Roland MC-8 Micro-Composer

Vintage Roland MC-8 Sequencer Archive

Low Serial Number “Blue Meanie” MC8

MC8s rarely come up for sale, so I generally take note when they do. Recently an oddly-colored one appeared on eBay- instead of the usual brown top, it had a blue top. Also, the serial number on this one was 600000. It’s definitely earlier than my other MC8, which is serial number 680904. Since the bidding was very slow up until the last day, I decided to place a bid myself just to make sure it sold for a decent amount. Well, probably mostly due to the fact that it was missing the crucial cable that links the sequencer to the interface, it ended up selling for chump change, and I won it (if only inadvertently) for $224.50! I definitely don’t need TWO of these things, but what the heck. I received the unit the other day, and I’m convinced that the blue paint job is factory, though I’ve never seen another like it. It has the full 16k memory (additional memory could be purchased as an expensive daughter board). Also, it has a two-prong power cable instead of  three prongs. There may be other differences lurking inside. I don’t know what serial number these started at, or how the numbering scheme worked, but given that only a few hundred of them were ever made, I’m sort of fantasizing that maybe 600000 could mean this was the first one off the line…? Who knows… If you own an MC8, please leave a comment here with the serial number and memory capacity, and also of course whether you have a blue one like this.

I fired it up using the cable from my other MC8, and it appears to be working OK. I’m not really sure what sort of use I’ll get from this one other than as a collector’s item, so I suspect I’ll probably have a cable fashioned for it and eventually put it back up for sale. We’ll see. It’s too bad this came up only after Ralph passed, or I’d probably have had it shipped directly to him, since he hadn’t owned an MC8 in decades.

June 19, 2013 Posted by | Images, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ralph Dyck’s 1970s Home-Brew Synth Rescued from Pawn Shop

OK, so this isn’t directly related to the MC8, but it involves Ralph Dyck, and it’s a cool story, and it’s high time that I update this blog, so here ya go!

A couple years ago, Ralph mentioned to me that in the early-70s he had built a couple of custom analog synthesizers for local schools – UBC and Carson Graham Senior Secondary. I attempted to contact the music departments of both of these schools. The UBC music department still had theirs, but the Carson Graham synth was missing in action. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and I get an email from Ralph that an acquaintance of his in Vancouver recognized Ralph’s handiwork in a craiglist ad for a homebrew synth- it was the long-lost Carson Graham synth!

The asking price was only $75, but try as he might to recover it, Ralph was too late, and it was purchased by a young guy interested in making “bloopy synth sounds.” Fortunately, the shop owner agreed to pass on guy’s contact info to Ralph, and after much back and forth email negotiation, we managed to procure the synth (for a not-too-crazy price), and Ralph has been hard at work trying to get it back into working order (sans schematics). Here’s a brief interview with Ralph, some pics, and some sound clips:

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the history of this synth, why it was built, and how you arrived at its design?

Ralph: I had made some friends at UBC in the music department and they all knew about the synthesizer I had made in 1971. One of those friends was Rob Carr who became a music teacher at Carson Graham Senior Secondary (high school). He was able to get the school to budget some money to build a small synthesizer for the music department. Remember, in those days there were no low cost synthesizers on the market, just big modular systems like Moog, Arp and Buchla. In fact, a friend of mine, maybe that year, bought a MiniMoog and asked me to have a look at it, I’m not sure about the timing. Rob Carr gave me his budget figures and I figured out what I could make for him. He got some money so I could start to buy parts, I had an account at the largest electronics store in Vancouver and bought all of the opamps, transistors, resistors, capacitors, connecters etc. I had a plan and that was to make a subset of my own synth that I had built. I figure that this must have been early 1972 because of where I was living at the time, I had started to work jazz gigs with the Paul Horn Quintet then as well. It was an operation on the cheap, a piano player working in the landlady’s basement breadboarding circuits and testing them. Some of the designs are quite different from the circuits I had already done the year before. I’ll get into that next. I can’t give an accurate timeline for building this synth but it certainly took 3 months or so, I guess. I think that we were all a bit excited by having this system as the first synth in a high school here.

