The S760 sampler represented excellent value for money on its release back in February this year. Now it looks even more impressive, with the arrival of the OP760/1 expansion board and the v.2.12 system software. Paul Wiffen checks them out.
My love affair with Roland samplers first began with the S50 back in 1986, and was principally inspired by the inclusion of a small socket on the back marked 'RGB Out'. This marked for me one of the most important developments in sampling, but strangely, nobody but Roland had the good sense to follow it up.
Previously, samplers fell into two categories. The first of these contained the prohibitively expensive computer‑based systems with CRT readouts (the Fairlight and Synclavier), which enjoyed an almost mythological reputation — mainly due to the fact that ordinary mortals couldn't see one anywhere, let alone hear one, except when covered in fairy dust and carefully mixed into a recorded track. In fact, most of the time, such systems added more to the video appeal of a band, as their displays looked far more impressive than the systems themselves sounded (see the Duran Duran 'Reflex' video, among others). Anyone who doubts the audio infidelity of the early 8‑bit, 16kHz Fairlight should go back and listen to the 'cello' sound on 'Army Dreamers' by Kate Bush — my sister sounded better aged 11 after her second cello lesson.
The samplers in the second category were more standard keyboards (or racks), with a floppy drive as the only concession to computer technology. These were somewhat more accessible to the average keyboard player, in that prices started under 10 grand instead of over, and included the Emulator II, Mirage, Prophet 2000 and Akai S900 in their ranks. Although the fidelity of these machines was surprisingly good (even the Mirage surpassed the quality of the original Fairlight), the only clues given when editing were via the minuscule double 7‑segment LED (Mirage, Prophet 2000) or at best a two line LCD (Emulator II, Akai S900).
Of course, there was the valiant effort by the chaps at Digidesign and Blank Software to press the humble Mac Plus into service for editing, but as sample transfer was restricted to MIDI sample dump format, it used to take so long to transfer a file across for editing, and then back afterwards, that it was faster to do your looping on the instrument (and more accurate too, as you only had the Mac's 8‑bit DACs and internal speaker for monitoring). It was only when Blank Software's Alchemy implemented real‑time updating of the sample in the sampler (as late as 1988) that this system became really workable.
But the Roland S50 had the best of both worlds; the sample stayed in the sampler for editing, so no time was wasted in transferring it backwards and forwards, but you could plug a video monitor in to see what you were doing with the waveform. The RGB monitor required was a little pricey at the time, but nowhere near as expensive as a Mac, and much more efficient.
Operating the S760 with a monitor attached gives you the impression that you are using a completely different machine, because everything is much quicker and more intuitive.
At the time, the mono 12‑bit 32kHz sampling of the S50 (and its descendants, the S550, S330 and the W30) was on a par with the other machines of that era (S900, Prophet 2000), but with the advent of the 16‑bit stereo 44.1kHz quality of the short‑lived Prophet 3000 and the somewhat longer‑lived Akai S1000, Roland obviously had to move into the same league. This they did with the magnificent S770, which featured the same excellent RGB Out socket for visual editing of waveforms.
Sadly, the S770 was a tad on the pricey side. The answer to this problem seemed to arrive in the form of the S750, which featured almost everything that the S770 had. Unfortunately, the one omission couldn't have been more serious for the forward‑looking digital audio enthusiast — there was no digital I/O, nor any way to add the capability later. Present on the S770, this feature allowed you to enter audio already on CD or DAT within the digital domain, thus avoiding two additional conversions, from digital to analogue and back again. You could also transfer the overall output of the machine to DAT or a digital desk/effects processor, once again without additional conversions. This feature was sorely missed on the S750.
Two years on, however, the S760 gives the same fabulous sound quality as the S770/750, for an incredible £1699. And although this price does not include either the capability to connect an monitor or a digital input/output, this time the door is not closed on these options, as they are both available with the optional OP760/1 board. This £299 board gives you the same simultaneous visual and audible editing of samples as on the S770/750 (without any of that tedious mucking about with SCSI or, god forbid, MIDI Sample Dump transfers), and the ability to input samples and output a stereo mix, or four independent channels, without ever leaving the digital domain... all this plus a free mouse and the version 2.12 software, of which more later.
Installation of the board is fairly simple, even for a clumsy individual like myself (ie. there's no soldering required, which is where I start causing irreparable damage). There is not a lot of spare room in a 1U rack sampler, as you can probably imagine, but the two boards that make up the OP760/1 sit one on top of the other, filling up the available space, with four metal posts to hold them apart. All the necessary sockets poke out of the back of the S760, and there is even a replacement metal backplate to label all the ins and outs. All electronic connections are made with the sort of connectors which you can't get the wrong way round, and the most difficult thing required is an EPROM update (which is the only thing you can get the wrong way round — the trick is to look at the chip you are taking out first...).
