A mid-priced sampler with a spec that'll worry the high-priced competition
Roland's latest contender for the sampler crown combines a heavyweight spec with a keenly competitive price. Andrew Jones puts on his referee's hat...
Believe it or not, nearly all the people MT has interviewed over the past few years have had one thing in common. Whether they be ageing synth pioneers, raving sample teensters, cutting-edge trancers or chart-hitting megastars, cast a glance down their equipment list and chances are you'll to see two words: Akai sampler.
It's fair to say that Akai have had a stranglehold on the sampler market for some while now. The company's S1000 sampler became the industry standard and a legend in studios around the world. Of their more recent models, the S01 with its sub-£700 price tag convincingly covers the budget end of the market, while the more expensive S2800/3000 and CD3000 models do the same for the high end.
Other manufacturers haven't exactly sat back and done nothing, however. Roland have mounted perhaps the strongest challenge. Back in 1990 their S-770 attempted to lure the most finnicky of sampler buyers away from the Akai fold but, while it was critically acclaimed, its price tag (close on £5000) put it beyond the reach of most users. A year later the S750 at around £3000 sold in greater numbers but never achieved the kind of success that it perhaps deserved.
Now comes the S-760. On paper it seems to have the same spec as the S-750, yet Roland have reduced the price dramatically, to just £1699. Clearly they've recognised a price gap in the market and decided to fill it.
The S-760 is a stereo 16-bit sampler with 2Mb of RAM as standard, expandable in 8Mb chunks to 32Mb using standard Mac SIMMs (the S750, in comparison, can only be upgraded to 18Mb). At the time of writing, fully expanding the memory would cost around £1400. The S760's cheaper price has of course meant some compromises. Most obviously, Roland have managed to squeeze all the technology into a 1U-high rackmount unit. Also, there are only four individual outputs as opposed to the eight found on the S-750 - and no mic inputs.
The sampler's reduced height inevitably means that it has a smaller LCD than its S-series companions. The 160 x 64-dot resolution allows for more detail than you'll find on many a 1U unit. However, while it's good enough to show sample waveforms and sample editing data, it's still a little limited for some operations. Also, while stepping through the heaps of choices available on the 760 you soon realise that Roland's design thinking is, as with their other samplers, based around mouse operation - which isn't implemented as standard on the new sampler.
Fortunately, Roland will be releasing an expansion card providing a mouse port and TV/monitor connector in early 1994. All the information currently displayed can then be shown on a monitor in much the same format as that displayed on the S-750's screen, and the options selected via the mouse. The card will also have four digital outs - bringing the total to eight - and two digital ins. The OP-760-1 card, as it is known, is expected to sell for £300.
The 760's front panel is quite a basic affair, with a set of cursors for stepping through screen options and two keys for entering/opening menus, plus a set of function keys and two dials for adjusting input and output levels and editing onscreen values. Completing the panel are the 3.5" disk drive and the power on/off switch.
The sampler's rear panel includes a SCSI port for connection of storage devices such as hard disks and CD-ROM drives. In addition to Roland S series data, you can also load Akai samples and programs into the S760 via SCSI (with the exception, it seems, of S3000 and S3200 data); to paraphrase an old saying: if you can't beat 'em, make sure you can read 'em...
Included with the 760 is a free CD-ROM which provides orchestra, synth, world, rhythm and SFX samples - a great start to your collection should you wish to invest in the necessary CD-ROM drive. As an added bonus, any purchaser of the 760 has free and unlimited access to Roland's existing CD-ROM sample archive; all you have to do is book time at the company's Fleet offices, then turn up armed with enough discs.
Those familiar with Roland's S-770 and S-750 samplers will recognise many of the commands and features on the 760. The main onscreen menu lists six options: Performance, Patch, Partial, Sample, Disk and System. The first four of these reflect the 760's sample architecture; while they're confusing initially, an understanding of them is essential to the operation of the 760.
A Sample is, not surprisingly, the actual raw sound data, and the Sample mode is where you do your sampling and sample editing.
Partial mode lets you combine up to four Samples to create a sound called, yes, a Partial. In this mode you can tune, transpose and pan these Samples, route them through a Time Variant Filter and Time Variant Amplifier, and apply LFO modulation to them. Patch mode is the next level up, allowing you to assign multiple Partials to the keyboard in order to create multisplit textures. If you sample at this level, the S-760 automatically assigns the data to a Sample, a Patch and a Partial for you.
