Roland SBX80 Sync Box
It may have an inauspicious title, hut don't be fooled, the Sync Box is a versatile and thoroughly professional tool.
Put as simply as possible, the Sync Box is a programmable tempo controller that can be used to control the tempo of sequencers or drum machines via MIDI or the now familiar DIN Sync facility first introduced by Roland. A variable timebase pulse output means that many other machines will also sync to the SBX80.
There are three possible methods of programming the tempo generated by the Sync Box: one is by the obvious expedient of the Tempo control knob, whilst the remainder entail using the Tap button or feeding an external click or beat into the Audio In jack on the rear panel of the machine. The Tap facility is actually one of the system's most powerful functions, as it enables live sessions or recorded tracks with no time code of their own to control the tempo of the Sync Box, and hence all manner of drum machines and sequencers.
To achieve this, you do require an interface of sorts to perform the ongoing real-time tempo extraction algorithm, but fortunately, most readers will already have one of those. Yes - the human brain (plus index finger driver interface) is what's used to tap out the tempo of the music on the Tap button (what else?), and the Sync Box then converts this tempo into both MIDI and DIN Sync formats so that your drum machines and sequencers follow you rather than vice-versa.
Alternatively, a tempo (or sequence of tempi) may be recorded into the Sync Box using either the Tap/External Click or the internal numerical entry system and associated keypad. This enables multi-tempo compositions to be stored, and all entries can be modified using the machine's built-in editing system, which allows the tempo to be changed and bars to be added or deleted.
Introduced by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (yes, that's where the acronym comes from), the SMPTE time code was originally designed to synchronise video tape to a soundtrack which, in most cases, is recorded and played on a machine quite separate from the video equipment.
Unlike click-tracks or simple sync clocks, the SMPTE code carries digital information that accurately defines any given position on the recording tape, in units of both elapsed time and video frames. This added sophistication means you don't have to run the track from the start in order to pick up synchronisation: the machine just has to wait until it sees the appropriate piece of code on tape, and then it locks on automatically. This may not seem important if you're just writing 10 second jingles, but if you're mixing the soundtrack for Star Wars and someone fluffs a drop-in two minutes before the closing credits, the last thing you want to do is have to "take it from the top".
In the context of systems that use the Sync Box, the SMPTE code is first recorded on one track of a multitrack recorder (or video recorder), after which the tempo information can be entered in one of two ways. If the composition has not yet been started, the Sync Box can be programmed either numerically or with the Tap button: you'll then have set the master tempo for the piece. On the other hand, if a part of the music already exists, or if the overall tempo must be set to match the timing of a sequence of images on film, then the Tap facility may be used all the way through the piece. Then, providing that the operator can keep time, the stored tempo will run perfectly in sync with the existing material, by following a SMPTE code that can be generated by the Sync Box or by some external means.
Well, that's a general overview of what the Sync Box can do, so a brief look at its physical attributes is probably now in order.
On unpacking this device, I was genuinely surprised to find that it was not contained in a 19" rack-mounting module. Measuring a smaller than expected 325x303x107mm, the unit weighs in at 3.5kg and, for those of you who suffer attacks of inexplicable paranoia whenever an electricity bill pops through the letterbox, it consumes only 11 watts.
The free-standing case is fabricated from sheet steel with plastic side panels, and the two-tone grey paintwork is tastefully set off with a touch of Roland's distinctive orange legending. The photograph should give you a general idea of the layout (and its inherent complexity) but what it probably doesn't show is that all those dinky little perspex pushbuttons light up when active. A green fluorescent type of readout is used for the main display, and this is a multi-function device capable of showing either SMPTE location data or tempo and time signature information.
Turning to the Sync Box's rear panel, you'll see that this is also fairly busy, including as it does the connections to and from the tape machine as well as the MIDI and DIN Sync sockets. Additionally, an external pair of footswitches may be plugged in for remote start/stop-continue operation, and an audio input is provided so that the Tap button entry system may be implemented by applying an externally generated pulse or suitably amplified microphone.
Outputs are also fitted which give access to the device's internal metronome and timebase, the latter being a clock pulse output that can be set to give between one and 120 pulses per quarter bar selected by means of a front panel switch. This means that a wide range of drum machines and sequencers can be persuaded to accept orders from the Sync Box, in addition to those conforming to Roland's DIN Sync specification.
