SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.12 No.5. March 1997
Retrospective by Chris Carter
ROLAND MC8 MICROCOMPOSER
HAPPY BIRTHDAY MC
This year is the 20th anniversary of what many regard as a landmark in sequencer history, for 1977 was the year Roland announced the birth of their pioneering grandfather of the MicroComposer family, the MC8. With the advertising by-line that read 'A new concept of control for a new era in electronic music composition.'
The MC8 wasn't the first digital/analogue sequencer available for the 70's electro musician, companies such as EMU, EMS and Oberheim also had sequencers available, but the MC8 and it's descendants, arguably had more impact on electronic music making in the 1970's and 80's than any other family of sequencers. The introduction of MC8 also saw the beginning of an inevitable move away from the prevalent 'running light', analogue, 12 step sequencers from MOOG, ARP and Roland and while analogue sequencers were definitely sexier looking, especially on stage, they were severely limited in the memory department.
BIRTH OF THE COOL
First let me enlighten you on how this 70's electro icon came into being. In 1971 Canadian Ralph Dyck developed a prototype single channel digital sequencer built from discreet components based on TTL logic circuits. Note information such as pitch, step time, gate time etc. was entered using a 10-key calculator keyboard and up to 1,024 notes could be recorded. Unfortunately he couldn't find an American company interested enough to manufacture it. Then in 1976 the president of Roland, Ikutaro Kakehashi saw the prototype and decided to manufacture a sequencer based on Dyck's ideas but comprising of more memory, 8 channels and incorporating, a then, state of the art 8080A microprocessor.
The MC8 just oozes quality, built like a tank to almost military specification and physically quite imposing. The sequencer is actually two separate units, the main MC8 unit and the MC8 Interface both connected at the rear by a substantial umbilical cord with massive 60-pin plugs at either end. The main unit has a large, single line, 12 digit red LED display, 30 push buttons for navigating through the various modes, a rotary tempo control and a 10-key calculator style keypad for entering data. The interface unit consists of 2 DIN sockets and 22 1/4" jack sockets for outputting gate, control voltages and MPX signals, 2 jack sockets for inputting CV and gate signals, 3 rotary controls and a switch for selecting output channels and portamento. 14 small LED's give a visual indication of the state of the gate and MPX outputs and on the rear is a toggle switch to select positive or negative gate polarity.
Both units are finished in a beige and grey livery with fetching, wooden end cheeks and with both units placed side by side (and neither can be used without the other) the MicroComposer measures 27" wide by 15" deep by 6" high and weighs in at a very hefty 35 lbs, portable it is not.
Interfacing on the MC8 is pretty comprehensive with CV and gate signals available for all eight channels with a separate MPX gate output available on channels 1-6. Outputs for channel 1 are also available via a 6 pin DIN socket with another, switchable DIN socket for channels 2-8. These DIN sockets are compatible with the Roland System 700 or System 100M modular synthesisers. On the rear of the main unit are 1/4" jack sockets for: Remote Start/Stop, Tape Memory Dump/Load, Sync In/Out and on a few MC8s there is a Sync 24 DIN output socket (see box).
MUSIC BY NUMBERS
The instruction manual for the MC8 is a huge arcane tome, measuring 9" x 12", an inch thick, weighing over 2 lbs and is full of terminology left over from 1960's computer programming. You are expected to understand instructions like: "Establish an ADDRESS' or 'Set a MEASURE END flag' but I won't go into details on how you programme the MC8 as it could take up most of this article and would be a pretty boring in a trainspotting kind of way. Examples are included for programming a Brahms Waltz, a 'mambo' rhythm, Yesterday, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. You are also provided with blank programming sheets full of grids for you to work out your own songs on.
Once you get your head around the concept of writing music by tapping out numbers on a calculator keyboard it isn't especially difficult to use. It's just that when you are expected to tap out hundreds of notes just for a 4 minute song things get pretty monotonous and tedious and you find yourself using the copy function a lot. Entering data has to be done in a very specific order or the display tells you in no uncertain terms that the MC8 is unhappy by flashing on and off at you, this is called the ERROR function. To quote the (sometimes hilarious) manual: 'The ERROR function is activated whenever you do something which is beyond the capabilities or comprehension of the MicroComposer", intuitive is not a word you could use to describe using the MC8.
