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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.- No.- 2002.

Review by Chris Carter

Boss SP-505 Groove Sampling Workstation.

Boss samplers have been slowly but surely evolving over the years, from the 1990’s diminuitive DSD2 sampling delay pedal to the recent darlings of loopists everywhere the Dr.Sample range. The new SP-505 Groove Sampling Workstation is a logical step forward and shares many of the SP-303’s feature set while including some noticeable additions and a few nods towards the grandaddy of Roland Groove samplers the SP-808. The SP-505 looses the Dr.Sample tag but gains a multitude of sample-processing effects, graphic waveform editing, an impressive maximum sampling time of 64 minutes at full CD bandwidth (using an optional 128 Mb SmartMedia card), Recycle-like sample chopping and tempo matching, built-in ROM samples (Roland TR drum sounds and various basses and pads are included), preset rhythm patterns, realtime controls, 16 sample pads, a 15,000 note four-part sequencer, plus coaxial and optical digital inputs as standard. Whew! not a bad line up of features I think you’d agree ? And all for a reasonable £449.

The low profile desktop design and busy layout follows the now familiar lines of Boss Groove instruments. There are numerous illuminated flashing rubberised buttons and sample pads, an excellent backlit LCD (128 x 64 pixels), a large data entry wheel and 3 assignable realtime effects knobs. All very visual and just on the right side of tacky looking. You’ll either love it or hate it.

Around the back are a raft of ins and outs: External Microphone Input, L/R Line In, L/R Line Out, Headphones Out, Digital Coaxial In, Digital Optical In, MIDI In and Out an assignable Footswitch Input. There is also an input for an AC type PSU adaptor. An increasing number of manufacturers are moving over to AC adapters rather than the more universally available 9v or 12v DC type. I’m not sure why this should be as finding replacements can be a real headache for the gigging musician, as I have mentioned before in previous reviews.

BANK ACCOUNT
As with the previous Boss and Roland SP samplers the SP-505 arranges its samples into Pad Banks and in this machine each bank has access to 16 sample pads. Out of the box the SP-505 has four preset Pad Banks containing various (non-erasable) ROM samples from Roland TR 808 and 909 drum machines, various percussion sounds and a collection of basses, synths and pads. All the ROM samples are of a high standard but annoyingly can’t be edited (not even level or panning) without an error message flashing up on the LCD. To edit a ROM sample you first need to copy it to an empty user Pad in one of the RAM based user banks, a painless task but it could be wasteful of precious RAM if you’re not using an additional memory card.

Boss have been refining the actual process of sampling with each new SP sampler and on this mini-workstation it is simplicity itself. In addition to the numerous analogue and digital connections on the rear Boss have thoughtfully included a dedicated front panel button for selecting the sample input source (line/coax digital/optical digital/mic). This allows you to quickly switch between say, a Minidisc optical output, a digital mixer or CD player s/pdif output, a microphone and a synth analogue output. And all can be connected simultaneously.
Most of the usual sampling options are on offer: mono or stereo, three quality modes (Standard-44.1k, Long-22k and LoFi-11k), eight Auto Start levels and a WITH BPM function. This last option would normally be used when sampling beats and loops and is intended to give the SP-505 some indication of the sample’s BPM, and so make its life easier when it automatically inserts the loop end point. The only other things you need to worry about is setting the analogue input level control and selecting an empty pad to sample into. If only all sampling was this easy.

EDIT...ING
Compared to many phrase samplers, including those from Roland and Boss, the SP-505 is quite well endowed in the sample editing department and is helped in no small measure by the informative LCD. The dedicated Wave Edit Menu button brings up the main editing screen with plenty of details about the selected samples length, quality setting, pad number and BPM. Here you can also adjust the audio level and pan (but only left, centre or right I’m sorry to say). Plus options to loop, reverse and three trigger modes: normal, gate and one-shot. The three assignable F button shortcuts under the LCD take you to various sub-menus to set loop points, trim the start and end and to normalise the level. These deeper menus also show a graphic waveform of the sample, which can be zoomed in or out for more exacting adjustments. A dedicated CLIPBOARD feature allows samples to be moved, copied and deleted and is an almost foolproof procedure, very civilised.

