With characteristic engineer’s modesty, Polish maker Polyend calls its Medusa wavetable+analog grid “slightly different.” But it’s really rather different, and a €798 price makes it more accessible.
TL:DR – the Medusa is a unique instrument sonically, nothing else has its control layout, the grid adds expression and doubles as MPE controller for other gear (including modular), and the price cut should bring it slightly more in range. (Plus you now get some colored knobs for customization.)
I’m honestly surprised, then, that it hasn’t gotten more attention, but I think it could be a slow burner. At the risk of being accused of shilling for Polyend, let me explain why I feel that way; you’re welcome to disagree, naturally.
Let’s get into it:
There’s an embarrassment of riches in the synth world now, both modular and desktop. And 2019 has quickly become a flood of instruments employing wavetable synthesis. At first, I thought that might make the more boutique, idiosyncratic Polyend Medusa lost in the crowd. But on reflection, I think now with all these wavetable options – and yes, more about those soon – the Medusa stands out.
I’ll be a bit blunt. One drawback of wavetable synthesis is that the sounds can become grating. And the same thing that makes wavetable appealing (wild possibilities as you modulate through the wavetables) can also make it tiring or hard to control (wild possibilities as you modulate through the wavetables). That’s arguably an objective assessment, even – the whole idea of the approach is, you get a bunch of harmonic and inharmonic content shifting quickly. We’re not accustomed to that in acoustic instruments or most natural sound. It’s exciting, but too much of it could then become like drinking hot sauce out of the bottle.
So with that in mind, Medusa’s split personality seems rather prescient. By pairing the three digital wavetable oscillators with three analog oscillators, the Dreadbox analog filter (to tame some of that harmonic content), and an analog noise generator, there’s ample opportunity to balance out the instrument’s edgier sounds with some warm body. And Polyend’s deceptively simple approach – putting dedicated fader smack dab in the middle of the unit – means you can literally just reach out and grab either side to adjust.
If you just want a wavetable synthesizer, in other words, you now have a growing number of cheaper options. But a big reason why I don’t want to part with the Medusa is, it has this strong tendency to be warm and fuzzy when you want it to be – and to mix hard-synced analog sounds with the wavetable ones.
That alone isn’t quite enough to set apart the Medusa, though, since there are various other architectures available. So now, some of the braver design decisions Jacek and Polyend made on the Medusa mean that it continues to stand out of the pack. That is, no one else is really attacking ideas like this:
The XYZ touch detection of the Medusa grid (which is still astoundingly precise and expressive, something that’s hard to nail on this sort of 8×8 grid)
MPE compatibility (now a MIDI standard for polyphonic expression, so you can use all those fingertips of yours independently, as intended)
Lots of independent modulation sources and the ability to route them with just a couple of button presses – that is, the five LFOs and five loopable envelopes – all without menu diving.
Here’s a beautiful demonstration of how well this MPE stuff works, using Polyend’s also-superb Poly 2 MIDI to CV converter. It really makes an excellent polyphonic controller for modular hardware and advanced MPE-compatible software synths:
On specs alone, other wavetable instruments do look competitive. But none so far under a grand offers this accessibility of modulation and expression that the grid and control layout of the Medusa provide.
And I feel now more than ever than owning the Medusa really is like having a unique Eurorack modular, minus the rack. And it’s one that you get attached to, rather than wanting to unscrew a couple of modules and put them up for sale used. (Yes, Dreadbox for their part even have a new line of budget modules. And they’re great, but note that you quickly reach the price of the Medusa, without a case, and with fewer capabilities and arguably even less-ready routing.)
All of this ought to be an answer to people droning on… Oh, wait – drones! I forgot! Drone mode is really superb, allowing you to latch tones and create gorgeous, shifting drones. You can spend hours doing this.
Sorry, got distracted there. Where was I? Oh yes –
People are constantly droning on (a much less appealing sound than music drones) about how there are no new ideas in electronic instruments, yadda yadda, everything is from the 70s, everything is a clone or remake…
The Medusa ought to be an answer to that, if more people paid it some attention. 3D grid sensing is absolutely new, as is the kind of integrated control possible here. Now, sure, individual elements like envelopes and wavetable synthesis and 24dB/octave analog filters are all new. But it’s peculiar that synths are suddenly held up to this idea of needing to reinvent fundamental building blocks every single time. If acoustic instruments were judged by the same standard, you could argue there was no difference between a bagpipe, an English horn, and a Cambodian Sralai because they all have reeds. The exact combination really does matter. You might love or hate the combination on the Medusa, but that’s the point – it feels like a particular set of instrumental decisions.
I’ve reviewed the Medusa already, though, and thanks to being slow with my review incorporated lots of the firmware improvements early reviewers missed.