Q: Can you give a detailed rundown of the various components and signal flow of the synth?

Ralph: Once the synth had been delivered to my apartment I could see right away that the patching had been heavily modified by someone at the school, I guess. I’m sure that they wanted to make it more sturdy and professional by using rack mount telephone patch bays, the ring-tip and sleeve types, like the old telephone exchanges. They were built to take a lot of use and abuse.

The Main unit I’ll call Rack 2, because that’s what I’ve called it the past week, Rack 1 is an auxiliary unit. Rack 2 has, left to right, a PreAmp and Low Pass Filter on a vector board, hand wired. I imagine the PreAmp is X10 so, the Filter has 3 switchable ranges and is not voltage controlled, I guess, to cut costs and I hadn’t finished the design of my VCF yet, it was to have Low Pass, Band Pass, Notch and High Pass at 12db/octave with resonance.

To continue, there are 3 circuit boards, 2 hand wired vector boards and one pc board. The vector boards are the Sample and Hold clock and the Ring Modulator. The pc board is the Sample and Hold. To the right of them is the VCA which has a pc board but doesn’t work, probably a bad 741 opamp, static was a big problem for the outputs of 741s, too easy to blow them up. To the right of the VCA is the ADSR Envelope Generator which is the first circuit that I designed without any help from my engineer friends, I was proud of that, done the year before. The same thing I fear happened to its output which was dead. However, by searching on the pc board I found a completely intact envelope signal that was attenuated by a factor of 12. Well, I thought, I’ll amplify it and put it out which is what I did with an LF353 dual opamp. We’ll have to put in a VCA kit to replace the one there and all of the synth will be complete. To the right of the ADSR are the 2 simple VCOs with Triangle and Square Wave outputs, they work perfectly.

Rack 1 is an auxiliary unit that has, left to right, a 6 input, stereo output mixer and a white noise generator, all built on a hand wired vector board. It is followed by a Stereo Hammond Spring Reverb pc board of which the Left channel is dead! Who knows what the problem is, I spent hours trying to make the Left channel work and had no idea what the wiring was, then I tried the Right channel, it worked perfectly the first time! Murphy Lives.

To the right of the reverb is the full VCO which is the type that I built for my own synth. It is .02hz-20hz and 20hz-20khz with Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth, Square and VC Pulse outputs, all waveforms are available separately and mixed together. The waveforms are switchable from ± 5volts for audio and to 0-10volts for control purposes, the VCO is 1volt/octave (as are the Rack 2 VCOs).

On the right hand side of Rack 1 are the 20 holes for my 1/4″ jack socket patch bay and replaced by a 24 connector terminal block which was connected to the telephone patch bays. I wish they wouldn’t have done that. Well, the synth was made for experimenting by the students, I’m sure that it was a huge job to put in the patch bays and rack mountings and making sure that electrically everything was correct.

A simple patch might be to connect the White Noise to the PreAmp and PreAmp to the Sample and Hold input. Connect the Sample and Hold output to the VC inputs of the 2 simple VCOs. Connect the VCOs to the 6 input Mixer and do a Left/Right channel thing with the mixer pots. Connect the Sine wave output of the full VCO on Rack 1 to the VC inputs on the VCOS in Rack 2. Use the ±5volt Sine at a low frequency to modulate the simple VCOs. Play with it! Remember, there’s no VCA so we can’t use the ADSR and the synth will sound all of the time. I almost forgot the Power Supply which is ± 15 Volts at 2 amps, it’s output is exact after 40 years! Here’s some very basic demos of what the functioning components of the synth currently sound like:

Q: Can you give a summary of the current state of the synth, ie what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be replaced?