CHOP CHOP
A couple of useful sample edit options are the CHOP and PITCH features. Chop takes a sample and divides it into percussive audio chunks in a similar way to Steinberg’s Recycle, although here there is only a single Resolution adjustment to detect rhythmic peaks. Pitch on the other hand has has three parameters to detect and map the pitch of a sample across one octave. After each function has processed the original it maps the resulting multi-samples across special user banks reserved specifically for each function. Unfortunately the results of Chop and Pitch can be a little inconsistant and variable and although better results are sometimes achieved with different types of material it also seems to be as much down to keeping your fingers crossed as anything else.


TEMPO TIME
As to be expected in a Boss Groove instrument there are plenty of options for adjusting and matching the tempo of samples and patterns. All samples have a PLAY TYPE tag and are either a Phrase sample or Single sample. Basically the SP-505 needs to know if it is dealing with a rhythmic loop or not. So Phrase samples have additional parameters for the numbers of measures in a loop, the time signature and also have access to two BPM specific functions: ADJUST and SYNC.
BPM ADJUST allows you to change the tempo of individual Phrase samples in realtime without changing the pitch (from 40 to 200 BPM). However, BPM SYNC takes this concept a little further and will match the tempo of multiple loops simultaneously (from 0.5 to 1.3 of the original BPM) without shifting the original pitch. If you play a few Phrase loops (using the pads) and press the BPM SYNC button all the samples instantly lock into the tempo of the last pad activated. Once the loops are locked to each other you can deactivate and reactivate them and they still remain in sync with each other. If at any time you introduce a new loop with a different tempo it automatically locks into the BPM of the others and if things start to go adrift you just hit the SYNC button (on the down beat is best) and all the currently playing loops lock into sync once more. Alternatively you can reset the overall BPM to the tempo of a newly activated loop, or reset each loop to its original BPM and start over again.
This feature is not only a lot of fun to play but it lets you come up with all kinds of unusual but perfectly synced rhythms, loops and beats. The only caveat is when trying to match loops with widely differing tempos as the audio quality gets progressively worse with tempo shifts of more than a few BPM.
In fact the quality of both BPM options can vary quite considerably. ADJUST seems to suffer more lumpiness than SYNC and rhythmic loops can have a tendency to loose their punch and definition if the tempo is shifted more than a few percent. Although I’m not sure I’d be happy committing the results to a finished mix both these features are great for fleshing out song ideas and will probably come into their own when used in a less audio critical DJ or live situation.

The overall BPM of a pattern or song can be adjusted at any time and the now obligatory (and dedicated) BPM/TAP button makes a welcome appearance and can be applied in real-time. Though it’s worth noting that if a pattern contains Phrase samples the BPM/TAP option will change the tempo using the same time-stretching mode as ADJUST and SYNC, which could have an adverse affect on the sound. However it works just fine with Single samples, ROM samples and non-looping percussion sounds.


DOUBLING UP
There is a bank of 26 effects (see box) at your disposal and although you can only use one effect at a time the built-in resampling feature means you can easily transfer effected samples (individually or in groups) to empty pads as many times as you like, changing or adding further effects as RAM permits. Effects can also be applied to a whole bank or just to individual pads. The effects are fine as budget effects go and are in fact identical to those in the SP-303. There is a varied selection including an authentic sounding tape delay and a BPM synced DDL. The reverb is OK, if a bit boxy and there are a few good filters, distortions and ring modulator patches. Annoyingly, and just as with the SP-303, effects settings are not saved with your patterns or songs. Though a useful trick is that the sample pads also double as shortcut buttons for selecting the first 16 effects.


BEAT BOXING
There are 40 rhythm preset patterns to get you started with grooving and beat boxing, but don’t get too excited as 30 of them are rather uninspired HipHop and House patterns, while the remainder are a few mediocre Techno and Drum & Bass grooves. The ROM samples are of a pretty high standard but the patterns seem almost like an afterthought. All is not lost though as they can be copied into empty user patterns and modified to your own wicked ways.