But I do feel reasonably confident in saying it’s worth a look if €799 is now in budget. It’s definitely not for everyone. But why should everything be that? What the Medusa proves is, even doing something relatively obvious (polyphony, wavetable sound sources), you can still remain unique by taking some risks.
And if I didn’t cheer-lead a bit for that, it would mean I had probably ceased being myself.
It’s the Latvian Synthi that never was – an all-new instrument, not a clone, built around the signature analog matrix.
England’s EMS Synthi AKS is simply one of the greatest-ever standalone designs for experimentation. The 1972 instrument inspired Jean Michel Jarre and Pink Floyd. But it’s not a modular – all that sonic possibility is designed into a single unit – and it doesn’t use patch cords. The patch matrix, that grid you see in the center, is where you create different sound routings.
The SYNTRX (“sintrex“) is a from-scratch creation from the Riga-based builder that uses this interface scheme. Shipping end of 2019, EUR2500 + VAT where applicable.
Now, for all the recreations and clones, it’s important to note that Erica Synths aren’t cloning anything. They even advertise the fact that the SYNTRX has absolutely no part of its schematics cloned from the original – there’s a twist, in a day when supposed “authenticity” usually trumps originality. (And yes, that could be read as a shot across the bow of clone-happy Behringer.)
But there’s some precedent for this. After all, think of how many instruments have a piano/organ-style keyboard manual, and how differently those instruments can sound and behave.
So think instead of the SYNTRX as the Latvian cousin the EMS box never had. The DNA of this instrument is all from Riga. Engineers from the Riga Technical University collaborated with Erica on the all-new design. The matrix is built around a digitally-controlled set of analog switches (32 8-channel switches), not mechanical connections like most matrices. That’s thanks to the Latvian-made chips from ex-Soviet maker Alfa – the AS16M1 IC, to be exact. (I took a tour of the Alfa facility in June, accompanied by FACT executive editor John, and again lamented my inability to speak Russian.) Each patch point is attenuated at three different levels, too.
256 patch memory points
Automatic patch switching in performance mode, or via MIDI triggers
Noise generator with color
Resonant analog filter
Looping envelope generator
Of course a joystick – you need that
Input amp with adjustable gain so you can connect a mic to line levels (oddly enough, I spent yesterday afternoon singing the praises of using mics in modular settings for a workshop here in Ljubljana, Slovenia)
3 (!) voltage controlled amplifiers
Analog CV/audio signal level indicator plus output signal filter
Sample & hold circuit with individual clock
VCO 1 has an octave switch; VCO2 has sync
Attack/Decay mode on the envelope generator
MIDI input of CV, gate, modulation, (and for the matrix) program change
Aluminum enclosure, ash tree side panels
Those envelope and extra oscillator features, plus of course MIDI control and extra performance functionality, is all new to this take on the Synthi, as is the Erica circuitry. So it is unmistakably retro, but it is still a fresh remake, not a slavish reproduction.
Recent staff cuts at the company have hurt customer support, according to sources familiar with the matter and user complaints.
Native Instruments did not mention cuts to customer support in its statements to me earlier this month. NI cut an estimated 30% of its workforce this summer — fully 20% in a single day, as reported by the company. Yet despite promises from NI management that these changes would “improve the experience for all users of our products,” one immediate impact is constrained support options and increased service backlogs.
Direct personal support options, previously offering email and phone support, are now reduced or gone. You can observe this for yourself by navigating NI’s site.
Software support now dead-ends at a set of documentation articles; then you’re able to create a post on the community forums if you don’t find an answer, but direct contact is gone.
Hardware support does provide some direct contact options – you can directly contact repair service if you have faulty hardware, which allows you to open a ticket. But even most hardware options now also lead only to the knowledge base.
It’s also possible to open a chat for presales or order and account support, but that change may be flooding account support with queries that would normally go elsewhere, sources tell us.
Your best bet if you are having problems is still to make a post in the forums – or talk to other users. But reaching NI support is more difficult; a message across all support pages now reads:
“Due to the high amount of incoming requests, we currently cannot achieve our desired response times. We thank you in advance for your patience until we get to your request.”
You will find a September 10 update to Traktor DJ 2 on the site, and Native Access has recently delivered updates for Komplete Kontrol, Controller Editor, and Maschine, though at least some of these involve development that would have preceded the cuts.
Native Instruments did not immediately respond to CDM’s request for comment.
Mobile keyboards continue to be fruitful and multiply. But Novation’s latest includes standalone mode, so it isn’t just a computer accessory – so let’s see how this category looks now.
Novation is the company that brought you the workhorse Launchpad grid, so anyone wanting a keyboard with colored grids on it would do well to take notice. But the MK3 adds some features its predecessors lacked – starting with the ability to work with gear minus the computer. New on the MK3:
Standalone mode and MIDI. There’s just a 3.5mm MIDI out jack, but combined with functionality that works without a host, you can now use this little keyboard with gear and not just a computer.
