Five years ago, when I received a prototype of the Roland S770 sampler to work on its basic sound library, it didn't take me long to realise (despite an unfinished operating system) that the hardware of this machine had all the facets I had been looking for in a sampler -- the most faithful reproduction quality and the sweetest sounding filters I had ever heard from a sampler, plus a full complement of hardware interfacing (SCSI, Digital I/O and RGB visual output). These are the features of a sampler which cannot be corrected with software updates and rarely with hardware upgrades. Software improvements are always possible, providing that the hardware is up to scratch.
The only real problem with the S770 for most potential users was the price. At the best part of £5000, it fell beyond the budget of most musicians, myself included. However, I got to use one a fair bit when working for Roland US on developing the sound library and also with various programming clients who did have the means to buy one, but even the reductions in price which come with time did little to bring the machine within my price range.
Then came some good news in the form of the S750. At first it appeared that by dropping the internal hard drive and little else, Roland had managed to keep all the desirable features of the S770 while delivering a more affordable machine, at around three grand. The SCSI was still there, so you could add a hard drive of your choice and be no worse off. However, scrutiny of the back panel revealed that not only was there no digital interface as standard, but that no optional upgrade could be added either -- a fatal flaw in a professional sampler for the '90s.
So I returned to making do with using a friend's S770 when the need arose. He also bought a Roland SP700 sample player, when they were released earlier this year, mainly for its additional ability to read Akai S1000 format disks. Again, it looked tempting, especially as it was now under £2000, but I just couldn't see myself splashing out that sort of money for something that I couldn't actually sample with (particularly since it too lacked the potential for digital interfacing).
At the Audio Engineering Society show in New York last October, I chanced to see my old friend Eric Persing (with whom I had collaborated on the original sound library development for Roland US) giving a demonstration of the CD-ROM library for the S770/750 that he has been getting together for Roland in the States (perhaps the most comprehensive library ever produced by a sampler manufacturer, although unfortunately running a little late in terms of projected release dates). I paid little attention but was later told that he had been conducting this demonstration on a new Roland sampler that would list for less than $3000. I rushed back to the Roland stand to discover what this new machine was and what its capabilities were. Eric filled me in; it was called the S760, it had exactly the same sound quality and filters as the S770 and although the digital interfacing and RGB output for screen/mouse control were not standard, the rumoured $3000 price point included the optional board, giving you both these features. This seemed almost too good to be true, so upon returning to the UK I double-checked with Roland here and they confirmed that the S760 with its optional RGB/Digital Interface board would cost around £2000.
And here I am now with one sitting in front of me (admittedly without the optional card, which wasn't shipped with the first units) and the price tag is just £1699. At this price point, the S760 represents incredible value for money, being the cheapest 16-bit stereo sampler on the market (although Akai UK recently reduced their S2800 to £1999 as a response). Roland's price includes a free CD-ROM, offering a generous selection of sounds from across the entire Roland library. Although this collection is humbly described by Roland as a 'preview', it is a very comprehensive selection of extremely usable sounds (and I'm not just saying this because a few of my original sounds for the S770 are included). As you can now buy CD-ROM drives for under £200 and the S760's SCSI interface is standard (when will Akai learn?), the Roland unit has numerous advantages over the basic S2800, not least its ability to read S1000 sounds (like the aforementioned SP700).
For those of you who are not intimately familiar with Roland's S770/750 samplers (ie. the less well-heeled majority, I suspect), let us have a look at those features which make the S760 the equal of its ancestors -- a pint in a half-pint pot. Did I forget to mention that all this power is crammed into a single rack space? Although this is not the first 16-bit sampler to appear in a 1U guise (the Cheetah SX16 took that honour), the S760 packs considerably more into that space than any previous sampler. Personally I really like machines which are compact. So often you run out of space in your rack before you have all the components you need, and then things get both bulky and heavy. I take my hat off to Roland for squeezing so much power into a single rack space.
Many people measure the power of a sampler these days by its RAM capacity. Although the S760 is only delivered with 2Mb of RAM (and who could expect any more at this price?) it can be internally expanded to 32Mb, which will be glad tidings to those who still like to sample great chunks of music in the form of drum and other loops (haven't you heard of hard disk recording, guys?) or who want to load multiple instruments for playback on different MIDI channels (a much more sensible use of samplers in this writer's book). This memory expansion is done via industry standard SIMM chips, which have suffered from a worldwide price increase recently (don't tell me you haven't heard the story about the factory in Japan burning down?), but cannot remain at this price forever. Even if there has been a blip in the normal downward trend of memory pricing, I would still rather be tied to the free market of SIMMs pricing than have the manufacturer and a few small third party vendors as my only sources for RAM expansion.
Another major yardstick for sampler power is polyphony, and at 24 voices the S760 is well provided for. This means that it can deal with multiple MIDI channels or layered patches without running out of voices. The S760 samples at the industry standard rates of 44.1 and 48kHz (vital for the optional digital interfacing), as well as lower rates for those who prefer frugality with memory over full bandwidth. Personally, I would always prefer to use the standard sampling rates as you never know when you will want to transfer or mix something in the digital domain (an increasingly important factor in the future).
