Digital Keyboard Recorder
It’s 1984 and we are entering the era of the MIDI sequencer, with the very first MIDI sequencer from Japanese company Roland. MIDI had just been introduced, with the intention to make devices from different makes to communicate with each other in various ways. The first objective was to be able to play one synth via another one, which allowed both to be heard at the same time while only playing one of them. The next step was to run machines such as drummachines, sequencers and arpeggiators in sync via MIDI. With the protocol of MIDI still being fresh and sequencers from the pre-MIDI days functioning in slightly different ways, the MSQ-700 received the term “Digital Keyboard Recorder”. Of course this term was a bit lengthy, so the term “Sequencer” was more commonly adopted. When you work with the MSQ-700, you will notice that the term “Keyboard Recorder” is not far from accurate. This is exactly what the MSQ does, record keyboard parts straight into the 8-tracks with hardly to no editing features. It was pretty much a digital tape-recorder. This machine is as plain as sequencing can get, but an extremely fun and immediate one at that.
I bought my MSQ-700 late 1991. I was a huge Level-42 fan and I was always wondering how they achieved those Clavinet parts that were all over their big hit singles, like “Something About You”, “Lessons in Love”, “To be With You Again” and “Heaven in my Hands”. In 1991 they released an album called “Guaranteed” with the title track also heavily driven by those typical Clavinet syncopations. There was an English magazine called “Musician” that I would sometimes buy whenever I could find it. In one issue Mark King and Mike Lindup were interviewed, in which they shared some rather revealing information about those clavinet parts. It was obvious that the Clavinet sounds were coming from a Yamaha DX or TX synth, but how they programmed those parts was always a mystery to me. They sounded very gated and meticulously edited, as if someone had gone into a software program to manually truncate all the notes of each chord to a specific length. On Guaranteed from 1991 this would have been very much possible, as software sequencing was commonplace, with programs like Cubase, Notator, Hybrid Arts and Digital Performer, but Level-42 were already doing this in 1985, when software sequencers were scarce and only really existed on systems like the Fairlight and Synclavier. Whenever I saw them perform live on TV, Mike Lindup had an MSQ-700 hidden behind his large keyboard rig, but I could have never imagined that the MSQ was responsible for those Clavinet parts. With the MSQ also clearly visible on one of photos taken in Mark King’s studio, Mike Lindup explained that instead of the notes on the MSQ moving to the nearest 8th or 16th, it would trim the notes. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I had to figure this out myself and get my hands on an MSQ-700 and I knew exactly where to find one.
Kick Music in Hilversum had a second hand MSQ-700 sitting around for at least 3 or 4 years. This was an era where the software sequencer reigned supreme and where a primitive machine like the MSQ-700, with only a 6500-step capacity, had long been abandoned. My dad and I were visiting Kick Music on a weekly basis, so I knew how long the MSQ had been sitting there. It was almost Christmas of 91 and after reading the article with Level-42, I reached straight for the phone. Chris the owner answered and I expected him to say that he’d love to sell it to me, but no such luck that day. Mate, I sold that thing 3-days ago!!!…….. I was completely baffled. Seriously Chris? Yeah man, I sold it to this lady who wanted to dabble into sequencing and because the MSQ was real cheap, I advised her to buy that together with a cheap synth. I was most disappointed to say the least. How crazy is that? If there was one item in the entire shop that for many years got zero attention, it was that clunky looking MSQ. Just as I thought I could snap it up in an instant, the damn thing had been sold only a couple days prior to me reading that article. What were the odds?
Return of Miss Q
In Holland, like in many countries I guess, many people get time off between Christmas and the start of the new year. The weather in The Netherlands is usually dreary and drizzly, but I always find that incredibly inspiring for making music, so I really love that time of year. The day after boxing day, or as we Dutch call it “2nd Christmas day”, the phone rings. Yo, it’s Chris here from Kick Music! You still want that MSQ-700? Most surprised I replied, “I thought you sold that thing”? The lady just brought it back, as she had no idea how to operate it, so if you still want it, I’ll give it to you for 225-guilders. I drove to Hilversum straight after hanging up the phone, I couldn’t believe my luck. When I got there Chris asked me, what are you going to do with it, seems like a step down from the way you work with MIDI?
