While countless S/PDIF outputs sat dormant on audio gear, USB (and FireWire) ports became the real digital connections of choice on hardware. The Roland MC-808, the latest and greatest in the seemingly endless parade of Grooveboxes, is not the first one to incorporate USB. The MC-909 used USB, but only to transfer samples and MIDI data to and from a computer. The MC-808 adds a welcome software editor for the synth patches, effects and 16-part setups of the Groovebox's patterns, as well as a reasonably versatile audio editor for the samples that are loaded into the MC-808. The MC-808 is also more compact yet more powerful than its predecessor. Samples can be stored to CompactFlash (CF) cards as high as 1 GB or to optional internal RAM at a maximum of 516 MB. The MC-808 even has eight motorized faders that can control and record parameter movements for the level and panning of the 16 sequencer parts as well as 16 parameters per individual synth patch. These faders keep the positions current as you activate different patterns and patches, thus enhancing the Groovebox's greatest strength: live performance. The key question is not whether Roland has outdone itself again (because it has), but whether the computer-centric world has outpaced the need for Grooveboxes.
The MC-808 is a 16-part synthesizer/sampler and sequencer with hundreds of preset and user patterns that can be recorded in real time, step, etc.; strung together into songs; and remixed on the fly with the eight motorized faders, 16 track mute buttons and a 16-button rubber “keyboard.” All the significant buttons, pads and fader parameter grid are backlit, making the unit ideal for dark environments. The rubber keys are very responsive; you can play fast rolls on them with two fingers. There are 256 preset patterns, 896 preset patches and 128 drum kits — all highly editable and programmed to provide a complete tool set for popular dance music of all styles, both classic and contemporary. The respected Roland WX synth engine is one of the best for providing bread-and-butter digital sounds across the entire range of available instruments. And the patches and patterns cover the entire electronic-music spectrum, from tektrance and UK grime to nu-school R&B. Many of the sounds could be called trendy, but that's where the sampling expansion steps in to help.
CLEARED FOR SAMPLING
Including sampling in the Grooveboxes made them more legitimate workstations, and the MC-808 features the same sampling capabilities as the older MC-909, except with CompactFlash rather than SmartMedia external storage and a greater capacity for internal RAM. Because there is no hard drive, every time you power off the MC-808, you must save your samples from the internal memory to a CF card (or to the 16 MB of nonvolatile internal memory). Likewise, when the unit powers back on, you must load up the samples again. Roland does include a useful Load All function, but this is still a disadvantage compared with using a laptop.
Stereo ¼-inch inputs can sample directly from a mic- or line-level source, or you can load WAV or AIFF samples from a PC or Mac. This is an easy drag-and-drop process once the MC-808 shows up on a computer's desktop as a storage device. The procedure to connect via USB and to switch from USB Storage to USB MIDI (software editing) modes, however, is a bit convoluted, but in practical use, is not as complicated as the manual and software docs make it seem.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
For pattern recording and playback/remixing, the MC-808's hardware controls are expertly laid out for seamless work. But for digging into the deep synthesis and effects structure of the unit, the two-line LCD doesn't cut it. That's why the new MC-808 Editor software for PC or Mac is the greatest addition to this product.
With everything installed and connected properly, the Editor “talks” to the MC-808 and shows the current 16-part pattern in a mixer view with channel strips. Clicking on the Edit button for any patch opens a series of separate windows for editing the filter, amp, LFO, waveforms, pitch, patch name and other control parameters. Each pattern part can be treated with a compressor/EQ, two effects sends (38 multieffects available) and a reverb send with 11 reverb types. Also, a global mastering effect can add compression separately across the low, mid and high frequencies of the full mix.
Clicking on the Sample button opens the Sample Edit window, where a list of all the samples loaded to the MC-808's RAM appears in a bank on the left. For each sample, you can set start and end points (or a separate loop start time), fine-tune the sample and set the loop mode. Several extra windows — Normalize, Truncate, Time Stretch, Chop, Emphasis and Amp — open up to perform more intricate tasks with cursor tools. It's easy to then send edited samples back into the MC-808.
The software mirrors the movements of the MC-808 hardware, such as fader and pot motion, with seemingly no latency. Editor setups can be saved as computer files and/or sent to the 808. Just about everything the software editor can do can also be done from the hardware, but through the software you get much more immediate, painless and ultimately more creative results.
THE LAST DANCE
The Grooveboxes and other all-in-one workstations such as the Akai MPC series used to be nice alternatives to computer/software systems that were unreliable, expensive and a pain to manipulate in real time. However, all that has changed with the onslaught of great hardware-controller peripherals and more affordable laptops with solid operating systems. Grooveboxes are now more of a specialized tool for a narrow niche. The MC-808 is undoubtedly versatile, expansive and powerful. Its rugged, solid construction and layout of dedicated controls are made for live performance, which is its big advantage over laptop systems.
There is a definite charm and immediacy to creating musical phrases with old-school step recording. And you can record these loops to a DAW or sync the MC-808 to a larger MIDI setup. Still, the live-performance potential is the most appealing aspect of the MC-808, especially if you use the V-Link to sync to an Edirol Motion Dive.Tokyo video performance package, which can generate images from the MC-808's note and Velocity information.
MC-808 > $1,249
Pros: Excellent hands-on control set for live performance. Software editor helps unlock the potential of a deep digital synthesis architecture.
Cons: No Undo command in the software editor. Low factory-installed sample memory of 4 MB. Somewhat tricky procedure for connecting via USB. USB cable sold separately.
Mac: G4/867 MHz; 384 MB RAM; OS 10.2 or later
PC: Pentium or Celeron/800 MHz; 384 MB RAM; Windows 2000 Professional/XP