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Boss Dr Sample SP303

Phrase Sampler By Chris Carter
Published August 2001


Boss were one of the first companies to make a compact, budget phrase sampler, in the form of the Dr Sample SP202. Similar products soon followed from other manufacturers, but now, three years on, Boss are making their bid to regain the lead. Chris Carter examines this newly qualified Doctor...

The Dr Sample SP303 is an updated version of the original SP202, which I reviewed for SOS back in 1997. Although it seems like only yesterday that I was unpacking the SP202, three years is a long time in the changing world of electronic music gear, and as with many pieces of kit that are upgraded after a few years, some features on the new SP303 have improved while others have been omitted, presumably to save on production costs. Gone, therefore, are the built‑in microphone and battery‑power option of the 202, but the overall capabilities have been greatly enhanced, and now include resampling, a sequencer, more effects and real‑time controls; and all of these are presented in a smaller, neater unit.

Though all samplers can sample, the SP303 belongs to that distinct variety known as phrase samplers. Fully featured samplers can play back loops and phrases like the SP303, but they can also map samples of individual notes chromatically across a keyboard to emulate a real instrument. The SP303, like the SP202, is not capable of this, and is therefore clearly aimed at users who are content to play back sampled loops or phrases at the speed at which they were sampled.


The pattern sequencer, sampling and bank selection (card and internal memory) controls.The pattern sequencer, sampling and bank selection (card and internal memory) controls.

Although this Dr Sample has roughly the same footprint as its predecessor, it is less brick‑like, with a noticeably slimmer profile. The busy top‑panel control surface utilises Roland's now‑familiar illuminated rubber multi‑function buttons for sampling, editing, bank selection, sequencer functions and general housekeeping duties. The lower section of the top panel includes eight large sample pads, which also double as sequencer Pattern selectors, while the upper half contains the output and effects section. In addition to a Volume control, the SP303 sports three additional real‑time controller knobs (pictured below) labelled Cutoff (Ctrl 1), Resonance (Ctrl 2) and Drive (Ctrl 3) for tweaking the standard 'Filter+Overdrive' effect, but whose functions also vary depending on the current mode of operation.

Compared to the control panel the rear connections are minimal but functional, with just two pairs of stereo phonos for line input and output, a single MIDI input socket, an On/Off switch and a 9V socket. At the front end of the unit are a quarter‑inch microphone socket, a small recessed Mic Level control, a headphone socket, and a SmartMedia memory card slot.

A couple of useful extra features are the lockable cover for the SmartMedia card, and the slot on the rear for attaching a Kensington security cable. These are relatively basic security features, but should help to deter chancers from walking off with your precious Dr Sample and its contents.

Memory & Sample Storage

The front‑edge panel allows convenient access to the headphone jack, lockable SmartMedia slot, mic level control and mic input.The front‑edge panel allows convenient access to the headphone jack, lockable SmartMedia slot, mic level control and mic input.

The sample and sequence memory is divided across eight pads using two internal banks and two card‑based banks, giving a total of 32 samples when a SmartMedia card is in the slot (see the 'Specification' box opposite). Using just the internal memory, which is less than 1Mb, you get approximately 30 seconds of 44.1kHz mono sampling. However, slip in a 64Mb SmartMedia card (which cost between £50 and £70 in the UK from high‑street electronics or camera retailers), and sampling times jump to an incredible 33 minutes of 44.1kHz mono sampling (around 15 minutes in stereo). This is an astounding amount of sampling time for such a small and relatively basic sampler — although as on the SP202, the samples you store are data‑compressed by a proprietary Roland algorithm. With such sample capacity, you can hold sway over banks full of high‑quality loops or, equally, have complete stereo mixes at your fingertips.

A useful memory‑related feature is the SP303's ability to import AIFF and WAV audio files from the memory card. To achieve this, you need a SmartMedia card reader for your PC or Mac. These are available in various forms, the most popular being USB readers for desktop computers and PCMCIA types for laptops. A card reader shouldn't cost more than £40 to £50 in the UK, but could save time in the long run, as you could then use a software editing package to trim, tidy and normalise samples on your computer (these are all features that the SP303 isn't great at), and then import the finished work to the SP303 via the SmartMedia card. This would also allow you to keep sample backups on your computer.

However, there is a significant limitation on the import feature; samples can't be shorter than 100 milliseconds or longer than 30 seconds. This is because the import process works by copying standard AIFF or WAV files from the card into the SP303's small internal memory, while simultaneously converting them to Roland's proprietary compressed sample format. This process is slow — up to 10 minutes for a full‑length sample — but once converted, the sample can reside in the Dr Sample or be saved back onto a SmartMedia card in SP303 format for instant playback and manipulation.

