Sunday, December 11, 2016

Roland MSQ-700 Digital Keyboard Recorder (a.k.a. the world's first ever MIDI sequencer)

The MSQ-700 was released by Roland in the year 1984. It was the world's first MIDI sequencer ever, so it deserves special mention. The MIDI standard was established only a year before in 1983. Roland's leading role in developing the MIDI protocol certainly gave the company an edge in developing their own matching product, they had a headstart!


Roland MSQ-700 MIDI Sequencer

The MSQ-700's design reminds us of the TR-909 which was released a year earlier. The similarity is striking! They surely were designed to match. However, looking at the layout of the MSQ-700 I can't help but realize it's based on its indirect predecessor, the Roland CSQ-600, a CV/Gate sequencer from 1980. I bet both machines were designed by the same team! Remember, there was no existing standard as to how a MIDI sequencer should behave and what its user interface would be like, so of course Roland took an existing philosophy (in this case their CSQ-600 design) as a starting point.
Looking closer at the MSQ-700 you will realize that it does not have any menues. Only a couple of buttons have double functions, so it's mostly "what you see is what you get". I find that very refreshing!

So, what is the MSQ-700 for? It is an 8-track MIDI/DCB event recorder and player. In case you haven't heard of DCB: "Digital Control Bus" was Roland's pre-MIDI design of a digital transfer protocol for musical instruments. It was released in 1982 and only saw use in a couple of Roland products such as the Juno-60 and later Jupiter-8 models. As soon as MIDI was established, the fate of DCB was sealed. To make things easier, I will from now on be referring mainly to its MIDI functionality although most functions are identical if you use the MSQ-700 with a DCB-equipped synthesizer.
Each track on the MSQ-700 can record on up to 16 MIDI channels simultaneously. The overall limit for note events is about 6500. You can play each track separately but also play several tracks (up to 8) simultaneously. There are 2 input modes: realtime records what you enter via MIDI or DCB input without quantization (other than the standard 24ppq resolution). Step recording enables you to conveniently enter your note data with a MIDI input device step by step (a keyboard in most cases, but feeding it via your DAW's MIDI output is possible as well). If you want to correct the timing of your realtime recording (a.k.a. quantization) you can do this after your recording is finished. Roland calls quantization "timing correct". Timing correct is an operation that requires an extra empty track. The MSQ-700 copies a quantized ("timing corrected") version of your track to another track of your choice. A silver plastic slider selects the resolution for this quantization, in most cases you will select either 1/8 or 1/16. This works really well and reliably. Note that the MSQ-700 not only quantizes the note onset (i.e. the start of the note) but also the note length (i.e. the note off event's position).
Once you are happy with your track you can either play it from start to finish or have the MSQ-700 repeat it endlessly. Using the chain mode, you can build a complete song using your tracks 1-8. Simply tap in the numbers of the tracks that you want to chain in the right order, press play and off you go! There is also an option to merge several tracks into one.
The MSQ-700 can run in several different synchronization modes. "Internal" uses its own clock, with a big grey knob adjusting your master tempo and your LCD displaying the corresponing BPM count. In "Tape" mode the MSQ-700 syncs to a tape sync signal (originally for syncing analog tape machines to your MSQ-700 or vice versa) but even today this mode has its uses. You can generate your own tape sync signal and play it back from your DAW to sync the MSQ-700. The next mode, called "Sync" is for synchronizing your MSQ-700 to other devices using Roland's DIN Sync 24 standard. Machines equipped with this sync interface include Roland MC-202, TB-303, TR-606 up to TR-909 and MC-4, plus several Korg devices that run at a different resolution though (48ppq). I am slaving my MSQ-700 to a DIN sync signal generated by my beloved E-RM Multiclock. This setup is steady as a rock and makes for ultra-stable MIDI timing! Last not least, in "MIDI" mode you can sync your MSQ-700 to an incoming MIDI clock.

