As a drummer turned keyboardist that has always enjoyed synthesizers, the beatbox has a special place in my heart. In the 1980’s I was performing with a drum machine and a computer/sequencer on stage, waiting for the perfect beatbox with the features I need and easy control. I remember how close I came with the Emu XL-7 Command Station. A unit that was the hardware precursor to Ableton Live, allowing me to easily control 16 channels of pattern based bliss. The ability to turn individual instruments on and off, advance patterns, adjust parameters and build beats as I transition from song to song was a dream. The same year that EMU released the Command Station, Yamaha released the AN200 and DX200, units that gave me my first taste of motion control. The XL-7 and DX200 were both released in 2001. Other than sample mangling the advancements in beatbox design has been slow, and I am still looking for the perfect machine to be the new heart of my system. Sure, Elektron has released some wonderful units. I own most of them. But limited polyphony and a steep learning curve still does not get me the Ableton Live type control over tracks that I enjoyed almost 20 years ago. So is this new Roland box, the MC-707, going to be any better than its predecessors? I’ll always have hope, and it is time to dig in and see what it can do.
Specs: The unit uses the new, much publicized Zen Core and contains almost 4000 patches and drum kits. 8 tracks, each powering a full drum kit, polyphonic synth, loop player, and/or external MIDI. Each track has a selection button, slider, and three control knobs. 16 velocity sensitive pads for playing in parts. 16 select buttons for step sequencing, A screen showing 8 tracks x 16 clips for phrases in an Ableton Live type sequencing layout. (hmmmm) A variety of buttons and knobs for control over sequencing, playback, editing, etc…
The device boasts 128 voice polyphony. In normal Roland fashion a voice can have up to 4 parts so actual polyphony can drop as low as 32 voice. This is still very generous in the beatbox world and you should be able to create a complete song without running out of notes. Synth tracks are limited to 4 notes, limiting how complex a chord can be.
Sound: Throughout the history of Roland ROMplers and beatboxes the sound has always been controversial. Some claim the sound is thin. Others claim the sound is perfect for fitting into a mix. Sometime around the release of the JP-80 I thought the thin aspect of the Roland sound faded away, leaving a smoother, fuller sound that still fit well in the mix. The new Zen Core engine offers 90 insert effects to modify the sound, but that is not what the sound geeks are going to focus on. Every channel offers an abundance of EQ and compression, allowing the most fanatic sound engineer to dial in the sound that they want.
The Pads: These are velocity sensitive pads which glow from multicolor embedded lights. Unlike the TR-8S, these are not buttons with give. They are rubberized pads that do not move. There are 5 pad mode buttons that change the functions of the pads. The system also knows if the selected track is a drum track or synth. On a synth track the necessary pads light up to create a 1 octave keyboard. Above the pads is a single row of 16 small buttons that also light up. This combination of pads and buttons gives the user a very efficient method of programming step sequencer patterns. You can work in two ways. In drum grid mode you can touch a pad to select the note or drum, then use the strip of 16 buttons to select the beats on which that drum triggers. For polyphonic sequencing you can select the beat first, then press the notes that you want to play on that beat. There is also a method for tying notes together. Very efficient.
Connections: Two 5 pin MIDI outs and one 5 pin MIDI in. USB for MIDI and audio. USB will allow you to individually record each of the 8 channels in stereo. You can also access the SD card across USB. Stereo in for L and R. Left can switch between mic and line. There is also stereo send and return along with assignable out L and R, Mix out L and R, and ¼ inch headphone. Sadly there are no CV or gate outputs.
Sound Design – Synth: In easy mode the synth design is made up of 4 oscillators, a filter, amp, EQ and effect. Modulators for each voice include a pitch envelope, two LFO’s, filter envelope, two matrix slots, and a mixer. The oscillators have a selection of virtual analog wave forms, PCM samples, PCM sync, noise, or user samples. Along with choosing the type of filter you can make use of sync, ring mod, and cross mods. If you exit the “easy” mode and go to partial mode you can edit a specific partial/oscillator. Edits include using a specific filter, routings from EG’s and LFO’s, and more. This is where you can get really deep into the programming if you choose.
Sound Design – Drum Tracks: Each pad can trigger up to 4 samples, with each sample having individual access to tuning, modulators, filter control, and more. If you take the time you can set up some deep programming like using velocity to crossfade sounds or response. Very nice.
Step LFO: This is the identifying feature of the MC-707. When editing a sound, choose Step LFO in the LFO selection. You get a 1-16 step sequencer of LFO shapes. For each of the 16 steps you can select curve, depth, cutoff and pitch. Curve is not just the shape of the LFO for that step, but can be multiples of a shape. Example: All steps begin empty. Assign a downward double ramp to step 4 and 12, a single sine to step 8, and a quad upward ramp to 16. Assign the step LFO to filter cutoff and you will hear a rhythmic pattern on those beats. This is pretty close to the modular trick of changing LFO speed with a sequencer, but more controllable. A mundane pattern suddenly has life.
