Roland MC500 Microcomposer
The return of the Microcomposer, featuring Tony Mills
Over the last year or so the computer-as-sequencer has become pretty popular, with dedicated sequencers such as the Korg SQD-1 failing to catch on (an exception was the Linn 9000, but try buying one of those now...).
So it's good to see a new contender in the cheap sequencer stakes, and predictably enough it comes from Roland, the people who started it all with the MC4 and MC8 MicroComposers. Ironically, they've revived the MicroComposer tag for the MC-500, probably because it makes its predecessor the MSQ700 Keyboard Recorder look less like a sequencer than a small piece of green putty.
To be fair to the MSQ700, it was a wonderful machine. But a few niggling problems such as low song capacity (exactly one song), lack of editing facilities and limited MIDI capabilities made it a less-than-perfect proposition for the studio and even worse for the stage. The MC500 takes all these problems and solves them quite neatly, for about the same price as the MSQ700 at its initial launch.
Apart from a 27,000 note memory divided between eight songs, the main advantage of the MC500 over the MSQ700 is a built-in 3.5" disk drive which holds four times the memory capacity and loads a new song in a matter of seconds. The MC500 also uses the new Roland Alpha Dial, which means that large numbers of alternative functions can be called up fairly quickly using a minimum number of controls.
Starting from the left we have five track selectors, the first of which is a Rhythm track which can be used for entering drum machine data. The MSQ700 had eight tracks, but they couldn't be manipulated and edited in the same way as those ofthe MC500, so the new machine is in fact by far the more powerful of the two.
Push-button controls beneath the track selectors are Reset, Skip, Record/Load, Pause (very handy), Stop and Play/Save. Next to these are the Alpha Dial and the Tie/Rest buttons for step time note entry, which double as Up and Down selectors for various parameters.
A bank of six buttons next, featuring MIDI, Edit, Func, Microscope, Mode, Available Memory and Shift. There are a few unusual terms here, so let's look at the options available via the Alpha Dial for each of these functions.
MIDI has 12 options;
Receive Poly Aftertouch.
Receive Control Change A.
Receive Control Change B.
Receive Prog Change.
Receive Channel Aftertouch.
Receive Pitch Bend.
Receive System Exclusive.
Transmit All Channels (Output 1&2)
Transmit Clock (Output 1&2).
Transmit Exclusive (Output 1&2).
Transmit MIDIThru (Output 1&2).
So the MC500 is clearly pretty versatile in the MIDI domain. On to Edit, which has the following options;
Change MIDI Channel
Each of these functions can work on any or all of the five tracks for any number of measures starting at any point.
On to Func, which has the following options;
Sync Clock Internal/Tape
Rhythm Instrument Programming
Rhythm MIDI Channel
Then onto Microscope, an amazing facility which allows you to step through every MIDI event individually and alter it, inserting pitch bend, patch changes, new notes or anything you desire — a tremendously powerful facility.
Mode simply allows you to choose:
Disk (Load, Save, Delete, Rename)
Utility (Initialise, Backup, Transfer, Restart)...
...while Available Memory gives a percentage remaining and shows the number of songs in memory, and shift has various functions depending on the current mode.
To the right of the buttons are a 10-key pad with an Enter button and alternative notation for entering individual notes. The diskdrive takes standard 3.5" disks at around £4 each (the operating system for the MC500 also has to be loaded at the start of a session) and initialises a new disk in a few seconds. And on the rear panel of the MC500 you'll find Tape Sync, MIDI, Metronome Out, Footswitch Punch In/Out and Start/Stop sockets.
So basically, the MC500 gives a vast number of compositional options and very large capacity. You can enter measures in real time, then punch in, overdub or add to them in step time or real time. You can compose completely in realtime, or in quantised real time, and correct small mistakes or enter performance information as an overdub.
Since all MIDI channels can be changed retrospectively and short sections can be removed from tracks or have their expression, patch number or MIDI channel changed, much of the heartache of using the MSQ700 (do I go for a short pattern with lots of repeats or a long, difficult-to-enter pattern with fewer repeats?) is instantly avoided.
The inclusion of a special track for drum machines and an 'invisible' track for tempo information is imaginative and potentially very useful — why keep three files for your sequencer, drum machine and synth patches when you can compose everything onto one disk? And the MC500's hidden abilities — such as storing DX7 and other synth patches and altering parameters such as filter opening in realtime while playing (using System Exclusive information) — make the mind boggle.
The MC500 really needs a long period of study to come to terms with all its abilities, but on a short examination it seems to have few limitations even for the most serious composer. A hit, and a large one at that.
Roland MC500 Microcomposer - RRP: £799
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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