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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.13 No.10. August 1998

Review by Chris Carter

ROLAND SP808 GROOVESAMPLER SAMPLING WORKSTATION (see also:
ROLAND SP808EX update)

FOLLOW THAT 808
When rumours of the SP808 started spreading last year everyone knew something special was in store. Why? Because there must be some significance in Roland resurrecting the legendary 808 title after 17 years. Photo's don't do justice to the physical experience of seeing the SP808 in the flesh, especially for the first time. While it isn't particularly large, when in its 'ready state' it has a certain brooding presence, all black and red, with glowing buttons, just waiting to do its stuff. If its sibling, the Boss SP202 Dr. Sample, looked like a Star Trek Tricorder then the SP808 is NASA mission control.

Roland call the SP808 a 'Groove Sampler' and are promoting it primarily as a professional DJ/Remix phrase sampler but it's also an 8 track hard disk audio recorder and a lot more besides. A major feature of this very groovy sampler is fast resampling of phrases and audio tracks, with or without programmable effects. There are 16 assignable sample pads (and 64 pad banks), time stretch, automatic BPM calculation, an array of audio in/outs, MIDI, an informative backlit LCD, 3 assignable real-time control knobs and a built-in Zip drive. Also included is a dual D-Beam Controller for live control of effects and sample playback via hand and body movements. Oh yeah, mustn't forget the on board programmable 'Virtual Analogue Synth' and analogue style 16 step sequencer, phew what a line up !

 
VIRTUALLY RAM
Before I get down to nitty gritty details I should point out a major difference between this sampler and any other you might have come across, because apart from a small unspecified buffer memory the SP808 includes no RAM memory. All sampling, recording and song arranging is written directly to Zip disk, using what Roland call Virtual Memory Sampling. This works fast enough and on the whole behaves just as if you were using RAM, it also means you have a sampler with a 100 Mb of memory without having to fork out extra dosh for RAM upgrades, mmm nice! 100 Mb doesn't look quite as impressive for multitrack hard disk recording but it's still perfectly usable for individual songs. For a full breakdown of the SP808 specification take a look at the features box.

 
EXPERT PANEL
The top panel of the SP808 is divided into three sections and each of these is subdivided again, giving about 7 or 8 specific areas and rather than plough though every individual button, control and function (more than 80) I'll cover the most relevant and important to give you some idea of what this machine is capable of.

 
CENTRAL LINE
Central to the SP808 (physically and operationally) are the Edit, Cursor and Transport sections, which use illuminated buttons throughout. The Edit group allows access to various parameter and editing pages for Song/Track, System/Disk and Sample/Bank. There are Quick Edit buttons for sample Trim, Level, Stretch, Pitch and for track Play List Region In/Out and Mark On/Off. Also here are is the Undo/Redo and the FX Info/Edit button, which takes you to the numerous effects pages and menu's (see FX box).

Lower down are the EXIT/No, ENTER/Yes buttons and four cursor buttons for moving around the display, zooming in/out and which double as track editing buttons for CUT/PASTE/ERASE/INSERT.

Below these is the large VALUE/TIME rotary dial, SHIFT and VARI-PITCH/BPM buttons. The Vari-Pitch function affects the overall playback pitch of everything, samples and audio tracks and at the standard 44.1 kHz sampling rate it will only lower the pitch (18% - 100%) but if the SP808 is set to 32 kHz it will also raise the pitch (25% - 100% - 137%).

The song BPM can be adjusted 'on the fly' between 50% to 200% of the original but this only affects the playback speed, not the pitch.

 
TO THE LEFT
The left side handles audio, feeding it in, manipulating it and and feeding it out again. Top left are input controls for Mic, Line and Aux and headphone level. Below this is the small but informative backlit LCD. The top half of the display always shows (in this order) the current song position: measure/beat/tick (switchable to hours/mins/secs/frames), the current BPM, the sample rate of the Zip disk, and the current song number and sample bank. The lower half of the LCD changes depending on the current mode and edit status and can also show an expanded view of the time display (fig 6). Many of the edit screens can be scrolled downwards or sideways and some can be zoomed into or out of. The default display on power-up is METER, this shows 6 stereo bar graph meters, one for each track , one for the external inputs and one for the master output (fig 1).

