Roland MC-808

The Roland TR-808 is an historic little piece of gear. Introduced in late 1980, this drum machine originally attracted producers in the still-burgeoning hip-hop and electronic music scenes because of its low price point and versatility. It also anticipated the TR-606 drum machine, which along with the complementary TB-303 Bass Line (“TB” stood for “Transistorized Bass”), became an ad hoc “groovebox” that served as a workhorse for club DJs, live electronic musicians, and bedroom producers. In 1983, the TR-808 was succeeded by the TR-909, which eventually became the backbone of much dance music; the 808, 909, and 303 also inspired Propellerheads’ ReBirth, the first emulation in software of vintage hardware instruments.

Over the years, Roland refined these types of products and in 1996, coined the term “Groovebox” to describe the MC-303. The name Groovebox has graced several moderately-priced, relatively feature-laden Roland products, and has grown to become loosely synonymous with any device that employs a drum/ synth/sequencer combo. Perhaps not surprisingly, Roland’s newest addition to the Groovebox family, the MC-808 Sampling Groovebox, continues to build on an already stellar reputation.


Beatsmiths familiar with Roland’s MC-909 model will find a lot of similarity in the new MC-808. Like its predecessor, the MC-808 can stand on its own as a complete creative tool — sampler, sequencer, synthesizer, drum machine, mixer, and track builder. It could easily become a producer or club DJ’s weapon of choice due to the depth and breadth of the sample bank, the versatility with which sounds can be manipulated, the easy-as-pie sampling interface, and the on-the-fly method for constructing and evolving beats and loops.


Upgrades from the MC-909 include a refreshed and expanded collection of pre-loaded sounds and loops, 128-part polyphony, USB interface, and Mac/Windows-compatible editing software that lets you clean up AIF and WAV samples (as well as complete patches) on a standard-sized monitor — a really helpful feature when you’re trying to zero in on editing the nuances of a particular sound.

The MC-808’s biggest “wow” factor comes from the addition of motorized faders, which, admittedly, made me jump in my chair when I first fired up the machine. But beyond just being really cool to watch while cycling through the pan, volume, and synthesizer control modes, the motorized faders are also a great aid when scrolling through patches and samples, to see exactly how the sounds have been constructed or manipulated. This feature can be extremely handy for club DJs who intend to use the MC-808 as a live performance instrument as well as a studio tool. You can manipulate sounds on the fly with the MC-808, and because the faders are set to the positions specified in memory, you can see the state of the music in real time at every step. As a result, initiating any changes or applying new patches or loops won’t interrupt the music’s flow on the dance floor with volume spikes or sudden level changes, as the faders always reflect any current parameter settings. (For those who prefer manual fader manipulation, it’s possible to turn off the motors.)


A word to the wise for anyone who’s looking to sample and play back in a live performance environment as well as the studio: The MC-808 contains a Compact Flash slot that can accommodate a 512MB card, but comes stock with only 4MB of onboard RAM. This amount of memory limits samples to approximately 49 seconds of monaural sound (around 24 seconds in stereo), which, for a bedroom producer, might only be a minor annoyance — scores of amazing records have been made with gear that allows a lot less sample time than 24 seconds. But for live performance, an upgrade provides a lot more possibilities by extending the amount of sounds you can have on call at any given moment.

Installing the full half Gigabyte of internal memory increases stereo sampling time to approximately 50 minutes (over 100 minutes in mono). Luckily, like all the Roland Grooveboxes before it, upgrading the MC-808’s RAM is a snap; just follow the instructions in the manual, as there’s no need to return the unit to the factory or perform any expensive/difficult maintenance.


The relatively modest amount of stock internal memory notwithstanding, the MC-808 is ready to perform right out of the box. And like other machines of its ilk, the best way to get into it is just to start playing. The stock sample bank is deep enough to get lost in for weeks at a time: From individual instrument sounds to orchestral patches and big band stabs to the wildest synths and saws (and of course a generous helping of those classic TR-808 and -909 drum sounds to provide the requisite thump), what you need is pretty much all here, and it’s pretty much all malleable. Don’t like the pitch of a certain synth sound? No problem, just drop it down an octave or two and listen as it becomes much more sinister. Or, jump into synthesizer control mode and start messing with the sonic parameters of a patch or sample to change the sound drastically at its most basic levels. The MC-808’s D-Beam (a relatively standard Groovebox feature at this point) allows sound manipulation by moving a hand through the light stream; it’s fun, cool, and can make for some interesting results.

Once you’ve lined up a handful of patterns, samples, and patches, making music on the MC-808 is a snap. All the elements can be laid out in Song mode to create a complete piece, or multiple parts can be assigned to the keyboard pads and played individually or simultaneously as chords, making improvisation and performance easy. Also, as the unit records digital performance data rather than analog or digital audio, editing is flexible, deep, and easily updated.


Ultimately, the MC-808 Groovebox can handle just about anything a project producer can throw at it. From raw sound editing to complete song construction and on-the-fly composition, the MC-808 Groovebox is the strongest to date of Roland’s storied line — it boasts a reasonable price tag, more functionality than a Swiss Army knife, and the lineage of a royal family.

Product type: RAM-based drum machine/synthesizer/sequencer/sampler.
Target market: Beginning-to-intermediate producers/beatmakers, and those who want to enhance an existing studio with beat-oriented hardware tools.
Strengths: Deep sample bank. PC/Mac USB compatibility with editing software. Motorized (really!) faders. Tried-and-true user interface. Cost-effective. Expandable to half a Gigabyte of internal RAM.
Limitations: Ships with only 4MB of internal RAM.
Price: $799 (list)