Roland MC500 MkII
With SUPER MRC Software
When Roland's forward-thinking design team made the original MC500 an ‘open’ system, they did users a favour. Built-in obsolescence became less of a fear, provided Roland stuck to their promise of future updates and upgrades. The release of the Super MRC software shows they have. It's available on its own for existing MC500 owners, or packaged with expanded hardware in the guise of the MC500 MkII. Paul Ireson keeps you updated.
When Roland's forward-thinking design team made the original MC500 an 'open' system, they did users a favour. Built-in obsolescence became less of a fear, provided Roland stuck to their promise of future updates and upgrades. The release of the Super MRC software shows they have. It's available on its own for existing MC500 owners, or packaged with expanded hardware in the guise of the MC500 MkII. Paul Ireson keeps you updated.
Roland's original MC500 can probably lay claim to the title of Most Successful Hardware Sequencer Ever, but since its launch two years ago the nature of the sequencer market has changed enormously. At that time, the computer/software packages that have put monitor screens in studios and home recording set-ups everywhere were all but unheard of, and there was little competition for the MC500 as the choice of a professional sequencer. Indeed, the fact that Roland have produced a new version of the MC500 is testimony to its popularity.
Now, however, the range of computer/software sequencer packages offering professional sequencing facilities is large enough to be positively confusing, and it is now that the updated MC500 MkII appears to make a challenge.
Having described the MC500 as a hardware sequencer, I had better quickly add that, although it is a dedicated unit, the system comes in two parts - the MC500, which has no software of its own; and the sequencer program which must be loaded into the unit before use. An onboard 3.5" disk drive is provided both for booting the system up and song data storage and retrieval. The advantage this offers over having the operating system held in ROM (Read Only Memory) is that software may be easily updated, which is in fact what has happened with the MC500 MkII.
The major hardware difference between the MC500 and the MC500 MkII is that note storage capacity has been roughly quadrupled to 100,000 notes. Everything else is a software update. The new Super MRC software offers more editing facilities and assorted other functions than the original MRC500 software, and doubles the number of phrase tracks available to eight, whilst retaining the familiar dedicated rhythm and tempo tracks. Basic specifications of the system remain unchanged, such as the eight song memory and the operation of the various functions. The new software may be purchased separately, and will run on an MC500, an MC300, as well as the new MC500 MkII; the only difference between its operation on the three machines being memory capacity. Consequently, everything in this review applies equally to all three machines, apart from comments related to memory capacity.
The only visible difference between the MC500 and MC500 MkII lies in the labelling on a few function buttons and, of course, the addition of 'MkII' to the name on the front panel. The unit's distinctive shape is given by the presence of a 3.5" disk drive sprouting from the gently sloping front panel.
Front panel controls start on the left with five track selector buttons, which light up or flash to tell you which tracks are blank, muted, or currently ready to record on. Below these are six tape recorder-style transport controls, and to their right in the centre of the panel, the alpha-dial and two cursor control buttons. For those who are unfamiliar with Roland's alpha-dial, it is best described as a continuously variable control for data entry. Whenever a function or parameter value must be entered or changed, either the alpha-dial or numeric keypad may be used.
Below the disk drive are two further groups of buttons, one for accessing all the various system features, and a 10-key numeric pad with an Enter button for executing edits or commands.
The rear panel provides MIDI In, Thru and two Out sockets, quarter-inch jacks for optional Stop/Start and Punch-In/Out footswitches, a Metronome Level control and output jack, and Tape Sync In and Out sockets for the MC500's internal FSK generator/reader. Keeping the hardware side of the MC500 all but unchanged unfortunately means that a two-line, 40-character LCD display is all you get by way of visual feedback. This is not really a problem in the environment of a gig, which is where a dedicated compact unit such as the MC500 is particularly useful, but for use as a serious compositional tool, something a little more informative is surely necessary.
The first thing you need to do after turning on the MC500 MkII is load the operating system program from the Super MRC disk supplied. Roland advise making a copy of the system disk (which is not copy-protected in any way), using this as your everyday system disk and keeping the original in a safe place. Very sensible, for as the manual says, any disk "will be erased some day in the course of nature". How true, and if only this fact was acknowledged by more manufacturers of computer software...
Loading the system program takes around 90 seconds, as does formatting a blank disk for use as a data disk. Song data may be stored both on your system disk or on data disks. As the system program takes up a large chunk of the available disk memory, the storage space available for songs is less than on data disks.
