Pioneer’s DJ-inspired performance sampler is the start of something new.
At last year’s Musikmesse I made a beeline for the Pioneer booth to check out a prototype of their new performance sampler. Like many I was intrigued by the idea of a hardware sampler with 4x4 pads, a touchscreen and USB storage connectivity: could this fill the gap left by stand-alone MPCs? One year on and the SP‑16 is out in the wild, along with a Toraiz sibling — the AS-1 Monosynth — but the landscape has changed a bit, with the launch of the MPC X and MPC Live. In any case the SP‑16 has a fairly focussed drum sampler feature-set, and doesn’t overlap that much into production workstation territory; instead Pioneer are carving a new niche with instruments that enable DJs and EDM performers to be more actively engaged in their sets.
The SP‑16 makes a real impression when you turn it on. The colourful pads, sequencer buttons and screen are BRIGHT. This, the general solidity of the hardware, and the clearly laid out panel all point to an instrument born for the stage. There are pads to hit, dedicated filter knobs to twiddle, a touch strip with self-explanatory modes, and a row of buttons for sequencing and pattern triggering. With one of the demo projects loaded, you can figure out most of what the box can do in a half hour’s experimentation, and be happily banging out a crowd-pleasing improvised set. Anything deeper can be accessed via the seven-inch touchscreen and its attendant rotary encoders.
Having satisfied my initial curiosity using just headphones I set about exploring the box’s other connectivity options. Split outputs are available via four sets of stereo quarter-inch jacks (the master stereo out plus three more aux pairs). A line-level stereo input (with gain control) provides for sampling directly into the SP‑16. Regular MIDI ports and USB both provide routes to interact and sync with other devices. The RJ45 ‘Link’ port is used to beat sync with other DJ devices using Pioneer’s proprietary Pro DJ Link protocol over standard network cables and switches. (The AS-1 doesn’t have this, so you’d use regular MIDI Clock to pair the Toraizes). The USB port can also be used to hook up to a computer for MIDI Clock and performance communication with your music software, and for file transfer with the internal storage. There’s also a USB port on the front for connecting a thumb drive.
Despite the fun I was having with the demo projects (which, by the way, are excellent and give you a great idea of what you can do with the SP‑16), pride dictated that I start from scratch. File management is via the touchscreen, where you can load and save projects to the internal flash memory or a connected USB stick. I imagined I’d start work using a familiar MPC, Maschine or Push approach — by browsing some library content and loading a likely kit program — but no: the SP‑16 has no concept of a kit as separate from a Project or Scene. You can import Scenes, but none are provided so the default workflow is to load up each pad separately with a sample. And these 16 pads/voices are basically what you have to work with at any one time, reminding you that you’re dealing with a single instrument here rather than a multitrack production system. The SP‑16 does blur this line slightly by calling the pads ‘tracks’, and mimicking workstation-like behaviour via the Slice and Scale modes, but each ‘track’ is only ever a single sample played monophonically. Importantly, though, each of a project’s Scenes (of which you can have 16) can have a completely different sample set and configuration.
After a pad is loaded with a sample you can tap it on the touchscreen grid to edit its parameters. A summary screen shows an overview of the most important settings like playback mode and position, amp envelope and effects, and gives you control over a few key parameters from the knobs. Tapping any of these sections takes you to a dedicated screen with more detailed controls, occasionally allowing for use of the touchscreen, for example for setting start and end points for sample playback. In general though, the screen is underused, with many selection/targeting operations relying on the main entry dial, and parameters controlled from the under-screen rotaries. This is probably because the screen doesn’t have the kind of multi-touch, capacitive response you’d expect from, say, an iPad.
The multicolour pads are not just pleasing to look at: they play with the solidity and responsiveness you’d expect from a drum machine this expensive. To capture a pattern you can simply set a tempo, enable the click, and hit record. Following convention you can swap between rehearsing and overdubbing during playback by toggling the record status. Record quantise defaults to 1/16ths, but can be changed or switched off entirely to faithfully capture your feel or, in my case, bad timing. MPC-style Repeat functionality is available as a Touch Strip mode, letting you slide through different repeat speeds. Classic gate sequencing operation is provided by the 16 buttons along the bottom, which can be paged through four bars for a total of 64 steps per pattern. Not only do the buttons feel great, they light up to match the colour of the selected pad/track making it easy to see what you’re working on.
The sequencer buttons also have modes for recalling and launching Patterns and Scenes. If the SP‑16 is playing, it will quantise triggers to the end of the current pattern. A dedicated Scene Manager screen lets you copy/paste and colour code your Scene and Pattern slots, and also serves as an alternative place to trigger them. Sequences can be viewed in each pad’s main screen view, where you can fine-tune and edit them. Here you can see exactly where your hits are placed relative to the grid, unlike on the buttons which can obviously only show an approximation. The range of editing operations includes quantising and offsetting of notes, shifting a whole sequence, and ‘re-triggering’ notes to produce double or triple hits, etc. Operations can be applied to the whole sequence or you can choose a range. You can also hold a sequence step button and make changes that will apply just to that step. This is also how you edit velocity, and is the key to automation on the SP‑16, which is always step-based. Changing any parameter while holding a step button will dial that value in to be automated in real-time relative to the base setting.