Fixed chord mode. Even for those of us with keyboard chops, this is useful on a small keyboard or in dance music contexts. New on the MK3.
Arpeggiator. New on the MK3, and puts the Novation in contention with offerings labeled Akai and Arturia.
Pitch/mod wheel. MK3 adds these as touch strips; the Launchkey 25/49/61 have pitch and mod, but it’s new on the Mini line.
RGB backlight. Yes, yes, more disco lights – but this also shows more information, matching colors to clips you’re launching and indicating status. Also new on MK3.
There’s also a Capture MIDI button, which lets you grab ideas even if you haven’t hit record. That’s now in Ableton Live, too, but it’s great that with the keyboard, this works everywhere.
And existing standard features from the Launchkey mini are here too:
Scene/clip launch (for Ableton and Novation software – this is a Launchpad).
Velocity sensitive keys and pads. Also standard on the Launchkey line. Velocity is actually missing on the Launchpad mini, meaning if you want triggering and velocity, this is a better bet.
There’s additionally now a bunch of bundled stuff from AAS, Softube, Spitfire Audio, XLN Audio and Klevgrand, and Novation now does a free membership. No, that isn’t some elaborate “cloud/subscription” feature – they just send you stuff from partners “every couple of months,” which may be more what you want, anyway.
This does make the Novation offering competitive, no doubt – not least because of Novation’s uniquely close relationship to Ableton Live, but likely just as useful with other DAWs (via Mackie HUI, which works with just about anything).
Here’s a hands-on review by loopop:
This also to me gives it a major edge over, say, Native Instruments’ keyboards, which work only when connected to a computer. That makes their Komplete Kontrol line desirable if you’re mainly interested in plug-in integration, but fairly useless if you want it to do double-duty with gear and not have to boot your laptop.
And that’s true of many other keyboards, too. Akai’s APC and MPK mini keyboards have some nice features and low prices, but they only work with a computer. (The MPK mini now has standalone sounds, but no MIDI out apart from USB.) And now Novation has added one of the features I like best on the MPK – the arpeggiator.
So this is really down to Arturia and Novation if you want something you can use on its own with your gear, as well as with a computer.
Arturia’s Keystep has a step sequencer and more dedicated arpeggiator functionality and controls. It lacks the pads and their accompanying trigger/DAW features.
So Novation gives you a still-usable arpeggiator but additional pad and trigger features.
We can talk a lot about engineering. But at some point, you pack vacuum tubes and DSP and chips together, and you get a delay that’s extreme enough to have Ninja Tune and Coldcut printed on it.
Yes, meet the Zen Delay, a new unique stereo delay from Erica Synths, but carrying the Ninja Tune label on it. So, yeah, the record industry is now so bad, we’re making analog delays. Wait – that’s kind of awesome. Stereo delays are more fun to some of us than records, anyway.
Now, I’ve known about this thing for quite a while, so if it seems like I’m raving, I’m not getting that from the press release. Dr. Walker, the underground acid master from Germany, first clued me in to this project with Matt Black, Ninja and Coldcut co-founder. Ninja’s logo is on it, but it’s really both the baby of Ingmar and Matt – part Air Liquide, part Coldcut – with all the sound elements from Riga’s Erica.
The idea is pretty simple: make a stereo delay that you can dial from gentle stereo warmth and space all the way up to extreme dub and screaming overdrive.
Erica sent me a late-stage prototype to test, and I spent a lot of time with it. The trick here is really the combination of analog and digital ingredients:
Stereo delay. You get a precise, full-ranging stereo dub delay, with as little as 1ms all the way up to 5 seconds, and it’s syncable.
And thanks to being digital, you can choose what that delay is – tape, tape pingpong, “digital” (sounding more or less like your basic digital delay), or a special fifth mode. (On mine, that fifth mode was something called “crossover,” which wasn’t terribly useful. Now, it’s a vintage delay with some nice lo-fi touches, I’m told, but I haven’t yet gotten to test it, as it’s actively in development.
Multi-mode filter. There’s a 24dB filter with resonance, which you can use in lowpass, highpass, or bandpass modes.
Valves! Valve saturation and overdrive are what really complete the package – you’ll spot that lovely tube popping out of the top.
Tempo controls. There’s CV in, plus MIDI in, plus tap tempo, so you can use external time, free time in milliseonds, or tap in a tempo.
There’s also clock division, in “beat” mode (which wasn’t available yet on the firmware I first tested). Push and hold the TAP button, and the delay time knob becomes clock divider/multiplier – down to an eighth of the beat, and up to 8 times the beat. (This will actually increase the potential length of the delay up to 50 seconds, so I guess fast bathroom breaks are now possible onstage!)
High-quality digital engine. High-spec ADC and DAC combine with a 24-bit, 48k digital engine.
