Roland SPDSX

Sampling Percussion Pad

Published in SOS October 2012
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Reviews : Electronic Drumkit

Roland's popular SPDS sampling drum pad gains an 'X', and a whole lot more besides, in the SPDSX.

Mark Gordon

Roland SPDSX

As well as making the industry-standard V-Drum kits, Roland have long been a leading light in percussion controllers. Their original Octapad, introduced way back in 1985, became a familiar sight in the New Romantic kits of the day, enabling electronic sounds to be played alongside regular acoustic sounds.

The Octapad gave rise to a generation of percussion controllers, but for me the most complete example was the SPDS Sampling Pad. Released in 2003, the SPDS was basically an Octapad that sampled! Any sound you could imagine was suddenly available at your fingertips — or the end of your stick. But that wasn't all the SPDS had to offer: it had many more tricks up its sleeve, as I discovered when I bought one several years ago. I've been a huge fan ever since, using it live and in the studio, but, as with any piece of hi-tech kit, you always accumulate a feature wish-list, especially with a piece of equipment that's been leading the field for nine years!

Well, it seems that Roland have been listening to their users. The new SPDSX has the tag line 'The Ultimate Percussive Sampling Instrument' and looking at the spec, I think they've come pretty close! They've used the already proven SPDS as a starting point and raised the bar with more sample memory, USB connectivity, a much larger display, and a selection of new features that go far beyond the remit of a simple percussion controller.

This Year's Model

Visually, the SPDSX is an impressive beast. With its sleek black finish, silver buttons and flashing red LEDs, it wouldn't look out of place strapped to the front of Darth Vader in a Star Wars movie.

The playing surface is divided into six pads, with a further three smaller pads (designed to be struck with the shoulder of a drum stick) across the top of the unit. The six main pads are separated by bright red piping, making identifying them on a dark stage much easier. This is a small but very useful enhancement over the original SPDS (mine is marked out with white electrical tape!) and is an example of Roland's attention to detail when upgrading the SPDS. Below each pad is a large LED that lights when the pad is struck and remains lit for the duration of the sample being played. The intensity of the illumination also indicates the sample's volume. For live playing, visual feedback like this can prove invaluable.

Below the playing surface is the control panel, featuring a large, bright LCD. Three 'soft' function buttons enable direct access to various parameters, depending on the currently displayed LCD screen. From the main Kit screen, for example, the soft buttons quickly access pad Volume, Effects and Tempo.

To the left of the LCD are three volume knobs, allowing discrete control over Master Volume, Headphone and Click levels. The click also has a dedicated start/stop button with a flashing LED to give a visual indication of the current tempo. Tempo functions are a big part of the new SPDSX, but I'll come to those later.

Below the volume controls are two knurled silver knobs that enable you to control the SPDSX Master effects in real time, the particular function depending on what's selected by the dedicated Filter, Delay, S-Loop and FX buttons.

To the right of the LCD, a handy Kit button takes you instantly to the main screen, while pressing the Menu button summons six graphics labelled Kit, Pad, FX, System, Setup and Utility, with the Enter button taking you deeper into any selected menu option. You can also access parameters by pressing the Quick button, which instantly conjures a menu relevant to the screen you're looking at: a great time-saving feature.

Of course, the thing that differentiates the SPDSX from its many competitors is the ability to sample, and its many options for doing so are accessed via the dedicated Sample button.

Four cursor keys navigate the display, along with two larger +/- buttons for data entry and scrolling through the kits. Last, but by no means least, are two extremely handy buttons: All Sound Off, which does exactly what it says on the tin, for those 'aaaarggh' moments; and the genius Pad Check button which, when pressed, auditions the sound of the pad being hit, but only through the headphones. It's perfect for double-checking the feel of a loop groove, or exactly which sample you're about to blast out of the PA!

A really great new feature of the SPDSX is that all the major function buttons illuminate when pressed, which is incredibly handy on a dark stage.

