In the 1990s drum machines manufacturers such as Roland and Yamaha started to develop all in one music production machines which came to be known as ‘grooveboxes’. Aimed mostly at the dance and electronic music making crowd, (a generation of 1990s producers inspired by the likes of The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Orbital, to name just 3), grooveboxes became more and more complex and sophisticated with each generation as manufacturers sought to out do each other and to provide producers with everything the manufacturers heard (or imagined) producers wanted in an all in one music production box.
In today’s article I’ll be briefly exploring the history of the groovebox and then look at three of the best classic grooveboxes:
- Roland MC-303
- Roland MC-909
- Yamaha RM1x
What was the first Groovebox?
The term ‘Groovebox’ was first used in 1996 /1997 with the arrival of Roland’s MC-303 however Roger Linn’s seminal Akai MPC60 had been launched nearly a decade earlier in 1988 and was the first machine that allowed producers to play with a mixture of bass instrument parts, drum samples and loops to create complete backing tracks using just one machine.
With the Roland MC-303 having popularized the term ‘groovebox’ let’s explore this machine further…
What is the MC-303?
Launched in 1996, the Roland MC-303 Groovebox was designed to be an easy to use, affordable, self-contained drum and sequencer machine. The MC-303 was aimed at dance music producers (and teenagers who dreamed of being dance music producers) and was – briefly – popular with producers of techno, acid, jungle, breaks, acid and other dance music styles.
At its heart, the MC-303 is an easy to use ‘preset’ playing machine which could be both a plus point and a negative depending on your point of view and attitude to presets and music production in general! On the plus side, the included Roland sound set ensures the MC-303 provides a ready to go source of dance music orientated sounds anyone can use to create tracks in seconds. On the negative side the reliance on presets and the MC-303’S limited ability to shape the included sounds means that producers might tire of the sounds and quickly become frustrated with the MC-303’s limitations.
The MC-303 features 448 dance sounds, 40 synth basses (including sounds based on the TB-303 and SH-101 basses), synth leads and pad sounds including Juno and Jupiter synth sounds, 12 rhythm kits (including TR-808, TR-909, techno, jungle and house sets). Vintage synth and ambient sounds and arpeggios.
The MC-303 is 16-part multitimbral and has an 8-track sequencer with Grid, Shuffle and Groove functions.
In terms of sound sculpting tools and effects the MC-303 features a resonant filter, LFO, envelope control, delay, reverb, flanger, chorus plus a Realtime Phrase Sequencer (RPS) and a Low Boost feature. Overall the effects are of a high quality. You also get four large knobs for recordable sound parameter editing (filter, LFO, envelope, resonance, etc.) and a pretty decent arpeggiator with over 30 styles.
Can you add samples to the MC-303?
The MC-303 has no ability to record or import samples.
Is the MC-303 battery operated?
The MC-303 is small and light enough to be portable but requires an AC adaptor (DC 9V) to operate.
Is the MC-303 worth buying today?
The MC-303’s ease of use and nostalgia tinged sound palette ensure it is fun for brief jam sessions but In my opinion the MC-303 is too dated and limited to be worth buying even at the cheapest secondhand prices. Unless you are hardcore vintage drum machine fetishist, building up a comprehensive collection of machines in your studio, or the very laziest of dance music producers content to fire up a box and make use of a pool of presets, and sound exactly like everyone else doing the same, the MC-303 is likely to prove far too limited.
Do note, however, that one man’s limitations are another man’s springboard to creativity – some fantastic music has been created with an MC-303 (not much though, to be honest) over the years – check out Clint Mansell’s work on the PI film score (1988) for an example.
The key point is that you can do a lot better than an MC-303 nowadays (check out Roland’s own MC-101, for example) so there seems to be little point in deliberately crippling your creativity with a limited box. If you can find one at a (very) rock bottom price and are curious to find out exactly what old school grooveboxes can bring to the table then snap it up.
Is the MC-303 still in production?
Roland no longer make the MC-303.
Is the MC-303 suitable for beginners?