Below the display are 4 illuminated buttons for the song locator and using the shift button 8 locator points can be set. Once these are placed you can instantly move to any set point in a song by pressing the relevant button. These are also used for setting automatic punch-in/out points when recording.

Next to these is the display PLAY button, which allows you to call up the four basic display screens and step through them, (Main Meter/FX-AUX Meter/Play List/Big Time) from any other screen or sub-display and is useful in panic situations when you might be feeling a bit lost.

There are also two audio preview buttons, TO/FROM and SCRUB. Used in conjunction with VALUE/TIME data wheel these allow you to repeatedly play short segments of a selected track to help when editing or adjusting sections of audio, and is similar to using a jog shuttle dial on a video machine.

The lower left hand side is where the business of recording and mixing is goes on. Each of the four stereo tracks has a tri-coloured status button: mute (off), play (green), record (red), bounce (orange), an illuminated effects send button (pressing these brings up the display for channel EQ, FX send etc.) and finally a stereo channel fader. There is also a fifth stereo channel, switchable for Mic/Line or Pads, with the same type of effects/EQ button as the others, this channel is used for adjusting the overall level of the sample pads or external inputs into the audio recorder. Which finally brings us to the single fader and illuminated mute button for the master stereo output.

 

TO THE RIGHT
The right hand side of the SP808 is where you find the D-Beam controller (see box), the real-time effects controllers, the Effects ON/OFF button and the Step Modulator ON/OFF button (see box).

But pride of place on this side must go to the quaintly named SAMPLE PALETTE. As on the small but beautifully formed Boss SP202 Roland have gone for the strangely eerie, large translucent glowing sample pad look. In this case though there are 16 of the babies, and a nice touch is that they automatically load up any samples (and glow) when a Zip disk is inserted. The pads are also used as character keys for entering names for songs, banks, and effects patches, but NOT sample names. This was is one of the few disappointments in the SP808, no sample naming, just numbering.

There are four other buttons SAMPLE, SAMPLE BANK, HOLD/TAP (also for BPM calculation) and CLIPBOARD (more on this button later).


FAST AND FURIOUS
Roland have made sampling on the SP808 about as fast and as easy as it gets. You can stick with the default settings or set your own sampling parameters quite easily as the display jumps to the sample options screen whenever you press the SAMPLE button (fig 2). Sampling options here include: stereo/mono, input source, sample/effects options, trigger type (manual, by pad, by level, play button), auto divide, auto trim, loop type, pre-trigger (0ms-320ms), available sample time and an input level meter. Before I go on I should briefly explain Auto Divide in case you haven't come across it before. If, for example, you are recording from a commercial sample CD, you can grab sections of audio including any pauses or spaces in between samples and Auto Divide will trim out the empty sections and place the new individualised sample loops into consecutive empty sample pads, neat ! Sometimes the loops may need tweaking but on the whole this is a useful time saver.

 
HEY YOU...ZAMPLE DIS
As if to emphasise that SP808 is a sampler the SAMPLE button glows bright red and has thick red outline around it, just so you don't miss it. As I said earlier this really is easy peasy sampling and it goes something like this...

Assuming you happy with the sampling parameters just tap the SAMPLE button (which begins flashing), any pads containing samples are dimmed and the the first empty sample pad available begins to glow so you can see exactly where your sample will be placed. When you want to begin sampling tap the SAMPLE button again (the display now shows how much disk space you are using up, in minutes and seconds), to stop sampling tap it once more. The ENTER button now flashes green and at this point you can tap any sample pad to hear your new sample, if all is OK press ENTER and the new sample is placed into the relevant pad position, if not press the EXIT/NO button and the display asks if you wish to try again. If your sampling was successful the SAMPLE button begins flashing again and a new sample pad is automatically chosen ready for the next sound and off you go again. This all happens in a matter of seconds and is actually A LOT faster and easier than it sounds on paper.

