Wednesday, July 10

Gear Talk #2. Method One / Roland MKS-50

When it comes to picking a piece of gear for this feature, the obvious choice would be my Roland Juno 106. Which is exactly why I'm not going to talk about it - most everyone into synthesis already knows what a Juno 106 is about, and I would rather pick something a little more esoteric and affordable. Enter the MKS-50, one of the final analog synths to leave the Roland factories back in the mid Eighties.

The MKS-50 is the rackmount version of the Alpha Juno series, a 6 voice polyphonic synth with MIDI and a really warm, smooth sound. It's not nearly as raw as some earlier analog synths (or even it's Juno older brothers), but is immensely useable for a wide range of styles. Want creamy, rich pads? No problem. Want filtered-out percussive sounds? Easy, and they even respond to velocity and aftertouch. Care for something more aggressive? Well, let's put it this way…this is the synth the original Hoover/Mentasm sound was created on, and anyone who owns any early Reinforced Records wax knows how that turned out.

My MKS-50 came out of a Richmond, Virginia pawnshop in 1995 for (if I remember correctly) $125. It's gotten pretty much continual use since then, appearing in everything from the early Atlantiq atmospheric drum & bass tracks to the most recent Method One Auxiliary releases. It's a little noisy, but often is a great choice for adding warmth and character to a track and sits nicely in almost any mix. It's also a pleasure to program via a computer editor, or—if you can find one—the PG-300 controller box.

One of the knocks against the Alpha Juno/MKS series is their lack of knobs and sliders for quick sound modification. Like almost every synth manufacturer in the 1980's, Roland was moving to a more streamlined look and feel with less emphasis on real-time sound editing. But for those who need more programming functionality, the PG-300 adds sliders for every parameter. They are a bit rare these days (and often cost as much as the synth itself), but very useful.

Speaking of costs, one of the best things about the MKS-50 is its status as one of the last truly affordable Roland analog synths. In an age where TB-303s are hitting $2,000 and even the Juno 106 is creeping toward the $1,000 mark, with a little work you can find a MKS-50 (or the Alpha Juno 1/Juno 2 keyboard versions) for around $300. You won't be disappointed.

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