Beethoven's amanuensis* it might not be, but for dancey doodlings, you won't find a better scratchpad than the Roland MSQ700 'multitrack digital keyboard recorder'. Steve Howell reassesses the sequencer that dared not speak its name...
What is a sequencer? Is it, as we have come to believe of late, a device where your every musical idea can be realised, recorded and edited to microscopic perfection, so that intricate and highly detailed musical themes and arrangements emanate exquisitely from a multi‑track, multi‑channel compositional environment fashioned in software? Or is it, more prosaically, just a device that plays a sequence of notes?
In the August '95 issue of SOS, Derek Johnson and Debbie Poyser mentioned (in passing) the Roland MSQ700, an underrated little sequencer from the early days of MIDI. Falling somewhere between a 'composition workstation' and a simple sequencer, I felt their comment that the MSQ was a "fun tool" was about right. While it isn't the all‑singing, all‑dancing composition workstation that modern devices aim to be, its very simplicity is its greatest asset.
The 'alpha' portion of the gadget's name was a bad acronym of MIDI SeQuencer, but the numeric part is harder to fathom. There was nothing '7' or '700' about the MSQ700; being an 8‑track device with 6,500 note storage across 16 MIDI channels. Maybe it had 700 components inside! Anyway, it was Roland's first proper foray into multitrack MIDI sequencing, and intended to build upon the modest success of MC4 MicroComposer. The MC4 was a 4‑channel CV/gate device, into which you entered notes and note‑lengths methodically and numerically. Tedious? A little, but actually quite interesting, and once you got the hang of it, a very flexible and extremely precise way of creating music. The MSQ700, on the other hand, was a MIDI sequencer, and data was entered in a more approachable manner, from a MIDI keyboard rather than a numeric one.
The solidly‑built MSQ700 came in a similar styling to the contemporaneous TR909. Festooned with chunky, smackable keys and no less than 33 (yes, 33!) big glowing or flashing red, green and yellow LEDs, the MSQ700 was very easy to use and a joy to behold. Moreover, it had more sync facilities than you could wave a stick at, being able to sync to the Roland DIN SYNC 24 code, MIDI clock (though no Song Position Pointer) and/or FSK tape sync code. It could also convert one sync type to another; so it was possible to use the MSQ to sync your TR808/909 or TB303 to MIDI clock or to tape (the latter of which, unless you had an MC4, was previously impossible, or at least very difficult). Even if you don't use its sequencing capabilities, its MIDI‑to‑DIN SYNC and DIN SYNC‑to‑MIDI conversion capabilities alone justify its second‑hand price — especially if you own any fashionable, DIN‑SYNC equipped Roland devices. It will also record and play Roland synths equipped with their precursor to MIDI, the DCB buss, and so could perform as a MIDI‑to‑DCB converter for your Juno 60 or (suitably‑equipped) Jupiter 8.
However, this is to neglect the MSQ700's sequencing capabilities. True, it doesn't offer hundreds of tracks or 128 MIDI channels, and you can't embed SysEx commands at machine code level — but then that kind of malarky is not its greatest strength. Where it scores over even the latest sequencers is in its immediacy and ease of use. The MSQ700's eight, large track keys are used to record and overdub data into, and although essentially an 8‑track device, each track can store up to 16 MIDI channels. The track keys are a welcome alternative to all the cursor‑pressing, page‑scrolling, soft‑keying data entry methods found on other hardware sequencers, and certainly a lot more fun than mousing around a computer sequencer and clicking on inscrutable icons, only to be rewarded with "The application has unexpectedly quit, because an error of type 39 occurred." Even the MSQ's four‑digit LED display, which shows nothing more than bars or tempo, is informative enough for the most part.
Recording is as simple as selecting a track; you just press Load and play. To add more parts, press Overdub, select another track, press Load and go for it. Any MIDI data you lob at the MSQ will be recorded, including program changes, mod wheel, pitchbend, aftertouch, sustain and other footswitch information, and these may be overdubbed onto separate tracks and then merged later if you want. The MIDI channel to record on is selected on your MIDI keyboard — whatever you select gets recorded. Painfully easy!
