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ROLAND MC-909

September 1, 2003
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FIG. 1: With its healthy complement ofknobs, sliders, and buttons, Roland's MC-909 sampling workstation isideal for stage work, and it's easy to use in the studiotoo.

Some electronic instruments offer instant gratification, but notmuch depth. Some have features galore, but they're balky and difficultto use in a live setting (or even in the studio). Once in a while,however, a product comes along that sounds great and offers an amazingamount of musical power, while also being so smoothly designed that youcould take it onstage and lay into it the way Eric Clapton lays intohis guitar.

The Roland MC-909 is just such a device. The flagship of Roland'sline of Sampling Grooveboxes, the MC-909 is aimed straight at thedance, R&B, and hip-hop market. Its mouth-watering array offeatures includes full-featured sampling, a 16-track pattern/songsequencer, a turntable emulation slider, twin D Beam (infrared sensor)hands-free controllers, versatile effects, a USB port for archivingyour sonic creations on a computer, and a whole lot more. I didn't havea chance to test the MIDI control of a V-Link-compatible video system,but if synchronized video is part of your live shows, you should checkthis feature out.

The tone generator is highly programmable, and the sequencer is aquick and effective tool for creating multitrack mixes in the studio.The MC-909 can do just about anything an aspiring producer on a budgetmight need. It wouldn't be my first choice for recording and editingvocals, but you can even do that if you need to. And it's light enoughthat you can tuck it under one arm and take it on a gig. Don't befooled by the relatively modest price tag; the MC-909 is a monster.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

It's obvious a lot of thought went into the front-panel design ofthe MC-909 (see Fig. 1). The buttons are clearly labeled, andall of the important functions are only one click away, which is idealfor live performance. The big LCD provides lots of useful information.And while the manual is not perfect, basic operations are explained ina clear, step-by-step style. After only a few minutes, I started tofeel at home.

The factory patterns are inspiring and show just how radio-ready theMC-909 can sound. A number of dance and hip-hop/R&B styles arerepresented. There's even some reggae. In addition to 215 multitrackpatterns (mostly four or eight bars in length) the unit ships with 440single-track patterns (drum beats, special effects, and so on), whichyou can copy into your own patterns or trigger in performance byassigning them to the RPS (Realtime Phrase Sequencer) sets.

FIG. 2: In addition to its USB port, theMC-909's rear panel sports an array of I/O options, including MIDI,analog audio, and coaxial S/PDIF.

You can expand the MC-909's internal memory up to 128 MB withSmartMedia cards, and the sample memory is expandable to 272 MB. Needmore? The MC-909 can communicate with your computer via USB (seeFig. 2). You can offload your samples to the computer's harddrive (cheaper than storing them on SmartMedia), and you can update theMC-909 by downloading the latest operating system. The MC-909 won'tcommunicate with Windows 98 machines, but it's ready to go with Windows2000, ME, and XP, and with Macintosh OS 9 and OS X.

The external audio input on the MC-909 can be used for sampling, andit can also process another signal in real time through the MC-909'seffects. The left input can be switched to mic level. Although the rearpanel has the usual stereo headphone jack, the MC-909 has no cue mixbutton, so there's no way to audition its output in your headphonesonstage without sending it to the main outs.

The MC-909 is a real musical instrument, not just a studio tool(though you can certainly use it in the studio). It has numerousfeatures that let you change your mix or arrangement without stoppingplayback: synthesizer knobs and sliders, an interactive mixer witheight sliders and 16 track buttons, two D Beam sensors, a turntableemulation slider, and a bank of 16 Velocity-sensitive pads that can beused for several tasks.

Although the instrument has a song mode, in which patterns arechained together, you could easily play whole live shows using onlypattern mode. You can jump to the new pattern of your choice withoutinterrupting playback, switching either at the end of the currentpattern or immediately. Individual tracks within the pattern can bemuted and unmuted on the fly, making it easy to drop out the kick andadd a snare fill, add some chords or a lead line to the mix, and soon.

And that's only the beginning. Let's dive straight into theperformance features and then look at the music programming side.

TURNTABLE EMULATION

Located on the right side of the panel, the large TurntableEmulation slider is perfectly positioned to be played with a flick ofthe fingers. It has a light but easy-to-feel center detent, so you caneasily return to normal playback position. You can't actually scratchwith the slider, because the 909 can't play sounds backwards. But youcan push or pull the pitch or the tempo by itself or do both together.The slider can also be assigned to send Control Change messages such asModulation and Pitch Bend.

Tapping the dedicated Hold and Push buttons is equivalent toinstantly moving the slider to the top or bottom of its travel. Thesebuttons are good for special effects, and can be tapped quickly to lineup the MC-909 with a beat coming from a turntable or other non-syncablesource. The maximum depth of the slider can be set from ±1 bpm to±200 bpm. The slider can also be used as a MIDI modulationcontroller.

ON THE BEAM

The dual D Beam controllers on the MC-909 emit infrared light. Whenyou hold your hand above one of the controllers, the light bounces offyour palm and is reflected back. It's then sensed by the D Beam, whichlets you change the current sound by waving your hands in the air. Thetwo D Beams are positioned about a foot apart; that's ideal for playingone with each hand.

The D-Beams have four modes of operation: Solo Synth,Cutoff/Resonance, Turntable, and Assignable. The modes are selectablefrom a front-panel button; each mode has a few parameters that you canedit in advance. The D Beams can be switched on or off individually,but the Mode button affects both.

In Solo Synth mode, the D Beams work together as a sort of theremin.The left one affects the volume of a sustaining tone, and the right oneaffects its pitch. The D Beams aren't appropriate for playing complexmelodies, but at the very least, you're set for that Beach Boys medley.In Cutoff/Resonance mode, the D Beams control the filter cutoff andresonance of the sound being played by the currently selected part.This mode is probably most useful for mainstream dance musiceffects.

In Turntable mode, the D Beams duplicate the functions of theTurntable Emulation slider; it's showy, but you're not gaining any newfunctionality. The Assignable mode is more powerful: each D Beam canoutput all sorts of different data, ranging from MIDI Control Changeand Pitch Bend messages to arpeggiator octave transpositions,start/stop (duplicating the functions of the transport Play and Stopbuttons), and mute/unmute-all-parts commands. Being able to start andstop the music by waving your hands over the instrument goes beyondshowy: it's a little spooky.

PADDED CELL

Positioned along the front edge of the top panel, 16rubbery-textured pads have various uses for performing and editing.First and foremost, they're a keyboard for triggering whatever sound isassigned to the currently selected part. The pads wouldn't work toowell for playing a live lead line, but they're fine for throwing inpercussion and chord chops. Octave Up and Down buttons are handilypositioned at the left end, as is a Hold button, which performs thesame function as a sustain pedal. Most people will probably stand whenthey use the MC-909 in performance, so not having to horse around witha sustain pedal is an advantage. (In any case, the MC-909 has nosustain pedal input.)

The pads have several uses besides triggering single notes. You canuse them to call up the next pattern that you want to hear duringplayback; simply tap the Pattern Call button in the lower left cornerof the panel. You can name and store up to 50 of your own pattern sets,each containing a selection of 16 patterns. The setup parameters foreach pattern (track level, track mute/unmute status, and so on) can bedifferent from those stored in the pattern itself. This feature addsanother dimension of performance power. For instance, you can usePattern Call to switch among three or four different mixes for the samepattern. Sadly, your Pattern Call performance can't be recorded intothe sequencer.

Having Velocity-sensitive pads is nice. If you prefer a uniformsound, you can set the pads to a fixed Velocity at the global level.When tapped lightly, the pads don't always trigger, and there are noVelocity response curves, so you can't adjust the pads' sensitivity toyour touch. The assumption seems to be that you'll be playing loudmusic and will just want to smack the suckers. Makes sense to me.

Instead of Pattern Call, you may want to hit the RPS button and usethe pads to trigger 1-track patterns (bass lines, drum fills, and soforth), which will be layered into the currently playing pattern. Ifthe sequencer is in Play mode, the start time of the RPS pattern can bequantized, so you don't need to worry about rhythmic train wrecks.