The MC-303 is very easy to learn and jam with so it could make a fun gift for the beginner producer or maybe the child in your family who is wanting to get into beat making and dance music production for the first time.
Modern Alternative to the MC-303:
Sticking with Roland grooveboxes, a modern alternative to the MC-303 is the MC-101. Launched in 2019 the MC-101 is the baby brother of the more powerful MC-707. The MC-101 gives musicians and producers everything they need to get started making complete tracks in a nifty little unit that is little bigger than the size of an average paperback book! The MC-101 has more – and much better – sounds than the MC-303 and features sequencing, high quality effects, sample importing and clip based tracks and much more. The MC-101 is a portable groovebox that can runs for up to five hours on four AA batteries.
For a classic groovebox that goes much further in terms of features and power than the humble MC-303 check out the MC-909. Launched in the MC-909 was going head to head with a new generation of PC and Mac music production software and so Roland’s boffins tried to squeeze everything into this box (apart from a kitchen sink).
Designed to form the very heart of an electronic music production setup, this is an impressive beast of a machine in terms of looks, weight and, most importantly, features.
The MC-909 is a standalone, 64-voice workstation with a 4-Tone, XV synthesis engine, sampling capabilities, velocity-sensitive pads, 16-track sequencer, 16 channel mixer with 8 dedicated faders, effects, USB port, MIDI File transfer and graphic LCD display and even a ‘V-LINK’ function for integrating audio and video in VJ performances.
Sampling with the Roland MC-909:
The Roland MC-909 features 16MB of sample memory (which can be further expanded up to 272MB in total using optional DIMMs.) You can record audio directly into the MC-909 via the stereo analog inputs or digitally using an S/PDIF input. You can easily import your WAV/AIFF samples from a computer into the MC-909 via USB.
Once you have samples in the MC-909 they can be processed and mangled in a variety of ways. Using the built-in Wave Editor function, a waveform can be truncated and looped while viewing it graphically on the MC-909’s LCD screen. Timestretch functions makes it possible to adjust a loop’s tempo without affecting its pitch.
The MC-909 has the ability to slice up a loop and trigger samples chromatically from the MC-909’s velocity-sensitive pads or via an external MIDI keyboard.
The MC-909 effects:
The MC-909 features a number of high quality effects including:
- 24-bit reverb
- COSM Amp Modeling.
The MC-909 also boasts a dedicated Mastering processor. This gives you access to a 3-band compression for added punch and polish to your mix. Obviously it can’t compete with the likes of Ozone and other modern mastering solutions but it is easy to use and gets the job done.
The MC-909 comes with a dance-oriented ROM based sound set containing hundreds of patches, rhythm sets and 693 waveforms. Its a great library of ‘old school’ sounds and presets that harks back to a golden era of dance and rave music production. Sounds include classic house pianos and organs, techno hoovers and stabs, JP-8000 “SuperSaw” waveforms and TB-303 sounds. If you’re looking to make vintage techno, ambient, breakbeats, electronica and the like then there’s pretty much every sound in this big box to get you off to a flying start!
Many of you older dance music heads will find much to love to with the included sounds as memories of wild nights come flooding back although in truth there’s probably nothing here most of you haven’t heard much more recently via your VST plugin presets, your DAWs stock instruments or sample packs and Kontackt instruments.
New sound sets can also be added the MC-909 by installing an optional SRX-Series Wave Expansion Board.
User data such as samples, Patches, Rhythm Sets and patterns can be stored on SmartMedia cards (up to 128mb.)
Using the MC-909 with a computer:
The MC-909 is designed to operate as a complete stand-alone workstation however it was released at a time when PCs and Macs were a core part of many producers’ set up and Roland had the sense to ensure the MC-909 was equipped with the necessary USB and MIDI plus S/PDIF digital I/O, six analog outputs and stereo analog inputs to communicate with computers and other gear. For this reason the MC-909 remains a useful and useable piece of hardware rather than a more toy like, five minute wonder.
