Roland MC50 Micro Composer
Having pioneered the Micro Composer in the '70s, Roland reaffirm the position of the hardware sequencer in 1990 with the MC50. Simon Trask is fatally attracted.
Is Roland's latest sequencer - a budget version of the company's MC500 MkII which includes the MkII software and more - a last gasp or a new breath of life?
IF THERE'S SOMETHING quaintly dated about Roland's labelling of their post-MSQ700 series of MIDI sequencers as Micro Composers, it's perhaps because the term originates from a time when microprocessor-controlled sequencers and the act of composing music with a machine were considered novelties. Back in 1977 Roland introduced the MC8 - a microprocessor-controlled, eight-channel CV/Gate sequencer with a modest memory of some 1200 notes - which introduced the novel idea of sequencing music not from a music keyboard but by numeric entry of note parameters from a calculator-style keypad. Suddenly it was possible for someone outside an academic institution to compose and record music without having to play it - if they had around £4000 to spare. Nowadays, MIDI sequencers are part of everyday music-making for thousands of musicians worldwide. No-one today would consider that sequencers are revolutionary, yet that's what the MC8 was. Developing and releasing the MC8 took conviction and a sense of vision on Roland's part - somehow their old slogan "We Design The Future" made more sense then.
The MC8 wasn't a great success when it first came out, but Roland persevered with it, and within a few years both the MC8 and its cheaper follow-up, the four-channel MC4, made a major impact on the British pop scene as bands like Human League, Depeche Mode and Landscape used them to develop a new type of music based around synths and sequencing. With the ever-growing sophistication and complexity of today's computer-based MIDI sequencing packages, it's worth recalling that it was effectively the limitations of sequencers like the MC8 and MC4 - their "sequencer-ness" - which inspired a generation of musicians and gave popular music a new character which developed through the 1980s, specifically in dance music.
Returning to the subject of labelling, Roland's sequencers went on to become Computer Controlled Digital Sequencers (the CV/Gate CSQ600 and CSQ100) and then Digital Keyboard Recorders (the DCB JSQ60 - the company's first polyphonic sequencer, using their abortive Digital Control Bus interfacing system - and the MIDI MSQ700 and MSQ100) before reinstating the Micro Composer tag with the MC500 MIDI sequencer in 1986.
But while the names and the interfacing systems have changed over the years, Roland have endeavoured to keep front-panel access on their sequencers straightforward and to concentrate on operational simplicity and immediacy. Perhaps as part of this endeavour they've always kept to a modest complement of tracks - in distinct contrast to today's computer-based sequencing packages, which frequently provide more tracks than mere mortals could ever need. The latest addition to the MC family follows the MC500 MkII in having eight Phrase tracks, one dedicated Rhythm track and one dedicated Tempo track. The similarity is more than coincidental, as the MC50 implements the Super-MRC and Super-MRP system software of the MC500 MkII, plus some extra features. Only where the previous MCs (MC500, MC500MkII and MC300) had to load their system software off disk upon power-up in order to be anything more than a useless piece of hardware, the MC50 holds its system software permanently in internal ROM. In this way it can be operational as a sequencer within about three seconds - and you've no worries about getting to a gig and finding that you've left your system disk at home. Still, strictly speaking it isn't a dedicated sequencer, as, like its precursors, it's able to load other Roland software such as the MRB 500 Bulk Librarian and forthcoming MRM MIDI Song File conversion software. However, it's still dedicated to one purpose: running a MIDI setup. But how well does it fulfill this task, and can it compete against the power and sophistication of even an average computer-based sequencing package?
COSMETICALLY, MUCH HAS changed with the latest MC. The rather ungainly appearance of the MC500, 500 MkII and 300 has gone (and with it the chunky buttons which have been a trademark of Roland sequencers since the days of the MC8 and MC4). In their place are low-profile buttons more in keeping with the new compact, streamlined casing and sober appearance of the MC50. In operation, these buttons have a satisfying feel, requiring a light touch which allows you to move around the front panel very quickly with minimum finger effort. Ah, the wonders of ergonomics. And at an amazingly light 3lb 15oz the MC50 is around half the weight of the other MCs, yet it doesn't feel flimsy.
However, while the appearance might have changed, the ingredients of the front-panel are essentially the same as on the previous MCs, including an alpha wheel and numeric keypad, 2 x 20-character backlit LCD, dedicated track buttons with their own pinpoint LEDs to indicate on/off status, tape transport-style sequence control buttons and Function, Edit, MIDI/Util and Microscope mode buttons.
