Roland S750 Sampler
Stereo Digital Sampler
If Roland's S770 super sampler presented too high a target for many of us, the S750 may be the news we've been waiting for. Simon Trask investigates the challenger to the Akai S1000 crown.
Roland's latest sampler is considerably cheaper than their highly-rated S770 flagship, yet it's virtually the same machine. Can the S750 make inroads into a market already dominated by Akai's S1000?
ON ITS RELEASE last year, Roland's S770 stereo 16-bit sampler garnered much critical acclaim. Unfortunately, although it was a dream of a machine, it was also a machine which most musicians could only dream of owning. An asking price of just under £5000 put it firmly beyond the financial reach of the majority and sealed its fate as a prestige machine for the minority.
Today, the S770 has another kind of value for UK owners: rarity. Although it's still being manufactured in Japan, Roland UK no longer import it. However, in its place comes a new "budget" version known as the S750. At £2995 the new sampler is significantly cheaper than the S770, if still not exactly cheap. Yet not only does it look the same as the more expensive machine, it also runs the same System software. The only differences between the two machines lie in the hardware: the S750 loses the S770's onboard 40Mb hard drive, XLR audio inputs and digital I/O connections, but can be fitted with up to 18Mb of sample RAM while the maximum amount fittable on the S770 is 16Mb. Like the S770, the "new" sampler is a stereo sampling machine, with 16-bit linear D/A and 20-bit linear A/D conversion, 24-bit internal processing and a choice of four sampling rates (48kHz, 44.1kHz, 24kHz and 22.05kHz), with a frequency range rated at 20Hz-20kHz (+0/-3dB) and total harmonic distortion rated at less than 0.01% (A/D/A). It also uses Roland's Differential Interpolation method of fixed-rate sample playback to ensure signal accuracy and clarity when samples are played back even well below original pitch. In fact, the S750 sounds every bit as good as the S770 because basically it is the S770.
MT reviewed Roland's flagship sampler in some depth last year (MT, June-August '90). However, since that time Roland have considerably developed the sampler's System software (which of course is now common to both machines), adding many new features and enhancing many existing ones. They're now up to v2.03 software, compared to v1.03 when the S770 was reviewed last year. For reviewing purposes, then, the situation here is analogous to looking at the latest software revision of a computer-based sequencing package. I suggest you (re)read the original (S770) review for the full in-depth treatment of the machine, as that will give you the foundations on which this update review builds. If you don't have the relevant issues (shame on you), you can get photocopies of the review from our back issues department for a fraction of the cost of an S750.
TO GET YOU started, the S750 comes supplied with a Tutorial disk and three Sound Disks. The former provides piano, harp, bass, string pad, voice and drum samples, while Sound disk one provides eight drum and percussion samples and Sound disks two and three together provide a sampled acoustic guitar.
In addition to these standard disks, Roland UK are providing 50 3.5" DSDD floppies of their own for free. When you buy an S750 you get a registration card to send to Roland; on receipt of this card, they send you the disks. You get a sample library to start you off, Roland get to build up a list of S750 owners. Samples include Moog basses, Dr Rhythm drums, sounds from the TB303, D50, JD800 and U20, Logan string synth, acoustic piano, strings, choirs, classical guitar, and a Composer disk containing drums and percussion, bass, piano, synth pad and lead synth. All sounds have been freshly sampled for the S750, and can be loaded into the sampler's default 2Mb of RAM.
Furthermore, Roland's offer of free copying time at their offices (see Newsdesk, MT May '91) still stands: you make an appointment to visit them, take along a generous supply of blank formatted floppies or a SCSI hard drive, and copy as many samples as you can from their CD ROM-based sample library. All it'll cost you is the money to get there and back.