Sampling, Resampling, & Effects

The rear panel, from left to right: the 9V power socket, Kensington security cable slot, Power On/Off switch, the solitary MIDI In, and the Line Out and In phono sockets.The rear panel, from left to right: the 9V power socket, Kensington security cable slot, Power On/Off switch, the solitary MIDI In, and the Line Out and In phono sockets.

Sampling itself is straightforward and relatively logical. Connect an audio source (for example, CD or mixer) to the rear phonos or a microphone to the front socket, press the Rec button, choose a bank and a sample pad, press Rec a second time and you are sampling. Sampling options include mono or stereo and normal or long/lo‑fi quality. There is also an Auto setting that only commences sampling when the input detects an audio signal.

Sample playback and editing options have seen improvement since the days of the SP202. Apart from the usual Reverse, One‑shot or Gate, Looping and Non‑looping sample‑playback modes, the SP303 also offers adjustable sample time, tempo, level and start and end points. Sample editing is carried out by ear using the Ctrl 1 knob for the Start point and Ctrl 2 knob for adjustments to the End point. A separate start/end‑point Mark button also allows trimming while looping 'on the fly', although this can be a bit of a hit‑and‑miss affair.

Each sample has its tempo in bpm displayed when triggered, calculated from the sample length. Unfortunately, as a loop is topped and tailed you can't see its new tempo until you exit Edit mode.

Time/BPM is a nice sample‑editing feature, a time‑stretch facility that works in real time (even the stretched tempo is displayed in real time!). Unusually for a budget sampler, the SP303's time‑stretch option is independently adjustable (from 50 to 130 percent) for each sample. Used with the right material and in moderation, it can sound quite passable, and although the effect can get lumpy at extreme settings, this is not a bad thing for certain effects.

A new Dr Sample feature making a welcome appearance is resampling, an underrated sampling option in my opinion. Resampling allows you to re‑record existing samples to a new sample pad, but with added effects or at a lower sampling quality to save memory, or after you have applied sample‑editing options such as Time and Tempo. This is also a useful way of applying different effects to different pads — something the SP303 isn't normally capable of. And because you can resample multiple pads at once, it's possible (with a SmartMedia card) to use this function as a crude form of multitrack recording, mixing down your pad playing onto an empty pad in a similar way to track bouncing.

Resampling on the SP303 is almost as easy as ordinary sampling. You prepare and edit your samples and add any effects, then select an empty pad to resample onto. After hitting the Resample and Rec buttons, you simply play away to your heart's content. And you still have all the usual sampling options, such as Lo‑Fi or Normal quality, and mono or stereo. The only noticeable limitations are that you can't resample across banks (as you can on Roland's SP808) and you can't play the sequencer and resample at the same time. Now that would be fun...

The effects bank is a major improvement on that of the SP202 and includes 26 effects rather than the 202's measly five (see the 'Effects' box opposite). The effects can be applied (albeit only one at a time) to individual samples, or globally, or to the input signal — so you could use the Dr Sample just as an effects unit. Five effects have dedicated buttons (Filter, Pitch, Delay, Vinyl Simulator, Isolator) while the 'MFX' button allows you to access the remaining 21; a handy numbered list printed below it reminds you which number relates to which effect.

As I mentioned above, each effect has three adjustable parameters using the Ctrl 1‑3 knobs. The effects cover fairly standard but useable budget types, as well as a few specialist effects like Voice Transformer, Slicer and Centre Canceller. The Voice Transformer effect is a (very) slimmed‑down version of the Roland VP9000's much over‑used keyboard effect. This version has a distinctly lumpen quality; it tries hard and does the job, but only just. Other effects include an Effect Grab feature for momentarily switching effects in and out of a mix and a Tap Tempo button, so you can sync effects to the tempo in real time.

Pattern Sequencer

The somewhat inscrutable three‑digit display, together with the five direct buttons for accessing effects. The other 21 effects are handily listed on the panel underneath for reference.The somewhat inscrutable three‑digit display, together with the five direct buttons for accessing effects. The other 21 effects are handily listed on the panel underneath for reference.

The 7,500‑note Pattern Sequencer is relatively basic and functional but a useful addition nevertheless. Up to 32 patterns (between 1 and 99 bars long) can be recorded and saved across the four banks. The sequencer can be started and stopped by, and sync'ed to, an external MIDI sequencer. Step‑time recording, however, isn't an option.

Pattern recording is carried out in Loop mode (the number of bars per loop is programmable) and achieved by playing the sample pads in time to a metronome click and using one of four quantise values. Pressing the Pattern Record button activates the metronome and a four‑beat countdown in the display, which then shows a continual count of the current position in the bar loop. Editing finished Patterns, as with sample editing, is a bit of a hit‑and‑miss affair; it has to be done in real time, and it can be all too easy to lose track of your current position when editing long loops, as the display isn't detailed enough to indicate exactly where you are.

Thankfully, pattern playback is straightforward, being accessed via the Pattern Select button, and changing from one to another is literally just a matter of selecting the relevant pad. A nice touch is that if a pad is flashing, then it contains a sequencer pattern. It is also possible to play samples manually (via pads or MIDI) while a pattern is playing, including samples from another bank.


I'm not as blown away by this Dr Sample as I was by the first, but that's really only because there wasn't anything else quite like the SP202 around three years ago. I can think of at least half‑a‑dozen people to whom I personally recommended the SP202, and most of them bought one and were happy with it.

However, the new SP303 is now also competing with the Korg Electribe‑S and the Yamaha SU200, which are both fine budget samplers with lots of features. The SP202's three‑digit display is unchanged on the SP303, and its limitations are particularly apparent alongside the newer machine's improved sampling, sequencer and editing features. But then again, both Korg and Yamaha's budget samplers also have this cost‑cutting display. I would like to have seen velocity‑sensitive pads on the 303 (although it does respond to velocity over MIDI), as well as the ability to play samples chromatically across a MIDI keyboard. Mind you, even the SP303's big daddy, the Roland SP808, doesn't have these features.

Having said all that, I do like the new Dr Sample. Using SmartMedia for expandable sample and pattern memory storage is a brilliant idea, as is the option of AIFF and WAV sample import on a sampler in this price range, even if it is a bit slow. Sampling quality at the highest 44.1kHz, stereo setting, while not quite at CD standard due to the use of data compression, comes very close — in fact, for me there is something about Roland's data‑compression technique that lends sounds a certain punchiness that I like. Finally, pretty much every function is never more than a few button pushes away, and apart from when using the display for editing, it is easy to figure out what's going on at any time, even in darkness, thanks to the highly illuminated front panel (DJs take note!).

Overall, then, I would be happy to recommend the Dr Sample SP303 as a good‑quality, budget phrase sampler.

Spec Check


  • Polyphony: Eight mono voices (or four stereo voices).
  • Effects: 26 types (see separate box).
  • Connectors: Left and right line in phono sockets; left and right line out phono sockets; stereo quarter‑inch headphone jack; mono quarter‑inch microphone jack; MIDI input.


  • Sampling capacity: 16 samples (in two banks of eight); 16 patterns (in two banks of eight).
  • Pattern capacity: 7500 notes; 16 patterns (in two banks of eight).


  • Sampling capacity: 16 samples (in two banks of eight); 112 samples (in two backup banks of seven).
  • Pattern capacity: 7500 notes; 16 patterns (in two banks of eight); 112 patterns (in two backup banks of seven).


  • Filter+Overdrive.
  • Pitch.
  • Delay.
  • Vinyl Simulator.
  • Isolator.
  • Reverb.
  • Tape Echo.
  • Chorus.
  • Flanger.
  • Phaser.
  • Tremolo/Pan.
  • Distortion.
  • Overdrive.
  • Fuzz.
  • Wah‑Wah.
  • Octave.
  • Compressor.
  • Equaliser.
  • Lo‑Fi.
  • Noise Generator.
  • Radio Tuning.
  • Slicer.
  • Ring Modulator.
  • Chromatic Pitch‑shifter.
  • Voice Transformer.
  • Centre Canceller.

Approximate Mono Sample Time

Capacity @44.1kHz @22.05kHz @11.025kHz
8Mb 4 minutes 8 minutes 25 minutes
16Mb 8 minutes 16 minutes 50 minutes
32Mb 16 minutes 33 minutes 101 minutes
64Mb 33 minutes 66 minutes 202 minutes


  • Expandable memory.
  • Excellent sound quality.
  • Improved effects.
  • Useful resampling feature.
  • AIFF and WAV compatibility.


  • Only one effect at a time (although you can resample with effects).
  • Limited three‑digit display.
  • Basic sample‑ and pattern‑editing options.
  • Doesn't include the SP202's built‑in mic, battery option or sample CD.


Although it loses a couple of the SP202's minor features, the SP303 has greatly improved memory options, effects and sample editing. Additional features such as the Pattern Sequencer, more real‑time control knobs and its neater size make this a cost‑effective and attractive desktop phrase sampler. Just don't expect too much from the limited LED display.