The MC-909 also features Roland’s D-Beam technology (as seen on other devices) which means you can manipulate sounds and trigger samples by waving your hand over the MC-909’s dual D Beams – an effect that you’ll probably find completely pointless unless you happen to performing live for a crowd of people who haven’t been to a club since the start of the millennium and are easily impressed!
Hands on Control
The MC-909 really does a great job at providing hands on control of your sound manipulation and track building sessions. Use the LCD screen to locate sounds, sample and edit waveforms and sequence MIDI arrangements on the fly. Best of all, most of the MC-909’s major parameters can be accessed via the knobs, sliders and buttons. It’s all this instant hands on control that makes the MC-909 fun to use and an often inspiring change from a computer/mouse/DAW set up (not to say the workflow does not throw up its own frustrations from time to time).
Is the MC-909 still worth it?
I personally have enjoyed many years of music making with my MC-909. While I would hesitate to recommend the MC-303 to anyone, the MC-909 is a much more capable box of tricks and if you can get one for a bargain price on the secondhand market then the MC-909 is well worth picking up and trying out.
The MC-909 isn’t a cheap toy, on the one hand, but nor can it really rival a modern DAW and computer set up in terms of storage space, plugins etc on the other so you’ll have to accept the limitations of this machine for what they are and learn to live with them and work round them.
Like every groovebox before and since, the MC-909 has its limitations and annoying work flow issues that you really need not suffer with a modern computer and DAW based set up. The fun to be had here is in getting away from the computer, powering up the MC-909 and losing yourself in hours of exploration, pushing and shaping the preset sounds into something that sounds like the music you always imagined yourself making.
Be warned that if If you’re looking to create ‘glossy’ EDM or modern, polished trance music with a super wide stereo field then you really need to stick with your DAW and its ability to polish and EQ your VST synth sounds and the like to the nth degree. The MC-909’s sound is likely to have you holding your head (or your ears) in despair – this machine is more suited to ‘rougher’, dirtier and darker sounding music (think late 90s and early 2000s techno, ambient, electronica, glithcy IDM, lo-fi beats and the like).
One thing I do loved about my MC-909 is its look – forget the light weight plastic and the cool rainbow and neon hues of more recent offerings from the likes of Roland and Novation, this is a serious hunk of metal with an inspiring old school vibe and unlike the Korg Volcas the knobs, pads and buttons here are big enough for sweaty adult hands to grasp, twiddle, thump and perform with without worrying about accidentally knocking or touching other knobs and buttons. I wonder what future generations will make of the MC-909 – maybe in 100 years time they’ll be highly sought after collectors pieces!
One final important point: If you do decide to seek out a secondhand MC-909, do make sure it has a fully functioning LCD screen.
Modern Alternative to the MC-909:
The MC-707 is a viable modern alternative to the MC-909. Part of Roland’s dance music focused Aira line of products, The MC-707 gives you 8 tracks to play with, clip-based workflow, 16 velocity sensitive pads, sampling, Roland’s virtual analog ZEN-Core synth engine, classic Roland TR box drum sounds, excellent FX and ‘Scatter’ feature and a powerful sequencer. Geared towards real-time performance, the MC-707 has a lot to offer in terms of features and it has a more ‘modern’ and polished sound than the MC-909 and it is only a little bit more expensive (when new).
If your production style demands a more polished and contemporary sound than the MC-909’s can offer then check out the MC-707.
When it came to groovebox dominance Roland had a couple of big rivals in the form of Korg (with their popular Electribe series) and Yamaha who released a number of different grooveboxes over the years of which the RM1x was their first and the one I’ll be focusing on today.
Arriving on the scene in the late 1990s (1999 to be exact), Yamaha’s eye catching blue groovebox was squarely aimed at the dance music producer crowd and was particularly suitable for house, techno, acid and breakbeat type music. The unit’s layout is split into 5 different ‘blocks’: Sequencer block, tone generator block, controller block, effect block, and arpeggio block
The RM1x saw Yamaha’s boffins build on their highly regarded QY700 hardware sequencer and morph it into a form factor that they hoped would prove a big hit with producers keen to get their hands on – quite literally – an all in one dance music focused box.