ESSENTIALLY, THERE ARE four levels of sample organisation on the S770 and S750. The Sample level handles sampling, sample editing and resampling, while the Partial level allows you to layer up to four Samples and route them through a Time Variant Filter, Time Variant Amplifier and LFO modulation (all digital processing). At the next level up, the Patch, you can assign multiple Partials to the keyboard to create multisplit textures. Finally, the Performance level is where you put everything together to create MIDI multitimbral setups consisting of up to 32 Parts receiving on up to 16 MIDI channels, with each Part being assigned one Patch. The latest software provides new and updated features at all these levels, though perhaps nowhere more so than at the Sample level. Although these developments are applicable to both the S770 and the S750, for the sake of convenience I'll be referring only to the S750.
The original software didn't provide all the sample editing facilities you would expect from a professional sampler, but this area has now been brought fully up to scratch. Clicking on Edit Sample 2 in the S750's Sound menu takes you to a whole new set of editing functions: Loop 2, Patchwork, Digital Filter, Comp/Expand, Time Stretch, Rate Convert and Wave Draw.
Loop 2 enhances the looping capabilities of the sampler with features like Auto loop find, sample scrubbing (the digital equivalent of manually moving a tape to and fro over the tape heads), quicker selection of loop points, and a larger sample graphic display showing the beginning and ending of loop points in much greater detail.
Patchwork provides access to Truncate, Cut and Splice, Area Erase, Insert, Mixing and Combine functions. If you Truncate a sample to a different Sample destination, you've effectively got an Extract function, something which hasn't been available on the sampler until now - so for instance you can now extract individual words or phrases from a longer speech into different Samples, or extract individual drum sounds from a sampled breakbeat. Another new thing you can do with this Truncate function (as opposed to the one under Edit Sample 1) is set the From point higher than the To point, which gives you a reversed sample in the Destination Sample location.
Cut and Splice deletes the specified section of the Sample and butt-splices or fades the Before and After points (for instance, once you've extracted part of a Sample to a new location, you can get rid of the same sample data in the original Sample). Area Erase is the Cut without the Splice, allowing you to create silences within a Sample. Insert splices part of one sample into another Sample, while Mixing allows you to merge two Samples into one, with additional reverse, fade in/out and delay options, while Combine allows you to butt-splice or crossfade two Samples together.
The Digital Filter function allows you to impose a fixed filter cutoff frequency on a sample, with selectable low-pass/high-pass filter mode, resonance amount and level, and therefore permanently alter the frequency content of the sample; this includes a DC removal option in high-pass mode. Comp/Expand allows you to permanently change the dynamic contour of a sample, and allows you to set threshold, ratio, level, attack and release times and normalise on/off.
"You can now extract words or phrases from a longer speech or extract individual drum sounds from a sampled breakbeat."
Time Stretching was one of the most significant omissions from the original software, but that's been rectified now. This function, already available on Akai's S950, S1000 and S1100 samplers, allows you to alter the duration of a sample without altering its pitch. With a sampled rhythm, this has the effect of speeding up or slowing down the tempo of the rhythm without altering the pitch of the drum and percussion sounds.
You can time-stretch any section of a sample on the S750, with stretch ratio variable from 25% to 400%. Ratios less than 100% speed the sample up, those more than 100% slow it down. An information box shows you the new sample time and length that will result from the operation, together with coarse and fine tune ± values. If you think about it, once a rhythm has been sped up, you have to play it back at a lower pitch in order to play it at its original tempo - so, effectively, you've got a pitch-shift function as well. The coarse and fine tune parameters tell you how far away from the Original Key you have to play the sample to get the original tempo.
The Time Stretch operation works on "chunks" of the sample; the size of the chunks is decided by the S750, invisibly to the user, but fade length between chunks is another matter. You can select this Manually (by yourself), with or without the help of a Search function to detect possible lengths, or you can select Auto and let the S750 do it all for you. Unfortunately, Auto time-stretching can take a l-o-o-o-n-g time, and, despite what the manual says, doesn't always yield better results than doing it Manually. I found it was best to use Manual in conjunction with Search to try out various fade lengths, as this is a relatively quick process. For fairly short samples and small percentage changes, the Manual process only takes a few seconds.
