Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The limits of control?

I recently obtained my bucket list synthesizer/sequencer setup: a Roland System 100m modular and Roland MC-4 sequencer. I’ve wanted one of these since 1999 or so, and had just accepted that it would never happen due to their scarcity in the USA and cost. Long story short - a miracle opportunity came up, and I was able to trade a good portion of my existing studio setup for my dream setup. Ironically, I realized that I had spent the last ~14 years trying to “fake my way” to this setup with all of the equipment purchases that I ultimately traded toward it! I still pinch myself every time I work with it, and can’t wipe the stupid smile off of my face.

Working with the Roland MC-4 has been a revelation in so many ways. Like its little brother/descendant the MC-202, it’s a notoriously “difficult” sequencer to work with, although that reputation is likely because so few people have actually worked with one. All programming is done with a calculator/cash register-style interface, and all of the musical values - things like pitch, rhythm, or note length - are represented by proprietary codes that the user must learn and acclimate to working with. Even crazier - err, more flexible? - is that these code definitions can all vary depending on the global “timebase” that the user is also allowed to define for some reason (basically, it’s the global ppqn or sequencer resolution).  

I’m not going to exhaustively explain the MC-4’s workflow here, but one of the big things that I’ve found fascinating about it is that everything about its design and interface presupposes that the user is not primarily composing on the device, but simply translating a composition that they’ve already created and written down in traditional music notation elsewhere. It took me a bit before I realized that that’s actually a really big deal, and like everything else, it got me to thinking about the way we interact with our gear and how that’s changed.

The MC-4 manual literally has an entire section that teachers the user how to take a traditional musical score and translate it into a “program” - not unlike an Excel Spreadsheet - that can then be typed into the MC-4. As unthinkable as that workflow sounds to modern musicians now, the idea of wanting to actually bypass the scoring process and just write music using the sequencer in the first place was as unreasonable a concept to most users of the late seventies - “why on earth would you want to do THAT, man?” Pretty ironic for a device called the “MicroComposer.”

There are a lot of reasons for this - the average synthesizer player/sequencer user was more likely to have come from a classical background, users were more likely to want to sequence uncommon time signatures, the idea of loop-based music was nowhere near as widespread as it’s become now, the actual available microcomputer technology was incredibly primitive, and so on.

It’s amazing how much has changed since then. We’ve seen a complete shift to writing music using sequencers that are specifically designed for writing on - first with Roland’s classic 606/808/909 drum machines and their simple 16-step grids that have now become the standard rhythm interface on almost every piece of music equipment. Then MIDI came in and tried to impose a global standard on electronic instruments that, for its ubiquity, did a lot of damage by forcing everything to a lowest-common-denominator spec that was already outdated in 1983. More recently, Elektron’s “parameter locks” concept - the ability to easily automate every single parameter in a machine on a per-step basis - actually pushes the integration of sound engine and sequencer so far into interdependency that that user can do “in-sequencer synthesis,” customizing the sound so much on each step that the entire concept of a “patch” that exists independent of the sequencer just goes out the window and ceases to be relevant.

Elektron’s approach has only become possible with the availability of cheap, fast microcontrollers, but it’s meeting the need that synthesizer and sequencer users have had since the very beginning - the desire to be in control of the equipment, to get the concepts out of their brains and into the hardware. It’s catching on as a new standard, as other companies are starting to feature their own similar programming approach.

It could be said that all of human music history has been mankind clumsily attempting to control the physics of sound with codified rules - from standard music notation, to equal temperament, through voltage controlled synthesizers all the way through MIDI’s coarse 127-step resolution for parameters and beyond. I almost wonder if it’ll become too easy to directly translate our ideas into the real world without that always-surprising alchemical transformation through arcane interfaces and happy accidents. Like in any creative process, the wonderful mutations that happen along the way are often better than anything we initially intended. And that’s why I ultimately love my MC-4, MC-202, analog sequencers, and other sources of strangeness and charm - they push back.


  1. Man I just discovered your blog this morning. Good stuff. I also noticed we both live in Chicago. You go to any shows in the city?

  2. I do, yeah! Though not as many as I used to, for a million reasons. But I do like going to shows and playing shows.

  3. And man, you nail it in this post. This thing about songwriting and technology being intimately intertwined...yes. Interface matters.

    While reading your post, I kept thinking about this percussive robot thing that Richard James allegedly commissioned...


    ...and this idea of hopping around these different domains – digital, analog, acoustic...

    Really digging your blog!

  4. wild post gives me some things to think about, nice rig too! miss my mc-202 a lot, so quirky, I liked it.

  5. Nice post. It reminds me on my travel to the same setup. I've bought a System 100m 2 years ago and now finally dealed a cheap MC4b. It has a bug, sometimes it freezes and I need to shut it off and on again to continue. Need to fix this. I'm very impressed of the freedom this sequencer added to my sound. And I expected it to be more complicated and found it really not too complicated to understand. Now I can programm very tight and even shuffled synth and drum lines with it. Love it..