A slightly easier way of entering notes is by connecting a keyboard with CV and gate outputs to the MC8 Interface unit. Notes can then be played into the MC8 from the keyboard. You are also supposed to be able to record from a CV keyboard in real time but the MC8 insists on substituting it's own idea of timing onto whatever is recorded. Playback can speed up or slow down with notes randomly getting longer and shorter, with only the pitch bearing any relation to the original and the only way of quantising is editing notes individually.
Transposing notes is very difficult, for strange as it may seem there is no transpose function and absolutely no way to transpose parts while in edit mode other than stepping through each note and entering a new amount on the keypad. Of course you could always use the transpose function on your CV synth keyboard or modules but that would transpose everything.
The MC8 was one of the first sequencers to adopt the technique of cutting and pasting note information from one location to another and although it is pretty rudimentary, you can perform basic copy, insert and delete functions across all 8 tracks and the technique becomes a essential procedure for most users. Of course we take the cut and paste approach to song construction pretty much for granted these days but it was quite an innovative feature at the time.
REMEMBER ME ?
Original MC8s with only 4k of RAM have the capacity to hold approximately 1,100 notes or so, this was pretty meagre even in 1977, so an upgrade was offered by Roland to take the total capacity to 16k. On later models 16k was included as standard which gave enough memory for about 5,300 notes. Using MPX outputs doesn't affect the memory that much but using all 8 CV's and gates simultaneously can fill up the RAM pretty fast and when it's memory approaches maximum programming it tends to get sluggish and lockups sometimes occur. But oddly enough if you assign more than one CV to a single channel (e.g. four CV's to one gate output) then more than 10,000 notes are possible, hmm.
Backing-up data is a pain, is slow and is probably the most often heard complaint from the majority of MC8 users. A good quality cassette machine is essential, preferably one optimised for data recording and premium quality cassettes are a must. Once you have set up your input and output levels the process of dumping and verifying can begin. On average a four minute song using 4 channels and MPX outputs can take in excess of ten minutes to save and another ten minutes to verify. If you're in a rush you can dispense with verifying the data but as sure as eggs is eggs you can bet that it will refuse to load up the next time you try. And what happens if the verify fails, well you spend another twenty minutes going through the whole bloody process again!
Understandably the MC8 didn't excel at playing (or recording) fancy stuff like keyboard solo's and lead lines, but what it did do exceptionally well was tight, multitrack sequencing, bass lines and rhythm patterns, frequently all at once. With the benefit of 8 separate CV/gate channels very complex polyrhythmic sequences can be produced with comparative ease and can also manage complex chords without a problem (assuming your synth is multi-voiced) by assigning multiple CV's to one channel. One of it's undoubted features, like a lot of Roland sequencers and drum machines, is it's rock solid timing. In full flow with all 14 channels outputting signals it always manages to steam along without taking a breath.
The only time it does fluctuate is when synchronised to tape and it's timing is governed by the fluctuations and variations of a tape machine. Synchronising to tape is achieved with an FSK tone which means always having to start the tape machine from the beginning to achieve proper sync, very irritating. In 1977 many studio's were still using 8 and 16 track tape machines and the MC8 allowed another 14 channels of MicroComposer controllable instruments (synths and drum modules) to be synchronised by only sacrificing one tape channel for the sync tone (see IN SYNC box). Although Roland probably had the System 700 synthesiser in mind when they designed the MC8 it is quite content driving much smaller keyboards and synths. I have always used an evolving System 100M and various Roland SH synths but it is just as happy connected to Arp, Oberheim, Prophet and MOOG equipment.
A unique feature for the time was the inclusion of a programmable tempo which could vary from note to note if needed. Other innovations included a realtime display showing minutes, seconds and a TOTAL TIME button. When this mode is used the MC8 can calculate the length of a song but more interestingly by adjusting the tempo control the MC8 will recalculate the length of the song until you get the required length you want, with accuracy to a tenth of a second, ideal for film and TV work. This was pretty innovative use of technology at the time and looking back 20 years it's understandable to see why it caused such excitement.
WHO'S WHO ?
