Roland MC-8 Micro-Composer

Vintage Roland MC-8 Sequencer Archive

SUZANNE CIANI – MC-8 Pioneer – Exclusive Interview!

I was very happy to receive an enthusiastic response from Suzanne Ciani to my request for an interview from this synth legend and early adopter of the MC-8! All music and images are supplied by Suzanne, and used here with her kind permission. Please click on the links to visit her website and also to purchase her work!

When did you first hear about the MC-8, and how did you come to acquire one?

Well, I have been reminded that I saw, along with Patrick Moraz and Herbie Hancock,  a small demonstration that Ralph Dyck gave at AES in LA about 1978.  I was about to start my first album, Seven Waves, and I probably just snapped one up right there and then because it was perfect for the orchestrated approach I was taking on that album.  Seven Waves was begun in 1979 and first released in Japan in 1982, then on Atlantic Finnadar in 1984 and then on my own label, Seven Waves, in 1994.

This album represented a synthesis of my electronic background, having for the prior 10 years devoted myself exclusively to electronics, with my classical romantic roots from childhood.

Can you describe what sort of synths or other gear you used with your MC-8?

In those days, I was using the Buchla Series 200, a Sequential Circuits Prophet V, a Synclavier (though I used it more for commercial projects than for my artistic recordings) , a Polymoog, Oberheim OB-X.

Musicians are used to working with computers these days, but in the late 70s this must have seemed like very alien territory to many. Can you comment on how you initially came to grips with making “music by numbers?”

Well, I had spent a good deal of time already working at Stanford in the Artificial Intelligence Lab with Max Mathews and John Chowning on early computer music software and so was familiar with the arms length approach to specifying musical parameters in numbers and punched cards.  After the numbers were crunched in an overnight process, out would come the longed for composition!  So, the MC-8 provided more immediate gratification, albeit delayed.

To what extent (if any) was your music directly influenced by the process of working with the MC-8?

The excitement of working with music technology was that the constant evolution of the instruments always inspired creativity.  With the MC-8, the world of sequencing became much more sophisticated.  Sequencing in the Buchla was approached more as a pattern, whereas with the MC-8, I could now program a composed melodic line of great detail and rhythmic variation.  I loved that with the MC-8 the strong dependable electronic pulse could be the foundation of the music- and thus very relaxing- but that I could also “romance” the expression to be very feminine as well.

Do you have any interesting or funny anecdotes about working with the MC-8?

When I started recording Seven Waves, for me it was almost a religious experience.  I worked all week doing TV music, and then on the weekends would change gears completely, entering a kind of timeless space.  Because renting the studio was very expensive, just one weekend was given to recording the tracks for each piece.  Even though there was a lot of pressure to accomplish getting all the tracks down, I refused to have stress be a part of the process.  My attitude was: “There is nothing to do and everything will get done.”

So, one weekend, as we were setting up the gear in the studio, my assistant realized with horror that he had not made a data tape of the MC-8 info for the piece and that meant that all that pre-production had to be done again in a studio that cost hundreds of dollars an hour!  No problem.  “There is nothing to do and everything will get done.”  So, all the data was re-entered over several hours and on we went.

Did you ever attempt to play live with the MC-8?

Well, on the David Letterman Show one time.  I was invited on as a wiz kid “voice distorter,” but was not all that interested in that angle and said I would do the voice processing if they would allow me to play some of my own compositions from Seven Waves.  I wrote out some charts for the studio band and prepared some sequences in the MC-8.  When I went to push the start button, nothing happened and my brain started racing.  What had happened is that after I had set up the equipment before the show, the electrician had unplugged it!! So, all the data had been lost and I made a quick recovery and loaded the data again and everything worked, as you can see from the look of absolute and ecstatic joy on my face.  But to my dismay, we were given only about 10 seconds of air time before they cut to commercials! (The MC-8 bit is at 7:08 in the video.)

Can you point to a particular song/recording of yours that represents the best or most involved use of the MC-8?