The MC50's rear panel also provides the same features as the other MCs: MIDI In, Out x 2 (independently addressable) and Thru sockets, metronome output socket and level adjust knob, start/stop and punch in/out footswitch sockets, and tape sync in/out sockets. However, where the other MCs each have a built-in power supply and a standard three-pin connection, the MC50 makes another cost saving by using an external 9V DC psu. Thankfully there's also a cable hook next to the power input to help secure the cable (a feature which is gradually becoming more common) and a power on/off switch.
The MC50's tape sync is referred to by Roland as Tape Sync II, a reflection of the fact that it represents a significant development from the tape sync on the other MCs. It's still FSK, but unlike the sync on the other MCs it includes Song position data in the signal, allowing it to locate and lock onto any position on tape. In this way, when the MC50 is slaved to tape you can still take advantage of its ability to start recording from any position within a Song.
The one area where the MC50 loses out to the MC500 MkII is that of sequencer memory. The 50 has an internal memory capacity of approximately 40,000 notes, compared to around 100,000 on the MC500MkII and 25,000 on the MC300/MC500. However, as with the other MCs, a 3.5" 2DD data disk used with the MC50 can store around 150,000 notes.
THE MAXIMUM LENGTH of an MC50 Song is 9999 bars or 87,381 quarter notes, so you're more likely to run out of memory than you are bars. Up to eight Songs can be held in internal memory. Both real-time and step-time recording methods are available for the Phrase tracks, while editing can be at macro ("block" edit) and micro (individual event edit) levels. Maximum record resolution for the Phrase tracks is 96ppqn.
As its name indicates, the Tempo track is dedicated to recording tempo changes. These are measured relative to the initial Song tempo. Tempo changes can be derived from the MC50's front panel (alpha wheel and numeric keypad), MIDI commands (note number, velocity, control change or pitchbend) or incoming MIDI clock or tape sync data. Whenever you mute the Tempo track, playback immediately reverts to the initial tempo of the Song.
The Rhythm track is pattern-based, created by chaining together rhythm patterns which have been recorded away from the context of the Phrase and Tempo tracks (see below). You can copy the entire Rhythm track or individual patterns into any of the Phrase tracks, but not vice versa.
The MC50's Phrase tracks are like tape tracks in that you can record continuously into them, starting and stopping at any point in the Song. However, you can't start recording at a point beyond the length of the longest track. One way around this is to create a very long Rhythm track made up of Rest patterns (see below), save it to disk as a Song "template" and then load it back in again whenever you want to start work on a new Song.
"You could program a Loop to be a percussion breakdown section, and get into a spontaneous live percussion workout over sequenced backing."
There are four methods of real-time recording for the Phrase tracks: replace, mix, manual punch in/out and automatic punch in/out. Replace and mix recording can be initiated by either a two-bar count-in or Key On start (received MIDI note or sustain pedal message). Only Replace recording is available for the Tempo track, but as with the Phrase tracks this can begin within the length of the longest track and end anywhere within the maximum Song length.
Each Phrase track can record and store data on all 16 MIDI channels. The MC50 can record into one track at a time, on all 16 MIDI channels or on a specific MIDI channel, while you can disable recording of such MIDI data as polyphonic and channel aftertouch, controllers, pitchbend and SysEx. Additionally, you can set one or other of the MIDI Outs to soft Thru, and determine for each Out whether or not MIDI clock, All Notes Off and Active Sensing will be transmitted.
When you're playing back a recorded Song, you can mute and unmute the MC50's ten tracks in real time by pressing the dedicated Track buttons; the red pinpoint LED associated with each Track button gives an instant indication of mute status. Any combination of tracks can be muted and unmuted - if you can get your fingers around (or on top of) the Track buttons, the MC50 can do your bidding. In fact, it copes admirably with even the most manic muting - never a note left hanging. The one thing you can't do is sequence your track mutes; perhaps a dedicated Mute track would have been in order.
One area in which the MC50 doesn't score very highly is SysEx recording. It's capable of recording short dumps (individual patch dumps, for instance), but soon gives you a buffer overflow error if you send it a bulk dump of several Kilobytes. Realistically, if you want to send bulk dumps to the MC50 you'll need to buy Roland's MRB500 Bulk Librarian software (pity this wasn't included in the MC50's ROM).
