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Roland SP-555

March 1, 2008
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photo of the front of the SP-555

FIG. 1: The compact SP-555 offers playable effects, a proximity-controlled synth and filter, a USB audio/MIDI interface, and nearly 13 hours of high-quality sampling.

At first glance, the Roland SP-555 looks like a wider version of the cool little SP-404 (see my review at www.emusician.com). But Roland has packed an astounding number of new features into this performance-oriented phrase sampler while somehow making it faster and easier to use.

The pads are now Velocity sensitive; a D-Beam infrared controller graces the front; there's a combo mic jack with phantom power; a footswitch-controlled loop recorder offers tempo-synced overdubbing; and the SP-555 even works as an audio/MIDI interface for your computer.

And beyond these hardware upgrades, which addressed almost all the items on my wish list for the SP-404, you'll find some clever ergonomic improvements for capturing, twisting, and performing samples and loops.

Padding Around

About the size of a chunky laptop, the SP-555 weighs just 4 pounds but feels solid (see Fig. 1). The top is metal, the case is thick plastic, most jacks are bolted on, and the rubberized knobs are firm and turn smoothly. Unlike the SP-404, the SP-555 doesn't run on batteries, but the supplied line-lump AC adapter is quite small.

The front panel is organized into task-specific sections. At bottom right are the sample-playback pads and bank buttons. Above them are buttons for sample editing; these work in conjunction with the three knobs in the adjacent effects section. Below that is the new Loop Capture recorder for real-time overdubbing. At top left is the new input section, and at top center you'll find the addictive D-Beam, controlling filtering, triggering, and a distinctive solo synth.

The 16 Velocity-sensitive pads make a big difference in expressivity compared with the SP-404, though they aren't as responsive as the pads on a dedicated pad controller. I got more-nuanced performances using an external MIDI keyboard. However, I never experienced false triggering, and although the pads are a bit small for 2-finger rolls, a 17th pad, called the Sub Pad, facilitates rolls by retriggering the last note played, and it's Velocity sensitive, too. You can disable Velocity sensing for more consistent triggering by pressing the handy Fixed Velocity button.

Roland also added a dedicated Roll button, one of my wish-list items for the SP-404. You can set the retrigger interval from quarter notes to 32nd-note triplets, but the notes all machine-gun out at the same level. It is possible to vary the level with the D-Beam controller (more on this in a moment), but I never achieved satisfying results.

There's still no hi-hat cutoff option — another of my SP-404 requests — but if you set a pad to Gate mode, it will mute as soon as you lift your finger, so it's possible to get a similar effect. The other pad playback modes — Trigger, Loop, and Reverse — are the same as on the SP-404, and the Hold button still allows you to sustain a looping pad (or several) even after switching banks. Quadruple-clicking the Cancel button stops all sounds, a shortcut I used often to tame the 10 banks of 16 pads.

I also appreciated the way almost every button lit up to guide me. Pads illuminate when they have a sample assigned and blink while the sample is playing. During multistep operations, the next button you need to hit will flash. The light behind the numeric display flashes on downbeats and increases in brightness as the input level rises, morphing from blue to red. It's an elegant touch that somewhat compensates for the confounding 3-character display and boatload of “hold this, press that” key commands that are well documented in the manual but punishing to remember.

In Like Mic

SP-555

FIG. 2: Roland beefed up the I/O on the SP-555. There''s MIDI In and Out, stereo line in and out on RCA jacks, USB for audio and MIDI, and a footpedal jack for remote control. The top panel sports a combo XLR/TRS jack for mic or guitar input. A headphone jack is on the front.

Roland added a bunch of I/O options to the SP-555 (see Fig. 2); the only obvious omission is S/PDIF. Given the box's DJ focus, the RCA jacks make sense, though a turntable input might have been useful. I would have preferred a dedicated headphone volume control, however.

The combo XLR/TRS mic/guitar input is a great addition; I plugged in an sE USB2200A condenser mic using the mic's analog output. Although I had to crank the preamp to get solid levels, there was almost no hiss. I found lots of uses for the internal mic, too (see Web Clip 1). You can apply effects to both the mic and the line inputs individually. The inputs have dedicated mute buttons and level knobs as well.

An Effect Storm

Oddball effects are a trademark of the SP series, and the SP-555 has 37 of them, including new ones such as Super Filter, Voice Transformer, Amp Simulator, Bit Crash, Step Filter, Step Ring Mod, and Reverse. By this point, the labels identifying the effects are getting really tiny, but Roland provides 1-button access to 6 of them, as well as a new Effect Memory feature that lets you store up to 16 presets (including knob positions) for instant recall from the pads.

Despite the spin that they're “Fantom quality,” many effects sound coarse to me, but that's part of the personality of the Roland SP-555. Resample your loops through a few passes of different effects, and you'll get some truly wild sounds. The manual explains quite a few ways you can apply and alter effects on the fly.

Sampling and Sequencing

The basics of sampling, resampling, editing, and sequencing on the SP-555 are the same as on the SP-404, so I'll refer you to that review for details. The newer groove box does offer some big improvements, though. You can now sample the patterns you record in the sequencer, drum hits played over MIDI, and USB audio from your computer. In fact, I was able to rip DVD soundtracks and Windows Media Audio files from my Vista laptop. In one particularly twisted session, I triggered sounds on a software synth from the SP-555's pads, processed the computer's output through the SP-555's effects, and played loops from the SP-555 itself into the Loop Capture section, all with no glitches (see Web Clip 2).

The big news in the sequencer section is swing quantization, but it's implemented in a frustrating way: you can specify the swing amount only before recording, so there's no way to try out different feels without erasing what you've just recorded.