Trial and error does seem to be the order of the day with the S750's Time Stretching. It's a pity, but you can't just set a ratio and expect the sampler to produce clean results (no warbling or ring mod-type effects) first time every time. Still, it's a very useful addition to the sampler's stock of techniques - and the fact that it doesn't always come up with perfect results can be put to good creative use (make a virtue of the imperfections).
A basic implementation of sample rate conversion has always been available via the Resample function, but the new Rate Convert page provides a more thorough implementation, with a,choice of six sample rates - 48kHz, 44.1kHz, 30kHz, 24kHz, 22.05kHz and 15kHz - and a more informative display, showing, for instance, how different sample rates affect the coarse and fine tuning of the sample. As with the other new sample edit functions, there's a Recover option which allows you to get your original sample back if you don't like the results of the conversion; and if there's not enough memory free for this option, a message pops up to tell you so and ask if you want to proceed.
Wave Drawing takes you down to the lowest sample editing level of all, allowing you to change individual sample words by "drawing" on the screen with the mouse. Basically, you get a graphic of the entire selected sample in the upper window, and a Scrub function allows you to "home in" aurally on any part of the sample in this window. As soon as you click with the mouse anywhere in this window, a vertical cursor line appears at the relevant position and a 270-word segment of the Sample to the right of that position appears in the much larger waveform display window which takes up the rest of the screen. You can now use the mouse to redraw any part of the waveform in this window, the idea being to get rid of any glitches in the sample by "smoothing over" them. The continous waveform produced by Scrubbing this window will be raspy if there's a glitch, smooth if there isn't.
I successfully managed to remove even very slight clicks from a Sample using Wave Draw, but locating their position in the sample isn't as easy as it should be; I'd like to see an intermediate stage in which a highlighted section of the sample can be displayed in the large window, making it easier to "pin down" the offending glitch.
Leaping up to the Performance level, the Performance MIDI Map page allows you to map incoming MIDI patch changes to the S750's Performances, while the Part Map page allows you to see at a glance the settings relating to a particular Patch parameter for the Patches assigned to all 32 Parts, so for instance you can see the output assignment, stereo mix level or pan position of all Patches in the selected Performance.
The Module page accessible via Monitor at the Performance level originally just showed how many of the sampler's voices were in use, but now it also shows how many voices are being used on each MIDI channel. On the main Performance Play pages, there's now a keyboard graphic in the lower half of each page which shows you the incoming notes on a particular MIDI channel or Part (user-selectable) "played" on the keyboard. The Performance Common page now includes a useful information display box showing the number of files in memory for each level, the assigned master sampling frequency, master tune and Analogue Outs mode (a parameter programmable in the S750's System mode now allows you to treat the two rear-panel stereo out sockets as separate audio outs, optionally giving you eight rather than six separate audio outs).
"It's apparent from the additions and changes Roland have made to the user interface that they've listened to the suggestions made to them."
As at the other levels, you can call up a file list by clicking on a little rectangle next to the Performance file name, Sort files into alphabetical order and use Blank to select the next available empty file slot.
Clicking on Edit Patch in the Com menu at the Performance level drops you down to the Patch level, where you can either edit a Patch or drop down to the Partial and Sample levels; when you've entered the Patch level in this way, clicking on Exit takes you back up to the Performance level and the page you were last on.
The most exciting feature at the Performance level is Performance Resampling, which you can find on the Com menu when it's selected from a Performance Play page. Performance Resampling is a logical extension of the Resampling function at the Sample level - it's also one of those features that makes you think "Why hasn't anyone thought of this before?". You get a sampling page like that at the Sample level, allowing you to set stereo/mono sampling, original key, sampling frequency and sampling time. If the Input parameter is set to Analog, you must change it to Int (for stereo sampling) or Int L or Int R (for mono sampling), which tells the S750 it must resample its stereo output signal internally (within the digital domain).
Performance Resampling allows you to sample anything from a single note played using one Part to a full-blown 32-part musical arrangement (which you can then trigger from a single note). You can sample chords, basslines, melodies, rhythms, giant sounds made up of several Patches, layered breakbeats... The applications are wide open. The only shame is that, as it gives the S750 a basic digital audio recording function, the sampler can't be synchronised to SMPTE or MTC.
