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electronic MUSICIAN

ROLAND MC-909

By JOE SILVA | June 1, 2003

One for all and all-in-one. One of the primary reasons why audio-software packages have become all-inclusive is that both developers and users recognize the tremendous appeal of doing the majority of work within one application. That same rationale could easily be applied to Roland's line of Grooveboxes, now incorporating the MC-909 — the imperial star-cruiser of the genre.

The MC-909 is a 13-pound sequencer/synth/sampler/rhythm machine all tidily housed within one sturdy metallic casing. As imposing as the unit might appear on first glance, those with the serious bank on hand to consider giving it a whirl will find that it has a healthy number of practical uses to either supplement or (gasp!) act as a substitute for a computer-based rig.

THE VOODOO YOU DO

If you've been outside the realm of Grooveboxes since they first became available, feeling lost amid all of the faders, rotary controls and pads is completely understandable. But if you look at the unit from left to right, you'll see pitch and volume controls; a healthy real-time tweaking section that includes a filter area, LFO and tone controls; and a mastering section that allows for finalizing the high, middle and low ranges of the MC-909's output. Next up is a well-designed 4.5-by-3.5-inch LCD that serves as the primary interface for editing musical data. Below that are function buttons and eight nonmotorized faders in the mixer section that can be used to control the volume and pan settings for any part.

The next column of controls contains the sampling and effects sections: the Mode Section (featuring the large jog wheel) and a transport area known as the Sequencer Section. Then comes the turntable-emulation slider, the SmartMedia card slot and the two D Beam controllers (at the top of either side of the MC-909) that allow for knob-free control of sounds. The 16 velocity pads at the bottom of the unit can be used to physically trigger complete patterns or individual notes of a particular patch and are supplemented by arpeggio, chord and octave switches.

As if all that weren't enough, Roland was kind enough to add a V-Link switch to allow the option of connecting the unit to V-Link — ready video hardware such as Edirol's DV-7PR. Ins and outs comprise not only MIDI and standard ¼-inch jacks (two in, six out, one headphone) but also coaxial and optical connection points.

Roland provides a supplementary start-up guide along with the basic manual, but for those who prefer to jump right in, the best thing to do is to get familiar with the display. The songs already programmed into the instrument give you a good starting point. Patterns, which are composed of as many as 16 rhythmic parts or synth patches, can be strung together into complete songs. The sounds are built from an internal set of 693 waveforms based on Roland's XV synth engine. In a word, they are stellar. A collection of more than 800 presets is already onboard, and the range and depth of styles is fantastic. These are (miraculously) all stored on the 16 MB of internal memory that comes standard with the MC-909, but you can bump that up to a whopping 256 MB of DIMM memory, which can be added later as needed. Combined with a maximum of 128 MB of extra material that can be stored via SmartMedia, the MC-909 is a heavyweight device designed to be a long-term fixture within your studio.

MORE THAN FOUR-ON-THE-FLOOR

You can assemble and store your own patches and rhythm sets (as many as 256 and 128, respectively, along with an additional 256 and 128 using SmartMedia) and use them in any combination to make up your own patterns (200 of which can be stored within the MC-909 and another 999 with a SmartMedia card). Those who are used to dragging-and-dropping loops and samples into a software sequencer and have yet to do much beatbox-style programming will find that piecing together patterns is perhaps a bit trickier than originally thought, once you get beyond the basic four-on-the-floor patterns.

Luckily, users have three ways to record a pattern into the MC-909 (four if you count the Tempo/Mute method that allows for real-time recording of tempo changes or on/off mute events), and you may want to experiment with all of the options to see which is best suited to you. Real-time recording is just that: pick a part, hit Record, select Real-Time Recording, and you're off. The downside to this method is that you may have to edit your recorded material later so that it will fall in line with the remainder of your pattern. You can, however, drop into Rehearsal mode at any time by pressing the F4 function button and practice your material without ever having to leave the recording process. The TR-Rec recording mode allows you to use the velocity pads to determine where a note will fall within your pattern. If, for instance, you want a kick drum to fall on the first, fifth, 11th and 13th beats of a 16-note pattern, simply light velocity pads 1, 5, 11 and 13 to activate those notes. Changing from the kick to another sound within that same patch is achieved by using the up or down cursor buttons so that you can create patterns with multiple elements à la Image-Line Fruityloops. Lastly, the MC-909 can also use more traditional step recording to input recorded data. Recording is as simple as selecting step recording and inputting your notes with the velocity pad. (Chords can be entered that way, too.)

Select a sound to record by hitting the Patch/Sample button above the cursor keys and the jog wheel. The patch display is a 16-by-8 matrix, and by moving the highlight bar with the cursor keys to the Num Patch/Rhythm column, you can scroll through the seven preset banks and audition any of the 800 sounds.

