Review: Roland MC-707

As part of a rather surprising media event in September 2019, Roland have released two new devices from their MC series, of which the MC-707 is the bigger one.

With that, it somehow follows on the MC-808 from 2006, and ends a period of MC drought of over ten years.

Let’s have a look at it.

Historical Context

The first Roland MC devices (the MC stands for microcomposer) were the MC-8 and MC-4 from the 70s/early 80s – which were sequencers with a microcontroller (which, at the time, was a big thing).

The first one with a sound engine, and what some consider the first groovebox was the MC-202 from 1983 – and that one had pretty much everything the MCs have been since: synth and pattern sequencer.

The big MC era must have been the second half of the 90s: MC-303, MC-505, MC-307 and D2 were all JV-1080-based synths with sequencers and effects added. The MC-505 here added faders for the first time – and these were also present on the later MC-909 and MC-808, which added samples and audio clips to the equation.

Both the MC-909 and the later MC-808 somewhat had a problem in the market, which was the same problem the Yamaha SU700 had, and that was the Akai MPC.

So in that context. There’s still MPCs out there – will Roland manage to make an impact this time?

Hard Facts

The MC-707 comes in a dark and rather slim package – at ca. 41cm in the same ballpark as many competitors, but slightly slimmer than, say, a Novation Bass Station II, a standard 84TE Eurorack case or a MPC, but wider than an Arturia Minibrute (first generation) and considerably wider than an Elektron Octatrack or Analog Rytm.

It’s however shallower than most of these, but makes up in depth compared to some of the competition.

Sitting in a stand next to its ancestor, the MC-505, you can see that it has shrunk in every dimension – but the faders have gotten bigger.

MC Compariosn
It’s gotten smaller in over 20 years: MC-505 and MC-707

Speaking of size and comparison: the pads with ca. 25mm length, sit in the middle size-wise between the smaller Elektron and the larger Akai pads.

From the surface, we immediately note a few things:

  1. Sixteen pads in a 2×8 layout – meaning the Linn 2.0 approach first seen on the DSI Tempest,
  2. Eight channel strips with decent-size faders,
  3. The display is small, non-colour, non-touch so all in all, non-2020.

MC707 back

Talking connections, we have on the audio side phones, two stereo output pairs, a stereo effects send/return loop, and two inputs (the left also doubling as a mic input). All audio is 1/4”.

There’s MIDI as one in and two outs, and a USB connector for connection to the computer. No possibility to connect USB devices such as a storage medium or MIDI controller keyboard to this. Speaking of storage: this is done with standard SD cards, hidden behind a cover (removed in the image above).

Sidenote: all connectors are on the rear, and on the rear only.

Soft Facts

The panel already hinted at it: it’s got eight tracks. It doesn’t have more than eight tracks, so that is the absolute maximum you’re going to get inside of a project (the project being the highest hierarchy element here).

A project can best be compared to a file you load and save in your DAW. Which also means you need to stop the sequencer when loading a new project. You even need to stop the sequencer when saving.

Speaking of absolute maximums: the maximum of clips (something like a pattern) in each track is 16, and the maximum number of steps in each clip is 128. As step sizes can be 1/8, 1/16 or 1/32 in relation to the clock, you immediately get a maximum clip length of eight bars in a 16th grid and 4/4, which corresponds to 64 seconds at 120bpm. It’s also a tad bit too short for some applications, as it’s also a maximum of 16 bars if step length is set to 1/8 – meaning you need two clips to fit one of the biggest bass lines of all times (the one from the Goldbergvariationen).

Each of your tracks can be one of four types: looper (which records and plays back looped samples), tone (a synth), drum (a drumsynth) and drum+comp (a drumsynth with six compressors you can assign your instruments two).

Again, we’re hit with absolute maximums. You can have a maximum of eight looper tracks. Unless you have a drum+comp track, in which case you can only have five looper tracks. And you can only have one drum+comp tracks. There’s more limits along the way, but those are much more wishi-washi. And while we’re at it: samples for your synth instruments are limited to 64 seconds in total (stereo), unless you have looper clips in your project, which also eat sample memory, and two of those at around 65bpm already eat all of it.

Enough of the bickering, let’s talk about the synthesis engine!

Synthesis Engine

MCs of the x0x variety have always been synthesizers, and this one is no different. The so-called ZEN-core synthesis engine is one that will immediately feel familiar to anyone who has used a Roland mainstream digital synth since the D-50. Each tone is made up of up to four partials, and these are in the end pretty normal subtractive voices, which as oscillators either have standard waveforms or PCM samples. The partials must not be confused in this context with different oscillators – each partial is a complete oscillator-filter-amplifier chain with matching modulators – and the modulators are of the more enjoyable kind (such as envelopes that have time and level settings for each stage, plus initial level).

While this synth engine is nothing to be surprised about, it is both a flexible and, considering its depth, intuitive affair, and it also gives you what I consider the “Roland sound” – a welcome addition as the last Roland I got was the aforementioned MC-505.