When you record a Sample at this level, the S750 automatically creates a Partial and a Patch with the same name, so you can immediately put the new Sample into a Part in the current Performance. Similarly, if you 'drop down" through the levels to the Sample level via the Com menus, the S750 will automatically create a Partial and a Patch for each Sample that you take.
Some other additions of note are the inclusion of an Analogue Feel parameter (as first introduced on Roland's D70 synth) at the Patch level on the Common page, the addition of a second set of five Jump pages, and the ability to copy envelope settings of your own into the Envelope Template window at the Partial level for use with the Partial TVF and TVA (though regrettably you still can't copy envelope settings to the Resample TVFs and TVAs). On the Disk Utility page in System mode, Volumes can now be assigned MIDI patch change numbers from 65-128. Disk operations have in general been tidied up and improved, but there still needs to be some way of saving and loading unlinked data as single files (such as a collection of samples which you've been putting together in a sample session). Saving a Volume to disk saves the entire contents of memory, but when you load in a Volume, only data that's linked up to the Performance level is loaded, even if unlinked data has the Volume ID. Another feature I'd like to see is backup of Performance, Patch and Partial data to floppy disk, as unlike Samples these take up very little disk space - so if your hard disk crashes you've at least got this data backed up elsewhere.
An onscreen "notepad" would be a good idea, too, so that you could write up details of a session which could then be stored to disk as part of, say, a Volume file.
There are many many small changes and additions which I don't have room to list here, but suffice to say that they significantly improve what was already a very good operating environment.
IF YOU'RE GOING to fork out nearly three grand for a sampler, you sure as hell want to get the most out it. Unfortunately, to do this you're going to have to consider certain additional areas of expenditure, namely a monitor, onboard sample RAM and external storage media.
Let's take the monitor first. Although you can operate the S750 via its LCD screen, the sampler's software pages are actually designed to fit the larger display resolution of a monitor, and so you're always having to scroll up and down or jump to different areas of a software page in the LCD - which as well as being visually disorientating loses you the visual immediacy of being able to take in a whole page at a glance. But what really makes a monitor essential is the fact that new graphics pages such as Wave Draw simply aren't available on the LCD - instead you get the curt message "Only CRT". A monochrome monitor will set you back around £80, a colour monitor £200-250; if you can afford it, the latter is the best choice, not least because Roland's use of colour coding enhances the clarity of presentation of the software pages.
"As a creative sampling instrument operating on the boundaries of sampling and synthesis, the S750 is quite simply matchless."
The next consideration is extra sample memory. You're simply going to be under-utilising the S750 if you limit yourself to the two meg it comes fitted with. The first additional expense here is Roland's RAS750E memory board (£158), which needs to be fitted before you can add any more memory. Following that, there's the cost of the sample RAM itself. Fortunately, the S750 uses standard Mac SIMM chips (100ns or faster access time), which are fairly cheap. Roland have opted for 4Mb SIMMs on the S750, but according to the manual you have to upgrade the memory in 8Mb steps, which means jumping from 2Mb to 10Mb to 18Mb. Eight megabytes of memory will cost you in the region of £320-360.
Even with just 2Mb of onboard sample memory, relying on floppies for data storage can be an exasperating business. A formatted double-density disk provides 640K of storage, a formatted high-density disk 1.6Mb, so you soon find yourself saving and loading across two or three disks. The S750 does its best to be user-friendly and informative here, but floppies are neither the most flexible nor the quickest storage option. So once you start thinking about adding on that next 8Mb of sample RAM, you need to think seriously about investing in a SCSI hard drive or even, perhaps, a magneto-optical drive.
While it may be tempting to start relatively cheaply with a 20Mb fixed hard drive for around £200, or a 40Mb fixed hard drive for £300-400, you'll fill them sooner than you think. As well as taking longer to fill, a fixed drive with a much higher storage capacity offers better value for money even if it's more expensive upfront, as the cost per megabyte is significantly less than that of a lower-capacity drive. Alternatively, you could opt for a removable hard drive. A Syquest 45Mb removable will set you back around £500, but at less than £100 the 45Mb cartridges are very cost-effective.