You can also load your own sounds into the unit via the MC-909's sampling unit. The onboard phrase sampler's flexibility allows for 44.1kHz, 16-bit sampling from all of the MC-909's inputs or from the internal sound generator itself through the resampling option. There's even the ability to sample from an internal and external mix of sound sources. This sampler is one of the principal areas in which the large LCD display and the sensible menu options really shine. When you begin the process, you are told exactly how much sampling memory is available, and in the following screen, you can choose your source, the amount of presample you would like captured and the manner in which sampling is initiated and stopped. You can even auto-divide a sample into either 128 individual samples (for mono samples) or 256 (for stereo samples). Once you bump up the memory to 256 MB, you are suddenly looking at a maximum of 2,000 user and 7,000 SmartMedia samples that you can store, chop or weld together within the MC-909. There's even a cool option that allows you to create a whole rhythm set from a collection of chopped samples and then spread them over the velocity pads, where they can be individually auditioned. Add to all that functions for normalizing, adding volume envelopes and time-stretching your audio, and you have a powerful sampling device in its own right.

FILE AWAY

Equally delightful to use is the MC-909's file utility, which allows for a direct connection between the box and your PC if you prefer to do your audio editing within a familiar software package. Having connected the unit to my Mac via a USB cable, the MC-909 popped up on my desktop as an external hard drive into which I was able to drag-and-drop my prepared audio files. It's a joy when you're able to perform a logical operation like this without the addition of any extra software drivers or hardware tweaks.

Benefits like these outweigh most of the limitations you might come across while exploring the depth of the MC-909. I discovered, for example, that after having created various original patterns, I could not play a part from the velocity pads through a pattern transition. Every time the MC-909 moved from one pattern to the next, any notes being played were abruptly cut off — even if the subsequent pattern was the same as the previous one. Roland recognizes that this isn't quite perfect, but a work-around exists: If you make the first patch in a pattern the one that you'll be playing live, the glitch disappears — an odd quirk, but nothing that you can't plan around once you're aware of it.

THE LIGHTS, THEY SHINE SO BRIGHT

Having taken the MC-909 to a live gig, I would do nothing but cheer the addition of a handle to the machine's chassis for moving it to and fro. The velocity keys are rugged and well-spaced and give you the impression that they can be played fairly aggressively when the mood strikes. And although the D Beams are a nice touch to an already feature-rich piece of gear, they are not quite like using a class-A theremin. Some practice will probably be required on this front to get a feel for the proper hand positions and the effective range of motion you have to play with. The turntable-emulation slider has a range of ±200 — a somewhat insane amount of flexibility (a ±10 setting is about normal for most decks) — but it can be an effective tweak when you change the slider type from standard turntable emulation to either pitch bend or modulation. Pitch-bending a lead line without any spring-based resistance can feel a touch odd at first, but with some effort, it can result in a more nuanced performance. One other minor characteristic that took some getting used to was the sensitivity of the faders. Whereas you can preset levels for the individual parts, grabbing a fader on the fly to adjust the volume of a specific part can be a bit tricky because the faders will respond rather dramatically. If you want to increase or decrease the level of a fader that's in the wrong position, the MC-909 reads the relative fader position instantly, and you can accidentally cut off or boost your part volume. Again, working out your material ahead of time to anticipate real-time changes can help you sidestep this sort of issue.

In terms of effects, Roland has put much oomph into the MC-909, particularly in the reverb department. Grabbing some of the existing technology from its dedicated outboard products, this Groovebox is outfitted with four types of reverb (basic, room, hall and plate). Tweaks to the room-size parameter for any of the four reverb types are graphically represented on the LCD display, along with the reverb density. The compressor isn't shabby, either, providing its own 2-band EQ (for high and low frequencies), as well as the standard attack, release, threshold, ratio and gain controls. Beyond the expected types of flange, phasing and delays are a number of cool options within the 85 onboard multi-effects. The step filter alone offers a whole host of sonic possibilities, and things like the scratchy phonograph effect and the built-in amp modeling make sound-shaping fun and fairly comprehensive.

Given the wealth of options built into the Roland MC-909, there's no telling how it would figure best into your world, but its flexibility is undeniable. New users might dedicate a substantial amount of time to coping with the box's learning curve, but few toys in this price range would not require a similar amount of dedication. So what's next? The MC-11011? Possibly, but at this rate, the next upgrade would have to come complete with a live producer in the box.

Special thanks to Dean Coleman and Jim Norman at Roland for their assistance.

Product Summary

ROLAND

MC-909 > $1,795

Pros: Nearly limitless expansion of sound set. High-end sampling facilities. Multiple recording modes. Excellent effects. Easy file exchange via USB.

Cons: Minor glitches when moving between patterns. Faders and pitch control require getting used to.

Contact: tel. (323) 890-3700; Web www.rolandus.com

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