One area where the S760 does not quite match up to its elder brothers is in the number of inputs and outputs. It has completely lost the Mic level inputs on XLR (no great loss for anyone with even the most basic of mixers) and the outputs have been reduced to four (configurable as two stereo L/R pairs or four separate mono outs). Whilst this is obviously a limitation, you wouldn't believe the number of people who mutter on endlessly about needing separate outputs on samplers and then when I take a look behind their racks, these are never wired in! I rarely end up using more than four, personally. To put this all in context, don't forget that Akai's more expensive S2800 only has a stereo out and that you have to pay considerably more than that to get eight.
The display on the S760 is amazingly informative for its size, able to show actual waveform data and keyboard maps in its backlit 160 x 64 LCD. There is no doubt, however, that connecting the RGB monitor output on the optional board to a TV, together with the mouse (included in the expansion package), will greatly increase the speed of operation and the amount of data you can see at once (just like the S760's predecessors).
Since the optional RGB board was not available on the review model, I had to use the switches and knobs on the front panel to get around the machine. This takes a little getting used to, as the ubiquitous Enter button is not present on the S760. In fact, the S1 switch doubles as both a confirmation button and the decrement button. But the thing that had me foxed for quite a while was the need to push the Value knob to make the menus for each mode appear. The current assignment of the Function buttons is shown in the three positions across the bottom of the LCD window, which is also not obvious at first. However, once you get the hang of the S760's slightly different approach, you are whizzing around just as fast as on any other sampler's front panel.
My biggest complaint about the S760 is the same as for all other samplers on the market, except the Akai machines of course. There is no resident operating system in ROM, so the system has to be present on either a floppy disk or a hard drive on power-up. This wangle is normally justified by all manufacturers as allowing easy upgrades on floppy disk, but then I've never noticed any problem about loading higher operating systems from floppy into any of the Akai samplers -- and they have their system on ROM. In so many situations it saves you from having no operating system at all (so many undesirable things can happen to a floppy or hard disk).
The internal architecture of the S760 is very similar to that of its Roland predecessors. The lowest form of life (so to speak) is the individual Sample, four of which can be combined into a Partial (complete with filter/volume enveloping and LFO modulation). Partials are combined across the keyboard into Patches and then Patches are assigned their own MIDI channels, volume levels and keyboard range to make up a Performance.
When the S770 first appeared, you had to make a Sample, name it, put it in a Partial, name that, put that in a Patch, name that, put that in a Performance and then name that. Long-winded? You bet! Happily, those days are gone. Now there is an option in Performance mode called 'Q-Samp' (presumably short for Quick Sampling), which will take one name and apply it to Sample, Partial, Patch and Performance. This takes all the tedious repetitive work out of assigning samples all the way up the hierarchy. You can make multiple samples directly into a Performance, assigning them and their Partials to different zones across the MIDI range.
Once you have set your input record levels using the LCD metering and the hardware input level knob, pressing any one of the Function keys will initiate sampling. The sample waveform is displayed on the LCD and can be auditioned via MIDI.
If you sampled used Q-Samp, then you'll be pleased to know there is also a Q-Edit option within Performance. This gives you access to the most common parameters that need to be adjusted. However, for full access to all the available parameters, you will need to go to the individual Mode screens of Sample, Partial, Patch and Performance.
In Sample mode, you can perform a multitude of automatic operations which actually alter the sample data. These include Loop Smoothing (normally referred to as crossfade looping), Auto Truncate (which removes recorded silence before and after the sample) and Normalize (which expands the sample data to use the full dynamic range available from 16 bits), Time Stretch from 25% to 400% (4 times playback speed to 1/4 playback speed), Digital Filtering (Low Pass or Hi Pass), Compress/Expand (with Threshold, Attack and Release controls), Sample Rate Convert (which can be used to re-tune samples permanently, as well as to ready samples for transfer in the digital domain), and finally Bit Convert (down to anything from 15-bit to 1-bit, for emulating that authentic early Fairlight/Mirage dodgy sample quality!). This is a phenomenal range of functions for a sampler -- at any price -- and the quality of all is superb (except for the Bit Convert, of course, which is designed to deliberately decrease the sound quality).
In addition, there are the more standard manual editing functions like Looping (forward, forward and release, one-shot forward and one-shot, alternate, reverse one-shot and plain reverse), standard Truncate, Cut & Splice, Insert and Zeroing, plus more advanced functions like sample Mixing and Combining.
In Partial Mode, you can adjust the sample's level, panning, output assignment, coarse and fine tuning, velocity sample mix, filter mode (Low, Band or Hi Pass), cutoff frequency and resonance (with modulation from key follow, velocity and enveloping), amplitude envelope, and LFO mod. Both TVF (filter) and TVA (amplifier) envelopes are 6-stage types, and there are eight LFO waveforms and four velocity curves available. Again, this is the most comprehensive list of parameters I have ever seen for the modification of samples on playback and allows amazing subtlety to be added to your performance.