The eight songs stored by the system can be loaded from disk one by one, or created from scratch - which is presumably what you buy a sequencer for in the first place. It seems a shame that the song capacity of the original MC500 hasn't been expanded - one of the attractions of a compact, dedicated unit such as this is that it is particularly well suited to live use, but many gigging musicians will find an eight song memory a little limiting. True, songs can be chained together with the Song Link function, being rewritten as a single song, but this is not as convenient as having more available in the first place.
Songs are constructed on a parallel track, tape recorder-style basis. Ten tracks are available for recording song data: eight phrase (music) tracks and dedicated rhythm and tempo tracks.
Eight phrase tracks for all your music doesn't seem awfully generous at first glance, especially when you consider that some software sequencers offer 64, 200, or even unlimited tracks for your performance, but as each MC500 MkII track can record data on all 16 MIDI channels simultaneously, and different MIDI channels recorded on the same track can be treated quite separately, the eight phrase tracks are in fact equivalent to 128 separate polyphonic instrument parts. Not bad, I think you'll agree.
The rhythm track is generally the best place to start recording, especially as it's from here that the system takes its bar count and time signature for the whole song. Composing on the dedicated rhythm track is intended to be as much like using a drum machine as possible, as this is almost universally considered the easiest way to programme drum parts. For each of the eight songs up to 240 rhythm patterns may be created and chained together in any order to create a composite rhythm track. Songs may be up to 999 bars or 87,381 quarter notes in length - presumably whichever is larger, as I managed to stretch out one song to 2077 bars before I ran out of memory. 32 rhythm instruments may be used in the patterns, each instrument being assigned a three-letter name, MIDI channel and note number (eg. 60 = middle C). So, 'BD1' transmits MIDI note number 35 on channel 10, which triggers BD1 (bass drum) on current Roland drum machines.
Pattern recording is performed in either real- or step-time, in real-time mode, an external controller (keyboard, drum pad, etc) is used to enter all percussion parts in time with the MC500 MkII's internal metronome. Step-time recording presents you with a grid display for each instrument, showing the velocity values entered for each beat of the pattern. Eight velocity levels are available in the rhythm track, and values may be entered on the grid at the current cursor position using either the numeric keypad or alpha-dial. Generally speaking, I found real-time entry more convenient; recording in step-time was sometimes preferable, but it was always made more difficult than it could be by the limited amount of information conveyed by the LCD display. Besides being able to show, and therefore edit, only one instrument at a time, the display can show only 20 beats of the bar at one time. This is no problem if your rhythm pattern is written in 4/4 and the current resolution is 1/16th notes, but a bar of 8/4 with 1/32nd note resolution has 64 beats per instrument, meaning you can look at just under a third of the pattern for a single instrument. It's here that the better visual feedback of a computer monitor is sorely missed. Six levels of quantisation are available in both step-time and real-time recording, and the two methods of recording may be mixed when constructing a single pattern.
A strange problem, though certainly not a serious one, emerged when I tried to programme some rather over-the-top tom tom rolls in real time. When several drum strikes for the same instrument are quantised to the same beat, a noticeable flam effect is heard. It seems that rather than erasing the 'excess' drum strikes, as most sequencers or drum machines would do, the system positions all the notes as close as possible to the same beat. As I say, strange, but not serious.
Time signatures available are 1-32/16, 1-32/8, 1-32/4, 1-32/2, a choice that does seem a little restrictive for a unit in this price range. Steinberg's Pro24 sequencer program, for example, allows any time signature to be programmed.
Rhythm patterns may be copied from one pattern number to another within songs, instrument parts copied within patterns, and whole banks of 240 patterns copied from song to song. This latter feature would be a little more useful if only selected patterns could be copied from song to song.
Each of the eight phrase tracks can record 16 channels of MIDI data, simultaneously if need be, which makes up for the fact that only one track at a time may be recorded. System Exclusive data is recorded, as well as Note, Channel and Polyphonic Aftertouch, Control Change and Program Change messages, and Pitch Bend, of course. Both real-time and step-time recording are possible, and the recording options available in real-time mode should be enough to keep everyone happy. Time signature is determined by the rhythm track, and whilst in real-time mode the system may be synchronised either to a MIDI master clock or to tape (via FSK code). When slaved to MIDI, the MC500 MkII will recognise the all-important Song Position Pointers.
The facility to record several MIDI channels of data simultaneously is becoming more common on sequencers, and is potentially an important bridge between live performances and sequencing. It means that the spontaneous, interactive live performance of several musicians or a whole band can be recorded (providing they're all playing MIDI gear), using the sequencer as a kind of digital tape recorder, but with the option of carrying out some serious editing on the recorded parts.