On power-up, the Sync Box enters manual mode, and the tempo may be set using the Tempo control, the Tap button or the numerical keypad: in the last-mentioned case, the tempo is entered in beats per minute. Associated with the Tap button is a three-position ('quick', 'medium', and 'slow') slider switch: in the 'quick' position, you only have to hit the Tap button twice and the tempo is computed from the time elapsed between the first and second push. The 'medium' setting, on the other hand, takes a mean value from three taps, while 'slow' uses four taps to generate the mean tempo.
If the Sync Box is used in conjunction with MIDI equipment, Song Select messages may be transmitted, though I believe that some MIDI drum machines have no provision for interpreting this data, which is a shame.
And still on the subject of manual mode, two measures of count-in are generated by the built-in metronome. If, however, you decide to use real-time record mode, a count-in will have to be programmed if you need one.
As intimated in the introduction, the facility exists for Sync Box users to 'play' the Tap button throughout an existing piece of music in order to produce a synchronised result. In effect, what you're doing is resetting the tempo every bar, so there's no chance of the system wandering out of sync. Actually, it is possible to fool the Sync Box in this mode, as I found out when trying to tap in a very fast tempo, because the system then locks onto every other beat, silly thing.
Using the main display, it's also possible to set a time signature, in order to create bar lines, and this may be changed again during the course of a composition. This is essential if some sort of editing facility is required, as the microprocessor would otherwise be unaware of where one bar stops and the next starts. Another example of technology not being as bright as it might be.
By putting a SMPTE code track down on tape before you start (or even afterwards if you use real-time Tap entry), the tempo program can be made to lock accurately to tape. The SMPTE code should be recorded on an outside track of your multitrack at a level of between -3 and 0dB, and the adjacent track should be left free to avoid crosstalk problems. Common sense, really. Once the SMPTE code has been recorded, it can be verified to ensure that there are no dropout errors and, once that's been accomplished, you're ready to go.
The external audio click input means that a click signal recorded onto a spare track of the multitrack tape machine can be used to program the Sync Box tempo if this is convenient. And if it isn't, you just use the Tap button or keypad numerical entry.
Apart from enabling you to insert bars, delete bars and alter time signatures, Edit mode also makes it possible to offset the timing of your entire composition forward or backward in time against the code track. The handbook acts as a comprehensive source of information regarding all the edit functions, but personally, I would have liked to see a more readable, less ambiguous manual than this one. It really is heavy going in places, though if you have the necessary time, patience, and enthusiasm, it'll get you there in the end (a bit like the Sinclair C5 really!).
This machine is so flexible that it would take a lot of time (and expensive equipment) to check out all of its possible applications. However, I can say with confidence that all the basic functions work as described in the aforementioned manual, though not surprisingly, that isn't always the reliable reference source it should be. For example, in the section about recording the SMPTE code, the book states: 'By pressing the Tape switch, light up the SMPTE REC indicator'. This sounds fine, but the fact of the matter is that you have to press the switch four times in order to step through to the correct function.
Real-time tap programming turned out to be fun (for 'fun', read 'not too difficult'), though I did experience a few problems getting my aged TR606 drum machine to sync properly. A couple more scans through the instructions soon sorted things out, however. Operator error this time, obviously.
All in all, I tried out enough of the machine's functions to be convinced that the Sync Box does what it purports to do, and for the (relatively speaking) modest asking price, that's really quite a lot.
A SMPTE-based system at this price is unheard of, or at least, it was until Roland came along. Everything the unit is supposed to do, it does without fuss, though I was disappointed to find out that there was no way of using the Sync Box as an autolocator for storing tape 'cue' positions. Also absent is the facility to synchronise two tape machines via the SBX80's SMPTE connections and although I know that isn't what Roland's new baby was designed to do, the omission seems a strange one in view of the fact that, once you've developed a SMPTE system, it takes only a little extra hardware to implement these additional features.
Nevertheless, what you get for your money is a powerful tool capable of performing musical tasks many of you might have thought impossible, such as synchronising drum machines and sequencers to existing pieces of music.
The Sync Box has a memory capacity of 3967 beats, which works out at just under 1000 bars in 4/4 or 3/4 time signatures. And with a typical tempo of 120 beats per minute, the maximum playing time will be in the order of half an hour or so, which should be enough for almost everybody.
It may not make any sound of its own or look like the sexiest bit of hi-tech gear yet created, but the Sync Box is potentially useful enough to be sorely missed once you've had the use of it for any length of time. Which, in retrospect, is probably why Roland only let me keep mine for a couple of days...
RRP of the Sync Box is £900 including VAT. Further information from Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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