Vocals and the Roland MC-101

A lot and probably enough has been written about the amazing features of Roland’s MC-101 groovebox. This box has so much to offer – except for proper input connections. In this article I write about different options on how to use the groovebox in combination with vocals for a live performance.

Essentially I want something like the Roland MV-1 with better “portability” or a Roland SP-404 MKII with multiple tracks and a ZEN-Core sound engine.

The only way the MC-101 accepts input is via its type B USB port that connects to a USB *host* device. This effectively means that you cannot easily get vocals into the device.

Side note for the younger folks among us: This is a connector invented in 1996 and was given a second life in 2001 with the advent of USB 2.0. But it has been deprecated since 2017 (some 5 years before writing this article and a good two years before the MC-101 hit the markets).

So once we manage to connect the MC-101 (probably with the help of a USB-C adapter) to our phone or tablet, we can then start sampling sounds into the MC-101. I leave the option to connect to a computer aside as I am focusing on a very mobile setup here. Instead of just using a looper track with limited recording time we can export that looper track to a WAV file and then assign it to a pad on a drum track, which gives a 16 different (vocal) samples per clip.

So besides the problem that we cannot use input effects (like reverb or chorus) while getting audio into the MC-101, we face the problem that we cannot route audio from one external device to another. Though we can attach a microphone to the phone or tablet while connecting to the groovebox at the same time, it seems that audio routing in Android or iPhone/iPad is not a use case for the masses. There is at least one app for the iPhone/iPad called AUM that claims to support audio routing of different devices. However, in my tests though the devices showed up in the app, I could not get it to work on my iPad. And I could not find a single app that would allow me to do this on Android.

So what are our options now?

Basically I want to achive the following:

  1. Perform live with the MC-101 while being able to have live vocals along with that performance.
  2. Ideally, the vocals should be beefed up with effects like reverb or chorus.
  3. I want to record vocals into the MC-101 (as samples) for later playback during the live performance.
  4. The whole setup must be as light and portable as possible.
  5. Everything must be battery or USB powered.
  6. I want to use as few devices and cables as possible.
  7. I expect an Android phone or tablet as a device that I will have with me anyway.
  8. I do not want to rely on other hardware devices that I do not carry with me.

After the initial findings that out-of-the-box support with Android (or even iPad) did not seem to exist, I looked for alternatives which I found in these devices:

  1. Use a Raspberry Pi 3 B with PieJam (or similar software)
  2. Use a Roland GO:Mixer Pro-X
  3. Use a Boss RC-202
  4. Use a Boss VE-5
  5. Tascam DP-008EX

Raspberry Pi 3 B

In this setup we connect a USB microphone such as the Audio Technica ATR2100x USB to one of the USB ports of the Raspberry. The MC-101 will also be connected to one of the USB ports of the Pi. Routing could be done with PieJam. However, we then needed the Raspberry 7″ TFT touch screen as well. PieJam provides basic acoustic effects like reverb. As an alternative, routing via pavucontrol should be possible (not tested), but then we would lose the audio effects.

Rapsberry Pi 3 B+, https://www.raspberrypi.com/

With this we can directly record into the MC-101. For getting the mix out of the Raspberry we can use a simple USB audio adapter like this one, and use the 3.5mm / 1/8″ TRS output port:

Hama USB-A audio adapter, http://digitec.ch
Hama USB Audio Adapter, http://digitec.ch

As an alternative could be to use one of the boards from HiFiBerry in case we want an RCA output or similar.

It would also be possible to use the stereo out of the MC-101 itself to send the combined audio to speakers. We would then not need the additional USB audio adapter.

The Raspberry itself weighs under 50g and even with the case would be one of lightest options here . Power consumption around 400mA (at 5V) without attached USB devices is relatively high when compared to the other options.

Roland GO:Mixer Pro-X

Originally intended for these happy people of SCHÖNER WOHNEN doing podcast-style jam sessions at the coffee table dancing their name on TikTok, this device may actually have some use.

