Released in 1998, Roland’s MC-505 groove box is based on the legendary JV synthesis engine and shares many of the same patterns and sounds of the JV-XP line of synthesizers. However the MC-505 is firmly based on the techno side of things and comes loaded with 808, 909 and 303 sounds right out of the box. Having had an MC-505 in my rig for a weekend I can say with a large degree of confidence that it combines an easy to use interface along with a great sound at an affordable price.
The MC-505 is a bit larger than I thought it would be, clocking in at just a bit larger than 18 inches wide. However the large size enables the 505 to have a knob or button on the deck for just about every one of it’s functions. On board stand outs are a coarse tune knob, two ADSRs (amp & filter), cut off & resonance, an arpeggiator, a low boost knob and Roland’s famous D beam controller. Right in the middle of the 505 is the lovely mixer section with the “keyboard” right beneath it. Along the backside you get 6 individual audio outputs which is great for sending those 808 or 303 sounds to external effects.
I wanted to jump right in and make this the first topic in my review. Over the 7-8 hours I initially spent with my 505 over a weekend, I found the sequencer the hardest thing to use on it. At the end of the weekend, I came away feeling like I could never make it do the same thing twice. This is mainly because I prefer the step or grid sequencing as found on the Korg Electribes and E-MU command stations and it’s also where I quickly ran into problems. To edit (or even enter) your performance in grid form, you have to go through a series of unintuitive button sequences through which everything has to be entered while the sequencer is running. To enter notes on another part, you then have to stop the sequencer, switch parts and then restart the entire process. Of course figuring out how to do this is nearly impossible as the manual is completely obtuse. And beware! If you fail to “prepare for recording” as the manual states, your performance will suffer from a strangely low velocity and other such maladies. “Preparing for recording” is some process in which you set the initial pan, velocity and other settings for each part of the 505. They say you can do it in the manual, but I think it’s some sort of practical joke.
However there is a ray of sunshine in all this sequencer nonsense! If you like to enter your beats and basslines by knocking them out in real time you get to pass go and collect your 200$! All you’ll have to do is set your quantize and bang away on the keyboard and you’ll be in beat heaven. You can skip all the menu diving and preset, preset setting. Seriously, it’s that easy to use; if you like to work that way, or can get the hang of it, you’ll never have to dive through a menu to use this thing.
Obviously this is just Roland’s way of doing things and considering the MC-505 hails from 1996, it was in competition with the MPC for attention and they most likely wanted to attract a following by offering a similar work flow. If that’s not for you, don’t worry; Korg and E-MU have enjoyed equal success for catering to a different work flow with their beat boxes, so don’t be afraid to try out the competition either!
This is the best part of the 505! All beat boxes should have a mixer section like this! Right in the middle of the 505 you get a nice bank of 8 sliders and two rows of buttons that control all the instrument and rhythm parts. The rhythm parts are all routed through a master slider (part R on the mixer) and each individual rhythm part is selectable by a button for quick muting or editing. This works the same for the instrument parts on the row above it, but what’s unique here is how easy it is to mute and unmute rhythm parts! It’s seriously easy and ridiculously fast to build up and bring down your beats. And it’s also just as easy to bring in and out instrument parts to build up your tracks!
To the left of the sliders is a menu that will cause the mixer to “jump” to the selected value which will give you instant control over the volume, pan and effects send for each part. Again, what could be easier? The rest of the 505 works just as easy too. Simply select the part you wish to edit and all the controls on the front panel are instantly routed to that part for editing.
Well, you have to take them with a grain of salt as the JV-XP engine is a bit antiquated at this point. The natural sounds such as the pianos, strings and organs are going to fall a bit short in quality by today’s standards. However in contrast the synthesized sounds are and can still be quite a bit of fun if you decide to jump in and program your own.
Roland became a bit infamous for having put all their JV-XP sounds through compression and it’s apparent on the 505 with the lack of response from the filter on some of the sounds. However there is a dedicated “low boost” knob that will really fatten things out in compensation. The filter itself is actually pretty good and can get a bit out of control when set to the extremes.
Sadly there’s not many patterns or preset sounds on the 505. If I had to guess, I would say that the 505 is based on the techno expansion card, much like how Yamaha’s AN200 has a PLG-AN card bolted on the inside. Unfortunately however there is no room for expansion cards in the 505 unlike the 909.
It’s a great box at a great price on the used market. You can’t beat the hands on interaction with this thing, so it’s great if you’re just starting out and it comes loaded with usable sounds right out of the box. But the way you work with the sequencer is really going to determine if you stick with it or move on and you may find it limited in terms of sound. If you can swing the extra cash, the MC-909 would make a great upgrade.
Keyboard Pad : 16-keys
Maximum Polyphony : 64 voices
Parts : 24 parts (main: 8 + rps: 16)
Tones : 512 tones
Rhythm Sets : 26 sets (user: 20)
Effects : Reverb,Delay EFX (24 types)
Tracks : 8 tracks
Songs : 50 songs
Patterns : Preset: 248, RPS: 466, User: 200
Internal Memory : 95,000 notes
RPS Set : 60
Pattern Set : 30
Tempo : 20.0 to 240.0 (maximum)
Resolution : 96 ticks per quarter note
Recording Method : Realtime, Step1, Step2
D-Beam Controller : 28 types
Realtime Modify : Cutoff, Resonance, LFO (Modulation, Rate), Envelope Attack, Decay, Release, Panpot, Level, Portamento Time
Effect : Time/Rate, EFX Level
Play Quantize : Timing, Velocity (Grid, Groove, Shuffle)
Arpeggio : Accent Rate, Octave Range (53 styles)
Others : Low Boost, Master Volume
Display : 7 segments, 6 characters (LED), 16 characters X 2 lines (LCD)
Connectors : Mix Output (L/R), Direct Output 1 (L/R), Direct Output 2 (L/R), Phones, Foot Control jack, MIDI IN / OUT, AC adaptor, Memory Card-port
Dimensions : 462(W) x 320(D) x 110(H)mm
Weight : 5.0kg