So in other words, you get the precision and precise timing of the digital delay, plus the ability to choose different delay models in a single unit. But the overall impact is very, very dirty, when you want it to be – thanks to that analog overdrive. So when you want warmth or grime or total insanity, you can dial that in.
“Complete package” and “dialing” are also essential, because Erica have really leaned in to the heavy, vintage, metal feeling of the box. It’s 870 grams of metal here (almost two pounds), with one-knob-per control, and each knob is a big, smooth-feeling dial.
This is a box for your hands, not your feet – something that you do want to reach out and grab and adjust. That makes it ideal for studio and live production. I can absolutely see wanting this live.
Erica have been in this territory before, with their screaming Acidbox (based on the Polivoks filter, and sounding just as angry and Soviet), and the Fusionbox. The Acidbox is terrific, but it’s like having a giant bottle of hot sauce at the ready – it’s just this mental USSR-style filter. The Fusionbox is the nearer comparison, and it might still be the one you want, since it has flanger and ensemble stereo in addition to delay.
But make no mistake – as a dubby delay, the Zen Delay is just about perfect. Easy access to the Drive setting, the useful dubby delay modes, and that magical distortion make it something truly special. And it’s only something Erica could do – it combines their custom DSP, their lovely Latvian-made chips, and this analog into one box.
To anyone who says no one is “innovating,” maybe it’s just a misunderstanding of what musical innovation is. Erica’s creation here is a kind of new vintage. The starting point is some traditions, but constructed into something that you haven’t had before – which is basically what instrument design has always been about.
Pricing: pre-order at €499 + VAT, with the first 300 units with a limited edition Zen Delay t-shirt at a discounted €454 + VAT, from the Ninja Tune and Erica Synth websites.
Now, you may or may not have half a grand to spend on a delay that you won’t get until Christmas. But, if you do, this is clearly a nice way to go about it.
I’m editing some sounds and will post at the end of the day. But this short video with The Bug sums it up beautifully:
The press release claims this is the first effects unit to be produced by an electronic label, though I’m not entirely certain that’s correct. (Some CDM reader probably has a tiny label that ran off a few pedals, I’m guessing, before I jump out on a limb and go along with the claim!)
The newest Erica system is an exercise in minimalism – analog, fit in a single unit. The price and size are absolutely as low as you can go – but with some deep sound capabilities.
Here’s divkid talking to our friend Girts about this one:
Erica Synths had been telling me this was what they were working on, integrating their analog circuitry and custom design onto a single PCB. That allows the cost savings that squeeze all this power into a 450EUR box, even with case (400 without the case; tax extra for us Europeans as per usual law).
But wow, even knowing this was coming, it’s better than I expected. You get West Coast-style experimentalism, complete with the snappy, percussive sound of LPG (Low Pass Gates) with resonance, and a unique waveshaper and signature Erica Bucket Brigade Delay. I can see why West Coast sounds are catching on – they’re distinctive, and can produce expressive rhythms and timbres both for experimental and dance contexts. And they’re fun – in a way that makes sense in a modular interface, specifically.
Plus all of this is somehow squeezed into something that still has enough mixing and modulation to work well for live performance. It’s no accident that Erica is populated by musicians and runs their own festival – they clearly love making instruments that work live.
All of this does require some insane miniaturization, so if you like spacious layouts for your stubby fingers and clear differentiation of what does what, this is very much the opposite of what you want.
For those of us who like creative systems, tiny things, and staying on a poor experimental artist’s budget, though, it could be a revelation.
Great writeup in German on sequencer.de (for DE speakers):
Erica Synths have made a strength out of building a full catalog of modules – and their systems show off how complete that is, at a price that compares favorably.
The Black System is probably the most practical of these rigs, with a versatile selection that can cover a range of experimental or dance genres. (The Techno System I reviewed earlier tends more to the industrial techno sounds, indeed, focused on drums and biting synth sounds; the Dada Noise System for Liquid Sky was more to acquired tastes.)
The Black System II really is a reasonable buy, at least by Eurorack standards – that 2900EUR is nothing to sneeze at for musicians, but it could well save versus a bespoke modular system. And it’s also notable that it’s still less than some flagship keyboard instruments, with arguably a much deeper potential for exploration. (Well, depending on what you want – I mean, if I did have a magic fairy to make something appear, I would probably wish for this over some of those keyboards.)
But even if you never buy one of these Erica systems, I think it’s still a significant exercise for the company. Recall that the likes of Buchla, EMS, Roland, and Moog – not to mention later lower-cost options like PAiA and eventually Doepfer – all built complete systems.
Now, it’s marvelous that we have a marketplace in Eurorack of weird one-off modules or idiosyncratic grab bags of gear from small makers. But even if you plan to mix and match, it’s useful to have a module that came from a bigger picture. It adds to the value of assembling your own custom rig, that is, if you can add some modules that still had a pre-conceived idea of how they’d fit into a complete instrument, even if you then change what that complete instrument is.
