Roland S770 (Part 1)
We've waited patiently for Roland's super sampler - but now it's here, and every bit as hot as expected. Simon Trask asks if Roland have set a new standard in digital samplers.
Roland's debut stereo 16-bit linear sampler offers further evidence that the barriers between digital sampler, recorder and synthesiser are breaking down. Part one of this two-part review asks: is it the complete production tool for the modern studio?
THE S770 REPRESENTS Roland's first step into stereo 16-bit sampling territory, and as such is also their first sampler to provide the professional 44.1kHz and 48kHz sampling rates. However, I can tell you now that there's nothing in the least bit tentative about this particular first step. Roland could perhaps have hurried something onto the market in order to compete with Akai's S1000 stereo 16-bit sampler - indeed, the S770 first put in a (non-performing) appearance in a back room at last year's Frankfurt Music Fair - but paradoxically they would probably have stood less chance of competing with Akai than they do now.
Akai have consistently made all the running where sampling's concerned, providing first the 12-bit and then the 16-bit studio-standard sampler (S900 and S1000 respectively) and leaving Roland among the runners up in the process. But now, with the S770, Roland could well be setting some standards of their own, and part of the reason is that they've brought all their expertise in digital synthesis to bear on their new sampler. For one thing, the S770 includes the company's latest-generation digital filter as also used on their new flagship synth, the D70 - perhaps another reason why they haven't brought out the S770 sooner. In addition, they've included a sophisticated resampling facility which is as much about synthesis as it is about (re)sampling. But if that doesn't grab you then how about the fact that the S770's sound quality is superb: wonderfully clean and dynamic, with plenty of presence and a powerful, rich bass end which is musically very satisfying - particularly for someone who likes a lot of bottom end (er, perhaps I'd better rephrase that). Add to this a wealth of features which are both well thought out and well presented, and you've got a major-league instrument which is going to be a big success for Roland. Excuse my upfront major-league enthusiasm, but working with the S770 inspires such a response - not least because one of the most sophisticated instruments on the market also happens to be one of the most user-friendly, particularly when you take advantage of its rear-panel RGB output to hook up a colour monitor in place of the built-in LCD.
The S770 doesn't come cheap, and unless you're obnoxiously rich it's unlikely to be a purchase you'll consider making lightly. For this reason, and because there's just so much to take in on it, this review is being split over two months so that we can give it the attention it deserves.
THE S770 COMES in 3U-high, 19-inch rack-mounting format and weighs 12kg with fully-expanded memory. It also comes with 2Mb of sample RAM fitted as standard, upgradeable to a maximum of 16Mb in 2Meg increments. The optional RAS770 memory board provides the sockets for the extra memory, as well as the first extra 2Mb of RAM. You can then add on (or in) up to six OMS770 2Mb upgrades to take you to the full complement of 16Mb. Bringing your S770 up to the 16Meg max will cost you almost as much as the sampler itself; however, as the S770 can apparently accept standard SIMM (Single In-Line Memory Module) RAM chips, you could always do your bank balance a big favour by fitting these instead of the OMS770 (2Mb-worth of SIMMs though a computer dealer or mail-order operation will cost you around £140-180, compared to £550 for the OMS770 upgrade): there again, if money is no object then you might feel safer if you stick with Roland.
The S770 provides you with a choice of four sample rates: 22.05, 24, 44.1 and 48kHz. These give you, respectively, 45, 41.3, 22.5 and 20.7 seconds of mono sampling time with the standard 2Mb of memory fitted; the lofty heights of 16Mb give you the loftier sampling times of 363.6, 334.1, 181.8 and 167 seconds respectively. If you're sampling in stereo all the time then you'll need to halve these figures, of course. However, the S770 gives you complete freedom in mixing 'n' matching the different sample rates and mono and stereo samples, so you should treat the figures as guidelines. Stereo samples also reduce the S770's polyphony, as they actually consist of two samples - one for each "side" of the stereo spectrum - and therefore require two voices for each note. The S770, which has a respectable 24-note polyphony, is thus 12-note polyphonic as soon as you play a stereo sample. When reading about the number of multitimbral Parts you can create and the number of samples you can layer on the keyboard, it's worth doing a few quick calculations to see what the polyphony of the S770 will actually allow you to do.
Also fitted as standard on the S770 is an internal 40Mb hard disk - though I should emphasise at this point that the S770 is not a direct-to-disk sampling system - along with a 3.5" floppy disk drive which can accept both 2HD and 2DD (double-sided high and double density floppies - the sampler automatically detects which type of disk is inserted in the drive). 2HD disks provide 1.6Mb of storage each, 2DD disks a more modest 640K.