ROLAND HAVE BEEN extremely thorough when it comes to macro-level editing. Operations at this level allow you to erase and delete Song data, insert blank measures into a Song, merge two Phrase tracks, extract selected data from one Phrase track into another, transpose Song data, adjust velocity data, change the MIDI channel of a recorded part, quantise note timings, change gate-time values, shift clock timings, thin out memory-intensive MIDI data, compress/expand, shift and reverse various types of MIDI message (compressing/expanding notes can lead to some interesting results), and copy song data. What really makes these operations useful is the extent to which you can zero in on specific sections of a track, specific MIDI channels, specific types of MIDI data and specific note ranges. For instance, as well as being able to slide the timing of a whole track in units of one MIDI clock, you can slide the timing of notes on a specific MIDI channel, even all occurrences of a specific note on a specific MIDI channel within a particular section of a track - very useful for rhythm parts. The same degree of precision applies to note transposition, so that, for instance, you could transpose all occurrences of a specific note - again useful for rhythm parts, where a conga part can become a bongo part by transposing it up a semitone.
Microscope editing refers to event-level editing. At this level you can modify, erase, create, move and copy individual MIDI messages (operations which have no effect on other MIDI messages), and delete, insert and modify the step time of MIDI messages (operations which do have an effect) in the Phrase tracks. You can also edit tempo data in the Tempo track at this level. Events can be scrolled through in either direction using the alpha wheel and/or the Reset and Skip buttons, and the MC50 plays notes within the selected track via MIDI as they are scrolled through.
THE MC50 ALLOWS you to record up to 240 rhythm patterns per Song and chain any combination of these patterns together to form the dedicated Rhythm track. Although the length of each pattern is one bar, in practice the length depends on what time signature you use. For example, specifying a time signature of 32/2 effectively gives you 16 4/4 bars (but without a metronome accent on bars 2-16 when you're recording). Each rhythm pattern can be given its own time signature in the range 1-32/2, 1-32/4, 1-32/8 or 1-32/16, while individual Instruments within a pattern can each be assigned a quantise value in the range 1/4 - 1/32 note.
Up to 32 Instrument parts (drum sounds) can be recorded within a pattern, using a mixture of front-panel and MIDI input. These Instrument parts are referenced to a "drumkit" which you program in Function mode, where each Instrument can be assigned a MIDI channel and note number, together with a three-character name. When the MC50 is recording patterns via MIDI input, it will only record note numbers which have been assigned to the Instruments. Similarly, when you enter a rhythm part for an Instrument from the front panel, the Instrument's assigned MIDI note number will be transmitted.
The upper row of the Pattern Record screen indicates the current pattern, the time signature, the quantise value of the selected Instrument and the current position within the pattern, while the lower row consists of a series of dots (18 maximum) which represent steps in the pattern. You can use the cursor left/right buttons to scroll in either direction through all the steps in the pattern.
To enter a "hit" at a particular step, you select the relevant step and then press one of buttons 1-8 on the MC50's numeric keypad. The relevant number is entered in the display at that step and the Instrument's MIDI note number is transmitted when the step plays. The 1-8 number refers to a velocity code which is defined under Function four, where you can assign an actual MIDI velocity amount to each of eight velocity codes.
Front-panel pattern recording can be performed whether the MC50 is running or stopped. To activate real-time loop record mode you hold down the Shift button and press Play. You can then record all your Instrument parts in real-time from a MIDI instrument, and/or enter Instrument parts individually "outside" of real time in the manner described above (a manner akin to that used by Roland on the TR808, incidentally - though not with the same degree of immediacy).
"Another useful Function allows MIDI transmit channels within each track to be converted in real time during Song play."
Individual hits can be erased by pressing the zero button on the numeric keypad at the relevant Instrument step, while their volume levels can be adjusted on each real-time pass through the pattern by playing the relevant note(s) again with a different velocity. It's also possible to erase complete instrument parts by pressing a sustain pedal on your master MIDI instrument and then pressing the key(s) assigned to the relevant instrument(s).
This ability to alter the volume of individual hits on each pass through a pattern, and to instantly "drop out" individual parts and then play the same or different parts in again, raises interesting possibilities for mixing sequenced and live performance. There again, the one thing the MC50 doesn't allow you to do is record patterns within the context of its eight Phrase tracks.
If you record into a Phrase track before chaining patterns to form the Rhythm track, the MC50 automatically inserts Rest patterns into the Rhythm track as you record. The time signature of these patterns is derived from the time signature of the first-recorded Phrase track. If you subsequently want to create your own Rhythm track, you can substitute your own rhythm patterns for the Rest patterns. The time signatures of these patterns needn't conform to the time signature of the Phrase tracks. In fact, the time signature(s) within the Rhythm track take precedence over the Phrase tracks, governing both the duration of the record count-in and the accentuation patterns of the metronome bleep. Therefore, if you want to record music which utilises changing time signatures, it makes sense to set up the Rhythm track first, even if you don't want to use any rhythm patterns in your music (each step in the Rhythm track chain where a Rest occurs can be given its own time signature).
