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Boss SP505

Groove Sampling Workstation
By Chris Carter

The latest addition to Boss & Roland's SP phrase sampler range, the SP505, is crammed full of sample-editing options and dance/hip-hop-oriented ROM sounds, and continues the current trend towards ever-expanding feature sets.

Boss SP505 Groove Sampling Workstation.Photo: Mike CameronBoss samplers have been slowly but surely evolving over the years, from the diminuitive DSD2 sampling delay pedal of the early '90s to the recent darlings of phrase-loopists everywhere, the Dr Sample range. The new SP505 is another logical step forward and shares much of the SP303's feature-set (see my review in SOS August 2001) while including some noticeable additions and a few nods towards the granddaddy of Roland Groovesamplers, the SP808 (see SOS August 1998, and in its EX version in SOS August 2000). The SP505 loses the Dr Sample tag but gains a multitude of sample-processing effects, graphical waveform editing, an impressive maximum sampling time of 64 minutes at full CD bandwidth (provided you acquire an optional 128MB SmartMedia card), Recycle-like sample-chopping and tempo-matching, built-in ROM samples (Roland TR808/909 drum sounds and various basses and pads are included), preset rhythm patterns, real-time controls, 16 sample pads, a 15,000 note four-part sequencer, and co-axial and optical digital inputs as standard! It's an impressive line-up of features — and all for a reasonable £449.

The SP505 takes its low-profile desktop design and busy layout from other Boss 'Groove' instruments. There are numerous illuminated flashing rubberised buttons and sample pads, an excellent backlit LCD (128 x 64 pixels), a large data-entry wheel and three assignable real-time effects knobs. All in all, it's just on the right side of tacky-looking. You'll either love it or hate it!

Around the back, there are plenty of ins and outs: an external microphone input, left and right line inputs and outputs, a headphones jack, digital co-axial and optical inputs, MIDI In and Out (but no discrete Thru) and an assignable footswitch input. There's also an input for an AC-type power adaptor. A number of manufacturers are now supplying AC adaptors rather than the more universally available 9V or 12V DC type. I'm not sure why this should be, as finding replacements can be a real headache for the gigging musician, as I've mentioned in previous reviews.

Built-in Sounds

BOSS SP505Photo: Mike CameronAs with the previous Boss and Roland SP samplers, the SP505 arranges its samples into Pad Banks, and on this machine each bank has access to 16 sample pads. As supplied, the SP505 has four preset Pad Banks containing various (non-eraseable) ROM samples from Roland TR808 and 909 drum machines, various percussion sounds and a collection of basses, synths and pads (more on the sounds themselves later). All the ROM samples are of a high standard, but annoyingly can't be edited directly (not even their level or pan settings) without an error message flashing up on the LCD. To edit these presets, you first need to copy them to an empty user Pad in one of the RAM-based user banks. This is a painless task, but the process could be wasteful of precious RAM if you're not using an additional memory card (you only have 4MB in the default machine).

Sampling & Editing

Boss have been refining the actual process of sampling with each new SP sampler, and on this mini-workstation it is simplicity itself. In addition to the numerous analogue and digital connections on the rear, Boss have thoughtfully included a dedicated front-panel button (see below) for selecting the sample input source (line/co-ax digital/optical digital/mic). This allows you to quickly switch between say, a Minidisc optical output, the S/PDIF output of a digital mixer or CD player, a microphone or a synth's analogue output — and all could be connected simultaneously.

Most of the usual sampling options are on offer: mono or stereo, eight Auto Start levels, and a 'With BPM' function. This last option would normally be used when sampling beats and loops, and is intended to give the SP505 some indication of the sample's tempo, and so make its life easier when it automatically inserts the loop end point. There are also three quality modes: 'Standard' (44.1kHz), 'Long' (22.05kHz) and 'LoFi' (11.025kHz). The only other things you need to worry about are setting the analogue input level control and selecting an empty pad to sample into. If only all sampling was this easy...