It also enables songs to be transferred from one sequencer to another, regardless of whether or not they store their data in the MIDI Song File format. This was actually one of the first things I did with the MC500 MkII, transferring a song written on a Roland D20's internal sequencer. All that I needed to do was run a MIDI lead from the D20's MIDI Out to the MC500 MkII's MIDI In, sync the sequencer's internal clock to the incoming MIDI timing signals, and record everything on to Track 1 of the MC500 in a single go.
The four real-time recording options are Replace Record, Mix Record, Auto and Manual Punch-In.
Replace Record simply replaces existing track data with whatever new data is received, though only on the specified MIDI receive channel - if the system is set to receive only data on MIDI channel 3, only channel 3 data will be replaced on the selected recording track. The default setting for MIDI receive channel is 'ALL'.
Mix Record adds the new performance to the existing track data. In both Replace and Mix recording, either Count-In or Key-On recording may be selected. Count-In recording gives a two bar count-in, playing whatever music is programmed into those bars before the designated recording start point, while Key-On recording provides a metronome count-in of indefinite length. Recording starts at the selected point as soon as you play the first note of your new performance.
When carrying out Punch-In recording, the punch-in/out points may either be selected manually, with an optional footswitch or front panel Play and Record buttons as the song plays, or programmed in advance using Auto Punch-In. The punch-in/out points may be set either by bars or locate points - the latter are eight user-programmable points which may be set at any bar, beat and clock pulse of the song. A further two locate points are non-programmable System Points, and these are always the start and end of the song. As in this case, wherever a function of the MC500 MkII requires you to select a portion of the song, the section may be specified either in terms of bars or locate points. Despite the fact that I sometimes wanted a finer resolution than whole bar numbers could offer, I found that the system of locate points was not really the answer, mainly because it was simply not very convenient to keep programming locate points and then use those to designate a song section for punching in.
Step-time recording is also available, and is, well... step-time recording. Nine note lengths are available (corresponding to the nine levels of quantisation that may be applied to tracks), and the gate time of each note value may be programmed independently. Note length selection is, as usual, either via the alpha-dial or numeric keypad, as is note number selection (or you can use a MIDI keyboard).
Generally, the recording functions on the MC500 MkII are well thought out in terms of accessibility and programming, though a fair amount of button-pushing and dial-twiddling is required - an unfortunate result of the small display. Also, it is sometimes necessary to keep re-selecting the same parameters over and over, which can be rather trying. For instance, every time you enter Rhythm Pattern Record, the system defaults to pattern 1, instrument 1. If you want to keep going back to the closed hi-hat part of pattern 93, to re-write it to fit a certain part of a song, then you'll just have to select pattern 93 and the appropriate instrument number every time. Things like this may seem trivial, but it's surprising how annoying small delays can be, particularly on procedures that must be repeated over and over.
A general song tempo is set as one of the basic system functions for a song, in the range 10-250 beats-per-minute. The tempo track can then be used to record variations on this basic tempo. Recording is real-time only, with tempo variations being entered via the alpha-dial for smooth changes, or the numeric keypad for abrupt ones. Alternatively, the tempo track variations may be programmed by syncing the MC500 MkII either to tape or to a MIDI master clock, or using an external MIDI controller in place of the front panel controls to programme realtime tempo variations. Very flexible.
During playback, any or all tracks (including the rhythm and tempo tracks) may be muted simply by pressing the appropriate Track button, making it easy to isolate a particular part of a song for closer examination. Within each track, transmission of each MIDI channel may be turned on or off, switched to any other MIDI channel, and assigned to either or both of the unit's two MIDI Out sockets. Apart from muting any MIDI channel and allowing two different parts to be switched between connected synths without any re-patching or editing of synth receive channels, this means that 32 independent MIDI channels are available, 16 from each MIDI Out. I'm only sorry that I don't have enough gear to take full advantage of this wonderful feature!
Playback from any point is possible, the start point being set either by bar numbers or locate points. Setting locate points at the beginning of each verse/chorus etc proved to be a good idea, especially as they can be named 'verse 1' and so on. Shuttling back and forth through a song may be achieved in a number of ways. The song may be played at four times or one quarter of the normal speed, locate points reached in the time it takes to hit three buttons, or a start bar number selected directly.
