Roland MV-8800 Production Studio
The Tabletop Studio
By Tony DiLorenzo
First came the drum machine, then came sampling and sequencing drum machines like the legendary Linn 9000™ and the Akai MPC-60™. Now Roland has maximized the sampling drum machine concept into a full-fledged music production workstation. Although it looks like a mild-mannered sampling drum machine or groove box, the Roland MV-8800 is actually a complete production studio – ideas go from rough sketch to mastered CD without ever leaving the unit. Think of the MV-8800 as a wonderful collection of gear contained in a well-built, 20 lb. package.
The MV-8800 is divided into 5 sections including Controller, Sequencer, Sampler, Mixer and Effects. Performance data is entered in realtime using 16 velocity sensitive pads, 8 sliders, and 3 control knobs (C Knobs). Roland refers to these realtime controls as the Controller Section.
The Sequencer section offers 64 MIDI tracks plus 1 audio track in Pattern Mode and 128 MIDI tracks plus 8 audio tracks in Song mode. Maximum note capacity is approximately 150,000 notes and both Realtime and Step recording methods are available. Once you’ve selected the note or region you’d like to edit, press the Command button in the Sequence Edit screen for access to a full compliment of editing functions. The Piano Roll editing mode functions like the graphic editing mode of a software DAW. Thanks to the MV-8800’s non-destructive quantize, you can experiment with any one of 71 groove templates, in realtime, to get the perfect feel for your track – even while the track is playing.
The 16-bit, Sampler Section (a 16-part sound source) has a fixed sampling frequency of 44.1 kHz and a maximum polyphony of 64 voices. Maximum sampling time is approximately 24 minutes mono or 12 minutes stereo with the stock 128MB RAM. Expand the RAM memory to the 512MB maximum and you’ll enjoy approximately 100 minutes of mono or 50 minutes stereo recording time. Roland ships the MV-8800 with a nice collection of essential sounds but if you want access to more samples, the unit supports a variety of sample formats including ACIDized files, WAV, AIFF, Akai S1000 and S3000, Akai MPC-2000, Roland S-700 series and audio CDs. I strongly recommend maximizing RAM to 512MB since audio tracks are played from RAM and not hard disc. In addition to seamless integration of audio into the sequencing environment, the MV-8800 also features sample editing controls for loop, truncate, time stretch and more. The Sample Manager screen provides access to all the samples used in a project while the Resample function allows you to sample the MV-8800’s own output (a handy function I’ll discuss later).
The 8 sliders at the center of the unit are your tactile controls for the MV-8800’s automated, 24-channel mixer. When you enter the Mixer section, you’ll notice audio tracks are assigned to function button F1; parts 1-8 are assigned to F2; parts 9-16 are assigned to F3; Aux/FX/Audio Phrase/Input are assigned to F4. F5 allows you to switch from the Level and Pan screen to the EQ screen. The channel strips are set up like an analog mixer. The name of the part is displayed at the top of the strip (808, strings, bass, etc.); Mute on/off is next followed by knobs for DlyCho send, Reverb send, Pan and a slider for Level. Output is located at the bottom of the channel strip and is used for routing signal flow with choices for Prtl (partial), Mix, Aux1-4, MLT1-8 (optional multi outputs 1-8), M1/2, M3/4, M5/6, and M7/8 (stereo pairs of the optional multi outputs). Once you’re in the EQ mode, each channel has controls for EQ on/off, EQ High Gain, EQ High Freq (1000Hz to 10k), EQ Mid Gain, EQ Mid Freq (100Hz to 10k), Q (0.5 – 16.0), EQ Low Gain, and EQ Low Freq (100Hz – 1000Hz).
The Effect section offers three separate effect processors – MFX (multi-effects), Dly/Cho (Delay/Chorus), and Reverb. Roland modeled some of their classic effects like the RE-210 Space Echo, SDD-320 Chorus, SBF-325 Flanger, Boss BF2 and HF2 pedals and the SRV reverbs. Multiband Compressor, Expander, Enhancer, Mastering Limiter, Parametric Mastering EQ, and a soft-clip algorithm with output dithering are the essential processors loaded into the Mastering Tool Kit.