And this particular lineup really is rather nice, from the joystick controller (also on the Dada Noise), to the Soviet-inspired Polivoks filter, to a stereo delay:
There’s really all the basics you need for integrating MIDI and working with CV, shaping sounds, and mixing and output. Plus unique to this particular range, you can choose different flavors in different patches – both wavetable and simple analog VCO, both multimode and Polivoks filter, and so on.
Just remember, if this is too rich for your blood, you can also get the Polivoks System for 1400EUR or the adorable tiny Pico System II for 1120EUR. The latter you can even carry along with you on Ryanair for the truly cash-starved modular artist.
If there was any doubt that KORG wants to be the Nintendo of music brands, here’s yet another partnership with the iconic game maker – but it’s sadly only skin deep.
Yes, it’s true, you get insanely cute Pokémon metronomes and clip-on pitch tuners. But there’s a missed opportunity here – whereas Teenage Engineering recently made full-on Rick & Morty Pocket Operators, KORG are only changing the paint job on their hardware.
The mind reels at the possibilities. You could have a Tamagotchi-style creature on your metronome. Or you could use Pokémon Go-style real-world capture to find synths for KORG Gadget. (Hang around Kottbusser Tor, Berlin to snag a rare Eurorackosaur; get a Prophetee 5 in Berkeley, California.)
Okay, I guess this may not help you with violin practice. (Maybe some gamification element to music learning?)
The point is, KORG continue to play on their relationship with gaming. So even if it’s just a cute tuner or metronome for kids, I think they’ve been very clever continuing to associate fun with their music tech. And fun is supposed to be part of the point, right?
The move back to hardware jams is in full force. And what better sign than Roland re-introducing the MC groovebox line – with the full-sized MC-707 and pint-sized MC-101. The reason you know it’s not the 1990s? They advertise them as replacing your laptop.
MC-707: US$999.99 MC-101: US$499.99 Available this month.
Roland originated the term Groovebox when it introduced its MC-303 in 1996. But the idea is pretty simple – if for a lot of genres, you want something that does sequencing, makes sounds (pitched and drum), and plays back samples, maybe you might like all of those things in a single box.
So, for instance, you could right now fairly easily put together a TR-8S (for drums), a TB-03 (for bassline), and, say, a polysynth or sampler, but you’d then need a fair number of cables and a mixer. The groovebox ditches the cables and integrates the workflow.
Inside that generic template, it’s not totally clear what a groovebox should look like exactly. So let’s have a first look at the 2019 Rolands.
Full Dinner or Happy Meal
As per usual, the numbers (707 and 101) have nothing to do with previous Roland models, since the MC line have a more or less generic character. (So don’t confuse them with the TR-707 and SH-101.)
The idea now is, there’s a full-sized, 8-track model, the MC-707, which looks a lot like a TR-8S. And then there’s a baby sibling, the 4-track MC-101.
Roland gave me a choice of which I wanted, and me being me, I immediately said – send me the ones that’s cheaper, smaller, and battery-powered. I mean, obviously. (That kind of gets away from the all-in-one MC groovebox approach, but then that’s exactly what makes it interesting.)
You might think the MC-101 had a different engine inside. It apparently doesn’t. Both units share what Roland calls the “ZEN-Core” sound generator, which is capable of playing both tones (that is, it’s a synthesizer), and drum kits (so it’s doing sample playback.)
That means both MC models include a sampled drum machine, a simple synth, play back samples (as drum kits / one-shots), play back loops, and provide effects.
You get pads for playing melodies, triggering drums, and triggering loops/patterns, some faders for mixing, and knobs for effects and sample manipulation (time/pitch).
And you get those on both units – the most noticeable difference on the MC-707, aside from having more of everything, is a bigger screen and more dedicated buttons.
Roland have also kept the assumption from the ’90s and noughts MC models that you want a bunch of sample content preloaded. They’re so convinced of this, in fact, that they’ve screwed a protector over the SD card slot – but of course, that’s absurd, and you’ll take it off and use your own samples, too. (More on that in a bit.)
The result looks for all the world like a TR-8S had a love child with a Novation Circuit, then got into the same Kindergarten that trained the MC-505. But it’s got a workflow that feels most like the TR-8S than anything, down to similar menu navigation (and clearly shares some architecture, as well as elements of the mechanicals and form factor). This is a product that came out of someone taking the TR-8S and saying it needed to have pitched playback and looping and work as an MC.