You can name and store up to 50 RPS sets, and the MC-909 even has aseparate RPS mixer, so you can latch several RPS patterns and thenblend them using the sliders. Like normal parts, individual RPS trackscan be retuned in half-steps during playback using the mixer. Itwouldn't be very practical to transpose an entire song to a new keyusing this method, but it works well for turning a drum track into abunch of low-pitched crashing and crunching noises.

MIXER CONTROLS

All 16 tracks have their own Mute buttons that light up if music isrecorded in the track and blink if the track is muted. Because trackscan't be named, it's a good idea to get in the habit of alwaysrecording similar sounds in the same track. That's how the factorypatterns are set up with the kick drum in 10, snare in 11, and so on.Once you get used to the layout, cutting instruments in and out of themix is a snap.

Normally, when you switch to a new pattern during playback, theMC-909 mutes and unmutes tracks according to the data stored in thepattern. You can override this setting by tapping the Play button asecond time, which activates the Mute Remain feature. When Mute Remainis active, you can segue to a new pattern and retain the existingmute/unmute status of each track.

The MC-909 offers quick shortcuts for muting all tracks, unmutingall tracks, or toggling all muted tracks to unmuted and vice versa. Ifyou've muted all the tracks for a surprise BREAK, it would be nice ifyou could return to the previous mute setup with a quick command, butyou can't. After muting all the tracks, you have to choose betweenunmuting them all or unmuting single tracks by hand. Fortunately, it'seasy to do: press eight buttons at once, and all eight tracks unmuteinstantly.

ARPEGGIATOR

Programmable arpeggiators are an important resource for dance andelectronic styles, and the MC-909 doesn't disappoint in that area. Youcan program up to 128 of your own arpeggiator patterns. The patternscan be up to 32 steps in length and can include rests, ties, andchords. The details of pattern programming are not too well documented,but after only a couple of minutes of head-scratching I was able tocome up with some cool grooves.

Note Velocities are recorded into the arpeggio patterns, and botheighth-note and 16th-note swing are supported. You can set up theinstrument so your arpeggios always start on bar lines. Drum sets canbe used as a sound source for the arpeggiator, so you can improvise aconstantly changing beat just by grabbing a bunch of pads. Also, theChord Memory feature interacts well with the arpeggiator. Instead ofplaying chords on the pads, you can create one-finger chords in advance(up to 128 voicings can be stored) and then arpeggiate them.

SAMPLING

FIG. 3: The MC-909's large waveformdisplay offers a variety of tools for trimming and loopingsamples.

The MC-909 has nearly all of the features you'd hope to see in ahardware sampler, including a nice big waveform display (see Fig.3). Utilities such as normalizing and truncating are provided. Thestock unit has only 16 MB of sample memory, but as mentioned, you canexpand it to 272 MB. You can sample external sounds or resample the909's own audio stream, assign your samples to the performance pads,and use the full array of patch programming features to sculpt thetones.

While resampling a bass track that I had recorded into a pattern, Ifound a significant bug. When tracks contain recorded knob moves, theknob moves add nasty gargling noises to the sample. Many MC-909 ownerswill want to record filter sweeps into their tracks, so that isn'tgood. However, there's not often a reason to resample a pattern, soit's not a deal BREAKer. I alerted Roland to the problem and was toldthat it would be fixed in the next operating-system update (whichshould be available by the time you read this).

If you have a computer, you can load WAV or AIFF files into theMC-909. Keep in mind that computer backup is necessary if you install256 MB of sample RAM, because the contents of sample RAM are lost whenyou power down, and the largest SmartMedia card can hold only 128 MB.(Also, because you can't hot-swap SmartMedia, you won't have anybackups of your SmartMedia files.)

With either an imported file or one you've sampled, you can use theAuto Chop feature to detect transient peaks the way PropellerheadReCycle does. You can then assign each hit within the loop (up to amaximum of 16 per loop) to a new rhythm set suitable for recording yourown beats. The sample split points located by Auto Chop can be manuallyedited, and you can audition the edits while you're making them, sothere's no guesswork. Not too many hardware samplers are thatsmart.