Bringing Up The Rear

At the back of the SPDSX are two types of USB port (for sample memory and computer connection, respectively); an input for the external PSU; MIDI I/O ports; stereo quarter-inch audio inputs with accompanying gain control; footswitch and trigger inputs; a pair of subgroup outputs; the main outputs; and a headphone port, all on quarter-inch jack sockets. At the back of the SPDSX are two types of USB port (for sample memory and computer connection, respectively); an input for the external PSU; MIDI I/O ports; stereo quarter-inch audio inputs with accompanying gain control; footswitch and trigger inputs; a pair of subgroup outputs; the main outputs; and a headphone port, all on quarter-inch jack sockets.

At the rear of the unit, neatly housed under the overhang of the shoulder pads, are the various input and output connections. In addition to the Main out jacks, the SPDSX also includes an additional pair of 'subgroup' audio outputs, to which any sample can be routed, and a headphone socket. The trigger inputs have been doubled in number over the old SPDS, from one to two. These are, in fact, dual triggers, so will accept a dual trigger pad/rim-type pad or two separate triggers on each input, giving a potential four trigger input sources.

Similarly, the stereo footswitch sockets allow two footswitches (Roland FS5U or FS6) to be connected. Both the footswitches and the external triggers can be assigned to a number of functions, including changing kit, tap tempo and switching effects on and off.

Two-quarter inch jack sockets (left and right) are provided for sampling audio into the SPDSX, with a gain knob next to the sockets enabling you to adjust input sensitivity from 'Mic' at one extreme to 'Line' level at the other. Having the level control on the rear of the unit is a little awkward at times, and I'd have greatly preferred it alongside the LCD display, but fine adjustments to recording level can be made on screen in the Sampling window, so it's not a big problem.

MIDI In and Out ports are provided alongside the PSU socket, which includes a neat cable-fastening hook for security. The SPDSX is fitted with two USB sockets: one for connecting a USB Flash drive, for the saving or importing of samples, and a second for connecting the SPDSX to a Mac or PC. Direct connection to a computer is a welcome addition and opens up a number of options. The SPDSX can be used as a basic audio interface, playing back audio from your DAW through the audio outputs while you play along on the pads or, via the supplied SPDSX Wave Manager software, you can import audio directly from computer and 'drag and drop' samples onto the pads. This makes configuring and managing kits an absolute breeze.

Pandora's Box

The SPDSX's front panel is designed for ease of use, especially — with its numerous LEDs and red pad-dividing lines — in the low lighting conditions of your average gig. The SPDSX's front panel is designed for ease of use, especially — with its numerous LEDs and red pad-dividing lines — in the low lighting conditions of your average gig.

The SPDSX ships with surprisingly few preset kits: only 16 of the 100 locations are filled, and most of these presets are not drum samples but loops, bass-lines and swirly keyboard pads. Although this is a sampler, not a preset device, a few more sample kits pre-loaded to get you started would have been nice. Lots of drum samples, including 20 kicks, 25 snares and a whole raft of loops and 'effects', are included on the Wave Manager CD, so there's material to load up if you need it.

The SPDSX plays very nicely: the pads feel solid, have a good bounce to them and are very responsive. The level of control over each pad is impressive, with not only individual volume and pan settings, but also assignable mute groups, dynamics, polyphonic or monophonic triggering and loop, phrase or one-shot modes all on offer. An on-screen 'matrix' display makes adjusting individual parameters for each pad very easy. Hitting a pad instantly selects it and displays its settings, ready for editing, so you can move around a whole kit very quickly.

Ultimately, though, sampling is what the SPDSX is all about, and it really couldn't be made any easier.

The dedicated Sampling button takes you to the Sampling screen, which offers six options: Basic, Multi, Merge, With FX, Chop or Perform & Record. The simplest is, as you might expect, Basic, where you can quickly record audio into the SPDSX, via either the analogue rear-panel inputs or USB socket, and assign that sample to a pad.

