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SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
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An edited version of this text also appears in
SOUND ON SOUND magazine
Vol.16 No.10. Aug 2001

Review by Chris Carter

BOSS Dr.Sample SP-303

SAY HELLO
The SP303 Dr. Sample is an updated version of the original SP202 which I reviewed back in 1997, crikey it seems like only yesterday. As you would expect with the ever changing technological world of electronic music gear three years is a long time in R&D and while you’ll generally get more bangs for your bucks but you also get a few slimmed down features to save on production costs.
So gone are the built-in microphone and battery power option of the original but say hello to vastly increased sampling capabilities (including resampling), a sequencer, more effects and real-time controls all of which are presented in a smaller, neater unit.

NOT ALL SAMPLERS ARE EQUAL.
Although it is true to say all samplers can sample there is a distinct variation know as the phrase sampler and the SP303 is such a sampler. The main difference with phrase samplers is in their method of playback, which usually consists of playing back a sampled loop or musical phrase at the speed and pitch it was sampled at. This limitation doesn’t apply to a fully featured sampler which can play back loops, phrases and samples of individual notes chromatically across a keyboard to emulate an instrument, which the Dr. Sample isn’t capable of.

OPERATION
Although this Dr. Sample has roughly the same footprint as the original it is less brick like with a noticeably slimmer profile. The busy control surface utilises Roland’s now familiar illuminated rubber multifunction buttons for sampling, editing, bank selection, sequencer functions and general house keeping duties. The lower section includes 8 large sample pads, which also double as sequencer Pattern selectors. The upper half contains the output and effects section and in addition to a Volume control the SP303 now sports 3 additional real-time controller knobs labelled CUT OFF (CTRL1), RESONANCE (CTRL2) and DRIVE (CTRL3) for the tweaking the standard FILTER+OVERDRIVE effect but whose functions also vary depending on the current mode of operation.

Compared to the control panel the rear connections are minimal but functional with just two pairs of stereo phonos for line input and output, a single MIDI input socket, an on/off switch and a 9v socket. At the front end of the unit are a 1/4 inch microphone socket, a small recessed Mic Level control, a headphone socket and a SmartMedia memory card slot.
A couple of useful features are a lockable cover for the SmartMedia card and a slot on the rear for attaching a Kensington security cable. These are relatively basic security features but should help deter dodgy ‘chancers’ from walking off with your precious Dr. Sample and its contents.

MEMORY
The sample and sequence memory is divided across 8 pads using two internal banks and two card banks for a total of 32 samples when a card is in the slot (see Specification chart elsewhere). Using just the internal memory, which is less than 1 Mb you get approximately 30 seconds of 44.1k mono sampling, however slip in a 64 Mb SmartMedia card (about £50-£70 in the high street) and sampling times jump to an incredible 33 minutes of CD quality sampling (approx. 15 minutes in stereo). This is an astounding amount of memory for such a small and relatively basic sampler and would allow you banks full of high quality loops or equally to have complete stereo mixes ready to play at your fingertips. Even my trusty industry standard Akai S3000XL maxes out at 32 Mb of RAM, admittedly it can do a lot more than the SP303 but 64 Mb is 64 Mb and is a lot of memory to play with.

IMPORT
A useful memory related feature is the SP303’s ability to import AIFF and WAV audio files. To achieve this you’ll need a SmartMedia card reader for your PC or Mac. These are available in various forms, the most popular being USB readers for desktop computers and PCMCIA types for laptops. A card reader shouldn’t cost more than £40-£50 but could save time in the long run as you can use a software editing package to trim, tidy and normalise samples (features the SP303 isn’t great at) then import the finished work to the SP303. This would also allow you to keep sample back-ups on your computer.
However, there are a couple of limitations to the sample import feature. Samples can’t be shorter than 100 ms or longer than 30 seconds and the import process works by copying standard AIFF or WAV files into the SP303 internal memory (hence the 30 second limit) while simultaneously converting them to Roland’s proprietary compressed sample format. This process is slow, up to 10 minutes for a full length sample but once converted the sample can reside in the Dr. Sample or saved back onto a SmartMedia card as native SP303 sample for instant playback and manipulation.

