ROLAND MV-8000

During the past decade, I've used and reviewed different incarnations of the entire MPC line by Akai. Embraced by hip-hop and house artists years ago,
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During the past decade, I've used and reviewed different incarnations of the entire MPC line by Akai. Embraced by hip-hop and house artists years ago, those machines became mainstays for groove-based production teams and remain so today. So there's no question that Roland's use of velocity-sensitive pads means that the company's designers knew good design when they played it. But if you're going to cop the look of a competitor's legacy product, you'd better deliver the goods. And Roland does — with its own spin on how to complement a fairly intuitive interface. Note that if you're looking for a review that offers comparisons between the MPC4000 and Roland's approach, you won't find it here. Let another brave soul take that on.

The premise behind the MV-8000 is straightforward: to sample, perform, sequence, mix, master and burn a CD within the same box. This review will address how things are laid out and cover steps toward mastering and burning. By the end, you should have an idea of the unit's flow and whether you care to check it out any further. I'm assuming some familiarity on your part with sample-based production. If not, various printed and online resources can help out — especially this mag.

AT THE CONTROLS

The MV-8000 has a slew of controls: Fresh out of the box, the buttons, knobs, sliders and pads seem packed together but make ergonomic sense as soon as you start working. In the lower-left section are 16 velocity-sensitive pads. When it comes to percussion controllers, Roland paid its dues a long time ago. These pads feel great, invite finger thwacking and have adjustable sensitivity and aftertouch.

Vertically lining the main pads on the left are six smaller pads for holding (or looping) a sound, rolling a sound, deleting or bumping a sound to a clipboard, performing a quick edit and assign or scrolling through pad banks. Along the top of the main pads are buttons for Multilevel, in which a single sample can be played across 16 pads at incremental velocities; Fixed Velocity, which triggers the same velocity no matter how hard you strike the pad; and Event Erase, in which parts you've played can be edited on the fly. With the banks filled with loops and textures, it's easy to just jam on the pads and hardly touch the rest of the machine.

Directly to the right of the Velocity Pads is the transport and navigation section. Familiar functions like play, record, stop and return to top of sequence are there, as well as buttons to jump through a sequence by step or by measure. Preview buttons initiate play slightly before or after any given location, and Auto Punch moves you in and out of record. Loop On does what you'd expect, and the Quick Set button next to it sets the current measure as the beginning of the loop. Also present is a BPM/Tap button to tap in the tempo of the sequence and, when used in combination with the Shift button nearby, to drop markers along the sequence. (There are more than a dozen Shift-related shortcuts, such as Shift-Rec for step recording and so forth.) Above the BPM/Tap button lives the Locator button, with which you can set as many as 10 locations to jump to within a sequence. The MV-8000 includes an alphanumeric keypad for naming, entering numbers or establishing note values. A four-direction Cursor moves you around the various parameters, and you can change values using the Decrement and Increment buttons or the Value dial.

Centered at the top is the MV-8000's 320×240 LCD — a good, readable screen with adjustable contrast. Five function buttons line the bottom of the LCD, with backlit Menu and Exit buttons on either side. Eight assignable sliders rest directly below the function buttons and can be used for mixing chores or to send MIDI control messages. Roland didn't skimp on these sliders: They're sturdy, they don't easily slip around, and they feel like you can play them.

To the right of the sliders are various backlit buttons corresponding to the Mixer, Project, Assignable Slider, System, Mastering and Disk/USB screens, as well as smaller buttons for song, sequence and sample management. If you want to cancel an action in the sequencer section, there's an Undo button (which doubles as a Redo button). You also get a V-Link button so that the MV-8000 can act as controller to “perform” on compatible video devices. Above that is a Shutdown button, and a master volume knob rests in the corner. To the left of the sliders are three assignable knobs, with backlit buttons for the Effects, Sampling and Import screens. In the upper-left corner are two small pots for left and right mic/line input sensitivity and one for headphone level.

The back-panel layout is simple enough with balanced input and output (¼-inch TRS), a phono input (plug and play, no pre needed), a headphone jack, coaxial and optical digital outs, a footswitch input, a USB port for computer file transfer and MIDI In/Out/Thru. The unit offers two hardware options that you can go for: The MV8-OP1 gives you six analog outs, an 8-channel R-Bus digital I/O connector and coaxial and optical digital inputs; the other is brilliant — a VGA monitor connector with a mouse port (MV8-VGA). With it, all chores are handled on a large screen, and navigating, recording and editing improves enormously. On the front of the unit is a floppy-disk drive and a CD-RW — compatible drive for burning your CDs.

