Nothing ignites a song like a tasty sound bite or a slamming drum
loop. But for many musicians, traditional samplers are too expensive,
complex, bulky, or slow at loading sounds. Software samplers address
some of those issues (load time in particular) but aren't always
road-worthy. Fortunately, for those people who like instant
gratification, there's another option: the phrase sampler.
Phrase samplers are compact instruments that store samples in flash
RAM, so they're ready to play the moment you turn them on. Their voice
architecture has more in common with drum machines than synths, making
them simpler and less powerful. To keep the cost down, manufacturers
also limit the polyphony. Four to eight notes are all you get, though
that's usually adequate for weaving stereo loops together.
But simplicity has its virtues. Phrase samplers are easier to grasp
(physically and conceptually) than general-purpose keyboard samplers,
and their groove-centered design makes them better suited to certain
types of music production. The latest generation of phrase samplers
also features automatic time stretching to sync sampled phrases.
MEET THE NEW BOSS
Roland and its Boss division have been refining the phrase-sampler
concept since 1995, when Roland rolled out the MS-1. That highly
portable instrument, which did little more than trigger samples,
spawned the SP-202, the SP-303, and now the Boss SP-505. Boss, a
Japanese company, probably skipped SP-404 because the Japanese words
for four and death sound the same, making four an unlucky
Nomenclature aside, the Boss SP-505 is a big leap beyond the
previous models. It also delivers compelling advantages over its
competition in the phrase-sampler market, the Yamaha SU200 and Korg
Electribe-S. However, the Boss SP-505 has some surprising drawbacks as
well, which I'll get into later.
MY PAD OR YOURS?
The Boss SP-505 is about the size of a chunky laptop computer, but
at just over three pounds, it's a lot lighter. Part of that is because
of the plastic case, but the construction is reasonably sturdy. The
front panel sports 16 drum pads, which, like those on the Yamaha and
Korg, light up when a particular sample is playing but aren't Velocity
sensitive. The sounds do respond to Velocity over MIDI, however.
A 17th pad, Ext Source, acts as an unmute button for an external
signal connected to the analog inputs. You can sequence this pad just
like the others or, with two clicks, route its signal through the Boss
SP-505's hands-on effects processor. Not only does that let you use the
Boss SP-505 and a second instrument (or a CD player) without a mixer
but it also means you can process a feed from, say, a vocal mic, adding
emphasis to certain words during live performance. A Pad Bank button
calls up 15 additional banks of samples (31 with expanded memory) for
more than 500 sample locations.
Moving up, the next row of Boss SP-505 buttons contains the
sequencer transport controls, including a tap-tempo button and four
illuminated buttons for muting the sequencer's four tracks. The
adjacent Phrase Control section accesses the SP-505's time-stretching
and rhythm-slicing features as well as a pitch-shifting function
reminiscent of Roland's magical VP-9000 VariPhrase sampler.
Things really get interesting in the next row up, which controls the
effects processor. The Boss SP-505 offers 26 effects, each with three
parameters that are mapped to the three knobs in this row. Although
somewhat slippery, the knobs turn smoothly, and their current position
and assignments are shown in the LCD above them. Dedicated buttons to
the right let you quickly select effects, enable them, or assign them
to pads. The sonic quality of the more common effects, particularly the
reverb and distortions, is poor, but used sparingly, they help enhance
the sound. I had more fun brutalizing samples with the wackier effects,
such as Tape Echo, Lo-Fi, Chromatic Pitch Shift, and Voice
Whereas other phrase samplers communicate through a one-line LCD or
even a numeric LED, the Boss SP-505 provides a generous 128-by-64-pixel
backlit display — a major advantage. Three “soft”
buttons, a data wheel, Enter and Exit buttons, and four cursor buttons
make navigation fast and easy. Most features are accessible with one or
two clicks, and many values can be set instantly by punching one of the
16 numbered drum pads. The only controls I missed were dedicated
sample-reverse and -repeat buttons. It's nearly impossible to retrigger
a pad quickly. (The Electribe-S has a Roll button for just that
application.) I was also disappointed that the SP-505 has no hi-hat
cutoff option that would silence one pad when a related one is
WATCH MY BACK
For a phrase sampler, the Boss SP-505 is especially well endowed
with connectors. There's a power jack with a cord lock (the external
adapter is a “line-lump” type with a 12-foot cord), a
multifunction footswitch jack, MIDI In and Out, a socket for an
antitheft cable, optical and coaxial S/PDIF inputs, stereo RCA inputs
and outputs, a headphone jack, and a monophonic mic input.
Two design issues are worth noting. First, the RCA outputs provide
line-level signals only when the volume knob is at about three o'clock.
