Wilf Smarties checks out this sub-£1900 sample playback module that reads fluent Akai!
Receiving the parcel at 10am this morning I was immediately struck by how heavy it wasn't. Roland's new SP700, a playback-only relative of the S750 and S770, is around half the weight of its brethren. The package is also a tad lighter than it really should be — it turns out to be the only one in the country, and the manual seems to have gone missing. Still, as a longtime S770 user I think I should be able to get to the bottom of it without too much difficulty.
To briefly sum up the SP700's capabilities, it is an 8MB (expandable to 32), 8-output, 24-note polyphonic sample player, with resonant filters on all notes and 2-band semi-parametric equalizers on all outputs. It reads Akai and Roland files over SCSI (the only way of loading sounds in — playback only, remember?), it will set you back £1899, and for that you also get a free CD-ROM containing some very desirable samples.
The SP700 is housed in a 19" rack unit, 2U high. Finish, fixtures and fittings are designed to match those of the other Roland sampling club members. The front panel sports the brightest blue backlit LCD screen I have yet seen, above five Function (soft key), and the JUMP and EXIT, buttons. There are also Mode buttons — PERFORMANCE, PATCH, PARTIAL, DISK (SCSI), and SYSTEM — and a 14-key array that includes cursor and other buttons (eg. MARK and HOME) for navigating your way between and around pages. There's also a rotary encoder, stereo headphones socket, volume control, and status LEDs for MIDI and SCSI activity.
Astern we find a row of eight quarter-inch jacks (configured as eight individual outs or four stereo pairs), two identical SCSI 25-pin Cannon D-type sockets, MIDI In, Thru and Out, and an IEC mains socket.
What the SP700 doesn't have, unlike the S750, is any provision for mouse/monitor operation. Seasoned Roland users will only reluctantly give up such an ergonomic advantage. Of course, Akai users will be perfectly at home with the work surface, since the SP700 echoes many of the competition's handling properties. So what do you get for your £1899 (RRP)?
Like the other Roland 700 sampling series products, the SP700 offers pretty much immaculate sound quality, 24 note polyphony, and a small but sensible choice of sampling rates. 8MB of RAM comes as standard — this can be expanded to 32 with relatively inexpensive SIMM chips. The flexibility to provide four stereo or eight mono outputs is nice. (Also offered are a stereo mix and six individual outputs option, and one for all voices to be routed to one stereo mix, regardless of their individual output assignments.) The sound architecture has been discussed in some detail in my SOS review of the S750. In brief, however, it goes like this: the entire contents of the memory is called a Volume; a Volume can contain up to 64 Performances; each Performance can contain up to 32 Patches, 128 of which can be held in memory at once; each Patch contains up to 88 Partials, 255 of which can be held in memory; each Partial can use up to four Samples (max 512 in memory).
There are no digital effects (reverb, delay etc.) on any of the Roland 700 range of sampling products. Their strengths always lay in their envelopes (with resonant filters), sound quality (pristine) and stereo phase coherence (absolute).
Other sampler manufacturers are now coming round to accepting the fact that Akai samplers have become the industry standard. Peavey, Kurzweil, Cheetah, and even Emu, have come up with machines which will read standard Akai files. The SP700 can also do this trick. Being a sample player, the SP700 has no audio input. Neither has it a floppy disk drive, therefore samples, programs and operating system updates must be addressed via SCSI — via the on-board SCSI port the SP700 can talk to just about any drive on the market, be it CD-ROM, hard, or optical. It should also enable the SP700 to communicate directly with other Roland or Akai samplers, provided these have SCSI ports fitted. Anyway, let's get down to work and hit some buttons.
There are no sample editing functions at all on the SP700; otherwise it is very like the S750. Envelopes (which is where you'll want to get to first after having loaded in some Akai files) are accessed under PARTIAL. On this page you can scroll through the (up to) 255 Partials currently resident in the RAM, and see how much memory you've got left. A huge seven and a half octave keyboard for monitoring incoming notes lurks broodily at the foot of this page. The five Function keys now offer COMMON, SMT, TVF, TVA, LFO. Being impatient, we'll go to TVF first.