By the numbers
Specs – which as you’ll see are weirdly almost the same on the MC-101, even in a fraction of the size and half the price:
256 x 80-dot backlit graphic LCD (MC-707), 16 characters, 2-line LCD with backlight (MC-101) – that 101 screen is the same as on the TR-8S
The TONE generator is not to be overlooked, in that this engine has tons of presets for classic Roland gear. I’m talking to Roland about how these are produced, since they seem not to be the ACB we know from the Boutiques, but they’re at least usable – even if you can’t tweak them so much.
Taking a page from the Circuit, you get four macro controls for tweaking. There are dedicated buttons that let you control sound parameters (for that TONE generator), filter, modulation, and effects. (The MC-707 misses the opportunity to do eight encoders instead of four so — basically, just get the 101, as I said!)
Connectivity. The biggest difference between the MCs is actually I/O. On the MC-707, you get a 1/4″ headphone jack, mix out stereo, assignable out stereo, and dedicated stereo send/return, plus MIDI in and two outs, and USB (audio/MIDI.
The tiny MC-101 of course can’t fit that, so you get just a minijack headphone, 1/4″ stereo output, MIDI in, MIDI out, and USB (audio/MIDI).
Sample power – or lack thereof. The Looper supports samples up to about 60 seconds. So, this isn’t a backing track machine or an Ableton Live killer, but that’s not the point – you’re supposed to be playing live, so the MC isn’t really about leaving anything going for longer than a minute, if that.
The trick is that internal sample memory is limited – irrespective of how spacious a sound card you use. That tops out at 6 minutes stereo, 12 minutes mono, at 44.1/16-bit WAV (which is the minimum format). Here’s where Roland is unpleasantly stuck in another decade. There’s no earthly reason a modern device couldn’t have more internal sample storage or support decoding lossless formats, or both.
But then I think the thing to do is ignore all this “replace your laptop” business and judge this as an MC.
More disappointing than the hardware limitations, there’s no live sampling. That’s a shame, because it would start to define the MC series more as a hardware instrument – and it has been a feature on an MC in the past.
Why you might want the 707
Roland PR didn’t really describe the MC-707 as I would. Yes, one is four track and one is eight track.
But apart from being eight track, the major difference in the MC-707 is that the workflow mirrors that of the TR-8S. Take a look at the panel:
Not only are there more dedicated controls generally, but you get the ability to control motion recording, and per-track parameters for effects/mod/filter. Just having a similar layout to the TR-8S means you can make use of some muscle memory acquired on the TR.
And the added display opens up real on-hardware sample editing.
If you don’t own a TR-8S, you might just opt for the MC-707 alone – and do everything on one unit. If you do, you might put the two side by side for lots of dedicated controls.
And this might give TR-8S owners some buyers’ remorse just as the TR-8S (with its better effects and custom samples) did for the original AIRA TR-8.
I am pretty happy keeping the TR-8S for its dedicated modeled drum controls. And I think there’s some appeal to the MC-101, in combination with another drum machine – partly because you can tuck it into an existing gear bag, and because while its workflow is pretty basic, it gets interesting as an instrument.
First look: MC-101
I’ve already started learning and practicing the MC-101. And practicing is really what it’s about, because I think you want to play this thing like an instrument.
Unboxing the MC-101 is actually a treat. This thing is tiny. It makes even a Novation Circuit look large. That means it starts to take on a new role that its larger sibling and MCs of the past never had. It’s suddenly easy to add some pitched sample playback next to your drum machine, or just easily fire off loops and patterns.
In other words, it lets the groovebox have an entirely different role than the one for which it was first envisioned. The MC-101 fits in easily with your drum machine and bassline synth and whatever effects and pedals you’ve got for a live rig.
The size and form factor of the MC-101 also make it a logical add-on to my utterly beloved TR-8S – which should also silence any complaints about why the TR-8S didn’t add some of the features on the MC-707. Here, things make sense – looping and pitched sequencing and pattern triggering all get their own dedicated controls, which the TR-8S lacks anyway.
I also very much appreciate having faders instead of just encoders, unlike the Novation Circuit. Also, with all due respect to Novation, it’s a relief having something where the knobs are labeled and there’s a screen. Whatever charm you get from turning encoders without knowing what will happen, I do prefer… this way instead.
I’ll do a more complete review and video shortly, once I’ve really worked through this in detail.
But there are some impressions to have right away:
The lo-fi time/pitch stretch is awesome. Confession: part of why I like old jamming gear is, low fidelity is often more musical than high quality. You get grungy pitch and time stretching that is very, very satisfying to use. It’s s*** in a good way. Watch for those demos; hopefully I convey that.
Effects are nicely accessible. The effects engine is clearly related to what’s on the TR-8S. It’s nothing so special, but there’s lots of variety and it’s definitely good enough. (You have your computer for applying fancy stuff later when you finish tracks; this works live without question.) The main thing about it is, you have easily accessible knobs to get at all the time. Also, that SCATTER track is not the same SCATTER as on the early AIRA series – none of this horrible EDM nonsense. It’s really just a way of sequencing and triggering different effects, which actually is useful.