If you try sampling into a fully occupied bank ALL the sample pads and the ENTER button begin flashing and the display asks you to select a pad. You can choose to overwrite an existing pad or choose another bank containing empty pads, and with 64 banks each containing 16 pads it's going to be pretty rare not to find an empty slot.


A LITTLE SNIP...
Roland have tried to make editing samples as straightforward as possible too, with special 'Quick Edit' shortcut buttons to place you directly into the editing pages with just one or two key clicks. These shortcuts are incredibly useful, click the TRIM button and for any currently active/playing pad the display shows a list of edit parameters: sample BPM, start point, loop point and length. Scroll up or down the page and you can view: play mode, loop mode, BPM base note, mute group and level (you can also view the sample level by clicking the LEVEL shortcut). Press another sample pad and the display updates to show the parameters for that sample instead. Working this way you can jump from sample to sample trimming and looping without leaving the basic edit page, fast? you bet.

The only let down here is that all sample editing is carried out numerically and by ear, no waveform editing. This is annoying because the SP808 seems to capable of displaying sample waveforms, it does so when you use the preview SCRUB function, maybe it will be introduced with a later system update.

As with most BPM/groove based phrase samplers editing loops is a lot easier if you have a good ear for rhythm and get the loop as close to perfect when you are sampling (practice make perfect). The SP808 is fast and responsive in this department and I must admit I found it quite easy to get almost perfect loops most of the time in the sampling stage. It also helps a lot if you know the BPM of the sound you are sampling, because once in the edit page you can adjust the start and end loop points while keeping an eye on the sample BPM figure (which updates as you edit) until you get the perfect loop. Alternatively you can set a loop by playing the sample and tapping the ENTER button at the loop point, not the best solution but useful in certain situations.

 

STRETCH THOSE MUSCLES
When used with the shift button the TRIM and LEVEL shortcuts also take you directly to the STRETCH and PITCH editing pages. On the Time Stretch page are parameters for: Source pad, Target pad, Ratio (50%-150%, 100% = original length), New BPM, Match With and Match Type. Basically you select a sample pad to stretch, select a pad to place the new stretched sample into (or overwrite the original), dial in a new BPM or ratio (it doesn't matter which as both figures change relative to each other) and click the ENTER button, viola! and you have a surprisingly good quality stretched sample, in mono or stereo. If you're not sure of the BPM the SP808 will match the new BPM/RATIO to an existing loop by tempo or by sample length. When matching to length you can specify that the new sample will be proportionally longer or shorter by a fixed ratio: +/- x2, x4, x8, x16.

The PITCH function works in a similar manner to stretch but instead has parameters for: Grade (5 types), Pitch (+/- 12 semitones) and Fine (+/- hundredths of a semitone). It's useful for changing the pitch of loops while keeping the BPM untouched but the quality suffers more than with the time stretch feature and samples can end up sounding very flammy, and at extreme values like they are running through a DDL effect. Unfortunately there seems to be no other way of adjusting the sample playback pitch, so you can't play samples chromatically across a MIDI keyboard (although you can trigger them) or apply MIDI pitch effects such as modulation or pitch bend, shame.

Other sample editing functions (including all the above) such as delete, copy, reverse, renumber, divide, name bank, copy bank, delete bank etc. are accessed via the EDIT SAMPLE/BANK menu.

