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Reviving the Roland MC-303 Retro Groovebox

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 have used it on some of the early Anjelicas Baby recordings such as “Crawling Back To You” and “Blame It On You”. I think it is a great little machine second hand for its price about £100 – £200 depending on condition. However, I am going to be honest about my past experiences with it. The MC-303 in its time was a revolution and the first of many so-called groove boxes. It could do anything from techno to dance, jungle and drum & bass to name but a few. It was rammed with sounds from classic synths 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 synth sounds on board as well. To own such instruments on their own would have set you back thousands upon thousands of dollars or British pounds. Then you needed the room to put your vintage gear in.

It looked very much like the old vintage TB-303’s and TR-808’s. It was essentially a sequencer-arranger with 8 tracks of recording. It even had built in FX such as chorus, flange, reverb and delay. Its real-time functions made it great fun to play with. It had filter cut off, resonance, stereo panning and arpeggio. The panning and delay FX would keep time with the tempo of your patterns or songs, which at the time was a really cool advance. It was 24-voice note polyphony, 16-part multi timbral, and on board there were 448 preset PCM ROM sounds, 300 preset patterns and 50 user patterns. Quite extraordinary back in (1996). No sooner had it made a splash in the music magazines like Future Music, Sound On Sound, and The Mix, it was quickly superseded by the Roland MC-505, JX-305 and the Yamaha RM1x. I guess this was because it was almost too good to be true for the unbelievable price of around £500. Yes you guessed it, there were some major drawbacks to the machine that made using it a maddening experience at times.

1 The first thing I noticed was it had a some what over 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 off the MC-303 to lets say a JV1080 which had a similar set of sounds you will find that the JV has a lot more presence and punch to it. To make an analogy here, it is like comparing a wave file to an mp3 file. I suspect to get all those sounds into the MC-303’s internal ROM, sacrifices had to be made, and maybe the bit rates 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 you want to almost grab the sounds out of your speakers and give them a good kick to uplift them. This is one issue I have noticed about Roland synths and especially drum machines from this period. The sounds almost sound too nice and clean as if you could invite them back to your parent’s house for Sunday dinner knowing they would not offend their musical tastes.

2 The real sounds such as trumpets, guitars etc were frankly horrid. Less would have been more in my opinion on this machine. Everything and the kitchen sink were stuffed in to it. As a result on the pre-installed patterns it had an amateurish kind of sound to it.

3 It only had two audio outputs so adding external FX such as 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. Hard drive recording with 16 tracks or more really came at 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 stand-alone machine. So if you wanted to use any other gear then you had to get the MC-303 to be the master sequencer. Well at that time the sequencer was no match for Logic or Cubase. Consequently, I had to record the patterns for the MC-303 from its own memory then do a bulk dump save to an Alesis datadisk of the song. I then had to set 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 from the start of the song every time. As soon as I fast-forwarded the Atari sequencer the MC-303 lost the plot, and well who knows what part of the song it would move to.

5 Any sound you wanted to play into your own sequencer transmitted in on omni mode across all 16-midi channels. What a crazy idea for the late 1990’s. To make matters even worse, the real time controls that made the machine so much fun were rendered impotent when you tried to record for example real-time filtering of a bass sound into your sequencer. Come-on Roland, you could record the control movements of a Juno 106 into your sequencer as far back as 1985.

Well as you can gather, I was less than pleased at the time with these limitations. Despite this, I had faith in the little beast. I saw the light and hoped that over a few years and more audio based recording products on PC’s and Mac’s, a breath of hope would be breathed into this machine. So with the passing of time, here come the positives.

1 It works great as a stand-alone unit. You can midi all your other gear to it. Then you can make use of its real cool arpeggio to bring some life back into your old boring synths.

2 It has loads and loads of PCM samples, which easily overcome some of the limitations of the real sounds on board. This is especially true if you have lots of other soft or hardware synths to use along side of it.

3 With modern technology you can record a sound into your sequencer, and then play with the MC-303 controls in real-time and record straight onto an audio track on your computer. This can really jazz it up with modern plugins.

4 It is very inexpensive second hand for a retro hardware unit with so many functions on it.

5 You can set it up as a standard synth module.

6 It has a handy little bass boost knob on the back of the machine for adding more bottom end to the audio output.

7 If you don’t overdo it, and use other equipment to add to your track you are recording, it really can sound very professional indeed.

So that’s the Roland MC-303 pros and cons in my subjective opinion. It’s a great little edition to anyone’s set up if used carefully and sparingly.