For classic examples of outstanding MC8 programming just listen to early 1980's albums by electronic bands such as Kraftwerk (The Man Machine), Human League (Dare), Landscape (From the Tea Rooms of Mars). Other notable users of the time were, myself and Cosey, Tangerine Dream, producer Martin Rushent (Altered Images, Pete Shelley, Human League), Hans Zimmer, Toto, Tomita and Suzanne Ciani, the latter pair employing assistants to enter note numbers for them. A number of artists used multiple MicroComposer set-ups. Tomita used at least two, one being the first model off the production line and an MC4. Toto used three, each one extensively modified by the original designer Ralf Dyck. Hans Zimmer used three, one for each of his various Moog and Roland modular systems, while Martin Rushent used an MC8 and an MC4.
A lot of people ( OK, 300) have sweated blood and cursed this machine over the years, I know I have. But even with the ever present lure of the mouse and monitor I often find myself strangely drawn to the MC8. These days I tend to programme it to play some fab sequences or bass lines and leave a DAT in record and then sample from DAT later, but that's another story. My MC8 has made an appearance on at least half of the 30 or so albums and singles I've released, the most recent being last year. Sure it's beginning to show it's age now but until it actually packs up I will still return to it now and again.
Altogether now... "Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, ..."
ADDITIONAL TEXT / INFO BOXES
HOW MUCH ?
In 1977 the Roland UK price list puts the cost of a new MC8 MicroComposer at £4,522.85p, whereas in the States it was listed as $4,795, approximately half the UK price. The first models shipped with just 4k of memory and an operating system occupying only 500 bytes of memory, later models were upgraded to included 16k of RAM . Roland admit that they underestimated production costs and it actually cost more to manufacture than it sold for, which is probably why they hiked the price up in the UK. It was Roland's first digital sequencer to roll of the production line and although only 300 were manufactured it became quite a prestigious, high profile product. But while the MC8 may have been a financial failure for Roland it was an undoubted milestone in sequencer history and was the beginning of a line of distinguished and sometimes quirky MicroComposers.
The advertising literature of the time often showed the MC8 with a Roland System 700 modular synthesiser and the MC8 manual often refers to specific System 700 modules and connections to them. So how much would a set-up like this have cost you in 1977? Well, allowing for a UK list price of £9,038.46p for the full System 700 you get a total of £13,561.31p for an up and running system. For that much you could probably have bought a house, car and a decent meal.
IT'S IN THE SYNC
The MC8 has basic and sometimes frustrating synchronising facilities, which encouraged users all over the world to find ingenious and resourceful ways of hooking up supposedly incompatible equipment with it.
A common method is programming short gate pulses on spare MC8 channels to drive the sync inputs on other sequencers or drum machines, though this can seriously eat into the memory. It requires some experimentation to achieve the correct sync signal but once accomplished the code can be saved to tape and loaded in when needed. Another popular method is to use an MPX output to trigger the start/stop function of a drum machine or sequencer set to the same tempo as the MC8.
When I bought my MC8 Roland UK were providing a modification that installed a SYNC 24 DIN socket on the rear panel (see photo). This worked fine with all manner of drum machines and sequencers but was only an output, which meant the MC8 could not itself be driven by a sequencer or drum machine. However, some years ago and quite by accident I came across a way of synchronising the MC8 to MIDI and SYNC 24 even though the MC8 doesn't have a sync input. The MC8s tape sync system uses a standard Roland FSK signal and will respond to an FSK code recorded onto tape by another Roland drum machine or sequencer. If you connect the tape sync output from a Roland drum machine such as a TR707/727 to the tape sync input on the MC8 the two machines will sync up. The TR707/727 is an ideal bridge between old and new technologies as it incorporates MIDI in/out, SYNC 24 in/out and tape sync in/out and will output all the signals simultaneously to drive all manner of equipment.
WHAT PRICE MC8 or MC4 or MC202 ?