Data can be input in step‑time or real‑time, and these modes are selected by a large toggle switch. In step time, notes are entered at a length equal to the step length selected by the dedicated horizontal Resolution switch, and you may select from 1/2 notes to 1/32 notes, including triplets. Two big keys allow you to enter rests and/or tied notes equal to the selected resolution. Step time is an ideal way to enter really tight, metronomic sequences and solid bass lines, and if you're a bit ham‑fisted, it also enables you to enter quite dextrous performances. Step‑time data entry can be a novel way to make music, and the accidents that happen from time to time can be highly serendipitous. The large keys certainly make step‑time entry easier than most sequencers I know of. The quantisation option on real‑time‑only machines helps a bit, but they still demand a certain level of keyboard profiency.
Of course, real‑time entry is also available on the MSQ, and it will faithfully record what you throw at it. An internal 'beeper' metronome is provided (by way of another large toggle switch) for you to keep time to. In many respects, you can use the MSQ700 much like a tape machine, locate to any bar position in a sequence, and continue adding data in a tape‑like linear fashion. You can punch in and out, and a footswitch is provided to assist in this. If you're a reasonably decent player, the MSQ's simplicity may well appeal to you as a straightforward multitrack MIDI recorder.
Quantise, called Time Correct on the MSQ700, is quaintly described in the manual as "allowing modification of your key touch manner". Available after the event, it's almost non‑destructive, in that you quantise the track onto another, so if it all goes horribly wrong, you still have the original to try again. You may quantise to a variety of resolutions from 1/2 notes to 1/32 notes. No fancy 'groove' templates, shuffle or microscopic note slippage functions, but again, that's the charm of the MSQ — it's quick and easy. The quantise is pretty effective most of the time, but it can do odd things sometimes. As the curious Japanglish manual warns: "If setting a longer or the same timing value, you may be annoyed by the various troubles such as timing values differs, a notes is lost, etc". Absolutely!
Once you've filled up a few tracks, you can merge several tracks onto one, freeing up the other tracks for more overdubs. No 'un‑merge' is available, so be careful before you erase the source tracks. Playback is achieved by hitting the large blue Play key (a footswitch input is also provided, for hands‑free operation). A sequence may be set to repeat endlessly by flicking the big Repeat switch. Being so simple, there is no undue strain on the MSQ's processor, so MIDI is dealt with efficiently, and sequences play back with a reassuringly solid 'feel'.
With each track capable of storing a complete multi‑channel sequence, the track keys can also be used as 'sequence select' keys, and you can play each sequence simply by selecting the 'track' (ie. sequence) you want to play. These may be selected manually, but you may also program the running order of the eight sequences using the Chain mode. To do this, select Chain mode, press Load and simply specify the sequences in the order you want them to play, by hitting the track keys as appropriate. Pressing a track key enters the sequence into that step, and advances to the next step where you may enter another. There is no repeat function for steps as such; just select the same sequence as many times as you need it. The Chain mode is a great way to construct songs (albeit limited to eight sequences), and I much prefer this way of working over the linear, almost tape‑like method adopted by a lot of sequencers today. Eight sequences may seem a big limitation, but a sequence can be any length, and may be added to at will. With some forethought, quite structured compositions may be realised in this way.
Of course, at this point, the normal reaction would be to dismiss the MSQ's sequence storage capabilities as wholly inadequate. Let's be honest, though, a vast majority of records these days consist of a basic structure (8‑ or 16‑note bassline and a simple drum pattern and chord structure) that run throughout the whole song, with just a few variations and build‑ups for choruses, hooks, a middle eight and the like. Viewed in this light, the MSQ's seemingly miniscule storage of just eight sequences may even be considered excessive for modern purposes! In practice, however, it restricts the MSQ700 to only one song in memory at any time.
Gripes? Of course! Apart from the absence of even simple editing (see the 'Not So Golden Retrievers' box), one missed opportunity is that as the sequence is playing, you can't drop tracks in and out of Play using the track keys — the MSQ must be stopped first. Similarly, you can't change sequences in real‑time, to create on‑the‑fly extended remixes or to try out ideas before committing them to a chain. On the other hand, the chain mode is so simple to use, it's not especially limiting. To be able to do either of these would have made the MSQ700 quite a neat little 'performance' sequencer.