 
CLIPBOARD IN HAND
The Clipboard is brilliantly simple but at the same time incredibly versatile. Press a sample pad and simultaneously press the Clipboard button and the sample (any length, mono or stereo) is transferred to the clipboard. At this point the Clipboard button acts just as if it were another sample pad and you can play samples and phrases with it. However, press Clipboard and simultaneously press another sample pad and the sample is transferred to the new pad, or hold down the shift button at the same time and a copy is sent to the new pad leaving the original sample in the clipboard. And it doesn't stop there either because if you've recorded any audio tracks you can highlight a section of audio using the MARK button and by simultaneously pressing MARK and CLIPBOARD you can copy audio tracks to the clipboard. This can then be transferred or copied to a sample pad for editing and manipulating as if it were a sample.

 
TRACK EVENT RECORDING
Songs can be constructed in two different ways. The first method, called Track Event Recording, functions by recording a play list of trigger information from the way the pads are played, in a similar manner to using a MIDI sequencer. Effects, EQ, multiple sounds or velocity are not recorded (unless the pad is triggered from an external MIDI source), just the pad timing/trigger information. This isn't as much of a restriction as it sounds because you can layer samples across all four tracks and quite complex arrangements can be constructed. The main benefit of using Event recording is that is uses very little memory and is easier to precisely edit and rearrange individual samples/phrases after they have been recorded. Event recording also allows you to lay down samples and loops in Step Time by tapping pads and entering parameters for Measure, Step time, Duration and Volume and so on. This can be handy for recording a lot of repetitive loops or arranging particularly precise or fast rhythmic tracks.

If you leave one track free while Event recording you can digitally bounce down three Event tracks onto a stereo audio track adding effects and EQ as go and possibly mixing live performance through the external audio inputs as well. Using this method you can bounce down mixes with out any loss of quality. Event recording isn't quite as versatile as using a MIDI sequencer but it works fine for basic song construction (and deconstruction).

 

TRACK AUDIO RECORDING
Which brings us nicely to the other method, Track Audio Recording. This allows you to record sound as you would on a multitrack tape machine or hard disk recorder, which is what this is. The one restriction is that although this is an 8 track recorder you can only record tracks in pairs, e.g. 2 x 4, not 1 x 8, and only one pair at a time.

You are allowed to specify if a track is mono but this only increases the available recording time, it doesn't increase polyphony. And you can only ever play back four stereo/mono audio tracks or samples, or any combination of the two but not exceeding four.

All the expected transport controls are present: Stop/Play/Record/Rewind/Fast Forward/Return To Top and Measure Step Forward and Backward. Most of these buttons are dual purpose (using the SHIFT button) and some perform different functions depending on whether you are working in Event or Audio mode.

All audio recording is accomplished using the five channel mixer and there are numerous recording configurations available: from an external source (mic or line), from the pads, digital bounce down, bounce down and pads, bounce down & pads & external input, and all with or without effects.

Once the tracks contain audio a wealth of editing options are available. You can cut, copy, past, erase, insert, move across tracks, shift the timing and send audio to the pads to be edited as samples. Considering the size of the LCD a very useful moving piano roll display shows you the tracks and audio segments of the current song and you can zoom out for an overview or zoom right in for greater detail (Fig 9).

Each of the five channels has its own 3 band parametric EQ (fig 3), merge L&R, effects send (pre or post), aux send (pre or post) and pan (fig 4). The stereo Aux in/out (fig 5) can also be configured as a master effect insert for the main stereo output (pre or post the main fader), for further EQ or compression from an external unit. If the optional OP1 Multi I/O board is fitted you have the ability to send mixes to DAT, MD or CDR via coax and optical digital outputs or to another mixer using the multiple, stereo track outputs. All in all a very comprehensive and professional set-up.

 

RESAMPLE THE RESAMPLE THE RESAMPLE
Some of you may be thinking that four stereo tracks and four note polyphony doesn't sound that fantastic but these restrictions aren't too much of a worry because one of the most useful features of the SP808 is fast and easy resampling of recorded audio to the sample pads and vice versa. Add to this resampling equation real-time effects manipulation, EQ and the Virtual Analogue Synth and you begin to realise what a Pandora's Box you have in your control. You can quite literally keep resampling endlessly, back and forth, through effects and EQ, changing them each time if you wish, adding more samples or loops recording and your results onto an audio track without leaving the digital domain at any time, bloody amazing eh?