Ralph: Everything works, amazingly, EXCEPT the VCA and the Left channel of the Stereo Reverb. The ADSR has a small circuit attached to provide a proper output. A VCA module in kit form would be perfect for this, it must be ± 15volt supply, 6db/volt or linear and ± 5volts audio output. The reverb Left channel can be fixed but it must be taken apart and probed to find out which opamp is dead. Use the Right channel as a guide, it’s the same.

Thanks to Ralph for this quick interview, and as soon as the synth is in fully restored condition, we’ll update the blog with further details, video, sound clips, etc!

February 23, 2012 Posted by | Images, Interviews & Articles, Technical | 8 Comments

Pea’s MC-8 Electro-glamour shots

I recently did a photoshoot to get some decent publicity photos for a variety of things, and brought along some props. The MC-8 is, of course, a very fetchingly attractive hunk o’ beige metal, so of course I had to bring it along. Also seen in the pics is my Electro-Harmonix Mini-Synthesizer, which doesn’t interface with the MC-8 at all, but it looks cool and it was small so I brought it along.

All photos are by Chad Thompson.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | Images | 1 Comment

Ralph’s SYNCBOX – Roland SBX-80 Prototype

While this isn’t directly about the MC-8, I feel this is an interesting bit of music tech history that ought to get out there nonetheless. Ralph Dyck shared a bit of info about his involvement developing another revolutionary product, the Roland SBX-80 sync box:

We’ve talked about the MC-8 and MC-4 but they are pretty dumb when it comes to interacting with the world. It’s fine if one is recording solo like I did, everybody had to adapt to the sequencer, not the other way around. I had been working in ’79 on the Denise McCann disco album and a number of times the problem came up whereby we wanted to put the synth and sequencer on later… Impossible! So, that stayed in my mind and later that year I met David Paich and Steve Porcaro from Toto. The idea of synchronizing with live music became our number one topic. So… I made an analog phase locked loop device designed by Chris Huntley, my synthesizer guru. I tried it out with Steve from Toto and it was okay but it was analog, and drifted. That was enough though to whet my appetite for a better solution. I discussed the problem with my buddy Peter Dunik and I’ll remember this always, he thought for 15-30 seconds and said “why don’t you record clicks on tape and play them back through the box and memorize the interval timings then the next time play the click back into the box and reconstruct all of the timings and synchronize the systems!!!” That was worth a world wide patent! Peter wrote the code for the RCA 1802 processor to emulate a phase locked loop and it was brilliant, I took his algorithm for the memorized clicks and did the coding for that. We had extreme success. Toto made an anvil case for the Syncbox prototype #1 and still have it in storage somewhere. Check out Toto 4 and look at the liner notes and you will see the phrase “God bless Peter Dunik’s Algorithm”. A first for Rock and Roll bands! The sequencers were a thing but the synchronization of the sequencers to human beings was much, much more important (in my books).

Ralph also sent along an example of the Syncbox in use:

I produced an album for Michael Saxell in ’83. I’m sending a track that uses the MC-4 and JP-8 and the 2nd prototype Syncbox. Jim Vallance is on drums. There’s a synth solo plus a bassline. I had Jim do a click track with a cowbell on every track for the album so that I could use the MC-4 later if required, as it turned out it was for one song only, “In and Out.”

The Syncbox was in memory mode whereby on the first pass it would memorize the timings of every click interval then later would send out a completely perfect sync tone to the MC-4, as perfect as the drummer was playing the original click track.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | Images, Music, Technical, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pea Hicks’ MC-8 Pics

Here’s some pics of my MC-8 and my current setup.

January 27, 2010 Posted by | Images | 1 Comment

Ralph Dyck Sequencer Program Data Example: “Directions”

Ralph sent along an mp3 andprogram data sheets for a short piece of music he realized on his home-brew digital sequencer. Ralph says: “This is for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Recording in ’75. The tune is called ‘Directions’. The program sheets were my own, well before Roland.” Music and images are copyright Ralph Dyck and registered by SOCAN Canada.

