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Roland S330

Digital Sampler (Retro)
Published February 1997

Darius Pocha suggests that one of Roland's 'ones that got away' is an excellent second‑hand buy: the S330 sampler. Additional material by DEREK JOHNSON.

Roland have something of a history of making novel products which are not highly regarded or fashionable when in production but later become cult objects — often with with wallet‑frightening prices on the second‑hand market. Look no further than the CR78, TR808 and 909 drum machines and that silver, boxy thing that makes the funny bass noises. This is probably because the instruments are initially cheap second‑hand and are picked up by bedroom musicians who, in the words of Roland's Alan Townsend, "start playing with them creatively and realise they've got something". With reference to the above‑mentioned silver box, he notes "It certainly helped our reputation..."

One Roland product that seems to have slipped through the net thus far is the 12‑bit S330 sampler, almost the last of Roland's series of 12‑bit sampling devices, which also included the QuickDisk‑equipped MKS10 and S10. This is a shame or — depending upon how you look at it — an opportunity, because if you're in the market for a second‑hand hardware sampler you should definitely give it a look.

Roland Around In That Stuff

What's so special about it, then? Well, a number of things...

Firstly, it has a very powerful resonant filter and modulation stage, allowing you to mangle your samples in an entertainingly strange fashion, perfect for trip‑hop, ambient and techno stylings, as well as for other creative applications. Ally this to eight individual polyphonic outputs (allowing you to effect and pan samples independently) and you have a very musical and creative machine. There's even a software sequencer which runs on the S330 (called Director‑S), and it's still available from Roland.

Another feature which makes the S330 an excellent buy is its support for a monitor and mouse. I'm sure that the majority of hi‑tech musicians are familiar with using screen‑based editing and a mouse, if only through their knowledge of word‑processors. The advantages conferred by working screen‑and‑mouse style are considerable for this type of machine. Navigating the operating system, editing waveforms and setting up keyboard maps is, if not exactly a doddle, a damn site easier than the pin‑the‑tail‑on‑the‑donkey techniques necessitated by most hardware samplers with their tiny LCD screens. It's a testament to their original sampling concept, as seen in the S330, that Roland have carried it through to the current S760, albeit in a more powerful and sophisticated form. has a very powerful resonant filter and modulation stage, allowing you to mangle your samples in an entertainingly strange fashion...

You really do need the monitor to make the most of the S330, as its own LCD is cramped and only shows one parameter at a time. For this reason most second‑hand S330s will have the original Philips monitor with them. If the unit you're looking at also has the optional mouse, this is worth having, although the mouse may still be available from Roland as a (rather pricey) spare. Standard PC or Mac mice do not work. The external control socket that usually hosts the mouse can also be used for plugging in the optional RC100 remote controller, which brings all the front‑panel controls and an alpha dial together into a neat unit which can be used anywhere within a 5‑metre radius of the sampler. Having an RC100 doesn't prevent you from using the mouse, however, as the RC100 itself features an external control socket, to which the mouse can be connected.

If you're lucky when buying an S330 second‑hand, you might also get the vendor to throw in some of Roland's excellent library disks, which feature some of the best samples you'll find for a 12‑bit instrument. The Harpsichord and Sitar disks are particularly worthy of mention, as are virtually all the orchestral sounds.

The S330, like the S760, occupies an economical 1U of rack space, although both units are very deep front to back, which can make them fiddly to mount in a rack. The S330's spec is good, offering 8‑part multitimbrality, 16‑note polyphony, and MIDI In, Out and Thru.

Thanks For The Memory

Two sample rates are available: 15kHz and 30kHz. Although they're not current industry‑standard format (the S330 is, after all, a 12‑bit sampler), S330 samples can be converted by some software if you want to load them into other equipment, or can be grabbed via MIDI Sample Dump by another sampler. Stefano Daino's shareware Mac sample editor, called D‑SoundPro, will let you load samples from S330/S550 disks, converting them to standard 16‑bit sample data. This editor can be found, amongst loads of additional useful software, on the Music & MIDI for the Macintosh CD‑ROM, available from Time & Space (01442 870681) for £29.95, or on the Internet from Shareware Music Machine (

In practice, the 15kHz sampling rate is adequate for many applications, and is actually preferable in some cases, as it gives loops and samples a nice 'grainy' feel. Arguably Akai S900/950 samples have more 'character' to their sound but the S330 — in my view at least — more than makes up for this with its wild resonant filters and LFO. To my ears, it also has much better bass reproduction than the Akais.