 

WHITHER THE VS840 ?
Conceptually the SP808 has a lot in common with the ground breaking Ensoniq ASR-X workstation/resampler (SOS Aug 1997?) . Most of the differences between them are just horses for courses, the ASR-X has superior MIDI spec. and a fully featured MIDI sequencer, greater polyphony, better SCSI support and foreign file compatibility, while the SP808 has audio recording, a lot more accessible controls, the Virtual Analogue Synth, D-Beam controller and Zip drive. Both sound great and both are capable of serious sample manipulation, but the SP808 has more (virtual) memory, is slightly more affordable and easier to use. The biggest feature that will sway most potential buyers in favour of the SP808 is the addition of pro-quality multitrack hard disk recording. Which brings me to an interesting point. The SP808 shares many features with the new Roland VS840 hard disk multi-tracker: 8 tracks, 20 bit processing, digital mixer, Zip drive, virtual effects, digital bounce down, cut and paste editing, it even uses the same editing display. If I were Roland I'd be worried that the SP808 might take the limelight from the VS840 and be loosing sales to buyers swayed by the SP808. I know which one I would choose.

 

AND FINALLY...
Listening to A/B comparisons with digitally sampled material (@ 44.1 kHz) I found the sound to be almost faultless, and this is in spite of the fact that the SP808 uses compression (R-DAC). I could have used the SP808 for a number of remix projects recently, I just wish it had turned up sooner because I would be quite happy producing finished remix masters with it. But the SP808 can be a lot more than just a professional remixing workstation and because it's relatively affordable many potential users will be attracted by it, home and project studio's, jingle production, spot effects, school's, theatre's.

There's no doubt that the SP808 is operationally complex, and even though it is awash with controls and visual aids it's not as immediately accessible as some sampler/audio workstations and although most users will get usable results within a couple of hours anyone investing a grand or more on such a pro tool as this will need to spend quite a few intensive sessions with it to get to know its true capabilities. This is one hell of a machine, it's going to be massive, it's going to sell by the truckload and I want one. Top marks to Roland for coming up with what is sure to be another classic 808.

 

 

ADDITIONAL TEXT / INFO BOXES

ROLAND SP808 GROOVESAMPLER SAMPLING WORKSTATION
PRICE:
SP808: £1099 incl. VAT
Optional SP808 OP1 Multi-I/O Interface: £249 incl. VAT

 

SUMMARY
Almost too good to be true. Full of features and great sounding, a bit of everything and affordable too. Only let down by slightly limited polyphony and Zip ONLY SCSI support. If SOS gave percentage marks this would get 90%, try it and you'll want one. Feckin' brilliant !

 

PROS:
Fast, high quality stereo resampling and looping.
Fully featured 8 track hard disk recording.
Massive (virtual) sample memory.
Wealth of sample editing tools.
Virtual Analogue Synth and Virtual Effects.
Infinitely expandable using Zip disks
Plenty of interfacing options (more so with optional OP1)
Affordable.

 
CONS:
Samples can't be named.
No waveform editing.
Will only function with a Zip disk in drive.
Sample rates can't be mixed on same Zip disk.
External SCSI ONLY supports Iomega Zip drives.
Proprietary disk format means no sample import/export.
Annoying Zip drive whine.

 

VAS IS DIS
Although only listed as an effect algorithm believe it or not the Virtual Analogue Synth (VAS) is a fully functional, programmable monophonic synth and a right little gem it is too. Primarily it's meant to be controlled by the D-Beam and Step Modulator, but it can also be played from a MIDI keyboard over a five octave range, complete with note velocity and MIDI volume control. Not only that but you can configure the real-time controllers on the SP808 to change synth parameters such as VCO tuning, portamento time, VCF frequency, VCA level, ADSR envelope times and so on. It doesn't stop there either. Because the VAS monopolises the effects bank the algorithm also includes programmable chorus/flanger and digital delay effects blocks and an external audio input for processing sounds through the Ring Modulator, VCF, VCA and effects. (Fig 8 and list).

