SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.13 No.3. January 1998
Review by Chris Carter
BOSS SP202 DR. SAMPLE
CARRY ON DOCTOR
First let me ask you a question, hands up anyone who can tell me the criteria for deciding whether a product is released under the Roland or a Boss moniker, both are made at the same factory, probably designed by the same R & D team and both produced for musicians. Maybe Roland products are perceived as more pro while Boss are more hip? Answers on a £50 note please.
The Boss 'doctor' range started way back in 1980 with the original Dr. Rhythm, the funky DR55 (sadly, my own is long deceased and gone to silicon heaven) and the Dr. Sample isn't the first portable sampler from Boss either. The DSD2 Sampler, produced in 1986, was a 12 bit, single sample, foot pedal and could drain a PP3 battery in about 15 minutes, believe me I used to have one. Well things have improved a lot since then, this new Boss sampler will happily run on six AA sized Duracells for up to 8 hours continuous use.
TRUST ME, I'M A DOCTOR
Before I get I get down to the nitty gritty let just me give you a quick run down of the vitals. The Dr. Sample is a four voice, 16 bit stereo sampler, with a BPM calculator, a 3 digit LED display, built-in effects, a built-in microphone, stereo audio line in & line out and MIDI. It's advertised primarily as a portable DJ looping sampler and with this in mind Boss have not only made it quick and easy to sample and loop but they have also endowed it with options for mains or battery power and given it the capacity to retain samples even without main batteries installed or external power. Very useful indeed, particularly if your batteries have run flat and you can't get replacements in a hurry. On the rear panel, connections to and from the outside world are via four phono sockets, a MIDI in socket a power input socket (9v) and an on/off switch. While the front has a stereo mini-jack headphone socket, a standard mono 1/4" jack socket for an external microphone, a mic/line selector, a Source Mix on/off switch and small slot for a Smart Media memory card (see box).
ALL THE STYLE OF... A TRICORDER ?
If first impressions are anything to go by then the Dr. Sample can't fail to catch your eye and even more so once you switch it on, all black with oversize orange lettering and crammed full of buttons, flashing LEDs and 30 rubberised buttons and pads, with 18 that glow bright red when pressed, the word graphic springs to mind.
Also, I'm not the first person to point out that the Dr. Sample bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr. McCoy's Medical Tricorder in Star Trek (Classic series of course, not Next Gen), maybe the Boss design team are Trekkies?
Even though it's slightly larger than a house brick the Dr, Sample weighs only 850 g (with batteries) and at a push could be described as hand held, if you have big hands that is. The main control surface is what you might call busy, but even so everything is logically laid out with all the controls clearly labelled and because of the contrasting colour scheme you shouldn't have any trouble using it on a dim stage, and as you would expect from Boss the build quality is well up to the usual standard.
WHAT'S UP DOC ?
Up to 16 mono or 8 stereo samples can be recorded into the two the internal banks and samples can be recorded at four sampling frequencies: Hi-Fi (31.25 kHz), Standard (15.63 kHz), Lo-Fi 1 (7.81 kHz) and Lo-Fi 2 (3.91 kHz), with the maximum sample time in mono using Hi-Fi mode at 32 seconds and jumping to an amazing (but distinctly grungy sounding) 4 minutes 27 seconds in Lo-Fi 2 mode. This is quite impressive because by my reckoning the internal memory is only about 500k, which means there must be some serious data compression going on inside this unit. Also, sampling times and the number of samples available can be increased dramatically by plugging in a Smart Media card (see box) into the memory slot on the front.
IT'S A SAMPLER, JIM... BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
Starting at the bottom and working our way up (oooh Doctor you are awful!) we find eight reasonably sized sample pads which are used for recording and playing back samples, unfortunately they're not velocity sensitive. As I mentioned earlier these pads glow bright red when hit and stay lit for as long as the sample is playing, which makes it very easy to see what's going on, even from across a studio. Next to the sample pads is a HOLD pad for temporarily sustaining samples that haven't been programmed to loop indefinitely and a SOURCE pad which directs any signal connected to either the line or mic inputs through the effects section.
Above these pads are a row of smaller buttons for recording, deleting and setting the start and end points of a sample, plus a CANCEL button and a REMAIN button for checking how much sample time is available. Two bank select buttons, A/B and C/D let you choose which pads are active from two internal sample banks or, if a memory card is inserted, two external banks. Directly above these are another row of even smaller EDIT buttons and LEDs (see below).
