I SATELLITE Electro Music

retro futurist minimal electronic new wave analog synth electro pop music


Roland MC-4 MicroComposer

Several years ago I decided against the use of computers in my studio. This was a personal choice brought about mainly because of the frustrations encountered as I wrestled with software sequencers, MIDI ports, software upgrades, and computer crashes on the one hand, but mainly due to the sloppy timing of computer-based MIDI software sequencers on the other. I'm sure the timing of these sequencers has improved slightly over the past few years, but in my opinion, if you have something that works, it's best to keep using what you're using.


Timing is Everything

Well, not everything. But MIDI is not a very accurate way to sequence. Since MIDI is basically a serial asynchronous data transmission, multiple events can't be sent simultaneously through one MIDI output resulting in MIDI clog and subtle timing delays. Events are put into a queue and sent out to your equipment one packet at a time. Although our ears may percieve these events occurring at the same time, in reality they aren't. Does the average person notice this? Probably not, but I do, and it bothered me enough to try to find an alternate solution. I've owned and used a number of software-based MIDI sequencers over the years including Cakewalk, MasterTracks Pro, Cubase, Logic, etc. I've also tried both PC and Mac versions of most of these products, but it was always the same: buggy software, expensive upgrades, MIDI problems, and sloppy timing. So my search began for a better sequencer that would interface well with my analog synths.


Hardware Sequencers

This search eventually led me to hardware sequencers, in particular the Akai MPC-3000, which is one of, if not the, tightest MIDI sequencers available. I love this machine for it's simple, utilitarian, hands-on approach to sequencing, and have used it on the majority of my songs. It's also a great sampling drum machine. In combination with the Kenton Pro-4 MIDI>CV converter, I have been able to create really tight sequences. In fact, it is so easy to use, I still prefer it for coming up with song ideas. However, I still notice slight timing delays, and have had notes actually drop out of the mix due to "MIDI clog". With vintage analog synths the focus of my studio, I needed to install MIDI kits in many of my synths or trigger them from MIDI to CV/GATE converters. This became very expensive, and in some cases impossible to do. In the past decade, as musicians began moving away from MIDI-driven hardware to softsynths and ProTools sampling, the few companies offering MIDI kits for these old synths couldn't make a profit any more, and stopped offering them.


Vintage Sequencers & Sync Devices

I soon realized that in order to get the most out of my old analog sequencers and monosynths, I needed to use the sequencers and sync devices that were designed specifically to deal with these issues in the first place. I enjoyed the hands-on approach and accurate timing of the Roland System-700 and ARP sequencers, but they were hard to control, and you couldn't save the patches. My search for the perfect sequencer eventually led me to the Roland MC-4 MicroComposer, which, although difficult to program, combined the timing characteristics of analog sequencers with the ability to create complex sequences and save them for later use. For me it was the best of both worlds.


Current Setup

I currently own two MC-4b units, one MC-4a, three MTR-100 tape backup units, one OP-8m CV>DCB/MIDI converter, and one OP-8 CV/DCB converter (to trigger my Juno-60). I use the OP-8m to trigger MIDI synths or to transfer tracks from the MPC-3000 to the MC-4b. I recently decided to rearrange my studio to allow the MC-4b co-exist with my MPC-3000 as the master sequencer with just the flick of a switch. What I've found is that the process I have to go through to make a song with the MC-4 results in "happy accidents" that I never would have thought of had I sequenced using a traditional MIDI sequencer. And the timing is superb, better than any sequencer I've ever used.


General Use

The Roland MC-4 manual is a very difficult read and does not make it easy to learn the MC-4. It reads like a Fortran instruction manual, and most of the time leaves you scratching your head wondering what they're trying to say. Here are a few things that I learned from studying the manual and using the sequencer.

When you first turn on the MC-4, the screen will say "TB 120 30 15". This basically refers to the default TIMEBASE, STEP, and GATE values for each note. TIMEBASE refers to the number of divisions in a quarter note. STEP refers to the spacing between each note. GATE refers to the length of each note within a given STEP. I usually change the default values to "TB 48 12 6" by entering 48 ENTER 12 ENTER 6 MEAS END. The reason for this is that in order to sync to/from DIN SYNC (Minidoc, TR-808 or another MC-4b), the timebase must be set to 48. So using 48 as the TIMEBASE, a STEP of 12 will basically give you 1/16th notes. A GATE of 6 means the notes will take up half the STEP, or basically be 1/32 note long.

After pressing MEAS END above, the next thing you'll see is the Tempo, which is 100 by default. Simply change the tempo by entering 130 ENTER (or whatever tempo you want). The next screen will show a 1 indicating you are on the first track. Pressing the ENTER key will advance you to the MEAS, STEP, and DATA information respectively. Pay attention to the cursor which will hover above the words on the front panel indicating whether you are in MEAS, STEP, or DATA mode. When in any of these modes, you can enter the track or step you want to go to and after successive ENTER presses, you will be able to enter note data at that location in the sequence. You can change tracks at any time by pressing SHIFT + BACK or FWD.