I must admit to being a mite sceptical when I heard that the SP808 included the VAS but I've been won over. True it's no Mini Moog but it can do a pretty good impersonation of one and is particularly good at sounding like a Roland SH101, SH2 and even a Roland TB303 BassLine. Including two VCOs and a sweet sounding VCF make it well suited for producing fat analogue sounding basses, sparkly sequencer trills and runs and squelchy resonant bass lines.

 

VIRTUAL ANALOGUE SYNTHESISER (VAS)

SPECIFICATION:
VCO (x2): Tune, Fine, Modulation, X Mod, PWM, Key Follow, Waveform (Tri, Square, Saw, Variable Pulse).
VCF: Freq., Res, Slope (12/24 dB), Type (LPF/BPF/HPF/Notch), Input (VCO 1-2/Noise/Ext/RM), Env depth, LFO depth, Key follow, Env follower, Velocity.
VCA: Gain, Env depth, LFO depth, Env follower, Velocity.
ADSR (x2): Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release.
LFO: Rate, Tempo sync, Start delay, Waveform (Tri, Square, Saw, S&H).
RING MOD: Input source (VCO 1-2/Noise).
NOISE: To (VCF/RM).
CHORUS/FLANGER: Mode, Mod Phase (norm/inv), Rate, Depth, Manual, Res, Tempo sync.
DIGITAL DELAY: Mode (mono/ping pong), Time (1-2400ms), FX level, Dry level, Tempo sync.
COMMON: Trigger in, Velocity, Note number (base), Portamento (on/off and time).

 

STEP MODULATOR
This is a software approximation of a pre MIDI, analogue style step sequencer (specifically the System 100M, 182 module). It can be used in conjunction with the VAS or to control designated parameters on any of the DSP effects.

Pressing the STEP MOD/set-up button brings up a display showing two rows, each with 8 vertical bars (fig 7). Each of these bars represents a single note, the higher the bar the greater the parameter value. Using the cursor buttons you can navigate around the display adjusting the notes with the VALUE dial, (even while the sequencer is running) and a small box on the left shows the value of the selected step, which changes from numbers to notes if editing patterns for the VAS. Pressing the STEP MOD button starts and stops the sequencer and a small arrow steps along the display at either the BPM set by the sequencer or current song. Other editable parameters are: step time, gate time, rest, trigger (single, repeat etc.), end step, series (16) or parallel (2x8) and copy (for copying patterns between patches). This brings me to the only real problem with the Step Modulator, each pattern is tied to an effect patch. There is no separate memory for keeping just sequencer patterns in. If, for example, you want to use a number of different sequences with the VAS you need to make a new VAS patch for each pattern and step through them in the effects bank. This methodology shows us how Roland see many features of the SP808 being used, to make separate sample phrases for dance music. Using their technique you sample each sequencer controlled VAS patch into a pad, and play them back as sample loops, which actually works surprisingly well. It just takes a little longer to get there than it normally would, by selecting various sequencer patterns to control a single synth sound.

 

RETRO DSP
The DSP Effects bank is quite a powerhouse and Roland have taken the retro/analogue theme further by including some amazingly faithful algorithms of classic Roland rack effects and Boss effects pedals of the last 20 years.

Whenever the FX button is illuminated the three real-time control knobs become active and if the FX INFO button is clicked the display shows a graphical representation, which updates in real-time as you twist and turn the knobs. A SELECT ROW button decides which parameters the knobs will control (row A: C1-3/row B: C 4-6). The DSP effects can function in a number of different ways, with the 'Isolator' and 'Filter' modes being the most accessible and called up by simultaneously pressing SELECT ROW and SHIFT. You can instantly jump back to these modes from any other filter effect, but although the two effects blocks are connected in series they can't be used at the same time.

