I forgot to say that I actually owned an MC303 groovebox for a short time: it's a pretty darn big module, whose buttons and presentation ape older Roland drum machines, and I thought that it might be worth a try when one came up for £100 in east London.
I noticed quite a few people still like to use this for lots of different sounds to augment their hardware setup, so it couldn't be all bad...could it?
What is the MC-303?
Born during the heady days of 90s dance hits, Roland had noticed the keen interest that producers had in their earlier TB-303 analogue bassline unit loved for its distinctive sound and tweaking for acid house sounds. Capitalising on the latent success of the product, Roland decided to release an updated ROM-sample based version of the 303 with more capabilities, giving musicians access to classic Roland sounds from their back catalogue of synthesisers and drum machines alongside powerful sequencing and pattern manager, MIDI control and much more. It was the first of its kind, dubbed a Groovebox that musicians could make entire songs with, together with the live tweaking that the original also offered.
According to the popular 303 Documentary, Roland sold over 50,000 units in the two years following its release in 1996, but divided those who were fans of the original unit. I expect that this is one of the more prominent machines that started the Digital vs Analogue debate, but as a machine full of interesting and useable sounds it has plenty of value for anyone who wants the sounds of all the electronic hits of the time but not necessarily the money or the space to get hold of vintage analogue gear.
What does it sound like?
Well, for a ROMpler it's actually surprisingly good and diverse, with tons of different sounds including the creme-de-la-creme of sampled Roland Juno, 808 and 909 sounds plus the GM sound set of samples and sound effects. I can spot lovely pad sounds that made there way into music I used to listen to growing up, particularly some of the pad sounds that made their way into drum and bass records (LTJ Bukem in particular). Each of the seven synth channels can host a different sample, with the eighth channel reserved for drum sounds (including the GM soundset of silly effects). It's great to hear where some of these classic sounds come from and are well worth sampling if nothing else!
It's also worth mentioning the filter and effects, more for their inconspicuous nature than because of merit though. The digital low pass and high pass filters are both very weak and underwhelming indeed, so I can see why a lot of people use an additional filter in the signal chain. Meanwhile, the effects are slightly more useful and the delay and reverb are useful in adding a bit of weight to lead sounds but I can't say I enjoyed the flanger/chorus effects as these were pretty weedy. YMMV but I couldn't find a way of effecting single sequencer tracks only, so the filter affected the global output only, which is a shame.
Speaking of affecting outputs, the unit's outputs are just left and right audio jacks meaning that you can't add per-sequence effects either in or out of the box.
Once I got hold of the manual from the original owner, I was surprised to see just how much functionality lies under the surface. Every button on the unit (and there are plenty of those) has at least two or three different functions depending on what you want to accomplish. Plus, depending on what you want to achieve in the MC303, you have to go to one of five different modes, which affects what some of the buttons do as well. In short: with all this menu diving and option selecting being very difficult to navigate the MC303 doesn't help the creative process.
It's also about tactile response as well. The knobs feel light and effortless to work with and I found it sometimes difficult to nail the right spot for, say, the effects section. And the sheer multitude of different buttons are something else too and it's not helped that the unit tries to pack a load of different things in one box. However the shift button on my unit was incredibly sticky and needed a slightly harder press to get it working - evidence that some of the major buttons were getting a battering through use. I could tell that if I was going to use the unit for any length of time then the contacts were going to give up after lots of hard presses.
Programming the machine is a bit of a chore, though you do have copy/paste functions between patterns that you can use to build up phrases into verses, choruses and so on. There's also plenty of space for user patterns too, plus a lot of ideas in various 90s dance styles to get you started. Feasibly you could write entire records using long lengths of patterns on the MC303 and record them using an external device. The only drawback for me is the workflow being rather labour intensive compared to the options we have now and certainly if you have a computer and DAW, then the flexibility of a visual editor for your track, with much finer editing capabilities, just blows this hardware-only option out of the water.
I can see why this unit was so popular in its hey-day. For the bedroom composer who didn't have a computer (an expensive thing at the time), you can make all manner of electronic music that sounds pretty close to the records people were releasing in the 90s, all in one small box. It's rugged, has a full complement of MIDI implementation, packs all the different sounds and classic drum samples you're going to need and even allows some improvisation on the fly. I am sure the MC 505 and 909 build on the template set out in this box, though I've never tested them.
However, in a world where samples are easy enough to come by over the internet and hardware ROM-based samples in particular, there's probably more worth in having this as an eight channel MIDI sequencer for other equipment. Or failing that, you can use the device in much the same way as the CM64 I have, which is to use it as an eight channel sound module via MIDI.
As a result, I actually sold mine as I prefer to sequence any synthesisers using my DAW rather than a piece of hardware. Its convoluted interface, sticky shift key and lackluster effects meant that it would be better off in someone else's studio than mine.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIGilpWWI7k - Owners Manual, an in-depth video tutorial in how to use this machine
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gD675gIhM8A - A slightly more user-friendly demo and tutorial