The SHIFT Map is a grid of LED's that indicate which SHIFT functions are activated by pressing SHIFT + (keypad #).

CV1 mode (SHIFT + 1): Since STEP and GATE data are dependant on the CV data you enter for each track, CV1 mode is the default mode. This mode allows you to enter note values one at a time for each track. Entering notes in CV1 mode will automatically use the default GATE and STEP values that were set up on the first screen: "TB 48 12 6". So in this instance, the CV note values you enter will all be a STEP of 12 (1/16th notes) with a GATE of 6 (later you can go into GATE mode and turn off gating for specific notes by setting the gate to 0). A CV of 0 is the lowest note on the keyboard. A CV of 12 is an octave higher. A CV of 24 is an octave above that. This mode is good for getting one sequence into the MC-4, such as a melody or bassline.

CV2 mode (SHIFT + 4): This mode allows you to assign a voltage to the CV2 output for each track, which can be sent to the VCF or VCA of your synth for tonal changes. The default CV2 value for each note is 50.

CV1 + GATE mode (SHIFT + 7): This mode allows you to enter notes using a CV/GATE keyboard in real time. Once you get one track of the sequence in, this mode is great for entering complex sequences from a MIDI sequencer or CV keyboard.

STEP mode (SHIFT + 2): This mode allows you to modify the STEP length within a given measure. Be aware of the fact that with a TIMEBASE of 48 your STEPS in a given measure must all add up to 192 (a whole note).

MPX mode (SHIFT + 5): This mode allows you to input a value for an additional GATE on each note that can be assigned to trigger an analog sequencer (like the ARP), a drum sound, or to turn things like portamento on or off. It's particularly good for triggering percussive sounds from synths like the ARP 2600 or System-700, or other drum modules like the Techstar TS305/TS306, Pearl Syncussion, or Simmons Claptrap.

GATE REWRITE mode (SHIFT + 8): This mode allows you to use a CV keyboard to adjust the GATE length of each note within a given STEP, in real time. I use the keyboard from my System-700, but an ARP 2600, System 100m keyboard, or any synth with a CV/GATE output will work.

GATE mode (SHIFT + 3): This mode allows you to adjust the GATE of each note within a given STEP, one note at a time, from the keypad.


Other Functions:

(to be continued)


Backing Up:

As I mentioned before, if you turn off the MicroComposer, or if you have a power outage, you will lose everything as there is no built-in memory. To overcome this, I recommend you use a UPS backup system, and save your data often. Roland made an optional MTR-100 tape backup unit for the MC-4, but unfortunately, you have to turn the unit off before you plug it in. What this means is if you have multiple MC-4's, you will need multiple MTR-100's, and they are very rare. An alternate solution is to use a Minidisc recorder.* The Minidisc recorder allows you to name your data for easy identification so you can easily retrieve your sequences later. The Minidisc format is also good for backing up patches using the cassette interface built into many vintage analog polysynths.


Musicians who have used the MC-4 Microcomposer

Richard D. James - Analord

Vince Clarke/Yazoo/Yaz/Erasure - Wonderland, Upstairs At Erics, etc.

Depeche Mode - Speak & Spell, A Broken Frame

Human League/Martin Rushent - Dare!

I SATELLITE - Life In Tokyo and other tracks

Rational Youth - Cold War/Night Life

Chris Carter/Throbbing Gristle - The Space Between

The Cars - Heartbeat City

Greg Hawkes - Niagara Falls

Trans-X - Living On Video

Art Of Noise - In Visible Silence

Giorgio Moroder - Moroder mentions "Roland's MicroComposer" in the lyrics of E=MC2. Inside the CD is a picture of him with the Roland MC-8 and System-700 modular. I've been told he also owned several MC-4's. The album title was a reference to the MicroComposer: Energy = MicroComposer x 2.

John Foxx - The Garden

Tears For Fears/Ian Stanley - The Hurting

Wang Chung - Points on the Curve

Heaven 17 - Penthouse & Pavement/The Luxury Gap


Righeira - Righeira

Psyche - The Influence

Eugene Finardi - Finardi

Yellow Magic Orchestra

Isao Tomita



If you know of any other musicians who have used this sequencer, or have any tips or additional information about the Roland MC-4 MicroComposer, please e-mail me and let me know.



(to be added)


Closing Comments:

The Roland MC-4 MicroComposer has very accurate, punchy timing that modern sequencers simply cannot match. Those who have used one, know this to be fact. It's a very difficult sequencer to learn and use, but the results are well worth the trouble.

*Thanks to Tom Court in Detroit for the Minidisc tip.

Here's a list of other equipment I SATELLITE will be reviewing in the near future.