The success of Roland's MC-303 Groovebox, the first dance music-oriented sequencer and sound module, proved that the electronic and dance music market was a force to reckon with. With its MC-307 Groovebox, Roland hopes to achieve similar success in another often-overlooked niche-that of the production-oriented DJ and turntablist.
The MC-307 Groovebox has a lot in common with its predecessors, the MC-303 and the MC-505, but the main difference is a Turntable Emulation control section that operates similarly to a turntable's pitch control. The MC-307 also provides easy access to, and instant control of, many live-performance features of interest to DJs and turntablists, such as the arpeggiator, real-time phrase sequencing (RPS), and effects. Although the MC-307 is as useful as its predecessors in a studio setting, it really flourishes in live-performance applications.
In scope, the MC-307's collection of features falls between those of the MC-505 and MC-303. The MC-505 is still Roland's top-of-the-line Groovebox, offering such exclusive features as six audio outputs, SmartMedia storage, a D-Beam controller, and individual level faders for each part. But the MC-307 offers a few advantages over the MC-505: it has 800 preset sound patches and 40 rhythm sets, whereas the MC-505 has just 512 sound patches and 26 rhythm sets. The MC-307's preset patterns are more current than the MC-505's, but the MC-307 contains fewer patterns: 240, compared with the MC-505's 714. With its large selection of patterns and sounds, graphic LCD, and performance-oriented features, the MC-307 is a big step up from the MC-303, and a considerably better value.
From Tweakin' to Reekin'The MC-307's good selection of patterns covers a wide variety of dance music styles, including techno, house, hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, breakbeat, jazz, reggae, and Latin. The pattern quality ranges from wicked to cheesy: many of the hip-hop and house patterns are impressive and useful, but some patterns-like the Vengaboys-style happy hardcore-reek like a moldy chunk of Limburger. A few patterns feature questionable sound choices, but you can easily customize the patterns by selecting your own sounds. However, you have to save a modified pattern as a user pattern (the unit stores up to 200), or you'll lose your changes when you turn the power off.
Patterns are accessible via a rotary value wheel or the increment and decrement buttons. This means you have to scroll through the patterns individually, which can make it tricky to select a pattern in live performance before the current pattern finishes playing back. A numeric keypad for selecting patterns would have decreased the chance of making a fumble-fingered faux pas in the heat of a gig (for example, ending up on one of those cursed happy hardcore patterns when you're trying to reach a drum 'n' bass pattern). The best way to avoid this possibility is to use the Pattern Call function, which lets you access 16 preselected patterns with the keyboard pads. This feature provides some improvisational flexibility, but preplanning is required.
Featuring the same sound engine as the MC-505, the MC-307 provides 64-voice polyphony and a huge selection of modern and classic synth and drum sounds suitable for electronic and dance music. Worth the full retail price just for its drum sounds, the MC-307 offers everything from punchy, analoglike bass and classic TR-808, 909, and 606 drum sounds to realistic-sounding pianos and lush digital synth pads. The synth sounds aren't quite as complex and rich as those on a dedicated synth module, but they're still impressive, especially considering that the unit costs less than many dedicated synths. You can edit patches and store new sounds in 256 user locations.
A Step Back in TimeThe MC-307's TR-Rec step sequencer makes it easy to program your own patterns. This feature operates like the programming functions of Roland's TR-model drum machines, and anyone used to working on these units will find programming patterns a quick and effortless process. Users can also program patterns in real time by entering notes on the MC-307's keyboard pads or on an external MIDI keyboard. You'll want an external keyboard to input anything beyond simple single-note lines, as the unit's keyboard pad is somewhat awkward to play.
If you've operated a Technics SL-1200 turntable, you'll like the MC-307's Turntable Emulation section, which makes it easy to sync the unit's playback to a record, CD, or non-MIDI instrument. A long-throw slider, similar to a turntable's pitch control, lets you adjust tempo over a plus/minus10 bpm range, pitch over approximately a plus/minus2 step range, or tempo and pitch together. With the Tap Tempo button, you can match a record's tempo by tapping in time with the beat. Hold and Push buttons let you slow or speed up playback to compensate for drifting, mismatched beats when the MC-307 falls out of sync with another playback source. The MC-307 also has the Grab Switch feature of Roland's DJ-2000 DJ Mixer, so you can manually turn effects like Delay, Reverb, and Isolator on and off in time with the music.