I bought my MC8 in 1982 for £1,400 second-hand (from Landscape) but how much would an MC8 cost today? The simple answer is, I don't know and I don't know a man who does know either. Colleagues and dealers I have spoken to haven' t seen any for years, the last MC8 I saw for sale was in a free ads paper about six or seven years ago for £500 but unless you are an avid retro collector or run a museum a more reasonable price would probably be around £200-£300, mint. However MC4s do turn up occasionally (in the January issue of SOS, no less), sometimes with an MTR-100 data recorder. The MC4/MTR-100 combination is probably a better buy than an MC8 in terms of features and back-up speed but make sure an instruction manual is included, expect to pay about £200-£300. The other alternative is an MC202 which appear more frequently but are not as collectible as they used to be and their price has come down in recent years, don't pay more than £100-£200 for one in mint condition.
If you come across an MC that suits your price range and you aren't afraid of getting your hands dirty give it a chance but don't forget, no MIDI, no undo, no monitor screens, and no mouse... Can you handle it ?
CV, GATE & MPX:
CV signals produce a programmable voltage of 0-11v. A value of 0=0v, 12+1v, 24=2v, 36=3v and so on, with a value of 60 being equivalent to middle C on a keyboard. The MC8 has 8 CV outputs and can control 8 VCOs (voltage controlled oscillators) simultaneously. Alternatively output 1 could control the pitch of one or more VCOs , output 2 the tone with a VCF (voltage controlled filter) and output 3 the dynamics with a VCA (voltage controlled amplifier). More than one CV can be assigned to a channel. You could for instance, have channel one simultaneously controlling 4 CV's (two VCOs, VCF, VCA), a gate signal and 6 MPX signals.
A gate signal produces an output of 15v for triggering envelope shapers or other triggerable sources. The length of the gate is programmable: 0=NO GATE, 16=SHORT PULSE, 255=EXTENDED SUSTAIN and so on. The MC8 has 8 gate outputs and the polarity of the gates can be set (globally) to positive, for Roland and Arp equipment or to negative for Moog and Korg equipment etc.
MPX is a feature unique to Roland MicroComposers and is essentially 6 additional gate signals assigned to one channel. Each time a note on the specified channel occurs you can assign up to 6 MPX triggers to output a 15v signal at that step event, with the length of the note deciding the length of ALL the MPX triggers at that point. There is also a seventh MPX signal to switch the portamento function on and off for channel one only. MPX outputs 1-6 are capable of triggering various drum pads, electronic drums, percussion modules, envelope generators or other sequencers and drum machines. For example, the MPX outputs could be connected to the following sources:
1-BASS DRUM , 2-SNARE , 3-HIGH HAT, 4-TOM, 5-SYNTH MODULE, 6-ANALOGUE SEQUENCER. In MPX mode the MC8 would display a rhythm pattern like this, each number represents whether the MPX output is on or off:
Step 1: 1 - 3 4 - 6 (four triggers set)
Step 2: - 2 - - 5 - (two triggers set)
Step 3: 1 - 3 - 5 - (three triggers set)
Step 4: - - 3 4 - 6 (three triggers set)
Step 5: 1 2 - 4 5 6 (five triggers set)
Step 6: 1 2 3 4 5 6 (all triggers set)
and so on...
OTHER PRE-MIDI MICROCOMPOSERS
A single piece unit with less channels but in most respects an improvement on the MC8. Included a transpose function, much better synchronisation, CV input calibration and 48k of RAM, enough for 11,500 notes. Optional extras included the MTR-100 digital data recorder and the OP-8M CV to DCB/MIDI interface.
A battery operated, 2 channel MicroComposer with a built-in SH101 synth, a mini keyboard and very comprehensive interfacing. A very underrated machine, apparently Roland's worst selling product.
TERMS and ABBREVIATIONS:
CV: Control Voltage.
MEASURE END FLAG : Signifies the end of a bar. e.g. The measure end flag would be the eighth note on an 8 note riff.
FSK: Frequency Shift Keying, a synchronising code.
SYNC 24: A synchronising interface used on most pre-MIDI sequencers and drum machines.
STEP TIME : The length each note is held before moving on to the next, a channel must have a step time programmed before it can accept CV information.
GATE TIME : The length each gate is held at 15v before moving on to the next. Gate time is never longer than the step time.
VCO: Voltage Controlled Oscillator
VCF: Voltage Controlled Filter
VCA: Voltage Controlled Amplifier
DIN: Small multi pin connector
RAM: Random Access Memory
EMS: UK Synth manufacturer
ARP: US Synth manufacturer
Copyright © 1997 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.