One problem with shuttling back and forth in this manner is that by starting half-way through a track, the synths to which note information is being sent may not have received the patch change messages recorded earlier in the track, and so will be playing the wrong sounds. Pitch bend data can also cause problems. For example, if the last pitch bend message received by an expander bent a note one semitone up, and the pitch bend data has not been updated to return pitch bend to zero, then as soon as a new section of the song is played, the expander will assume that it's still supposed to be a semitone out of tune. All this can be put right, however, with the MC500 MkII's MIDI Update feature, which transmits all MIDI data except note info, from all tracks, up to the currently selected point in the song. This feature would be not merely useful but wonderful, were it not for the fact that updating is a little slow (around two bars-per-second). Like I said, small delays can be very annoying, so 15 seconds for the unit to update to bar 30 counts as a major irritation.
For most users, the major test of a sequencer's worth - after basics such as number of tracks, note capacity, and means of data storage - lies in its editing facilities. Any number of sequencers will record your ramblings, warts and all, but what they will let you do to the recorded data is another matter. The editing offered by Roland's new Super MRC program is certainly comprehensive - if you want to change anything, you can almost certainly do it, but for many changes the process may be more laborious than on other systems.
Editing is carried out either by selecting Edit (sensibly enough) or Microscope. Edit offers 15 functions which operate on sections of a selected track, functions such as Erase, Delete, Merge, Copy etc. Besides allowing selection of the track and MIDI channel to be edited, where appropriate the type of MIDI data to be dealt with or note range may also be set. It's hard to fault the MC500 MkII on the range of editing options on offer - sections may be copied from song to song, MIDI channels extracted from one track and moved to another, and quantisation from 1/2 through to 1/64th notes may be imposed on a track once it's been recorded.
One of the new editing functions introduced by Super MRC is Shift Clock, which allows a portion of any track to be moved backwards or forwards relative to the rest of the song, by up to 99 clock pulses. This allows the slow trigger response of a particular synth or sampler to be compensated for, or a particular synth part (or even every C#3 of that part, for instance) to be moved just ahead of or behind the beat for musical effect. Good though this facility is, such slight shifting of parts or notes works best with drum parts, so it seems a great shame that this kind of editing is available only on the phrase tracks, and not the rhythm track. You can always write drum parts on a phrase track of course, or perhaps just those rhythm instruments that you want to treat in this way, but it would have been better to see such time-shifting available on the rhythm track.
Whilst the Edit facilities all deal with sections of tracks, Microscope mode allows the events of a selected track to be examined individually, and if you can see it, you can edit it. Events are shown one at a time on the LCD display, and the alpha-dial or Skip/Reset buttons may be used to step through the events. Obviously, going through a whole track event-by-event can take a very long time, particularly if it's full of pitch bend data, but the View Field function allows selection of the channel and type(s) of MIDI data to be viewed, on or off for each of the seven types of MIDI data recorded (see sidebar panel). Even so, it can still be easy to lose your way in a track full of data, through not being able to see what events occur just before, after, or simultaneously with the event currently under examination.
The point of being able to see all this data is, of course, to edit it, and eight edit options are available in Microscope mode - five micro-edits and three S-edits. The difference between the two is that the former do not affect the step time of an event, and so do not affect the timing of later events, whereas the latter do.
My overwhelming impression of the editing facilities on the MC500 MkII was that whilst they are certainly comprehensive, they would be easier to use if only the user interface of the system was a little better. Roland have made the most of the LCD display but it's still too small, and the facilities of the Super MRC system cry out for more information.
The MC500 was a very good sequencer, and the MC500 MkII/Super MRC combination is better, but the competition has improved as well. Two years ago it looked a very good buy, but now it's hard not to think of what else you could get for the money - like a computer/software package that would be more open-ended, allow you to run voice editors, and probably still leave change for a flightcase if you insist on taking the thing out to gigs.
Nevertheless, the new software is excellent, and appears to be completely bug-free, unlike many packages offered for the various computers which sometimes seem to be tested for flaws by releasing them on an unsuspecting, paying public. This reliability will be an important consideration for many people. Existing MC500 owners need only purchase the Super MRC program, of course.
My main criticism of the MC500 MkII is that the amount of information that the display can show at any one time is too limited to do justice to the features that are on offer, and that's a crying shame. Adding an interface for an external monitor screen would go a long way towards making the system a lot more friendly (as on their S-range samplers), which begs the question of whether a version of the Super MRC software could be made available for computers?
The choice of a sequencer is a very individual thing - small details about the operation of a particular sequencer will be loved by some and loathed by others, so a personal judgement on the MC500 MkII would be of little value. Despite my misgivings about limited visual feedback, this system is powerful enough to be the heart of almost any MIDI set-up, and if you're in the market for a new sequencer the MC500 MkII is certainly worthy of your attention.
Price MC500 MkII (including Super MRC) £1050; Super MRC software £150 (prices inc VAT).
Contact Roland (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).