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Roland MS1

Digital Sampler By Derek Johnson
Published March 1995

The would‑be samplist now has a wide range of samplers to choose from in the medium to high price ranges, but the sub‑£800 zone has been looking decidedly bare — until now. Derek Johnson checks out the sampler that plugs the gap...

The last 15 years have seen sampling technology develop from an exclusive, expensive studio tool to ubiquity — it's hard to visualise contemporary music without sampling in some form or other, whether it's used for 'borrowing' drum loops and sound effects, supplying phantom orchestras, or remixing songs. Each generation of sampler gets more powerful and more affordable — Roland's S760, Akai's S2800 and Emu's ESi32 offer amazing power at previously unthinkable prices. Yet those prices are still out of the reach of many, and there are those who find getting to grips with the technology a daunting prospect. So get ready for what may be the first example of true sampling democracy: Roland's new MS1 sampler, which offers ease of use, stereo sampling and up to one minute of sample time for just £425.

Before we get too excited, there are one or two things to keep in mind: while the MS1 does have 16‑bit convertors, Roland use a new proprietary data compression system internally. It's this that has allowed the MS1 to be made at such a low price and in such a small package — and you'd hardly be able to run an S760 on batteries, as you can the MS1. Data compression also means that the MS1 samples don't sound exactly hi‑fi, but in these days of snatching a quick sample off an old vinyl LP, this is unlikely to worry most of its target market. I found the sound perfectly acceptable, and anyway, what are the chances of anyone noticing the data compression when MS1 samples are played back in a mix? The other thing you'll notice is the lack of a disk drive, but a combination of Flash RAM which stays backed up with the power off, even without batteries, and external (optional) Flash RAM memory cards solves that problem.

What's Going On

Designed on the principle of 'keep it simple stupid', the MS1 features an easy to comprehend, hands‑on layout and a reasonably transparent operating system — the rather tiny display is actually not much of a hindrance, since there are only 32 parameters to play with, some of which are rarely accessed by the user. A sample is assigned to one of eight pads during sampling (press the red button labelled Sampling), there being two banks of eight samples on board (16 samples in all); in addition, three more banks of samples are available when an optional Flash RAM memory card is installed. Sample editing is limited to setting one loop point, changing start and end points, and truncating unused data outside those points. Samples can, of course, be deleted, and longer samples can also be split in two. Sample rate (there are four — Long1, Long2, Standard and High) is global, and if you change the sample rate, it's changed for the whole machine; the same goes for pitch — individual samples can't be tuned. It's also not possible to move or copy samples from pad to pad.

Connections are simple: inputs are available on stereo mini‑jack mic socket, a quarter‑inch jack socket and a pair of phono sockets; output is via a par of phono sockets or a mini‑jack stereo headphone socket. There are a pair of MIDI sockets, and a footswitch socket which can be used to initiate sampling and sample playback. Power comes from six AA batteries or an optional PSU.

External storage is available, to Flash RAM card, and the MS1's memory can also be dumped via System Exclusive over MIDI (though, since data compression is used, MIDI Sample Dump Standard is not available). The memory cards are available in 1.8Mb, 2.5Mb, 5Mb, 10Mb and 20Mb sizes; I didn't have the opportunity to try out the cards, but for a taster, the 20Mb card will offer over 1000 seconds (over 16 minutes) of High Grade sampling (500 seconds in stereo). Card management includes formatting and copying, so the smaller capacity are the best bet for simple backup, although they aren't cheap (£210 for 1.8Mb, for example). MIDI SysEx dumping is a laborious process — a complete dump can take nearly seven minutes. Note that the dump is sent in seven discrete packets, and if these packets aren't sent back to the MS1 in the right order, the audio data becomes amusingly scrambled. Make sure that your SysEx storage device sends data back in exactly the same order as it saves; one sure way to ensure this happens is to save each packet separately. Something to remember about cards is that while it is possible to play back any one of the three card banks along with the two internal banks, it's not possible to play any of the three card banks together with each other.

One really novel, and unexpected, feature is the MS1's simple sequencer: there is no MIDI support, overdubbing or editing, but you can record, in real time, up to 900 sample pad presses and play the sequence back; a Loop option endlessly loops the sequence, and there are four sequences available in all. This is actually a great scratch pad: if you sample a percussion loop, a couple of bass lines and some sound effects, you can actually knock up a track in very little time.

MIDI is supported, so if the on‑board sequencer doesn't sound like much, worry not. All the samples on board can be assigned a MIDI note number. Keep in mind that only four samples can play at once (reduced to one if you've sampled at the High Grade sample rate). One thing that playing over MIDI does offer is velocity response: higher velocities alter the volume of sample playback. In the absence of pitch bend or tuning offsets, this is a valuable expressive option, especially since the pads are not velocity sensitive. Used in this way, the MS1 provides a quick and easy way to add samples of any kind — sound effects, rhythm loops, backing vocals — to a MIDI sequence. Note that the pads actually transmit over MIDI as well, so you can play your MS1 into a sequencer.

Operationally, the only strange thing is the combined volume/value knob: depending on what you're doing, this knob changes parameter values or alters the master volume. How much would it have added to the price to separate these functions?