Once installed, you enable CRT and mouse operation by holding down the Mode button as you switch the S760 on. This gives you the Setup Menu on the S760 LCD display, allowing the Controller parameter to be set to 'Mouse+CRT' or even 'RC100+CRT' if you are lucky enough to have found one of the now‑discontinued RC100 Remote Controllers (originally for the S770/750 family) to use with your S760 (plea to Roland Japan: please start making RC100s again, now I can afford a sampler to plug it in to!). If you are using a TV, you also need to specify the television transmission standard, 'PAL' or 'NTSC' (and for those of you who don't know, the UK TV standard is PAL, while NTSC is the US system).
Once you have chosen your controller and transmission standard, pressing Exit updates the EEPROM in the S760, and then returns to the normal boot procedure. The LCD display on the front panel of the S760 is disabled, and the glorious full‑screen display appears on your TV or RGB monitor — whichever you have connected (see the separate 'Vision On' panel on using your TV or RGB monitor with the OP760/1 for more information).
The actual screens which appear will look incredibly familiar to anyone who has seen either the S770 or S750 plugged into a CRT (see Figure 1). The top line of the display tells you the current volume, and the current function of the mouse buttons. Below this is a menu line to select the six main programming modes (Performance, Patch, Partial, Sample, Disk, System) and, below this, switches for the Mark and Jump functions, and the current Command menu.
Anyone who has an S760 has no excuse not to buy this expansion board.
What you see on the remainder of the screen is dependent on the current Mode and page, but, generally speaking, you can see all the parameters relating to that page without having to cursor around, as you do with the LCD. Convenient though this is, the real advantage comes when you have visual displays of the current waveform, the MIDI keyboard assignment, or the envelope shapes (see Figure 2).
Although the parameters available are no different from those you get when using the LCD, operating the S760 with a monitor attached gives you the impression that you are using a completely different machine, because everything is much quicker and more intuitive. Nowhere is this truer than when trying to loop samples; switch to the Loop and Smoothing display, and suddenly you can see not only the wave data, but the loop area (shown by a light blue bar) and those parts of the sample which will not be played at all (because the current Loop Mode doesn't use that area). You can also zoom in as far as single cycles in the display (great for looping samples with a constant harmonic content), or all the way out to see just where your loop is in the greater scheme of things. The mouse also lets you play the sample forwards and backwards — the speed is governed by how close to the edge of the frame you are. All this suddenly makes sample editing a pleasure rather than a drudgery.
Similarly, envelope Rate and Level parameters (which have never meant very much to me, ever since Yamaha forced them on an unsuspecting world in the guise of the DX7) suddenly make some sort of sense when you actually see the envelope shape change as you increase or decrease one of the anonymous parameters.
The OP760/1 is shipped with Version 2.12 software, which adds a few features worth a brief mention here — though there aren't really enough to make a separate review worthwhile. Deserving of recognition, however, are the addition of Solo/Mute for each part in your performance (excellent for adjusting sounds during multi‑channel MIDI playback), Stereo Edit Mode (before you had to edit each side separately), Volume Dump to floppy (so you can save the configuration of sounds loaded from a CD‑ROM for automatic reload) and a CD player function (to allow a CD‑ROM drive to be used as a CD player under S760 control). The Solo/Mute and Stereo Edit functions really speak for themselves (although I have to admit I didn't miss these features when I first reviewed the S760). The CD Player function is interesting, in that the ability to control a CD‑ROM drive as an audio player is normally associated with a Macintosh or PC, and this is the first time I have seen an external CD‑ROM controlled from a sampler in this way (although the Akai CD3000 does this with its internal CD‑ROM drive). There do seem to be two problems, however. Firstly, the only two drives I can find which are supported are the Apple CD300 and CD150; not even the Apple Power CD. [This is indeed the case at the moment, but Roland are looking into expanding the number of compatible drives for audio playback as soon as possible — Ed] Toshiba, Mitsumi, NEC; all these brands work as a CD‑ROM drive for the S760, but the message 'Not Supported. Please change Current Drive' appears as soon as you access the CD Player audio playback function.
The second problem appears if you are using the Apple CD300 or 150, and you want to make a sample from the CD you are playing. As soon as you exit from the CD Player page, the CD stops playing, so you can't sample from it. I would have liked to see the CD Player function within the Sampling page (as it is on the CD3000), so you could use the player functions to cue up audio to sample. It would be even better if the audio from the CD was brought in via SCSI, so that it didn't get converted to analogue and then back to digital again. One for software version 2.13 perhaps?
Other nice little bonuses include the ability to modulate the pan position of a sample via an LFO (for your Leslie effects), the display which shows the name of your CD‑ROM disk on screen (to save you having to pop the CD out to see which one it is), and the option to save a volume of sounds loaded from CD‑ROM onto a floppy, which is excellent. You cannot, of course, save anything (not even a volume list) back to CD‑ROM, but now you can save to floppy the locations on a CD‑ROM that data in your S760 was originally loaded from. This means your sampler obtains the positions of the samples on your CD‑ROM that you want access to, and the setup data that goes with them (pan, MIDI channel and so on) from a floppy that you have previously saved this information to, and the actual sound data will then be loaded over SCSI from the source CD‑ROM. This is ideal for users who cannot afford a hard drive as well as a CD‑ROM. The only time I have ever seen something similar is on the Ensoniq range of samplers — an excellent feature!
