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Roland MC500 MicroComposer

This long-awaited successor to Roland's evergreen MSQ700 sequencer offers increased song and note capacity, 'microscopic' editing of every single MIDI command and stores both music and rhythm tracks to 3.5 inch disks. Mark Jenkins fills in the details.

At last! Roland release a successor to their widely-used MSQ700 MIDI sequencer which Mark Jenkins describes as 'laughably wonderful".

Whatever you may think of 'computerised' music and its supposedly 'inhuman' feel, it's certain that Roland's computer-based MicroComposer devices have seen very heavy use over the last few years. From the innovative MC8 to the MC4 and MSQ700, these compact polyphonic sequencers have revolutionised music-making both in terms of extending performance possibilities and speeding up production of conventional pieces.

The latest MicroComposer to appear, the MC500, draws heavily on the MSQ700 for its inspiration, but rectifies many of that model's faults. For instance, a capacity of 6,500 notes divided between eight patterns was quite acceptable, but only being able to compose one song from these patterns was exceedingly limiting. We all know that the limitations of instrument design are often put there for political or marketing reasons, but it's taken quite a while to see those of the MSQ700 transcended on the MC500.

So what are the main advantages of the MC500? Built-in disk drive, 27,000 note internal capacity trebled on each disk, real-time and step-time composing and 'microscope' editing of every MIDI event, Alpha Dial editing for easy parameter access, plus a whole stack more.

Of course, the price to be paid for this expanded capacity is expanded complexity to some extent, although function labelling and data display on the MC500 is pretty clear. But without the benefit of a full set of handbooks, it wasn't easy for me to get all the way into the MC500 - I'd estimate about 80% penetration, as the barmaid said to the... but that's enough of that!


Let's look at the MC500's control panel in a logical manner. On the left are five Track Selectors, the first referring to a Rhythm Track for recording drum machine data. Five tracks may seem a step back from the MSQ700's eight, but on the MC500, MIDI on all 16 channels can be selectively edited after it has been merged, so the potential of the machine is much expanded.

Under the track selectors are five tape recorder-like buttons for Reset, Skip, Record/Load, Pause, Stop and Play/Save. The Alpha Dial comes next - as on the Alpha Juno synths, it's a continuously rotating wheel which calls up new parameters in Edit mode and alters their value in Value mode. Economical and, although not the fastest system to use, certainly one of the simplest.

Next come the Tie/Rest buttons for entering music in step-time. These have another function too, being marked Up and Down for use in incrementing various parameters. Six buttons marked MIDI, Edit, Func(tion), Microscope, Mode, Available Memory and Shift follow on. Most of these buttons have several alternative functions which are selected by rotating the Alpha Dial after hitting the appropriate button. 'MIDI', for instance, has no fewer than twelve options, the first eight referring to the Receive Channel. These are: Channel Number, Poly After-touch, Control Change A, Control Change B, Prog Change, Channel After-touch, Pitch-Bend and System Exclusive. The Transmit parameters are: Transmit All Channels (Output 1/2), Clock (Output 1/2), and System Exclusive (Output 1/2). From these we can establish that the MC500 has two outputs, and that the possibilities for selecting the MIDI information handled are pretty comprehensive.

'Edit' has a mere ten functions: Erase Track, Delete Measure, Insert Measure, Merge Tracks, Extract Tracks, Transpose, Change Velocity, Change MIDI Channel, Quantize and Copy. Each of these functions can work on any or all of the MC500's five tracks and you can set the start point and number of most measures for which you want them to operate. As you could expect, the MC500 shares with most micro-based systems the useful ability of changing MIDI channels after recording.

On to 'Func'(tion), which gives the following options: Sync Clock (Internal, Tape), Metronome (Off, Record, Play, Both), Song Title, Rhythm Velocity, Rhythm Instrument Programming, Rhythm MIDI Channel, Block Repeat, Auto Stop and BasicTempo.

Of course, the MC500 syncs to tape or MIDI, has a metronome (now with its own audio output), allows you to enter titles for songs which are displayed on its LCD, and allows you to programme tempo as part of a song. But there's more to come!

The 'Microscope' function uses the LCD display to show each individual MIDI event, allowing you to scroll through your recording (audibly as well as visibly) with the Alpha Dial and alter every Note-On, Note-Off, Patch Change or whatever - an amazing facility, and one which will come to the rescue of many a brilliant but slightly flawed lead solo. This sort of function, common on computer packages such as C-Lab's Supertrack and Steinberg's Pro-16, is unheard-of on a sub-£1,000 dedicated sequencer, and as such challenges even the Linn Sequencer (which is unobtainable anyway now that Linn have gone bust and been bought out by Akai).

The MC500's 'Mode' switch allows you to choose MIDI Recorder, Disk (Load, Save, Delete, Rename), Chain Play, or Utility (Initialise, Backup, Transfer, Restart), implying possible alternative software packages for the machine in the future. The 'Available Memory' button calls up the percentage remaining while also showing how many songs are in memory (you can handle eight at a time), and 'Shift' has various functions depending on the operating mode.

A ten-key pad with an Enter button on the right has C to B notation for entering individual notes; above it, the disk drive takes standard 3.5-inch disks including the operating system which has to be loaded at the start of each session. A new disk can be initialised very rapidly and the same disks are now used in the Prophet 2000, Akai S900, Linn 9000 and so on.

On to the MC500's rear panel, where there are Tape Sync, MIDI, Metronome Out, Footswitch Punch In/Out and Start/Stop sockets. A wealth of useful functions here, and overall the machine seems well thought-out and well constructed, although it's far from fitting into a 19-inch rack or any other standard form of mounting. In fact, it's not much bigger than a tape recorder remote, and could therefore sit comfortably on your mixing desk.


Like their MSQ700, Roland's MC500 is all about versatility, allowing you to mix real-time and step-time note entry, overdub, chain and auto-correct at will. But this model takes the MSQ's design much further, imposing fewer limitations and giving much greater capacity.

The MC500 allows you to remove any portion from a track, copy it, edit or overdub it, change its MIDI channel or alter it in any one of a score of ways, filtering out velocity and pitch-bend information to save memory if desired, and efficiently saving the end result to disk.

Unlike the MSQ, the MC500 allocates a special track to drum machines and adds an 'invisible' conductor track to take care of tempo changes. This track has many alternative applications too, such as recording system exclusive data dumps of synth patches (so you can keep your whole composition and the relevant patches on one disk or set of disks), and altering parameters such as filter opening through realtime system exclusive transmissions.


If the MC500 was £1500 it would seem a good bargain, given the disappearance of Linn and the resistance many musicians still feel to micro-based compositional systems. Who needs all those wires and monitors anyway? As it is, at £799, the MC500 seems almost laughably wonderful. Queue for yours now!

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Previous Article in this issue

The Shape Of Things To Come

Next article in this issue

The Ultimate Garage Studio

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Aug 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Gear in this article:

Sequencer > Roland > MC500

Gear Tags:

MIDI Sequencer

Review by Mark Jenkins

Previous article in this issue:

> The Shape Of Things To Come

Next article in this issue:

> The Ultimate Garage Studio

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