January 27, 2010 Posted by | Images, Music, Technical | Leave a comment

Schematics for Ralph Dyck’s Digital Sequencer V2

Here’s a set of schematics for the second version of Ralph Dyck’s Digital Sequencer, generously scanned and provided by Ralph. These documents date to 1975. They are copyright Ralph Dyck, and provided here explicity for historical purposes.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | Images, Technical | Leave a comment

Schematics for Ralph Dyck’s Digital Sequencer V1

Here’s a set of schematics for the first version of Ralph Dyck’s Digital Sequencer, generously scanned and provided by Ralph. These documents date to 1974-75. They are copyright Ralph Dyck, and provided here explicitly for historical purposes.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | Images, Technical | Leave a comment

User Manual for Ralph Dyck’s Home-Brew Digital Sequencer V2

Ralph Dyck very generously scanned this user’s manual for version 2 of his home-brew sequencer. It’s surprising that such a formal document exists for a one-off machine, but perhaps it was intended for the Roland engineers to understand its workings. Unfortunately this sequencer no longer exists, but this manual offers a great insight into the design that evolved into the MC-8. It’s interesting to compare this manual with the official MC-8 manual. All material on this page is copyright Ralph Dyck, and is offered here exclusively for historical purposes.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | Images, Technical | 1 Comment

Exclusive Interview with RALPH DYCK, Godfather of the MC-8!

Recently I’ve been in touch with Ralph Dyck, the man responsible for designing and building a home-brew sequencer that eventually served as the basis for the design of the Roland MC-8. I’ll be posting lots of photos, music and technical documents that Ralph has been very generously emailing me. Posted so far are the user manual and the schematics for V1 and V2 of Ralph’s Digital Sequencer. This is all very important stuff in the history of programmable sequencers. The following is a brief interview with Ralph about his groundbreaking work.All photos are provided by Ralph Dyck, all music is copyright Ralph Dyck and registered by SOCAN Canada.

What’s your background in music, and how did you originally get involved in electronic music?

As a kid I played accordion then piano then vibraphone. I took some Royal Conservatory of Toronto Theory and History then a number of private lessons by professional musicians mostly in arranging. I played Jazz clubs on the weekend then later played night clubs and wrote some Jazz works for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).

I designed a simple 16 stage sequencer with simple oscillators, it was weird but fun, we called it “The Monster” (what else?). A friend was studying at UBC (University of British Columbia) and wasn’t interested in the Electronic Music lab classes so he asked me if I wanted to use his time there knowing that I was interested in electronics. So I began a two year exploration every day using the Electronic Music lab, they had Moog, Buchla and some nice Ampex 1/2 tracks. I started to design and build modules that we could use in the studio, voltage processors and things like that.

You developed your sequencer before the “home-brew” microcomputer scene really started happening in the mid-1970s. What sort of background did you have in computers at that time, and how did you go about designing your circuits and the operating system itself?

I knew a fair bit about analog electronics and how synthesizers worked, I had built my own which turned out very successfully. A friend told me about digital memories and D/A converters and that was the spark for me getting into sequencers. I knew absolutely nothing about computers, I was an untrained, fly by the seat of the pants amateur. However, I knew how to pick my friends and I had a couple that helped me immensely, Chris Huntley, an engineer was the major mentor in my life then, also Theo Goldberg, a composer, helped me get a $4000 Canada Council Grant for the Arts. For about a year in 1972 I planned how to build my first sequencer, function by function using TTL logic and Shift Registers for memory. In the meantime I was touring with the Paul Horn band, playing a lot of gigs with them.

I had most of my good ideas at 5AM or in my car. I decided to enter data via a calculator keyboard so I had to learn how to do that, it’s not trivial if you’ve never done it and have no training. Then it was a matter of organizing the memory, 6 bits for pitch, > 5 octaves, 6 bits for time, and 6 bits for envelope gate control and 6 bits for dynamics and voice switching, also, all of the clock control and finally a means of synchronizing tracks on tape, first I used pulse recording but that would feed through to other tracks, it sounded like a buzz saw, then I read about these FSK modem chips with phase locked loops and decided to use them… MUCH better!