Using the DIN Sync input to slave the MSQ-700 has two advantages. First, it frees up the MIDI input that can now be used to connect your MIDI master keyboard to program your sequences. If you were to sync the MSQ-700 to incoming MIDI clock you would have to find a way of merging that MIDI clock with your keyboard MIDI data, requiring you to uzilize a MIDI merger box or to switch cables as needed. Second, you can slave your MSQ-700 directly to your other DIN Sync devices without having to worry about converting DIN to MIDI. I really love the DIN Sync 24 standard!

Using the MSQ-700 is super-easy and straightforward. All you have to do is arm your track for recording by pressing a track button, then press Load and start inputting your notes (in step modes) or press Load and then Start (for realtime recording). Of course, realtime recording can be synced to incoming sync signals (see paragraph above), so recording in sync with your master clock is possible. The 2-bar count-in of the internal / free-run mode is skipped in this mode, however. So, just to be sure, add an extra bar for safety so you don't miss your first note when you reach for your MIDI keyboard.

Now for a couple of gripes and shortcomings that I have to mention. First, editing capabilities are very limited. Once you have recorded a sequence, you can't delete notes or measures at will. You can't even alter your pattern's length. If you want to record a 4-bar pattern, you must stop the recording precisely by the end of bar 4. A foot-switch to control start and stop might come in handy here. However, you can utilize the MSQ-700's overdub function to start recording at any bar within the sequence, overwriting anything that was originally written in that bar. You CAN extend your sequence's lenght this way, but mind you, you can't shorten it once it's written. This is a HUGE bummer.
Programmable punch-in and punch-out for realtime recording is sorely missed.
Additionally, what you can't do on the MSQ-700 is select or switch tracks during playback. You can only do this when the sequencer is stopped. Hell, this even worked on the CSQ-600 and CSQ-100 which are much older! Definitely not intended for live use then. And it would have been so easy to implement!
Another glitch that I haven't seen any mention of is the fact that using the MSQ-700 in "Normal" mode introduces a slight lag in playback of about 5-10 ms. When in "Chain" mode this lag does not occur. So even if you have only one track / sequence that you would like to play back, it is advised that you use the chain mode for your track! Simply program step 1 of your chain to playback your desired track and flick the "Repeat" switch.
That's about it for nitpicks.

Talking briefly about the MSQ-700's memory and tape backup procedure. The MSQ-700 features a battery that ensures that your data will not be lost when you power off your machine. So far, so good. But you can also backup and load your sequence data using the MSQ-700's tape input and output jacks on the back. This procedure is really straightforward and features a handy level test to overcome that dreaded "looking for the right tape level to record and playback" problem. I simply use my DAW to record and store the backup data. Saving and restoring your data should not take longer than a minute.


Minimalism: Chunky buttons and absence of menues

So, you may ask why I am putting up with all the hassles of using such an ancient and limited device instead of a modern DAW? My answer is: 'cause it's fun! I just love limiting myself to equipment that was available in the early to mid 80's. To me this is an authentic way of getting a feeling for true 80s electronic music production methods. Capturing an idea using a hardware MIDI sequencer can be much more immediate and quicker than using a software solution. Using the MSQ-700's step entry mode works super-fast and is a great way of capturing ideas and creating sequences on the fly. The MSQ-700 is THAT easy to operate! And those large, chunky buttons really invite you to press them. It's fun!

And don't forget about MIDI timing! This still is an issue for a lot of DAW users, even today. It doesn't get any tighter than a hardware MIDI sequencer (well, maybe with the exception of the Expert Sleepers system). Syncing my MSQ-700 to the ultra-stable E-RM Multiclock via Din Sync gives me the tightest possible MIDI timing for my synths and I really really love this! 
And... the looks! The MSQ-700 looks absolutely freakin' AWESOME and is a true adornment to any vintage synth studio. It's a piece of history, the first damn MIDI sequencer ever, dude!

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