An inquisitive Gordon Reid poses the question "how much sampler can you get into a single rack space?". Roland's S330 sampling module replies "more than you might expect".
Sampling is arguably the most popular application of modern instrument technology. Roland's S330 module aims to make quality sampling more readily available to the "average" musician.
YOU MAY NOT realise it but 1988 is the silver jubilee of the sampler - I hope you'll join me in wishing it a very happy 25th birthday. Admittedly, the 1963 vintage is a little long in the tooth now, but nevertheless, the equivalent of £5000 at today's prices bought some pretty advanced facilities. Six patches could be held "in memory" at any one time (although changing them could be a bit of a job), of which combinations of up to four could be played simultaneously with 88-note polyphony. Sample quality was excellent, with no quantisation or aliasing problems whatsoever, but no onboard modulation or envelope controls were available. Volume and pitch controls were built in, and a rhythm unit was included, although this was a little inflexible by today's standards. To complete the package a reverb unit was included and the whole output then sent to a powerful amplifier and four speakers that were provided with each sampler. Points against the unit were its weight (a little under five hundredweight) and its inherent instability - which had some users building fan-heaters into their machines to stabilise the internal temperature when performing. The double manual Mellotron had arrived.
Nothing much then happened for nearly 20 years until the advent of the original Fairlights, Synclaviers, and Emulators. On the affordable side, samplers were introduced by Akai and Ensoniq (amongst others) but the "big guns" of Roland and Yamaha were surprisingly quiet. Roland eventually released the S10 (of which the less said the better) and S50 keyboard samplers, followed by the MKS100 and S550 19" modules. The MKS220 superceded the MKS100 late last year but still Roland failed to really crack the popular sampler market. Which brings us neady onto their latest offering - the S330 Sampling Module, which is aimed right at the cost-conscious musician or budget studio.
THE S330 HAS the typical style and evocative good looks of all 1U-high 19" rack-mount units - none. However, it's surprising how much difference a few well thought-out external features can make to the overall feel of a system. The left of the front panel sports a 32-character readout, dual concentric pots for record level and volume, and quarter-inch sockets for audio input and headphone output. Finally, on the far left is a recessed male 9-pin D connector for the optional RC100 remote control or mouse. The RC100 was relatively unnecessary on the S550 (since it only duplicated the front panel controls of that unit), but it could be a worthwhile addition to the S330 which has a much more limited set of switches. The mouse, at approximately £60, is too expensive but very useful, simplifying the operation of the sampler as well as speeding it up considerably. Unfortunately, my Atari 1040ST mouse did not work when plugged into this socket. One feature to note is the high gain of the Record Level control, which allows sampling from both microphone and line with no difficulty whatsoever.
To the right of the screen are 12 micro-switches, the 3.5" disk drive, and finally, the on/off switch. On the rear of the machine are outputs for monochrome (composite) monitor, RGB monitor, the entirely necessary MIDI In, Out and Thru, and the audio outputs - of which there are eight individual, and a single mixed output.
Annoying niggles: Firstly, the individual outputs are of the protruding, silvery coloured variety - phono plugs. (The mixed output is, however, a nice, sensible, quarter-inch jack socket.) Why Roland should have chosen phonos on the S330 when the similarly designed D110 L/A module has eight individual jack sockets, escapes me. Perhaps they ran out of room internally and couldn't fit the recessed quarter-inch sockets inside. The next complaint concerns the mains socket - because it doesn't exist. In common with the D110, the P330 piano module, and the DEP series effects, the S330 has a fixed mains lead. This may be acceptable in a studio where everything is (theoretically) neatly wired in, but using Roland's own 2U flight cases, and having the plug flapping around inside during transportation makes a mess of the back of the sampler as well as any other unit(s) in the case. The disk drive front plate was not correctly attached on the review unit (which was clearly previously unused) and although it only took a few minutes to fix, a little more quality control would have stopped that happening. One final point about the physical usage of the S330 concerns the DT100 digitiser ("drawing tablet"). I have seen reports that the DT100 will work with the S330 but believe me - it doesn't. You have been warned. Personally I don't give a damn, because the mouse gives better control and superior resolution to the DT100 anyway. Niggles notwithstanding, the overall construction of the S330 is first class and great care has been taken both internally and externally to ensure longevity and freedom from defects.
REVIEWS SHOULDN'T READ like technical manuals, because, in the last analysis, it's sound quality that matters (does an Emulator II owner worry that he's got 4 bits missing?) and the S330 is susceptible to underselling itself on specification (see DI below). But you can't fully review a hi-tech electronic instrument without discussing its features, so...