Sequencing: As mentioned before you can select the drum by tapping the pad, then use the 16 small buttons to select the beats that trigger the drum. Patterns can range from 1 to 128 steps. Once you enter the notes that trigger you can move to the screen and controls to modify each note. Velocity, timing shift, length, start point, and more can be edited per note to really add life to a pattern. Individual drums can also have their own pattern length and timing. A hi-hat can play 12 beats of 16th note triplets while the snare sticks to 16 counts of quarter notes. The same with note sequencing. Building a pattern with elements of different lengths and time signatures can give very interesting results. Add to that the ability to have elements in a pattern go forward, backward, forward and backward, random and a few other directions. You can also set shuffle independently for each clip. Holding shift while pushing a step button allows you to edit parameters on that step such as velocity, start point and length. You can also shift a pattern either in time along the beat grid, or transpose notes up or down. When entering notes on a tone track from the pad you can make use of scales and chords. Assigning a scale to a track or project can be very helpful when transposing parts. Chords can be assigned to any of the pads in keyboard mode. These chords are user created and limited to 4 notes. If you enter a part by using chord mode, then want to edit individual notes, you can. The screen will show the notes making up the chord and allow you to select the individual note that you want to edit. Something handy for drum programming is the ability to put a percentage on a note to determine how likely it is to hit. This adds a bit of randomness to a pattern.
Motion record can work for any of the sequencing modes. Play the pattern and enable motion record, then record tweaks to any of the 24 channel knobs.
Sampling: If you looked at the MC-707 when it was first released and rejected it because the sampler was lacking basic features, look again. Roland has added the ability to read from folders, making storage and retrieval of samples much easier. At first you could only sample to the loop player. Now you can also sample directly to a drum pad, synth tone or to a project file. Slicing has also been greatly improved. This alone is reason enough for users to update to the latest OS. You can also sample an individual channel, or the mix output.
Effects: For global effects you have easy access to reverb, delay and multi effects as well as a dedicated button for turning effects on and off. There is also an abundance of compressors and eq options for each channel.
Scatter Effects: These have come a long way since the early days of Aira instruments. You can now program your own scatter effects and assign those programs to the 16 pads. Not only can you have 16 effects that you like this way, but they can relate to each other and be designed specifically for the music you are creating.
Driving external MIDI devices: You can assign a channel to transmit MID through MIDI output 1, 2 or USB. Assigning a channel to MIDI does not mute the internal channel. To enable a channel to sequence an external device through MIDI you have to assign an internal sound, and when playing the external MIDI device you must turn the volume slider down for that channel to mute the internal sound. This is my biggest gripe about the MC-707. I have other devices that will sequence external MIDI devices in addition to the internal sound channels. MIDI sequencing is low power compared to audio synth generation such as VA. In a perfect world Roland would have an Internal/External button that would switch the panel from controlling the 8 internal channels to controlling 8 MIDI channels. If I could control 8 external MIDI channels in addition to the internal channels this would be my dream unit. Unfortunately it does not work that way. The MIDI out is just a copy of the information controlling the internal sound. Very cumbersome. Please Roland, fixing this should be at the top of the list. We should have all internal channels AND 8 MIDI channels. I would guess that this limitation is caused by the Ableton like grid and its limit of 8 overall channels, but there has to be a better solution. The Roland MC line was at one time the king of MIDI sequencing. The MC-707 deserves more.
The clip grid: One of many edit/control modes available on the screen. The clip grid has columns for 8 channels. If you curser all the way to the right you can control all 8 channels at once. Each channel can have 16 clips. This give you 16 rows to transition through to build a song structure. You can have blank clips so that every instrument is not playing on every row. You can select individual clips using the arrow curser, giving you the ability to mix and match clips from different rows. You can also curser to the extreme right and select the entire row, resulting in a full 8 channel simultaneous transition to the next phase of a song. The grid is small to my eyes, and it is not as elegant as using a computer, Ableton Live, and Push. But it seems to be a good compromise to put the ability into a single desktop unit that does it all. With practice you do get more efficient manipulating the grid.
Is that all? No. I really want to keep this review under 2500 words so it is time to wrap things up. At the time of this writing the operating system is already on 1.3. The latest update greatly improved the ability to create songs and improved the external MIDI sequencing mode, adding CC information to the MIDI device being driven from the MC707. Roland has also released three very good tutorial videos and a special YouTube channel titled Roland Cloud Academy. Support is good and ongoing and I am looking forward to seeing what OS 1.4 brings.
Does it replace my Emu XL-7? In some respects, no. The XL-7 would sequence 16 internal parts plus 16 external MIDI parts. Dedicated buttons for each part along with knobs for volume and panning were lots of fun. However, the XL-7 never had a step LFO or motion sequencing. The effects were a far cry from what is on the MC-707. Oh, and it never did samples.
MC-707 vs MC-101: There are a lot of differences between the two units, but three are primary. The 707 has 8 channels while the 101 has 4. The 707 allows full editing of patches while the 101 offers limited editing of presets. The 101 can be battery operated, making it a great portable unit. Both use the same sound engine and have the same polyphony. The 101 also has the same 4000 sound and drum presets as the 707. If you already have some other units and just need a device for added polyphony and ROMpler sounds the 101 may be a good choice. There are other differences, but that is another article.
Pros: Song mode is improving with every update. Plenty of polyphony. Ableton Live style grid. Shallow learning curve. Their best sounding Roland beatbox by far. Blends well with machines from other brands.
Cons: Song mode is still in development. It takes too long to load a song for a single MC-707 to solo a gig without pauses between songs. No arpeggiator. Limited ability to drive external MIDI devices.
Recommendations: This unit would be a great first beatbox for anyone. The learning curve is shallow and steady, eventually getting into deep areas. The polyphony is enough to do a complete song. There are a lot of tutorials online to get you started. For someone that already owns a collection of beatboxes, does this deserve a space in the collection? I say yes. The step LFO gives it a unique sound. The motion sequencing is just enough to get you by, though not as deep as you can get with an Elektron unit. I can match my MC-707 with my Digitakt, Digitone and Analog Four and have all I need. Bringing ROMpler sounds and lots of polyphony to the party. My preferred workflow is to start on the MC-707, then farm out parts to the other units. A system that works very well for me.