Chris van Velsen and his Kick Music
Chris is one of the most wonderful people in the business. He’s such a unique character. Thank goodness his shop is still there today and Chris hasn’t changed a bit from the time we walked into his shop in 1981. First thing he’ll offer you is a cup of coffee, followed by one of his many anecdotes. Whenever I’m in Holland my dad and I always stop by, just to reminisce with Chris about the golden days of MIDI, when stacks of DX7’s and Juno 106’s would disappear like snow before the sun. What is now the internet for gathering knowledge, Kick Music was our main source of information. At one stage during the 80’s Kick Music was the best selling Roland dealer in The Netherlands. So much so, that representatives from Japan came to check out how that was possible for such a small shop. I wish someone would consider making a short documentary about Kick Music, so Chris can tell these stories in his own words. To me it’s a legendary place, where meeting well known people in the industry and even celebs used to be perfectly normal. Visiting Kick Music was as exciting to me as a kid visiting a theme park. There was always something new to see, as the 80's produced a lot of new innovations and new trends changing over fast.
If you ever get the chance to spend enough time in The Netherlands, Kick Music is only about 25-km east of Amsterdam in a town called Hilversum.
The photo below must have been taken in the beginning of 1986 and every loyal Kick Music customer will know this picture, because the two characters in the middle are famous Dutch comedians. Chris is on the far right. Frits Bonhof is on the far left. Frits still has his own shop in Hilversum as well, which is called “Hightech Hilversum”. Chris and Frits have always remained good mates.
Miss Q Misbehaves
Back to the MSQ. I could not wait to hear what the Timing-Correct function on the MSQ would sound like, so I tried to play Level-42’s “Lessons in Love” into the thing, only to be extremely disappointed with the result. I was expecting the machine to miraculously quantise the part exactly the way it sounded on the record, but it sounded nothing like it. Disillusioned I scratched my head and left it for what it was, as there was no Googling around back then and you were pretty much left to your own devices. Did I buy a lemon and how accurate was Mike Lindup’s story? Not giving up, trial & error eventually lead to something that was getting closer to what I was after, but the machine was ungovernably cantankerous and disobedient. No matter what I tried, it was all over the place. When transferring the parts to the MPC-60, I got a better idea of what was going on, as I was starting to see a consistency in note values. Most notes indeed had the same length, so the trimming description Mike Lindup gave was accurate. However, some notes in a chord were too long or too short. The really short ones only had a note length of 1, which is so short it sounds like a plop. By lowering the tempo and concentrating more on my playing, I was finally getting the results I was hoping for. Instead of expecting the machine to adapt to my playing, I had to adapt to the machine. When one plays chords, not every finger is released at the same time. You might have the tendency to release your pinky earlier than your middle finger, as the middle finger is longer. Because the Time-Correct function is so unforgiving, I had to think more like the machine, which resulted in more Level-42 type clavinet parts. I really fell in love with this feature and ended up overusing it.
Incorrect Time Correct
So, what is it exactly doing? I have always found this hard to explain, so I’ll illustrate it as well. Normally when you record something into your DAW, you will see that your timing deviates. When you hit Quantise, you will see the notes move to the grid, without changing their lengths. If you played a little before the grid line, it will move it forward, if your timing was a little late, it will move it back. If you were much too late, it will move it to the next grid line up, depending on the quantise value (i.e. 16 or 32). Here is what the MSQ would do: If you set quantising to 16th and you played it a little late, causing the note length to be closer to the next 16th, it will pull the length of the note back to the first 16th and extend it to the following 16th. So, instead of retaining the note-length, it will change the note-length. However, because there is no known length value, the MSQ will decide what note length it will use according to its clock resolution, which is pretty coarsely set. One note could have a length of 1, the next 5, the one after that 12, etc… If you played a note length of 9 it will extend it to 12, because 9 is closer to 12 than it is to 5. Because you never know what note-lengths the MSQ turns it in to, there is no way of knowing how long to hold notes for, causing this chance element to generate odd results. This illustration shows what would happen to the notes on a modern DAW and then what the MSQ would do with it.
Throughout the 90’s I used the MSQ mostly for bass parts. That’s because those short note lengths of 1 were ideal for Muted-Notes, which are those in between notes that bass-players use to give a bassline extra rhythmic groove. Through this I coincidentally discovered the difference between fast and sluggish envelopes on synths, as the note length value of 1 would not produce any sound on a synth with slow envelopes. The DX-7 was very direct, so it was ideal for that purpose, but analog synths that were released after 1982 will not respond to that short note length. My Jupiter-8, which I had MIDI-fied, was ideal for that, because its envelopes are fast and snappy, but the Super-JX would not respond. The Prophet-600 was also too slow, but the Prophet-5 has extremely fast envelopes. Extending those notes inside the step-editor on the MPC-60 resulted in the part losing that percussive ploppiness, so I would only ever use the JP8 or DX7.
