“Which groovebox is the best?”
This is one of the more common questions you’ll see come up on synth message boards and Facebook groups and there really is no right answer. I once asked myself this same question years ago and, as a result, I now have a fair bit of groovebox experience so I’d like to share my views in the hopes that it can help somebody out.
So before we go into this, let’s define what a “groovebox” is. Well, I see it as a piece of gear that meets the following criteria:
1) Has no actual keyboard on it. If it does have a keyboard and meets the other criteria, I tend to classify it as a workstation.
2) Has at least a drum machine and synth engine onboard. May or may not have sampling (either line in or upload).
3) Has an onboard sequencer.
And for the purposes of this post, that’s it. I know, I know… there can be many definitions of what actually defines a groovebox and, technically, only the Roland MC 303/307/505/808/909 and D2 are actual grooveboxes. But I’m just going to go with the definition I use. So here we go…
Here are my contenders for best groovebox out of the ones I’ve used extensively:
– Yamaha RS-7000
– Roland MC-909
– Radikal Technologies Spectralis Mk1
– DSI Tempest
Others that are often mentioned that I either haven’t tried or am not well-versed enough with to discuss here:
– Korg EMX-1
– E-mu Command Station
– Roland MC-808
– Ensoniq ASR-X
– Various Elektron gear
1. Tempest – For such a small footprint, the Tempest has a remarkable number of features which are, for the most part, extremely easy to access. The key to this is the 16 pads. There are no fewer than six roles that the pads can play and all it takes is a button press to switch between them. This can be done while the sequencer is running and, more importantly, the buttons are close enough to the pads that you don’t even have to slow down. So, if you’re quick enough, you can finger drum on one set of sounds, switch to a different pattern and continue finger drumming on an entirely different set of sounds without missing a beat. Also, the touch strips are close enough that you can even trigger them with your pinky while you are beating out a pattern, if you so desire. DSI also gets big points from me for having the foresight to include two shift buttons (one in the upper left and one on the right, just under the screen).
Not only is the layout perfectly planned out (IMO) but the pads and knobs feels great. The pads are nice and sensitive and take only a light touch to trigger. The knobs are rubberized and the pots feel very solid. You can feel a satisfying click for each step of the endless rotary encoders and, if you need to cover a lot of ground with them, just turn faster and they can change values in a large chunk with only a small turn. The OLED screen, though somewhat small, is very fluid and easy on the eyes with blue font on a black background. Even the touch strips have lights along the side that react as you move up and down on them.
All in all, the Tempest practically screams “Tweak me!!!” Physically, it’s a rather small unit but it has good deal of weight to it and feels rock solid. Functionally, there is not a single parameter or action that I would consider a PITA to get to. For the longest time I was put off by the price but, once I actually got my hands on it, I could understand why it costs what it does.
2. RS-7000 – There is nothing flashy about the RS at all, despite the excellent functionality of it. It’s a big box (almost exactly the same size as the MC-909, actually) and the color is a sort of dull gray. Some would call it boring, others might call it spartan, maybe even classy. Whatever you call it, there’s no denying that it is easy to work with. The buttons that double as keys are very responsive, though there is no velocity or aftertouch. But for quick muting or tapping out a drum beat, they feel very nice. If my memory serves me, the knobs are slightly rubberized but the endless rotary encoders are plastic. Nice resistance on them and they are firm.
One weak spot is with the assignable velocity pads. Physically, they are not all that responsive. I found I had to practically beat the living shit out of them to get full velocity response so I ended up staying away from them for the most part. Though I should note that my RS was pretty used when I bought so maybe that’s not entirely fair. Anyway, I like the idea of the assignable pads for tapping out a kick-snare pattern, for example.
In keeping with the somewhat clinical look of the RS, the layout is very logical and, with the possible exception of the multi FX parameters, I never really caught it slowing me down once I knew where everything was. Like on the SU-700 sampler, the jobs matrix is really a very fast way of navigating. The master effect controls are out of the way up at the very top, since they’re more of a “set it and forget it” type thing, usually. The screen is a decent size and nice and bright with the option to have it display in negative as well (preferred, imo). The four function keys and multi purpose knobs make the menu diving bits easy enough.
I would say that the way you select and mute parts and can quickly assign scenes is the best thing about the interface on the RS though. Once you know what everything does, you’ll be flying around on it and it really lends itself to adding variation on the fly. I find that it is less than exciting when it comes to altering the onboard sounds (more on that in a different section) but there is a good reason why this thing is still used as a sequencer by so many live acts ~15 years after it came out.
