Roland's new MCR8 hardware controller seeks to take the strain out of parameter access synth or software editing, by offering you real‑time manipulation of any MIDI values from its front panel sliders and knobs. Paul Ward checks it out.
How many times have you found yourself struggling to position a software control on screen with a mouse, or attempting to find a specific parameter amongst a parameter access synth's plethora of menus? How often have you wished you could just reach out and tweak it by hand? Hardware controllers such as JL Cooper's veteran CS10 and Peavey's PC1600 attempt to give you that opportunity, as does Roland's new MCR8 MIDI multi controller. The MCR8 provides a work surface of assignable knobs, buttons and controls for instant tactile satisfaction, and will also serve as a MIDI interface for a Mac or PC with an RS‑422/RS‑232C serial port.
When I was asked to review this unit, and was briefed with a quick run‑down of its capabilities, I made a mental note to clear some bench space prior to its arrival. It came as something of a shock, then, to see the size of the package that subsequently arrived! The MCR8's control surface covers little more than the space of two CD cases laid side by side. Five minutes after unpacking, I had a single box perched on one end of my mother keyboard, acting as the MIDI control centre for my entire studio — now that's what I call progress! But reducing the physical size of equipment must surely result in some trade‑offs. Here, we are asked to put up with yet another 'wall wart' power supply, and some slightly diminutive controls. A fair trade, I'd say.
The MCR8's facia is divided into two distinct areas. To the left are eight sets of channel controls. When in other than GS Control mode (see the side panel 'A Matter Of Mode' for a detailed run‑down on the MCR8's four operating modes), these channel controls can be switched to work on channels 1‑8, 9‑16, or to work on two channels simultaneously — ie. channel 1's slider can send out volume commands for both channel 1 and 9 at the same time. The A/B buttons (which specify which channels are currently active) are placed conspicuously at the left‑hand side of the row of faders, and are thankfully illuminated to give instant visual confirmation. Even with the presence of these glowing buttons, I still occasionally found myself moving a fader and wondering why I wasn't hearing the correct results. It was at these times that I would have liked the MCR8 to have accommodated a full set of 16 separate channel strips.
To the right is where operations such as bank and program numbers are dialled up for transmission, and where controller numbers can be assigned to the channel knobs and faders. Here also are the sequencer control buttons, with Song Select, Start, Stop, and Continue provided for. The omnipresent Roland alpha wheel is not far away, although I found its use here to be somewhat limited by the lack of an on‑board display, since you have to 'feel' for the number of clicks you've made.
The rear of the unit houses the obligatory MIDI In, Out and Thru connectors, as well as the serial socket for connection to a Mac or PC. Two small switches allow selection of one of the MCR8's four operating modes, and also tell the unit what type of computer (if any) is connected to the serial port. A power switch is good to see on a product this small, as is a cable strain reliever by the DC power input socket.
So, how is the MCR8 to use? The small controls are occasionally irritating, but this must be taken in context with the savings on space. The Achilles heel of the MCR8 must surely be the lack of any form of display. I found it quite disconcerting to be forced into blindly selecting and sending patch numbers with no confirmation prior to transmission — a simple 3‑character LED would have been adequate for the task. This would also have been of help when assigning controller numbers in the MIDI mixer mode. Given that I could only take the MCR8 so far, as no software is presently available to take advantage of Mode 3 operation, everything seemed me to be working fine, with the exception of one slightly dodgy fader, which I am assured is a feature of the pre‑production model I had for review.
Roland are making great play of the multimedia applications of the MCR8, and I can certainly see the sense of just such a unit in that context. There is nothing to say that it need be used for controlling merely audio — the limits will be defined by the software developed to take advantage of the MCR8's control messages. But the average MIDI musician should not ignore this unit either. The MCR8 will currently work as a MIDI mixer straight out of the box, even though some functions (such as patch selection) are a tad fiddly for serious use. Where things will really get interesting is if the big software companies take a shine to the standards set by Roland, and begin to develop sequencers, editors, hard disk recorders and the like with MCR8 control options. I, for one, have my fingers crossed that this will be the case.
The key to using the MCR8 is in understanding its four application modes. Roland supply a number of plastic overlays to give the correct legending for the controls in each mode.
- MODE 1
This is the GS Control Mode. Here, the MCR8's various knobs and buttons send MIDI control change and SysEx messages primarily dedicated to the taming of GS‑compatible synths, such as Roland's Sound Canvas series. Each MIDI channel can be sent bank and program select messages, and can have its volume, pan and effects send level altered. Those sound parameters defined by Roland's GS standard (such as filter cut‑off, resonance and envelope values) can be accessed directly from the faders. You can also send System messages, including master level, pan, key shift and effects parameters. In addition, sequencer control buttons give access to Start, Stop, Continue and Song Select.
- MODE 2
This turns the MCR8 into a multi‑purpose MIDI mixer, where level, pan and program number can be controlled in much the same way as in Mode 1, but the knob and fader banks can be defined to send any of the control change messages between zero and 95. The sequencer controls are carried over from mode 1.
- MODE 3
This is the PC Software Control Mode. In addition to providing a serial PC/Mac interface, the MCR8 also merges its own control change data with the messages arriving at its MIDI input, and sends these to the host PC. The result is a neat, self‑contained MIDI interface, which integrates the concept of MIDI mixing in much the same way as the mixer pages of Steinberg's Cubase or Emagic's Notator — but here we are provided with a panel full of real controls to tweak. Since no PC software is yet available to take advantage of this mode, I was unable to test its efficacy, but I have a feeling that it won't be long in coming. The lack of an on‑board display should prove to be far less of a pain here, providing that the recipient software gives a reasonable amount of visual feedback.
- MODE 4
The last mode emulates the J L Cooper CS10, a widely‑used assignable MIDI controller which has also become the standard hardware controller for Digidesign's Sound Tools and Pro Tools. This will undoubtedly endear the MCR8 to many Mac owners, and can only serve to consolidate a single control standard — which is no bad thing, in my opinion. Roland make references here to compatibility with 'yet‑to‑be specified' Roland and Boss products. Given Roland's track record of establishing standards, I believe that we will be seeing a healthy range of MCR8‑compatible synths and effects modules in the near future.
- Gives you hands‑on control of a wide variety of MIDI devices.
- Various operating modes for increased flexibility.
- Will function as a Mac or PC MIDI interface — providing your software supports it.
- Compact and relatively inexpensive.
- Can be fiddly.
- Lack of any display means some operations are performed 'blind'.
- Will only be truly operating at its best once software support appears for it.
Roland have created a device with great potential for the future, which is still able to meet the demands of today, despite some of the operating methods being a little fiddly. If software support begins to arrive, then the MCR8 could become the start of something big.