Yes.  The “Third Wave: Love in the Waves” (also know as “Crystal Springs” ) from Seven Waves. The MC-8 (and the MC-4) was the backbone of the production.  This was the piece that used the MC-8 almost exclusively and allowed a very sophisticated orchestration with lots of rhythmic control. I worked with Mitch Farber on the production and he added some astonishingly effective lines that took full advantage of the MC-8.  Below I talk about the “written accelerando” that helps to build the climax of this piece.  (The pieces were called “waves” because the compositional form was a wave, building to a climax and then receding.)

Can you share any tips, tricks, workarounds, hacks or mods that you came up with while working with the MC-8?

I wish at times like this that I had a better memory!  We are talking 30 years ago!  LOL.

Do you have any old MC-8 program data (either on tape or paper) that you can share?

Yes.  I found some of the production sheets from “The Third Wave” from Seven Waves.  I have scanned the score of Bars 46 to 50, where you can see the written out melody with the pitch numbers written above.  Then there is a corresponding timing sheet that shows the data for meas. 46 and then some shortcuts for the following bars.  And then a worksheet showing the Control Voltages, Step and Gate times.

The score is written in 12/8 and you can see in this section all the flexibility and precision the MC-8 afforded: there is a written accelerando from bars 45 to 52 (at 2:30 in the mp3 above), the beat being divided first into 4, then 5, then 6 (just out of view in bar 52).

Note: I entered in the above program excerpt, fine-tuned the tempo to match the original, and played the line alongside Suzanne’s original. Some of the note number data is wrong (resulting in minor seconds in a few places), and a few note durations are off, but otherwise it’s very close. I made no attempt to correct any mistakes in her data. Here you can hear my synth line in the left channel, and Suzanne’s original in the right channel:

Do you still have your MC-8? If so, do you still use it? If not, whatever became of it?

Living in New York City, I never had the space to store any of the hundreds of electronic units that were part of the ongoing evolution of my studio.  If someone finds a unit with an engraved C/M on it (for Ciani/Musica), though, it was mine!  My studio manager engraved everything.


February 13, 2010 - Posted by | Interviews & Articles


  1. I just spent fantastic time reading all the posts on this blog (and I have some videos to watch yet and some tracks to listen to), and must say that it is really great what you doing here! I don’t own an MC-8, but big part of the music I currently listen to was sequenced (and I use seqencer of my porta-studio very often) and it is interesting to hear how it was made at it’s very beginnings. Keep up this impressive blog! I hooked.

    Also I made a comment in post about YMO and Hideki Matsutake. It is past the first page, so I’ll repeat it here to save you clicking:

    The shown sequence sounds very much like 4th bar of intro to the song Behind The Mask from YMO’s 1979 album Solid State Survivor. To not spoil it if you haven’t heard album yet (it’s an amazing disc), here is a link to live version:

    Also there is a video of YMO members programming this very song on MC-8 back in the day!
    Here it is:

    Album credits say “Computer programming by Hideki Matsutake”, so it must be him pushing the buttons in this video as well.
    The second (moody) piece which they code in video is Insomnia from the same album. Third song featured here is called Solid State Survivor as the album itself.
    Perhaps the best known song of YMO is Rydeen, but it is not in this video.

    Comment by PinWizz | February 18, 2010 | Reply

  2. Suzanne Ciani is so cool. I love the video of her developing the sounds on the Synclavier for the pinball machine ‘Xenon’!

    Comment by marshottentot | March 6, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] users, as well as helping to make legendary tools such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Roland’s MC-8 sequencer, as well as various voice synth/vocoder technology. While the album runs slightly short, […]

    Pingback by Suzanne Ciani “Lixiviation” « RISING STORM | March 13, 2012 | Reply

  4. […] 25). Fun demo of then-new tech: Prophet-5, vocoder,Eventide Harmonizer, MC-8 sequencer. (9m) • Interview at the Roland MC-8 blog * David Lowery’s essay Meet the New Boss, Worse than the Old Boss? discusses how “the […]

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