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Roland MC50 & MC500

Power Sequencing By Jon Cotton
Published May 1994

Despite the onslaught of the computer sequencer, hardware sequencers are still alive and well and producing music in many a studio. Jon Cotton, a long‑time user of Roland's popular MC50/500 series, passes on some hard‑earned hints and tips for getting the most from your Microcomposer.

It seems to me that if you are a sequencer user nowadays who doesn't own an Atari, you are looked upon rather in the same way that a Golf GTi owner looks upon a Reliant Robin owner: "Poor old dear still calls that a car". However, there are still many people making sophisticated music with good old fashioned hardware sequencers, due to their low(ish) price on the second‑hand market as well as their portability and durability compared to STs — and because many people see no reason to swap to using a non‑dedicated computer.

True, they may not have pretty hi‑res screen displays and graphical editing, but sophisticated hardware sequencers, such as Akai's ASQ10 and MPC60 and the Roland MC series, are capable of just about anything you could possibly want to do in the context of music. They also have the advantage that they become extremely fast to use; indeed, many MC500 users can program at amazing speeds, because performing any particular operation always comes down to a sequence of key‑strokes which the user unconsciously gets to know after a while (inevitably somewhat faster then aiming a mouse). I myself used an MC500 and then an MC50 for about four years and only recently 'sold out' and moved to a computer because my studio was starting to lose business due to the lack of a pretty TV screen. I did, however, get to know both machines very well, and would like to pass on a few tricks which you won't find in the manual. These tips relate to the MC50 MkI, although some of them will also apply to other machines which use the Super‑MRC software (the MC500 MkII and MC50 MkII).

1. When inserting cymbals or other one‑off events on the first beat of a bar, jump to that bar and enter key‑on record mode (PAUSE+RECORD), then just hit the relevant key on your controller keyboard. The event is automatically inserted bang on the beat, so there is no need to quantise either. This is extremely fast to do and is something that I dearly miss on Cubase.

2. If you want to start recording now, simply enter key‑on record mode and hit play. This means that you don't have to twiddle your thumbs for the 2‑bar count‑in, and it also provides a very fast way of performing the sequencing equivalent of spot erase on a reel‑to‑reel machine: say you've just recorded an 8‑bar section of your sampled whale‑song tune into the sequencer, and the first four‑and‑a‑quarter bars are superbly inspired but the rest is a mess. Now, in order to lop off the offending part, you could erase the last three bars, then go into microscope mode and delete the unwanted notes in bar 5. Much easier, however, is to play back the part and hit Stop immediately after the last correct note. The screen will display a little '+' sign after the bar number to indicate that the song position is currently some way into the bar. Hit Pause‑Record then Play and voila, the remaining notes are wiped over.

3. On the face of it, the MC50 offers only straightforward quantise rates — quavers, semi‑quavers, triplet quavers, and so on — plus the ability to apply them to greater or lesser degrees. However, more subtle (and in‑vogue) 'grooves', similar to those found on Cubase and Creator/Notator can be obtained by using 'iterative' quantisation: if you have a bar of hi‑hats playing semi‑quavers (16ths to us commoners), try quantising them using the normal 16th quantise, then select a 16th‑triplet quantise, and set the 'rate' value (normally 1. 0) to 0. 4. The results can be superb; try experimenting with different values for 'rate' — the higher the rate, the more swinging the feel.

4. One of the most‑useful features of most modern sequencers is the ability to record system exclusive dumps from all your gadgets around the studio, thus providing a convenient form of data storage for those synths/MIDI retrofitted washing‑machines which lack disk‑drives. I tend to do data dumps after every session, or after every song within that session, so that if the client wants to do a remix I can simply play back the SysEx dump and find all the synths, drum machines and so on, exactly as I left them.

Older sequencers often don't include this feature, as their processors simply can't handle such a rush of data (SysEx dumps can be very dense — an Alesis Quadraverb dumps every single parameter in its memory in under two seconds!). The MC50 lies on the borderline: although individual SysEx events, such as those sent out when you adjust an edit parameter on a synth, tend to be OK, most SysEx dumps will give you a 'MIDI buffer full!!' message. If, however, you go to the 'MIDI 3' page (hit 'MIDI',then '3' and 'Enter') and turn off everything, disabling the soft‑thru and various other functions, you will find that the processing power which this frees up is sufficient to handle most dumps. A tempo of 120bpm seems to work fine, and it is a good idea to adopt such a 'standard' tempo, which you use for all dumps. This way, should you forget to set the 'Basic Tempo' parameter in the functions menu, you will always know what the tempo should be; otherwise, you're at risk of playing back the data at a tempo other than that at which it was recorded, which some synths won't be too happy about.

5. For some reason known only to those lovely men at Roland, deleting data is significantly faster than erasing it. Thus, if you want to zap an entire track, use Delete.

