Roland TR909 and MSQ-700
Rhythm Composer and Digital Keyboard Recorder
A matching analogue/digital drum-machine and digital keyboard recorder come under the gaze of Dan Goldstein and Geoff Twigg.
Roland were one of the first electronic musical instrument manufacturers to realise the potential inherent in running a drum-machine in sync with a sequencer, and the first to help that potential become reality by producing devices that were designed specifically to work in tandem.
Now that design has taken a further step nearer complete integration with the introduction of the TR909 rhythm composer and the MSQ-700 digital polyphonic sequencer, two machines that share not only common aesthetics, design philosophies and modes of operation, but also complete electronic compatibility thanks to the inclusion of MIDI in and out sockets on each.
Both products are now fully available in the UK, and Dan Goldstein and Geoff Twigg put the two of them under test in E&MM's studio.
If you're ever asked which drum-machine has appeared on more records than any other, whatever you do, don't answer with the word 'LinnDrum'. That honour goes to the TR808, the Roland Corporation's first attempt at a fully-programmable, multivoice electronic percussion unit. What the 808 offered at its introduction was a wide selection of mostly pretty listenable analogue percussion voices, a memory large enough to store more patterns than most live drummers are capable of remembering, and separate voice outputs that made the unit all but ideal for studio use, plus a price-tag about 75% less than anybody else's. Hence its widespread use as a recorded programmable rhythm machine.
However, very little is sacred in the fast-moving world of Japanese product development, and the humble 808 has now been augmented by the device under review here, the TR909.
The 808 also had two matching monophonic sequencers in the shape of the CSQ-100 and 600, themselves only recently deleted. However, the advent of the MIDI link has made polyphonic sequencers much more of a realistic possibility in recent months, and Roland have latched on to this with accustomed alacrity and come up with the MSQ-700, a 'digital keyboard recorder' with a memory capacity of 6500 notes, stored in eight memory tracks. As well as the MIDI and conventional tape sync connections, the 700 also incorporates a standard 14-pin DCB connector, enabling the sequencer to be used in conjunction with pre-MIDI Roland instruments such as the Jupiter 8 and Juno 60.
Measuring 486 x 105 x 300mm and weighing in at a mere 4.5kg, the TR909 is a prime example of how rapidly technology has made electronic instruments lighter and more portable, without compromising constructional quality. By comparison with some of Roland's earlier rhythm machines, however, the 909 does seem to be a little too light, its standard of build being not quite up to the level of, say, the 808 or CR-series. In fairness, though, none of the machine's controls felt anything but firm and durable, and it would be rather surprising to find that the 909 proved any less reliable than its predecessors simply as a result of a couple of pounds' reduction in overall weight.
A run-down of the 909's most important facilities was given in our preview (E&MM March), but just in case you missed it, we'll re-cap briefly here.
To begin with, there are eleven percussion voices to choose from. Unlike many of its similarly-priced competitors, the 909 uses digital sampling techniques for the generation of only two sounds - the crash and ride cymbals. All the others are analogue creations, and judging from subjective comparisons, it seems likely that some of them utilise exactly the same circuitry as their counterparts on the TR808. It's possible to program the bass drum, snare, the three toms and the closed hi-hat at two different levels, the accented one being selected simply by that voice's alternative Main Key.
There are several points worth making as regards the sonic quality of the 909's percussion voices.
The first is that, by analogue standards, most of the sounds on offer are of extremely high quality, while not unexpectedly, the digital cymbals are also very usable. The 909's clap sound is well-nigh identical to that on the TR808, which means it's one of the very best available, while the toms represent a considerable improvement over the earlier machine's, though on the debit side, the 808's higher-pitched conga option is not carried forward to the dearer model, which is a shame. Also missing is the clave (again, a higher-pitched version of another voice, in this case the rim-shot) and the cowbell, though there shouldn't be too many people who'll mourn the departure of that ill-tuned monstrosity.
The TR909 is perhaps a little lacking when it comes to providing the user with parameters for adjusting the preset sounds. As on the 808, the bass drum has user-variable tuning and decay, and in addition, the 909 goes one better by offering adjustable attack as well, though the effect of turning this control to maximum isn't particularly realistic or musical. The snare is also slightly more flexible than its 808 counterpart in having adjustable tuning as well as tone and 'snappy', which varies the amount of 'snare wire' signal.
All three toms have adjustable tuning and decay, while the digitised cymbal sounds are also individually tunable, so that quite a variety of different cymbal sounds can be generated.
The good news here is that the TR909 has dispensed with the plethora of multifunction rotary selectors that made programming and chaining song patterns such a drawn-out process on the 808. Instead, the percussion voices are selected by the sixteen pushbuttons already alluded to, while a bank of six smaller push-switches act as the prime function selectors.
This isn't quite as foolproof as it sounds, however. To select the open hi-hat, for example, you have to push both the accented and non-accented closed hi-hat selectors, which makes real-time programming of that voice more than a mite tricky. In general, however, the 909's layout is quite a bit more logical than that of its forebear, and once you've grown accustomed to the few idiosyncracies its switching does possess, programming becomes almost an automatic process.
