DJ Tools: Roland MC-909 Sampling Groovebox
Author: Chris Macro
The MC-909 Groovebox is the latest in groove related products on offer from Roland, a series begun with the MC-303 four or five years back.
A lot of what's on offer here has been available on past Roland Groovebox products. The significant progression from its predecessor (the MC-307), is that this time around they have integrated a sampler into the package.
The mixer is similar to that of the 505, and the pitch control is similar to the controller on the 307. There are knobs and sliders all over the new-improved, bigger-sized panel and a major bonus is the LCD screen which is similar to the one found on the MPC3000.
Other new features include the mastering function which inserts a 3-band compressor over the main output, a USB input, and the SRX series expansion slots. Let's not forget the D-Beam. Actually I'm not even gonna go there with the D-Beam - I don't know why they even try and keep pushing that! I mean come on, seriously, who would use it?
Let me say that this product looks and sounds great - cheesy pre-sets aside. They do serve to provide a view to what's up for grabs here, and sound-wise there is a lot on offer. 800 patches and 64 drumkits, with space for 256 user patches and 128 user drumkits on-board, plus the option of SmartMedia memory card expansion which is essential if you want to use the sampler. You get about 200 pre-set patterns and can save 200 of your own on-board, more of course with the SmartMedia card.
A big bonus on this model, that has been a huge oversight at Roland until now, is the addition of touch sensitive pads. Obviously more expressive, although they are quite small and take a little getting used to.
One of my favourite things on this model is the 'Turntable Emulation'. This basically lets you time stretch your sequences with or without altering the pitch. Real good for mixing your tunes in with records or just experimenting with your stuff at different pitch and speed. Its accuracy is surprising and switching between pitch and time modes is nice and straightforward.
The sequencer has 16 parts where the older Grooveboxes had eight. The mixer operates in conjunction with what's on screen to give you greater control over your mix. The eight mixing faders toggle between parts 1-8 and 9-16, and can be used to control other real-time sequence/mix data. Separate knobs and slider sections for pitch, filter and amp give the Groovebox a nice old skool feel and minimise the amount of 'shift' or 'control' key mucking around. Nice.
Sequence data can be input in real-time, step or what they now call 'TR-Rec.' mode. This switches the velocity pads to timing scale buttons, and the graphic interface on screen is similar to Fruity Loops or the matrix edit screen in Logic Audio. This is an easy and fun way to program drums.
All real-time twiddling can also be recorded of course. While recording, notes can also be erased in real-time, and you can switch in and out of rec/rehearsal mode with ease, so you can drop it when it's just right. The whole operating system for the sequencer is easy to use and has to be the big bonus of this unit.
Basic ideas can be assembled in minutes, and with the quantize plus the new expanded arpeggiator functions, even the novice can make some reasonably good sounding beats. It gets easier. There is also chord memory that lets you program in different chord structures, so you can play chords by pressing only one key. No musical knowledge required!
Why is it that the first sound in any pre-set library sounds like crap? Pre-set A001 is a diabolical sounding synth called 'Trance Chord'. Wouldn't it make more sense to put your freshest sound at the start of the list to make a good impression? However, the lameness of 'Trance Chord' is in no way an indication of the rest of the library. I general think it's pretty good.
Most impressive for me were the pads, keys and guitar sounds. Synth gat is in a bit of a renaissance due to the popularity of Neptune's beats. There are some good varieties on board. The pads are quite deep and lush, a big improvement on previous models. Some good Rhodes sounds too.
Of course all the best sounds come from tweaking stuff out, and this is the Groovebox's speciality. Its real-time control and array of knobs makes it a totally unstoppable tweak-fest from the moment you turn it on. This combined with some very cool onboard FX and the scope for sound becomes huge. The FX in general are good. Nice distortions and a good guitar amp simulator, chorus and flange of course, and my favourites are the synchronised tape delays. Great for dubbing it out.
The Sampler section of the 909 is the big new feature - design-wise though it seems a little bit like an after thought. Workspace for it is small and cramped. Sound-wise it's fine but its operating system is kind'a weird. Simple functions like trimming are a little tricky and less obvious than they should be, although there is a 177 page manual to help you out!