midi sound module
IN THE nicest possible way, I'm glad it's not my job to map out a marketing strategy for the Roland MKS7.
Briefly, this is a large box of sounds — sounds that are split up into four distinct sections: Bass, Rhythm, Melody and Chord. Each section can be given its own MIDI channel number and thus can function as separate instruments. You can think of it as being the sound-producing side of a drum machine, a small polysynth, and two mono synths all shovelled into one unit.
A neat idea, and one that illustrates the practical use of MIDI in immediate and (initially) simple terms.
But for £950 you need to find some pretty convincing answers to two vital questions. Why? And who?
As it happens there are two answers to the first question, resulting in the MKS7 having what can only be described as a broad-based appeal. The first concerns sequencers.
I think by now we all know that to hook up one synth to a sequencer and expect anything other than rather limited results is optimistic in the extreme. OK, so a MIDI split keyboard give you a bit more room for manoeuvre, and instruments blessed with MIDI Mode 4 give more still, but when you hook the MKS7 up to a sequencer, hitherto humble units like Roland's MSQ100 suddenly spring into life.
I'll confess to having tested the MKS7 using a Casio SZ1, but the results were impressive just the same.
The deal is this: the MKS7 takes care of the sounds. The sequencer takes care of storing and organising note and timing information — and, of course you'll need some way of inputting that information into the sequencer, like a MIDI keyboard.
Accessing each instrument section on the MKS7 is a simple matter of matching MIDI channel numbers with that of your synth. The MKS7 rhythm sounds default to channel number 10. Set your synth to channel number 10 and bingo!, a low spread of some dozen notes on the keyboard will trigger the rhythm sounds.
In fact you have 11 different sounds to play with: bass drum, snare, low, mid, and high toms, crash and ride cymbals, open and closed hi-hat, hand claps, and rim shot. These are PCM sounds; clean, reasonably powerful, and accurate. On the front panel itself are four instrument sections, or 'block' volume sliders, so the relative volumes remain instantly alterable. This applies to the rhythm sounds as a whole, though, not individual drums.
The Bass block contains 20 different bass sounds. These range from overtly synthy types to regular electronic basses, tuba, plucked bass, even organ. A ten-digit keypad on the front panel allow you to flip through the options quickly. Bass is monophonic only.
The Chord block on the other hand is essentially four-voice poly, though you can marry chord and melody sections for one six-voice instrument.
However they are combined or divided, there are still 100 presets to choose from. Some — the ones using Noise — cannot be played chordally. Other "effectsy" types are simply best left to the melody section. But that still leaves you with around 80 useful chord sounds.
I'd describe them as pretty classic Roland analogue types. Nothing too startling, but with good organ and brass sounds, plus some quirky synths, rich and varied. Once again, you call up the individual sounds using the keypad.
Bass, Chord, and Melody blocks all respond to keyboard (or programmed) dynamics. A front panel slider can tailor the response to suit your purpose.
Apart from a transpose button (semitone transpositions over one octave), MIDI channel button, overall volume slider, and chord/melody detune, that's yer lot on the MKS7 front panel. At the back you'll find bender and modulation sensitivity controls, bass detune control, Left and Right out to a mixer plus separate Block Outputs, and MIDIs In and Thru.
So far I've only dealt with the MKS7 as a box of sounds to use with a sequencer. It works. You can create perfectly respectable instrumental demos with individually controllable drum, bass, chord and melody tracks (provided your sequencer allows this too), and it appears far from difficult to operate. Mind you, I don't know if all the procedures for accessing the different blocks are that necessary. I simply pushed, pulled and tweaked this and that, and seemed to come to no harm. Procedures: file under Obvious.
But you'll have noticed that there isn't much control over the structure of sounds using this method of application. There isn't any in fact. For these and other delights you'll have to wheel in a computer.
Now I don't sport an MPU 401, nor an Apple, nor an IBM, but Roland seemed perfectly happy for me to test the MKS7 without the same — a fact which I interpret to mean they realise that MKS7 computer control is going to be something of a minority sport. However, should you be so inclined, computer control of this instrument allows you to edit sounds via its MIDI System Exclusive commands.
From the presets in their (in my hands) unalterable state, it's difficult to tell whether such scrutiny would pay dividends. I have to doubt that control over the tone parameters is going to turn this into a DX5.
As to the second of my two "vital" questions, asked some while back — who? — it all depends on whether you prefer to work with dedicated instruments like a drum machine and editable synths, or whether the thought of having everything under one, somewhat immovable roof appeals to you.
For the home recordist, pushed for space and, conceivably, cash, the MKS7 could be useful. However, such savings could only be justified if you are starting from scratch. The chances are that you'll already have some of the MKS7's component parts, in which case the savings are not that tempting.
For all that, the MKS7 remains an appealing if mystifying offering from Roland. I'm sure there is a market for it somewhere, but as I said, I'm just glad it's not my job hunting around for it.
ROLAND MKS7 midi module: £950
CONTACT: Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Julian Colbeck
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