In addition to a pattern number, each step in the Rhythm track's pattern chain can be assigned a velocity offset amount in the range ±99. This offset is applied to all the Instruments in a pattern for the duration of the step. As it will typically affect the volume of the Instruments, by applying successively greater or lesser offsets over a series of steps you can create fade-ins and fade-outs - a neat idea.
THE MC50 PROVIDES 14 Functions which, among other things, allow you to select the synchronisation source (internal, MIDI or tape), determine when and with what frequency the metronome will sound, name a Song, specify the recording area for Auto punch in/out recording, specify the area to be repeated for Block Repeat Play, set the initial tempo of a Song, specify up to eight Locate points which can be jumped to (so that you can quickly move to the second chorus or the third verse in your song), and create a memo of up to 99 lines (16 characters each) for all Songs (you could use this as a glorified track sheet, indicating what instruments and sounds should be assigned to each MIDI channel on each Out). Function 11 allows you to define for each Phrase track which MIDI Out(s) the track's data will be transmitted from. Having independently addressable MIDI Outs means that you've effectively got 32 MIDI channels to play with. Another useful Function allows MIDI transmit channels within each track to be converted in real time during Song play, so that for instance the part in track four which is playing a bass sound on one MIDI instrument on channel six could be tried out on another instrument which is receiving on channel eight. This Function also allows you to disable specific MIDI transmit channels within a track, allowing you to mute a specific part or parts within a track - definitely a useful feature.
UTILITY MODE ALLOWS you to delete one or more Songs at a time, check the playing time of an entire Song or of any section of a Song (with tempo changes in the Tempo track taken into account), copy the settings of Functions 1-14 from one Song to another, copy the rhythm patterns of one Song to another, exchange Song numbers (useful when you want to change the order of Songs in your set), check what types of MIDI message are recorded in a Song, erase rest data, align track lengths, and transmit a MIDI Tune Request message and note messages (all MIDI channels, note A4, velocity 64) via both of the MC50's MIDI Outs.
Disk functions allow you to load, save, delete and rename Song files and compare internal and disk Song file data. Disk utilities allow you to initialise a disk, make a backup copy of a disk, copy Song files between two disks (this adds files to the destination disk, whereas the backup utility deletes all files on it), convert a Song file created on one of the other MCs using MRC300/500 software to a format readable by the MC50, name a disk (up to 13 characters) or start up another system (restart Super-MRC, start Super-MRP, or load other system software such as the MRB500 Bulk Librarian off disk).
The MC50 allows you to store one Configuration file to each disk. This contains, among other things, user settings for what happens when you Stop (immediate or to end of bar) or Locate Jump (actual position or beginning of bar), what the step and gate times are for each note symbol in step record, what the gate ratio is, and whether or not the MC50 will update MIDI parameters after fast forwarding or rewinding through a Song.
WHEN YOU SELECT the MC50's Super-MRP software instead of its Super-MRC sequencing software, you can create up to 26 Song Banks, each of which consists of a sequence of up to 32 Song files. The total Song data within a Bank mustn't exceed the MC50's internal memory capacity, as all the Song files within a Bank will be loaded together (the MC50 can't load while playing). The idea behind this Song-chaining facility, of course, is to provide a means of automating a live set, with all the Songs (or as many as possible) loaded into the memory and pre-organised in the order you want them in.
With a Pause mark inserted between sequence steps, the MC50 pauses at the end of each Song and waits for you to start the next Song. Alternatively you can specify a fixed time interval (0-240 seconds) or a two-bar metronome count-in between any two successive Songs. If a Song is given a Loop mark, the MC50 will repeatedly play an area in the Song (specified by the Block Repeat Function) until you press a footswitch connected to the Punch in/out socket, when it will play to the end of the loop and then continue through the rest of the Song. Pressing the footswitch while you're outside of the loop (before or after) causes the MC50 to jump to the beginning of the loop and start playing from there. You could, for instance, program the loop to be a percussion breakdown section, and get into a spontaneous live percussion workout over a sequenced backing. Talking of spontaneity, you can also do live mixes of the Songs by dropping MC50 tracks in and out from the sequencer's front panel. Overall, however, the MRP aspect of the MC50 typifies the "pre-conceived" approach adopted by many sequencers.
ROLAND'S NEW PRODUCT News brochure for Spring 1990 referred to the MC50 as being "destined to be the leading product in a new generation of Micro Composers". Which is strange, because if anything the MC50 represents the culmination of the generation which began with the MC500. As such it's an extremely well thought-out and well-designed sequencer which concentrates on what's important and necessary in implementing the tape recorder/drum machine model of sequencing, and presents it in an accessible, friendly and consistent manner. All in all the MC50 is a real pleasure to use.
Price £549 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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