6. There is no function on the MC50 for making all velocities equal, for that 'sequencer' sound. It is possible without copious microscope editing, however:

  • Perform a 'change velocity' command on the track, and select a 'bias' setting of +99.
  • Unless you have played extremely wimpily (in which case you will have to do this operation twice), you will find that this has pushed all of the velocities up to the ceiling value of 127, rendering them equal.
  • Then simply set a negative bias in order to bring them down to the desired velocity.

7. When fitting breakbeats or looped percussion to a programmed backing, put in a note one bar long (or longer if the sample is longer), then shorten the gate time by five clocks. I found that this compensated for sluggish release envelopes on samplers, making the loop smoother without introducing any audible break. Then copy the bar for the duration of the track and tune the break so that it loops smoothly when soloed. Quite often, introducing the programmed parts again makes the loop sound out of time: try using the track shift function to nudge the break slightly earlier or later relative to the backing (a few clocks normally suffices). I often find that, even with the start of the sample truncated right up to the first beat, this improves the way the break fits. It is also something which even Cubase can't do without much difficulty (Before the objections start flooding in, Cubase's part/track delay parameter will not work on events triggered on the first beat of a part when shifting the part/track earlier in time)

8. Despite being equipped with FSKII as standard (FSK interlaced with Song Position Pointers), the MC50 has a software bug (the only one I ever discovered!): putting it into record when locked to tape results in a total seize‑up for a couple of minutes — and it definitely doesn't record anything! As recording when locked to tape can be necessary when doing anything where the taped part plays an important role (ie, just about all the time), this can be a real disadvantage. According to Roland UK's service department, this problem can be rectified (if your MC suffers from it) with a ROM update, which is free of charge if your machine is still under guarantee. Most Roland service centres should be able to do it — I used Central Sounds in Leicestershire (0455 850084). This update solves the seize‑up problem, but unfortunately the MC50 still won't recognize Song Position Pointers when in record mode, so you will have to run the tape from the top each time you want to record.

9. One of the disadvantages of using a hardware sequencer as opposed to a piece of software is that you can't simply draw in a square or sawtooth wave in a controller window. This can be handy for creating impressive Scritti‑Politti style automated panning, or using volume messages to create tremolo effects and imitate keyed gating (a la Shamen/Future Sound of London guitar sound). On the MC50, you have to input each event individually, or 'play' them in using a mod‑wheel or suchlike. As this can be hard work, having created such a controller pattern, you could try extracting it from the rest of the song and saving it separately. This will give you a template which you can simply load in the next time you need such an effect (see below). NB. You may need to change the MIDI channel of the controller data once loaded, but this is easily accomplished from the edit menu.

10. When you wish to copy some data from an existing song (such as in the above example), load the data in as a separate song, so that the piece you're working on and the data you wish to merge are both in memory at the same time (as separate songs). Then, select the song you are working on and choose 'copy' from the edit menu. This will give you the option of copying from the current song or another. Select song two and input the relevant source/destination bar and length parameters, and the desired part will be copied into the first song in the place you've selected.

MC50 MIDI File Solution

MIDI files are being used more and more often to move data between platforms. Roland's MRM‑500 software (optional on the MC50 MkI but in ROM on the MkII) allows you to convert between MRC files and MIDI files in both directions. However, it takes up some memory on the MC50 MkI machine, and thus files which take up more than about 70% of the memory will not convert. The way around this is to load the files into MRC and simply chop them in half — delete from bar 50 onwards, say, and save the remainder as a new file, then repeat the process, this time deleting the first 50 bars and saving the remainder as a new file. The result is two smaller files which should both convert without problems. At the other end, load them into the destination sequencer and merge them together again (at the relevant bars) to get the sequence back to its original state.

A Remote Possibility

When the MC50 is synced to tape you have to hit Play every time you stop and start the tape. Unless you have a remote control for your multitrack, or the latter is situated right next to the sequencer, this can be quite a pain in the neck, particularly when doing drop‑ins with an impatient vocalist, as you keep having to run across the room to hit Play. However, if you have anything nearer your multitrack which can transmit MIDI start messages, you can 'hit play' automatically. To do this:

  • Save your song to disk (making sure that it is in Tape Sync mode first) and then load in the Super‑MRP performance software (which also resides in the MC50's ROM).
  • Go to the 'configuration' menu and call up the first page (by hitting Enter).
  • Select your song using the Alpha wheel followed by Enter, then bring up the second page (Press 'Mode', then hit '2' followed by Enter).
  • Turn 'Remote' to 'On' and then go into play mode (Mode, '1', Enter).
  • You now need to find your 'remote control'. Anything capable of transmitting the aforementioned start message will do. I used a MIDItemp PMM88 MIDI patchbay, but most synths with on‑board 'notepad' sequencers will send them. Alternatively, you could use a MIDI remote controller, such as the Friendchip KAT, or the programmable buttons found on some of the newer mixing desks, such as Allen & Heath's GS3. You can check that the MC50 is receiving your start message, as the green light on the play button comes on when it receives it. Once discovered, this particular simple function will make your life about a million times easier when doing tape drop‑ins.