Pages in the SP700 are often rather larger than the display, but in the same way that you can look at a long word processor document piece by piece, so you can look at the TVF page section by section. A 'thermometer', rather like the scroll bar at the right of windows in an ST or Mac, shows you where you are, and the NEXT and PREVIOUS buttons take you between the 'sub-pages'. In the case of the TVF, hitting NEXT four times after hitting TVF takes us to the foot of a page which is five times taller than the display.
Here we find an envelope graphic, similar to that found in the Roland samplers. There are two columns of numbers corresponding to the four Time and four Level parameters of the 4-stage TVF envelope. To the right of this is an envelope graphic which, unlike on the S750, cannot be redrawn directly. You use the cursor array to select which parameter you wish to adjust, then alter the value with the wheel. Another method uses a shift key to alter the status of the wheel, from parameter adjust to parameter select (although this is usually analogous to using the cursor keys, there are times when it is slightly, and importantly, different. See later...)
Above the envelope are other parameters and their corresponding displays. From top to bottom these are: Partial (to be edited) Selection, Filter Cutoff Mode (Off, LPF, BPF or HPF); Filter Cut Off Frequency; Filter Resonance; Filter Cut Off Key Follow; Velocity Curve Sensitivity; TVF Depth; Filter Envelope Velocity Sensitivity; Pitch Depth; Time Velocity Sensitivity; Time Key Follow; and Release Velocity Sensitivity. Each of these is accompanied by a horizontal bar graphic on which a moving arrow cursor indicates the value rather more visually than mere digits can offer. A nice touch, that. Completing the picture are Key Follow Point (any note) and Velocity Curve (select 1 of 4). Both these parameters have notes on their ranges in the margin.
This is similar to the TVF page, though it is only three times bigger than the viewing window. The envelope is displayed as per usual at the foot, and above it (from top to bottom) are: Velocity Curve type select; Velocity Curve Sensitivity; Level Key Follow; Key Follow Point; Time Velocity Sensitivity; Time Key Follow; and Release Velocity Sensitivity. Note that there is no fourth envelope level parameter here: the sample must fade to silence at the end of the release portion. Graphics as above.
The LFO can be assigned to all or any of the following: Pitch, TVF, TVA or Pan. The latter is a new feature. Other variables include Waveform (choose from eight), Rate, Detune, Delay, Key Follow and Key Sync (On or Off). Other than Waveform and Key Sync, all parameters are again supported by a horizontal bar/arrow pointer graphic, a feature I'm beginning to wish was on the S750 software. Hopefully on the next update?
This key opens up a 2-way 6-parameter window (excluding Partial Select, which I'll not mention again since it's the same for all five pages) including Partial Level, Panning, Output Assign (AD or 1-8 depending on whether you're working in stereo or mono mode), Coarse and Fine tune, and SMT (Sample Mix Table) Velocity Control (Off/On). Bar graphics are implemented where applicable.
In the S750 there are also sample mix parameters under Common. Not so here — they only appear on the SMT page. Here up to four mono or two stereo samples can be stacked, and all sensible sample mixing parameters such as Pan, Tuning and Velocity switching are catered for. The latter has a clear user-friendly ultra simple graphic.
Partials are assigned to the keyboard via Patches, the equivalent of Akai Keygroups. Hitting the Patch Mode button reveals a display very like that for Partial Mode. Here a keyboard displays notes in play, and you may scroll through the Patches installed in the RAM. The first three Function keys open the Common, (Keyboard) Split and Control windows.
Pretty much all the Partial Common parameters are offered again, this time to be applied to an entire keyboard-full of samples. These include Patch Level, Panning, Output (again AD and 1-8, but this time also P, which means that the Partial assignment will be retained). Priority On/Off, Octave Shift, Coarse & Fine Tune, 'Analog Feel' (a random detune), Program number, Cutoff Offsets, Velocity Sensitivity Offsets, Resonance Offsets, Attack Offsets and Release Offsets. The last three parameters are new to Patch, which means that they can now be edited from multitimbral Performance Play.
Even with Akai format files loaded from a Zero-G CD-ROM, I was able to perform some sensible basic synthesizer editing from this page. The bar and cursor graphics resemble sliders, enhancing a feeling of being 'in control'. Sometimes the effect was unexpected (such as the horn sound whose filter was inversely mapped to velocity), but such instant sound-bending gratification is always welcome. On the downside, overdrive those Roland filters and the digital clipping is, as usual, horrid.