To program in step-time, you select the Shift key (bottom-right of the group of six smaller switches) and, while this is held down, press one of the three Pattern selectors. You then press the Clear button at the same time as holding down one of the Main Keys to erase any data that might be stored in the corresponding memory, after which touching the large white Start button sends a red LED 'running' across the main keys at a speed corresponding to the selected Tempo. To select your required voice, all you do is press the relevant main key while holding down the Instrument Select pushbutton.
The vast quantities of red LEDs on show act as a valuable guide to the newcomer who might otherwise get lost during what is initially a fairly complex process. A particularly nice touch is the way the Main Key LEDs for accentable voices glow more brightly when they are programmed with accent than they do when loaded at normal volume. Digital readout of Tempo is also a vital prerequisite on an instrument where that parameter is programmable within each track, and the 909's LEDs are clear and easy-to-read. You can't really go wrong.
If you're playing or programming the TR909 from the keyboard of a MIDI-compatible instrument, interconnection is accomplished simply by wiring the drum-machine's MIDI out to the synth's MIDI in, at which point the sixteen Main Keys and their functions are transferred to different keys on the keyboard.
We used a Jupiter 6 in this mode and encountered few problems: the key assignment should in theory be identical for any MIDI synthesiser, that is a serial sequence starting with Main Key 1 assigned to the C two octaves below middle C and going up in semitones to key 16 at the D# of the following octave. You then program in exactly the same way as you would the 909 in isolation.
If you use the 909 in conjunction with a MIDI synth whose keyboard is touch-sensitive, the percussion voices can be controlled 'dynamically', which really lifts the sound of the machine onto an altogether higher level. Despite its analogue sounds, it can still sound pretty much like a real drummer, and that's saying something.
In addition to the MIDI connection, the 909 also boasts a fair selection of more traditional interfacing possibilities, including Sync in and out (you use these to link the machine up to the MSQ-700 sequencer) and a Trig out that uses the signal from the Rim Shot percussion voice, which is just about the sound most suited to this function. It's also possible to sync the 909 to tape in the conventional manner, but if you don't want to make use of this facility, the Tape in and out sockets double up as the interconnection for loading data onto cassette. However saving and loading is accomplished more quickly and more easily by using the optional M-64C RAM cartridge, which plugs into the unit via a small cut-out on the 909's rear panel.
The cartridge effectively doubles the 909's memory capacity, enabling it to memorise 192 different rhythm patterns in two banks of 96. It also enables the machine to store a total of 3584 measures in four banks instead of 1792 in two, which is pretty impressive going by anybody's standards.
Representing Roland's most sophisticated sequencing device to date, the 700 is styled in a similar manner to its partnering rhythm machine, but is obviously built at a different manufacturing plant, since its construction is primarily metal instead of plastic and it is subsequently quite a bit weightier (and sturdier) than the TR909. The unit measures 346 x 328 x 108mm, and weighs about 5kg, so that although it's forcefully constructed, it remains extremely portable and perches neatly among the keyboards it is designed to control.
A multi-function LED display screen acts as the 700's visual nerve-centre. Its design is successful in that it is easy to get used to and provides a simple check panel on all active parameters of recording, number of tracks, and so on.
As already mentioned, the sequencer's memory capacity is 6500 events, and like any other comparable device, these can be single notes or rests, but, thanks largely to the designers' adoption of the new agreed standard interface codes, the 700 can also store - within each event - coded information about precise envelope and filter settings, the particular voice used, and whatever performance controls were activated, so long as the machine is used in conjunction with a MIDI- or DCB-compatible instrument.
A small lithium battery conserves the memory and should last approximately five years. The memory can also be protected from accidental erasure by a Memory Protect circuit and its accompanying LED indicator. When this circuit is switched into operation, any attempt to over-write the memory is met with the message 'Prot' appearing in the display window.
Next to the Protect switching is a three-way mode selector, with positions marked Chain, Normal and Tape. Tape enables you to save, load, and verify data from the 700 onto an audio cassette; Chain can be used to link together as many as 78 tracks in any chosen order from the eight stored in memory; and Normal is the mode under which sequences are written and played back.
We used a Jupiter 6 polyphonic synthesiser (see Ian Boddy's review elsewhere this issue) connected to the MSQ via MIDI, and found recording a sequence to be remarkably simple. Having first selected a preset voice on the synth, you then move to the Beats Per Measure section on the 700, on which it is possible to select 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 8 beats per bar, or alternatively you can switch to Free mode.
If you're using measures, the screen display can be made to update information on each beat for precise-as-possible monitoring. There's also a clearly-audible metronome that can play continuously, only during Record/Playback, or not at all.
The next step is to select the track on which you want to record (using, astonishing though it may seem, the Track Select button) and then put that track back to the beginning of its memory by pushing the Reset button.