The 'Filter' is a basic 24 dB Low Pass type with a 'Low Booster' and real-time controls for frequency, resonance and boost level, while the 3 band 'Isolator' can 'kill' or reduce high, mid or bass audio bands by up to 60 dB and is useful for stripping out elements of a sample or track. Both these modes are also available (simultaneously) in the effects bank as a combined algorithm (01) with many more editable parameters.

Another way the effects can function is as 99 Preset and 99 programmable User banks. The list (see box) gives some idea of the basic effects available, although what isn't so obvious is that many of the algorithms contain more than one effect block. For instance, the Stereo Dynamics Processor contains a comp/limiter, an enhancer, a 3 band EQ, a noise suppressor and more than 20 programmable parameters. The Reverb/Gate also includes a 3 band EQ and more than 30 editable parameters. I don't really have the space here to cover all that the effects banks are capable of but generally the effects are top rate, particularly the so called 'Virtual Effects'. The only negative points I can find are that effects are applied globally to the sample pads (no individual sends) and you can only us one effects algorithm at a time. There are ways around these restrictions as you can resample a pad (or pads) through the effects bank, then resample again adding another effect if need be. Using this method allows you to have a different effect on each and every pad while using the effects bank for the mixer and audio tracks.

 
DSP EFFECTS ALGORITHMS
01 Isolator & Filter
02 Center Canceller
03 Stereo Dynamics Processor
04 Reverb & Gate
05 Tape Echo 201
06 Digital Delay
07 RSS Delay
08 Analogue Delay & Chorus
09 Digital Chorus
10 SDD 320 Chorus
11 SBF 325 Flanger
12 Boss Flanger x2
13 Stereo Pitch Shifter
14 Rack Phaser x2
15 Stereo Auto Wah
16 Stereo Distortion
17 Analogue Record Simulator
18 AM Radio Simulator
19 Lo Fi Processor
20 Virtual Analogue Synth (see box)

 
SP808 OP1 MULTI-I/O
Having used the optional OP1 Multi I/O interface I would say it's a pretty essential purchase. What you get in addition to the already well equipped rear panel is an external SCSI socket, six track outputs (on 3 pairs of phono's), two sets of digital ins/outs (coax and optical) and the ability to send and receive digital audio at 44.1 kHz, which will be particularly useful if you intend mixing or mastering to DAT, MD or CDR. Also, if you use a CD player with a digital output you can sample entirely in the digital domain and not have to worry about setting sampling input levels. The extra track outputs come in handy for feeding tracks to an external effects unit or mixer. The SCSI connector is a bit of a mixed bag though. Seeing the standard type 25-pin socket I was quite looking forward to trying out different hard drives with the SP808 but alas this connector is ONLY compatible with Iomega Zip drives, not even Iomega Jaz drives. I suppose there must be a good reason why Roland have restricted the usefulness of this connector, but I can't for the life of me think why. Jaz drives in particular are falling in price, even as I write this, and would make a perfectly good partner for the SP808. Maybe this shortcoming can be addressed in a future system update, in the meantime and if you are going to use the SP808 as a multi-tracker and need to back-up your work I would definitely recommend including the OP1 Multi-I/O and an external Zip drive in your budget.

 
DRIVING THE ZIP
You may find that when editing very close loop points or playing short repeating samples in Event Realtime Recording a 'Drive Too Busy' error message is displayed. This occurs because of data demands exceeding the speed at which the Zip mechanism can access the Zip disk (and insufficient buffer RAM). To avoid this Roland recommend that you leave at least 0.3 seconds between pressing pads in Event mode or record fast repeating pads hits as continuous audio tracks rather than Events. Not the best of solutions and it wouldn't happen in a RAM based system, but worth bearing in mind when you are working on that killer 180 BPM dance track.

