History By Numbers
A Re-Review Of The Roland MC4 Microcomposer
...But let us not forget what went before. Steve Howell again, on the machine that introduced the world to recording music by punching in a set of numbers. It's still usable today.
As Roland's current MC500 makes its way toward the status of industry standard, we look back at the machine that introduced the world to recording music on a calculator keypad.
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER. Here I am, taking a nostalgic look at an old trusted friend of mine, the Roland MC4 MicroComposer, while elsewhere in this issue you'll find me waxing profound over the same company's wunderkind, the MC500.
What's the connection? Simple, really. Both machines are sophisticated digital sequencers controlled by microprocessors, and both allow their users to program complex music.
The difference is that the MC4 is designed to control monophonic CV/Gate synths while the MC500 is designed to be used with MIDI synths. Apart from that, these two machines are essentially the same beast. What is curious, though, is that to my knowledge, this is the first review of the MC4 to appear in a magazine.
But the MC4 is old technology, no doubt about it. So why write a piece on it now? Well, just in case you didn't already know it, there's still a lot of life left in monophonic CV/Gate synths, especially modular synthesisers which have no contemporary equivalent. And because the secondhand market for this generation of machine is hardly buoyant, it might be worth your while to hang on to that trusty old monosynth rather than lose a lot of money selling it.
So the MC4 becomes an attractive proposition - more so when you consider its current market value. When it first appeared at the start of the decade, you wouldn't have got much change from £3000 for the whole system; nowadays, you can buy one brand-new for £300. Secondhand, I've seen them for as little as £100.
History. In the beginning there was the first MicroComposer, the MC8. It was a powerful if overly complex eight-channel sequencer designed primarily for Roland's mega modular synth system, the System 700.
The MC8 begat the MC4, a slightly scaled-down but much friendlier four-channel version which, in turn, spawned a more compact machine called the MC202 back in 1983. Strangely enough, the MC4 is far simpler to use than the MC202, as it is not endowed with vast numbers of multi-function switches. On the MC4, each switch has its own purpose depending on the mode you are in.
While the MC202 - with its built-in, SH101-derived synth section and low (350) asking price - soon became popular with home studio owners, it was the MC4 that caught the imagination of the serious synth programmer and composer. For most of its production life, it reigned supreme in the facilities it offered for digital sequence recording, and in the ease with which they could be used.
BEFORE WE GO on to see what the MC4 has to offer, let's see how it works.
Basically, the MC4 has three modes of operation, selected by a sprung toggle switch located above the rotary tempo control. These modes are Play, Edit/Data Entry and CMT. The first two are fairly self-explanatory, while CMT mode is for data transfer to and from cassette. The MC4's calculator-style keypad (also a feature of the MC8 and MC500) performs a different set of functions for each mode. When you turn the thing on, a large fluorescent display shows the timebase, the quarter-note step and gate time. The default values are 120,30, 15, but these can be changed by entering new numbers on the keypad; in practice, readings of 96,48,24 or 96,24,12 are the most useful. The next display "page" shows the default tempo of 100 BPM, and this can be changed from the keypad or by using the rotary tempo control.
"A second CV is used to open and close a synth's VCF and/or VCA for dynamics, breathing life into music in a way unmatched by any more recent system."
The next page brings you on to the data entry side of things. You can choose from a number of different methods of data entry, these are selected using the shift button and simultaneously pressing a number on the keypad - the 'shift map' to the left of the keypad shows you where you are, as a little LED lights up to indicate which method you've selected.
The first option involves entering data in real-time using a suitable keyboard. This "records" your performance, warts and all. Linked to this method is a "Gate Rewrite" function that allows you to input timing data by simply tapping any note on your connected keyboard. This can be useful for correcting timing discrepancies entered in real time, but alternatively, you can enter pitch data in step time and then input the timing data manually.
You can also enter data totally in step-time by inputting pitch data, which can be done either from an external music keyboard or by typing in numeric data from the MC4's keypad. You can then type in note length (gate time) equivalent to the previous note plus the length of the rest, and give that note a short or normal step-time value (see Figure 1). Alternatively, you can enter a dummy note and turn it off by giving it a step time of zero.
One of the real beauties of the MC4, though, is that you can switch from one mode of data entry to another at any point. You could enter four bars in real-time, the next eight in step-time, the next two in real-time and the last two by entering the pitch data in step-time and the timing data in Gate Rewrite.
In other areas, though, the MC4 shows signs of age. For example, it doesn't have a quantise feature (common to most modern-day sequencers) to auto-correct any inaccuracies in your recorded music. But you can tidy up timing errors either in Gate Rewrite or by typing in new data on the keypad.
The MC4 is essentially a four-channel sequencer that enables you to play up to four synths at once, each playing a separate part. But each channel has two CV (Control Voltage) outputs. Normally, the second CV is used to open and close a synth's VCF and/or VCA for dynamics. This can breathe life into an otherwise dull piece of music, and the degree of direct control you have over synth parameters remains unmatched by any more recent system.