Another irritation concerns overdubbing. Imagine you have laid down a four‑bar bass line and drum part on some tracks, and you overdub something on another. When recording with Repeat switched on, the bass and drum tracks keep trundling on repeatedly as you overdub onto the other track, but on playback, they will stop at four bars while the overdub keeps playing in isolation. It would be nice if tracks repeated in playback regardless of other tracks' lengths, but then I suppose it's a tad late to ask Roland for a software upgrade!
Niggles aside, the MSQ700 is still a good sequencer, the main reason being because it's simple, fun and spontaneous. Once you are aware of its limitations, you can easily work within them. You may swear at it from time to time, but even the most powerful modern sequencer will elicit profanities, especially when it crashes mid‑session — which the trusty MSQ700 will never do!
So, who would buy an MSQ700 these days? Me, for a start. I had one when they first came out (I must have paid £800 or more) and I made some of my best music on it. But of course, I read the ads, believed the hype and convinced myself I needed all the sophisticated, nerdy functions other sequencers offered, and rather foolishly traded it in for something else. Big mistake! Instead of making music, I was poncing about with tiny keys and a 2 x 16 LCD — and my music was none the better for it [Yes, we've noticed — Ed].
I've recently acquired another MSQ700, and the fun and spontaneity is back. My musical requirements are not that demanding, and so the MSQ suits me just fine. If you are one of the many people still recording to tape, then the MSQ may be an ideal way of doing some basic sequencing, or adding 16 'virtual' tracks cheaply. If you already own a more comprehensive sequencing package, as an adjunct to your main sequencer, you too may find the MSQ's ease of use appealing. Quick, easy and almost the modern day equivalent of lifting the lid off a piano and playing! When I've run out of steam, I can just switch it off and walk away, safe in the knowledge that I can come back to it at any time with no system re‑booting, application launching, sequence loading, MIDI map extensions reset and the like.
You couldn't call the MSQ700 the best hardware sequencer in the world, but while it may be 'functionally challenged', what it does offer is blinding simplicity and ease of use, in a world where sequencing a tune seems to require an honours degree in computing science. Remember, folks, less can be more — and it can also be fun.
Data storage has come a long way in ten years, and although there's no floppy‑disk drive on the MSQ700, the memory can be backed up to a normal cassette. This may seem a bit archaic, but it works okay and is no different in principle to modern DAT back‑up routines. 'Files' can be given reference numbers at the point of back‑up, for easier recall when restoring. Furthermore, the restore functions are actually quite intelligent, and you can select to replace the whole memory with the contents from tape, or have the MSQ place the restored data into any spare tracks that may be available, preserving data on other tracks. If this sounds a bit arduous, the fact that sequences and chains are retained in memory when you power‑down is a big plus point, and the cassette‑streaming is only there as a back‑up function.
How about editing? Sadly, very little to speak of. There are three buttons, which give access to the aforementioned quantise and merge functions, plus an erase function. However, this will only erase entire tracks — you can't use it to erase one bum note or lop off four bars from the end of a sequence, for instance. Missing, of course, is Copy: it would have been nice just to have a simple 'append' function for extending, say, a four‑bar bass line, over which you might want to add eight bars of chords. A transpose function would not have gone amiss either, and of course no Undo function is available. In fact, none of the functions we take for granted these days are available on the MSQ700. Having said that, neither is the mind‑boggling complexity!
With a second‑hand price of £100 or so (pay no more), if you're on a budget and you want to sequence some noise, a second‑hand MSQ may be just the ticket. If you're into the dance scene, where simple, hypnotically repeating sequences and riffs are the order of the day, you could be knocking out respectable dance tunes for around £500, armed with nothing more than a simple MIDI keyboard, an MSQ700 and (say) an Akai SG01V 'vintage' synth module. The MSQ's DYN SYNC compatibility makes the similarly‑equipped Roland MC202 MicroComposer an ideal choice for adding squidgy, sequenced basslines. Add to this setup even the simplest little multi‑tracker, with the MSQ's simple but effective tape sync, and you could expand your music‑making capabilities enormously.
I have to say that I would not recommend the MSQ700 to someone wishing to realise dense, intricate orchestral compositions, other than as a scratchpad for getting ideas down quickly and easily. But for those who believe that simplicity and immediacy are of more value than esoteric functionality, a second‑hand MSQ700 may be a refreshing alternative to today's multi‑functional sequencing workstations.