On the subject of cost-effectiveness, magneto-optical disks cost £200-250 but offer a formatted storage capacity in the region of 600Mb, which works out very favourably against both fixed and removable hard disks. A magneto-optical disk drive (which for the S750 should be one using a Sony mechanism, apparently) will set you back in the region of £2000-2500. The disadvantage of such drives is that their read/write access times are slower than those of a hard disk so, if speed is of the essence, a hard disk wins out. An ideal system might consist of both a hard drive and a magneto-optical drive, with the former for day-to-day and live work and the latter for backup and archiving.
The optical drive market is anything but static, however. Pioneer and Panasonic have both developed all-optical drive mechanisms, and drives using these mechanisms are starting to appear on the market. In addition to being able to handle both erasable and WORM disks, all-optical drives aren't constricted by the presence of electromagnets, and so should allow faster access times and higher disk storage capacities as laser technology improves.
Look out for the arrival of small-format erasable optical drives, which use 3.5" single-sided optical disks cased like 3.5" floppies in place of the standard 5.25" double-sided disks. These smaller disks have a formatted capacity of 122Mb and will probably retail for around £80. And with less disk space for the drive to search, access times should be faster than for the bigger disks.
Further integration of digital storage media is on the cards for the future, as it seems at least two manufacturers are developing optical systems which can read CD ROM disks as well. For now, however, a CD ROM drive at around £700-800 is something else you should be thinking about, as the CD ROM disk has become the standard medium for distributing sample libraries in sampler-specific formats.
THE S750 IS a top-notch professional sampler which can hold its head high in the face of any competition. The many software developments which have taken place since the release of the S770 have brought it up to speed in some areas - notably sample editing - and somehow improved on what was already an excellent user interface. And it's apparent from all the additions and changes Roland have made that they've really listened closely to, and acted upon, the suggestions made to them - there's a sense of real-world requirements having been noted and implemented. All in all, the S750 has a mature, rock-solid character which both exudes and breeds confidence.
Unfortunately, it still competes rather unfavourably on price terms with the S1000, and probably always will. Its direct competitor is really the more recent Akai S1100 (reviewed MT, May '91), which of course has the advantage of being library-compatible with the S1000. Both machines have faultless sound quality, but they differ in many other respects, basically through offering two very different conceptions of what a sampler should be. The S750 is very much the creative musician's instrument, benefiting greatly from Roland's excellence and long experience in the field of synthesis. Akai's strong point is digital recording, not synthesis, and accordingly the S1100 is more a pure sampler/digital recorder aimed at the A/V market rather than the creative musician. There are a number of professional features the S1100 has that the S750 doesn't: digital AES/EBU transfer to DAT, optical/coaxial digital I/O connections via an add-on board, SMPTE In/Out connections and SMPTE cue list software, and (not exactly comprehensive) built-in digital effects. With its cue list and SMPTE connections the S1100 is clearly designed to work in conjunction with Akai's DD1000 optical disk recorder. It remains to be seen how well Roland will integrate the S750 with their new DM80 digital recorder.
While we're making comparisons, the S1100 can be fitted with up to 32Mb of sample RAM compared to the S750's 18Mb, the S750 has 24-voice polyphony compared to the S1100's 16, the S1100 has stereo outs and eight individual outs while the S750 has stereo outs and six individual configurable as eight individual outs, and the S750 has the considerable advantage of monitor output and mouse operation compared to the LCD and front panel of the S1100.
To my mind, as a creative sampling instrument operating on the boundaries of sampling and synthesis and offering superb sampling quality and unrivalled operational clarity, the S750 is quite simply matchless. Which gives me an opportunity to close with a classic advertising cliche: the best just got better.
Prices S750, £2995; RAS750E memory board, £158. Both prices include VAT.
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Review by Simon Trask
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