SWINGS AND ROUNDABOUTS
The sequencer can store 100 user patterns (plus the 40 presets) and these can be arranged into 20 songs. Each pattern can have up to four parts (each part has a dedicated mute button) which are shared across 8 samples. So you could have, for instance, a BD and SD in part 1, hi-hats and percussion in part 2, synth and bass in part 3 and loops, beats or vocal phrases in part 4. You just need to remember the 8-note polyphony limit, which is divided by two if you are using stereo samples.
Recording rhythm patterns is straightforward, first you select an empty user pattern, then hit the record button and the SP-505 simultaneously drops into record standby mode, the metronome begins clicking and the Pattern Play screen pops up to give you options for setting the BPM, number of measures and time signature. At this point you can either practice your rhythmic skills along with the metronome or press the Play button to drop into Record mode. The LCD and metronome now give you a one bar countdown before recording starts, which then continues in loop record mode until you press stop. However, it’s not until you are in recording mode that a small icon pops up allowing you to adjust the quantise values (8 types and OFF) for the pads and the Part you are recording into. You can switch between Parts while recording, adjusting quantise values as you need. One small niggle is that the metronome can’t be muted.
Editing patterns is carried out using the MICRO function, which displays a list of recorded events. You can edit timing, level and gate length and notes can be deleted or inserted into the list. You can also edit a pattern while a track is either playing or stopped.


TAKEN TO THE LIMIT
Songs are put together using a similar list view, by either dialling up patterns using the data wheel or selecting them using the sample pads (although only from the first 16 patterns if using the pads). Patterns can be inserted and deleted but there is no option to set a pattern to repeat before it moves to the next, which makes song construction a little repetitive and laborious. Editing previously recorded Songs is almost identical to pattern editing using a similar list menu, all very logical.

There is an upper limit of approximately 15,000 sequencer events (shared by patterns and songs) which should be enough for most users. Well it had better be as I could find no way (or mention of in the instruction manual) to save or load pattern or song data via MIDI system exclusive. However, it is possible to save and load patterns and songs (and samples) onto SmartMedia cards.
The SP-505 sequencer is a bit of an oddity as it only records in realtime and I was a little surprised in finding no step-time recording option. It’s even more unusual considering it has so many TR808 and TR909 drum samples and a classic 16 pad drum machine layout.


MINI MIDI
High spec MIDI support is not one on the SP-505’s strong points but basic functionality and various synchronisation options are catered for. It sends and responds to MIDI clock, start/stop, song position pointer and program changes. The pad samples also respond to key velocity when triggered from an external MIDI keyboard or sequencer. What it won’t do is let you play a sample chromatically across a MIDI keyboard. Admittedly Boss have introduced the sample PITCH feature which allows you to remap a sample across one of the dedicated Pitch Banks but as this is a form of multi-sampling it uses valuable RAM in the process, and isn’t quite the same as playing a specific sample across a keyboard anyway. Boss would probably argue that the SP-505 is a phrase sampler so doesn’t need this feature, which is technically true but I still find it a puzzling omission in a sampler. It can’t be that difficult to implement can it ?

THE FAST AND FURIOUS
After spending a couple of weeks using the SP-505 I found my fingers flying around it like a demon. If there is one area it excels at it’s in sampling and getting arrangements worked out fast before you loose the moment. There’s no booting up to slow down the creative juices and sampling (and resampling) is always available on tap thanks to the widespread use of dedicated buttons. This also applies to the sequencer which is ready to record patterns and songs in a matter of seconds. The added bonuses of a large LCD with graphic waveform editing, AIFF/WAV support and digital inputs as standard is almost unheard of in a sampler/workstation in this price range.
While the internal RAM is double that of the SP-303 if you are willing to invest in an large capacity SmartMedia card (which are becoming increasingly affordable by the day) I’d go so far as to say the massively extended recording times available would also allow the SP-505 to be used as a basic 4-track stereo digital multi-tracker/portastudio. Audio quality at the Standard setting is about as close to CD quality as you can get. The Long audio mode is sufficient for non-critical sounds and loops and the LoFi mode is very useful for extreme grunge effects.