3. MC-909 – The first thing you’ll probably notice is the huge screen and with good reason, as it is integral to almost every part of the 909 experience, if you will. Sure, there are quite a few knobs on the face of it but they will only allow you access to the top level of editing functions. The screen is where it’s at when you get into deep editing. If you do it in the microscope mode, the screen will react to every little tweak you make and this is especially helpful when setting up your envelopes and LFO’s, for example. You can either arrow the cursor over the parameter to you want to change and use the value dial or just use the knobs for the appropriate section and the screen will react either way. One thing to be careful of when you’re editing a four tone patch: make sure that you have only selected the tone that you want to change. It’s quite easy to forget this and accidentally change the filter setting on all four tones, for example.
The screen is also nice to have when it comes to editing your pattern and event data. But where it really shines is when you’re editing samples. Prior to the 909, I had used a few samplers that allowed you to chop samples into drum kits but never one with such a large waveform display. On here you can easily zoom in and get your start and end points right on the zero crossings and even tamper with the amp envelope to do some interesting things in “Emphasis” mode.
The next thing you’ll notice is that this is the first Roland MC box that doesn’t have those black and white plastic “keys” but, instead, light up rubber velocity pads. You do have to hit the pads kind of hard to get full velocity but not nearly as hard as on the RS. And they are not in the same league as the pads on the Tempest but they do ensure that you can easily use the 909 without a midi keyboard if you need to and not have to manually dial in note velocities. And the fact that they do light up ensures that you’ll be able to step sequence in the dark and you’ll know at a glance what notes are active.
The main reason that I put the 909 below the RS in this category is that, to acheive the same level of fluid muting and pattern variation requires a lot more setting up beforehand. Within its “patterns” the RS has a system of “sub-patterns” that you can access by simply pushing the black keys when you’re not in keyboard mode. Well, the 909 can do something similar but it involves setting up RPS sets and pattern sets. This can be frustrating because, for reasons I can’t figure out, Roland didn’t think it would be important for the user to be able to name these different sets. Also, in setting up a pattern set, you have to actually bring up a pattern and make sure that the part you want to assign is active. From there you assign it to a specific key in a set. Once that’s all done, call up the pattern set or RPS set and rock out. It’s kind of hard for me to explain this but just know that it’s not something you can set up live. Even though this is one of the coolest features of the 909, it’s rather tedious.
4. Spectralis – If you do any research on the Spectralis, you will quickly see that its users have a definite love/hate thing with it. In large part, this stems from the interface. Personally, I love it. But love it or hate it, there is no denying that it is unconventional, complex and requires you to adapt yourself to it if you have any intentions of keeping the Spectralis around for any significant amount of time.
The biggest complaint most people have is about the amount of menu diving required and they’re not exaggerating. For the hybrid synth alone, there are 27 page of menus and many pages also have sub-menus. For each analog filter section you have another 8 screens where you set up routings, the cutoff envelope and the filter volume envelope. So you might ask me “How can anyone possibly love this interface?”
Well, the way I look at it, it’s a “point and click” interface in hardware form. See, every knob on the Spectralis is an endless rotary encoder that also doubles as a button you can click. So after spending several months with it, I’ve reached the point where I know which menu each parameter is in (it does take some time) and all I have to do is click the knob for the appropriate section and it jumps me right there. Now for someone just starting out on it? Yes, welcome to Frustration City. But you’ll get past it if you want to. After about six months, I’m flying around on there just as fast as any of my other synths.
Elsewise you have a screen that is bright enough and longer than most, though a lot of people will say that it should be bigger. And it’s hard to blame them with the amount of time you spend looking at it, really. But it’s not bad once you know what all of the abbreviations stand for and know where you’re going. The buttons all have LED’s in them, which is nice for keeping track of which mode you’re in or for doing step sequencing.
It’s hard for me to put the Spectralis last on the list for this section because I love interacting with it. The only reason I can put it last is because I have to admit that, right off the bat, a new user is not going to be zipping around on it. It really is an interface that, if you’re lucky, will grow on you and, if not, there is a good chance that you’ll end up selling your Spectralis.
1. Spectralis – Ok, this is a really tough call and depends on what you value the most. Personally, most of my gear has an onboard sequencer so sequencing external gear is less of a concern for me. With that in mind, the Spectralis has the deepest and most unique sequencer. You have a sequencer track for each of the following: 11 separate drum parts, 1 hybrid synth part and 3 D-synth parts. Beyond that you have “sequencer lines” which can be assigned to trigger various onboard parameters or external gear. But what really makes it unique is that you can set any part/line to run forward, backward or from start to end and back again and you can change it all on the fly. Dig a little deeper and you can set the probability for each step. Basically this means that, whatever you have assigned to happen on any given step can be set to happen or not happen in increments of 12.5%. Also, sequencer tracks/lines all have their own length and time signature settings.