Compared to many phrase samplers (including others from Roland and Boss!), the SP505 is quite well endowed in the sample-editing department, and is helped in no small measure by the informative LCD. The dedicated Wave Edit Menu button on the left of the front panel brings up the main editing screen with plenty of details about the selected sample's length, quality setting, pad number and tempo in beats per minute. You can adjust the audio level and pan here, too (but only left, centre or right settings are possible). There are also options to loop and reverse samples, and three trigger modes: normal, gate and one-shot. The three assignable Function buttons under the LCD take you to various sub-menus to set loop points, trim the start and end and to normalise the level. These deeper menus also display the sample waveform graphically, and you can zoom in or out on this with the controls to the right of the LCD for more precise adjustments. A dedicated Clipboard feature also allows samples to be moved, copied and deleted — very civilised.

Amongst the most useful sample-editing options are the Chop and Pitch features (accessed via the controls shown below). Chop takes a sample and divides it into percussive audio chunks in a similar way to Steinberg's Recycle, although here there is only a single Resolution adjustment to detect rhythmic peaks. Pitch, on the other hand, has three parameters to detect and map the pitch of a sample across one octave. After each function has processed the original, it maps the resulting multisamples across special 'Pitch Banks'. Unfortunately, the results of the Chop and Pitch functions are variable and depend very much on the kind of material you feed them.

As is to be expected in a Boss Groove instrument, there are plenty of options for adjusting and matching the tempo of samples and patterns. All samples have a Play Type tag and are either 'Phrase' samples or 'Single' samples — these definitions tell the SP505 whether it is dealing with a rhythmic loop or not. So Phrase samples have extra parameters for the numbers of measures in a loop and time signature, and can also make use of two tempo-specific functions: 'BPM Adjust' and 'BPM Sync'.

Approximate Mono Sampling Times

CAPACITYMAX TIME @ 44.1kHzMAX TIME @ 22.05kHzMAX TIME @ 11.025kHz
Internal (4MB)2 minutes5 minutes17 minutes
Using 8MB SmartMedia card4 minutes8 minutes24 minutes
Using 16MB SmartMedia card8 minutes16 minutes49 minutes
Using 32MB SmartMedia card16 minutes32 minutes98 minutes
Using 64MB SmartMedia card32 minutes64 minutes197 minutes
Using 128MB SmartMedia card64 minutes129 minutes395 minutes

'BPM Adjust' allows you to change the tempo of individual Phrase samples in real time without changing the pitch (from 40 to 200BPM). However, BPM Sync takes this concept a little further and will match the tempo of multiple loops simultaneously (over a range of half to 1.3 times the tempo of the original) without shifting the original pitch. If you play a few Phrase loops (using the pads) and press the BPM Sync button (see left) all the samples instantly lock into the tempo of the last pad activated. Once the loops are locked to each other you can deactivate and reactivate them and they still remain in sync with each other. If at any time you introduce a new loop with a different tempo it is automatically processed to run at the tempo of the others. If things do start to go adrift you just hit the Sync button (on the down-beat produces the best result) and all the currently playing loops lock into sync once more. Alternatively, you can reset the overall tempo to that of a newly activated loop, or reset each loop to its original tempo and start over again.

This feature is a lot of fun to play with, but more importantly, it lets you come up with all kinds of unusual but perfectly sync'ed rhythms, loops and beats. The only caveat is when trying to match loops with widely differing tempos as the audio quality gets progressively worse with large tempo shifts. Adjust seems to suffer more lumpiness than Sync and rhythmic loops really lose their punch and definition if the tempo is shifted more than a few percent. Although I'm not sure I'd be happy committing the results to a finished mix, both these features are great for fleshing out song ideas and will probably come into their own when used in a less audio-critical DJ or live situation.

The overall tempo of a pattern or song can be adjusted at any time, and there's the now-obligatory dedicated BPM/Tap button for real-time tempo adjustment, although it's worth noting that if a pattern contains Phrase samples, the BPM/Tap option will change the tempo using the same time-stretching mode as Adjust and Sync, which could have an adverse affect on the sound. However, it works just fine with Single samples, ROM samples and non-looping percussion sounds.

Brief Specification

The SP505 is a desktop device with stereo sampling and sample-editing features, a built-in sequencer and effects, and ROM presets and samples.