Still, while we can assume that synths are a key competence among Roland designers, some decisions just leave me baffled: why can’t I set loop points in samples for the tone tracks – especially considering I can do that for the (usually one-shot) ones for the drum track? I can do that on an Ensoniq Mirage from 1984.

Apart from that small detail (and I’m sure there are others I haven’t found yet), the synth for tone and drum tracks is pretty much identical, and I consider this a good thing.

At this point, I decided to stop listing features you most probably already know, and get into the user experience.

Playing it: Sequencer

The sequencer breathes its x0x legacy all the way. It thinks in groups of 16 (of which there can be up to eight, called “measures” and selected with a pair of buttons), and obviously, each of those 16 steps gets its own button (which shines in colour).

The way the sequencer works is different for the drum, tone and looper tracks: for drums, you get one track for each of your 16 instruments in the drum voice, and set/reset steps by a button press. All instruments have the same pattern length – if you want a BD/SD pattern of 16 steps against a HH one in 17, you need two drum tracks for this.

For tones tracks, you select a step with the button and then enter notes with the pads or a connected MIDI keyboard. Sadly, this always makes a sound, so you can’t quietly program a new pattern while another pattern is playing on the same track.

For looper tracks, you can’t do sequencing. Bummer. Big one.

You can adjust first and last note for an existing sequence while playing, also with shortcut keys, change playing order to reverse/forward, reverse and random (the latter two also with shortcuts) and repeat one or more steps which you need to hold down together with the track button, so considering you most probably only have a certain amount of fingers and hands is somewhat limited.

What you can’t do is set a first and last step so it wraps around the start to shift the starting position in relation to the downbeat – which also means if you’ve recorded your pattern one bar too late, you need to redo it.

In general, I enjoy playing with the sequencer. Meaning I really, really do enjoy playing it. I didn’t have that much fun playing with a sequencer for a long, long time, and it definitely beats those I’ve recently used or have been trying out, which includes as the biggest competitors both Elektron and Akai.

Playing it: Mixer

Having a mixer, even with only eight channels and three knobs and a fader per channel, is a fun thing. At least it’s pretty much enough to feed you weird things.

Each part this way gets its own combo of a fader (with configurable lights around it) which always controls volume, and three freely assignable knobs (even though they’re named filter, mod and fx). “Freely assignable” means it can control pretty much all of the effects in said part, one of four configured parameters on your synth, looper playback direction and pitch, and pan, obviously.

The settings for the knobs are also stored in your clips, and all the knob motions can be recorded into so-called motion sequences which become part of clips (pretty much like a sequencer for control changes, like you have e.g. on the Korg minilogue).

MC707 dark
Would work well in a dark club (or room).

A big plus for me is that you can set the colour for your channels (as you can for the pads in Scatter mode, but more on that later). With that, I can pretty much copy my colour scheme I’ve been using in Cubase for years (decades?) and immediately go “I want to bring down all drums/percussion, so I just slam the greenish faders”.

Playing it: Moving around

As mentioned, the biggest thing is the “project”, so when you’re creating a song or playing a set, your moving around in this.

The standard image on the screen is that of your clips on the tracks (rows) and in lines – which immediately screams “Ableton Live”. There’s two ways to launch clips – either by selecting them on said screen with the cursor buttons and pressing [Enter], or by switching to the [Clip] mode for your pads (they can do other things besides triggering sounds), use the step buttons to select a row and then triggering them with the pads. With a Shift-Shortcut, you can also trigger an entire row, and you can store up to eight combos of clips in a scene and launch them with four dedicated buttons on the left.

And this is how you move from clip to clip – and there’s no other way. Like having transition conditions for the clip (e.g. play the clip, then switch to the next one), or having a kind of song/chain mode which pretty much every decent sequencer/drum machine/groovebox has. Even my old MC-505 did this. Why?

For me, as I’m not using this to produce entire songs, rather to noodle around, it’s not that big of an issue (although I would have enjoyed transitions – see the Goldberg Problem above).

Playing it: Other things to do with pads

The pads can do other things (as we’ve already mentioned) other than playing sounds. There’s the possibility to launch clips in “Clip” mode, you can mute tracks, stop clips and cue tracks to phones using the “Mute/Cue” button. There’s also a “Chord” mode which allows you to play chords (if you want to do that, why don’t you go to music school?)

Scatter, then, is a set of different granular effects in combination with two send effects which you can apply almost everywhere (track, input, main out) and do fun DJ/EDM-style things. There’s a big variety, and you can also sequence it. It’s something I haven’t used that much, but which is a lot of fun. Great addition!

Playing it: Integration

Rather than using it as a standalone sketchpad (for which the lack of battery power would be the biggest downside), you could also use it in a (dawless) performance setup.

I have so far used it in different configurations next to the standalone one, such as together with a monosynth keyboard or with a monosynth, Eurorack and two effects thingies.

MC707 Context
Lineup: MC-707, Bass Station II, Nifty Case, KP3, G3.