Jamming with the GO:Mixer Pro-X, http://youtu.be/1wBXT-DdR8Q

It features -amongst others- an XLR input to which we can connect our microphone and a 3.5mm TRS input from which we can get the sound of the MC-101. The mix can then be sent out via its 3.5mm TRS stereo out.

The GO:Mixer Pro-X however does not support vocal effects, so no reverb. Recording into the MC-101 would go via the phone or tablet by recording to a WAV file on the mobile device first, and the playing it into the looper track or directly importing it onto a pad. From there we can use all the effects that the MC-101 offers.

A plus with this device is, we can use the phone to create a recording of the whole performance and have the option of a separate fader (or knob) for adjusting the final mix.

With only 220g this setup is quite light. And the power draw of 170mA is pretty small as well.

To get reverb into the signal chain we could use an effect pedal like the TC Helicon VOICETONE R1. However, with a weight of 420g and additional cables needed, this make the whole setup much clumsier. This “weight problem” is due to the fact that pedal are supposed to be sturdy. I was already wondering, if we could replace the metal parts with plastic made form a 3D printer. But that is another story.

Side note 1 (not tested): the pre-previous version, the GO:Mixer is even lighter and uses less power. It is not manufactured anymore, but it can still be purchases on platforms like eBay. It lacks an XLR input for microphones, but provides a 1/4″ (6.35mm) input instead. If this was a working setup and we skip the “reverb” requirement, so might be the even better option than the Pro-X.

Side note 2 (not tested either): There seem to be other devices like Maker Hart JustCombo that appear to do the same as the GO:Mixer. Exact specs, however, are difficult to find or differ from source to source.

Boss RC-202

The little sister of the RC-505 gives us everything we want – and more, which is the weight. With 950g we get a 2 track mixer that can be powered via an adapter cable from a USB power bank. It has all the effects like reverb and chorus, plus the additional benefit of being a real looper with 99 layers. The rated power consumption of 440mA @ 9V is relatively high, but a regular power bank should get you through the gig.

Boss RC-202, http://boss.info

Inputs and outputs are proper 1/4″ (6.35mm) sockets which have the downside of asking for bigger and such heavier cables as well.

Boss VE-5

Another device that does not seem to be sold anymore. There are however a few used models to buy. Though not tested by me, the specs seem promising. It features an XLR input and a 3.5mm TRS auxiliary input and a 3.5mm phones/line output. And it has effects like reverb.

A current draw 190mA @ 9V is more at the upper end of the compared devices.

Boss VE-5, http://boss.info

Recording into the MC-101 for sampling would be done via the phone as with most of the other options.

Tascam DP-008EX

I saw this device first here where someone with a similar use case described his approach to the problem. This mixer is also a built-in recorder and features all the necessary inputs and outputs and effect. However, it is quite bulky and is at a 610g quite heavy as well. Power consumption is rated at 2.5W and thus in the upper spectrum of our devices.

Tascam DP-008EX, http://www.tascam.eu/

Recording into the MC-101 would be done via the two-step approach via the phone or tablet.

Summary

It is surpisingly hard to find a way to use the MC-101 with vocals in a live performance envionment. So the folks at Roland did an impressive job to keep us interested in their other (more expensive and heavier) gear – or stuff from other companies.

So what will I choose for my final setup? Difficult to say. But in my opinion I will either go for the Raspberry or the GO:Mixer (Pro-X) if we skip the reverb requirement. The latter has the advantage of best connectivity and low power. And especially with the GO:Mixer (instead of the GO:Mixer Pro-X) it is comparably as light as the Raspberry.

Or … I skip the MC-101 altogether and look for a single device that “does it all” (and possibly change some of my requirements) …

Hope this was helpful to you. What would you do?

Published by Ronald Rink

I am a senior auditor and consultant at d-fens for business processes and information systems.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: