Roland SP808EX

Sampling Workstation

Published in SOS August 2000
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Reviews : Sampling Workstation

Two years after its launch, Roland's innovative SP808 sampling workstation has undergone a dramatic change in appearance, and also now benefits from new effects and improved Zip drive storage. Chris Carter embarks on an affair with an EX...

Back in SOS August '98 I reviewed the original Roland SP808, a keyboardless synth/sampler/multitracking workstation. At the time, groove was king and the SP808 was the 'Groove Sampler': now, two years on, it has been reborn as the SP808EX eMix Studio. A slightly less catchy title, but a more apt description.

So has the SP808 been transformed in more than name? Well, the most obvious change is that the brooding black-and-red livery of the original has been replaced by an iMac-inspired translucent case, highlighted with areas of pearlised purple and black. However, there are also differences under the bonnet: the updated EX includes fancy new effects algorithms and, most importantly, a larger and faster 250Mb Zip drive.

The physical layout, operating system, connectivity and day-to-day operation of the SP808EX 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. The SP808EX incorporates a hard disk recorder capable of recording four stereo tracks, a five-stereo channel digital mixer, a 16-pad, 64-bank stereo

ROLAND SP808EX £1099
pros
Double the recording/sampling time of the original.
Impressive and powerful effects.
Speedy sampling, editing and multitracking.
Useful CD-ROM included.
D-Beam is fun and useful.
cons
Polyphony still restricted to four stereo parts.
SCSI options only support Zips.
No MIDI sequencer.
Pads not velocity-sensitive.
summary
Roland have taken the successful SP808, doubled the recording/sampling time, included some additional impressive and useful effects, and doubled the number of user and preset banks. The bundle includes a CD full of goodies and they've still managed to keep the same price. Is it any good? You bet it is.

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 to speak of as everything is recorded, saved and played back directly from the built-in Zip drive. This means that recording and sampling times are limited not by the number of SIMMs you can afford, but by the amount of free disk space available.

Zippy Stardust

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 disk. However, you can now use the SP808EX -- unlike its predecessor -- without a disk 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, you can use the D-Beam or a MIDI keyboard to play it as a stand-alone virtual analogue synth.

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 a minor irritation, and the extended recording and sampling times now available stretch to a staggering 169 minutes at the 32kHz mono setting and 61 minutes at the 44.1kHz stereo setting. Not many samplers offer these kinds of figures straight out of the box.

If you are moving up 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 differences in the disk format. When using older (and slower) 100Mb Zip disks in the EX you also 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. With the EX, therefore, it's best to stay with 250Mb disks 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 SCSI Zip drive to hand, there's a Convert Disk function which allows you to transfer the contents of an 808 Zip disk onto a blank 250Mb EX Zip disk.

Modelling

The SP808EX adds five new COSM effects algorithms to the original quotient: Mic Simulator, Vocoder, Voice Transformer, Guitar Multi and Vocal Multi. 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 from Line, Condenser, Dynamic, Headset, and mic output types from 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 acquire 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 d

  SP808EX Features & Specifications  
  FEATURES IN BRIEF
250Mb internal Zip drive.
16 stereo sample Pads.
Four-stereo track audio recorder.
Five-stereo channel digital mixer.
D-Beam controller.
298 effects patches (149 preset, 149 user).
25 effects algorithms.
20-bit A-D and D-A convertors.
92dB Signal-to-noise ratio.
10Hz-21kHz Frequency response.
1,024 samples (16 pads x 64 banks).
64 songs (with up to 2000 events per song).

MAXIMUM RECORDING/SAMPLING TIMES
61 minutes at 44.1kHz stereo.
84 minutes at 32kHz stereo.
122 minutes at 44.1kHz mono.
169 minutes at 32kHz mono.

(Times quoted assume storage on a 250Mb Zip disk.)

INTERFACE OPTIONS
OP1 (six individual phono outs, optical/co-axial digital in/out and SCSI).
OP2 (XLR stereo in/out, co-axial digitalin/out and SCSI).
(The SCSI interface supplied with the OP1 and OP2 options works only with Zip drives.)

 
edicated delay (adjustable from 1mS to 1195mS) and chorus. The Vocoder can accept carrier and modulator 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, though, 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, and the results are very smooth-sounding and quite capable of holding their 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. 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, plus a handful of presets to give an idea of what it's capable of. Although noticeably lumpy, the VoT is surprisingly usable given the right type of track.

The Guitar and Vocal Multis consist of two separate stereo multi-effects blocks, each with seven different effects sections. The Guitar block

  SP808 Into SP808EX?  
  Officially there isn't a Roland upgrade path from the 808 to the EX. However, while trawling around the Internet it became obvious that many original SP808 owners are doing just that. 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 SP808EX 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 SP808: the OS update is free and an internal 250Mb Zip drive will set you back about £150 or so, perhaps less if you shop around.

But beware. Fiddling with the inner workings of an SP808 is not supported or endorsed by either SOS, myself, or Roland, and will invalidate your warranty, so if it all goes horribly wrong don't go crying to them saying "Chris Carter told me to do it..."

 
offers 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 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.

Big Softy

The SP808EX bundle includes a triple-format CD (Mac, PC and 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 sound effects 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 and PC users is the new SP808EX Wave Converter v2.0 utility. If you have a Zip drive connected to your Mac or PC, this program will allow you to transfer AIFF or WAV samples to and from an SP808 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 SP808EX Zip disk is just a matter of dragging and dropping files onto the relevant sample pads. It really couldn't be simpler, at least on the G3 Mac I tried it with! And it's worth noting that loop points are also retained when transferring AIFF files. The utility also allows y

  The Same But Different...  
  Not a lot of people know this but... There is actually another incarnation of the SP808EX, the mysterious and rarely seen Edirol A6 (www.edirol.co.uk). 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 SP808EX. 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 a hefty 16Gb) in place of the SP808EX's lowly Zip drive. This allows stereo recording and sampling times in excess of nine hours and,
I would imagine, none of those annoying 'Drive Too Busy' error messages caused by the slow 100Mb Zip disks. The internal 4-track stereo recorder also borrows a useful feature from the Roland VS multitrackers: it can record four physical stereo tracks and 32 virtual tracks. Track editing and sampling is the same as on the SP808EX, and although the effects bank doesn't include a Virtual Analogue Synth, it does include a Voice Transformer and many other SP808 effects. Expansion options differ too; there's an optional SI80SP board offering LANC and EDIT E for frame-accurate video sync, and the A6 OP1, which supplies XLR in/out, digital in/out and SCSI, and doesn't impose any of the frustrating Zip-only restrictions of the SP808EX.

Judging from comments made on some of the SP808 Internet 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 SP808EX.

 
ou to name sample banks (but not samples), perform a Zip Disk Cleanup (to reclaim disk space), and to save and load complete sample banks.

What the utility won't do, however, is save or load EX-recorded audio tracks -- but there is a workaround. Because the new EX Zips mount as standard DOS disks, I found it was possible to drag the contents of a disk to a Mac folder, then drag the files back onto a fresh SP808EX-formatted Zip disk. You end up with a perfect copy and everything reappears on the SP808EX 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 back up the data onto a CD-R, something not previously available on either the SP808 or EX. I can't guarantee that 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 SP808EX songs and projects.

On Target

The EX shares many features of the recently upgraded Roland VS/EX multitrackers, so should potential VS purchasers consider the SP808EX instead? Possibly, and although the SP808EX 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 off-the-wall electronic/sample-based punk and thrash.

The SP808EX would also make an ideal companion to an existing keyboard and sequencer setup or to complement a slow Mac/PC not quite up to the job of hard disk recording. And those mistrustful of computer hard disk recording may be attracted to the SP808, as they are famously stable and are particularly suited to live work. I've used both the 808 and EX on numerous occasions, and have never had one crash yet.

Ex Appeal

So what's the verdict? Well, anyone previously hesitant about buying the 808 is bound to be swayed by the EX's new features. The increased recording and sampling times available thanks to the 250Mb Zip

  DSP Effects Algorithms  
 
01 Isolator & Filter
02 Centre 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 SDD320 Chorus
11 SBF325 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 Synth21 Guitar Multi *
22 Vocal Multi *
23 Voice Transformer *
24 Mic Simulator *
25 Vocoder *
* New to SP808EX
 
are going to be invaluable for gigging, as this will mean a lot less disk-swapping. The effects arsenal now has double the number of preset and user banks, and the quality of the new COSM effects is 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 the lack of 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.

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 takes a while. However, I still have no problems recommending the updated SP808EX to anyone producing dance-based music looking for a versatile multitracker/sampler, particularly since the price has remained the same as the original.

 information
SP808EX £1099;
OP1 expansion board £268;
OP2 expansion board £299.
Prices include VAT.
Roland UK Brochure Line
+44 (0)1792 515020.
+44 (0)1792 799644.
www.roland.co.uk

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