SYNTH CONTROLS

The most important tone controls for real-time interaction (filtercutoff and resonance, envelopes, LFO 1 rate and depth, and so on) areall laid out on the left side of the panel. Each synth patch in theMC-909 can use up to four independent tones (such as waveform orfilter), so before grabbing the knobs it's important to glance at theTone Select and Tone Switch buttons. The red LEDs in these buttons tellyou which tones you're hearing, and which tones you'll be editing withthe knobs. By pressing several Tone Select buttons at once, you canmake the knobs active for any combination of tones.

You'll also need to glance at the Part Select/Mute buttons in theMixer section. In Select mode, only one of these buttons glows. Ittells you which of the 16 parts (tracks) the synth knobs are activefor. Only one part can be selected at a time; if you need to make sonicchanges in several parts at once, you must record the data into thepattern.

FIG. 4: Extensive patch-editingcapabilities are provided through the MC-909's front-paneldisplay.

A deeper level of patch editing is available in the LCD (see Fig.4). Here you can set the modulation depths for two LFOs per tone,edit four rates and five levels (not just ADSR values) for theenvelopes, choose Velocity zones for the individual tones, and more.The MC-909 boasts 693 waveforms, several filter modes, and 10 differentsignal routing structures, with which you can do tricks like put twofilters in series on a single tone and ring-modulate two waveforms.

You can even morph between LFO waveforms — a feature I'venever seen before. And of course, the LFOs can sync to the masterclock. Add the ability to do Velocity crossfades between drum soundsfor smooth changes in the snare or hi-hat, and it's clear the MC-909 isone powerful synthesizer.

The chief difference between sound programming in the MC-909 and ina conventional synth is that the effects are programmed and assigned atthe level of the pattern or song, not within the individual soundprograms. The assumption seems to be that you'll most likely be usingthe MC-909 multitimbrally to play a number of sounds at once, soassigning effects to individual sound programs would only getconfusing.

EFFECTS

The MC-909 has four programmable effects: a reverb, a compressor/EQ,and two multi-effects (labeled MFX). For the multi-effects, you canchoose from 38 different algorithms, including chorus, phasing,auto-wah, enhancer, auto-pan, rotary speaker, lo-fi, and a 16-steptempo-based slicer. The distortion and overdrive sound fairly crisp anddigital; the algorithms include tone coloring and an amp simulator asparameters, so you can get quite a variety of distorted tones. Thereverb is quite rich and smooth, even with long decay times.

The effects can be routed in series or parallel, and each of the 16parts (tracks) can be sent to any of the four effects inputs or routeddry to the main output. Parts can also be sent to Direct Out 1 or 2, soyou can apply external effects if you need to.

Each effect can be switched on or off with its own dedicatedfront-panel button. There are also three knobs for playing the effectsin performance. One of the knobs chooses the effect type, and the othertwo are assigned to useful parameters. You can switch the knobs fromone effect to another without having to open a menu. When they'reassigned to the compressor, because there's only one type, the knobscontrol attack time, release time, and threshold.

Speaking of compressors, the MC-909 also has a mastering multibandcompressor. The attack and release knobs are in their own section ofthe panel, along with a couple of switches. Other controls are tuckedaway in a page in the LCD. This compressor is global for theinstrument, and its settings are not stored with individual patterns orsongs. As a way of fattening up the bass, boosting the highs, or givingyour mix more presence, it's a great asset.

SEQUENCING

FIG. 5: Creating new patterns is abreeze with the MC-909's simple piano-rolldisplay.

Recording your musical ideas into MC-909 patterns is almost as easyas falling down (see Fig. 5). Patterns can be up to 998 measureslong, though for most of us 8 measures is probably plenty. After layingdown a part, you can switch to a new track and record another partwithout interrupting the recording process. If you want to practice apart before recording it, you can go into Rehearsal mode, again withoutstopping, and then record the part when you're ready.

During real-time recording, drum-machine-style scoop-out erasure isavailable. You can even switch in and out of Quantize-on-Input modeduring recording, so you could get a tight hi-hat track with a loosetriplet on one beat, for example. Two step-recording modes are alsoavailable.

