Right on Q
The Roland MSQ100 assessed
MSQ700 owner Mark Shreeve assesses Roland's new budget MSQ100 digital keyboard recorder.
Roland were the first company to market a MIDI sequencer, the MSQ700, which at the present time is their top-of-the-line model. Roland also produced the JSQ60 sequencer which was essentially intended for the Juno 6, 60 and Jupiter 8 range of synths — all these models contained the DCB interfacing system which was Roland's first foray into higher level communication between synthesizers, until MIDI, in fact. Many people 'in the know' tell me that the DCB system is better than MIDI as it's apparently faster. So the JSQ60 was meant to placate, I suspect, all those people who owned and loved those three synths so much that they couldn't bear to part with them, but they still wanted sequencing power. At £250 or so, the JSQ represented excellent value for money — its total note storage capability being 2,500. It could even be converted to MIDI if the Roland MD8 Interface Unit was added — with one slight snag — the MD8 cost £260.
So now, for around £490 incl. VAT, Roland have given us the MSQ100 sequencer which is totally MIDI with no DCB connector in sight. The MSQ100 is exactly the same size as the JSQ60, i.e. small, or to be more precise 10½ inches wide by 9¼ inches deep by 2½ inches high. Underneath there are two magnetic strips which I found rather strange until somebody pointed out that one of the blank panels on the Roland Juno 106 synth was just the right size to accept the MSQ100 perched on top.
All the important controls are on the slightly angled top panel. There is an LCD to give the current state of operation and it has several different modes depending on what information you require to be shown. Next to that there is the obligatory tempo rotary knob followed by the Clock Source selection (determining whether the sequencer will run from its own internal clock, external DIN sync or external MIDI) and then we have the Metronome level switch — either high, low or off. On the far left of the machine there is a 3-way Mode switch used for protecting data, allowing new data to be loaded and for tape dumping/loading.
Further down there are four square buttons (the largest therefore most important on the control panel) which are Play, Stop, Load and Reset, although in the Data transfer mode they double up as Save, Verify, Load, etc. Next to these is a smaller rectangular button for repeating sequences — complete with its own LED.
The lower right hand section of the panel, under the LCD, is where all the fiddly stuff is kept, five more small rectangular buttons named rather ominously Multi Operation switches above which are six small and rather neat-looking LEDs which show which mode is being used for loading music data. Two of them are for Real time loading, three for Step time loading and one for Overdub.
A glance at the back panel reveals the MIDI In, MIDI Out and MIDI Out/Thru sockets as well as the DIN Sync In and DIN Sync Out sockets (nice to see Roland still including these), a ¼ inch jack socket for an optional Start/Stop pedal and two mini jack sockets for tape saving and loading.
There is also a row of eight mini Function Switches which despite their innocuous size, are very important. Switch one determines the type of Metronome beat, switch two determines whether or not Key Velocity information sent through MIDI is written into the sequencer's memory (this one is actually hyper-important because if you're using a synth with velocity sensitivity and you want the MSQ 100 to remember it, then the total note availability is reduced from 6100 to 4900). Switch three is for Bender information, switch 4 for After Touch information — again, if these are switched on then the memory capacity is further reduced. I found that the After Touch in particular used a great deal of memory. Switch five selects the type of information going from the MIDI Out socket, switch six determines whether the MIDI Out/Thru socket is Out or Thru. Switches seven and eight are mainly concerned with Tape Save and Load levels.
In use, the MSQ100 is fairly simple to operate once you've got used to the various functions that any one button has. For instance, when real-time loading, two appropriate buttons have to be pressed simultaneously — 'Load Mode' and the real-time selection of 3/4 time or 4/4 time.
At this stage you can also decide which measure you wish to begin loading on (therefore it is possible to load a long sequence in stages), this being executed by using a combination of the Reset, Back Measure and Forward Measure buttons. When you've told the machine where you're going to start, you then press the Load button, at which point the Metronome will bleep away to give you a two measure count in. After that, you're on your own to play whatever chords or notes you wish. When you've finished recording, you press the Stop button. A point to remember here is that the sequencer records up to the end of the measure in which the Stop button was pressed. The best way to avoid gaps at the end of a piece (that is, if you are using the Repeat play mode) is to purchase one of Roland's DP2 foot-switches and use that to stop the sequencer — it means that you don't have to frantically dive for the Stop button on the machine if you're recording a piece using both hands.
In the Step time mode this problem obviously doesn't occur, everthing is broken down to either ¼ note, 1/16 note or 1/12 note value — including rests. I must admit that I prefer to use the step time method as the first layer because it's obviously more accurate even if it does take longer. Once recorded, sequences can be lengthened and shortened, measures can be inserted or deleted — all of which are very useful features.
If you're happy with your first sequence line, then it is possible to 'overdub' extra notes using the Overdub function. This works in much the same way as it does on the JSQ60, i.e. it can only be done in real time. If you make any mistakes during overdubbing, then the bad news is that you have to erase everything within the measure where the mistake occurred — you can't just wipe out the overdubbed part. However, this is still better than the JSQ60 because on that you had to wipe out everything! The best method is to have the overdubbed parts kept on totally separate tracks (like the MSQ700) but the MSQ100 only has the one track, presumably to keep costs down. The fairly comprehensive editing features on the MSQ100 don't completely make up for the lack of separate tracks but they come close.
Apart from the measure inserting and deleting facility I've already mentioned, it is also possible to copy measures from one location to another which is a terrific time saving feature, I only wish I was able to do the same with my MSQ700.
When your masterpiece has been finished, it is possible to save all the data onto an ordinary cassette tape for later retrieval and amusement.
In conclusion, the MSQ100 is relatively simple to operate although it does take a little while to get used to the Multi Operation functions. The Liquid Crystal Display is not the easiest way of seeing exactly what is going on, but again it comes down to the question of cost. This sequencer is aimed at the market between the JSQ60 and the MSQ700 although it does have certain annoying (for me) advantages over the latter, particularly the editing features. I would say that the MSQ100 is ideal for people who own, say, a Juno 106 or JX3P with maybe a TR808 or 606 drum machine (these can be interfaced to the DIN sync sockets on the rear of the MSQ 100). 6,100 notes is a lot, but remember, you only get that if you don't require Key Velocity, Bender and After Touch information to be recorded. I find this strange because the note capacity of my MSQ700 is 6,500 whether or not Key Velocity is used.
Direct comparisons between the two new Roland sequencers would be silly, the best way of looking at it is that the MSQ700 effectively replaces the MC4 Microcomposer and, with a little stretch of the imagination, the MSQ100 is a very sophisticated (and polyphonic) version of the old CSQ600 sequencer.
There is no doubt that the MSQ100 is fun to use — I had it controlling a DX7 and a Jupiter 6 which produced some great results. I feel that it is a little expensive, but of course when you buy Roland you buy reliability, which counts for a lot.
For all of you who are frantically trying to get into the MIDI age, the MSQ100 sequencer would serve as a useful nerve centre for your spanking new MIDI system.