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Roland SBX-80 Sync Box


Article from International Musician & Recording World, May 1985

How to sync without a trace. Review by Curtis Schwartz

As if there weren't enough computer codes in the world of the pro/semi-pro musician as it is, the film industry's standard, SMPTE, has been rearing its head with increased frequency of late. Many of the latest products from some of the 'big' names feature SMPTE as their sync code — Linn's new 9000 has a SMPTE option, Fairlight's Series III has got it, and although such high flown pieces of equipment may be out of reach to the vast majority of you, let me say that anyone who bases their system on SMPTE now, will be creaming themselves in a few years time.

Where SMPTE is smarter, and vastly superior to your ordinary drum machine or sequencer's clock code is that it is a 'time' code. It will tell whatever is reading it exactly where you are at any one fraction of a second. To make this last point absolutely clear, imagine the situation where you have recorded your drum machine's 'sync-to-tape' code as well as the drums themselves (on separate tracks, of course). Then, you go on to record some bass guitar, and the rhythm guitar track. Once those are down, you go back to the code you have already recorded, and you route it to the drum machine which in turn will clock your sequencer for a few sequenced synth overdubs. It's now all set-up, and you start recording. To your horror, you find that there is a slight drop out on the tape half-way through and from that point on, the sequencer is almost half a beat out...

Well, such situations do not (usually) arise when using SMPTE as your sync code, as at any given point, information pertaining to the hour, minute, second and 25th of a second is related to the computer. Thus, after a drop out, the computer will be told what part of the song it is at.

And this is where Roland's SBX-80 fits in for, amongst other things, it is a SMPTE code generator/reader. To be more specific, the SBX-80 is designed to be the synchroniser at the heart of any set-up as it will also transmit and read MIDI, Time Base (from one to 120 pulses per quarter note) and Roland's own standard sync. Furthermore, tempo information can be transmitted to it from an audio source thus making it possible for the sequencer to play to, say, the drummer and not the drummer to the sequencer (as has been the case up until now).

The SBX-80's fascia is very similar in design to Roland's MSQ700. On the front panel's top half are to be found all the function switches above which are two display 'windows'. The left, nine digit display is primarily for displaying the current timing, whether it be the timing of the SMPTE clock (in which case the right hand display is giving frame and 'bit' information), or else it is in the song mode, thus displaying song number, measure and beat, with the right hand display usually giving tempo information. There are three display modes, selectable from the display selector button below the windows. Modes one and two provide the song information being displayed in the right hand window, and the third mode is for displaying the SMPTE clock.

In SMPTE timing, a second is divided into 25 frames (30 in the US, Canada and Japan which the SBX-80 will also cater for) which works out at one frame being equal to 40mSec, and there being 80 bits per frame (thus one bit = 0.5mSec).

Below the display select button is the manual switch. This is the mode into which the SBX-80 enters when first switched on. In manual, all the modes for tempo entry are live — the tempo can be set by rotating the tempo knob, or by entry from the numerical key pad, or by tapping the Start/Tap button.

This is one of the more unique features of the SBX-80 as, amongst other things, it enables a sync code to be recorded onto tape after a backing track has already been recorded. This is easily achieved by literally tapping along to the music. The actual procedure consists of recording a SMPTE code for the duration of the piece of music on an outside track. Then, you set the SBX-80 to external SMPTE clock (that which has just been recorded) and put it into the record mode, where it will record your tappings. Then on playback, the sync tempo will be at the precise tempo you have tapped, including any speedings up or slowing downs throughout the piece. The average tempo of the 'taps' is calculated from either two, three, or four taps depending on the setting of the tap response switch to the left or the Start/Tap button.

This feature, the recording of tempos, leads me to explain the buttons found on the center of the SBX-80's front panel. Play and Record are the most important of the controls, which all act in much the same way as a conventional sequencer; except, of course, that in this case we are sequencing tempo data rather than pitch, key on/off, etc data. The functions on the SBX-80 thus give you full control over tempo editing for every beat and measure. Bar lines can be inserted into whatever timing the music is in (4/4, 3/4, 11/7...), and with the Edit, Copy, Delete and Insert functions, the SBX-80 gives total control for any given situation.

Other features found on the SBX-80's front panel are Save, Verify and Load for cassette storage of programmed information; a Total Time indicator which will tell you how long a piece is at a given tempo (useful for the three minute Pop tune, or the 30 second jingle) and three smaller knobs on the fascia's top right hand corner which are a level control for the metronome's direct output, an input level attenuator for audio input trigger signals (line level), and a selector for the time base output for the clocking of Linns, Drumulators etc.

On the SBX-80's back panel are found all the ins and outs from which it interfaces with the outside world — a MIDI in, two MIDI outs, two Sync outs (Roland's own sync code), outputs for SMPTE and cassette dump, Time Base and metronome, audio input, SMPTE and cassette input, and facility for start and stop/continue footswitches...

In Practice

Although not strictly being of the masochistic type, I never the less only had a few hours to spend reading the SBX-80's manual before being immersed in a studio session where the SBX-80 was to play a vital role. What this consisted of was first recording the SMPTE code, and then using the SBX-80 to trigger an MSQ100. With a recording level for the SMPTE code of around -3dB, no problem arose in persuading everything to behave with one another, due mainly to the logical layout of the SBX-80 and its manual.

However, as if on cue, an opportunity arose to put the SBX-80's Tap tempo programming to the test, for when 'real' drumming was added, there appeared several fluctuations in tempo in an otherwise decent drum track. By following the procedure described earlier — tapping the Tap buttons whilst being synced to tape and in the SBX-80's record/play mode, the fluctuations in tempo were then recorded. Then when the sequencer lines were rerecorded to the new 'tapped' tempo, everything was then in perfect sync.


Not only is SMPTE a very accurate and sophisticated time code, it is also very difficult and expensive to generate and read. I can but wonder at how Roland have been able to achieve it for well under half the price of any other unit I am aware of.

Being the industry standard, SMPTE has an enormous amount of positive attributes, not least of which is knowing that when you take your master tapes to a studio dedicated to video post production, that the video will be in perfect sync to the track. In this area, Roland's SBX-80 goes one better by giving you studio owners the knowledge that no matter what piece of gear a band brings along with them to the session — if it can be triggered, the SBX-80 will trigger it.

One word of warning though. The SBX-80 is 'extra-clever' by being able to tell a sequencer or drum machine etc what part of the song you are at any one time. This information is according to the MIDI spec and it enables you to start playing from two thirds of the way through a track, without having to start from the beginning every time. But there are certain MIDI units which are not clever enough to understand such info so check such sequencers or drum machines out beforehand as, given the choice, this is one facility not to be without.


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Pearl DRX-1 Electronic Kit

Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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International Musician - May 1985

Donated by: Neill Jongman

Gear in this article:

Synchroniser > Roland > SBX-80

Review by Curtis Schwartz

Previous article in this issue:

> Westone Super Headless Bass...

Next article in this issue:

> Pearl DRX-1 Electronic Kit

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