Workflows are accessible, mostly. Triggering patterns and playing the tone and drum modes is intuitive and easy. Some of the sequencing and menu diving gets more involved, and I’ll cover that in the full review accordingly (and with some feedback from Roland).
Sample loading is inexcusably bad. It’s bad enough that the TR-8S makes you put sounds on an SD card, then go through a manual menu-diving approach to load those sounds into kits. On the MC-101/707, it’s worse. The whole appeal of a box like this to many of us is being able to take bits and pieces of tracks and sound designs and load them into hardware so we can ditch the computer and jam or perform live. Roland doesn’t have to do something elaborate – just give us a way to connect the USB cable and load samples from the computer directly without touching the menu system.
The only slight upside is, you can edit kits and loops on the hardware itself. But then… that shouldn’t be your only avenue.
There’s no external sequencing – that I can find. It kind of makes sense that the TR-8S can’t sequence an external synth – it doesn’t really have the interface for it. It makes no sense that the MCs lack this. (How perverse is this? You can literally set one of the 4 or 8 tracks to ‘none,’ but you can’t use it to sequence external gear.)
I kind of think here that there’s missing documentation or a firmware update forthcoming – especially given the MC-707 has two MIDI outs. I’m waiting on confirmation from Roland now.
If we’re really lucky, I’ll have this working by next week, because then the MC-101 starts to look really invaluable in my rig, and probably yours, too.
The documentation is Roland documentation. Apologies. I would really like to see a more friendly approach to how to use this stuff.
All in all, this is a promising box. The absence of easy sample loading might have you considering waiting to see what Novation will do to follow up their cult favorite Circuit, since Novation at least do give you friendly Web interfaces for loading samples and storing patches. There is no reason whatsoever why Roland shouldn’t do the same – a Roland Cloud service for editing and backing up performances.
If you want to focus on sampling manipulation, I think you definitely want something like the Elektron Model:Samples we reviewed earlier this year. And even Roland can sell you something that’s better for sampling and sample manipulation.
But the MC series does look like a different beast – something that lets you trigger clips and loops alongside jamming with samples using pitch, all with multiple tracks.
And mainly I like that the MC-101 does the same things with four tracks and runs on batteries and takes up less space. (Sure, it lacks those sends/returns, but you’ve got loads of onboard effects anyway.)
More on how the MC-101 fits in and complements the TR-8S shortly.
It doesn’t look like much. The latest Roland Boutique might even give you a sense of deja vu – because Roland did a tiny JUNO before. The difference: this time they got it right.
I’m the last person to want endless remakes of old synths. But a JUNO is something special. I assume I’m not alone in this – if I’m in someone else’s studio and there’s a JUNO-106 or JUNO-60 lying around, I’ll usually say let’s plug in that. It’s not even necessarily that they’re my favorite analog polysynths; it’s that something about them has a unique ability to blend into a mix, and be versatile in a number of situations. It’s also a pleasant early 80s sound that seems to blend well with more contemporary timbres, too. (I’ve found plenty of other artists who seem to feel similarly, ones whose opinion you should probably value more than mine, so I don’t feel I’m going out on a limb.)
Okay, so a JUNO is something you just want handy. And you don’t want it to be a plug-in – that’s terrible for jam sessions and live. The full keyboard is now pricey on the used market, takes up a lot of space, and is now at an age when it starts to break down. (I’m a few years older than these Rolands, and I start to feel their pain. Literally. I look forward to the digital remake of me.)
So you do really want an inexpensive hardware remake.
You would then presumably want it to be small and portable, so you can always keep it around.
You’d want it to still sound like a JUNO.
You’d want it to be playable, so you could use it as a sketchpad or easily work it into jams and live sets.
You wouldn’t want it to be terribly expensive.
The JU-06 that launched this whole oddly-named Roland Boutique phenomenon almost got this right, but then mostly screwed it up. There’s a step sequencer, but no external clock in. (There’s MIDI clock in, just not analog clock in.) It’s overly authentic in that modulation isn’t tempo synced – even though it’s now a MIDI device. There’s a step sequencer, but it shares the same buttons as the patch controls, a guarantee that you’ll wind up accidentally changing patches at an inopportune moment.
It sounds good, like a JUNO-106. But lots of things sound good now – and the JU-06 was mediocre enough that you start to go back to the thought that maybe a plug-in isn’t such a bad idea.
Roland are now back with the JU-06A, and not only does it fix all the issues with the JU-06, but I think it’s just edged out the SH-01A as the Boutique synthesizer I would buy first.
Everything is fixed now
The JU-06A doesn’t look radical, but little differences make this something you want to keep rather than return.