As with the S750, it is in the Performance page that Patches are stacked to form a multitimbral song arrangement, with 32 of them freely assignable to 16 MIDI channels. Five windows are offered on F1-F5, and these are substantially different from those on the S-750.
In the Play window you can see all 32 Patches, an arrangement I prefer to the four banks of eight displayed on the S750. Parameters include (for each slot) Patch Select, MIDI channel, Level, Pan and Output assignment. Simple as that. Until you notice that in addition to the 8-segment vertical 'thermometer' (only four Patches are simultaneously visible) there is also a 7-segment horizontal one. Scrolling through the other six sections we find that all the Patch parameters are available. The first window's Pan, by the way, is MIDI addressable (never the case on the S750) and overrides the Patch Pan (on sub-page 2) in the following way: if the Patch Pan is set hard left, and the Performance Pan hard right, the net result is a central position. Thus stereo samples will veer according to Performance Pan, but never disappear from one side altogether. Having parameters like attack, release and filter sensitivity so readily accessible at this hierarchical level is very useful.
In the MIDI page you'll find a 17-column controller enabling matrix, (16 MIDI Channels and 'ALL'). Parameters supported include Program change, Pitch bend, Modulation, Hold, and Volume.
Finding the EQ page made my heart miss a beat. An equaliser built into a sampler is the next logical step towards it becoming a complete audio workstation. I have been waiting for some time now for some far sighted manufacturer to build a mixing desk into a sampler: for me the limitation of eight outputs is the most serious mixing bottleneck. Imagine a sampler with a serious equaliser available to every voice?
With the SP700 we take a substantial step in the right direction, though separate equalisers are offered only on each output. These can be configured as eight mono or four stereo (ganged) equalizers, and are of a 2-way semi-parametric design. No Q control is offered, and the bandwidths of the high and low EQ sections butt rather than overlap — the low band stops at 600 Hz, while the high range starts at 700Hz. +/-12 dB of cut and boost is offered, and I would call this EQ colourful rather than corrective or creative. But it's still wonderful to have it. EQ snapshots can be stored as edited copies of a Performance. But why bother when the EQ is directly controllable over MIDI?
The last two pages under Performance are MIDI, which lets you monitor incoming MIDI data, and QUICK LOAD. This keeps a record, in non-volatile memory of up to 32 Volumes, Performances and Patches that you use regularly. The SP700 remembers on which SCSI device any file is stored, where it can be found on that device, and how many seconds of RAM the file will use up, the idea being that whenever you want to load one of these items it is quicker to go via QUICK LOAD. The default map is preset for the CD-ROM of (not just Roland) sounds that comes included in the RRP of the SP700. (Roland almost forgot to tell me about this important purchasing incentive!)
The other Mode buttons are DISK and SYSTEM. The former operates much as on the S750, apart from the addition of an option to load in Akai files (hit F5 — Utility — and then Convert Load).
Of the System pages, the MIDI one proved most interesting. In addition to the expected information regarding Control Channels, Device ID number etc. I came upon a version of the EQ page from in the Performance pages. Using this display I was able to specify different controller numbers for every EQ parameter, enabling real-time control of EQ as well as Pan and Level. In no time at all I had made a start on developing a suitable Cubase mixer map for editing the SP700.
I'm not going to go through every function of the SP700 or we'll be here all day. Of the hard buttons I've not discussed, MARK/JUMP is like the S750's Mark/Jump function, NAME deals with, well, naming. LIST gives you a list of all Performances, Patches etc. in RAM or on any drive(s) hooked up over SCSI. The HOME button takes the cursor to the first parameter on any page, otherwise pages will remember what you last did when they are next recalled. The COMMAND button opens up much the same range of options as does the COM pulldown menu on the S750, the ability to pull down Edit Partial from Patch level being particularly useful.
The SP700's SCSI ID defaults to 7. When you have several SCSI devices on the same SCSI network — and you would quite probably be using the SP700 with a CD-ROM drive and a hard disk, and perhaps an S750 as well — each device must have a unique SCSI number. On power up it scans for other devices and checks its wave memory, tells you what version software you are on, and defaults to Performance Play. Your next step is to load something from disk.
