I must start by confessing my affection for the Roland MC series of music computers or 'micro-composers'... from the original and revolutionary MC8 through the faster and cheaper MC4 (adopted by Daniel Miller, Tony Visconti and Vince Clarke among others) to their little brother, the MC202. The Roland micro-composers set a professional standard by which new products could be judged, but with the introduction of MIDI, the competition rose to the challenge well. The cry went out for a MIDI MC4.
Does Roland's new baby live up to its pioneering forebears? It is certainly a tasty bit of hardware - a chunky slab of metal and plastic 12in wide, 11 in deep and 3.5in high on its rubber feet. The keys are a good size and well-sprung, the 40-character LCD display is back-lit and easy to read and the 3.5in disk drive whirrs and clunks confidently when you stick the MCR500 system disk in it.
The back panel is surprisingly sparse. There are MIDI in, thru and two out sockets. In default these last two sockets transmit everything, but you can set them to carve up the 16 MIDI channels and sync information.
There are two foot pedal control sockets (for start/stop and punch in/out) and a metronome audio out socket with its own little volume pot. This cuts out the dink-dink of the MC500's internal metronome speaker.
The MC500 can be synchronised to tape using its own FSK code: there are two phono sockets to send and receive this.
Conspicuous by its absence is the famed Roland DIN sync socket. Sorry chaps, you can't run an old TR808 from the MC500 without another black box. The machine can send and receive MIDI song mode information, and only takes a second or so to pick up sync when you run it with an SBX80 or similar sync box, but it can't read SMPTE code itself. Pity. A MIDI out socket for each track plus a mix out would have been useful, but maybe too expensive.
The MCR500 program, the only piece of software currently available, turns the MC500 into a 4-track, 16 channel MIDI recorder. Plug the MIDI output of your keyboard (or other controller) into the machine and start recording. Stop playing, and in three keystrokes you can near your performance back - velocity, aftertouch, program changes, pitchbend and all. A few more keystrokes set the MC500 to 'punch-in' mode. Using a key or a footpedal you can drop in and out of record to correct or otherwise change the piece. The timing resolution is fixed at 96 pulses per quarter note.
I'm very impressed - I recorded a jazz musician friend (Adam Glasser from Zila) with wonderful results. The personality and verve of the original performance zapped back through a DX5 and an Oberheim expander.
So think of it as a MIDI portastudio. Record three parts, make sure they are on three different MIDI channels (there is a 'change MIDI' function) and bounce or 'merge' them together to a fourth track. Record more stuff and merge that. You can end up with 16 separate parts on one track of the MC500 each with its own MIDI channel, and then start filling up the other three tracks if you wish. But wonderfully, you can 'unbounce' a particular MIDI channel (using the 'extract' function) and muck around with it.
Illuminated buttons enable you to switch tracks in or out. I'd like to have seen a few more of these front panel controls - 'safe' and 'ready' switches for example. This is the area where a dedicated music computer can really score over a micro. I would also have liked a synchronisation selector on the front - wading through the menu for these simple practical choices can be a pain.
The edit functions are pretty well thought out: in addition to merging, extracting and changing channels you can erase, delete, transpose, quantise rhythms (64ths down to minims) and copy from section to section or track to track. Unfortunately you can't pull tracks back and forth in time to adjust feel, compensate for late-speaking synth voices or create echo effects. This was one of the great features of the MC4.
The velocity edit function is nice but it only compresses, expands, increases or attenuates the dynamics you have already played or entered in. I'd like to see it create crescendos and sforzandos from scratch. A similar edit function for gate (or note on) times is also needed. What else! How about a pitch bender editor or an intelligent MIDI harmoniser that adds thirds or sixths in a given major or minor key?
MCR500 step-time recording is not wonderful - too many keystrokes are needed to make fairly simple music. Much better use could be made of the available control set - MIDI keyboard, alpha-dial, cursor controls and ten keys. Some MC4-style software is promised for the future. Good.
The MIDI microscope is an impressive feature which enables you to dial through all events in a track and inspect every MIDI detail. Zoom in and change the pitch, velocity, duration or timing, insert extra notes or program changes, delete bum notes, all kinds of MIDI stuff. Extensive editing in microscope could get a little tedious however - certain simple things need an awful lot of key strokes and wheel twiddles.
The memory is pretty huge. Up to eight different songs with about 27,000 notes between them and room for about four times that amount on disk. It is simple to save and renew files - MC500 disk management is pretty nifty - and there is a competent utility program.
Unfortunately there's no facility to merge or append different files. This means you can't program a big work in small sections and stick it all together later - something that was easy on the MC4. It is possible to chain songs together in any order, but once you're in 'chain mode' you can't sync to tape. Dumb.
The MIDI facilities are pretty extensive — particularly impressive is the ability to receive and transmit system exclusive information for a variety of synthesizers — DX and TX patches for example. On Roland synths such as the Super Jupiter and the Juno 106 you can actually record program edits (filter or octave changes, say) in real time with the music.
There are two extra tracks: tempo and rhythm. The former enables you to perform and record a series of tempo changes using the alpha-wheel. The latter lets you write 90 different 32-voice drum patterns - complete with flams, and eight customised dynamic levels. A personal menu of drum numbers (Bass Drum 1 - 35, etc) can be set to suit your drum machine or sampler.
The patterns are chained together in a rhythm track. This is also the only way you can adjust the time signature of music already recorded on the four music tracks. Not terribly muso-friendly; I suspect that many people will prefer to program their favourite MIDI drum machine and then record the part on a spare MC500 MIDI channel.
The MC500 is a well-constructed and robust piece of equipment designed to stand the rigours of professional use. It has a sensible price tag. You can take it into a studio with confidence that it will sync to tape and remember all your programs. It exudes a confidence that many micro-based music systems would envy and everything fits into one small box. I'm sure that flight-cased MC500s will soon be zipping up and down the M1.
Real-time recording (and quantising) is great; step-time sequencing not so hot. Editing facilities are good but with a few omissions and the 'microscope' feature is admirable. Most of my criticism could be answered with some improvements to the MCR500 and more alternative software. It's a good machine, but competition is stiff and Roland will have to keep on their toes to keep musicians happy.
Review by John L Walters
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