Crank it higher, and the signal distorts. It's not a bad-sounding
distortion, but it isn't mentioned in the manual. If you're used to
maxing out the volume knob to get the best signal-to-noise ratio, you
may be rudely surprised. Second, the S/PDIF inputs are just for
sampling; they don't feed the Ext Source bus, so you can't use them to
mix in audio while the sequencer is playing.
Around the front is the final connector, a well-protected slot for
adding a SmartMedia memory card. On the Yamaha and Korg phrase
samplers, SmartMedia is used only for backup and WAV-file import, but
the SP-505 uses it to extend its internal memory as well. This means
that removing or inserting the card while the SP-505 is on can destroy
data. For that reason, Boss secured the slot with a cover and two
thumbscrews, although there's no warning sticker on the cover itself.
(For more background on SmartMedia, see the Yamaha Motif section of the
March 2002 EM
Out of the box, the SP-505 holds 2 minutes of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio
(half that amount for stereo). Add a 128 MB SmartMedia card (about
$50), and it gains a whopping 64 additional minutes of sample memory.
By reducing the sampling rate (and thus the quality), you can extend
that to nearly seven hours.
To achieve its impressive capacity, the SP-505 uses data
compression, but the results are largely transparent at the highest
sampling rate. A 20 Hz to 20 kHz sine-wave sweep that I fed the unit
introduced significant distortion and noise in the higher frequencies,
but real-world samples such as drum loops and guitar riffs sounded
fine, if a mite duller. More telling, I could hear no tonal difference
between sounds I imported from SmartMedia or sampled through the analog
inputs, which indicates that the SP-505's 20-bit analog-to-digital
converters are quite good.
Thanks to its flashing buttons and informative display, the SP-505
makes sampling easier than falling off of a greased unicycle. Simply
press the large Sampling button, hit the pad you want to sample into
(all available pads start flashing), choose an input source (line,
digital, or mic), set the input level, and hit the Sampling button
again. Recording begins immediately, and the display counts down the
time remaining. Tap the Sampling button once more to stop recording.
You can also choose to have sampling start automatically as soon as an
input threshold is reached. You can even sample through the effects
processor while playing its knobs.
A final parameter called With BPM makes looping nearly automatic if
you input the source's tempo before recording. (The SP-505 supports
tempos from 40 to 200 bpm, with a resolution of 0.1 bpm.) To use this
feature, you terminate sampling a fraction of a second after the point
where you want the phrase to loop — during the downbeat of the
third bar, for example, or even in the middle of a bar if you want a
two-beat loop. The SP-505 then backs up a tad and sets the loop point
to the mathematically correct sample. Once, with a slow loop, I had to
adjust the loop point manually to smooth the transition, but overall,
this feature is a huge time-saver.
The SP-505 can also
resample its output — a handy way to layer sounds and
overcome the eight-note polyphony. By resampling a sound repeatedly
through different effects, you can also create dramatic variations.
Visit EM Links
to hear some examples.
In the first of two resampling modes, Auto, you specify up to four
source pads (two pads if they contain stereo samples) and hit the
Sampling button. The resulting sample will be as long as the longest
source sample. Unfortunately, the tail of any effect you may have
assigned to the source will be cut off.
In the second resampling mode, the SP-505 keeps recording until you
tell it to stop or until memory runs out. You can perform on multiple
pads and twirl the effect knobs, and everything will be recorded.
However, you can't switch pad banks during resampling, and you can't
resample a sequence. Worse, the SP-505 disables MIDI input during
resampling, so you can't drive it from an external sequencer, either.
That's disappointing, because sampling a sequence would have been a
great way to develop new loops. (The Electribe-S can sample its
sequences; the SU200 doesn't have a sequencer.)
CHOP TILL YOU DROP
Editing samples is also easy, especially because the SP-505 is the
only phrase sampler with a waveform display. Dedicated buttons let you
zoom in vertically and horizontally, and the cursor buttons scroll the
window sideways. Waveform editing is limited to setting the loop point;
deleting the waveform's beginning, middle, or end; and boosting or
attenuating the entire waveform or a selected region. (You can boost up
to 400 percent for crunchy clipping effects.) The maximum resolution is
16 samples, but I had no trouble making loops, so perhaps the Boss
SP-505 does automatic crossfading.
You can also set the following nondestructive playback
panning (left, center, or right only, though that could be useful
for feeding external effects);
Pad mode (In Trigger mode, the first push starts the sample and the
second stops it. In Gate mode, the sample plays only while the pad is
held, although a separate Hold button lets you lock it down, if
desired. In Drum mode, the sample always plays completely through;
subsequent hits retrigger it); and
playback type (In Single mode, the sample always plays at its
original tempo; in Phrase mode, it will be time stretched to fit the
current tempo. For phrases, you can also specify the number of measures
and the time signature, though some values are refused).