A LITTLE CUT HERE, A LITTLE CUT THERE
The sample editing options are minimalist, to the extreme. They just about do the job but only by a cats whisker. There are options for forward or reverse, looping or one shot, gate or trigger and sample start and end points. That's yer lot! No sound shaping, no pitch, no velocity and no sample level. The start and end points are set with a single button labelled MARK (nice boy, a bit dim) and any trimming is done entirely by ear and finger co-ordination, no displays or digits, so don't try this if you've been partying all night! It involves pushing MARK once where you want the sample (looping or not) to begin and then tapping it again where you want the sample to end, that's it! I know this sounds pretty fast and intuitive but it isn't really. If you are trying to edit a short loop it's almost impossible to get decent results and I found it quicker to sample the loop again from scratch. Motto... Get it right in the sampling stage. To make the most of the available memory you can delete any unwanted portions of the edited sample by pressing DELETE.
While we are on the subject of sampling another option available is the SOURCE MIX on/off switch on the front of the unit. This allows you to feed the audio input signal (mic or line) straight through to the Dr. Sample line outputs and is handy if you need to monitor the input source before sampling, otherwise you will only hear the input signal if you go into record mode or if you press the SOURCE button next to the sample pads.
TAP TAP TAP
The BPM/TAP section may appear basic with only a 3 digit display, an up/down button and a large TAP pad but it does perform a couple of nifty tricks, even if it isn't always entirely successful. The TAP function works as well as any other BPM calculator, just tap in a regular beat and it displays what it thinks the BPM is, and quickly too. Sometimes though it's almost too quick because unless you are spot on with your timing the BPM figures constantly shift up and down while you're tapping, which can be pretty distracting.
If you set a BPM figure before you sample a phrase or loop, (with the BPM up/down button or by using the TAP function), the Dr. Sample will try and assist you by quantising the record stop point to the nearest BPM beat figure. This sounds fine in practice but you still have to be fairly accurate with your own timing otherwise the Dr. Sample will move the BPM amount a couple of digits higher or lower than you expected it to be. If you are having trouble getting a loop to playback at the correct BPM you can, as an alternative, use the PITCH or TIME effects button (or both) to move the BPM (which is always displayed for the most recent sample selected) to a new figure. This works surprisingly well but has a major drawback of robbing any other samples of any effects they may have been using.
I must admit at being surprised to find an effects section in a budget sampler but before you get too excited let me warn you that this is a bit of a mixed bag, not to mention a downright misnomer in one case. What we have here are six buttons labelled: PITCH, TIME, DELAY, FILTER 1, FILTER 2 and RING MOD, plus a knob that doubles as an audio input level adjustment and an effect value controller. Unfortunately there are a few, very frustrating, problems with this section. One is that with the exception of the PITCH effect only one sample can use an effect at any one time. This means that if two or more samples are programmed to use an effect and a sample is already playing (using an effect) then the newest selected sample stops playback of the other sample, resulting in some unexpected hiccups, if you're not prepared. Other problems are that the TIME and DELAY effects won't work with stereo samples. Also, once an effect is selected voice polyphony is reduced by one for Standard and Lo-Fi grade samples and by two for Hi-Fi grade samples. However it's not all bad, as a nice feature is that each sample pad remembers any effect and corresponding controller amount assigned to it. Another feature sure to find a lot of friends is the option of feeding external sounds (in stereo or mono and including the built-in mini microphone), though the filters and ring modulator section of the effects bank, which does offer some exciting possibilities.
PITCH, which is also referred to as the tempo change control, is the only effect that can be used in conjunction with all the other effects. To my mind this isn't really an effect at all but a function and certainly shouldn't rob you of samples when in use. What it does here is change the pitch globally (and hence the tempo) from -20% to +10% for any and all samples that are playing, by the same amount. Usefully, when the PITCH button is active the the BPM display changes to show the new pitch changed BPM.
TIME is for time stretching in real-time over a range of -50% to +25%, relative to the original BPM. And it works too, although it gets very flammy past -20%, but for fine tuning BPMs without altering the pitch it works OK. It's a criminal shame that it won't work stereo samples though!
DELAY adds a single slap back delay, at the same audio level, to a selected sample. The delay time is adjustable in 13 quantised steps (relative to the original BPM) from 64th note through to whole note using the controller knob. This also works well enough for what it does but a proper set of DDL parameters would have been preferable.
