Roland MC-8 Micro-Composer

Vintage Roland MC-8 Sequencer Archive

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

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

YMO Programming the MC-8 in the Studio, 1979

Thanks to Zilog Jones and PinWizz for pointing me to a video of YMO in the studio in 1979:

PinWizz says:

There is a video of YMO members programming [“Behind The Mask“] on MC-8 back in the day! 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.

You can also see YMO here a couple years later, programming the MC-4:

As a side note, Matsutake also had his own recording project called Logic System. Here’s one track from Logic System’s 1981 LP, which featured lots of MC-8 sequences:

February 20, 2010 Posted by | Interviews & Articles, Music, Videos | 1 Comment

MC-8 Original Box

I thought I’d post a pic of the box my MC-8 came in. Note that this box came inside a bigger Roland shipping box, which you can see in the unboxing video I posted previously. Note the stamp that says “With OM-8 Optional Memory.” This is the memory board that came factory installed in the interface unit, which considerably expands the standard on-board memory.

February 17, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 | 4 Comments

Two 1970s Ralph Dyck CBC Radio Interviews

Ralph sent mp3s of a couple of interviews he did for CBC radio in the 1970s. The first one dates to about 1975, so he’s discussing his home-brew sequencer. The second one is from about 1981, so the examples are from the MC-4 as well as the MC-8:

February 11, 2010 Posted by | Interviews & Articles | Leave a comment

Shock – ANGEL FACE – Produced by RJ Burgess on the MC-8

Here’s a fun track from 1980 that was sequenced entirely on the MC-8 by Landscape‘s Richard James Burgess:

Richard says:

Oh yes, that was all me. That is entirely MC-8. Rusty Egan brought the group and the song and I programmed everything in my home studio and recorded it at Mayfair Studios in South Moulton St. with John Hudson engineering. It was the System 100Ms with the 10x gate modification on the bass line for sure. I did all their recordings and I wrote the rest of the songs with various members. Rusty and I wrote the B side in about ten minutes at my house – RERB – our initials – very imaginative – but it still gets played in clubs to this day. I loved this group they were so outrageous, this was a very fun time both personally and creatively.

Watch this space soon for an exclusive interview with Richard on his use of the MC-8 on Landscape’s “From The Tearooms Of Mars To The Hell-Holes Of Uranus!”

February 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

From Paul Horn’s “Jupiter 8” LP: “Transitions” by Ralph Dyck

Ralph sent along an mp3 of a Paul Horn piece he’s especially fond of, which he wrote and produced using the Roland MC-4 and Jupiter-8. It’s called “Transitions.” Ralph says it was his only “hit,” and that he received airplay royalties from it for years afterward. The “Jupiter 8” album has never been released on CD, but “Transitions” was included on Paul Horn’s “Traveler” CD.

Ralph also sent this video of “Transitions” being produced in the studio:

February 4, 2010 Posted by | Music | 4 Comments

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