The last feature of the MS1 is in the box: Roland have included a free compilation sample CD, featuring over 77 minutes of samples taken from the cream of sampling CDs produced by Time & Space, AMG, Best Service, and WC Music Research. It's a great set, and features such a wide variety of material that it would take ages to describe. Suffice to say that if you've never encountered a sampling CD before, this will give you a favourable impression — it also offers good value when taken in context of an already competitively‑priced sampler.

In Use

Sampling is easy: connect up your sound source, which can be stereo or mono at mic or line level, press the red record button and select a pad. On the display, you can scroll through a remaining time display, input gain, input source, and whether sampling is manual or automatic (sampling starts when the input reaches a user‑definable level), and a default loop setting. Even quite long samples are captured almost immediately, and you can play them from the chosen pad.

To edit the sample, simply press the Edit button. There are only a few options here: the Start, Loop and End points are displayed as 7‑digit numbers, which offer accuracy down to individual sample level. The cursor button can be moved from digit to digit, allowing you to edit just units, 10s, 100s, 1,000s or 10,000s, which makes quick editing easy. Using your ears to fine‑tune samples is quite a good way to work, and it's invaluable training if you plan to upgrade to a fully‑fledged sampler in the future. Other facilities in the Edit Sample section include three 'trigger' options which determine how a sample is played back: Gate plays a sample, including loops, only while a pad is pressed down; Trigger loops a sample continuously until the pad is hit again and Drum plays the whole of the sample once when a pad is pressed.

Any unused sample time left at either side of the start and end points can be truncated under the Edit Utility menu, although you have to press Utility, a pad and 'Yes' for each truncate operation, which is tedious. Also under Utility are the Card and memory management functions, as well as the Delete and Divide sample options — a long sample can be split at a user‑definable point, with half of the sample going to the pad of your choice. System parameters include, as I mentioned earlier, overall sample rate and master pitch, along with memory protection, LCD contrast (it's very dim at the best of times), MIDI functions and footswitch parameters.

Playing back samples is simply a matter of hitting the pads; one pad can be hit and held, which is ideal for keeping a drum loop going while you play around with the other pads. MIDI operation is similarly straightforward.


Assessing the MS1 is inversely tricky to its simplicity — in fact, I can't help feeling that the MS1 should really have been a Boss product rather than coming out under the Roland banner, especially given the pocket‑money price tag (though I hasten to add that I don't get this much pocket money!) and the cheerfully non‑pro spec. That's not to say that the MS1 can't be used seriously, but it's hardly in the league of the S760.

So what does it actually sound like? The answer is that there is a pleasing crunchiness to samples made with the MS1 — this is evident at even the High sample rate. Overall, samples made with the MS1 have what you'd call character. There is a certain amount of residual noise, especially at the lowest sample rate, but this is usually hidden when samples are played in a musical context. Getting the most out of the MS1 is really a case of using the input level control wisely and making sure there is no overloading. It's a shame that each sample can't have it's own sample rate, though, since this would have made the MS1 just that little bit more flexible.

This review seems to have been a list of things you can do with the MS1, followed quickly by things you can't do. I'm not being negative here, but realistic: the MS1 is terrific value and bags of fun to use, but you really need to know what it can and can't do in order to make an informed choice. The fact that the MS1 has no competition in this price range should make that choice a simple one.

As a truly entry‑level sampler that will allow all sorts of people to get a taste for sampling, the MS1 succeeds admirably. Not only that, but DJs who want something quick, immediate and reliable will be lining up with their cheque books.

Sample Rates & Times

In giving the sample rates names rather than numbers, Roland have made the MS1 just that bit more approachable. However, as many of you will be interested, the actual sampling rates offered by the MS1 are as follows:

  • High: 44.1kHz‑32.07kHz
  • Standard: 32kHz‑23.27kHz
  • Long1: 22.05kHz‑16.04kHz
  • Long2: 16kHz‑11.64kHz

The variability in each sample band is due to the fact that the master pitch setting of the MS1 affects the sampling rate and sampling time. To help you relate the sample rates and the master pitch settings to the real world, there is approximately six semitones difference between each rate, and the Master Pitch control offers two semitones above and two semitones below the nominal pitch.

Sampling time can also vary depending on the Master Pitch setting, but when Master Pitch is set at zero, the four rates offer the following sampling times on a basic machine with no memory cards:

  • High: 19.8 seconds (9.9 stereo)
  • Standard: 28.4 seconds (14.2 stereo)
  • Long1: 39.6 seconds (19.8 stereo)
  • Long2: 57.2 seconds (28.6 stereo)


  • Very affordable.
  • Sampling has never been this easy and quick.
  • Easily portable and can be battery powered.
  • Flash RAM means that samples stay in memory even after power‑down and without batteries.
  • Free sampling CD.


  • Tiny display.
  • Global pitch and sample rate settings only.
  • If you're a real purist, you might not like the idea of data‑compressed samples.
  • Memory cards expensive.


Will suit beginners and DJs best, though beginners who move on to more sophisticated samplers will almost certainly find that the MS1 continues to be useful around the studio. Great value for money.