When you're ready to begin recording, pressing the Load key brings the message 'Ready' to the LED display when in Free mode, but if you've opted for measures, you get a count-in from eight instead: recording starts automatically at the end of this countdown, or as soon as you touch any key on the synth's keyboard if you're in Free mode. To get a perfectly timed end to your sequence, it's obviously vital to press the Stop button in tempo.
So much for real-time programming - recording in step-time is slightly (though not overly) more involved.
In this mode, you have to work out the duration of the shortest note in your desired sequence and select that note length - all the other notes are then entered either in the same length or as multiples of it. As with real-time programming, you must first select the number of beats per measure or, alternatively, Free mode, and then activate the Step/Load function. Several controls on the MSQ have more than one function in life, and at this point you press the Beats Per Measure selector again, this time to determine the shortest note length. You've got a range of different durations from which to choose, from 1/32 note to 1/2 note. You then select the track number and press the Load key: the 700 will now accept each note you play as a single-note event, regardless of how long you actually play it. In order to record longer durations, a Tie facility is provided as part of the Multitrack selector. This stores a further value of the previous pitch as a parameter of that pitch, thus saving memory space.
Once recorded, sequenced data can be treated in various ways in much the same way as on an analogue tape recorder. To begin with, there's the Multitrack Play option, which can start as many as all eight tracks simultaneously and run them in synchronised playback. If the Multitrack key is not depressed then selecting each track automatically cancels the last one.
Other possibilities include a Punch In/Out facility, Erase, and most exciting of all, the Merge facility. This allows up to seven previously recorded tracks to be mixed down on to a spare track, thereby freeing the remainder for further recording, and enabling the user to build up some extremely complex sequenced passages.
Incidentally, it's possible to 'bulk erase' several tracks, or all of them at once, by combining the Erase and Multitrack keys. The button marked 'Overdub' does not actually accomplish this in MIDI - instead it erases the track concerned. However, this function is totally operational in DCB, and, just in case you were getting worried, it's possible to obtain the same effect in MIDI by recording on a spare track and then Merging the two.
This system is well designed, and acknowledges several of the problems often encountered when storing data on cassette.
There is a simple Level Test procedure that instantly puts your mind at rest as regards recording and playback levels. In order to use it, you press the Clock Select and Save keys, and then press the Record button on your tape-deck. This automatically records your sequenced pattern on tape. Rewinding and replaying the cassette results in the message 'Good' appearing on the display screen, while a moving dot indicates the acceptable volume range. It's also possible to verify any file you save on tape, when a similar 'Good' or 'Err' message is displayed. Once you've established cassette files, you can load a specific file by writing in the appropriate number - if no number is given, the MSQ simply loads the next complete file on the cassette: transmission speed is approximately 3200baud.
There's no doubt that the MSQ-700 is a pretty versatile device, capable of playing extended, non-repeating pieces of music and thereby extending the versatility of the user's electronic keyboard range considerably.
Its memory is a little larger than that of competing models like Sequential Circuits' Model 64, for instance, but, on the other hand - and assuming you already have a Commodore 64 microcomputer - that sequencer only costs £185. In this context, the 700's RRP of £850 is a little on the high side, though only time will tell how much it eventually sells for in the shops.
However, what may well tip the balance in the Roland's favour is the fact that it incorporates rather more in the way of interconnection possibilities than a simple MIDI in and out. The 700's designers have made what we consider to be a highly laudable decision in opting to include previous interconnection standards into the sequencer's make-up: if only other manufacturers were more considerate in allowing for the fact that only a few - rather fortunate - individuals are in a position where they can equip themselves with the very latest technology in all departments of their instrument set-up. It's perfectly conceivable therefore that many musicians may opt for the MSQ in preference to other sequencers simply because it allows them to make use of its facilities in conjunction with their existing synth(s), before they are able to consider purchasing a MIDI-compatible keyboard.
The same sort of case can be made for the TR909, though it is slightly less convincing in this context.
There are considerable numbers of musicians who are not particularly enamoured of the aural effects of sampled rhythm machines, preferring traditional analogue sounds, and it is these people who will find the 909 most appealing, since it is capable of producing the very best analogue percussion voices available while at the same time offering a digital version of the one sound analogue techniques never quite seem to be able to manage with any conviction - the cymbal.
Operating the unit is a considerably easier task than it was on the earlier TR808, yet musicians used to that instrument will find adapting to the 909 a relatively painless exercise, since its control layout is essentially similar.
Many may argue that Roland could have made a better job of their top-of-the-line rhythm machine by making a complete break with tradition and giving the TR909 all sampled sounds, but, as with the MSQ-700, they would then have run the risk of alienating users brought up on their earlier products - an important factor rarely afforded the attention it deserves by manufacturers' R&D departments.
In any case, it could equally be argued that the incorporation of MIDI connections has made the 909 as up-to-date as it needs to be, particularly when the same company is also manufacturing a superbly-equipped sequencing device to go with it.
RRPs of these new instruments are £995 for the TR909 programmable rhythm composer and £850 for the MSQ-700 digital keyboard recorder.
Further information on both products is obtainable from the British importers, Roland (UK), (Contact Details).
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