While Roland’s grooveboxes were geared towards the creation of creating individual patterns then chaining them together to make complete tracks, the Yamaha RMX1 offered the ability to not only create a finished piece by chaining together patterns but also make tracks via linear sequencing (and also by using a mixture of the two methods). One notorious quirk of the RMX1 is the fact that when you’re grid programming you can only hear the track you are working on.
The RM1X gives you 16 tracks to play with, a 32 note polyphonic AWM synth engine and 900 ready to go dance themed patterns. There are GM‑compatible AWM2 sounds and over 800 voices (including drum kits and over 600 synth sounds). The focus is on ‘dancey’ sounds of the kind that maybe were considered fashionable in 1999. Useable synth basses and leads are here in abundance and there are pad sounds too (although nothing to give modern VSTs a run for their money.)
Many of these sounds have gone on to find a home in much of the dance music of the early noughities and overall it’s a pretty solid collection of sounds suitable for use in any electronic composition with a retro, glitchy, gritty or lo-fi vibe today.
There are sound sculpting tools and effects to push the sounds in new directions (each voice has an independent filter with cutoff and resonance, and envelope control plus LFO) but, unfortunately, any tweaks you make to individual voices and effects are not saved in their own preset banks or on memory cards (the RMX1 actually has its own internal 3.5‑inch disk drive). Instead, your new sounds are saved as part of their pattern or sequence so unless you are the most organized person in the world it’s certain you will quickly forget where your own sounds are – good luck trying to find that wicked bass you managed to cook up 3 months earlier! When using an RM1X, back in the day, I found myself simply starting from scratch each time I powered it up, tweaking sounds on the fly to fit each new song.
The real strength of the RM1X lies in its ability to sequence/remix and it’s great for live performaces and making on the fly changes including muting and soloing voices.
The RMX1 features plenty of bread and butter effects including reverb, delay, modulation, distortion and a Variable Low Boost parameter (+/‑24dB) for beefing up the bass end. These effects sound dated and “cheap” in comparison to the kind of stuff we get in our DAWs nowadays and, for me at least, don’t sound as good as the Roland effects but they are perfectly usable.
Is the RMX1 worth buying today?
Lots of RMX1 owners still love their machine to this day but in my opninion the RMX1 is now too dated to be considered a good buy. There is a lot of enjoyment to be had from messing around with one of these grooveboxes, no doubt, but I think you can – and should – look to get more bang for your buck with a more modern groovebox.
Modern Alternative to the RMX1
As I have already covered the MC-10 and MC-707 elsewhere on this page I thought I would look outside the Roland brand to find a good alternative to the RMX1. To compete with the overall vibe and features of the RMX1 I was looking for a gadget with a fantastic sequencer as well as pads, arp, synth and effects and so I have plumped for Akai’s flagship product, the MPC X.
The MPC X Music production centre is a very powerful machine and I can’t possibly do it justice here so briefly: It features a 10.1″ full-colour multi-touch display, 16GB of on-board storage, 16 velocity sensitive pads, 16 fully assignable, touch-capactive Q-Link knobs with a dedicated OLED display above each and is capable of sequencing with pretty much any music gear you are likely to have in your studio. A new MPC X costs much more than a second hand RMX1, of course, but it’s a machine that is capable of serving at the heart of your set up for many years to come.
Conclusion: At the height of their popularity grooveboxes faced increasing competition from a new generation of home computer based music making setups and the days of the groovebox seemed numbered although in recent years the idea of an a machine that can be used to create every part of a song has come back in fashion.
In these days of powerful DAWs, vintage and classic grooveboxes still have something fun – and a bit quirky – to offer today’s producers and musicians so check them out if you have money to spare, you’re bored with your ever expanding VST library or you just want to try a blast from the past.
If you’re in the market for a second hand groovebox check out websites such as reverb.com and see if you can bag a bargain and who knows – your classic groovebox might be a highly valuable piece of vintage gear for your grandchildren to inherit one day which is more than we can say for the software cluttering up our hard drives!