But what don’t I like about the SP-505? Well, the four Part mute buttons are no substitute for actual faders and the 8-note mono/4-note stereo sample limit is just that, a bit limiting. The 40 preset patterns aren’t nearly varied enough and why no step-time pattern recording ? Why indeed. The effects sound OK but I expected a few more, not an identical set to the SP-303. And although you can resample multiple pad playing you still can’t resample internal (or external) sequenced patterns.

RELATIVES
I guess the SP-505 could be described as a cross between the Boss SP-303 and the Roland SP-808 although it possesses features that neither its baby sister or big brother have, and is certainly a lot more portable than an SP-808. Its closest non Roland relatives are probably the cheaper but less endowed Korg ES1 and the more expensive, sequencer rich Yamaha SU700. But the SP-505 is, in my opinion, funkier and easier to use than either of them. DJs, dance producers, dabblers and novices (not to mention PC phobics) are going to love the easy to use, hands-on accessibility, dedicated buttons, BPM matching features and long sample times.

However, its unashamedly dance oriented and HipHop/House dominated preset patterns and ROM samples could deter some potential purchasers. Personally I don’t make as much dance music as I used to but in the short time I was using the SP-505 I still made a pile of sample loops (ambient mostly), thrashed out a load of song ideas and demos and found the speed at which I could club together rough mixes a real boon. Although as I said earlier you will need to invest in a decent sized SmartMedia card before you can undertake any major projects. For anyone looking for an affordable all-in-one phrase sampler, sequencer, workstation that can occasionally take on the guise of a digital portastudio then look no further.


BOSS SP-505 Groove Sampling Workstation
PRICE: £449 including VAT.
TEL: +44 (0)1792 515020.
FAX: +44 (0)1792 799644.
WEB: www.roland.co.uk
WEB: www.roland.co.jp


SUMMARY
The Boss SP-505 groove sampler is essentially an expandable but slimmed down, speedier, solid state Roland SP-808. It is great for good quality fast sampling, loop and groove matching and knocking together song ideas. Its biggest problem is the almost total domination of HipHop and House presets and samples, which could deter those not into these dance genres.


PROS
Good quality and fast sampling.
LCD waveform editing.
Some interesting sample editing/looping features.
Lots of dedicated buttons.
Expandable memory.
AIFF and WAV import.


CONS
Only eight-note mono/4-note stereo polyphony.
Limited preset pattern styles.
No step-time pattern recording.
Can’t resample sequencer patterns.
Effects bank identical to SP-303.
Non-standard AC adaptor.


SPECIFICATION
Desktop Workstation with stereo sampling, editing, sequencer, effects and ROM presets and samples.
Polyphony: 8 notes.
User Samples: 250 (across 16 banks).
Sampling Times: (see box).
20-bit A-D/D-A
Effects: 26 (see box).

BUILT-IN ROM SAMPLES:
x 64 (across 4 banks)
Bank 1 TR808 percussion.
Bank 2 Various percussion.
Bank 3 TR909 percussion.
Bank 4 TB303, Juno synth, Synth pads etc.

BUILT-IN ROM PATTERNS:
40 Preset Patterns (Including HIPHOP, HOUSE, TECHNO, D&B)

SEQUENCER
100 User Patterns
20 User Songs
Approximately 15,000 events

CONNECTIONS:
Microphone In
Analogue Line Input L/R
Analogue Line Output L/R
Stereo Digital Coax Input
Stereo Digital Optical Input
Headphone Out
Footswitch In

DIMENSIONS:
298 x 254 x 64 mm

WEIGHT:
1.4 kg


Approximate Mono Sampling Times
Capacity @ 44.1kHz @ 22.05kHz @ 11.025kHz
Internal
4Mb 2 minutes 5 minutes 17 minutes
Using Smart Media card
8Mb 4 minutes 8 minutes 24 minutes
16Mb 8 minutes 16 minutes 49 minutes
32Mb 16 minutes 32 minutes 98 minutes
64Mb 32 minutes 64 minutes 197 minutes
128Mb 64 minutes 129 minutes 395 minutes

The SP-505’s memory can be expanded using regular SmartMedia cards between 8Mb and 128Mb and available in most high street camera and electrical stores.


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 © 2002 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.
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