SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.15 No.10. August 2000
Review by Chris Carter
ROLAND SP-808EX e-MIX STUDIO (see also: ROLAND SP808 original review)
THE EX FILES
Back in SOS June ‘98 I reviewed the original SP-808, a keyboardless synth/sampler/multitracking workstation. At the time groove was king and the SP-808 was the ‘Groove Sampler’, now two years on and it has been reborn as the SP-808EX e-MIX STUDIO. A slightly less catchy title but a more apt description.
So what has the SP-808 transformed into ?
The brooding black and red livery of the original has been replaced by an Apple inspired translucent case, highlighted with areas of pearlised purple and black. Very trendy but maybe not quite as mean and pro looking as the original. However the updated EX also comes with some fancy new effects algorithms and, most importantly, a larger and faster Zip drive.
The physical layout, operating system, connectivity and day to day workings of SP-808EX remain essentially the same as the previous version, so rather than cover old ground I suggest you check out my previous review for any in-depth background information (SOS July ‘98). For the back-issue deprived amongst you the SP-808EX incorporates a 4-track hard disk recorder (4 x stereo), a 5 channel digital mixer, a 16 pad (x 64 bank) stereo phrase sampler, a monophonic virtual analogue synth/step-sequencer, preset and programmable multi-effects and a (theremin like) D-Beam controller. It doesn’t contain any RAM memory to speak of as everything is recorded, saved and played back directly from the built-in Zip drive, therefore recording and sampling times are directly related to the amount of free disc space available, a unique feature.
TURN ME ON
Power up the EX and you are presented with a spiffy new start-up screen, while the 16 sample pads perform a rotating light show waiting for you to insert a Zip disc. This is update number one, because you can now use the SP-808EX without a disc in the drive. The mixer, effects presets, synth/sequencer, D-Beam and Mic, line and Aux inputs are all operable in this diskless mode, which allows you to route decks, instruments or a microphone through the EX and use it as an effects processor. Alternatively use the D-Beam or a MIDI keyboard to play it as a stand-alone virtual analogue synth. Nice one.
The 100Mb Zip drive has been replaced by a more substantial 250Mb Zip drive, which unfortunately still exhibits some of the annoying whine of the original Groove Sampler. But this is just a minor irritation because the extended recording and sampling times now available stretch to a staggering 169 minutes at the 32 kHz, mono setting and 61 minutes at the 44.1 kHz, stereo setting. Not many samplers offer these kinds of figures straight out of the box.
If you are moving up market from a first generation 808 you’ll find that your 808 formatted 100Mb Zip discs can only be read and not written to by the EX due to disk formatting differences. Also, when using older (and slower) 100Mb Zip discs in the EX you may encounter ‘Drive Too Busy’ problems and interrupted audio when recording and playing back audio tracks and samples simultaneously. This is a problem existing 808 users are only too well aware of. So with the EX it’s best to stay with 250Mb discs wherever possible and just use those old 100Mb Zips for backing-up. If you have either of the OP1 or OP2 SCSI expansion boards fitted and a spare Zip drive there’s a Convert Disk function which allows you to transfer the contents of an 808 Zip disc onto a blank 250Mb EX Zip disc.
The SP-808EX has 5 additional COSM effects algorithms: Guitar Multi, Vocal Multi, Voice Transformer, Mic Simulator and Vocoder.
The Mic Simulator has half a dozen useful presets covering various input/output configurations such as Condenser to Dynamic, Headset Mic to Condenser and so on. Programmable options include selecting mic input types: Line, Condenser, Dynamic, Headset and mic output types: Dynamic (General, Extended Low and Vocal), Condenser (Flat, Vintage or Normal) and plain old Flat response. There are Bass Cut and Phase controls, a fully featured Limiter and a variable Proximity Effect for adding ambience or distance.
The Mic Simulator algorithms work well in the right situations and can usually compensate for basic response characteristics of a particular mic.
Roland suggest that “it’s possible to convert the sound of an inexpensive all purpose mic to an expensive studio quality mic” but don’t go expecting a DJ head mic to magically transform into the sound of a Neumann.
The 10-band Vocoder offers extensive control over the individual frequency Bands, the Level, Sensitivity, Mix, Pan, Envelope and many more parameters. It also includes its own dedicated delay (1ms - 1195ms) and chorus.
The Vocoder can accept inputs from various source combinations: external Mic and Line input, Mic and sample pad, Line and sample pad and even two different sample pads. If you wish to use the Virtual Analogue Synth as a source you’ll need to sample it to a pad first, then use the pad as one of your sources. The quality and versatility of the Vocoder is excellent, very smooth sounding and quite capable of holding its own against a dedicated unit.