Pattern playback can be sequenced to construct automated performances and songs in the Arranger page. This takes the form of a simple playlist of Scenes/Patterns, with the tempo and number of cycles assignable at each step. While I always prefer a Song sequencer that can capture a series of pattern triggers as you perform them, the Arranger provides a perfectly adequate and easy way to program a set. An on-screen button toggles the Arrangement in and out, allowing a DJ or performer to step in and improvise whenever they choose. Playback can be sync’ed with other devices or a DAW via MIDI Clock through either the DIN or USB connections, with the SP‑16 acting as master or slave, or you can use the Pro DJ Link with Pioneer decks, as mentioned.
By default, each pad simple triggers its loaded sample in regular drum-machine style, but individual pads can also be set to Slice mode for playing back smaller chunks of longer samples, or Scale mode for melodic re-pitching. Scale essentially turns any sample into an instrument, albeit a fairly simple one as there are no multi-sample zones. When you hit the Scale button the currently selected track takes over the whole pad grid, with each pad playing a different note. From the screen you can choose a specific scale to constrain the notes to, and adjust the ‘window’ of notes shown in the grid. (This scheme is also used when a pad is assigned to a hardware MIDI output.) You can also decide whether the sample pitching is achieved by simply changing the speed/sample rate, or via time-stretching. While the latter option is set by default, I invariably changed it to classic varispeed mode as it sounded much better.
Slicing is a welcome addition to the SP‑16, allowing you to repurpose loops and phrases and pull out choice morsels from samples easily. Pressing Slice will divide the selected sample into 16 parts and spill them across the pads. You can adjust the number of slices or go in and define the start and end points manually on the waveform. There’s no automatic transient detection. One use of slicing is to sync up a loop to your project, but the SP‑16 offers a couple of other options for doing this that simply adjust the tempo of a pad’s sample to the current bpm. One mode is Time Stretching, which will adjust the speed while maintaining the pitch (with the usual grainy artifacts if the change is large). The other is Resample, which does a nice job of vari-speeding the sample to fit your tempo and resampling it for the best sound quality.
You can set the level of any pad when it’s selected on the screen, but there’s also a dedicated Mix view giving quick access to levels, sends, cue levels, etc, for all channels. This is another place where the SP‑16 falls back on its physical controls rather than using its touchscreen. To adjust a fader you have to choose it by cycling the selection highlighter across the mixer with the main rotary knob. Then you can set the level and pan from the lower encoders. You can add an individual effect to each track, choosing from a good range of classic processors. Each track has an LFO that can modulate these, although disappointingly there’s no envelope other than for a sample’s amplitude, so you can’t envelope-modulate a filter other than by approximation with a retriggered LFO. Pioneer have also missed a trick by not including an effects performance mode on the touchscreen, along the lines of the MPC Touch’s X/Y mode. However, you can assign most parameters to the User 1 and 2 slots on the Touch Strip for real-time modulation. As well as channel effects there’s provision for a single master insert or send effect.
One of the SP‑16’s most notable features is its analogue filter. This was the beginning of Pioneer’s partnership with Dave Smith Instruments, which has since been fully realised in the AS-1 synth. The filter is essentially a discrete module in the SP‑16, which by default is inserted across the master mix bus but which can be reassigned to a single individual track. Unsurprisingly it sounds great. There are separate high- and low-pass filters, each with dedicated controls on the front panel. These are complemented by a Drive control for warming things up with some analogue saturation. Across the mix, the filter is both fun and really useful, providing — as I also found with Novation’s Circuit — a perfect way of blending and building between Scene and Pattern changes. If I was feeling very picky I’d note that the high-pass introduces quite a bit of noise at higher settings, and the faux metal knobs feel a bit cheap attached to this prestige filter.
The SP‑16 and its new sibling the AS-1 define a new gear category that crosses over between the DJ and electronic instrument worlds, catering to DJs and EDM performers who want to add more engaging live elements to their sets. The SP‑16 is perfect for this purpose, with its super-bright and clear layout, simplicity of operation, hands-on controls, and the ability to drop in and out of pre-programmed arrangements. Those looking for a production workstation along the lines of a stand-alone MPC will probably find the SP‑16 limited in its scope... and of course we now have actual stand-alone MPCs again. That’s not to say that this wouldn’t be a really nice drum machine to have in the studio, just that at the price it’s a bit of a luxury. But if you’re looking for a pro groovebox built with live performance in mind then you should take a look.
Elektron’s Octatrack is a powerful performance sampler with very deep features and real-time automation, but is more complicated to learn. Roland’s AIRA series drum machines have the same hands-on appeal and simplicity but aren’t as flexible. The new Akai MPC Live is probably the strongest direct competitor and is very capable as both a live beat box and complete production workstation. But the SP‑16 does hit a particular sweet spot for uncomplicated live use and DJ integration.