  • Polyphony: Eight notes.
  • User samples: 250 (across 16 banks).
  • Sampling times: (see box).
  • 20-bit A-D/D-A.
  • Effects: 26 types (see box).
  • Built-in ROM samples: 64, across four banks (Bank 1 is TR808 percussion, Bank 2 'various' percussion, Bank 3 TR909 percussion, and Bank 4 contains Roland synth sounds and pads from the likes of the Juno series, TB303, and so on).
  • Built-in ROM patterns: 40 presets (including hip-hop, house, techno, and drum & bass).
  • Sequencer: 100 user Patterns, 20 user Songs, approximately 15,000 events.
  • Connections: Microphone in, Analogue line input L/R, Analogue line output L/R, stereo digital co-ax input, stereo digital optical input, Headphone out, Footswitch in.
  • Dimensions: 298 x 254 x 64mm.
  • Weight: 1.4kg.

Effects

The SP505 offers a built-in bank of 26 effects — the same ones included in the SP303, in fact — and although you can only use one effect at a time, the built-in resampling feature means you can easily transfer effected samples (individually or in groups) to empty pads as many times as you like, changing or adding further effects as RAM permits. Effects can also be applied to a whole bank or just to individual pads. The effects are fine as far as budget processing goes. There is a varied selection (see the box on the next page for a full list) including an authentic-sounding tape delay and a tempo-sync'ed delay. The reverb is OK (if a bit boxy) and there are some good filters, distortions and ring-modulator patches. Annoyingly, and just as on the SP303, effects settings are not saved with your patterns or songs, but at least the sample pads also double as shortcut buttons for selecting the first 16 effects.

Built-in Effects

  • Filter & Drive.
  • 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-shift.
  • Voice Transformer.
  • Centre Canceller.

Sequencer, Pattern Editing & Songs

The onboard sequencer can store 100 user Patterns (plus 40 presets) and these can be arranged into 20 Songs. Each pattern can have up to four parts (each part has a dedicated mute button) which are shared across eight samples. So you could have, for instance, a bass drum and snare in Part 1, hi-hats and percussion in part 2, synth pads and bass in part 3 and loops, beats or vocal phrases in part 4. You just need to remember the eight-note polyphony limit, which is divided by two if you are using stereo samples.

There are 40 rhythm preset patterns to get you started, but 30 of them are rather uninspired hip-hop and house patterns, while the remainder are mediocre techno and drum & bass grooves. The ROM samples, as mentioned earlier, are of a pretty high standard, but the patterns seem almost like an afterthought. All is not lost though, as they can be copied into empty user patterns and edited to suit your tastes.

Recording rhythm patterns is straightforward. First you select an empty user pattern, then hit the Record button. The SP505 then drops into Record Standby mode, the metronome begins clicking and the Pattern Play screen pops up to give you options for setting the tempo, number of measures and time signature. At this point you can either practice your rhythmic skills along with the metronome, or press the Play button to drop into Record mode. The LCD and metronome give you a one-bar countdown before recording starts, and the metronome continues in Loop Record mode until you press Stop. However, it's not until you are in Record mode that a small icon appears, allowing you to adjust the Quantise values for the pads and the Part you are recording into (there are eight Quantise types and the 'Off' setting). You can switch between Parts while recording, adjusting quantise values as you need. One tiny niggle is that the metronome can't be muted.

Editing Patterns is carried out using the Micro function, which displays a list of recorded events. You can edit timing, level and gate length and notes can be deleted or inserted into the list. You can even edit a pattern while a track is playing.

Songs are put together using a similar list view, either by dialling up Patterns using the data wheel or by selecting them using the sample pads (although only from the first 16 patterns if using the pads). Patterns can be inserted and deleted, but there is no option to set a pattern to repeat before it moves to the next, which makes song construction a little repetitive and laborious. Editing previously recorded Songs is almost identical to pattern editing, and uses a similar list menu. It's all very logical.

There is an upper limit of approximately 15,000 sequencer events (shared by Patterns and Songs) which should be enough for most users. In fact, it will have to suffice, as I could see no way to save or load Pattern or Song data via MIDI SysEx, or find mention in the manual of how to do this. However, it is possible to save and load Patterns and Songs (and samples) onto optional SmartMedia cards.

One thing about the SP505 sequencer is a little odd; it only records in real time. I was surprised to find no step-time recording option. It's even more unusual considering the SP505 has so many TR808 and TR909 drum samples, and a classic 16-pad drum-machine-style layout (see above).