The Voice Transformer (VoT) is a drastically cut down, but nevertheless real-time, version of the Roland VP9000 Variphrase processor. The only VoT controls are Voice pitch, Formant, FX balance and Robot. Formant adjusts the voice characteristics (variable from male to female) and Robot eliminates any pitch present in the voice. The effect works best on a monophonic source and if the Robot control is active the voice pitch can instead be controlled from an external MIDI keyboard. This gives a similar effect to vocoding but is slightly more natural sounding as it doesn’t superimpose any modulation sound over the voice. This effect block also includes a 3-band parametric EQ and a delay section (1ms -1200ms), plus a handful of presets to give an idea of what it’s capable of, which although noticeably lumpy, is surprisingly usable given the right type track.
VOCAL AND GUITAR MULTI EFFECTS
These are two separate stereo Multi-Effects blocks, each with seven different effects sections.
The Guitar block consists of: Compressor, Wah, Drive, Amp Simulator, Noise Suppressor, Delay and Chorus/Flanger.
While the Vocal block includes: Noise Suppressor, Limiter, Enhancer, EQ, Pitch Shifter, Delay and Chorus.
A dozen or so presets are included for each block and these include some very good guitar/amp simulations and vocal effect combinations, enough for most eventualities. Of course you don’t have to use either of these Multi-Effects on guitar or voice and each block has 30 or so programmable controls, enough to keep anyone busy tweaking for a few hours at least.
The SP-808EX bundle includes a triple format CD (Mac/PC/Audio) containing a handful of slightly predictable demo songs intended to show what the new EX can muster. More interesting though are nearly 300 samples, loops, vocals, stabs, pads, kits and sfx covering everything from Electronic, Jazz and Heavy Metal to Techno, Hip Hop and Jungle, in both AIFF and WAV format.
Of real interest to Mac/PC users is the new SP-808/EX Wave Converter utility (v2.0). If you have a Zip drive connected to your Mac/PC or you have a G3 or G4 with a built-in Zip drive this little fella will allow you to transfer AIFF or WAV samples to and from an SP-808 or EX Zip disk in the comfort of your own desktop. The utility has a single small window with 16 pads and a clipboard pad (arranged like the real thing) and transferring AIFF and WAV samples to an SP-808EX Zip disk is just a matter of dragging and dropping files onto the relevant sample pads. It really couldn’t be simpler, well it was on a G3 Mac anyway. And it’s worth noting that when transferring AIFF files any loop points are also retained. The utility allows naming of sample banks (but not samples), performing a Zip Disk Cleanup (to reclaim disc space), and saving and loading of complete sample banks.
What the utility won’t do is save or load EX recorded audio tracks, but there is a work around.
Because the new EX Zips mount as standard DOS discs I found it was possible to drag the contents of a disc to a Mac folder, then drag the files back onto a fresh SP-808EX formatted Zip disc. Viola, a perfect copy and everything reappears on the SP-808EX as it should, including audio tracks, samples, song information and effects settings. In fact I would hazard a guess that this method could be used to permanently backup the data onto a CDR, something not previously available on either the SP-808 or EX. I can’t guarantee this procedure will work on a PC but I can’t see why not.
If you don’t want to, or can’t afford the cost of investing in an OP1 or OP2 SCSI interface but already have access to a Zip drive on your Mac or PC this is an painless and reliable way of backing-up SP-808/EX songs and projects.
So what’s the verdict? Well anyone previously hesitant about buying the 808 is bound to be swayed by the new EX features. The increased recording and sampling times available due to the 250Mb Zip are going to be invaluable for gigging, as this will mean a lot less disc swapping. The effects arsenal now has double the preset and user banks and the quality of the new COSM effects are up to the usual high Roland standard. OK, so the Voice Transformer may not be as glitch free or sophisticated as the revolutionary VP9000 but this cut-down version can transform a sample of any length (which the VP9000 can’t) and is certainly capable of some interesting and useful vocal manipulations.
The lack of support for larger capacity non-Zip external SCSI drives could deter some, as could minor annoyances such as no sample waveform editing. I would like to have seen SCSI included as standard and velocity sensitive pads but these would add to the final cost. But I can wish can’t I ?
Of course the whole DJ, phrase sampling, dance emphasis of the EX isn’t intended to, or going to, appeal to everyone, and getting into the deeper levels and complexities of the unit isn’t achieved overnight either.
However, I pretty much stand by my original review and have no problems recommending the updated SP-808EX to anyone producing dance based music looking for a versatile multitracker/sampler, particularly since the price has remained the same as the original.
Double the recording/sampling time of the original.
Impressive and powerful effects arsenal.
Speedy sampling/editing and multitracking
Useful CD ROM included.
D-Beam is fun and useful on occasions.
Restricted polyphony (4 x stereo).
External SCSI only supports Zip drives.
Can’t name samples, only banks.
No MIDI sequencer.
Pads not velocity sensitive.
Roland have taken the already successful SP-808 doubled the recording/sampling time, included some additional impressive and useful effects and doubled the user and preset banks. The bundle includes a CD full of goodies and they’ve still managed to keep the same price. Don’t worry about the translucent case, you’ll get used to it. Is it any good ? You bet it is and I want one.