Knobs, Switches and Buttons per function
The great thing about the MSQ is that there are no hidden functions and menus. What you see is what you get. This gives the unit an immediacy and tactility like nothing else out there. You want the metronome on all the time, only during recording, or in record and play, there’s a 3-way leaver-switch that you can quickly flick. Changing the MIDI channel per track is also extremely easy. The MSQ was for a while favoured amongst House and Techno artists, as the 8-track buttons can instantly be turned on or off for looping. This is ideal in a live situation. However, in 1987 Alesis released the MMT-8 sequencer which had the same functionality, with better MIDI implementation and a larger note-capacity. The buttons and switches on the MSQ have a high degree of clackiness, which I absolutely love.
As mentioned before, the machine can only hold a total of 6500-steps. That equals notes, not any other MIDI data. If you want to use Pitchbend, Modulation and Aftertouch, you will see the number of events dramatically drop on the LED. You can even check the number of events used per track, this is handy when you want to find out which instrument is using up a lot of events. There is no onboard storage medium such as a floppy-drive, it’s a RAM only affair, but things can be saved to tape if that makes you feel better. Dip-switches on the back of the unit can be set to filter out Aftertouch, in case you might accidentally be doing key-presses.
The Fairlight CMI from 1979 had a whopping 8-tracks of sequencing, which were in monophonic. The MSQ exceeded this feat by being able to record polyphonically. When you start recording, the length of the sequence is determined by the measure-slider which you can set from 1 to 8-bars or you can record in Free mode, which gives you an infinite length. The latter means that, if you play with both hands and you need 16-bars, you have to be quick to stop the machine before the 17th bar begins. If you’re too late, it will include the 17th bar. This can be tackled by using a DP-2 foot switch to stop the recording. After you’re done recording and you want to use the Time-Correct function, you have to transfer that track to an unused track. Say you record on track-1 and you want to quantise that part, you have to then set the note value slider to whatever subdivision you wish to use (i.e. 16th), press the dedicated Time-Correct function button and then select the track-2 button followed by Load. On the MSQ the Record button is called “Load”. If you are using 8-tracks and you want to quantise the 8th track, there is nowhere else to send it to, so it is then time to make decisions.
Sequences can be chained together, but don’t confuse this with Pattern & Song mode, this is a different affair. Consider the 8-tracks to be Patterns and the Chain mode Song mode. This means you only have 8-patterns. If you have all 8-tracks playing different instruments there is hardly any point in using chain-mode, because those 8-tracks are supposed to be working together. In Chain mode they would be separated from each other. The chain mode would only be useful if you are using the MSQ to control one instrument, so you can chain the 8 different sequences. You can of course also control 2 instruments and assign each to 4-tracks that can be chained. This does unfortunately put the MSQ in the primitive sequencer department, as later sequencers were able to chain all tracks as patterns.
Let me Sync
As the MSQ-700 came out in a time where MIDI was still going through a transitional phase, some of the old syncing protocols had been included on the machine, such as Tape and DIN-Sync. You therefor have three syncing options that can all work together. Tape sync is generating FSK (Frequency Shift Key), which you’d record to a tape machine. DIN Sync is found on most Roland devices of the time, such as the TR-808, 606, 909, TB-303 and MC-202. MIDI Clock can then be synced to a post MIDI device such as the TR-707 or Sequential Circuits Drumtraks. The MSQ-700 can therefor be an extremely useful syncing-hub in a set-up that uses a lot of these devices. On top of that, if you also have a synth that uses DCB, like a Juno-60 or Jupiter-8, the MSQ can come in really handy.
Not many people enjoy consulting the user manual, but you might want to in case of the MSQ-700. Not because you need to know about some function, although this can definitely be done as well, but purely for entertainment reasons. Things have vastly improved in terms of Japanese-English translation since the 80’s, even though Japanese efforts were already pretty impressive back then, but still some things got lost in translation, which in case of 80’s manual reading can be a comedic experience. Just to take an excerpt from the manual: Error is often caused by idiotic operation such as turning the unit off during loading or editing. Otherwise, the back-up battery is getting flat. The manual also points out that the Time-Correct feature might not give the result you hoped for. Here’s how they again comically describe it: If setting or the same timing value, you may be annoyed by various troubles such as timing value(s) differs, a note(s) is lost, etc…
The MSQ didn’t really suffer from any competition, until the Yamaha QX-1 came out in 1985, which was of a whole different calibre in terms of features and price. There were hardly any other stand-alone sequencers released around this period. It took another year before other companies started to release MIDI sequencers. In 1985 Korg released the SQD-1 and Yamaha released the small QX-5. Then there was the stupendous Linn-9000 from 84/85, which was financially completely out of reach for most. The Linn was the first to integrate a sequencer and drummachine in the one unit, which at that stage was already way ahead of the curve. In 1986 Roland followed up the MSQ with the MC-500, which is also an amazing machine that deserves to be blogged about at some stage.
