offer over the older machine.
Just to recap, the MC50 is a simple but effective MIDI sequencer for MIDI data editing, track‑building and playback. It's compact in size and robust in build, making it ideal for gigging (in which capacity I've made good use of it myself over the last couple of years). But despite many clever features, the MC50 is primarily for recording and editing MIDI data. The MC80, by contrast, is arguably more akin to a workstation without a keyboard than merely a sequencer, and is also designed with MIDI file playback as much in mind as sequencing. Having said that, almost all of the features originally found on the MC50 have been included on the MC80 in some form, although most are arranged and displayed in slightly different menus or locations. Navigation through the menu structure is slightly easier on the MC80, thanks to the six function keys under the display and the alpha dial and cursor keys (the MC50 relies on various shifted key combinations to access frequently used functions). The MC80's large LCD display is also an improvement, as it allows multiple MIDI events to be viewed on screen at any one time, whereas there's only room for one event at a time (and not even all the details of that) on the MC50's two‑line display.
The MC80 also scores heavily over the MC50 with its various data storage options. The MC80 can use standard 1.44Mb HD floppy disks, unlike the MC50, which only takes the older 720K double density (DD) disks. Best of all is the MC80's provision for an internal hard drive or Zip drive. In contrast, backing up disks on the MC50 requires the swapping of the original and the backup, while the files are saved bit‑by‑bit into the internal memory of the MC50 ready to be copied; a full disk may need to be swapped about four times before copying is complete.
Other points where the '80 scores over the '50 include the extra MIDI In, the 16 tracks over the MC50's eight, and the internal PSU. So, what's there to say in favour of the trusty old '50? In truth, I could only really put one item on a 'sadly missed' list, although I do consider this an indispensible aid to rhythm programming. For while rhythms can be programmed on the MC80 in real time and in patterns if you wish, just as on the MC50, what the '80 seems to lack completely is the step‑time grid programming interface. This is like the method of programming on the now‑classic TR808 and 909 drum machines, where rhythm events are placed in appropriate slots on the quantised grid for each drum, gradually building up a full rhythm pattern. Long‑time users of this function, like myself, can get to know the values on the quantise grid so well that it becomes second nature to build up a complex rhythm pattern simply by entering a series of number values, without even having to listen to how the loop's developing. This omission isn't a problem for those importing MIDI file loops, or anyone who uses a separate drum machine (or a separate software sequencer with a drum grid page, for that matter — but then if you've got one of those, why would you be interested in the stand‑alone MC80?), but it's a sadly missed feature for those MC50 users who rely on it for drum duties.
Nevertheless, if your old MC50 has just bitten the dust, and you've been scouring the second‑hand ads for a replacement, you may well want to consider what the MC80 has to offer. It won't sit in the same small space between your keyboard and coffee cup (it's significantly larger than the MC50), but virtually every aspect of its operation is an improvement over the same feature on the '50. What's more, all your old MC50 work can be brought across into the '80, as MC50‑format files can be read from floppy by the newer machine. The lack of the step‑time drum grid is really the only possible negative aspect of moving from '50 to '80, but whether this will affect you depends on how you like to create your rhythm tracks. Tom Flint
Users of software sequencers expect on‑line help, but it's rare to find it on hardware sequencers (with the notable exception of the MPC family from Akai). The MC80's Help files aren't always that much help, often simply telling you what the queried function is — and that occasionally in garbled English. However, the function is redeemed by a soft‑key option which takes you immediately to the operation or mode you're reading about. Very helpful for the newcomer. A dedicated Help button would have been nice; as it is, Help is located under the Tools menu.
- Top‑quality sound board option.
- Useful live features.
- Unique hard drive options.
- On‑line help.
- Sophisticated quantising.
- Excellent arpeggiator.
- Built‑in power supply.
- Sound and effect editing a bodge.
- No mixing page.
- Mini‑keyboard would have been nice.
- Only one song in memory at a time.
A powerful yet friendly machine that's a worthy successor to the MC50 MkII and a very strong competitor for software sequencers.