The evolution of recording with the sequencer was a gradual affair, my first gig was a TV News theme for BCTV while I was playing on a television series with Paul Horn in early 1973. I had a synthesizer so they thought that I must be able to do it, after all, it was electronic! The only part that the sequencer played was the pink noise through filter drums/percussion and maybe the intro, I’m not sure. The rest was played by hand because I had not implemented synchronization yet! That came within a few months because of this experience. I recorded this in a hallway where they wheeled out the big tape recorder!

Were there any other microprocessor based sequencer applications that you were aware of at the time which your design was based on or inspired by? If not, can you describe how you came up with the basic operating system?

I had no knowledge of any microprocessor system at all, I built up my sequencer a function at a time as they became necessary. Just trial and error.

Eventually I had enough breadboarded modules to put them in a ‘proper’ housing, by then I had most of the building blocks of my system. I had a modular synth that I built so testing was easy and I had tons of drive. I had a vision as to how it should work and built modules until it did! It was all based on logical needs, necessity, you know? The master plan was all in my head, if you saw the schematics you would shake your head, I’ll enclose a couple of them. I only became organized doing my second sequencer.

Did you design the sequencer primarily based on your own musical needs at the time, or were you thinking of a more universal musical application from the start?

The sequencer was based on my needs and Theo Goldberg’s experiments with unusual time signatures, like 13/8 etc. I wanted to make an orchestra.

How did your design come to the attention of Roland, and how was the design of your sequencer altered to become the MC-8?

I built my second sequencer in 1975, it was CMOS based and slicker. I showed it to Gene Trademan who was a Roland dealer, he invited Mr. Kakehashi, President of Roland to come to my studio in early 1976. I showed the sequencer playing to tracks it had already recorded and he said that it was Perfect! We made a deal and he hired the best guy for the job, Yukio Tamada, to design and build a microprocessor based system. I knew about the 8080a, I had an Altair, but I had no idea of how to use one for a sequencer except very simple programs I would toggle into my Altair. In early 1977 Roland wrote me and said that the new sequencer would have 8 separate channels! Wow! I went to Japan and helped in the musical debugging and wrote and programmed some demo pieces, like Odd Rhythms. The MC-8 was based on my method but was much, much more powerful. They had proper engineers to do this not just piano players.

Were there any compromises made in the Roland design where you felt your original sequencer was superior?

There was nothing in the design of the MC-8 that was lacking except very, very small timing issues due to the multiplexed outputs. My old sequencer was just a single channel so it was basically perfect, timing wise. The timing issue is of no concern.

Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share about working on musical productions with the MC-8?

I had a theme to do for TV called ‘The Inventors’, I had one whole day booked into Studio A of Little Mountain Sound in Vancouver, I had no plans and from scratch 14 hours later I had a theme of which I’m quite proud. The show was about inventors and they filmed me after all of this because I was inventing the theme. I was totally exhausted and quite nervous, I survived it all, more or less.

What’s the most complex production you ever realized on the MC-8?

I recorded some ‘Disco’ type tunes for my American publisher in 1978 and they involved many hours in the studio, most of it after midnight. I used real drums and percussion because I could finally afford them. One of the tunes is called ‘Discovery’, the original version was used as the radio theme for the CBC coverage of the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

Do you have any interesting anecdotes about your interactions with famous musicians who used the MC-8?

I worked with Toto on several albums and tours, David Paich and Steve Porcaro were really into using the MC-8 with their Polyfusion synth. I was at David Foster‘s house in LA, we’re both Canadians, we’ve known each other since the ’60s and David asked me if I knew of Toto, I had just heard the name, I didn’t know their music at the tiime. Foster called Paich and asked him if he knew about the MC-8 and Paich said “Buddy! We own two of them!” We got together and became great friends.

In the late 1970s, musicians certainly had virtually no background in computers. What sort of reaction did they have to the “music by numbers” method of programming the MC-8?