There was also a single track version of the MSQ-700, the MSQ-100 which was really a JSQ-60 with MIDI. The JSQ-60 was designed to be used in conjunction with the Juno-60 and communicated via DCB. The MSQ-100 and JSQ-60 almost look identical. The MSQ-100 had the same colour-scheme as the Juno-106, so they were meant to be companions. Before the MSQ, Roland had released two sequencers that worked with CV and Gate, the CSQ-100 and larger CSQ-600, which resembled the looks of the famous TR-808 that came out around the same time. Before the CSQ sequencers, Roland had made the very large and expensive MC-8 (1977) and MC-4 (1981). The latter most closely resembles the MSQ-700, with the same buttons and switches. After the MSQ, the most important thing users wanted a sequencer to have was a floppy-drive. As the MSQ had so little memory and saving to cassette was cumbersome, the MSQ was soon to be forgotten after the MC-500 arrived. As mentioned in my MPC-60 blog, the hardware sequencer in general got overshadowed by the success of the software sequencer, so hardware sequencers weren’t around for very long. Due to this, prices of Vintage hardware sequencers are strongly reflected in the appeal that they still receive today.
By 1988 not only MIDI, velocity sensitivity and built-in effects were to be expected on a synth, a multi-track sequencer was now also becoming the norm. The first commercially available synth to feature multi-track sequencing was the Ensoniq ESQ-1 from 1986, but it could not control external MIDI sound sources and there were no drums. The Roland D-20 and Korg M-1 were the first of a new breed of synths called “Workstations”. The Roland was targeted at the low end segment of the market and the Korg was more aimed at professional users. Even though software sequencing was far more popular, almost every synth that was released after the M1 featured a sequencer. You would expect these onboard sequencers to have tons of features combined with an unparalleled ease of use, but this was not the case. Almost every single workstation sequencer was inconvenient to use and extremely limited. They were perhaps useful for live use, if you had more synths on stage for playing live, as the Workstation was often not capable of playing sequences and switch between patches simultaneously. Even decades later workstation sequencers have not really matured. When we look at today’s workstations, such as the Korg Kronos or Yamaha Motif, one can’t really state that the sequencers on those are intuitive and feature laden. It would be hard to pick out one workstation since the M1 that had an amazing onboard sequencer.
As far as I’m aware, through personal use and from what I’ve heard and read (or rather haven’t read), the MSQ-700 has zero issues. Some of its quirky operation can be considered as an issue, but really, we’re talking the beginnings of MIDI and sequencing in general, so whatever seems to be working oddly is just due to the nature of the beast and the zeitgeist in which it lived. If you reckon that the Time-Correct function is not working the way it should, I hope you now understand why that is and don’t consider it as a flaw anymore. This machine is built like a tank. The metal chassis is really thick and the wooden/veneer side-cheeks are solid. The buttons, switches and knobs are from the earlier Roland line of products, such as the System-100, MC-4 and TR-808. Most Roland products that came out around 1982 were kinda plasticky, such as the Juno-106, SH-101 and TR-707. When you put the MSQ next to a TR-909, it’s hard to imagine both came out around the same time. It could very well be that the MSQ was designed well before MIDI was implemented. This would explain its somewhat aged physical appearance.
How often do we see an MSQ-700, or its little brother the MSQ-100 on the market? Not very often. Why is that? Well, the only explanation I have for this, is that technology back then was moving on at a rampant pace and the MSQ was hardly given any time to shine. In 1986 Roland released the MC-500, which was way more advanced, so there would have only been about a 2-year time span for the MSQ to shine. When you hear productions from 1984/85 there is a lot of machine driven synth work going on. In professional circles, such as the studios and with big name bands, there were usually Fairlights and Synclaviers doing the machining. In amateur and keyboard-player circles sequencers had not really popularised itself yet, as people were still used to live playing. Drummachines were also very popular and the sequencer was seen as a drummachine for keyboard players, who were all pretty capable of playing parts themselves. Keyboards were not hard to record either, so there was no need really to automate the keyboard player. Drums were a lot harder to record, making the drummachine more popular. By 1986, when MIDI was understood better and its specs was finally being utilised more, the sequencer started to become more mature and seen as a replacement for the tape-machine. Instead of recording straight to tape, you would now let the sequencer function as a digital recorder, from where you could make changes and also reserve tracks on the tape-machine, as you would make a sub-mix for the synths and record them to a stereo track or straight to the master. I reckon that the somewhat aged looks, tiny memory and primitive storage medium, put the MSQ-700 in a bit of a time-warp, where it quickly came and went.