FILTER 1 and 2 are basic but usable low pass filters, possibly 12 dB types by the sound of them, with the controller knob used to sweep the cut-off frequency (though it sounds distinctly stepped). The only difference between the filters is that FILTER 2 has more resonance than 1. Both sound a bit bland unless the sample has a high harmonic content or, funnily enough, if the sample was recorded using Standard or Lo-Fi grade, in which case they emphasise the digital grittiness of the sample. Some sort of triggered envelope control would have been nice, as it is you have to let your fingers do the walking.
RING MOD is the truly redeeming effect and makes up for the shortcomings in the effects section. Although it does sound a touch digital it's great fun to use and really does mangle a sample as a ring modulator should. Also, because you can feed external sounds through it you can use the Dr. Sample as a stand alone ring modulator, or basic VCF. Ideal for those 'Dalek on heat' impersonations , splendid stuff!
SAMPLING - THE FINAL FRONTIER
OK, so that's the tour of the front panel complete - so how easy is it to sample ? The answer is "very". If you stick to the default sample settings of mono, Hi-Fi grade, loop on and no BPM set, the actual process of sampling is quick and easy. Select an input from the small recessed switch on the front (microphone or line), adjust the input level until the PEAK LED just flickers slightly and hit the REC button, which starts flashing. Now comes the smart bit, because the Dr. Sample automatically chooses an empty sample pad and sets that flashing, to let you know which one it's going to be, so no worries about overwriting an existing sample (assuming all your pads aren't full). Hit the REC button a second time, preferably on the beat and it glows steadily and sampling commences. Hit the REC button once more, again on the beat and sampling stops and the BPM display instantly shows the calculated BPM of the sample loop. Like I said, quick and easy! When in record standby (REC flashing) you can press CANCEL at any time to drop out of sampling mode and if you're unhappy with a loop you can either press the DELETE button to erase a sample or use some of the editing features to change it.
READY STEADY GO!
I timed how long it took to sample from a cold start using the built-in mic at the default record settings. From switch on, through the initialisation routine where the LEDs do a little dance, to pressing the REC button and screaming down the mic took just 5 seconds, pretty fast by any standards. Used this way the Dr. sample makes a great sampling note pad for quickly jotting down vocal melodies, phrases, riffs or even spoken instructions. If you set the sampling grade to Lo-Fi 2 you could babble on for more than four minutes (or 35 minutes with a memory card). All this and on battery power too, great for anyone on the road. The external microphone input also works well with guitar, and if the level is pushed to distortion and the filters or ring modulator are active the Dr. Sample produces a very strange sounding digital overload, almost a seventh effect.
Of course you don't have to record just loops from vinyl and CD with the Dr. Sample, there's no reason why you can't record keyboards, pads, effects, percussion or vocals. You can also use the built-in microphone, which sounds surprisingly good, although it does pick up the sound of tapping the REC button when you begin sampling, which puts a thump at beginning of each sample recorded through it. Much better results are achieved by using an external mic plugged into the front mounted socket via an XLR to 1/4 jack adapter.
Samples and loops recorded at Hi-Fi grade (31.25 kHz) can't really be faulted, sounds are full bodied and full ranging with an impressive bottom end that could give some full priced samplers a run for their money. And there are no obvious artefacts from the data compression that must be going on to get such long sampling times into such a small amount of memory. Bright or toppy samples recorded at the Standard grade take on a noticeable digital, gritty edge and loose some bass definition but dull or softer sounds usually emerge OK, while the two Lo-Fi settings are best kept for special effects or sounds that you hate.
LOOPS, NOT TUNES
Sadly the Dr. Sample MIDI specification is just the bare bones and although the rather contradictory MIDI specification sheet says otherwise, it doesn't respond to MIDI velocity. Nor does it respond to volume, pitch bend or modulation and although it does respond to MIDI note numbers 35-67 there is no way to play individual samples chromatically across a MIDI keyboard. All the samples are fixed at the pitch they were recorded and are assigned to two pre-set MIDI maps, one being a Roland GS map for some reason. The main (and only) MIDI channel can be changed from 1-16 and the sample pads glow red when any relevant MIDI notes are received, which is a nice touch but that's about it as far as MIDI goes. Because of these limitations you don't really gain much by playing the Dr. Sample over MIDI , unless you use it hooked up to a sequencer, and personally it just seemed more natural to play it using the sample pads while twiddling with the effects knob.
CULT CLASSIC ?
When I first heard about the Dr. Sample I wasn't quite sure what to expect, because although on paper the features look interesting I wasn't convinced that a sampler in this price range could sound any good. Well my concerns were slightly awry because it sounds great but the effects implementation and MIDI specification are a bit of a let down.