Features such as the Turntable Emulation section, effects that sync to the unit's tempo, real-time control knobs, and mute buttons for individual parts make the MC-307 a powerful live-performance instrument. It's also useful for studio applications, with some limitations (it lacks the MC-505's individual outputs). With its huge improvisational potential, the MC-307 should help you stand out from the crowded ranks of record spinners.
Despite the uncanny resemblance and the fact that they've never been seen in the same place together, Remix editor Chris Gill insists that he and DJ Blaine are not the same person.
It seems like every manufacturer on the block is trying to cash in on the DJ craze. The sad thing is, most companies are just cranking out copycat products, such as run-of-the-mill mixers and flimsy Technics SL-1200 knockoffs. So it's a breath of fresh air when a DJ product that combines well-implemented and innovative features with sturdy construction hits the market. Tascam's new CD-302 Dual CD Player is just such a product.
The CD-302 sports a host of cool DJ-oriented amenities. Its impressive features include a turntable-style pitch/tempo slider, onboard sampling, looping, a bpm counter, and the ability to scratch CD audio. But most folks don't think of Tascam as a manufacturer of DJ gear-for years, its niche market has been personal and professional studio equipment. This raises the question of why professional DJs and remixers should take the CD-302 seriously. The company's reputation for making robust, roadworthy recording equipment, as well as its extensive R&D resources, lay a pretty good foundation for a solid piece of gear. In addition, Tascam claims that the CD-302 is just the first item in its brand-new line of DJ-style products.
Up and SpinningThe CD-302 consists of two units: a control surface and a 19-inch dual-CD deck. The control surface splits into two discrete controllers, with each controller attaching to the CD deck via a custom multipin cable (included with the units). Both the controllers and the deck itself have eject buttons. The CD-302 has RCA-type audio connections on the rear of the CD deck, and there's one recessed power switch for the entire system on the deck's face. An ungrounded and permanently attached power cable supplies the power (I would have preferred the convenience of a standard IEC Type II detachable power cable).
The two identical controllers are nicely laid out, with lots of solid plastic buttons sure to withstand years of pushing and punching. Backlighting on many of the buttons provides good visibility in low-light situations, and the large transport buttons (Cue, Play, Search, and Skip) ensure easy access. Covered with a lightly textured, nonslip rubber surface, the big jog wheels in the middle of each controller make it easy to dial in cue points and perform scratching motions. The pitch/tempo slider sits conveniently at the far right of each controller, and indentations on both sides of the fader let you get a firm grip on it.
An expansive LED display on the controllers shows a ton of information, including large illuminated track numbers, track time (elapsed or remaining), tempo and pitch change percentages, Play and Loop modes (Single Shot, Play All, or Program Play), and your currently selected memory bank. A segmented bar serves as a visual cue for the length of the track, filling up from left to right with elapsed time and emptying from left to right with remaining time. You can program it to flash at a user-defined time when it nears the end of a track. At first glance, the display presents an overwhelming amount of data, but once you get used to the layout, it's an invaluable resource for monitoring a controller's state.
The CD deck includes balanced 11/44-inch fader start/stop jacks, located on the rear. On most mixers, these connections are balanced 11/48-inch minijacks. Fortunately, Tascam includes the necessary adapter cables in ample 8-foot lengths. Using the CD-302's fader start/stop feature with a compatible mixer (such as the Numark CM100) makes a killer beat-juggling setup.
Advanced MixingYou can create seamless loops by hitting the A and B loop buttons to spot in and out loop points. These points are fully adjustable, but the adjustments are only frame-accurate, not sample-accurate. (Tascam says you can't manipulate CDs at sample level-frame-accurate is as good as it gets.) This being the case, tweaking loops using the jog wheel is not a very precise process. You're better off hitting the loop in and out points just right the first time-which is what a well-seasoned DJ would do anyway.
Each controller offers up to 10 seconds of sampling time. You can transfer the A/B loop to the sampler (assuming your loop is less than 10 seconds), or you can simply hit the sample in and out buttons to grab a sample. You can play the sample single-shot, backward, or looped, and you can manipulate the pitch and tempo (many DJ samplers and mixers don't allow pitch and tempo changes on the sample itself).