MIDI Machinations

Advanced MIDI support is not one of the SP505's strong points, but basic functionality and various sync options are catered for. It sends and responds to MIDI Clock, Start/Stop commands, Song Position Pointer, and Program Changes. The pad samples also respond to key velocity when triggered from an external MIDI keyboard or sequencer. What the SP505 won't do is let you play a sample chromatically across a MIDI keyboard. Admittedly Boss have introduced the 'Sample Pitch' feature which allows you to remap a sample across one of the dedicated so-called Pitch Banks, but as this is a form of multisampling, it uses valuable RAM in the process, and isn't quite the same as playing a specific sample across a keyboard anyway. Boss would probably argue that the SP505 is a phrase sampler, and therefore doesn't need this feature, but I still find it a puzzling omission. It can't be that difficult to implement, can it?

Conclusions

After spending a couple of weeks using the SP505, I found my fingers flying around it like a demon. If there is one area it excels at, it's sampling and getting arrangements worked out fast before you lose creative inspiration. There's no booting up to slow down the creative process, and sampling (and indeed resampling) is always available on tap thanks to the widespread use of dedicated buttons. This also applies to the built-in sequencer, which is ready to record Patterns and Songs in a matter of seconds. The added bonuses of the large LCD with graphic waveform editing, AIFF/WAV support and digital inputs is almost unheard of in a sampler/workstation at this price.

The internal RAM is already double that of the SP303, but if you are willing to invest in an large-capacity SmartMedia card (these are becoming increasingly affordable by the day, and are now available from most camera and computer shops) I'd go so far as to say that the massively extended recording times available would even allow the SP505 to be used as a basic four-track stereo digital multitracker, even at the Standard setting. The Long audio mode is sufficient for non-critical sounds and loops, and the LoFi mode is useful for grungey effects.

Of course,there are things I'm not so keen on; the four Part Mute buttons are no substitute for actual faders, and the eight-note mono/four-note stereo sample limit is just that — a bit limiting. The 40 preset patterns aren't nearly varied enough for my tastes (in fact, the SP's unashamedly dance-and hip-hop-oriented preset patterns and ROM samples could deter some potential purchasers), and the lack of step-time pattern recording is baffling. The effects sound OK but I had expected a few more a year on from the SP303. And although you can resample multiple pad-playing, you still can't resample internal (or external) sequenced patterns.

Overall, you could regard the SP505 as a cross between the Boss SP303 and the Roland SP808/SP808EX, although it possesses features that neither its baby sister or big brother have, and is certainly a lot more portable than an SP808. Its closest non-Roland/Boss relatives are probably the cheaper but less well-endowed Korg Electribe ES1 and the more expensive, sequencer-rich Yamaha SU700. But the SP505 is, in my opinion, funkier and easier to use than either of these. DJs, dance producers, dabblers and novices (not to mention PC-phobics) are going to love the easy-to-use, hands-on accessibility, dedicated buttons, tempo-matching features and long sample times. While I had the SP505 for review, I made a pile of sample loops, thrashed out a load of song ideas and demos, and found the speed at which I could club together rough mixes really impressive — but don't forget that you will need to invest in a decent-capacity SmartMedia card before you can undertake any major projects. Anyone looking for an affordable all-in-one phrase sampler, sequencer, and workstation that can occasionally take on the guise of a digital multitracker need search no further.

Pros

  • Good-quality, fast sampling.
  • LCD waveform editing.
  • Some interesting sample-editing/looping features.
  • Lots of dedicated buttons.
  • Expandable memory.
  • AIFF and WAV import.

Cons

  • Only eight-note mono/four-note stereo polyphony.
  • No step-time pattern recording.
  • You can't resample sequencer patterns.
  • Non-standard AC adaptor.

Summary

The SP505 is essentially a slimmed-down, but speedier and expandable Roland SP808. If you're not into dance or rap, you might be put off by the domination of house and hip-hop styles in the preset patterns and samples, but otherwise, this Groovesampler is great for fast, high-quality sampling, loop- and groove-matching, and quickly knocking together song ideas.

information

£449 including VAT.

Roland UK +44 (0)1792 515020.

www.roland.co.uk

www.roland.com

test spec

  • Boss SP505 OS version reviewed: v1.02.
Published June 2002