Then you have what they call “trigger groups.” There are 3 such groups and you can assign various parameters to them such as a filter/pitch/amp envelope or even set individual oscillators from the hybrid synth. Then if you set that trigger group to be activated on a certain step, all actions that are routed to it will occur. So with this in mind, there is almost no ceiling on how creative you can get. On the other hand, the sequencer kind of needs a feature like this since you can’t record knob movements in real time!
One place where the Spectralis falls short is in sequencing external gear. You can definitely do it but it is much more confusing and fiddly then on, say, the RS-7000. You add a sequencer line and set it to “Midi.” From there, you have a set of options for what type of message and you’ll want to select “Note.” Then you can either step sequence it or record in real time. All of that is fairly straightforward until you try to edit a sequencer line or want to just play the external synth live while you work out a melody or something. I guess, for me, it’s the idea of “Ok, now where is that sequencer line exactly? How do I get at it to change it?” Another shortcoming? Whether sequencing external gear or internal sounds, there is no overdub recording.
So if you want one machine to master that can take you to places others can not, the Spectralis is a pretty good bet. Factor in that it was designed with the idea in mind that you almost never have to stop the sequencer and you have a formidable piece for live performance.
2. RS-7000 – As for sequencing external gear, the RS is a powerhouse and it’s very hard to argue against it being the king in this area. Having dual midi out ports should tell you right away that this is what it was intended for. And, luckily, Yamaha did a good job on the interface and that is why this one has become a classic rather than being a box we look back on and think of what might have been.
There is a menu screen where you can set each track to trigger the internal tone generator and/or midi out 1 or midi out 2. Furthermore, you can set the midi channel for each of the 16 parts. So, within one pattern, you could set multiple parts to the same midi channel to record a few different sequences for the same instrument and mute/unmute as needed. A neat trick for sequencing a monosynth is that you can unmute a couple of those parts at the same time and get a weird hybrid note sequence as the monosynth struggles to process each incoming note. Unlike the Spectralis, the RS does record knob movements as sequence data. And, like the Spectralis, you can do most tasks without ever stopping the sequencer.
You’ll notice that the RS has white and black buttons in the form of a keyboard and that is how you play notes on it if you’re not using a midi keyboard with it. But in sequencer mode, the white buttons will select or mute/unmute parts. This is pretty normal and pretty much the same as the MC-909 with its part buttons. But what is really interesting here is that the black keys act as a sort of selector for entirely new sets of parts. I like to think of them as “sub-patterns.” So if you record sequences on all 16 parts (the white buttons), you can hit the next black button and you have 16 brand new blank parts that, by default, carry over the settings from the previous set of parts (i.e. the patch assigned if you are using the internal tone generator). So this is a way to easily incorporate some variation into your tracks and, though it sounds like a clusterfuck the way I’ve described it, it is extremely smooth and can all be done in real time, whether playing back or recording.
3. MC-909 – The 909 probably has the most “vanilla” sequencer of the lot. It works equally well for internal sounds and external gear and it is dead easy to use. But the trade off for that is that it has very few tricks up its sleeve and it is not terribly flexible. You have 16 parts and each part can be set to control an internal patch, an external synth or both. One limiting factor here is that parts 1-16 are tied to midi channels 1-16. So say you have a couple of drum machines that both receive on only midi channel 10 (uncommon but not unheard of), you’re out of luck as far as being able to sequence both of them. Conceivably, you could get around this with the right midi router but that kind of defeats the purpose of having a big expensive sequencer at the heart of your setup. You are also limited in that all 16 tracks must be the same length. For a lot of people, this is no problem but it’s the kind of thing that is a dealbreaker for many others.
The big screen definitely works hand in hand with the sequencer to make the experience as simple as possible and that is where the 909 excels. There is a “microscope” view where you can view note events, CC’s, etc. in one big long list. You can also filter so you only see a certain type of event. In that same view, you can easily copy, move, delete or even add a new event such as note number, duration and velocity. Timing a little bit off? Maybe you accidentally tapped in a double note? Very easily fixed in this view. The screen also helps in step sequencing mode because you have an actual piano roll view like you would see in some DAW’s.