Another problematic area I should mention, and something that EVERYONE who has seen this particular machine has commented on... the Zip whine. When the review machine arrived it already had a Zip disk in the drive, which I soon discovered from the instruction manual is a BIG no no. It could have been this that had something to do with the racket the SP808 made when I switched on the power.

At first I thought there might be some sort of malfunction because the whining noise was so noticeable it could be heard in the next room. It's like the usual Zip whirring noise but much louder and continuous. It was always picked up when sampling from a microphone, and the better the mic the louder the whining. I've been told by other Zip users that it might be the SP808 case amplifying the Zip mechanism, or it could be a rogue or faulty Zip drive. Either way check out this potential obstacle if you think it might be a problem.


MAXI MIDI
The MIDI spec. sheets for the SP808 cover 7 pages and yet it doesn't include a MIDI sequencer and you can't play samples chromatically across a keyboard, only trigger them. What the SP808 is good at is synchronising with other MIDI machines as master or slave, using MTC, MMC and MIDI clock. Other strong areas are effects and sample bank switching and using the D-Beam as a MIDI controller. Editing or changing effects and sample settings via MIDI SysEx is not supported, however you can use MIDI control messages to control most of the digital mixer functions. Oh yeah, almost forgot... NO GM. Hurrah !

 
DIMENSION D
As already seen on the Roland MC505 (SOS April 1998) the D-Beam controller (licensed from Interactive Light) is ideally suited the the SP808. This is a hands-off controller used in a similar way to a Theramin but using entirely different technology. Two invisible beams of light are projected upwards and by waving you hands over the top of the D-Beam you get some form of control (occasionally unpredictable) over various sampler functions.

There are three preset buttons under the D-Beam: Pad Trigger, Pitch and Effects. The Pad Trigger lets you select two pads for beam control, Pitch allows extreme pitch changes (but only in a downward direction) and Effects gives you control over specified effect parameters (the default settings are for 'Isolator' and 'Filter'). A great D-Beam set-up is Effect Preset no. 99 AnlgSyn. This allows you to use the D-Beam and real-time controllers to 'play' the Virtual Analogue Synth, a scream (literally).

 

SPECIFICATIONS/ FEATURES

INTERFACING/CONNECTORS:
Microphone input (mono-unbal/jack).
Auxiliary in and out (stereo/phono's).
Line input and output (stereo/phono's).
Foot switch (jack).
MIDI in and out/thru.
Digital in/out-coax (with optional OP1).
Digital in/out-optical (with optional OP1).
Track outputs, 3 x L+R phono pairs (with optional OP1).
SCSI, standard 25-pin D-Sub (with optional OP1).

DIGITAL MIXER:
5 stereo channels (A-D and Mic/Line/Pads), 24 bit processing.
Features per channel:
Level (fader control)
Mute/Rec/Bounce Status (illuminated button)
FX/EQ/Pan Status (illuminated button)
3 band parametric EQ
Aux send/return
FX send (pre/post fader)
FX insert (pre/post EQ)
Master stereo output:
Level (fader control)
Mute/Common Status (illuminated button)
Insert master FX
Send output to: Line/Aux/Pad

 

SAMPLE/RECORDING TIMES:
Virtual Memory Sampling, using R-DAC compression.
Internal processing: 20 bit, S/N ratio: 92 dB, freq. response: 10Hz-21kHz (@ 44.1 kHz).

Maximum figures per Zip disk:
23 minutes @ 44.1 kHz stereo
32 minutes @ 32 kHz stereo
46 minutes @ 44.1 kHz mono
64 minutes @ 32 kHz mono


SAMPLES:
1,024 (16 pads x 64 banks).

 
POLYPHONY:
Stereo x 4 (samples, audio tracks or any combination not exceeding 4).


SONGS:
64 (with 2,000 'phrase events' per song)

PROGRAMMABLE EFFECTS:
20 algorithms, including Virtual Analogue Synth.
99 Presets
99 User

Copyright © 1998 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.
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