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Reviving the Roland MC-303 Retro Groovebox
I’ve been using the Roland MC-303 on and off since I brought it in (1996). I used it on some of Anjelicas Baby’s early recordings like “Crawling Back To You” and “Blame It On You”. I think it’s a great second hand machine for its price around £100 – £200 depending on condition. However, I will be honest about my past experiences with it. The MC-303 was a revolution in its day and the first of many so-called groove boxes. It could do anything from techno to dance, jungle and drum & bass to name just a few. It was rammed with sounds of classic synthesizers such as the Roland Juno and Jupiter series and had the classic retro sounds of the Roland TR-808 and TR-909. Also, it had the Roland TB-303 bass type synthetic sounds on board as well. Owning such instruments by itself would have set you back thousands upon thousands of dollars or British pounds. Then you needed the room to put your vintage gear.
It looked a lot like the old vintage TB-303 and TR-808. It was basically a sequencer-arranger with 8 tracks of recording. It even has built in FX like chorus, flange, reverb and delay. Its real-time features made it very fun to play. It had filter cut off, resonance, stereo pan and arpeggio. The panning and delay FX would keep time with the beat of your patterns or songs, which at the time was a really cool advance. It was a 24-voice note polyphony, 16-part multitimbral, and on board were 448 preset PCM ROM sounds, 300 preset patterns and 50 user patterns. Pretty extraordinary back in (1996). As soon as it made a splash in the music magazines like Future Music, Sound On Sound, and The Mix, it was quickly replaced by the Roland MC-505, JX-305 and the Yamaha RM1x. I guess that was because it was almost too good to be true for the incredible price of around £500. Yes, you guessed it, there were some major drawbacks to the machine that sometimes made using it a crazy experience.
1 The first thing I noticed was that it had a bit too compressed kind of sound and lacked any real punch. It could reproduce dance music very well using the TR-909 sounds. If you ever compare the sounds of the MC-303 to a JV1080 that had a similar set of sounds, you’ll find that the JV has a lot more presence and punch to it. To make an analogy here, it’s like comparing a wave file to an mp3 file. I suspect that to get all those sounds into the MC-303’s internal ROM, sacrifices had to be made, and perhaps the bitrates of the MC-303’s sample library were reduced. Don’t get me wrong, the sounds have full clarity and many are in stereo, but you definitely feel like you want to almost grab the sounds from your speakers and give them a good kick to lift them up. Here’s one thing I’ve noticed about Roland synthesizers and especially drum machines from this period. The sounds almost sound too nice and clean as if you could invite them back to your parents’ house for Sunday dinner knowing they wouldn’t offend their musical tastes.
2 The real sounds like trumpets, guitars etc. were frankly terrible. Less would be more in my opinion on this machine. Everything and the kitchen sink was plugged into it. As a result on the preset patterns it had an amateur kind of sound to it.
3 It only had two audio outputs, so adding external FX like reverb or delay meant you needed to record the sounds on separate tracks of your audio recorder. At the time mine was a Fostex DMT8 hard drive 8 track recorder. A hard disk recording with 16 tracks or more really had a price back then.
4 Most irritating of all was its almost non-existent midi implementation. When they meant retro, they really took it to heart here. They basically designed it to work as a standalone machine. So if you wanted to use some other gear, then you had to make the MC-303 be the master sequencer. Well at that time the sequencer was no match for Logic or Cubase. Therefore, I had to record the patterns for the MC-303 from its own memory and do a mass dump to an Alesis data disk of the song. I then had to configure my Atari 1040 computer sequencer to trigger the MC-303 as a slave. So, great sorted. Oh no, wait a minute, you had to trigger the MC-303 every time from the beginning of the song. As soon as I fast-forwarded the Atari sequencer, the MC-303 lost the plot, and well who knows which part of the song it would move to.
5 Any sound you wanted to play into your own sequencer, transmitted in omni mode across all 16 midi channels. What a crazy idea for the late 1990s. To make matters worse, the real-time controls that make the machine so much fun became powerless when you tried to record, say, real-time filtering of a bass sound into your sequencer. Come on Roland, you could record the Juno 106 control movements in your sequencer as early as 1985.
Well as you can tell I was less than happy at the time with these restrictions. Despite that, I believed in the little animal. I saw the light and hoped that in a few years and more audio-based recording products on PCs and Macs, a breath of hope would be breathed into this machine. So with the passage of time, here come the positives.
1 It works great as a standalone unit. You can connect all your other gear to it. Then you can use its real cool arpeggio to revive your old boring synths.
2 It has a lot of PCM samples, which easily overcomes some of the limitations of the actual sounds on board. This is especially true if you have a lot of other soft or hardware synths to use alongside it.
3 With modern technology you can record sound in your sequencer, and then play with the MC-303 controls in real time and record directly onto an audio track on your computer. This can really jazz it up with modern plugins.
4 It is very cheap second hand for retro hardware with so many features on it.
5 You can configure it as a standard synthesis module.
6 It has a handy little bass boost button on the back of the machine to add more bottom end to the audio output.
7 If you don’t overdo it and use other equipment to add to your track you’re recording, it can really sound very professional.
So that’s the pros and cons of Roland MC-303 in my subjective opinion. It’s a great release for anyone set up if used carefully and sparingly.
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