Connectivity-wise, it works ok: two MIDI outs means in the context that is sensible no problems, and the same goes for one stereo in and a stereo effects loop. If you had a sampling-kinda thing in your setup, you could also use the second pair of outputs to drive that.

If I had to name one flaw, it would be the lack of a USB port for devices, to connect and power a USB keyboard controller to allow for a truly simple setup with only one cable and one PSU.

One somewhat limiting aspect is also the gain staging: if you connect devices made for consumer levels (such as the Korg KP3), you need to bring gain down on the effects send – and the gain on the return isn’t enough to make up for that.

Furthermore, once you’re connecting a few monosynths (in my setup, that would be three channels) you’re really hitting limits with the track count: one track for the Bass Station, A-111-6 and Chipz-based voice each, and you have five left. If you want to do even very basic polymetric stuff with drums, that’s a further two (at minimum), and with that, you have three further tracks. Is that enough? Your decision in the end.

Apart from that, I’ll say it again: I had a lot of fun playing with the MC-707 as a center of a setup, especially if I have the immediacy aspect of sound design covered with a few analogue monosynths and get additional effects externally.

So, what about Usability?

We’ve talked about a few of the workflows already, but how do they flow when doing the actual work? I’ll look at two different use cases for which I see this devices predestined.

Use Case: Creation

You’re sitting around and want to write a song. Can you do that with the MC-707 on its own, or at the center of attention?

If your style of creating is pattern-based and you’re not a keyboard player first and foremost, then by all means yeas. You can quickly create patterns, create copies and modify them, choose templates from your library. I personally always want a keyboard for input if what I do is not TB-303-style, and for that, we can’t just connect something like an Alesis Q25 and be done (as you can’t connect USB devices).

You’re somewhat stuck if you either don’t work in patterns (but that’s true for pretty much all of the alternatives that are not a manuscript book) or later want to assemble them into chains for good: the lack of a linear mode and of a song mode makes both things impossible – or rather, still requires button presses (and thus, you remembering things) one you’re assembling the piece. Also, you can’t record your completed piece – you need yet another device for that.

Use Case: Performance

That can be either the “at home” or the live situation: you’re playing with a setup centered around the MC-707 and go through your pieces, and your set.

As we’ve seen, with the exception of the “no USB” issue, that works pretty well. In that context, especially if your goal is not to play back a completed song but rather to assemble on the fly, almost everything you need is there.

I already mentioned how the track limit impacts you more in this situation, but there’s another probably even bigger showstopper: you need to stop the sequencer to load another project, and output audio gets cut off for a short amount of time while doing that. Which means that if you put a loop onto your KP3 which is connected to the effects loop and want to get over the interruption, that won’t work. Can you get through a song with eight tracks of 16 clips each? Most probably yes. Can you get through a one-hour EDM set with that? That one will be somewhat tricky.

Also in that context, the sometimes odd button placement shows the biggest impact. If I had to pick one key example, it would be to put the Shift key – a key that is always pressed together with other keys – at the very top left. You’ll always need to hands to do shortcuts that way. Why?

Wrapping it up – A Summary

The first thing that comes to mind regarding the MC-707 is rushed. The initial SW 1.00 release had so many simple oversights (like no metronome, and then a metronome, but which always went to the main outs) that it was obviously not meant to be released the day it was released, at least not by the Kami of product development.

In that context, the looper tracks appear like something that was thrown in, rather than well-thought-through. I’m not asking for a full-blown Ableton Live feature set, but having basic sequencer functionality at least would turn this from a cheap addition into an actual core feature.

Then again, in Roland’s core business, the MC-707 is what I expected it to be, and that is a really good thing: it’s got a good pattern sequencer that is fun and productive to play, and a synth engine that is both flexible and very Roland.

The limit of eight tracks: while I consider it a limit, I can also understand why it’s there, and that has mainly to do with user experience considerations: second fader from the left is always track 2 volume, and in mute mode the pad below it is always used to mute it. There was no way to make it differently considering the general strategy. Consequently, I’m willing to accept that limitation.

There’s also a lot of smaller oversights (like the lack of USB device connection), and a lot of small gems (like the Scatter effects). I consider none of these making or breaking the deal.

Now a few of the mentioned issues – especially relating to the looper tracks – are things that can be fixed in a software update (hopefully). So I hope Roland does what is right and gives us a decent software update focused on the looper track, rather than canning the thing and saying “it was a mistake, let’s move on to the next”.

In summary, also considering the price point, and the very strong competition in form of the MPC Live and now the MPC One, it took me a long time to make a decision on this.

In the end, the MC-707 is a groovebox with some serious limitations, but also some great features. I wouldn’t say it’s better, worse or equal than an MPC Live, rather it’s a different thing for different things.

I would consider this a very good purchase if your goal is a combo of a flexible and powerful synth with a good pattern sequencer and very good (but only a few at a time) effects.

This is a performance of mine with the setup photographed above which some considered “a great showcase for the MC-707”. I enjoyed making it a lot.

3 thoughts on “Review: Roland MC-707

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