The Basic sampling screen displays a stereo level meter to indicate the incoming audio level, and you can adjust input level here without having to reach around the back to the gain knob, as I mentioned earlier. The currently selected Kit number is displayed alongside the pad number the sample will be assigned to. This can be changed with the +/- keys, or by simply hitting the pad you wish to use, making the whole process very intuitive

Two of the 'soft keys' under the display are assigned to start and stop recording although, more conveniently, you can set an 'Auto Start' level to initiate sampling when the input exceeds the threshold you've set. I had no problems using this method, with no noticeable clipping of the start of the recording. Sampling is completed by pressing the Stop button, whereupon a preview screen lets you view the waveform and edit start and end points. The large LCD makes this easy: the graphic display is zoomable, and there's also a numeric sample readout. When you're done editing, the sample is 'saved' to the selected pad and you can return to the Kit screen or continue sampling. The process is so quick and easy that it's possible to sample a whole kit in a matter of minutes.

Multi Sampling allows you to successively sample material to multiple pads, simply by hitting each pad in turn. It really has to be seen to be truly appreciated — and hugely enjoyed! As the source material plays into the SPDSX, hitting a pad samples it directly to that pad, until the next one is hit, and so on, until either all pads have been 'sampled to' or you stop the process manually.

If you hit each pad on the beat and in time as each section of a source song plays, you can sample an intro into pad one, the first part of the verse into pad two, the second part into pad three, chorus into pad four, and so on. In the time it takes the track to play through, you can deconstruct it into a selection of grooves and loops, with each one assigned to a different pad. You can then 'remix' the track live by simply hitting pads in any order, triggering different parts of the song. Start incorporating the real-time effects and delving deeper into what the SPDSX has to offer, and it becomes far more than a percussion controller, with its size nines squarely in the live DJ and remix arena. The massive 2GB internal memory allows around 180 minutes of recording in stereo (albeit limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz), which should be enough for anyone.

The remaining Sampling modes expand on the Basic and Multi Sample modes, enabling the manipulation of existing waves: Merge combines two existing samples into a new waveform; Chop lets you create new samples by chopping up existing waves into smaller sections and assigning them to their own pads; FX resamples a wave to another pad with the SPDSX effects applied; and with Perform & Record you can record an SPDSX pad performance back into the unit as a single sample. This is great for creating loops and unique performances, to then trigger from a single pad.

A Hit?

The SPDSX has come a long way from its previous SPDS incarnation as a sampling percussion controller aimed primarily at drummers wanting to expand their sonic arsenals. The new features not only read like a list of wishes that have been granted to drummers, but also take the SPDSX into a whole new arena of DJ'ing and live remixing.

The large display and intuitive operation make working with the SPDSX simple and pleasant: you can be up and running in a matter of minutes. But there's plenty of depth on offer too, with the huge feature set offering a pleasing level of flexibility. Add to this the new and handy functions like Pad Check and Quick Menu buttons, and it really is hard to find anything to criticise. Perhaps the one area in which the SPDSX doesn't excel is the Wave Manager software. With the addition of computer connectivity, I was hoping for more functionality than is actually available, but I hope extra features will be forthcoming with updates.

To sum up, then, the SPDSX is an incredible tool for drummers, percussionists, and now DJs and remixers, with a feature set that seems hard to improve upon. Now, is anyone interested in a slightly used SPDS?  .

Alternatives

The SPDSX really is a unique piece of kit, with its ability to sample directly, manipulate and edit the samples and play them back from one of nine separate pads, but there are a number of machines that could be good alternatives and offer similar features. The Roland Octapad SPD30 is the latest incarnation of the original Octapad. Similar to the SPDSX in both look and features, the Octapad features 670 built-in sounds rather than having the ability to sample.

The DTX-Multi 12 is Yamaha's answer to the SPDSX and Octapad. It's a very sturdy percussion controller with 12 trigger pads and five trigger inputs, offering both built-in sounds and the ability to play back samples imported via USB.