If you're thinking of using floppies to back up your treasured samples, you'll need to be aware that this can often involve two or even three floppies - and that's just for the standard RAM. Fortunately, the S770 is aware of this, too, and leads you smoothly through the necessary procedure with the aid of a few prompts; it even handles disk formatting from within the save procedure, should you find that you've run out of formatted floppies along the way.
The S770 is operable from its front panel, and includes a 64 x 240-dot backlit LCD screen, with contrast readily adjustable from a front-panel knob, for this very purpose. If you don't want to be bothered with the sampler's buttons, you can plug either a Roland MU1 mouse (which comes included with the sampler) or the company's RC100 remote controller (which doesn't) into the Ext Control socket and use them instead. The labelling of the RC100's buttons corresponds to S550 functions, but apparently you can get a function overlay sheet which provides S770 function labelling instead.
The S770's sizeable backlit LCD window is a welcome and necessary inclusion, but given the choice between working with a colour monitor or the LCD there's no competition. Put another way: if you're forking out close on five grand for the sampler, you'd be foolish not to invest in a high-quality colour monitor when there's an RGB output lurking on the sampler's rear panel. It's to Roland's eternal credit that they've always, er, seen a colour monitor as a necessary option for their samplers. But where on previous Roland samplers the mouse merely duplicated the front-panel cursor buttons' actions, moving the cursor around the parameter fields in a pre-determined order, on the S770 it can move freely around the screen a la Apple/Atari - a big improvement, to my mind. The S770 also sees Roland using a windows approach to good effect, though no icons and pull-down menus - presumably they were dragged to the R&D trashcan. Although the sampler's LCD also takes advantage of the new environment, it has neither the size nor the crispness and clarity of a good colour monitor, and has to act as a "virtual" window on the full screen size - with the result that the display is constantly scrolling up and down when you're working, which is irritating because it flickers as it scrolls.
The S770 has a rear-panel monochrome monitor output in addition to its RGB output, but personally I'd go for a colour monitor, not least because Roland use a certain amount of colour coding in their displays. I was lent an excellent Roland DG colour monitor for the purposes of this review, but apparently the company are no longer selling it in the UK. Instead they recommend either a Commodore 1084 or a Philips CM8833 monitor, both of which apparently give equally good results. Either will set you back around £300, but it'll be money well spent.
"The S770's sound quality is superb: wonderfully clean and dynamic, with plenty of presence and a powerful, rich bass end which is musically very satisfying."
The S770's rear panel is also home to balanced XLR L/Mono and R(ight stereo) inputs with switchable lo/mid/hi input gain, while the more usual jack inputs are to be found on the front panel, where there are also dual concentric L/R rec level knobs, an input sensitivity adjustment knob and peak level indicators for each input channel. Returning to the rear panel, we find L/Mono and R(ight stereo) audio outs and six polyphonic individual audio outs, MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, a standard 25-pin SCSI connector for hooking up additional hard disks, Roland's CD5 CD ROM drive and their new M07 Magnetic Optical Disk Unit (which, incidentally, can store 540Mb of data to a removable 5.25" double-sided read/write optical disk).
Also fitted as standard are both optical and coaxial digital in/outs. These allow you to sample digitally off, say, a CD player fitted with suitable digital outputs (apparently, the S770's digital I/O format is compatible with the standard format for consumer digital equipment). You can't use the optical and coaxial connections simultaneously, however - a rear-panel switch allows you to select one or the other.
Also located on the S770's rear panel are the vents for the cooling fan which keeps the internal hard disk from overheating. The fan makes a gentle whirring sound which is relaxing rather than irritating. However, if it becomes intrusive when you're using a microphone to sample nearby the S770, you can set a system parameter which will shut the fan down while you're on the Sample Execute page. The cloud to this particular silver lining bursts if you leave the sampler sitting on this software page while you pop out to the pub for lunch.
Normally the heads are positioned over the hard disk surface so they can read data at any time. What you don't want to happen is have the heads touch the disk surface and damage it - a possibility if the S770 is, say, dropped in transit. For this reason, the sampler allows you to "park" the heads to the side of the disk, out of harm's way. I developed the practice of always parking the heads before switching the sampler off, even if it wasn't going to be moved in the meantime.
S770 SYSTEM INITIALISATION off hard disk takes 35 seconds from power-up, during which time the sampler auto-boots the system software and performs checks on the SCSI ports and the internal sample memory - in the process giving you such information as the version number of your system software and the amount of sample memory fitted.
System software updates come on floppy disk, and can be loaded by placing the disk in the S770's floppy drive before switching the machine on. The first thing the sampler does on power-up is check the floppy drive for a system disk, and if it finds one then it loads the software off that disk in preference to the system software on its internal hard disk; you can then save the new version software to the hard disk in place of the existing software.