The highest level is represented by Performance mode; this is where you assign your Patches to multiple parts for multitimbral MIDI playback, up to a maximum of 32 parts. Each part can be assigned a single Patch and given MIDI channel, volume level and keyboard range settings. Finally, all the data held in the S-760's memory can conveniently be saved to disk as a single file called a Volume.
A more detailed look at sampling on the S-760 will give you a good idea of what using the sampler is like. Sampling is best dealt with in Performance mode so that you can set up the Performance in one fell swoop. You're given the choice of Q-Samp, a 'quick' method of getting samples into the machine, followed by Q-Edit to make swift adjustments to your sample.
The Sample page indicates the present sample rate, allocated sample time, and whether sampling is in stereo or mono; adjustments to all these parameters are made using the inc/dec dial.
Stereo sampling at 48kHz into the S-760's standard 2Mb of RAM gives you 11.2 seconds sampling time. At the other end of the scale, a mono sample at 16kHz could be up to 67.4 seconds long.
The sample input level can be monitored and adjusted, with two horizontal 'moving bars' giving a graphic indication of the signal level for easy setting. When you're pleased with your setup, you simply press one of the function keys to begin sampling. The waveform is then displayed and the sample can be auditioned via MIDI (keyboard, sequencer etc) or by pressing the volume control button.
With your sample now in memory, there are a sack-full of editing possibilities at your disposal. It's easy just to go straight into Q-Edit where, depending on what mode you are working in, several options are available including the commonly-used Loop.
For more complex sound editing, you need to enter Sample mode and press the Value/menu knob to bring up a full list of options. These include a more extensive list of loop commands, auto-truncate, sample compression/expansion, rate conversion, cut, splice, erase, insert, mix and combine. You also get timestretch for sample length alteration that doesn't affect sample pitch, and a digital filter section with low/high pass selection and resonance. One notable parameter is Analogue feel, first seen on Roland's D-70 synth and also to be found on the S-750. This feature provides a subtle pitch modulation in an attempt to create a warmer, more natural sound like that of an analogue synth.
One notable absentee is the resampling feature which was a useful option on the S-750. This allows you to resample complete Performances, or arrangements such as chords, basslines and melodies made up of several Patches. These (re)samples can then be triggered from a single key. Roland tell us that resampling will soon be available for the S-760 as part of a software update.
As you might expect with such a high spec, the S-760 doesn't fall short in the sound quality department; it certainly maintains the high standards set by its two predecessors, with a quoted frequency response of 10Hz to 23.4kHz. Of particular note are a powerful bass end and a dynamic quality across the range. Load up the sound disk that comes with the S-760 and you'll get a full demonstration of the machine's capabilities; the drum set and strings sound particularly rich and dynamic.
At last Roland have come up with the goods: a quality sampler at a very attractive price that looks set to dominate the mid-budget section of the market while also appealing to those looking for top-notch sampling capabilities.
The S-760 is not without its drawbacks, but Roland's plans for the future may well iron these out. The limited number of outputs provided as standard will no doubt annoy some people, but the optional OP-760-1 board will at least give them the full eight; others in the market for a sampler at this price may well not have enough spare mixer channels to take advantage of so many outputs.
The presently limited screen and keystroke combination also have drawbacks. However, again with the upgrade the system will be able to benefit from a much faster and more intuitive mouse-driven operation and full-size monitor display. And even with the extra £300 needed for this upgrade, the whole system will still be very competitively priced.
The learning curve is steeper than most, but with the Q-Samp and Q-Edit options you'll find yourself in the world of sampling soon after power-up. Crossing the more complex bridges of sample editing can be made at a later stage, at your own pace. Those familiar with Roland sampling will certainly feel at home with the S-760.
So while cost-cutting measures are in evidence, most have left the S-760 untarnished and a sampler to be reckoned with. And with a spec right up there with the big boys, the S-760 is sure to draw much attention from those who previously thought that 'serious' sampling required an outlay of more than £3000.
|Ease of use||Mouse add-on and knowledge of other S series samplers helps|
|Originality||On spec no, on price a definite yes|
|Value for money||Unbeatable|
|Star Quality||A challenge to Akai at last|
|Price||£1699 inc VAT|
|More from||Roland UK, (Contact Details)|
Review by Andrew Jones
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