Miss Q in Action
There should be tons of mid 80’s material out there that used the MSQ, but these are the ones that I’m most familiar with. As mentioned before, Level-42 started using it on their “True Colours” album from 1984 and continued using it till their “Guaranteed” album in 1991. Scritti Politti also used it a lot on their “Cupid & Psyche 85” album. Mr. Mister used it on their monster hit album “Welcome to The Real World” from 1985 and the MSQ particularly stands out on the intro of “Kyrie”. Electro-Pop and R&B duo Go West used it on their debut album from 1985, which contains a lot of machine-type sequencing combined with slick keyboard playing. Icelandic Fusion group Mezzoforte used it on “No Limits” from 1986, with the track “Evolution” as a good example of some typical MSQ style sequencing. Fusion super group Steps Ahead used it on their 1986 “Magnetic” album and it can even be spotted on stage on their “Live in Japan” video from 1986. Howard Jones was using two MSQ-700’s during his 1985 tour and I’m sure he used it on his 1985 ”Dream Into Action” album. I suspect the piano on the track “Things Can Only Get Better” to be done on the MSQ, as it sounds very truncated. You can hear those choppy in between notes in there too. The bass in that track also sounds very mechanical and edited, which again might be the MSQ doing its magic.
Why would anyone consider buying this extremely primitive box? Well, there are plenty good reasons. The first perhaps is the fact that you can use it as a Syncing-Hub for your other Roland devices that have DIN-sync. The DCB interface can also come in handy if you have a Jupiter-8 or Juno-60 without MIDI. The Time Correct function is a lot of fun, once you get the hang of it, but as pointed out before, this requires you to acquire a particular skill to get right. However, the surprise element and non-graphical representation can lead to interesting results. Something that I haven’t mentioned is that there is Step-Programmability as well. I guess the biggest reason for getting one is to just experience what it was like to do some 80’s style sequencing. You will appreciate more what is available to you today and you might even like the MSQ. The MSQ has an extremely machine-like feel to it, with a very tight clock and extremely rigid time-correction.
Perhaps of all vintage gear that’s still floating about out there, the vintage hardware sequencer is the least popular, thus can be acquired for ridiculously low prices. I bought a mint condition Roland MC-500 MK-II for only $200 Australian. There is something about hardware sequencers that is very alluring. Perhaps it’s the fact that you can’t see what is played, as opposed to a DAW where you see each little detail. The way I approach sequencing on an old machine is completely different to the way I approach sequencing in a DAW. This can be a fresh change in the way we work, as we often find ourselves stuck in a particular paradigm, where we run out of ideas and inspiration. Removing yourself from that paradigm will invariably force you to think differently. You’ll discover that working with a hardware unit is not as straight forward, thus forcing you to put in the extra effort. Taking the same route home every day from work will eventually put you on auto pilot. After a few years you can almost walk that route blindfolded. It’s good to sometimes take a different route, one that may take longer, but will give you different things to see along the way. You would encounter things you would normally never encounter, like a thrift shop where you find that album you’ve been searching for for so long. The same goes for external devices. You might just come up with that cool sequence that you would normally never create in software.
I think the MSQ-700 is a completely unique device, who’s significance should be celebrated. Like the Prophet-600, the MSQ-700 was the first of its kind and that is that it had MIDI, which we now know has revolutionised music technology for good. Let’s also not forget the nostalgia factor. During the eighties these were not a common sight. You’d rarely see them in a shop and read about them in interviews. Compared to now, where it’s very common to see Octatracks or Electribes left, right and centre, I don’t remember seeing an MSQ at someone’s house or at a gig. Because they were used on many classic 80’s records, there is a strong sense of mysticism surrounding them. Even after finding out about those cool clavinet parts, I got even more mystified by it rather than demystified. I wonder how the first users of the MSQ felt about the machine and whether they embraced or dismissed the Time-Correct function. The MSQ is one of those machines that will stay with me, as it’s hardly worth selling it. Just looking at it takes me back to my teenage years. The fact that its Time-Correct feature cannot be found or replicated on anything else, is enough reason to keep it. When you find one after reading this blog and you consider giving it a go, don’t be disappointed the first time you use it. Give it some time. Don’t expect miracles like I did, it needs to grow on you, but when it does you will absolutely love this quirky machine.
Thanks heaps for reading!!!!