Roland MC-8 Micro-Composer

Vintage Roland MC-8 Sequencer Archive

Ralph Dyck Reunited With Another Long-Lost Synth Creation

Encouraged by the recovery of his Carson Graham synth, Ralph went in search of another synth he made around the same time for the UBC. Bob Pritchard of the UBC Music Dept. confirmed that the synth was still sitting offline in his office, and after a quick consultation with the school’s administration, it was decided to gift the synth back to its original creator! Ralph has been working on the synth for a few months now. Here’s a bit of Q&A about it, along with some pics and sound examples.

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

Ralph: Well, I don’t know where to begin because I don’t remember very much at all, I have a clear memory of the Carson Graham but not anything detailed about the UBC.

I had been using the UBC Electronic Music lab for about 2 years at that point and had already built my own synthesizer. Cortland Hultberg was the professor there and he and I conspired to make a copy of my synth. He had a way with budgets and would funnel funds to us (Wayne Carr and myself) to add on to the Lab, this time he must have found a bunch of money. I remember that I wasn’t using the Lab at all because I had my own stuff now! He must have had some students that helped in the installation of the synth, my 1st one was completed months before and I learned from my mistakes and made the UBC modules better, they still are! The front panels are 8″ by 4″ aluminum sheets for which I cut slots for slide pots by hand using a nibbling tool. I developed a ferocious grip. The UBC ones, I just noticed recently were done by machine! Obviously I did the Letraset lettering as I had done before, by hand. Here are 2 photos, my VCO from the 1st synth and my VCO from the UBC.

We kept everything as close to my original synth as possible except for the box containing it, I had one made for my own synth but UBC’s lab was circular with an opening so one was surrounded by equipment and the Moog and Buchla had their own cases where as mine (RDE) was mounted in a very nice pre-made oak veneered cabinet, there were gaps at the ends of each module row because of it being made for something else. It’s still in the same cabinet, there was also a satellite cabinet to the left that apparently contained VCFs (which I had made later) and a sub-mixer and additional matrix patch panel. The synth cabinet still has 3 holes for cables to attach to the satellite cabinet. The installation must have been done by students with me being there part time because I was very busy playing with the Paul Horn Quintet and we were traveling a lot. Actually, if any of the UBC students who helped in installing this synth read this blog then they should get in touch with me, please leave a comment here.

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

Ralph: The UBC synth was meant to be an exact copy of my first synth which had…

  • 4 VCOs (only 3 now) with Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth, Square, Pulse and Mix plus additional switches to select polarity of waveforms. Sure sounds like a Function Generator to me! (except it’s 1 volt/octave).
  • The 2 ranges of the VCO are 20Hz to 20Khz and 0.02Hz to 20Hz. The Sawtooth is selectable as Positive or Negative going. The Pulse Width goes from 1% to 99% and is voltage controlled, 10% per volt.
  • 4 VCAs selectable as Exponential or Linear. 6db per volt.
  • 4 ADSRs. The first complex circuit I ever designed all by myself, they still work! Controls for Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release and Output level.
  • A Sample & Hold with oscillator. There is an input level control as well as an oscillator frequency adjust which has the same specs as my VCO regarding frequency.
  • I thought there was a Ring Modulator but it has been removed!

What is missing is the satellite cabinet containing the VCFs, Mixer and 2nd matrix panel. Apparently most of that will never to be seen again along with the power supply.

The synth is really a standard one in that usually for a simple patch one might go VCO to VCO for vibrato modulation, the modulated VCO to a VCA controlled by an ADSR.  The VCO pitch might come from a keyboard CV and the ADSR gate from the keyboard Gate out. No filter though, seeing that I’m fixing this up for my son to use I’m going to have to reverse engineer my old VCFs and build copies of them, oh joy! My son Jeff van Dyck is really into digital synthesis but grew up on Modular systems so this will add a different color to the scheme of things.

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: Actually, it’s really amazing! Everything works perfectly! As I said before, VCFs are very necessary and a Sub-Mixer as well. The matrix patch panel is 25 vertical by 20 horizontal so I can’t hook up everything to it. Some patch panel 1/4″ jacks would be easiest by far and durable as well (and cheap!). Jeff and I have to think about exactly what to do. There’s really plenty of room on the existing frame to add extra items. The VCFs will have to be on a perf board wired by hand and controlled with rotary pots, same with the sub-mixer. For power supplies I’m going to use two industrial switching supplies, 60 watts @15 volts and 4 amps. I’ll wire them up for +/- 15 volt operation.

