Roland's new Grooveboxes (well new as of last year) just got a significant OS update to v1.5 and as a result they've come a long way since they were first introduced.
Gaz Williams and Nick Batt took a look at the MC-707 which is an 8-track groove box with tone tracks, drum tracks and Looper tracks.
At the heart of both the MC boxes is the Zen Core engine. This is common to many new Roland machines - the Jupiter X and Xm and the AX Edge specifically (though without the synth specific expansion engines) and as such can share the basic core patches across all models, including integration with the Roland Cloud.
You get 128 maximum voices with the MC-707, Drums give you 16 pads with deep, deep sound editing, and Looper tracks - these are a little misleadingly named though - they really are just phrase sample slots with a maximum of 62 seconds of time available across a project.
First up, the Zen Core engine is really, really deep. With up to four VA or PCM oscillators/partials, modeled filters, envelopes, lfos and all the partial editing depth you might reasonably desire, although we would recommend sticking to the simple edit mode, otherwise you might actually lose your mind!
But it sounds good. Synth voices, PCM based pianos/strings etc are all there. Drums are similarly deep with a TR style pattern grid and real-time recording, each pattern (Tone and Drum tracks) can be up to 128 steps, together with 3 assignable parameters per track for motion recording. Roland have clearly been observing the Elektron ways.
Looper- not Looper tracks are as we said, somewhat poorly named - up to 8 bars per clip with a maximum of 63 seconds to record into - this is pretty stingy and does hamstring what is otherwise a pretty remarkable writing experience. It's just so easy to record something into a clip.
Also, Looper implies overdubbing, but you can't. Not a big big deal for some, but when combined with the limited sample time it did rather frustrate us.
Additionally, samples and loops can be recorded from track or mix outputs as the source and those samples can be used as individual drum voices and PCM Tones to run through the full Zen Core engine - this means creating your own custom kits and samples is a breeze.
Ins and Outs 2 sets of stereo outputs, plus a stereo send and headphones give you enough outs. Inputs - stereo return and stereo sampling inputs make this a synch to record into or just submix into the main outputs. If you want USB audio you can access 20 (yes 20) inputs, stereo for each of the 8 tracks, stereo input, plus Mix output - it's only 44.1 but can be 24 bit we think.
Clips The workflow for composition is easy - select a track, set a pattern length - record and move on. Those familiar with the Ableton Live method will feel right at home as each track can house up to 16 clips , allowing for complex arrangements and combinations of clips to be easily written and recalled via dedicated buttons or by navigating the grid on the LCD. It's a brilliantly executed workflow.
FX Master Reverb and Delay sound good, if not especially atmospheric - no shimmer etc, but each track can also access an internal dedicated MFX with a wide variety of sounds (apart from Reverb), some of these parameters can be assigned to the any one of the three knobs per track for automation too.
In addition you have a Scatter effects mode where the pads become momentary triggers for FX - you can edit those too.
In Use Nick has no patience with convoluted workflows and found this to be really intuitive - even the synth editing is fairly straight-forward if you want to get into it - there are 3000 presets if not.
Yes, there is a lot of menu work, but it's not hard to navigate and there are plenty of shortcuts. It was quick to get fluent and more time spent will reward, though it's not because it's unfamiliar territory, it's just got a lot of features. Gaz did say he would like to have had a second shift button on the RHS though for single handed operation - fair point.
If you don't want to use the pads, hook up a MIDI keyboard and you could easily create a complex set of splits and layers if your keyboard can send on multiple MIDI channels. If not, there's a global channel option (new in 1.5) which routes the MIDI input to the currently selected track - that is genius and just like a DAW. Although you cant record to multiple tracks at the same time - you would need a DAW for that. So even as a multi-timbral sound source it's got potential, though loading projects does take several seconds.
Honestly, this is almost a 10 out of 10Gold Award in groovebox terms, the MC-707 offers a very easy way to work on pattern based composition without the usual horrible interface and workflow that they usually entail.
It's good, really good. And sounds good too. The only fly in the ointment for both Gaz and Nick was the short sample time - there is up to 6 minutes available in the spec but only 63 seconds for the looper - madness!
But that aside, the MC-707 is possibly one of the best grooveboxes we've ever come across. In terms of ease of use, and not with any slacking on the features. Roland have excelled themselves.
The MC-101 features the same Zen Core Engine but only four tracks of playback, you can copy projects between them (via the included SD card), but only the first four tracks will sound. It also has no audio inputs, but could be a useful compact playback engine or four part Zen Core sound source it's got potential (same 128 voice polyphony) though good luck editing anything on the tiny screen. By contrast the MC-101 is horrible to use, the editing and parameter access would drive pretty much anyone mad after only a few attempts at trying to use it. Definitely the 707 is the way to go in our opinion.