One thing to be aware of, especially if you’re depending on this for your live sequencer, is that in realtime recording mode, the 909 will often miss notes played on the first beat. Yep. It will just act like it didn’t hear you and refuse to register the note. To remedy this, you have to either stop recording and go back into realtime record to play it again or go into the microscope edit view to manually place the note. And I should mention here that the sequencer must be stopped for almost any action other than recording notes/cc’s. Ok, you can change patches with it running but that’s about it.
So if your live PA depends on a lot of the fly changes and building up your patterns in realtime, the RS would likely serve you better than the 909. But the 909 does redeem itself in other areas, so don’t cross it off your list just yet, especially if you plan on using it just for studio work.
4. Tempest – Now, the Tempest’s sequencer is frickin awesome. The way DSI has assigned different tasks to the 16 pads and made it so easy to switch between those tasks makes it a shoe-in to win this little competition, right??? Well… no. And the biggest reason is that you can only use one of the 32 parts (aka: sounds or tracks) per beat (aka: pattern) to sequence external gear and sequencing can not be done polyphonically. Add to that the fact that the sequencer doesn’t record knob movements and it becomes quite clear that the Tempest is not going to be the nerve center of your studio or your live set. The good news? The OS is still being developed by DSI and they’ve made major improvements as recently as January 2015. So ask me in another year and the Tempest could very well be at the top of my list.
But if you’re strictly talking about using the sequencer with the Tempest’s onboard sounds, this box is the quickest way to get your ideas down and it allows for the most variation on the fly. The two touchstrips can each be assigned two different sets of parameters (you switch between them with the shift key and “play” button) and, better yet, touchstrip data is recorded in your sequence! Also, the reverse and roll functions when in “16 Beats” mode will reverse and roll the entire pattern. And, like the Spectralis, the Tempest does allow for different track lengths and different time signatures and you almost never have to stop the sequencer. Switch between pad modes, edit your sounds and switch to the external track all without stopping. Believe me, this sequencer is by far the most well thought out and implemented when it comes to features versus ease of use. The only reason the Tempest is at the bottom of this list is because of the limitations I mentioned above. I really hope they implement more than one external midi track in a future update and I can overlook the fact that knob movements aren’t recorded because, really, just about any parameter can be mapped to the touchstrips.
So you can see that this one is a bit of a work in progress yet. But I can tell you right now that if you don’t care about external gear and want a sequencer that begs you to abuse it in a live situation, do yourself a favor and grab a Tempest.
1. Spectralis – Hands down, the Spectralis wins in the sound quality category. Of course there is the hybrid synth and its dual analog filters but it goes further than that. Even the samples you put into it end up coming out warmer, fuller somehow even without running them through the analog filters. And that’s the big payoff for sticking it out and learning the labrynthine menu system. If somebody sells their Spectralis, it’s almost never because they were unhappy with the way it sounds and almost always the interface you have to navigate to get there.
2. Tempest – With the Tempest, you get pretty much what you would expect from a DSI product: superior analog sound with those tasty Curtis filters. Don’t listen to those who would say you can’t get those big, punchy TR style drums, because you really can. But it’s all the other stuff you can do that makes it so great. Any wacked out percussion sound you can dream up can be had with the Tempest. Between the four oscillators (two analog, two sample based), five envelopes and two LFO’s you can make a stunning range of sounds. Switch to ADSR envelope mode and you can come up with huge pads with lots of movement. Really, anything you want. It’s all there and it’s all analog (well, aside from the two sample based osc’s of course).
3. MC-909 – Ok, it’s a rompler. But it’s a very, very capable rompler. What I love about it is that you can use four waveforms per patch and, in that respect, I always compare it to my JP-8000 in performance mode. The difference is that with the 909, each of those four tones has two LFO’s with continuously variable waveshapes, independent filter, independent envelopes for filter, amp and pitch and even independent velocity and aftertouch settings. So if you want to dig really deep with your sound design, you can. And you can always import whatever new waveforms you want. As for the character of it, I’d say the 909 has a very clean tone, almost crystalline. So with all the editability, just think of the evolving pad sounds you can make. I’ve gotten lost for hours at a time just tweaking a single patch. It lacks a certain warmth, however, and that is why it is third on this list.
4. RS-7000 – Now, I’ve put the RS last in this category and that’s not to say that it sounds bad. It’s just kind of limited in that it’s only one sampled waveform per patch and editing is kind of basic. As for the character, it’s warmer and grittier than the 909 but also kind of muddy. I always liked the drums and the bass sounds I could get out of it but didn’t find it very useful for much else.