I left the synth sitting on my work table for at least a month and a half while I tried to think what was best to do. Because the matrix patch panel will not accommodate all the inputs and outputs available I had decided to mount 2 panels containing 20-24 1/4 inch jacks for a patch bay and matrix extension. However, I changed my mind entirely and I had the bright idea of going super simple! I would just use the 25 rows of 20 columns to connect the most necessary ins and outs. I decided to make the vertical rows as inputs and the horizontal columns as outputs because there are many more inputs needed than outputs. Here’s what I came up with:

Inputs / Vertical Rows

  1. VC 1 –  VCO 1
  2. VC 2 –  VCO 1
  3. PW   –  VCO 1
  4. VC 1 –  VCO 2
  5. VC 2 –  VCO 2
  6. PW   –  VCO 2
  7. VC 1 –  VCO 3
  8. VC 2 –  VCO 3
  9. PW   –  VCO 3
  10. VC 1 –  VCF
  11. VC 2 –  VCF
  12. AUD –  VCF
  13. VC    –  VCA 1
  14. AUD –  VCA 1
  15. VC    –  VCA 2
  16. AUD –  VCA 2
  17. VC    –  VCA 3
  18. AUD –  VCA 3
  19. GATE – ADSR 1
  20. GATE – ADSR 2
  21. GATE – ADSR 3
  22. GATE – ADSR 4
  23. SIG   –  S & H
  24. VCO –  S & H
  25. Audio Input

Outputs / Horizontal Columns

  1. MIX – VCO 1
  2. MIX – VCO 2
  3. MIX – VCO 3
  4. ADSR 1
  5. ADSR 2
  6. ADSR 3
  7. ADSR 4
  8. VCF
  9. VCA 1
  10. VCA 2
  11. VCA 3
  13. S&H GATE
  14. External Keyboard Pitch CV
  15. External Keyboard Velocity CV
  16. External Keyboard Gate

This works out very well and allowed me to do all of the wiring including the power supplies in less than a week whereas it would have taken months to drill new panels with many more cables.

Here are some photos as work progressed, once I was into it, it was vary easy and fast, like I had done this before! Forty years just flew by……

I tried making some sounds to test and all was okay except there was no musical value in any of the recordings I was making of the synth, I was much more interested in the quality of sound:

However, I satisfied all of my concerns when I improvised this little ditty, no keyboard for control, all I had was the Sample and Hold controlling the modules and vice versa.



July 25, 2012 Posted by | Interviews & Articles, Technical | 1 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

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

Creating swing feel on the Roland MC-4b

From the video description:

A demonstation of how to create swing on the Roland MC-4, you could also apply the same technique to the MC-202, MC-8 or other similar device, if this video proves popular I may do some more tutorials.

This is not a musical performance just a demonstration of technique so I have kept it to a simple 16 step sequence, of course you can use any length of sequence depending how patient you are.

First set the timebase to 48,12,6, this gives you 48ppqn so each 16th note will last for 12clocks, and enter your notes as normal. in the first part of the clip I am playing the sequence straight – so all step lengths set to 12.

Next we enter step time mode (shift 2) and change each alternate step to an offset of 12 but so that each 2 adjacent steps add up to 24, for example 14 and 10 as in the second example, or 13 and 11 (third example), higher difference = heavier swing feel. You can have the smaller number first or second depending on whether you want a rushed or lazy feel, also you can experiment with more complex timings for different types of groove, such as a pattern of 4 – 14,10,13,11 or whatever, just make sure that your total measure length is equal to 192 so that the sequence cycles correctly when synced. That’s pretty much it, hope you find it useful and thanks for watching.

February 20, 2010 Posted by | Technical, Tutorials, Videos | Leave a comment

Roland MC-8 Factory Demo Program – Bach Invention

This is another of the demo programs provided in the Roland MC-8 manual. This time it’s a Bach Invention, played back on a Roland SH-101 synth (not seen in the video). The first part of the video is specifically designed to bore you with stunning footage of me entering the channel 1 CV data for the first 3 pages of the 10-page score. Be thankful that I didn’t decide to include the entire CV/Step/Gate data entry process for the entire score. In the 2nd part of the video, you hear the entire mixed piece, played back in sync with the MC-8 displaying the CV data for channel 1.

Here’s an mp3 of just the music:

And here’s the program data for anyone who might have an MC-8 to load it into:

After posting this video, I was informed that Yellow Magic Orchestra featured this very same demo at the very end of the show during their 1980 world tour. You can hear their version here:

February 2, 2010 Posted by | Files, Music, Technical | Leave a comment

Ralph Dyck, Roger Linn & FSK Sync

Ralph recently shared this bit of information with me:

To make our systems compatible sync wise I showed Roger Linn how the FSK worked which he implemented in the LM-1 drum machine. I wound up using the LM-1 for an album with Paul Horn called Jupiter 8. I used the MC-4 and JP-8 for that album.

This definitely answers a question I had about how the MC-8 & LM-1 were synchronized on Human League’s “Dare!” album! I’ve been in touch with Martin Rushent, and will hopefully feature an interview with him here soon!

In the meantime, Ralph sent along a couple more mp3’s with this explanation:

In the early ’80s Roland US had a studio on La Cienega Blvd which I put together, it had an MC-4 and System 100 and a Teac multi-track. I did demos for Roland for the AES shows etc, I ‘m attaching two recordings that I did where Roger Linn provided the drums and guitar as well. These are really good examples of synchronization  of the  two systems.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | Music, Technical | Leave a 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