adventures in DIY music

Friday, August 8, 2014

Roland MC-50 midi sequencer

I cut my teeth on this hardware sequencer 22 years ago. There was a long break from it in the noughties when I switched to sequencing on a Mac, using Cubase, then Ableton Live. But my development of a technique to synthesize FSK sync signals in Ableton Live and send this as audio to the MC-50's sync-in jacks, has enabled me to slave this hardware to my software with rock-solid timing, giving me the best of both.

 (For details see this article on my website). 

Why use this old technology today? I've found many reasons, but I suppose they can be generalised as either "speed" or "fun", often both.
Keystroke commands can be so much quicker than using a mouse. They are generated at a lower level of brain architecture, and so have a less disruptive effect on conscious attention, allowing it to focus on the creative effect of the task. Using a mouse engages more parts of the brain, and at a higher level of architecture (e.g. optic cortex needs to track the pointer, and relay this information to the motor cortex controlling the mouse-hand). The result of using keystrokes is a feeling of freedom and flow when creating and editing midi parts. Of course, this assumes you have put the time in to acquire the skills in the first place. The time spent is always repaid well.

Some key commands on the MC-50 make workflow extremely fast:
• [PAUSE] + [RECORD] allows you to start recording (or erasing) from the very tick (one tick is a 96th of a quarter note) that you are stopped at.
• UTILITY 8 (tune) sends an A4 note on all channels when you need to check audio connections or tune your analogue synths.
• [STOP] + [MIDI] sends an All Notes Off message on all channels.
• [PAUSE] + [MIDI] updates all pitchbend and CCs up to that point in the song.
• Hit [LOC] and a number to jump to a Locate point, hit [LOC] + [REC] then a number to set a Locate point right where you are.

For rapid rhythm pattern recording, the MC-50 uses the classic old Roland step-write-while-running style of an 808 or a 909, with eight levels of accent. Its quick and intuitive even just using the 2 line display and the key pad, but it's even better if you are using a midi controller keyboard with a sustain pedal, as this allows instant erase of any particular voice by holding the key down with the pedal depressed, while the pattern loops. I've never seen a faster way of writing/editing rhythms - shame they are only one bar long! But once you write them into the  Rhythm Track, you can quickly copy them into a "Phrase" track (a Phrase track is everything else that is not a Rhythm track) to allow sophisticated editing/quantizing that simple pattern writing doesn't allow, so you start simple, then get busy.

There are creative reasons as well. The MC-50, like some other Roland products such as the MC-202 and the TB-303, allow an interesting type of composing whereby you can at first enter, in step time, the notes or chords you want to use, without worrying about their timing position. Then, once they are entered, you can then write, in real time, the velocity/step/gate time of those previously-written notes or chords independently of the actual note values. (Roland call this MODIFY RECORDING). This can get interesting, say, if you send it the midi notes of a groove or a drum machine pattern that you want your sequence to conform to.
Another instant-gratification creative feature are the mute buttons. There are mute buttons for the Rhythm, Tempo, and the eight Phrase tracks. These allow on-the-fly arranging while you are synced to your DAW... Ableton can only beat this for fun if using a fancy, expensive control surface.

Speaking of syncing, there is a widely reported bug in this series of Roland hardware sequencer such as the MC500/MC500mkII/MC50 etc, whereby the unit, when externally synchronized in "loop" or "cycle" mode (the term Roland uses is "Block Repeat"), gets out of time with the sync signal it is being sent. Analyzing this, I have discovered it is because it "loses" a single tick when the loop rolls around again from the end point to the start, causing the timing lag to increase with every cycle. Therefore the bugfix is to specify the loop points, not by bar number, but by LOC (locate) points. This allows you to set the points down to single tick resolution. Place the first LOC point at the 00 point of the first bar, and the end LOC point one tick less than the end of the last bar i.e. at beat 4, tick 95, of the last bar. And so by holding [SHIFT] while hitting [PLAY], loop play will start when the external clock arrives, and continue to play the loop indefinitely, accurately locked to the DAW.