SAMPLING
Sampling is straightforward and relatively logical. Connect an audio source (CD, mixer, etc.) to the rear phonos or a microphone to the front socket Press the REC button, choose a bank and a sample pad, press REC a second time and you are sampling. Sampling options include mono or stereo and normal/long or lo-fi quality. There is also an Auto setting that only commences sampling when the input detects an audio signal.
Sample playback and editing options have improved since the SP202. Apart from the usual sample Reverse, One shot or Gate, Looping and non-looping modes the SP303 also offers adjustable sample Time, BPM, Level and Start and End trim options. Sample editing is carried out by ear using Controller 1 for Start and Controller 2 for End adjustments. A separate start/end Mark button also allows trimming while looping ‘on the fly’. Although this can be a bit of a hit and miss affair.
Each sample has its BPM displayed when triggered and is calculated from the sample length. Unfortunately as a loop is topped and tailed you can’t see it’s new BPM, until you exit edit mode.

A nice sample editing feature is Time/BPM, a real-time time stretching facility, although it could be said some may regard time stretching as an effect. Unusually for a budget sampler the SP303’s times stretching option is independently adjustable (50%-130%) for each sample. The time stretched BPM is displayed in real-time too! The effect can get lumpy and flangy at extreme settings (possibly not a bad thing in certain circumstances) but used with the right material and in moderation it can sound quite passable.

RESAMPLING
A new Dr. Sample feature making a welcome appearance is resampling, an underrated sampling option in my opinion. Resampling allows you to rerecord existing samples to a new pad but with added effects or at a lower sampling quality to save memory, or after you have applied sample editing options such as Time and BPM. This is also a useful way of applying different effects to different pads, something the SP303 isn’t normally capable of.
And because you can resample multiple pads at once it’s possible (with a SmartMedia card) to use this function as a basic form of portastudio, mixing down your pad playing onto an empty pad, in a similar way to track bouncing. Also, because resampling is carried out in the digital domain loss of quality is kept to a minimum.
Resampling on the SP303 is almost as easy as regular sampling. Prepare and edit your samples and add any effects, select an empty pad to resample onto and after hitting the Resample and Rec buttons play away to you hearts content. And that’s it, plus you have all the usual sampling options too such as Lo-Fi or Normal quality and mono/stereo etc.
The only noticeable resampling limitations are that you can’t resample across banks (as you can on the SP808) and unfortunately it’s not possible to play the sequencer and resample at the same time.
Now that would be fun.

EFFECTS
The effects bank is a major improvement on the SP202 and now includes 26 effects rather than a measly five previously (see Effects chart elsewhere on this page). The effects can be applied to individual samples, or globally, or to the input signal, in which case you could use the Dr. Sample just as an effects unit. Five effects have dedicated buttons (Filter, Pitch, Delay, Vinyl, Isolator) and an MFX button allows you access the remaining 21, with a numbered list printed below it.
As I mentioned above each effect has three adjustable parameters using the CTRL 1-3 knobs. The effects cover fairly standard but useable budget types plus a few specialist effects like Voice Transformer, Slicer and Center Canceller. The Voice Transformer effect is a (very) slimmed down version of the Roland VP9000 much over used keyboard effect. This version has a distinctly lumpen quality, it tries hard and does the job, but only just. Other effects options are an Effect Grab feature for momentarily switching effects in and out of a mix and a Tap Tempo button for syncing effects to the BPM in real-time.

SEQUENCER
The 7,500-note Pattern Sequencer is relatively basic and functional but a useful addition nevertheless. Up to 32 patterns (between 1 and 99 bars long) can be recorded and saved across the four banks. It can be started, stopped and synced to an external MIDI sequencer, although step time recording isn’t an option.
Pattern recording is carried out in loop mode (the number of bars per loop is programmable) and achieved by playing the sample pads in time to a metronome click and using one of 4 quantise values.
Pressing the Pattern Record button activates the metronome and a 4-beat countdown in the display
which then shows a continual count of the current position in the bar loop. Editing finished Patterns as with sample editing is a bit of a hit and miss affair and has to be done in real-time and it can be all too easy to loose track of where you are when editing long loop as the display isn’t detailed enough to indicate exactly where you.
Thankfully pattern playback is straight forward, using the Pattern Select button, and changing from one to another is literally just a matter of selecting the relevant pad. A nice touch is that if a pad is flashing then it contains a sequencer pattern. It is also possible to play samples manually (via pads or MIDI) while a pattern is playing, including samples from a another bank.