Patch Mode allows similar control of level, panning, output assign, priority (when polyphony is running out), octave shift, coarse and fine tune, and offsets for filter cutoff, resonance, attack, release and velocity sensitivity for all the partials in a Patch. It also contains a parameter called 'Analog Feel', which introduces a subtle pitch modulation which adds thickness and depth to samples, imitating the character of analogue synths.
In Performance Mode you control which Patches you have available, along with their MIDI channel, level, pan position, output assignment, and tuning. The same offsets are available as in Patch Mode. Add to this the MIDI Filtering and Monitoring, Polyphony Monitoring and Performance Equalisation functions, and you have amazing feedback and fine tuning available over your performances.
All in all, the S760 offers a greater complexity of parameter control and digital processing than any other sampler I have ever used but with the added benefit of the Quick Edit facility, for those who don't wish to dive right in at the deep end or who only ever make the minimum of alterations to their raw samples.
Pound for pound, the S760 delivers more than any other sampler I have previously worked with. Sonically, it is the equal of its more expensive predecessors and superior to most higher-priced machines from other manufacturers. Feature-wise, it cannot be beaten without spending considerably more money -- and in the case of the Digital Processing functions, not at any price. It has access to a very broad library of sounds, both from the entire history of Roland samplers and all Akai SCSI-stored sounds, and its own sample and filtering quality is second to none. Adding the optional expansion board still keeps the total price under two grand, making the S760 an unbeatable package of programmability and professional features. The fact that Akai have reduced the S2800 to match this price shows just how seriously they take this new contender. And so should you!
Although the S760 is a pretty outstanding machine in its basic form, the promised OP760-1 (the first of several?) expansion card will make it an even more powerful contender. For under £300 it gives you: multiple digital interfacing; an RGB output, allowing you to use a monitor to display a much larger screen for programming; a mouse, to control the screen pointer.
The digital interface capability is SPDIF (the more economical consumer format) and gives you a stereo input and two stereo outs. This unique provision means that, in this area, the upgraded S760 will outshine both the S750 (which could not be upgraded for digital interfacing) and the S770 (which only has one stereo in and one stereo out), not to mention any other sampler of which this writer is aware! It will, of course, also allow you to have four extra outputs via DAT machines or some other form of D-to-A conversion, if the four analogue outputs are insufficient for your needs!
In terms of programmability, adding an RGB screen and using it in conjunction with the mouse will dramatically increase your speed of operation and the accuracy of sample editing, looping, and other tasks where it really pays to have a large waveform display capability. This feature has been one of the major advantages of the Roland samplers and really moves the S760 up into contention with any sampler at any price.
The £299 SRP of the OP760-1 would be well justified for either the Digital I/O facility or the RGB output and mouse, but with the two together it seems like a must for any S760 owner.
For those who prefer not to sample and edit their own sounds but wish to use sound libraries so they can get on with making music (I remember thinking that way a long time ago), the S760 can draw not just on the entire Roland sound library from the S770 and before, but also on sounds from the Akai S1000 library. This is done using the Convert Load function -- although you would never guess this from reading the manual. In the section on Convert Load, it only mentions the capability to take sounds from S550/W30 CD-ROMs (far less interesting, in my book, than being able to load S1000 CD-ROMs or other SCSI-stored material). I had a similar problem recently with finding any reference to loading MIDI Song Files in the manual of the MC50 MkII sequencer, which was updated from the original specifically to be able to read such files! Do Roland really want to hide their light under a bushel?
However, fear not, the S760 will actually load S1000 sounds from any SCSI device, including CD-ROM drives, Syquest cartridges, Optical drives and fixed hard drives. I tested this with various different drives and, for the most part, the conversion was faultless. The only problem I found was when the S1000 samples had large tuning offsets, which were not always picked up during conversion, but this was only on one or two sounds out of several hundred that I tried over a two-week period.
Unfortunately, you cannot load S1000 sounds from floppy disk, nor sounds from the more recent Akai 3000 Series samplers. However, Roland are likely to expand the capabilities of the Convert Load feature to cover these in future software updates.
Sample and filtering quality second to none.
Most comprehensive parameters yet seen for modification of samples on playback.
Quick Edit facility, for easy alterations to raw samples.
Reads Akai S1000 format sounds over SCSI.
RGB monitor output.
Fewer outputs than predecessors (four).
No ROM-resident operating system.
Can't read S1000 sounds from floppy disk.
Best value 16-bit stereo sampler on the market today. Fabulous range of features for the price.
£ S760 £1699 inc VAT.OP760-1 expansion board £299 inc VAT.
A Roland UK Ltd, Ancells Business Park, Fleet, Hampshire, GU13 8UY.
T 0252 816181.
F 0252 812879.