SAMPLING AND IMPORTING

The MV-8000 offers 64-voice polyphony and ships with 128 MB of memory, which you should swap for the maximum 512 MB. As is, you have 24 minutes of mono sampling time and a 40GB drive to back up to. Sampling can be mono or stereo from analog or digital sources. You can manually kick in and out of sampling or set a trigger to start or stop at a specific level, beat, duration, pad strike or by pressing Play. As for samples, you can automatically normalize, add emphasis, autodivide or split across pads — the last is quite useful when constructing drum and percussion kits. You'll probably resample the outputs quite a bit to craft your own sound, and that is a seamless process here.

Both WAV and AIFF files can be imported, as can Akai MPC2000, MPC2000XL, S1000 and S3000 sound and program files; Roland S-700 partials and patches; and Standard MIDI Files. These can be read off floppies, data CDs or your computer's hard drive when linked via USB. Sounds from audio CDs can also be selected and imported.

Now, say you've sampled or imported a sound. Automatically, you can set start and end points; indicate whether you want it truncated, normalized or looped; and assign it to a pad for playback. Samples are the building blocks in the MV-8000, and there are a couple of ways that you can use them. In one approach, samples can be grouped together to form a Partial, which in turn can be grouped with other Partials to create Patches. These Patches can then be assigned to play back as MIDI instruments from the pads. Another option is to treat the MV-8000 as a phrase sampler, using it to grab larger chunks of audio that can be looped and triggered as Audio Phrases in the sequencer.

No doubt, this machine is a beat-programming workhorse. It's easy to quickly zoom in on a break, lock in your loop points, time-stretch (great on the MV), resample through effects and play it back from a pad — or chop it up, spread your hits across the pads and roll your own rhythm in seconds. And the MV-8000 itself sounds great. Credit is due not only to the high-quality converters but also the care given to quality and control of amplifiers and filters. Within the Partial Edit screen, you can tweak those settings; choose among eight LFO types; change the level, pan, pitch, depth and effects level for the Partial; and more. As many as four samples can be assigned to a Partial's Sample Mix Table (SMT), allowing you to tailor unique patches. Crafting Partials and resampling are essential synthesis tools, and experimentation here will be rewarded.

SEQUENCING AND EFFECTS

When you fire it up, the MV-8000 loads a Project — either the most recent one you were working on or a new one. Projects are essentially containers in which everything lives and interacts. In the MV, this means your Songs, Instruments, Partials and Samples. A total of 16 Songs can exist in a Project, and each Song can be viewed as part of an album of Songs or just a section of one Song. I like using Projects to build various versions of a groove and make each a Song. The MV-8000 is really fast at loading Songs because all Project data is loaded in the unit's internal memory rather than read off the hard disk. So you can quickly audition different grooves and get a feel for where you want to go — a big plus. (Tip: Initial boot-up time can seem glacial, but pressing Stop-Record together when you turn on the unit immediately loads an empty Project. Navigate from there to load current Projects.)

The MV-8000's main screen is the Sequencer screen corresponding to your current Song. There, you get eight stereo or eight mono audio tracks to lay in Audio Phrases or to record directly to via mic or line input, as well as 136 MIDI tracks to sequence in. The combo of audio and MIDI tracks provides welcome flexibility between playing in your MIDI parts and layering looped phrases. And because Audio Phrases can also be assigned to a Patch for MIDI playback, you can take advantage of the filters, envelopes and LFOs in the Partial editor mentioned previously.

Most of the recording I did focused on building rhythm parts with looping Audio Phrases and playing in solos with the pads or via a keyboard plugged into the MIDI Input. Timing issues involving locking phrases and sequences can be tricky to negotiate, but the Audio Phrase Edit screen provides a good BPM Sync feature, a time-stretching algorithm that helps sync the sequencer and Audio Phrase. I love it, but improper use can result in bad timing and sound, so it's a question of judicious application. For MIDI tracks, the MV-8000 offers grid and shuffle quantize types and 71 templates addressing various musical styles. Some of these templates include velocity adjustments to give the rhythm more movement — more familiar to some as groove quantize. I usually quantize sparingly, but this feature is well-implemented with grid quantize resolution down to 32nd notes. They're also optimized for 4/4, so odd-time-signature aficionados may not be thrilled. But if you like step recording by individually inputting notes and rests, it's well-executed here.