At the cheaper end of the market, the Alesis Sample Pad offers the ability to import WAV files via an SD card slot to any of its four pads, in addition to the 25 on-board drum and percussion sounds already built in. The Alesis Performance Pad and its higher-spec brother, the Performance Pad Pro, include up to 500 drum and percussion sounds, along with built in drum-machine functionality to record and play back your own patterns.

The Full Effect

The SPDSX provides two separate effects dedicated to each kit and a further master effect that can be applied globally. The dedicated kit effects (FX1 and FX2) are chosen from 20 types — reverbs, EQ and compressors, through to filters, phasers and delays — all with their own range of editable parameters. Each effect can then be applied on a per-pad basis within a kit, although each pad can only be routed through either FX1 or FX2 (not both).

The Master Effects are enabled via the four dedicated front-panel buttons: Filter, Delay, S-Loop (short looper) and FX. Pressing one of the buttons applies the chosen effect across the whole of the currently selected kit. Two preset parameters for the effect can then be adjusted in real time using the two knurled control knobs.

Each of the four Master Effects has a number of variations. For example, you can assign one of five different delay types to the Delay button or six different Filter types (HPF, LPF, and so on) to the Filter button. The FX button can have any of the SPDSX's 20 built-in effects assigned to it, so you can select anything from a Phaser to an Auto Wah, giving you a considerable degree of flexibility. This feature is primarily a performance tool, but very much extends the SPDSX's appeal to the DJ market.

Click & Tempo Functions

Both live DJs/remixers and drummers can take full advantage of the new tempo-related features of the SPDSX. Each kit can be assigned its own tempo, which is displayed on the LCD. It's also indicated by the large, flashing tempo LED and, should you choose to turn it on, an audio click which has its own volume and can be routed to any of the audio outputs. For a drummer playing live, this is an excellent feature. A whole set could be stored in the SPDSX, with each song having its own tempo and click-track sent directly to headphones. If you know the tempo of the loops and samples you're using, this can be manually entered, or you can use the Tempo Match feature. Simply enter the time signature and beat length, and the SPDSX calculates the tempo of the loop. Not only will this provide a metronome in time with your loops, it also means that beat-based effects such as the Stereo Sync Delay and Modulated Filters work in time.

If Tempo Sync is enabled on any pad, the sample assigned to it will change playback speed according to the performance tempo. Obviously, huge changes in tempo may cause the audio playback to degrade, but just being able to knock a song tempo down by a few bpm and have all the loops follow is great!

USB: Easy As One Two Three

I found the old SPDS's lack of computer connectivity quite frustrating (if understandable, given its age). With all my samples either created or stored on my Mac, it would be very handy to be import and manage them using a computer. Enter the SPDSX... I've touched elsewhere on the fact that you can use the SPDSX as a simple audio interface for your computer, and also play audio directly in via USB. The Wave Manager software adds to this functionality by giving you a simple computer interface for importing samples into the SPDSX, and configuring kits graphically by dragging and dropping samples onto the pads.

Wave Manager is a very basic program. It's not a wave editor, nor does it allow you to configure any of the effects, output routing or other SPDSX functions, which is a little disappointing. It's most definitely a big advantage to be able to configure a number of kits for a live set graphically on screen, but deeper functionality would have been so useful. As it's software, maybe this will happen over time. I do hope so!

Roland SPDSX £669$799
pros
Very easy to use.
Intuitive sampling.
Impressive tempo features.
cons
Few preset kits.
Wave Manager software needs more functionality.
Only operates at 16-bit/44.1kHz.
summary
The SPDSX is both a tremendous tool and great fun to use. It's a serious upgrade on the old SPDS, introducing a list of new features that not only massively enhance its credentials as a percussion tool, but also move it into new and exciting areas of music production and performance.
information
£669 including VAT.
Roland UK +44 (0)1792 702701.
$799.
Roland US +1 323 890 3700.

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