Reviving the Roland MC- Retro Groovebox

By | November 21, 2017

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 No sooner had it made a splash in the music magazines like Future Music, Sound On Sound, and The Mix, it was quickly superseded by the Roland MC-505, JX-305 and the Yamaha RM1x.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.

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