Roland’s popular sampler gets a major update.
The Boss/Roland SP series of pad‑based samplers has been around for over 20 years, maintaining a loyal fanbase even among those who’ve dallied with MPC, Maschine or Push. The SPs carved a niche for themselves as live performance tools and DJ sidecars, with their simplicity and transition‑friendly effects. The 303 and 404 have also been used as compositional tools by many hip‑hop beatmakers like the great J Dilla.
More recently the SP‑404 has been popular in the mushrooming lo‑fi beats scene, typified by mellow, melancholy chopped jazz samples and loose hip‑hop beats, influenced by SP users like Dilla and Madvillain. Much of this music is home‑grown and shared on YouTube, and the 404 is affordable, portable, and self contained. Perhaps this is why Roland thought this was the perfect time to revitalise the 404 with a significantly enhanced MkII model.
The basic form factor and workflow of the SPs has stayed remarkably consistent over the years, so veteran users should have no trouble finding their way around this one. But several modern conveniences have been added, along with a host of feature additions and improvements. The most visible hardware change is the move from 12 to 16 pads. This brings the 404 into line with most comparable devices, and provides more sample/pattern storage slots.
Also immediately obvious is the new display. The previous models had a chunky but basic three‑character screen. The MkII gets a proper graphical interface, which makes the machine much more accessible, with niceties like waveform editing, multi‑effects grid display, and a file browser.
Missing from the front panel is the mic grille seen on all earlier 404s, as the built‑in mic is gone. There’s still a dynamic mic input, which is now switchable to guitar DI mode. Removing the mic seems counter to the embracing of DIY lo‑fi production, but this is perhaps made up for by the fact that you can sample directly from class‑compliant USB devices like a tablet or laptop (but sadly not my Lightning‑connected iPhone).
The USB in question is of the bang‑up‑to‑date type‑C variety, and provides both connectivity and power. Yes, the SP‑404 does still have a battery bay, but I’d consider this primarily a live backup, as six AAs will only get you around three hours of use. USB is a much better option. The only issue I had was that it requires a direct USB‑C to USB‑C cable, and won’t work with a regular USB‑A charger outlet. A good old fashioned DC power adaptor is also included.
While we’re talking connectivity, the MkII now has proper grown‑up audio connectors for its line ins and outs, instead of phono. You may or may not be pleased to learn that MIDI is on mini‑jack instead of DIN. A clear upgrade, though, is the inclusion of a MIDI out — the MkII can now sequence external devices where the earlier models could not.
Before we get too hung up on what’s new, let’s recap what the SP‑404 does. First and foremost, it’s a sampler aimed at performance and sample‑based beatmaking. In that respect it has more in common with instruments like the Elektron Digitakt and Novation Circuit Rhythm than the MPC or Maschine+. Its other specialism is effects. It’s set up for fast access and control of multiple effects for live mangling of the internal samples or live inputs. The MkII now has four effects buses; more on that in a bit.
An SP project holds one sample per pad, across 10 banks, so the extra pads increase the number of samples per project to 160 from 120. But that’s not all, because the MkII can now hold 10 projects in memory instead of one, and it only takes a couple of seconds to load a new project. Projects and samples can also be backed up, imported and swapped out to and from an SD card, plus there’s an excellent software manager.
You can record patterns on the SP‑404, which are again stored one per pad across your banks. A single pattern at a time can be triggered for looped playback, over which you can continue to trigger samples live. Patterns can be chained to create a song structure. Pattern sequencing is still fairly basic when compared to many samplers and drum machines, but has got considerably more useful on the MkII; again we’ll come back to that.
It’s quick to sample source sounds, and the workflow encourages resampling: taking chunks that you’re working on and committing them to another pad.
The SP‑404 is more focused on sampling than most comparable devices I can think of. It’s quick to sample source sounds, and the workflow encourages resampling: taking chunks that you’re working on and committing them to another pad. You simply arm the record mode, choose a destination pad then start sampling, either manually or triggered from an input threshold.
A dedicated button engages input monitoring, and you can add an effect to the input independent of the main effects buses. This is particularly handy for guitars, which benefit from several amp sim effects. Recording is with the input effect, and when sampling you can choose whether to just sample the inputs, or to re‑render a mix of the input signal and current playback.
Once you’ve sampled something you can edit and process using the new nifty waveform display. Unfortunately there’s no way to preset the length of sampling or sync to the tempo, it’s always a manual process except when bouncing a pattern. This would really speed things up, saving the need to always top and tail samples or re‑renders.
Sampling is a dedicated start/stop process rather than something you do on the fly. You couldn’t, for example, use the 404 like a looper. However, there is a new feature which I found myself using all the time: Snapback. The 404 has an always‑on record buffer that constantly samples the main output. At any time you can choose to grab the last 25 seconds of audio generated by the device and drop it as a sample on to a pad.
The other major new feature is chopping. A dedicated process for slicing a sample up is present on many workstations, and will be a huge boon for most SP users. Instead of having to duplicate a sample to multiple pads and cut each down individually, you can now split up a sample that’s in one pad using manual marker placement, transient detection, or an even division by number, then drop these zones onto a set of other pads of your choosing.
The SP‑404 MkII presents several ways to juggle your content into a finished track or set.
Pattern recording on the SP‑404 is always via real‑time capture, there’s no step sequencing. A dedicated pattern mode switches the pads from triggering samples to selecting and launching patterns. Pattern length must be pre‑set, along with record quantisation strength. It’s great that you can record free of quantisation, but it would be also be nice if you could tighten things up after the fact. Mistakes can be changed by real‑time erasing of pads, and you can overdub on to existing patterns. The Rec button toggles between Rehearse and Record modes. A notable limitation is that although you can play samples chromatically, you can’t record a melody as a pattern.