The second set of CVs can also be used to "play" another VCO for eight-voice capability, but for true eight-voice polyphony, these need to be used in conjunction with the MC4's one-shot trigger connections (one for each channel), which masquerade under the title MPX. The one-shot pulse outputs can be used anywhere in your composition, and unless you're after the eight-voice polyphony, you can connect them to just about any external drum source equipped with a suitable trigger input.
So, a comprehensive system of ins, outs, and data entry. In some respects it leaves modern equivalents standing. In others, it shows its age - though the time it takes to familiarise yourself with this aspect of the MC4's operation is no longer than it would take to adopt the same process on, say, a Yamaha QX1.
ONCE YOU'VE GOT your data in, you can copy, insert, delete, transpose, repeat and otherwise edit that data at will. One particularly powerful (and useful) option is the ability to copy data from anywhere in your piece to some other point; this includes copying data from late on in a tune to a position much earlier. In other words, bars 25-32 can be slotted in between bars 4 and 5 with little fuss. Total control over the structure of your composition is what this feature effectively provides - though it's as well to have a piece of paper handy to make notes so that you don't get confused, as the MC4 is not over-endowed with helpful display messages.
"Its ability to calculate the playing time of your piece can be useful... you set precise timings by moving the tempo control until the display shows the appropriate time."
As I've already begun to indicate, the MC4 offers some powerful (if hardly up-to-date) interfacing facilities. As well as the CV and MPX connections, there's the usual Roland DIN Sync 24, plus Tape Sync (efficient FSK code) input and output. Inputs and outputs for external clocks - in conjunction with the variable timebase - allow you to sync the MC4 to practically any older drum machine or sequencer.
There's also a CV input for the tempo which, if controlled by a spare CV2, allows very precise control over tempo variations. Ins and outs for the external keyboard come complete with calibration controls and a Total Tune control.
Three years stood between the MC4's introduction and the arrival of MIDI, so you're not going to find any MIDI-equipped examples lurking on dealers' shelves. Roland, however, did come up with a couple of interfacing boxes that can prevent the MC4 from being made redundant by a MIDI system. Their OP8M, for instance, is a CV-to-MIDI converter that enables the MC4 to "play" MIDI synths, while the later MPU101 allows you to program the MC4 from a MIDI keyboard.
I've missed out some other useful features. Like the Tune routine that gives out a CV equivalent to A440 (assuming the VCOs are tuned to 8'), though you can type in any other note you wish to tune to. And like the MC4's ability to calculate the playing time of either your whole piece or just a few bars. This can be wonderfully useful if you're writing something for TV or film, as you can set precise timings simply by moving the rotary tempo control until the display shows the appropriate time. Interestingly, if you're using CV2 to control tempo, the MC4 will take any speeding up or slowing down into consideration and calculate the total playing time accordingly. The MC4 has an unbreakable habit of losing recorded data when you switch it off, so it's necessary to save the machine's contents onto tape. Roland made the MTR101 tape machine to allow this, and since it was a custom device, it could be controlled direct from the MC4 keypad.
The MTR101 offers a number of other useful little refinements over and above what you'd get from a standard audio tape deck. For example, you can give a tune a file number for later retrieval and, should you give a tune a file number that is the same as one already on tape, the MC4 will ask you whether you want to overwrite the original, so you're unlikely to erase anything precious by accident. When loading data from tape into the MC4, the MTR101 will search for a specified file number. Data transfer takes just a few seconds and is actually foolproof.
Not quite a disk drive, but certainly the next best thing. You'd be mad to buy an MC4 and not invest in an MTR101. You can save data onto a standard audio cassette machine, but it takes in the region of five minutes and is not always reliable.
THERE'S LITTLE POINT delving much deeper on what you can and cannot do a Roland MC4. Basically, if you can think of a tune, you can record it with the MC4, in the knowledge that the only serious limitation you're likely to come up against will be that of polyphony.
At street level, the MC4 could hardly be less fashionable than it is at the start of 1987, seven years after its introduction. But the music industry is filled with professional players and programmers who still swear by the things, people whose MicroComposers sit uncomfortably (but still usefully) among Fairlights, Synclaviers, and sophisticated MIDI production systems. At the time of writing, I have five MIDI voice units (synths, samplers, expander modules), a MIDI drum machine and a new Yamaha QX5 MIDI sequencer; but very often I'll do a whole piece on my MC4 and an ancient ARP 2600 modular system, simply because there are so many things possible using that combination which just can't be done using the modern gear.
Tomita, Hans Zimmer, Daniel Miller, Tim Souster, Steve Porcaro and Dave Paich of Toto would probably agree with me on that.
At the time it came out, the MC4 was a major innovation, but (like so many major innovations) it was also a bit expensive. At its current price level, you'd be out of your brain to ignore it if you still have a CV/Gate synth.
And alongside the featureless hi-tech black visage presented by today's new instruments, it also looks extraordinary.
Retrospective (Gear) by Steve Howell