Patterns can be chained together into songs, and each pattern in thesong can have its own track-mute setup, so one pattern can be used inmany ways. Song mode is pretty basic, though. Once you've entered astep with some track mutes, you can't go back and edit the mutesettings. Songs can't be programmed with tempo changes (though you canuse the slider to change the tempo manually during song playback).Variable-length song-section looping, which is useful for liveperformance, is available but with some restrictions. There's nofull-length song track for recording controller sweeps or extendedsolos.

Pattern editing could be beefed up as well. All edit commandsoperate on regions defined by bar lines; you can't define regions withbar:beat:tick precision. Although you can erase all of the ControlChange, Aftertouch, or Pitch Bend data from a track without affectingthe notes, you can't specify one particular Control Change type toerase (filter cutoff, for instance). Fortunately, there's awork-around. Knob moves are always recorded in Overwrite mode, so ifyou decide you want to get rid of a knob sweep, simply go into Recordmode, put the knob where you want it, and leave it there until the endof the pattern is reached.

Each track in each pattern can be assigned to play an internalsound, external MIDI, or both. Because this assignment is done at thepattern level rather than globally, you can easily sequence externalsynths with the MC-909 and only use them in the patterns where you needthem.

PACKS A PUNCH

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with the MC-909. It soundsgreat, it's easy to use, and it offers a level of music-making powerthat only a couple of years ago would have cost three times as much.Sampling, a 64-voice synth, an arpeggiator, a sequencer, USB, digitalaudio I/O — all that and a pseudo-theremin too!

The sequence-editing area could use a few enhancements, and I'm nottoo fond of the feel or response of the Velocity Pads, but consideringthe value of the instrument as a whole, those are minor quibbles. It'sespecially cool that Roland has a vision of how electronic instrumentscan be used in performance. Why should turntablists and guitar playershave all the fun?


Jim Aikin writes about music technology for a variety ofpublications and Web sites. He has been known to bust a move, but onlywhen he gets a pebble in his shoe.

MC-909 Specifications

Analog Inputs

(2) unbalanced ¼" (left input can be switched to mic level)

Analog Outputs

(2) ¼" mix; (4) ¼" direct; (1) ¼" stereoheadphone

Digital Audio I/O

(1) optical S/PDIF; (1) coaxial S/PDIF

Other Connectors

MIDI In, Out; USB

Sampling Resolution

16-bit

Sampling Rate

44.1 kHz

Sample RAM

16 MB, expandable to 272 MB

Polyphony

64 notes

Sequencer Tracks

16

Sequencer Resolution

480 ppqn

Song/Pattern Memory

50 songs, 50 steps per song; 655 factory patterns; 200 userpatterns, up to 998 measures per pattern

Synthesizer Features

4 tones per patch; 2 LFOs; 3 envelopes; 768 factory patches; 72factory rhythm sets

Arpeggiator

128 factory presets; 128 user presets; up to 32 steps; 2 levels of8th- and 16th-note swing, 10 up/down modes

Performance Features

2 D Beam infrared sensors; Turntable Emulation slider; 8multifunction mixer faders; 16 Velocity-sensitive pads; tap-tempobutton

Data Storage

SmartMedia, computer via USB

Computer Operating

Mac OS 9 and OS X;

Systems Supported

Windows 2000, ME, XP

Dimensions

19.4" (W) × 4.5" (H) × 15.0" (D)

Weight

13.25 lb.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Roland
MC-909
sampling workstation
$1,795

FEATURES4.0
EASE OF USE5.0
AUDIO QUALITY4.0
VALUE4.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Very well-designed panel for interactive performance.User sampling with beat splitting. Large LCD. Good-sounding effects,including multiband mastering compression. Programmable arpeggiator.Computer interface for data storage.

CONS: Touchpads don't respond reliably to light taps. No Undocommand. Windows 98 not supported for file archiving with USB. No Tempotrack in Song mode.

Manufacturer

Roland Corporation U.S.
tel. (323) 890-3700
Web www.rolandus.com or www.mc-909.com

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