In Pattern Chain mode you can sequence patterns by assembling them on a 16‑part grid. Chains can loop, and a project can store 16 different chains, which you can cue up and launch to manage a longer song structure or live set. If you like, a chain or pattern can be resampled cleanly to audio onto a pad. This is something that was tricky to do on previous versions and opens up new workflow possibilities.
In fact the SP‑404 MkII presents several ways to juggle your content into a finished track or set. The traditional way was to live resample sections to pads, then trigger those pads to create your finished song, either out to an external recorder or resampled internally once again. You can also launch a sequence of patterns to a similar end, or combine patterns with live sample triggering. You could create a Chain that utilises bounced song sections, triggered by simple one‑note patterns. Whatever method you choose, it encourages a live mixdown style which can incorporate the excellent performance effects...
Effects are literally front and centre on the SP‑404, with six buttons around the screen engaging multiple performance‑friendly sound manglers. These can be customised, but the default set is a filter+drive, resonator, delay, isolator, looper/stutter, and a multi‑effects grid with quick access to another 16 effects. There are four effects stages or buses, with some (limited) control over which sounds are affected. Bus 3 and 4 are always in series across the whole mix. Bus 1 and 2 are fed by the sample pads in one of two configurations: either two separate buses, or Bus 1 routing to Bus 2. Each sample pad routes to either Bus 1 or 2.
The Bus 1 and 2 effects are controlled from the those main panel buttons, which you can set as toggles or momentary switches. Engaging an effect brings up parameter controls mapped to the three Ctrl knobs. These so‑called ‘Direct FX’ assigned to each of the main buttons can be changed in the Utility screen. The Bus 3 and 4 master effects have a different, and slightly awkward, assignment method. They are always recalled as a pair, stored as a ‘favourite’ snapshot. This would make some sense if it was for real‑time recall, but selection is via a menu in the utilities.
One design choice on the SP‑404 MkII that can be limiting is that the effects configuration is a persistent property that’s not saved or recalled with projects. Any changes you make will affect all banks and projects. You have to think of the effects section almost like a separate hardware module that you’re running your tracks through.
Although the MkII SP‑404 has adopted some conventions like the 4x4 pad grid and beat‑slicing tools, it’s really not trying to be like everyone else. It follows its own path that runs somewhere between a workstation like the MPC and a performance sampler or drum machine like a Digitakt. And then it has another potential role as a live backing track machine and effects unit. In the studio, its strength, and sometimes limitation, is how it steers you toward a workflow where you move quickly from idea capture to performance and commitment via resampling. It actually reminds me in some ways of Teenage Engineering’s OP1: both are self-contained worlds that can sometimes be frustrating, but where you can get things finished, more by rehearsal and live resampling than the painstaking gridded tidiness of DAW editing. The results might end up a bit wonky and there’s little opportunity for post-production, but plenty of beats are mixed‑down two‑tracks before they hit a professional studio, and the software gives you easy access to the building blocks if you want to move to your DAW.
The 404 has been used by some adventurous DJs for live sample triggering and performance. The MkII has an actual DJ mode, which allows you to play back and sync longer tracks, with the unit split into two decks. Samples are loaded (from the current project) into the two playback channels, and controlled from eight pads on either side of the grid. You can sync the bpms in either direction, change the tempo of either channel, or nudge the speed to make fine sync adjustments in classic turntable style. The three control knobs give you independent level of the two channels (rather than a single crossfader), and a cue which either channel can feed.
I was somewhat sceptical about how many people are going to find this mode useful, but I can see some scenarios for it. It would be a fairly safe way to manage a live set, especially if you’re a solo MC for example (the mic input can be used in DJ mode). Sleaford Mods could certainly run a whole show like this! A nice bonus is that your playback runs through the effects so you can spice things up a bit. From what I could tell, though, both channels route to Bus 1. It might be useful to be able to switch this routing on the fly or at least have some kill filters on the two channels.
A really useful option for live use is the ability to hook the 404 up to your laptop and get audio I/O via USB. The 404 presents as a 2‑in, 4‑out interface, which I enabled in Ableton Live. I then discovered that tracks routed to outputs 3/4 are fed cleanly to the 404’s stereo output, while channels 1 and 2 appear at the Ext Input stage, meaning they can be muted/enabled on the front panel, and go through the effects! This is all combined with the audio that’s being generated internally, making for some versatile configuration possibilities.
The SP‑404 MkII is self sufficient, with the ability to directly browse and import samples from SD card, and back up projects to the same, but it still benefits from a really useful software companion. This can manage the device when it’s tethered by USB, controlling it directly and facilitating file transfer and backup. Many of the settings can be remotely configured from here.
You can load up the banks by dragging and dropping samples, and you can even edit the samples and adjust most of their playback parameters. As well as preparing a palette of sounds to go, this would be great for programming a live show.
But perhaps the most useful thing is being able to import samples back in from the unit. This opens up a fast hybrid workflow where you can capture and resample your ideas to pads on the 404, then pull them in for arrangement and production on the desktop. It would be fantastic if the editor could become a plug‑in, with direct drop of samples into your DAW.
- Pattern and Chain resampling.
- Audio over USB.
- ‘Snapback’ retrospective sampling buffer.
- Graphical display improves usability.
- Still not the most straightforward thing to use.
- On‑board mic has gone.
The SP‑404 has become a versatile secret weapon for beat makers, live MCs and laptop performers.