I’ve been using the Roland MC-303 on and off since bringing it in (1996). I have used it on some of the early Anjelicas Baby recordings like “Crawling Back To You” and “Blame It On You”. I think it’s a great little second hand machine for between £ 100 and £ 200 depending on condition. However, I am going to be honest about my past experiences with him. The MC-303 at the time was a revolution and the first of many so-called slot boxes. It could do anything from techno to dance, jungle to drum & bass, to name just a few. It was packed with classic synth sounds like the Roland Juno and Jupiter series and had the classic retro Roland TR-808 and TR-909 sounds. Additionally, it also had the Roland TB-303 bass synth sounds on board. Owning such instruments on your own would have cost you thousands upon thousands of dollars or pounds sterling. So you needed the room to put your vintage gear.

It looked a lot like the old TB-303 and TR-808. It was basically a sequencer-arranger with 8 recording tracks. It even had built-in effects like chorus, flange, reverb, and delay. Its real-time functions made playing with it a lot of fun. It had filter cutoff, resonance, stereo pan, and arpeggio. The pan and delay would keep up with the tempo of your patterns or songs, which was a really cool advance at the time. It was a 24-voice note polyphony, a 16-part multi-timbre, and there were 448 preset PCM ROM sounds, 300 preset patterns, and 50 user patterns. Quite extraordinary way back in (1996). As soon as it made a splash in music magazines like Future Music, Sound On Sound, and The Mix, it was quickly superseded by the Roland MC-505, JX-305, and the Yamaha RM1x. I guess this was because it was almost too good to be true for the incredible price of around £ 500. Yes, you guessed it, there were some major downsides to the machine that made using it a maddening experience at times.

1 The first thing I noticed was that it had an over-compressed kind of sound and was missing a real touch. You could reproduce dance music very well using the sounds of the TR-909. If you ever compare the sounds of the MC-303 to, say, a JV1080 that had a similar sound set, you will find that the JV has a lot more presence and punch. To make an analogy here, it is like comparing a wave file with an mp3 file. I suspect that to get all those sounds into the MC-303’s internal ROM, sacrifices had to be made and maybe the MC-303’s sample library bit rates were lowered. Don’t get me wrong, the sounds are totally clear and many are in stereo, but you definitely feel like you almost want to take the sounds out of your speakers and give them a good kick to cheer them up. This is a problem that I have noticed on Roland synthesizers and especially drum machines from this period. The sounds almost sound too nice and clean, like you could invite them over to your parents’ house for Sunday dinner knowing they wouldn’t offend their musical tastes.

2 Real sounds like trumpets, guitars, etc. they were downright horrible. Less would have been more in my opinion on this machine. Everything and the kitchen sink were crammed into it. As a result, the pre-installed patterns had a hobbyist sound.

3 It only had two audio outputs, so adding external effects like reverb or delay meant you needed to record the sounds on separate tracks on your audio recorder. At the time, mine was a Fostex DMT8 8-track hard drive recorder. Hard drive recording with 16 tracks or more really came at a price back then.

4 Most irritating of all was its almost non-existent midi implementation. When they wanted to say retro, they really took it seriously. They basically designed it to work as a standalone machine. So if you wanted to use any other gear, you had to get the MC-303 to be the master sequencer. Well, at the time the sequencer was no match for Logic or Cubase. Consequently, I had to record the patterns for the MC-303 from its own memory and then save a massive dump to an Alesis data disk of the song. I then had to configure my Atari 1040 computer sequencer to activate the MC-303 as a slave. Then great. Oh no, wait a minute, you had to fire the MC-303 from the beginning of the song every time. As soon as I fast-forward the Atari sequencer, the MC-303 lost the plot, and who knows what part of the song it would move to.

5 Any sound you want to play back on your own sequencer is transmitted omnidirectional through the 16 midi channels. What a crazy idea for the late nineties. To make matters worse, the real-time controls that made the machine so fun became powerless when you tried to record, for example, the real-time filtering of a bass sound on your sequencer. Come on Roland, you can record the control movements of a Juno 106 on your sequencer since 1985.

Well, as you can deduce, at the time I was less than satisfied with these limitations. Despite this, he had faith in the little beast. I saw the light and hoped that in a few years and more PC and Mac audio recording products, a breath of hope would be breathed into this machine. So as time goes by, here come the positives.

1 Works great as a standalone unit. You can midi with all your equipment. Then you can make use of your really cool arpeggio to bring some life back to your boring old synths.

2 It has lots and lots of PCM samples, easily overcoming some of the limitations of real onboard sounds. This is especially true if you have many other software or hardware synthesizers to use alongside it.

3 With modern technology, you can record a sound on your sequencer and then play around with the MC-303’s controls in real time and record directly to an audio track on your computer. This can really liven you up with modern plugins.

4 It is very inexpensive second hand for a retro hardware unit with so many functions.

5 You can configure it as a standard synth plug-in.

6 Has a handy little bass boost knob on the back of the machine to add more low end to the audio output.

7 If you don’t overdo it and use other equipment to add to the track you’re recording, it can really sound very professional.

So those are the pros and cons of the Roland MC-303 in my subjective opinion. It’s a great little edit for anyone’s setup if used carefully and sparingly.

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