I've written a one page shortcuts guide that I keep near my machine. You can download it here.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

You Can't Be Sirius

Sampler for the forthcoming pointypointy album "You Can't Be Sirius". Ten tracks that slowly accreted over many years in the cave, growing in the dark like stalactites. Mastered by Rick O'Neil at Turtlerock Mastering.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Black Silk Stockings

Artist: Butterscorch
Title: Black Silk Stockings (Maurizio Arcieri, Julie Scott and Niko Papathanassiou)
Year: 2008
Recording: Ableton Live, mixed in Cubase VST
Gear:Roland JP-8, TR-909, Korg Mini 700, Maton JB4 bass, Casio MT400v
Personnel: Loren - vox, Adam - instruments
Comment: Butterscorch was a light-hearted project that Loren and I had some fun with for a year or so. The shot below is from our live debut at Elsewhere. This song is a cover of an amazing proto-electro-punk  track by an Italian group called Chrisma (later Krisma), originally released in 1977.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Stepping Stone...

Artist: A.D.A.M. BABY! feat. Kate Brisley
Title: A Stepping Stone To Happiness (Brisley/Inglis)
Year: 2001
Recording: Cubase VST
Gear: Roland JP8, Devilfish, Yamaha TX81Z (the classic "Lately Bass" preset), Korg mini700

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Red Light Disco....

Artist: Kate Brisley
Title: 1 2 3 Red Light (Trimachi/Trimachi)
Year: 1999
Recording: demo made on Cubase VST 5.2
Gear: Roland MKS 20, JP8, Korg mini700, Yamaha TX81Z
Comment: electro-pop cover of the classic bubblegum track.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Early pointypointy

Artist: pointypointy
Title: A Zone Unknown
Year: 1992
Recording: Tascam cassette "Portastudio"
Gear: Casio Tonebank keyboard, Alesis SR16, Midiverb 2
Comment: Returning from the UK in late 1990 after having been fired up by the new mutations of dance music and their devils-spawn with indie - known at the time as "Madchester" -  I had a vague goal of taking disparate elements of both dance and indie genres and blending them with a strange brew of influences from previous decades: bands such as Love, Wire, Roxy Music, Associates, DAF, Japan. Injected into this would be a sense of satire and self-deprecation that came from a more recent discovery - Australian band This Is Serious Mum. I adored the way TISM took the piss out of the popular music industry's hype, mythology, commerce, and artistic pretensions, while at the same time delivering this commentary via catchy and funny tunes.
My former bandmates having moved on to more serious life pursuits, I thought the best way to get this music realized was to master the recording art myself, so I started with what tools I could, mostly borrowed or second-hand, beginning with a 4-track cassette "portastudio", a guitar, a bass,  a DX7 , drum machines and effects.
The name "pointypointy" came from a movie, The Man With Two Brains, and as it turned out it suited my unfortunate tendency to over-think the creative process, not yet understanding the maxim "less is more".
Here, at least, I kept things pretty minimal.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Amazing Devilfish

Artist: The Devilfish
Title: none, cat. no. 002216EOG9596v7
Year: 1995
Recording: straight to cassette via mixer (low volume, lots of hiss)
Gear: Real World Interfaces (RWI) Devilfish modification of the Roland TB303 Bassline, unknown delay effect.
Comment: I purchased Devilfish version 1.1 serial no. 013 in late 1993 from Robin Whittle, the perpetrator of this infamous mod to the even-then-notorious TB303. Why? Although I was a huge fan/occasional participant, of acid house, that wasn't why I was chasing this thing. In one small silver box, it represented a particularly sexy method of semi-automatic music making that I had been attracted to well before it made it's later reputation: a monophonic analogue synthesizer controlled by a dedicated sequencer that had a unique, liquid groove.
Well, I thought I knew what it could do, as I had used a regular TB303 briefly in the late '80s. But what had Robin's mods done to the original instrument? Essentially, to a simple synthesizer signal path, he had added portals of controllable complexity. His description at the time: "...the Devil Fish modifications will propel you into musical territories dark, destructive, delicate, languid, undulating, exquisitely detailed, throbbing, luscious and lurid. Best of all, the spaces between these extremes can usually be traversed by judiciously turning a few knobs." I found it could sound like Larry Graham's slap bass, like Kraftwerk's electro-percussion, like a Westworld android of Eric Clapton, like a night bird crying, like a dolphin calling, like a didgeridoo barking... In the recording here it can be heard going from birds to bats, to dolphins, to monkeys, to acid, and then to unknown regions of the animal kingdom. It's cry can occasionally be disturbing. Please note - this is all the one single-bar pattern, tweaked in real time in the 13 dimensions available on this machine.
For more info visit
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