When Sonic Youth, Beck & More Made an Album Honoring a Groovebox

Kim Gordon (2009). Photo by: Mark Von Holden / Stringer, Getty Images.
Beck (2017). Photo by: Theo Wargo / Staff, Getty Images.

Throughout the late '90s and early 2000s, the demand for versatile, self-contained hardware workstations for music production was at an all-time high. Akai's MPC2000 and MPC2000XL had become the go-to samplers/drum machines for both novice and professional hip-hop producers. Major brands like Yamaha and Korg were releasing samplers and synth/workstation hybrids armed with powerful sound engines and sequencers.

Roland MC-505

Roland, a company who had held its own as a cutting-edge instrument developer for decades, would not be left out. With the MC-505, Roland set about the task of combining classic Roland instruments like the TR-808 and 909 drum machines as well as the TB-303, Juno, and Jupiter synths into a single, standalone workstation. Released in 1998, the Roland MC-505 Groovebox was a notable improvement on the power and functionality of its predecessor (the MC-303) released two years earlier.

Along with its 512 internal sounds, 26 drum kits, and three independent effects processors, the 505 also boasted 64-voice polyphony, full MIDI capability, onboard synth sounds + drums and an expanded effects engine. Vintage Synth Explorer's glowing review describes the 505 as "an all-in-one music machine that's great for DJs or anybody else who wants to create slamming dance tracks. Designed as a standalone machine, they do not work quite as well when incorporated into a multi-synth keyboard rig. It's perfect for beginners and advanced users, but offers the most possibility to those who will use it exclusively. By the way, in comparison to the MC-303, this is far better, especially in the quality and quantity of sounds."

Although there was a great deal of excitement in the market surrounding the release of the MC-505, some users found the machine limiting. For starters, the unit lacked the onboard sampling capabilities of contemporary workstations like the Akai MPC or Korg's revolutionary Trinity and Triton keyboards. In an era ruled by all-in-one workstations, the 505's inability to sample made it a less-than-ideal tool for producing sample-based music genres like hip-hop, trip-hop and drum n' bass.

With Roland's developers leaning heavily on the machine's preset sounds and patterns, a 2000 review from dancetech.com lamented the 505's limited user-memory:

"While the 505 'can' hold up to 200 User patterns, 256 User patches, and 20 User drum kits, the reality is the more complex patterns, patches, and drum kits take up the small memory of the 505 very fast. Realistically, expect to be able to have 256 User patches and 20 User drum kits (because the memory for them is already allocated), and around a hundred User patterns, eight measures long that have around 6 parts each (each pattern can have up to 7 parts plus the rhythm section). 714 preset patterns 512 preset sounds, 26 preset drum kits - while on the surface this sounds groovy (pun intended), the reality is I would much rather have had more user memory. Give me the option to overwrite the presets, for instance."

Despite its limitations, the MC-505 Groovebox is still a powerful music-making tool. There is probably no better evidence of the machine's broad capabilities than the 2000 compilation At Home with the Groovebox. Released by Beastie Boys' now-mythic Grand Royal Records, At Home with the Groovebox is a compilation with a novel premise, created under some quasi-mysterious circumstances.

Beck - "Boyz"

According to the album's liner notes, Bill Mooney of design company Tannis Root "initiated" the project and "partnered with Grand Royal to maximize the potential and expand the scope of the project. Tannis Root and Grand Royal assembled a wish list of artists from around the globe, including early pioneers of synthesized electronic music." Each artist was allowed to keep the 505 sent to them.

At Home with the Groovebox finds a who's who of '90s indie rockers and veteran synth musicians creating original tracks with nothing more than the 505, some external effects, and the human voice. Featuring tracks from Sonic Youth, Pavement, Beck, Sean Lennon, John McEntire (Tortoise), Air, Money Mark, Bis, and Buffalo Daughter, as well as Moog pioneers Jean-Jacques Perrey, Dick Hyman, and Gershon Kingsley, the album is a wildly eclectic showcase of creative musicians pushing against the limitations of a single piece of gear.

An MTV News article published around the album's release gets some insight from one of the artists. Air's Nicolas Godin said, "The Groovebox is a little toy, so we wanted to do something not serious with it. … But I think the song is quite good. It was not a problem for us; we knew that we [could] make that [kind of a] toy song. We like to have fun with instruments."

In that same article, Mooney explains a bit more about his intention for the record: "We had a letter which explained that we wanted the artists to approach the Groovebox with an experimental mindset." The 505 in particular, Mooney said, "interested me because it had a lot of collectible equipment on it, like the 303 bass machine and the 808 and 909 drum machines that are early hip-hop staples, [and] that sold for a lot more separately."

Opening with Perrey's "The Groovey Leprechauns," a bizarre midtempo pop-funk jam, At Home with the Groovebox gets off to a quirky start. Japanese experimental rock trio Buffalo Daughter come in out of left-field with "303 + 606 = Acid", a driving, minimal track that is the spiritual descendent of the sound laid down by great Chicago house and acid house pioneers like Larry Heard and DJ Pierre. John McEntire's "J I H A D" is built around a rolling 6/8 groove, synth-bass, and rich synth chords. AIR's "Planet Vega" is one of the album's clear standouts. The tune's slinky, half-time groove is augmented with beautiful chords and an ethereal lead melody.

Sonic Youth - "Campfire"

Pavement's "Robin Turned 26" is the least electronic-sounding piece on the entire album. With its looped, textured drum break, the tune appears to utilize a sample, but it's possible that it is a stock sound with added effects processing. The Money Mark tune "Insects Are All Around Us" positions a dubby bassline and funky clavinet riff at the center of its thick, mid-tempo groove.

No stranger to crafting weird electronic beats, Beck turns in "Boyz", a minimal, 909-heavy electro-pop jam that could've rocked NYC nightclubs like Danceteria in the '80s. As the song's beat pounds away and an assortment of incidental sounds fly in and out of the mix, Beck intones flatly "Boyz… pressing million dollar buttons. Boyz… turning jams up to 11…" through a trippy vocoder effect.

With a handful of diverse tracks on the album's second half from Cibo Matto, Sonic Youth, Sean Lennon (whose gorgeous, oddball track "Winged Elephant" is another standout) and Gershon Kingsley performing a groovy version of his 1969 instrumental hit "Popcorn," At Home with the Groovebox is ultimately an intriguing listen. Some of the tracks are a bit dated, relying heavily on late-'90s/2000s production and sound design techniques, but if the album was intended as an experiment to highlight the versatility of the Roland MC-505 and the musicians wielding it, the compilation more than succeeds in that ambition.

As an instrument for music-making, Roland and companies such as Elektron and Novation have continued expanding on the groovebox concept. In the two-decades-plus since Roland released the MC-505, all-in-one, software-based digital audio workstations have come to dominate the studios of both novice and professional music-makers. Despite these significant changes in the market, the MC-505 and its predecessor the MC-303 continue to find homes in many producer's studio setups. The continuing popularity and utility of the MC-505 is evidenced by the number of current musicians on YouTube found singing the 505's praises and Roland's expansion of its hardware groovebox line in 2019 with the MC-101 and MC-707 Grooveboxes.

With At Home with the Groovebox, we get a glimpse into how this forward-looking instrument sounds in the hands of some of the era's most creative musical minds.

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