Track regions can be edited a couple of ways. Both audio and MIDI tracks can be manipulated in the Sequence Edit screen, and MIDI note info can be adjusted in either the Event List screen or the Piano Roll screen. Editing on a small LCD versus a large VGA monitor is a no-brainer option: Get it. With a mouse in hand, you can select audio or MIDI events and easily move them, assign loop points, select Patches and pad banks quickly and jump to different operation modes. I highly recommend working independent of the VGA at first; that way, you learn work-surface shortcuts. One reason is that you may not always have the luxury of a monitor in other studios. When you do, and you have one hand on the mouse and the other on the MV, moves will become second nature.

The MV-8000 comes with an effects section that includes delay/chorus and reverbs, as well as 24 multi-effects (MFX) featuring dynamics processors, chorus, flangers, pitch shifters, mic modelers, vocoders and other Roland COSM algorithms. They sound really good, but you can only have one of each instantiated across all tracks. This is a bit of a drag, but enhanced DSP would have definitely pushed the price point skyward. This is why developing resampling skills is crucial. You learn to craft your sound as you go.

MIXING, MASTERING AND BURNING

Once you finish all of your tracking, you are ready to mix. The MV-8000 features a Mixdown mode, which is the only stage at which you track directly to hard disk. (Here's another tip: If you want to 2-track-record directly to hard disk, you can enter Mixdown mode and anything at the inputs will bypass the RAM.) Generally, I preferred getting my tracks tight before Mixdown mode so that all tweaks with the assignable sliders and knobs were minimal. You definitely can mix with faders, automate effects and so forth, but I favored doing so only after everything sounded solid. On the flip side, I mixed using the MV-8000's Track Muting by Pads feature a lot, which basically turns pads into mute buttons. This became one of my preferred ways of mixing.

Once you've completed mixdown to a WAV file and press Stop on the unit, the MV-8000 asks if you would like to master. The Mastering Tool Kit includes a decent multiband compressor to treat low-, mid- and high-frequency regions of the sound file. Just as the effects section has a library to select from, you also get flavors of compression, which leads me to a brief rant: Premastering is one of the most abused tools in the hands of musicians. Mixes can be overcompressed and unbalanced because of poor monitoring, a misunderstanding of dynamics or simply believing louder is better. Unless you know what you want, don't ruin your mix, okay? Experiment, yes, but work slowly. Finally, burning your songs to disc is straightforward. Sound files are added to a cue sheet for the order and timing to be written to CD. The writing method is Disc-at-Once, and voilà! You're done!

IN THE FLOW

One basic criterion I used during this evaluation was that operating the MV shouldn't get in the way of creative work. This was almost always the case during this review, though I will point out a couple of things that future software revisions might include. In particular, deleting samples needs to be more streamlined, and the Sample Edit screen could use a cursor that scrolls across the waveform. And although this probably isn't fixable in software, the effects routing feels weak here, as well. If Roland ever releases an updated hardware version, it should address that, too.

I'd like to add that the hefty manual is particularly good for Roland, whose track record isn't great in that department. A special mention also needs to be made of the online forum MVNation (www.mvnation.com), a group that's not affiliated with Roland but does provide invaluable knowledge about using the MV-8000. The tone is always respectful, and members are generous about helping and encouraging fellow musicians.

Although the industry is still in the early years of the combination performance surface/production studio, instruments such as the MV-8000 suggest a bright future for integrating studio tools within an ergonomic, responsive surface. If you not only enjoy programming beats but also want a composition environment that's portable, playable and intuitive to use, take a moment to check out this remarkable studio-in-a-box.

Product Summary

ROLAND

MV-8000 > $2,695

Pros: Highly responsive interface. Excellent converters. Can use audio and MIDI files within sequencer. Excellent quantization. VGA and mouse option. Assignable knobs and sliders

Cons: Sample management difficult. Limited DSP for effects application and routing. Unable to adjust gain easily (just normalize).

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