Roland MC-4 MicroComposer
Several years ago I decided against the use of computers
in my studio. This was a personal choice brought about mainly because of
the frustrations encountered as I
wrestled with software sequencers, MIDI ports, software upgrades, and
computer crashes on the one hand, but mainly due to the sloppy timing of computer-based
MIDI software sequencers on the other. I'm sure the timing of these sequencers has improved
slightly over the past few years, but in my opinion, if
you have something that works, it's best to keep using what you're using.
Timing is Everything
Well, not everything. But MIDI is not a very accurate way to sequence.
Since MIDI is basically a serial asynchronous data transmission,
multiple events can't be sent simultaneously through one MIDI output resulting in
MIDI clog and subtle timing delays. Events are put into a queue and sent out to your equipment one packet at a time.
Although our ears may percieve these events occurring at the
same time, in reality they aren't. Does the average person
notice this? Probably not, but I do, and it bothered me enough to
try to find an alternate solution. I've owned and used a number of software-based MIDI sequencers
over the years including Cakewalk, MasterTracks Pro, Cubase, Logic,
etc. I've also tried both PC and Mac versions of most
of these products, but it was always the same: buggy software, expensive upgrades,
MIDI problems, and sloppy timing.
So my search began for a better sequencer that would
interface well with my analog synths.
This search eventually led me to hardware sequencers, in particular
the Akai MPC-3000, which is one of, if not the, tightest MIDI sequencers
available. I love this machine for it's simple, utilitarian, hands-on
approach to sequencing, and have used it on the majority of
my songs. It's also a great sampling drum machine.
In combination with the Kenton Pro-4 MIDI>CV converter,
I have been able to create really tight sequences.
In fact, it is so easy to use, I still prefer it for
coming up with song ideas. However, I still notice slight
timing delays, and have had notes actually drop out of the
mix due to "MIDI clog". With vintage analog synths the focus
of my studio, I needed to install MIDI kits in many of my
synths or trigger them from MIDI to CV/GATE converters. This
became very expensive, and in some cases impossible to do. In the past
musicians began moving away from MIDI-driven hardware to softsynths and
ProTools sampling, the few companies offering
MIDI kits for these old synths couldn't make a profit any more, and
stopped offering them.
Vintage Sequencers & Sync Devices
I soon realized that in order to get the most out of my old
analog sequencers and monosynths, I needed to use the sequencers and sync devices that
were designed specifically to deal with these issues in the first place. I enjoyed the
hands-on approach and accurate timing of the Roland System-700 and ARP sequencers,
but they were hard to control, and you couldn't save the
patches. My search for the perfect sequencer
eventually led me to the Roland MC-4 MicroComposer, which,
although difficult to program, combined the timing characteristics
of analog sequencers with the ability to create complex
sequences and save them for later use. For me it was the best
of both worlds.
I currently own two MC-4b units, one MC-4a, three MTR-100 tape backup units, one OP-8m CV>DCB/MIDI converter, and one OP-8 CV/DCB converter (to trigger my Juno-60).
I use the OP-8m to trigger MIDI synths or to transfer tracks from the MPC-3000 to the MC-4b.
I recently decided to rearrange my studio to
allow the MC-4b co-exist with my MPC-3000 as the master sequencer with just the flick of a switch.
What I've found is that the process I have to go
through to make a song with the MC-4 results in "happy accidents"
that I never would have thought of had I sequenced using a
traditional MIDI sequencer. And the timing is superb, better
than any sequencer I've ever used.
The Roland MC-4 manual is a very difficult read and does not
make it easy to learn the MC-4. It reads like a Fortran instruction
manual, and most of the time leaves you scratching
your head wondering what they're trying to say. Here are a few
things that I learned from studying the manual and using the sequencer.
When you first turn on the MC-4, the screen will say "TB 120 30 15".
This basically refers to the default TIMEBASE, STEP, and GATE values for
each note. TIMEBASE refers to the number of divisions in a quarter
note. STEP refers to the spacing between each note. GATE refers to
the length of each note within a given STEP. I usually change the
default values to "TB 48 12 6" by entering 48 ENTER 12 ENTER 6 MEAS END.
The reason for this is that in order to sync to/from DIN SYNC (Minidoc, TR-808 or another
MC-4b), the timebase must be set to 48. So using 48 as
the TIMEBASE, a STEP of 12 will basically give you 1/16th notes. A
GATE of 6 means the notes will take up half the STEP, or basically
be 1/32 note long.
After pressing MEAS END above, the next thing you'll see is the
Tempo, which is 100 by default. Simply change the tempo by entering
130 ENTER (or whatever tempo you want). The next screen will show
a 1 indicating you are on the first track. Pressing the ENTER key
will advance you to the MEAS, STEP, and DATA information respectively.
Pay attention to the cursor which will hover above the words on the
front panel indicating whether you are in MEAS, STEP, or DATA mode.