Roland sounds have always struck me as being “studio ready” right out of the box and the 400MB, MV-8800 library continues that tradition. The quality of the patches and fidelity of the samples leaves little or no need for tweaking and the sounds will sit nicely in a mix. Load up to 128 patches or kits at once from the built-in 40GB hard drive. The Patches folder is organized by category – Bass, Drumkits, Guitar, Horns, Key, Strings, Synth and VoxFx are folders within the Patches folder. Of course Roland included spot-on, samples of vintage machines like their sought-after TR-909 and TR-808 plus an assortment of bass patches – enough to keep any dance floor jumping. Although it comes with a generous supply of quality patches, I’d like to see Roland include more sounds with these units. How about a larger internal drive filled with more sounds or a collection of CD ROMs filled with a variety of samples especially optimized for the MV-8800? To their credit, Roland offers free sound collections, available for download from their web site.
The back panel of the MV-8800 features a pair of RCA Phone (L&R) inputs complete with ground connection for use with turntables; a pair of 1/4” TRS analog MIC/LINE inputs (L&R) for sampling; a pair of 1/4” TRS master outputs for use with powered monitors; a 1/4” headphone output with a dedicated volume control to the left of the LCD; 2 MIDI outs and a MIDI in; coaxial and optical digital outputs; a foot switch connector; and a USB port for transferring data between the MV-8800 and your personal computer. Roland has also included a VGA monitor out and mouse connection making navigation easier – it’ll seem like you’re using a software DAW. Power users will want to add the MV8-OP1 Audio I/O Expansion Card – an optional expansion board that adds S/PDIF and R-BUS digital connections plus 6 additional, 1/4" analog outputs.
The only way to review a piece like the MV-8800 is to dive right in and start making music with it. Since the unit is so extensive, my first order of business was flip thru the owner’s manual, familiarize myself with the MV-8800 architecture and watch the included Quick Start DVD. This type of sampling production studio has been the tool of choice for rap, hip hop and dance artists but I wanted to try a little smooth jazz. I composed a 2-bar drum pattern using a patch called MV-8008 – an 808 style drum kit. My next move was to assign my pattern to a pad, access song mode and drop my pattern into my song. I connected a 61-key MIDI controller keyboard to the MIDI in and recorded Symphony, a realistic orchestral string section. Once I had my chord bed down, I wanted some interplay between two guitars so I used 6str 2D for the acoustic sound and a sweet Strat™ sound called Clean. I routed the AutoWah90 effect to AUX1 assigning the Wah to my Strat patch. Note that the Wah effect is in sync with the tempo of the song. Since I had a mellow, smooth jazz vibe flowing, Fretless 1d was the bass patch of choice. I wanted to add a little animation to the strings so I loaded up a convincing analog style patch called Wave Strings and used it for the high string parts. BreathyTenor was used for the solo sax lines while MV Bell was used for wind chime and high bell sounds. Audio recordings of real electric guitar where laid last and they come in about 30 seconds into the demo. I decided that one of my real guitar parts could be tighter so I found a section of the performance that felt right and resampled it. I assigned the phrase to a pad, put the unit in record and dropped the rhythm guitar part into the song. (MV-8800 DEMO SONG)
Once I set levels, panning and EQ for all tracks, I was ready to enter the Mastering mode. The complete mastering process actually has 3 steps – Mixdown, Mastering and Create Audio CD. When you’ve completed the Mixdown stage, the unit asks if you’d like to move onto Mastering and once you’ve completed mastering you’re asked if you want to Create Audio CD. The whole process couldn’t be simpler.
And the verdict is...
As a software DAW user, I didn’t expect to enjoy using a hardware production studio like the MV-8800 as much as I did. If the MV-8800 was available when I started recording, I wouldn't have spent so much money on studio time cutting "demos." The unit is complex without being complicated and Roland’s documentation is very complete. You’ll be inspired to experiment and create thanks to the logical layout and workflow. Even if you’re using a software DAW in your studio, consider adding the MV-8800 to your collection of music-making tools.
PROS: Robust construction – the pads are built to take a beating. Versatile sample editing. Extensive sequence editing and quantize functions. Mouse and VGA monitor connections make navigation easier.
CONS: Audio tracks play back from RAM and not the hard disc. Should come with a larger internal drive and more sounds.