Review: Roland MV-8800

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FIG. 1: Roland''s MV-8800 gives you a complete music-production studio by combining pattern-based and linear recording, a powerful sampler and effects, and integrated trigger pads in a single tabletop unit.

Roland is certainly no stranger to the world of samplers, drum machines, and digital multitrack recorders, so it makes sense for the company to offer a device that combines the best features from all three product types. Released five years after the well-regarded MV-8000, Roland's MV-8800 provides sampling and synthesis, beat generation, multitrack recording, mixing, mastering, and CD burning in a single unit.

Weighing almost 20 pounds and occupying a wee bit more table space than a 16-channel mixer, this all-in-one production studio isn't something you'd slip into your carry-on at the airport (see Fig. 1). But the device is hefty for a reason: it sports 16 trigger pads (which support both Velocity and Aftertouch), a 320 × 240-pixel color display, a 40 GB hard drive, a CD burner, 8 assignable nonmotorized sliders, 3 assignable knobs, and nearly enough illuminated buttons to launch the space shuttle. For details on the MV-8800's physical connections and its sound generation architecture, check out the online bonus material at

I See a Pattern

Perhaps the one feature that distinguishes the MV-8800 from a typical DAW is its powerful combination of pattern- and song-based recording techniques. You build songs using a combination of MIDI tracks (up to 128), audio tracks (up to 8), a mute control track (which lets you switch tracks on and off using the pads at specific points in time), a tempo track, and a single pattern track.

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FIG. 2: The MV-8800''s back panel offers analog audio I/O, S/PDIF out, MIDI and USB ports, and connections for a monitor, mouse, and footswitch. Also shown here is the optional MV8-OP1 expansion.

You can edit MIDI tracks in much the same way you can in other sequencers, and all the most necessary operations are available. There are piano-roll, drum-grid, and event-list views, copying, moving, thinning, and all sorts of event transformations. Importing and exporting to Standard MIDI Files is also supported. You may not find the MIDI editing experience quite as satisfying as with a high-end software program, but you'll be able to get the job done.

The possibilities begin to boggle the mind when you realize that each pattern in the pattern track can contain 64 MIDI tracks as well as a single audio and mute control track. Each MIDI track (whether in a song or pattern) can connect to an internal patch; you can also route it to a single port and channel assignment on one of the two MIDI outputs (see Fig. 2). In addition, you can assign a Program Change and Bank Select message, which means the instrumentation of your entire rig can change each time the pattern changes.

You can record audio tracks in one of three ways: directly in real time from the audio inputs, remixed (bounced) from the other tracks, or as events that trigger Audio Phrases. Audio Phrases are samples that exist outside the realm of the patches you use in MIDI sequencing, and they're easily assignable to the trigger pads. They can contain either one-shot sound effects or entire grooves synchronized to the current tempo.

Make the Mix

The MV-8800 has a capable infrastructure for mixdown, with three effects processors close at hand. You can assign the audio from each internal instrument, and each audio track, to either the master mix bus or one of four auxiliary buses (if you have the $379 MV8-OP1 expansion installed, you can also choose a dedicated output there).

Two of the three effects processors operate on their own dedicated buses (one processor performs delay and chorus functions, and the other is devoted to reverb). Each instrument and audio track can feed its signals to those buses independently of their primary output assignment. The reverb and chorus processors send their output back into the master mix.

The third effects processor, labeled MFX (for multi-effects), contains a number of powerful settings and algorithms, including models of notable Roland and Boss processors such as the SBF-325 Flanger and RE-201 Space Echo. Many of the algorithms actually represent multiple simultaneous effects, including complete chains for guitar or vocal processing. There's also a basic Roland SH-style synthesizer in the algorithms. The MFX processor can use one of the four auxiliary buses or the master mix as its input, and it sends its output to the master bus.

You can assign three effects parameters (in each of the three processors) to the MV-8800's assignable knobs for easy access and record the knob movements representing MFX effects changes (but not the chorus or delay) as MIDI events. Additionally, you can record several mixer movements for each of the audio tracks and buses. These parameters include level, panning, and the send levels to the chorus/delay and reverb buses.

portable digital studio$2,295FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 DOCUMENTATION 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5 Roland Corporation

Once all the pieces are in place, you put the MV-8800 into mixdown mode. This process creates a single stereo WAV file on the internal hard disk, representing the mixed version of your audio tracks, sequenced instruments, effects, and any connected outboard gear. Immediately after the mixdown completes, you're asked if you would like to enter mastering mode.

The Master Plan

Mastering mode reconfigures the MV-8800 to achieve a single purpose: transforming the stereo WAV file you created during mixdown into a second stereo file that is ready for CD burning or distribution. In this mode, the MV-8800 devotes much of its processing power to a multistage mastering effects chain (the other effects are no longer available).

The mastering toolkit consists of nine stages, all individually configurable: EQ, a bass-cut filter, an enhancer, input gain, an expander, a compressor, a limiter, output dithering with clipping reduction, and the mixer. Several stages operate on three frequency bands, and the mixer stage (appearing after the compressor) lets you adjust the amount of each band that appears in the final product.

Once your master is complete, you're ready to burn a CD. This feature works intuitively. Each of the mastered files on your hard disk is available for selection. You choose the ones you want, adjust their order and the track gap, and burn your disc.

Still There'll Be More

The MV-8800 has lots of additional features under the hood, including V-Link support and a Pix Jam feature that lets you call up images on an optional VGA monitor using MIDI tracks or the trigger pads. Obviously, these features relate more to live performance than recording, but it's worth noting that the MV-8800 is well suited for both stage and studio.

The trigger pads are easily configured to trigger sounds and synchronized grooves in real time while the rest of your music plays from memory. You can also leave the MV-8800 in pattern mode and use the pads to select the patterns that play (patterns can be up to 999 bars long and contain dozens of tracks).

You may find that the MV-8800's learning curve takes some time to conquer, but the device is intuitive and efficient once you find the lay of the land. The documentation is complete but sometimes hard to follow; more tutorials are needed. Roland provides a 10-minute video tutorial on DVD, but it only scratches the surface of the MV-8800's capabilities.

The MV-8800 is more fun than a barrel of baboons and capable of making some great-sounding music (see Web Clip 1). You should definitely spend some time checking it out at your local music store.

Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, software/systems designer, and consultant. Check him out online


PROS: All-in-one unit capable of everything from tracking to finished CD. Integrated trigger pads. Powerful combination of pattern-based and linear recording.

CONS: A bit hefty in physical size and price. Needs more included tutorials and a larger library of instruments.