The Roland S330 is a 12-bit sampler with a 16-bit output stage (the reason for which will become clearer later). Onboard RAM is 512k which holds 32 Tones, each of which can be a sample or a manipulation of a sample - therefore you could have 32 separate samples onboard at any one time, or one sample and 31 modified versions of it, or any combination in between. The machine has 16 voices (is 16-note polyphonic) which, although no longer unique in this price range, is certainly good value. A Patch can be made up of any number or combination of Tones, and eight Patches an be accessible at any time. Fully multitimbral polyphony is what the market now demands and the S330 certainly delivers this. The module will play polyphonically over eight MIDI channels through any combination of the eight individual audio outputs. In addition, any Patch can be output through any of the individual sockets and indeed, even the Tones within a patch an be assigned to separate outputs. Another important feature for the studio user is that the outputs are not restricted to MIDI channel setups and I would venture that this module offers the most flexible voice assignment of any sampler under £3000.
Sampling can be performed at 30kHz or 15kHz giving approximately 14kHz and 7kHz bandwidth respectively. I found that sampling at 15kHz was adequate for the majority of applications (such as sampling the sound effects of crusty old TV sci-fi space operas) and, as with all samplers, had the additional benefit of acting as a 7kHz low-pass filter, eliminating hiss. However, there is an important difference between this and other samplers if you wish to use the lower frequency sampling rate. Due to a process called "Differential Interpolation" (DI) the S330 maintains its 15kHz clock rate even when playing notes well below the sampled pitch. To understand the importance of this imagine a note of 6kHz sampled at 15kHz. On a conventional (variable dock-rate) sampler, if you played the sample back three octaves lower than the sample pitch (at 633Hz) the clock speed of the sampler would be down to 1875Hz - too low for faithful reproduction, giving a very "grainy" nature to the sound.
"The S330 certainly does sound like a 16-bit sampler unlike some samplers which, due to excessive filtering, sound more like 10- or 11-bit."
The Roland, however, uses DI to "fill in the gaps" between sample points in a particularly realistic manner, allowing the clock speed to be maintained at the original sample rate of 15kHz. Result: more faithful reproduction. The outcome is that the S330 certainly does sound like a 16-bit sampler (unlike some 16-bit samplers which, due to excessive filtering, sound more like 10- or 11-bit). It also explains why Roland used a 16-bit output stage when, in principle, 12-bit should have been adequate.
The 512k RAM has room for two banks of 7.2 sec samples at 30kHz (a total of 14.4 sec) or a total of 28.8 sec at the slower rate. Unfortunately, the two banks cannot be run together. Although this is a shame, I never actually found it a handicap. The operating system, which is supplied on 3.5" disk, takes up approximately 80k of RAM but, far from being a deficiency this has an important benefit. Since the OS is always loaded from disk and not held in ROM, the S330 is what Roland call a "clean computer design". This means that, as all the system and performance data are held in software, these can be updated with new features or facilities simply by loading a new disk. Also worthy of note is the fact that the OS is held separately from the Utilities, which are loaded into the S330 one at a time when required. Therefore any number of utilities an be developed and used without decreasing the amount of memory available for sampling. I like it.
The S330 is remarkably quick and straightforward to use. Even exclusively using the front panel is a simple and clear-cut procedure but with the mouse the facilities could be accessed spectacularly quickly. Maybe this operating system will be the benchmark against which the speed of the next generation of budget samplers will be measured.
One thing Roland fail to mention in their blurb is that it is impossible to use the S330 properly without a monitor.
This is because no input level information is supplied on the front panel display. Funnily enough, early S50s had this facility but it was removed in a software update because of memory considerations. I would have thought that some sort of clipping warning could be given, but without this you just have to use a monitor. RGB (colour) is preferable since various items of on-screen information are colour coded for clarity, but a monochrome monitor is quite acceptable. It is an annoying anomaly that when using a monochrome monitor, some of the S330's screens have differing brightness and contrast, so that unless your monitor is particularly forgiving (or you are) you find yourself occasionally adjusting the brightness and contrast controls. Curiously, the problem did not occur on my colour monitor. Roland are aware of the problem and I presume that they will take steps to fix it. One small niggle about the RGB socket: it doesn't seem to conform to any standard. I may be wrong here, but if not, it would be nice to see the output modified to take a standard off-the-shelf lead such as a BBC micro or Atari ST RGB cable.
Having coughed up another £70-£500 for your monitor (depending upon taste or recording contract advance) you're ready to use the S330 as a sampler, rather than as a preset synthesiser. As well as the usual sampling abilities (which, for the sake of brevity, we'll take as read) the S330 has two new abilities which I'll call "psychic sampling". Firstly, there is Pre-trigger sampling. Since a tremendous amount of the information of a percussive sample is held in the first cycle, and a sampler takes up to half a cycle to get going, very important information is lost with conventional triggering. Pre-triggering allows you to add information onto the front of the sample for the period immediately before the S330 was triggered. The second, Previous sampling, allows you to set the sampler up ready to record and wait for the particular sound you wish to sample. As soon as the sound has finished press the execute button to trigger the sampler, and you have your recording. Both of these facilities are possible because the unit is constantly sampling the outside world, and the memory of the system is constantly being filled and cleared of sample information. In the first case, you simply tell the unit to keep the required amount from before the trigger. In the second case, the trigger tells the S330 to stop sampling and leave the memory intact. After using either of these modes you trim the sample in the edit page for the required result. Psychic sampling.