PRICES incl. VAT:
OP1 option: £268
OP2 option: £299
SP-808EX FEATURES and SPECIFICATIONS
250 Mb internal Zip drive.
16 Stereo sample Pads
4-Track stereo recorder.
5 Channel Digital Stereo Mixer
298 Effects Patches (149 Preset, 149 User)
25 Effects algorithms, including:
Virtual Analogue Synth/Sequencer
Multi-effects (x7 effects).
includes WAV/AIFF sound library and PC/Mac SP-808/EX wave converter.
A/D & D/A convertors: 20bit
S/N ratio: 92dB
Freq response: 10Hz-21kHz
Maximum recording/sampling times for a 250 Mb Zip disk:
61 minutes @ 44.1 kHz stereo
84 minutes @ 32 kHz stereo
122 minutes @ 44.1 kHz mono
169 minutes @ 32 kHz mono
1,024 (16 pads x 64 banks).
4 x stereo audio tracks or samples.
(any combination not exceeding 4).
64 (2000 events per song)
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
FX send (pre/post fader)
FX insert (pre/post EQ)
Microphone input (mono-unbal/jack).
Auxiliary input (2 x phonos).
Auxiliary output (2 x phonos).
Line input (2 x phonos).
Line output (2 x phonos).
Foot switch (jack).
MIDI in and out and thru.
OP1: 6 x individual phono outs, optical/coax digital in/out and SCSI (Zip only).
OP2: XLR L&R in/out, coax digital in/out and SCSI (Zip only).
ADDITIONAL BOXES / INFO
The EX shares many features of the recently upgraded Roland VS/EX multitrackers, so should potential VS purchasers consider the SP-808EX instead? Possibly, and although the SP-808EX is primarily targeted at the dance music making and remixing fraternity don’t dismiss it too quickly if you don’t fall into any of these brackets.
Admittedly it is more suited to producing electronic based music but that shouldn’t preclude ambient, industrial, experimental and even some of the more off the wall electronic/sample based punk and thrash.
The SP-808EX would also make an ideal companion to an existing keyboard/sequencer set-up or to compliment a slow Mac/PC not quite up to the job of hard disk recording. And anyone mistrustful of computer hard disk recording can worry a lot less with an SP-808 as they are famously stable and are particularly suited for live work. I’ve used both the 808 and EX on numerous occasions and have never had one crash yet.
UPGRADING AN SP-808 TO AN SP-808EX
Officially there isn’t a Roland upgrade path from the 808 to an EX. However, while trawling around the Net it became obvious that there are many original SP-808 owners doing just that. The upgrade can be considered a two stage process, hardware and software. Apart from the flash new case and Zip drive the two beasts are physically identical and if you look hard enough on the Net there’s plenty of advice on performing the necessary Zip surgery. The next stage is to visit the Roland web site and download the SP-808EX OS update (currently at version 1.01) and load this into your 808 as a SysEx dump using a MIDI sequencer. And there you have it, an 808 becomes an 808EX. But is it worth all the bother? Well it could be if you already own an 808, the OS update is free and an internal 250Mb Zip drive will set you back about £150 or so, maybe cheaper if you shop around.
But beware, this fiddling about with the inner workings of an SP-808 is NOT supported or endorsed by either myself or, more importantly, Roland and if it all goes horribly wrong don’t go crying to them saying Chris Carter told me to do it.
THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Not a lot of people know this but...
There is actually another incarnation of the SP-808/EX, the mysterious and rarely seen Edirol A6. The A6 is primarily intended for video post-production work and as such uses slightly different terminology: samples become clips , songs become projects and so on, but physically it is pretty much the same as the 808/EX. It is worth noting that the A6 includes some interesting refinements and differences.
Top of the list is the inclusion of a 2Gb internal IDE hard drive (upgradeable to hefty 16Gb) in place of the lowly 808/EX Zip drive. This allows stereo recording and sampling in excess of nine hours and, I would imagine, none of those annoying ‘Drive Too Busy’ error messages caused by the slow 100Mb Zip. The internal 4-track stereo recorder also borrows a useful feature from the Roland VS multitrackers, it can record 4 physical stereo tracks and 32 virtual tracks. Track editing and sampling is the same as the 808/EX and although the effects bank doesn’t include a Virtual Analogue Synth it does include a Voice Transformer and many other SP-808 effects. Expansion options differ too, with an optional SI-80SP board: offering LANC and EDIT E for frame accurate video sync and the A6-OP1: supplying XLR in/out, digital in/out and SCSI, which by the way, doesn’t impose any of the frustrating Zip only restrictions of the SP808/EX.
Judging from some of the SP808 discussion groups I’m not the first to wonder why Roland decided not to include some of the best A6 features (flexible HD options and virtual tracks) into the new SP-808EX. Roll on the SP-909.
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
21 Guitar Multi *
22 Vocal Multi *
23 Voice Transformer *
24 Mic Simulator *
25 Vocoder *
* New to SP-808EX
Copyright © 2000 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.