JUNO-60, too. Inside, Roland have added a second sound engine to emulate the 1982 JUNO-60, as well as the 1984 JUNO-106. There’s a toggle switch on the front panel that lets you swap models – an advantage of going digital. As with the other Boutiques (apart from the Studio Electronics collaboration), this is circuit modeling (ACB). But it sounds terrific.
Adding the JUNO-60 adds some more idiosyncratic sound options. In addition, you can reproduce the noise of the vintage chorus (with parameters tucked in settings for off/half/full noise). There are lots of other details that give this tiny box some of the growl and warmth of the original and its filter without taking up much space. Someone I’m sure will do some obsessive comparison, but it’s uncanny enough to be fine in a mix.
Chord and arpeggiator modes. This makes a major difference in playability. There are now simple chord playback and arpeggiator controls on the left-hand side of the unit, replacing the mostly pointless touch strip pitch and mod. Chord mode is lovely on a poly, of course; you get just 16 slots for chords, but that’s about the amount I can remember, anyway. Each memory slot can be edited from the front panel.
The arp is similarly basic but useful – you get up, down, and up/down modes, a range (from 1-3 octaves), and a rate knob, which always divides the master clock. It’s pretty basic, but all the controls are dedicated, which is great live.
There’s also a dedicated HOLD button, and the arp will work with both the HOLD and CHORD modes.
On its own, that would still be too limiting, but fortunately there’s also —
A step sequencer. 16 steps times 16 patterns, all monophonic. And now this also works with external clock – there’s a little minijack next to the sequencer itself (odd positioning, but it works).
The step sequencer is surprisingly usable, with practice, on the front panel. You can switch steps on and off, TR x0x style, and also enter in steps one at a time from the onboard keyboard. You can also use an external keyboard for pitch entry – like the Roland Boutique keyboard dock, or something else via MIDI in.
What’s evidently missing, which was on the SH-01A, is the ability to add individual chords to steps. That’s too bad, though what you get instead is, the monophonic step sequencer becomes the root note of the chord when chord mode is on.
LFO and Delay Tempo Sync. Both the LFO and Delay effect can now be clocked free, or synced to the master tempo. That’s obvious, but for some reason the JU-06 lacked it.
There’s more user memory. You get both 64 dedicated slots for each mode – JUNO-60 and JUNO-106 – which doubles the slots on the JU-06, and lets you effectively keep a library for each instrument.
The Ribbon Controllers are gone. If you particularly desire touch strips for pitch and mod, you should pick up a used JU-06 and not this. I don’t miss them, though, and I think most people will vastly prefer the chord and arp.
Fun in use for fans of tiny things
If I had one gripe about the JU, it’s the ongoing Boutique form factor. These units are compact and lightweight, but there’s still this strange docking scheme. That lets you choose either a keyboard or a little box that lets you tilt up the unit. (That’s the DK-01 docking station and the K-25m keyboard dock.) They each run a little under $100 street, with the keyboard costing more.
The upside is, of course, if you buy multiple Boutiques they don’t all have to have keyboards. But they do make you feel like Roland is squeezing you for extra cash (well, because they are), and the impression of the actual design is sort of toylike. My JU-06A review unit came without either, and my delicate aesthetic sensibilities made me not want to dock it in the silver 303 or beige 909 docks I had around, so I found… okay, actually, the thing is even more portable and lightweight without it, is still usable, and just has some funny edges. In an ideal world, this would have USB host so you could plug in anything; in this world, I’d probably still use a different keyboard and not the keyboard dock.
But I got over it. I love tiny things. The JU is small enough to fit in your backpack, and since it’s battery powered, you can sprawl in bed and program nice step sequences for a gig the next day.
This thing is definitely Japanese in scale – the land that miniaturized electronics in the first place. So if your fingers fit comfortably on tiny controls, you’ll love it. If not, you’ll (justifiably) hate it.
Assuming you can handle it, though, I think the JU-06A is a total joy. I took it to a jam session with some studio neighbors and a live club gig (disguising the unreleased hardware’s identity), and it excelled in both cases – enough that people clearly responded to the sound.
The step sequencer would definitely benefit from parameter locks, but then maybe that isn’t the way to think of the JUNO. With the stupid-simple step sequencer, chords, and arp, you can just go wild with the (tiny) LFO and (tiny) envelope controls and (tiny) filter, and this thing is a performance beast.
I’m sure I’ll get some pushback from people who think it’s still a toy, who hate that it’s digital, who are interested in a certain clone manufacturer rather than the company that did the first JUNO. But no matter. This thing is still affordable, it’s got loads of controls, the sound engine is clearly good enough, and the digital aspect makes it practical, flexible, and power efficient.
It’s not the only compact remake poly in town – the Yamaha reface cs is now running about $300 street, with a keyboard. But the JU-06A to me is now an ideal addition.
So yeah, Roland I should… probably let you know I’m keeping this one.