Editing facilities are all that you could hope for on a unit of this price. Every tone has an independent eight-stage Time Variant Filter (that's a fancy name for a VCF) and an independent Time Variant Amplifier (why not just call it an Envelope Generator?). These give tremendous flexibility, enabling single samples to be modified to produce endless variations on an original theme. Hence the earlier point that Tones need not be separate samples. The S330 has 32 totally independent filters, envelope generators, loops and LFOs. 32 of everything - giving a wide variety of different effects which can be accessed from the dynamics of the keyboard or MIDI guitar as well as allowing the building of complex sounds from relatively little initial sample information. (Actually, the hardware only has 16 of each function because the S330 is 16-note polyphonic, but the software remembers and assigns individual parameters to all 32 Tones and switches them in as and when necessary.)
"Crossfade looping seems a bit hit-and-miss. I actually got different results at separate attempts using the same loop points."
Looping offers all the standard options, and is extremely quick and easy using the mouse. My only reservation here regards the crossfade looping which seems a bit hit-and-miss. I actually got different results at separate attempts using the same loop points. In common with all other samplers I found autolooping absolutely useless for strings, brass, and voices (where the harmonic spectrum changes dramatically over the course of the note) but achieved very satisfying results on acoustic guitar, eventually getting down to an acceptable single cycle loop.
The S330 offers even more flexibility by allowing Wave Redrawing. I watched Roland product specialist, Nick Magnus demonstrate this (admittedly on an S550, but the operation is identical on the S330) at the '87 British Music Fair. Simply by selecting the Wave Draw option from the Utilities you can draw or re-draw any part of the sampled waveform using the mouse. The example shown at the BMF was the attack portion of a bass drum sample which was firstly smoothed (no apparent beater-dick - a very mellow sound) and then made very noisy (very prominent click for a more percussive sounding drum). Because the S330 holds 32 Tones it follows that a complete drum kit can be created within memory with all the variations of a "real" drummer. Add this facility to the extensive TVF and TVA envelopes, and a single bass drum sample can be used to produce a whole variety of drum sounds, from soft to hard, gated and reversed, mellow, coarse, tuned... Many more functions are available on the Edit, Looping, and Utilities pages but I don't intend to rewrite the manual. If you want to know more, it's time to find your nearest dealer.
AND SO ITS finally time to output your masterpiece of sonic creativity. As already mentioned, the output assignation leaves almost nothing to be desired. If you are using the S330 as a multitimbral expander you have 22 different modes of polyphony for the eight channels, as well as two additional "floating" modes - first note priority, and last note priority. In a floating mode the sampler will steal unused voices from any available channel and use them to cover the requirements of channels in use. However, if you give the sampler the freedom to steal it and cause unwanted clipping of sounds with a long decay (such as cymbals). Just take a little care of how much you ask the S330 to do.
How does it all sound? The test of a sampler has to be the ease with which patches an be created, and the quality of the results. With the S330 the initial sample quality, the flexibility of the editing, the speed of experimenting with loops and multiple layers and the DI output quality, all conspire to make sound creation quick and painless. And the acid test? It's happenin'. I took samples from sources as diverse as voice, flute, screaming 10 year-old, Crumar Organiser, and D50. In all cases the result would have been acceptable in a studio, each patch possessing a "live" quality that could be rich and vibrant, or percussive and aggressive, as required.
Roland were approached and asked for a few factory disks. They obliged by sending the entire S330/SS50 disk library (the S330 has a Convert utility that allows conversion of S50/S550 disks to S330 format and back again). The samples were recorded in 16-bit resolution and the S330 does them complete justice. It would be inappropriate to single too many out (reviews to follow). Worth a mention, however, are the Indian and Japanese stringed instruments, and some of the Andean flutes. There is a life to them that cries out for creativity - each sound deserves compositions to show it off individually.
WE'VE COME A long way since those first Mellotrons in 1963. The demand for samplers is already large and it's growing all the time. Roland finally seem to have decided that the mid-cost market is important to them and have produced the most complete package yet seen in this price range. They have stuffed it full of features previously available only at much higher prices and have carried over the DI technology from the S550, giving the S330 16-bit quality whilst keeping it as simple to use as possible. If they succeed in bringing the S330 to the attention of the "average" musician (whoever he may be) it deserves to become a very successful instrument indeed. Currently I don't think that there is anything else at the price to touch it - and if this all sounds as if I am won over to the S330 - it is intended to. I started writing this review with a unit supplied by Roland - I finished it owning my own.
Price £1,384 including VAT
I would like to acknowledge the assistance given by Nick Magnus (best known for his co-writing and production work with Steve Hackett) during the preparation of this review.