But these are personal gripes and I shouldn't loose sight of its intended destination, sitting next to a DJ mixing desk. As a quick and easy looping sampler it works wonderfully. It also performs well providing spot effects, jingles and ambience and effects loops. And for bands that just want a few sampled sounds to jazz up their set but don't want to get a fully featured (and full priced) sampler then this is that machine. In these sorts of situations you don't need multi-note polyphony, complex MIDI control and multi-timbral voices just a machine that delivers decent sounding samples and a reliable and quick way to save and load them, which the Smart Media cards are excellent for. What the Dr. Sample isn't suited for is complex MIDI control and integrating into a desktop MIDI set-up, or anything requiring what most samplists would consider quite mundane sample editing and manipulation tasks. In which case you need something like the AKAI S20, which even with its recent price cut is still a £100 more than the Dr. Sample. Considering this is primarily seen as a live performance tool I would like to have seen some sort of foot switch facility for triggering sample record or playback and a way of prioritising important samples so they don't cut of in mid flow just because you accidentally exceeded the sample polyphony. Also, with the cost of Smart Cards falling so fast it would be nice if Boss included one in the price and come on guys, not including a power supply is down right measly!
You may think the £299 price tag a little high considering some of its quirks and limitations but there are a lot of positive features to consider including the quality of stereo sampling, ease of use and portability. Will this be another in a long line of Boss/Roland cult classics? only time will tell but that distinctive ring modulator effect could start appearing at a lot of clubs real soon.
ADDITIONAL TEXT / INFO BOXES
BOSS SP202 DR. SAMPLE
Price £299 incl. VAT
16 samples using internal memory.
16 samples on Smart Media card.
16 bit AD and DA .
Time stretch, Filter and Ring Modulator
Sample times (see box).
Stereo line out @ -10 dBm.
Stereo line in @ +4 dBm.
Mic Input @ -60 dBm to 30 dBm.
9v DC in.
8 hours continuous use on battery power.
Size: 145 mm (W) x 221 (D) x 83 (H)
Excellent sound, using Hi-Fi setting.
Fast and easy to use.
Impressive sampling times.
Uses affordable Smart Media cards for longer sampling and back-up.
Some useful and novel effects.
Built-in microphone makes it easy to sample in a hurry.
Extremely portable and quite happily runs on batteries, for hours.
Comprehensive Zero-G sample CD included in price.
Looks great, especially with the lights dim!
Only 4 note polyphony, less with effects and stereo samples.
Minimalist sample editing.
Basic MIDI specification.
Annoying playback interruptions when using effects and/or stereo samples.
No foot switch facility.
Power supply not included.
With a great sound that can really kick arse and a couple of interesting effects to boot, sampling loops has never been easier or quicker. With a little practice and used in the right situation this can be a stormin' little machine, just don't expect too much of it in the MIDI or sample editing departments.
HI-FI OR LO-FI
These are the total times available for 16 samples across 2 banks):
Hi-Fi: 31.25 kHz: 0m 32s (Internal) / 2m.14s (2Mb card) / 4m.27s (4Mb card)
Standard: 15.63 kHz: 1m 05s (Internal) / 4m.27s (2Mb card) / 8m.55s (4Mb card)
Lo-Fi 1: 7.81 kHz: 2m 10s (Internal) / 8m 55s (2Mb card) / 17m 51s (4Mb card)
Lo-Fi 2: 3.91 kHz: 4m 20s (Internal) / 17m 51s (2Mb card) / 35m 43s (4Mb card)
One of the most innovative, not to mention useful features of the Dr. Sample is the way it handles sample storage and back-up in the absence of floppy disks, SCSI and MIDI SysEx. Instead, there's a slot at the front that accepts small RAM memory cards called Smart Media. Looking at the chart (see box) you will see that using these cards increases sampling times quite substantially. These RAM cards have been adopted by most of the major electronics manufactures for use with the new generation of digital cameras and PDAs that seem to appear on a weekly basis. The consequence of this fast take-up is that Smart Media cards are quickly becoming somewhat of an an industry standard, resulting in dramatic price reductions as production increases. There are two types of card available, the S2M-5 with a 2Mb capacity and the S4M-5 with a 4Mb capacity. At my local Techno camera store they currently sell for £40 and £50 respectively, while Boss will be selling their own for approximately £30 and £40 respectively. It pays to shop around too, Dixons quoted me £249 for a single 2Mb card, which is pretty outrageous !
Copyright © 1998 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.