Like the groundbreaking Propellerhead ReCycle, the SP-505 can chop
mono samples into their component beats and assign them to as many as
32 sequential pads. You can easily reposition the slice points in the
waveform window if the box guesses wrong, but I had good luck with this
feature. It was a blast to turn on some echo, sample myself scatting
into a mic, and press the Chop button to create an instant vocal drum
kit. The slices are stored in two dedicated Chop banks; to gain full
access to them for sequencing, you copy them to the SP-505's handy
clipboard and then paste them to a standard bank. The clipboard holds
up to 16 items.
Surprisingly, the Boss SP-505 doesn't come with a CD of samples, but
it does supply three banks of drum sounds and a bank of the note G
played on various bass, piano, synth, and organ patches. What good is a
single note? Press the Pitch button, and the SP-505 will pitch-shift it
to cover an entire octave and then paste the new samples into one of
two Pitch banks so that you can play the pads as you would a keyboard.
As with Roland's high-end VP-9000, this function changes the pitch of a
note without changing its duration. Unlike the VP-9000, it sounds
rather furry, but it's handy for working out bass lines, inserting
chord stabs, and creating special effects.
The SP-505 also offers time stretching, which changes the duration
of a sample without changing its pitch. Samples set to Phrase mode are
automatically stretched to fit the current sequence tempo. By hitting
the BPM Sync button, you can also synchronize phrases with different
tempos as you play the pads. Sound quality depends on the type of sound
— sparse drums work best — and the amount of stretching.
The SP-505 isn't prone to generating clicks the way the SU200 is, but
don't expect the smoothness you'd get out of something like Sonic
With four tracks, playback-only swing quantization (meaning your
original parts are never altered), and an Event-Edit screen, the SP-505
has a fairly capable sequencer. It comes with 40 forgettable house and
hip-hop patterns, but you can store (and name) as many as 100 of your
own. (It's a pity samples can't be named, as well.) Each pattern can be
as long as eight beats, but you can store the mute status of each track
in a pattern, so it's easy to create variations and switch among them
on the fly.
The SP-505 doesn't record knob movements, so to use a varying effect
in your sequence, you have to resample the pad while wiggling the knob.
The Event-Editor screen is welcome, however. It allows you to move
notes forward or back in time or change their Velocity, gate time, or
pad assignment (sound). It's easy to get lost, though, because the
SP-505 doesn't play the notes as you step through the list. Granted,
many of the notes will trigger loops, so you wouldn't want to hear the
whole sample, but a half-second preview would be invaluable.
GROOVE TO GO
There's something appealing about a 3-pound box that lets you store
and reshape 500 custom loops. More than just a phrase sampler, the Boss
SP-505 approaches the power of a high-end sampling drum machine,
although I definitely missed Velocity-sensitive pads and the ability to
resample sequences, hear events in Edit mode, and record knob moves. I
also wish the effects were cleaner. I started to dream about building a
similar but more powerful system out of a laptop computer, the Ableton
Live audio sequencer, a MIDI keyboard, and a portable audio interface,
but then I realized that that was exactly the point of the SP-505. For
thousands of dollars less, you get a lightweight, one-piece, instant-on
musical collaborator. This is one boss you'll be glad to have
8 notes (4 stereo)
(250) internal user locations (incl. 26 pitched); (256) optional
external-card user locations
|Maximum Sampling Time
17 min. (lo-fi)/5 min. (long)/2 min. (standard) internal memory; 395
min. (lo-fi)/129 min. (long); 64 min. (standard) with optional 128 MB
|Sample Import Formats
WAV, AIFF (8/16-bit, 44.1 kHz); loop points ignored
(26) types, (1) simultaneous; enabled per pad
(4) tracks; (15,000) events; (40) preset patterns; (100) user
patterns; (20) songs; 96 ppqn resolution
(1) footswitch (play, sample, pad 1-16, FX on/off); (3) assignable
effects knobs; (1) tap tempo; (1) bpm sync; (1) bpm adjust
(1) ¼" mic; (1) stereo RCA line; (1) optical; (1) coaxial
(1) stereo RCA; (1) ¼" stereo headphone
(1) MIDI In, Out
11.75" (W) × 2.56" (H) × 10.00" (D)
3.12 lb. (excluding adapter)
groove sampling workstation
|EASE OF USE
|RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Enormous memory. Informative display. Rapid sampling.
Efficient layout. Digital inputs. Playable effects.
CONS: Can't sample sequences. Knob moves aren't recorded.
Gritty effects. No hi-hat cutoff. No roll button.
Boss/Roland Corporation U.S.
tel. (323) 890-3700, ext. 2463