Anyone who has an S760 has no excuse not to buy this expansion board. At £299 for a product delivering RGB/Video/S‑Video Out, SPDIF In and dual SPDIF Out, with a free mouse, the OP760/1 is a steal. An Akai Digital I/O card will cost you at least this much (more on an S3000) with a single SPDIF Out and no video capability. Even those who had to scrape together enough money to buy the basic S760 should save up their pennies to add this, as the extra capabilities make life so much easier. The screen layouts will already be familiar to previous Roland sampler users, and anyone coming to them for the first time will discover the original meaning of the now over‑used term 'intuitive'.
If you add the DA400 when it becomes available, and some serious memory in the form of SIMMS, you will turn the S760 into a power sampler to rival (and possibly beat) any competition. At £1699 the S760 was a bargain. At £1998 with the OP760/1, it starts to look like a compulsory purchase, and at £2373 with the DA400, you'd think that at the very least someone had forgotten to add the VAT in. Buy now, before the pound becomes worth less than the yen and the price becomes more realistic.
The advantages of fitting the OP760/1 are not just limited to visual editing. You also get a stereo digital in, and not one but two stereo digital outs in the SPDIF format. The only other machine I know of which can be upgraded to do this is the Akai DR4d, which can have a second digital out added.
Whilst I would be the last one to claim that you need the digital in on the S760 to get around the A/D converters (which are as good as any I've ever heard on a sampler), if the material you want to sample is already on DAT or CD, it makes no sense putting that material through an additional D/A and A/D conversion to load it into the sampler. However, the digital interfacing really comes into its own at the output stage. The two digital outputs allow you to send, for example, the main stereo mix straight to DAT or to a digital mixer, and a separate sub‑mix to an effects unit with a digital input. The eight output locations are grouped in stereo pairs, labelled in the displays as A, B, C and D (the latter two are the two digital outs), but they can also be addressed as mono outputs 1‑8 (and here 5‑8 are the digital outs). Obviously, you can only use these digital outs as individual outputs if you have a means of converting the two SPDIF outputs into four analogue outputs. Although suitable units could be purchased from various Pro Audio manufacturers (Apogee, for example), the cost would probably be prohibitive.
Fortunately, at the NAMM show in January, Roland announced a unit called the DA400, which does this at a much more reasonable cost, with D/A converters matched to those in the S760 (different D/As might lead to variations in sound quality or character). This was shown working at the BMF show at the end of July, and should be shipping by the time you read this.
There are two ways to connect the S760 to your TV, depending on how state‑of‑the‑art it is. The low‑tech way is a composite Video Out on a co‑axial connector (which you can send through your video recorder if the TV has no direct video connector). The more up‑to‑date consumer will by now have an S‑Video input on either their TV or VCR, which gives better definition. Mac aficionados will recognise S‑Video, as it is the same one used for the Apple Desktop bus; at a pinch you could use the keyboard connector cable from a Mac to connect to your TV. The fact that either type of connector is supplied actually makes the S760 (when used with the OP760/1) superior to either of its more expensive predecessors, as these could only be connected to an RGB monitor.
Of course you can still use the expanded S760 with an RGB monitor, if you happen to have have one lying about (the one sold by Commodore until it ceased trading, the Philips 8833 Mk 2, is still available from retailers). Roland can supply three different cables — the RGB25A (for use with Atari monitors) at £20, the RGB25I (for use with IBM‑compatible monitors) at £24, and the RGB25N (for use with Roland monitors) at £24. These allow you to work with almost any RGB monitor — I used an old Atari colour monitor which I thought I'd never have any further use for, and it looks great. Call Roland Customer Sales on 0792 700139 with your make and model of RGB monitor to make sure you get the right cable for you.
RGB definitely gives the clearest picture of all, but you may prefer the more cost‑effective shared use of a TV (providing your girlfriend doesn't want to watch Coronation Street in the middle of an S760 editing session like mine did!). Whichever you choose, the extra cost of a screen to display on (RGB, Video or S‑Video) is well worth it.
- Allows digital transfer of sample data and mix out to DAT.
- On‑screen programming speeds up operation and simplifies looping.
- Free mouse included in price.
- Composite Video and S‑Video allows connection to most recent TVs.
- CD player function only currently supports Apple CD300 and CD150.
- CD Player function not available in sample page.
You could spend a lot more than £299 adding these facilities to other samplers, or spend a lot more time sending data back and forth to a computer for visual editing. Roland's visual display system for what is inside the sampler is by far the best, and you get this and the digital interfacing all in one package. Every S760 should have one.