Roland’s latest outgrowth from their shared hardware platform is a groove machine, song arrangement tool, and looper – one that acknowledges some people want to do both beats and vocals.

We’re getting now a tone of stuff based on Roland’s ZEN-Core engine – as promised. That engine resembles a lot of slightly older Roland workstations and such, but it’s finding its way into low-cost gear.

The MC-101/707 went down this road. I’m still wrestling with the MC-101 but I’ll be honest in that these boxes never made a terrific amount of sense to me. There’s a lot of capability but also a lot of menu diving and workflows that just feel like they’re out of another decade. (There’s not an easy quick sampling workflow, for one.)

The MV-1 starts with some of those same pieces, but the combination starts to make more sense. There’s both a TR-style step sequencer and a 4×4 pad configuration with velocity sensitivity, in an MPC-style arrangement (with RGB colors, naturally).

And it does a lot in one box, so basically:

  • Program beats, record loops and samples, multitrack, mixdown and finish
  • Velocity-sensitive pads 4×4
  • TR-style step sequencing
  • Looping
  • Mic in (plus internal mic)
  • Battery power [via a USB battery bank, 500mA draw over USB) Correction: I misread the press materials and didn’t recognize they meant USB battery bank not internal battery. (That’s too bad; internal batteries would be great.) I regret the error.
  • Built-in effects (for vocals, per channel, mastering)
  • Finish projects onboard and connect to the cloud
  • Shares sounds with Roland Cloud, connects to Roland’s Zenbeats iPad app

The MC-707 for a little more ($999 versus $699 street) gives you a bigger screen and more controls, and generally more editing depth. The Verselab swaps all those faders for 4×4 pads in an arrangement reminiscent of the Elektron Analog RYTM – and it gives you an XLR mic in and vocal effects the MC doesn’t have. That puts the MV-1 in a potential sweet spot – whereas the MC-707’s higher price means it starts to compete with arguably deeper products from Native Instruments, Akai, and Elektron.

And they’ve made the different levels stupidly simple – in a really good way. It even says WORKFLOW on the top (which is a little funny). But you get the sequencer level (for patterns), section, song, and then mixer and even mixdown for finishing. That’s about as clear as any hardware or software maker has made this, and it is the opposite of the convoluted approach of the MC. I know it’s probably about new users, but I sure as heck welcome not getting lost in menus, and I have a little bit of experience.

So you still get hands-on parameter control, you can still make on a row of steps like a TR, and you get velocity-sensitive pads for playing percussion with some expression or adding melody. Sounds good to me.

What’s new here is the addition of sampling and vocals, and it promises to finally make it easy to record and load your own sounds onboard. There’s an onboard looper and live sampling.

That’s really the part I’m most interested in and maybe the least clear on this – we have to dig through the documentation and test this to see how it works.

They’ve also added effects – Auto-Pitch, Harmonizer, and Doubler (which they say are “modern,” although I guess that now means anything after 1985). You also get reverb, chorus, “mastering” effects, and dozens of variations, so I suspect a lot like what we’ve seen on TR-8S and MC-101/707.

Also friendly to vocalists, there’s an XLR mic input with phantom power, plus a built-in mic so you don’t lose any ideas if you don’t have a mic handy.

There are also dual headphone jacks, which … makes me sad about social distancing, but yes.

And it all runs on USB power, so can be powered from an external mobile USB battery.

iPad app connectivity with Roland’s Zenbeats app. But Roland Cloud also promises to give you not just sound packs, but a way to keep your projects online. Let’s see how that works.

Street is around US$699, with the whole thing on preorder. But that to me is the winner – low price, USB power. This may not be an advanced DAWless powerhouse, but for it shows some promise for people wanting something simple.

It just also adds to the pile of stuff that won’t sway me from my Boutique Series and TR-8S, Roland. Because that ZEN-Core engine while it delivers a large quantity of sounds tends to have a quality that sounds… a bit like 90s Roland gear, sorry. (That’s as in the 90s and ‘noughts digital Roland gear.) The circuit modeling in the Boutique drum machines and TR-8S just sounds great, plus now Roland tucked some brilliant FM sounds into the TR-8S.

In other words, while the MV-1 looks a lot simpler and less expensive than some producer-oriented tools, the big competition is actually probably from Roland/BOSS. A lot of vocalists are likely to still prefer the workflow of a BOSS looper, which is not what you get out of this. And you can always finish tracks in Ableton Live or Logic.

That said, I’m interested to check out exactly how sampling and looping work. The workflow integration stuff makes sense. Building a box that encourages people to finish tracks – that’s always a real thing.

Oh, and tucked into the announcement is one other little detail that could have implications for the rest of the product line. Roland says they’re using Roland Cloud to let you load in new sound packs (well, of course they are), but also as a way to save your own projects.

I hope – hope – this also means an easy cloud workflow for loading and retrieving samples.

Roland has also offered integration with their Zenbeats cloud app. That’s cute, and gives iPad owners another way to work.

But notice they’re leaving a hole open to the competition – there’s no Ableton Live export, which clearly lots of folks want, and we still have to see how easy it is to get at your samples.

Oh yeah, and there are rumored Novation boxes on the horizon, too. Well, if we have another long span of social distancing ahead, maybe there’s still a chance for more people to find boxes they love, and for all of us to finish some music.

Stay tuned.