When in any of these modes, you can enter the track or step you want
to go to and after successive ENTER presses, you will be able to
enter note data at that location in the sequence. You can change tracks
at any time by pressing SHIFT + BACK or FWD.
The SHIFT Map is a grid of LED's that indicate which SHIFT functions
are activated by pressing SHIFT + (keypad #).
CV1 mode (SHIFT + 1): Since STEP and GATE data are dependant on the CV data you
enter for each track, CV1 mode is the default mode. This mode
allows you to enter note values one at a time for each track.
Entering notes in CV1 mode will automatically use the default GATE
and STEP values that were set up on the first screen: "TB 48 12 6".
So in this instance, the CV note values you enter will all be a STEP of 12 (1/16th
notes) with a GATE of 6 (later you can go into GATE mode and turn off
gating for specific notes by setting the gate to 0). A CV of 0 is the
lowest note on the keyboard. A CV of 12 is an octave higher. A CV of
24 is an octave above that. This mode is good for getting one sequence
into the MC-4, such as a melody or bassline.
CV2 mode (SHIFT + 4): This mode allows you to assign a voltage to the
CV2 output for each track, which can be sent to the VCF or VCA of
your synth for tonal changes. The default CV2 value for each note is
CV1 + GATE mode (SHIFT + 7): This mode allows you to enter notes using a CV/GATE keyboard
in real time. Once you get one track of the sequence in, this
mode is great for entering complex sequences from a MIDI sequencer or CV keyboard.
STEP mode (SHIFT + 2): This mode allows you to modify the STEP length within
a given measure. Be aware of the fact that with a TIMEBASE of 48 your
STEPS in a given measure must all add up to 192 (a whole note).
MPX mode (SHIFT + 5): This mode allows you
to input a value for an additional GATE on each note that can be assigned
to trigger an analog sequencer (like the ARP), a drum sound, or to turn
things like portamento on or off. It's particularly good for triggering
percussive sounds from synths like the ARP 2600 or System-700, or other drum
modules like the Techstar TS305/TS306, Pearl Syncussion, or Simmons
GATE REWRITE mode (SHIFT + 8): This mode
allows you to use a CV keyboard to adjust the GATE length of each
note within a given STEP, in real time. I use
the keyboard from my System-700, but an ARP 2600, System 100m keyboard, or
any synth with a CV/GATE output will work.
GATE mode (SHIFT + 3): This mode allows you to adjust the GATE of each note within a given STEP,
one note at a time, from the keypad.
(to be continued)
As I mentioned before, if you turn off the MicroComposer, or if you have a power outage, you
will lose everything as there is no built-in memory. To overcome this, I recommend
you use a UPS backup system, and save your data often. Roland made an optional
MTR-100 tape backup unit for the MC-4, but unfortunately, you have to turn the unit off
before you plug it in. What this means is if you have multiple MC-4's, you will need multiple
MTR-100's, and they are very rare. An alternate solution is to use a Minidisc recorder.* The Minidisc recorder
allows you to name your data
for easy identification so you can easily retrieve your sequences later.
The Minidisc format is also good for backing up patches using the cassette interface built
into many vintage analog polysynths.
Musicians who have used the MC-4 Microcomposer
Richard D. James - Analord
Vince Clarke/Yazoo/Yaz/Erasure - Wonderland, Upstairs At Erics, etc.
Depeche Mode - Speak & Spell, A Broken Frame
Human League/Martin Rushent - Dare!
I SATELLITE - Life In Tokyo and other tracks
Rational Youth - Cold War/Night Life
Chris Carter/Throbbing Gristle - The Space Between
The Cars - Heartbeat City
Greg Hawkes - Niagara Falls
Trans-X - Living On Video
Art Of Noise - In Visible Silence
Giorgio Moroder - Moroder mentions "Roland's MicroComposer" in the
lyrics of E=MC2. Inside the CD is a picture of him with the Roland MC-8 and
I've been told he also owned several MC-4's.
The album title was a
reference to the MicroComposer: Energy = MicroComposer x 2.
John Foxx - The Garden
Tears For Fears/Ian Stanley - The Hurting
Wang Chung - Points on the Curve
Heaven 17 - Penthouse & Pavement/The Luxury Gap
Righeira - Righeira
Psyche - The Influence
Eugene Finardi - Finardi
Yellow Magic Orchestra
If you know of any other musicians who have used this sequencer, or have any tips or additional information about the Roland MC-4 MicroComposer, please e-mail me
and let me know.
(to be added)
The Roland MC-4 MicroComposer has very accurate, punchy timing that
modern sequencers simply cannot match. Those who have used
one, know this to be fact. It's a very difficult sequencer to learn
and use, but the results are well worth the trouble.
*Thanks to Tom Court in Detroit for the Minidisc tip.
Here's a list of other equipment I SATELLITE will be reviewing in the near future.
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