By far my favorite CD-302 trick is the ability to scratch and break audio directly on a CD using the jog wheel. You can scratch in Play or Pause modes, but Pause works best because the CD doesn't continually spin forward and lose your cue point. Breaking times are user- definable from a value of 02 to 50 (a setting of 03 was close to 1 second). The scratching effect sounds very close to that of scratching vinyl records. Even though the jog wheel doesn't feel like vinyl, I got used to it quickly. Scratching with the CD-302 is much more forgiving than with real vinyl-perfect for lame turntablists like me. The ability to scratch your own home-brewed CD-Rs opens up a world of possibilities to producers, remixers, and DJs. This convenience alone makes the CD-302 worth the price of admission, as CD-Rs are more economical and longer-lasting than one-off acetates.
Automatic DJEither deck can automatically match the other's tempo and beat. For example, with the tempo adjusted on deck 1, you can instruct deck 2 to play back at an identical tempo. The source deck-in this case, deck 1-can calculate the tempo automatically (or manually via a Tap Tempo key). With deck 2's tempo set, you can then synchronize the downbeats of deck 2 to those of deck 1. This function is intriguing, but using it is no stroll in the park. It will not magically transform you into a superstar DJ. As with most sound-sensing bpm machines, the CD-302 works best with clear four-on-the-floor tracks. For tunes that lack such distinct beats, turn to the Tap Tempo key. You can't lock downbeats together indefinitely, as one might hope. However, you can synchronize them temporarily to allow enough time for a smooth segue between tunes. It takes a while to master the tempo and beat sync features to take full advantage of their capabilities.
The CD-302 lets you change tempo without altering the pitch, and vice versa. Several dedicated buttons just above the pitch/tempo slider access these functions. Increment/decrement buttons shift the pitch without affecting the tempo, and the pitch/tempo slider changes tempo without affecting pitch. Of course, the pitch/tempo slider will also work in the standard fashion-change the pitch and the tempo changes, too. You can change tempo by plus/minus32 percent and shift pitch by plus/minus6 half steps; you can also manipulate pitch as a percentage for more precise tuning. The pitch-shift feature sounds good, especially when you use it in moderation (say, plus/minus4 half steps). At extreme settings the audio does get a bit warbled, but not so badly that it's conspicuous in the mix.
The CD-302 recognizes individual CDs. According to Tascam, the unit accomplishes this by reading a serial number stamped into professionally manufactured CDs. (Some CD-R-burning programs also allow serial coding.) You can save presets for individual tracks on individual CDs in the CD-302's memory. A preset can store a variety of information: A/B loop points, sample in/out points, cues, pitch, tempo, and so on. The two controllers share up to 1,000 preset locations in five banks of 200-an incredible feature with possibilities I can only begin to fathom. Suffice to say, you'll find it quite mind-blowing to load a CD for which you've previously set sample and loop points, and then recall this information at the touch of a button.
Endless PossibilitiesThe CD-302 is an incredible machine, and this review only scratches the surface of its creative capabilities. The instrument requires hands-on experience and some study time before you can fully appreciate what it can do. The little time I spent working with it convinced me that it can travel wherever your imagination and practice take you-just don't count on any insightful user tips from the very basic manual. At $1,299, the CD-302 carries a somewhat steeper price than that of many dual-CD decks, but it also does a whole lot more for the extra money. If you're in the market for a dual-CD DJ deck, check out the CD-302-it's worth a spin.
Erik Hawkins is a producer and remixer working in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit him at www.erikhawkins.com for more equipment chitchat and tips on what's hot for the personal studio.
TASCAMCD-302 Dual CD Player$1,299
PROS: This deck does it all: looping, sampling, scratching, breaking, pitch shift without tempo change, tempo change without pitch shift, tempo and beat synchronization, fader start/stop connections, and more. Solidly built.
CONS: The A/B loop adjust function isn't sample-accurate. Rudimentary manual needs a user-tips section.
Overall Rating (1 through 5):5
Contact tel. (020) 727-7010;fax (323) 727-7635; Web www.tascam.com