RAM can, incidentally, be split in a user-defined ratio between A and B caches, as on the DJ70, to enable load-while-play. However, as Roland Product Specialist Dave Marshall says he's got it to load into A while playing from A anyway, I don't know why they bothered!
The Command, Name, and List buttons all function in each of Performance, Patch or Partial mode. I discovered a very neat trick under Command in Performance mode, in the form of the List Delete function. This lets you play through your song/sequence, and then tell the SP700 to delete from RAM any files that have not been used in the sequence. Instant garbage removal! I'm gobsmacked.
To test out how well the SP700 converts Akai files, I persuaded David 'Skip' Skipper and Paul Brook from the Real Drum Company to come to Brookside Recording Studios (aka my spare room!) with their KAT controller and CD-ROM. Elsewhere in this issue I will be looking at their debut product, but all you need to know for now is that they have developed the closest sampled approximation yet to a real drum kit, using loads of samples taken at different velocities, recording left and right hand strokes, and so on. These samples are mapped to either a keyboard or a DrumKAT, a particularly sophisticated drum pad set, and the kits are available on CD-ROM for Akai samplers only.
Being the creators, they knew exactly how their sampled kit was meant to respond. So how did the SP-700 fare in digesting their Akai data? Loading was via a Convert routine under the Disk Utilities. The filenames and hierarchical level names maintained those of the Akai for easy identification. It took 250 seconds to load and convert a 70 second file. When this same file was saved to a Roland-formatted optical disk and re-loaded, the load time was 12 seconds — note that my Optical drive is an oldish and slowish MO-7 with a 6.25" Sony mechanism.
Once the data was loaded, however, everything appeared to be in order in the SP700's RAM. Samples were mapped out onto the keyboard and ready to play. Obviously the nomenclature had been changed, for example to Roland's 'Patch' from Akai's 'Performance'.
Plugging in the DrumKAT we checked on how well the dynamic response had translated. It seems that compared to the Akai the velocity was a little insensitive, but a swift Global Edit of the TVA (Pushing the Velocity Curve Sensitivity up from 0 to 40) seemed to fix that. One or two filter envelopes had to be reined in, too. (Skip told me that they have a similar problem transferring files from the S1100 onto their new S3000.) In any case, I can report that the Akai files do load satisfactorily, and that, once loaded, they can be saved as Roland format files.
OK, time to complain... Firstly, I found the layout of cursor keys a little awkward — a diamond geometry would have been more intuitive than the inverted T adopted here. Style before comfort? Also, it's a shame that the Akai format CD-ROM load time is much slower than it would be for an Akai sampler. This is perhaps unavoidable, however, and at least the facility is there. Should you have an optical or hard drive to store tweaked versions of files, then you're laughing. Finally, the brilliantly lit LCD is spoiled (yet again) by that reflective clear perspex cover — it was sunny this morning, and at times I had to peer hard.
Roland continue to update the operation of their 700 sampling series products. Most exciting was the inclusion of equalised outputs, and more really useful performance parameters such as attack and release. Nice to see that MIDI panning has finally been sorted out. The ergonomics have been fine tuned further, with the Previous/Next buttons proving to be a valuable asset. Sound quality has not been compromised, even with the equaliser in circuit. New features like the garbage disposal routine are obviously user-led; always a good sign.
For those who want simultaneous access to both Akai and Roland format CD-ROM libraries, the SP700 offers just that. It is called a sample player, but you could also think of it as an expander. Had Akai not chosen to make their great leap forward with the S3000 series, not a few S1000/1100 users might have been tempted to expand their options with the SP700, tempted by its 24 note polyphony and resonant filters. They still might, especially if having eight additional outputs is a major incentive (and come to think of it, when isn't it?). However, I suspect that many long-time Akai users, for about the same outlay as adding an SP700 to their inventory, will trade in their old machines and buy 3000-series models instead. No-one likes having to learn a new operating system, no matter how easy on the brain it is (and the SP700 is pretty intuitive).
S750/S770 users with expansionist policies will give the SP700 more than a second look, however. The possible four stereo output configuration and onboard equalisers make it an extremely attractive (to me at least) complement to an S770 configured as eight mono outs. Now I'll need to buy only one DMP11 to complete my 16-channel automated mixing/sampling system...
Roland SP700 £1899 inc VAT.
Roland UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Wilf Smarties
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