It's always fun to have a piece of gear that you can pull out of the studio and stand alone on its own, especially when it's ultra-portable like the MC-101. Let's face it; working in the studio can sometimes be stifling, and having a little R2-D2 like box to come along with you to make music on is kind of cool. As far as comparisons, the MC-101 is very similar to the Novation Circuit, which we liked for a lot of the same reasons.
The Roland MC-101 is a powerful, yet compact, four-track groove box that is fully capable of rendering a full composition once you get proficient. The onboard sounds and effects are excellent, the sequencer and interface are somewhat intuitive, but there is a bit of a learning curve. We got a hold of one to test out, so here are our thoughts.
Design & Build Quality -
We can't quite get over how small this thing is, coming in at 6.9 x 5.2 x 2.3" and just over a pound. It's made of plastic but still feels sturdy and capable of withstanding some road wear and tear. As with anything so small, the 101 requires you to do a lot of menu-diving to get to all the functionality, simply because there is not enough surface area to put more controls. It's not going to be something you will want to use for a live set, or even as a central part of your studio - it's a cool accessory that can get you out of the box and inspire you to create. Then bring that back to the studio to build upon or finesse. The unit is stacked with a lot of those classic Roland sounds like 909s, 808s, Juno-106, etc. which sonically brings a lot of fun and flavor to the little guy.
It's a great starter kit in the refreshed Roland groovebox portfolio, and the MC-707 might be next on your list should you become proficient with this or want to add this kind of gear to a live performance. It's nice to see Roland back in this category, as they bring a certain Rolandish quality to it. With Elektron and Novation dominating for the last four years or so, we are happy to have another player in the game.
Roland has been pushing into many new realms such as cloud-based synths, the Zen app, and its new Zen-Core sound engine, which powers the MC series. Without getting too geeky, the engine is a combination of sampled based and Virtual Analog synthesis with an onboard sequencer to layout your tracks and some super cool effects to bring your compositions to life. The MC-101 is packed with 128 voices and 3500 preset sounds, so there is plenty to tweak to make it feel your own.
The controls are set up as follows:
Left Side - Project Button, Shift Button, four-track selection buttons, Two measure buttons (forward/backward), play, and record (quantize) button with a volume know at the top.
Center - Four faders to control each track, multi-fx and edit button, Fx parameters and Fx depth kobs, a small backlit digital menu window, a 16 pad step sequencer, and keyboard, four control knobs (C1, C2, C3, C4), and Sound (Edit), Filter (Utility), Modulation (Motion), FX (Copy) Buttons
Far Right - You have the Value knob to help you scroll and select in the menu, Exit (Tap), Tempo (Write) buttons and 4 Pad control buttons that control Clip, Sequencer, Note, and Scatter functions
Rear Panel - Two 1/4 outs (L (mono) / R), two Midi ports, power switch, SD card, and USB input.
The Front panel - 3.5mm headphone jack on the front.
Bottom / Power - You have four rubber feet and a battery compartment that holds 4 AA batteries for power. You can also power it up via a USB when attached to your laptop.
The pads, buttons, and knobs are fine size-wise and were easy enough to work with navigating the device, sequencing beats, or playing out synth lines. Where the hard part comes in is learning how to navigate everything, this will take some time, but once you get a general idea, you can start making decent progress rather quickly.
Connecting to your DAW/Laptop - You can connect The MC-101 directly to your laptop via USB port to add sounds and connect to your DAW. The unit then essentially becomes an audio interface, which can be helpful when you are traveling with it as it's just one extra piece of gear you don't need. This connectivity will allow you to record your tracks to the DAW as a mix or use the individual tracks. Or you can even sample sounds from your DAW to put into the MC 101. So if you get a dope composition going that you want to further refine in your software, it's pretty simple to port it over and continue working on it.
Using the MC-101 to create tracks and grooves.