GET SMART
I’m not as blown away by this Dr. Sample as I was by the first, but that’s really only because there wasn’t anything else quite like the SP202 around three years ago. I can think of at least half a dozen people I personally recommended the SP202 to and most of them went and bought one and were happy with it.
However, the new SP303 is now also competing with the Korg Electribe-S and the Yamaha SU200, both fine budget samplers with lots of features.
The SP303’s lacking 3-digit display is going to be one of the first hurdles users will come across when using it, and it’s limitations are particularly apparent now that the Dr. Sample has been given so many new sampling, sequencer and editing features. But then again both Korg and Yamaha are guilty of this cost cutting ‘feature’ too. I would like to have seen velocity sensitive pads (although it does respond over MIDI) and the ability to play samples chromatically across a MIDI keyboard, then again even its big daddy the SP808 doesn’t have these features.

But having said all the above I do like the new Dr. Sample. Using SmartMedia for expandable sample and pattern memory storage is a brilliant idea, as is the option of AIFF and WAV sample import. Which although admittedly is a bit slow is nevertheless a fairly unique feature on a sampler in this price range.

Sampling quality at the highest 44.1kHz, stereo setting while not quite CD standard comes very close. In fact there is definitely something about Roland’s data compression technique that seems to give some sounds a certain punchiness that I quite like. The 26 effects are fine and varied, if occasionally a little gimmicky and budget sounding.

A bonus of the busy and highly illuminated front panel is that pretty much every function is never more than just a few button pushes away. And apart from when using the display for editing it is relatively easy to figure out where you are and what’s going on, even in the dark I might add.

So yes, I would be happy to recommend the Dr. Sample SP303 as a good quality, budget desktop phrase sampler.
BOSS Dr. Sample SP303 Phrase Sampler
PRICE
£299 incl. VAT


PROS
Expandable memory.
Excellent sound quality.
Improved effects.
Useful resampling feature.
AIFF and WAV compatibility.

CONS
Only one effect at a time.
Limited 3-digit display.
Basic sample and pattern editing options.
Effects settings aren’t saved unless you resample them.
No longer includes built-in mic, battery option or sample CD.


SUMMARY
The SP303 has greatly improved memory options, effects and sample editing since the original Dr. Sample. Additional features such as a Pattern sequencer, more real-time control knobs and a neater size make this a cost effective and attractive desktop phrase sampler. Just don’t expect too much from the limited LED display .

SPECIFICATIONPolyphony:
8 mono voices (4 stereo voices)

Effects:
26 types (see box)

Internal Memory:
Sampling capacity:
16 samples (8x 2 banks)
16 patterns (8x 2 banks)
Pattern capacity:
7500 notes
16 patterns (8x 2 banks)

Card Memory:
Sampling capacity:
16 samples (8x 2 banks)
112 samples (2 banks x7 - as backup)
Pattern capacity:
7500 notes
16 patterns (8x 2 banks)
112 patterns (2 banks x7 - as backup)

External Storage and Back-Up:
8 Mb to 64 Mb, 3.3v SmartMedia card.

Connectors:
Line in: L & R phono sockets
Line out: L & R phono sockets
Headphone: Stereo 1/4” jack socket
Microphone: Mono 1/4” jack socket
MIDI input


SAMPLING TIMES (approximate)
Capacity @ 44.1kHz @ 22.05kHz @ 11.025kHz
8 Mb 4 minutes 8 minutes 25 minutes
16 Mb 8 minutes 16 minutes 50 minutes
32 Mb 16 minutes 33 minutes 101 minutes
64 Mb 33 minutes 66 minutes 202 minutes


EFFECTS
Filter & Drive
Pitch
Delay
Vinyl Sim
Isolator
Reverb
Tape Echo
Chorus
Flanger
Phaser
Tremolo / Pan
Distortion
Overdrive
Fuzz
Wah Wah
Octave
Compressor
Equaliser
Lo-Fi
Noise Gen
Radio Tuning
Slicer
Ring Modulator
Chromatic PS
Voice Transformer
Center Canceller


Copyright © 2001 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.
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