The S770 defaults to the Performance Play page once the initialisation procedure is finished. An S770 Performance is a MIDI multitimbral setup of 32 Parts, and the highest-but-one organisational level on the sampler. The highest level of all is the Volume, which "contains" all the data in the sampler's memory - a maximum of 64 Performances, 128 Patches, 255 Partials and 512 Samples. The internal hard disk, in comparison, can store up to 128 Volumes, 512 Performances, 1024 Patches, 4096 Partials and 8192 samples - or rather, the sampler can distinguish this many, but whether you can or would even want to store this many on one 40Mb hard disk is another matter.
The S770 allows you to set an Initial Volume system parameter to load a Volume off its internal hard disk on power-up, following the system initialisation procedure. In this way it should be able to load the multitimbral arrangements for all the songs in a live set, say, along with as many samples as the memory will take; the Performance which was selected when the Volume was saved to disk is automatically called onto the Performance Play page - an obvious candidate being the first song in the set, or the song you're currently working on if you're in the studio.
"Fitted as standard are both optical and coaxial digital in/outs - these allow you to sample digitally off, say, a CD player fitted with suitable digital outputs."
IF YOU OWN one of Roland's 12-bit samplers and you're thinking of upgrading to the S770 - or perhaps just hiring one in for a studio session - then you'll be very pleased to learn that Roland haven't left you (or, rather, your sample library) out in the cold. A Convert Load facility on their new sampler allows you to load S550, S330 and W30 data off floppies and (in the case of the S550) hard disk into the S770, from where you can save it as S770 data to floppy disk, the internal hard disk or a SCSI-connected storage device. Unfortunately, S50 data disks can't be Convert Loaded directly to the S770; instead you have to Convert Load them to an S550, S330 or W30 first.
In addition to entire floppy disks, individual Patches and Tones can be converted; however, while sample data and loop points are transferred intact and some parameters are converted automatically, the difference in parameters and parameter organisation means that not every parameter can be converted. It's also worth bearing in mind that, since the playback frequency and analogue circuitry are different (as in superior) on the S770, sample data which has been Convert Loaded may sound slightly different on the new sampler.
You should also bear in mind if you already use a Roland CD5 CD ROM drive that existing CD ROM sample libraries for the S550 and W30 have to be Convert Loaded into the S770 before you can use them. However, you can also expect to see CD ROM disks specifically for the S770 being brought out by Roland and third-party developers.
While we're on the subject of data transfer, the S770 implements MIDI transfer of sample data using the MIDI Sample Dump Standard, opening up the possibility of sample transfer to another S770, a Standard-compatible sampler (an S1000, perhaps) or generic sample editor/librarian software such as Avalon or Alchemy. And because the MIDI Sample Dump Standard only allows the transmission of sample data and associated sample information such as loop points, the S770 also provides for separate SysEx transfer of all its other parameter information.
Roland's new sampler implements both one-way and handshaking data transfer, the latter being quicker for large amounts of data - not because it uses a faster transmission rate but because the S770 doesn't have to pause between sending each data packet. Handshaking involves two-way MIDI communication and, of course, requires that the other device be able to keep up its end of the conversation.
Because a stereo sample on the S770 is actually two samples, and Sample Dump transfer doesn't distinguish between mono and stereo samples, you have to use the sampler's Set Stereo function to reunite the two "halves" of a stereo sample received as individual samples via MIDI. A bit laborious, but then MIDI sample dumping itself is a laborious process. As an example, transmitting a four-second 44.1kHz sample using the (admittedly slower) one-way transfer method takes an unbelievably long seven minutes.
IT'S NOT REALLY fair of me to give a verdict on an instrument when you haven't had a chance to read all about it for yourself, but what I can say is that while the S770 may not be cheap it is a very well specified, professional-quality sampler with plenty of add-on potential. It's also software-upgradeable with the insertion of a new system floppy disk, and in addition to various minor tinkerings with the software you can expect to see more significant additions - most notably, time compression and expansion of samples, to bring the S770 into line with the S1000.
Assuming Roland don't get this together in time for next month's thrilling instalment of The Review That Wouldn't Lie Down, you'll still be able to discover what all those words you didn't understand in this month's instalment really mean, whether sampling on the S770 is a pain or a privilege, and whether you really can use Roland's most sophisticated sampler to date as an all-in-one digital sampler, synth and recorder.
Price S770, £4860; RAS 770 memory board, £899; OMS770 2Mb memory, £550; M07 Magnetic Optical Disk Unit, £5225; CD5 CD ROM drive, £1340; RC100 Remote Controller, £250. All prices include VAT.
Gear in this article:
Review by Simon Trask
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