They didn’t like it much except Tomita and Steve Porcaro and Suzanne Ciani.

Can you describe any modifications you ever designed for the production model MC-8?

I had nothing to do with the hardware on the MC-8, only it’s core operation.

Clearly the MC-8 was capable of realizing very complex and subtle musical arrangements, yet today it’s primarily known for churning out robotic synth-pop music (ie Giorgio Moroder, The Human League, etc). How did you feel about the way the MC-8 was being used by producers at the time?

Well, it was just another tool in the commercial music biz. I did that as well but I also did some very serious music tracks.

Do you have any favorite recordings produced using the MC-8?

Toto only used the MC-8 in small sections, not whole tracks. Steve Porcaro did a lot of musically interesting parts with it.

When was the last time you worked with an MC-8, and what sort of production was it?

I think that the last time I used an MC-8 was with Toto, maybe for their album ‘Turn Back‘. Other than that I can’t remember.

What became of all your original hardware, including your prototype sequencer and any production model MC-8’s?

All that I have left of my original sequencer is the front panel and some photos. I think I sold the MC-8.

Can you describe any other hardware you designed?

The SBX-80 Syncbox was based on my two prototypes that I had designed with Peter Dunik, we had a world wide patent for it. I also wrote the software and designed the electronics for ‘The Pocket Drummer’ a very small drum machine.

Can you tell me something about the modular synthesizer you built and used with your sequencer?

About my synth, it has 4 VCOs,  2 VCFs, 4 VCAs, 4 ADSRs, a Ring Modulator, a White/Pink Noise Generator, a Sample and Hold, a Voltage Processor and it used to have a very good frequency counter until I dismantled it! All of the important circuits were designed by Chris Huntley, an engineer friend of mine. He would draw a schematic for the basic function that I would need and I would have to prototype it and expand it to make it usable.

I have NO schematics at all. A real shame! I have a PC layout for the VCO but that’s all. If you really want to know all of the nuts and bolts of it, in 1970 I was working at a night club called Isy’s Supper Club, we had a quintet which played for shows and things. Times became difficult and Isy, rather than closing, decided to put in strippers. the band was cut to 3 (sax, piano, drums) but the Musicians Union (AFM) stuff stayed the same. (I’m drawing a small pension from them, for which I am very grateful).

I was also spending my days at UBC learning about electronic music. That’s when I decided to build my own, I certainly couldn’t afford Moog or Arp. I much preferred ARP for their specifications which were spot on, I thought. I had to breadboard every circuit and even designed my first ever circuit, my envelope generator (ADSR). We were renting at the time, Jeff was 1-2 and I was supporting my family and my habit (synthesizers) by playing a strip club at night! It took a year to design, breadboard and build. one year exactly! How I did it I’ll never, ever know. I made 2 other synths for school music departments. It took me much more than a year to learn how to use it. My first Jobs were making Radio Station Logos. For these I got $25 apiece. Big money. I’m including some here…

The MC-8 was succeeded by the MC-4, and then a long line of sequencers in Roland’s “Micro-Composer” series. Do you have any thoughts about the development of sequencer technology as it relate to your initial design contributions?

Well, in electronics, everything advances, the only thing that the subsequent gear had in common with my sequencer was the method of use, the basic idea of the system.

Are you still making music today, and if so, what sort of equipment are you using?

I’m making music of a sort, my son Jeff van Dyck is doing the music now in the family and he helps me whenever he’s in town. He gave me some great gear to make my old synth work again, I have an original prototype MIDI to CV/Gate converter, 4 channels, made by a guy in Australia, it works perfectly. Jeff also gave me an E-MU 0404 USB interface which also works great. I also have a Yamaha P-80 piano and a Roland XP-10 synth. I’m trying to get my old synth working reliably but the connections are a real problem, it’s almost 40 years old!

January 25, 2010 Posted by | Images, Interviews & Articles, Music, Technical | 9 Comments