1. MC-909 – Upgrades for the 909 include expanding the RAM from 16mb up to 256mb and it can handle Smartmedia cards up to 128mb (256mb with an SM -> XD converter). It also has a slot for one ROM card from Roland’s SRX series. No in/out expansion but it already comes with individual outs and digital in/out, standard.
2. RS-7000 – The RS can be upgraded from 4mb of RAM to 68mb and it can handle Smartmedia cards up to 128mb. The ROM is not expandable but there is an expansion card for individual outputs, digital in/out and 48khz sampling.
3. Spectralis – At significant cost, a Spectralis Mk1 can be upgraded with the 2gb internal storage of the Spectralis 2. Also, the Mk1 has two slots that accept Smartmedia cards up to 128mb and the Spectralis 2 has one SD card slot (not sure what the max memory is on it).
4. Tempest – The Tempest does not offer any type of expansion other than sysex dumps for new patches, beats and projects. But it should be noted that, with the 1.4 OS update, DSI also released an entirely new soundset free of charge, adding over 900 new sounds.
1. MC-909 – The 909 is discontinued so you will only find them on the used market. In perfect working order (make sure the pads all work and it has the max 256mb of RAM) you should pay around $400-$450. The SRX expansion boards will run you from about $100-$200, depending which one you’re after, with “Dynamic Drums” being on the lower end and the orchestral and strings cards being more expensive and the others falling somewhere in between.
2. RS-7000 – The RS (also discontinued) is in about the same price range as the 909 with a fully working one with maxed RAM being about $400-$500. Where you’ll really pay through the nose is if you want the output expansion board (AEIB2) which commonly sells for $300-$400 itself. Since the RS is a mainstay in many artists’ live sets even today, it’s pretty common for them to be a little dinged up. If that’s the case (but everything still works), maybe drop the price range by $100 or so.
3. Tempest – The Tempest is still in production and the retail price is $1999 but you can find new ones from time to time as low as, say, $1700. If you don’t mind buying a used one you can probably expect to pay anywhere from $1200-$1400.
4. Spectralis – The Spectralis 2 is still in production and retails for $2500. They don’t pop up on the used market very often but, when they do, expect to pay about $1600-$1800. The Spectralis Mk1 is out of production and the used price varies from about $1000-$1300.
1. Spectralis – If I had to choose the proverbial “desert island synth,” it would be the Spectralis because of the superior sound quality and the sheer depth of the thing. I mean, sure there’s the hybrid synth, but what other groovebox allows you to use Soundfonts and has a filterbank? None that I know of. There’s just so damn much potential in this sturdy blue box that I’m inspired everytime I sit down with it. One thing though, I would definitely have to sneak some kind of midi controller onto that desert island because the buttons on here are horrible for playing it!
2. Tempest – I don’t know how they did it but DSI managed to find the perfect balance between drum machine and synthesizer. Analog technology with an eye to the future. The sound quality is there, the depth of programming is there and the interface is definitely there. The only thing that puts this one behind the Spectralis for me is the lack of user sample upload. On the one hand, it’s entirely possible that they could have ruined a great machine by adding a complex system of user samples. But on the other hand, just think what this synthesis engine could do with a few hundreds single cycle waveforms alongside the analog oscillators. Even still, a total classic. There is too much that is right about this machine to bother bitching about sample upload.
3. MC-909 – If I was looking at strictly versatility, I would probably pick the 909 as my favorite. But the sequencer shortcomings kind of rain on this parade. But other than that, the only reason this one slides to third place for me is the sound quality. As I said above, it’s great and it’s a very deep engine but look at the competition. When you put it up against the Spectralis and the Tempest… well, it’s number 3. But it has to be said, you can do some pretty great things with samples on here. After all, the Variphrase tech used in the V-synth is also present here. And if I’m being honest, I can’t ever see myself selling my 909. As good as the Spectralis and Tempest are, they really benefit from having such a capable sampler after them in the chain.
4. RS-7000 – Being someone who doesn’t perform live and is more into sound design than arrangement, the RS drops down on the list for me. It’s a fucking awesome machine, for sure. I just like things to be a little more complex. With each of the other three machines in this list, I’ve caught myself tweaking sounds for hours but I just never got to that point with the RS. Besides that, the sampling engine is a little convoluted and will not allow you to resample itself unless it’s a sequenced phrase. Part of what drags me into the 909 is that I can hit sample and do some live pad drumming and sample it. Can’t do that on the RS.