The S330's sample memory is divided into two banks, each with a maximum capacity of 14.4 seconds at 15kHz or 7.2 seconds at 30kHz. Each bank can hold a mix of 15kHz and 30kHz samples. Oddly (and annoyingly) the two banks can't be joined together to allow one long sample. In fact, the limited sample memory is the only major fly in the S330 ointment, though, in mitigation, individual samples can be used to form the basis of several 'Tones', each of which can have drastically different settings. This really helps to stretch the available sample memory — which is just as well, since the memory, sadly, can't be upgraded, and connection to a hard drive isn't possible. However, if you can live with this and don't mind swapping disks a bit, you'll be getting a fine sampler for your money. In fact, apart from time‑stretching, the S330 does just about everything you need from a stand‑alone sampler.

One Careful Owner

S330s seem to be a good bet for reliability, being well built, with tough disk drives. The earlier version of the software can be a bit unstable, however, so if you get one with software lower than version 1.02 it's worth having a word with the nice people at Roland's Technical Department. If you send them a couple of single‑sided DD disks they can give you a copy of the latest version.

Don't expect to find the classified ads stuffed with S330s. On average, you can hope to see about one or two a month in the SOS Free Ads. You could also try papers such as Trade‑It or Loot, and the second‑hand columns in the dealer ads are also worth a look. If you buy from a dealer, you may even get a short warranty.

Before handing over the money, make sure your unit comes complete with manual. Initially, at least, you'll definitely need it, but expect it to be a cause of severe frustration. In the time‑honoured Roland tradition, it appears to have originally been written in less than lucid Japanese and then translated into equally inscrutable English.


Given its high specification, relative ease of use and creative potential, the S330 could be a very rewarding buy second‑hand, with its powerful filters, eight individual outputs and full‑on bass end allowing the creation of some very distinctive noises. In a couple of years it could be you saying to your envious friends "...yeah, got it off this bloke who was getting rid of all his old stuff. Only cost me 350 notes."

Cheap At Twice The Price

Despite its higher specification, the vagaries of fashion dictate that you can buy two S330s for the price of an Akai S950 of similar vintage (although these will often have memory upgrades). In the sub‑£500 price range, you're unlikely to find anything else that comes near the S330s specification.

Prices range from around £350 to about £450 for a pristine example. I'd be inclined not to pay more than £400 for one without a mouse. If a unit is being sold without a monitor, old RGB or green screens can be picked up from second‑hand shops for £10‑15 and should work fine.

Upping The Stakes: The S550

If you've got a few more quid to spare, it might be worth holding out for an S550, which was released before the S330 and is essentially two 330s in a box, with double the sample memory (though this is arranged as four banks of 7.2 seconds each at 30kHz, which, as with the 330, can't be joined together). Its greater capacity is reflected in its larger (2U high) and more professional‑looking packaging. As with the W30, there's a SCSI option for adding a hard disk or CD‑ROM — the entire Roland 12‑bit sample library was available on CD‑ROM. The S550, naturally, also lets you work with a monitor, and a second‑hand one should set you back around £450‑550 — perversely, not that much more than an S330.

Band In A Box: The W30

Not everyone is aware that the sampling guts of the S330 were welded onto a keyboard and 8‑track sequencer, to become the W30 sampling workstation, which rapidly found favour with itinerant DJs and dance musicians. Unlike the S330, the W30 has a SCSI option, though you're unlikely to find it separately now, so if you want it, you'll have to find a W30 with it already fitted. The W30 also features two banks of ROM samples, which are a bit of a mixed bag, but include basic drum sounds and staple timbres to get you going. Be aware that S550 and S330 library disks can be loaded by the W30, but W30 disks can't be used in either of the rackmount samplers unless they're first put through a conversion routine within the workstation.

W30s come up fairly regularly on the second‑hand market; a reasonable price would be around £6‑700.