We love the fact that there are only four tracks, this pushes you to be more creative and focus on critical elements of a song, like lead, drums, bassline, and melody. In fact, in many ways, learning how to use this little groove box can improve your production and compositions skills to some degree.
You will need to get used to the scrolling value knob, as you will be using it relentlessly to navigate all the sounds. The workflow is menu heavy, and learning how to move through the menus efficiently will make your experience on this machine a lot better. Take the time to learn the functions well before going to deep on creating at first; it will make creating all that much more fun.
Once you get the groove of the workflow, it's time to dig through the ample number of sounds, which will take a while, so be patient and enjoy the journey. Once you find some fresh synth sounds or tones, you can tweak them to your liking with a little noodling on the filters, some transposing, etc. Don't be turned off by a sound on the first go, a lot of times you can get something super fresh with some experimenting.
Another thing that you might find helpful is to set up a template that makes sense for your type of production. For example, setting up track one as your drums with 16 steps, track two as your bassline, three as your melody, and four as an open-ended lead you can improvise. If you are working off the same template for every project, you will get faster and more efficient with your workflow.
The four tracks each have their own 128-step sequencer, which can be dialed up or down to your preferred length. Notes can also be played and recorded chromatically. They are marked CDEFGABC across the bottom with C#, D#, F#, G#, and A# across the top, bookended by octave down and up button for transposing (moving up or down octaves). You also can use each of the 16 pads to create clips to evolved or change up your programming; for example, clip one in your drum track can be simply a 4/4 kick, then clip two can add a hat and snare, and so on. The clips allow you to create progressions and programming easily for your composition. You can easily create dope drum programs by merely cutting and pasting clips and evolving them with each clip.
Clip One - put a kick and hat in it
Clip Two - copy that kick and hat, add a snare and tom
Clip Three - copy that sequence and add some shaker
Clip Four - you get the gist.
You can also tweak the parameters of each drum sound represented on the 16 pads, tweaking the pitch, EQ, gain, filter, etc. to make each drum sound unique. There is also what they call a mute mode that allows you to pull out certain sequenced parts like the kick or snare, so you can control the drum programming live to some degree by adding and taking away sequences for each section.
When you get more advanced, you can use the Sound Source feature that lets you change the sound on each clip, giving you more flexibility and a more robust track. This functionality takes a bit of navigating, but it's refreshing to know that you can expand clips to more than just what's initially on the track selection. Still, you might not even need it unless you become an MC-101 power user, aka guru.
Each track also has its own set of effects (reverb, chorus/delay, compressor, EQ that can be used via the knobs C1, C2, C3 and C4 and a Multi FX (think phaser, flanger, etc.) that can be assigned and launched with the button and knobs just above the four faders.
When you add the other functions like Looping, Time Stretching, and Scatter (a bunch of cool effects you can access via the Scatter button on the lower left that tweaks your playback via the 16 pads, each pad with its own effect - which is A LOT of fun), the Scatter function is used in realtime to bring some flavor to your track. For those that are never one to use presets, not to worry, the Scatter presets are tweakable if you want to customize your sound further.
Can you add more sounds?
Yes, Roland has a dedicated page to update your little guy with sounds from such heavy hitters as KiNK, Cristian Valera, and Bjorn Akesson, along with a continuously updated sonic offering that is driven by genre - check it out here. You can also load in your own samples via SD card to be trimmed, stretched, looped, and sequenced.
If you are looking for a companion piece for your studio that will give you some "out of the box" inspiration and help refine your production and live skills, the MC 101 will provide you with endless joy. If you think of the MC 101 as you would a traditional synth to be integrated into your studio, this is not that. It's a powerful tool to create stand-alone compositions for those that take the time to master it, or just whip up some inspiring grooves while you sit under a tree. The unit is a little expensive, but the expandability of the sonic universe and the potential to customize so many functions will justify this purchase and may even lead you to the MC 707 and more robust live ambitions.