Further, the sequencer remains the only way to tempo-lock loops. Even if you set two loops to track the master tempo, it's not sample-accurate sync. Hold them down and they soon drift apart. Only by constantly retriggering them from the sequencer can you get them to stay together (see Web Clip 3).

Wave Your Hands

The SP-555 may offer the most portable way yet to get Roland's D-Beam controller. There are three modes: synth, filter, and trigger. With the synth, you can choose among eight sounds. The proximity of your hand to the sensor controls pitch, as on a theremin. But you can restrict the notes to one of 21 preset scales, so you can flail away passionately and still sound musical (see Web Clips 4 through 6). For me, it was like the ear-opening experience of playing the Korg KP3 KaossPad synth, but with more drama and flexibility. I found I could keep one thumb on the CTRL 3 knob to control volume as well.

In filter mode, you can choose among lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and notch shapes with three degrees of resonance. Again, waving your hand is a wonderfully dramatic way to shape the sound of a phrase.

Trigger mode simply fires the selected pad's sample when your hand gets close enough, though pressing the Roll button lets you control the volume of a roll. I've gotten better results doing that with Aftertouch and track pads; I think the range of motion required here is too great. To make the D-Beam transmit MIDI Control Change messages, press the V-Link button.

Loop Recorder

SP-555

FIG. 3: The rudimentary Wave Converter lets you transfer samples between the SP-555 and a Mac or PC. You need a CompactFlash reader to use it, though.

The Loop Capture section is a great idea: you're making loops, so why not complement the pattern sequencer with a tape-style looper? To get started, you set a duration of 1, 2, or 4 bars or “free,” which runs up to 15 seconds. Then you hit the Rec button and start recording into the external inputs or playing the pads. Each time the recording loops around, you can add new overdubs, changing the effects as you go. When you like what you hear, you press the Save To Pad button.

Unfortunately, the flow ends there, because the SP-555 stops and then resamples the Loop Capture memory into the selected pad in real time. You're going to want to save to pad fairly often, too, because there's no undo function on the loop recorder (see the sidebar “Loop Capture for the Clumsy”). It would have been so much cooler if you could simply offload works in progress without stopping playback. For that matter, it's frustrating that a machine with hours of sampling time limits you to 15-second loops.

Nonetheless, Loop Capture BREAKs the SP-555 out of the phrase sampler box and into a more expressive recording tool. In addition, it offers dedicated buttons for settings such as level-activated recording and tempo sampling. The SP-404 needed hidden key sequences for that.

Computer Talk

Install the driver and plug the SP-555 into your computer via USB, and your music-production options expand even more. You can use the SP-555's pads and CTRL knobs to control MIDI software, drive the SP-555 itself via MIDI, and stream audio in and out all at once. Windows users also get Cakewalk Sonar LE, a capable DAW. I tested the interface on both Mac and PC. On each, the audio output level from the SP-555 was very low — about 14 percent of maximum.

A bigger puzzle was the bundled SP-555 Wave Converter utility (see Fig. 3). Instead of enabling the direct USB transfer of samples, Roland makes you turn off the SP-555, pop out the CompactFlash card, plug it into a card reader, fire up Wave Converter, and then transfer samples one by one with a Browse dialog box. You can't drag-and-drop groups of files onto the window and have them populate empty slots, which makes importing drum kits a hassle.

Granted, piping WAV files across a USB 1.0 interface would be tedious as well, especially if you're using the SP-555's massive capacity to store entire songs. But I would have liked having that option, or at least a more polished card-transfer utility. That said, Wave Converter is certainly faster than the SP-404, which had to convert and load directly from the card. (Both models use near-lossless data compression to increase the recording time.)

Wishes Granted

Product Manager Vince LaDuca says Roland's goal with the SP-555 was to expand on the SP-404's design with better effects, more sampling time, Velocity-sensitive pads, and computer interfacing capabilities for the PC DJ, while keeping it fun and easy. In that, the company has absolutely succeeded. It was exciting to see almost all of my SP-404 wishes granted in the SP-555, along with trickle-down features from Roland's pricier groove boxes. In particular, the “fun and easy” part is facilitated by the colorful Quick Start guide; clear, indexed manual; interactive lights; and irresistible D-Beam, which adds a lyrical component to the choppy world of groove boxes (see Web Clips 7 through 12).

The new effects are tasty, and the Loop Capture section goes a long way toward increasing flow, although it's compromised by its 15-second memory limit, lack of undo, and show-stopping save-to-pad routine. That hiccup is surprising in an instrument that offers almost 13 hours of sample playback with no load time.

Although there are more flexible drum machines and samplers on the market, the SP-555 delivers a unique combination of sound, storage, and groove.


David Battino (www.batmosphere.com) is the coauthor of The Art of Digital Music (Backbeat Books, 2004) and audio editor of the O'Reilly Digital Media site (http://digitalmedia.oreilly.com).

PRODUCT SUMMARY

phrase sampler with effects (MSRP) $699

PROS: Almost 13 hours of sampling with optional 2 GB card. Unique, interactive effects and D-Beam controller. USB audio/MIDI interface and effects processor. Phantom-powered XLR mic input. Includes Sonar LE.

CONS: No undo on loop recorder. Time-stretched samples lock to tempo only in Pattern mode. No USB file transfer. No post-record quantization. Low USB audio output level. Many functions require hidden key combinations.

features 1 2 3 4 5
Ease of use 1 2 3 4 5
Audio quality 1 2 3 4 5
Value 1 2 3 4 5

Roland
www.rolandus.com

Loop Capture for the Clumsy

You can quickly build up amazing layered grooves with the SP-555's Loop Capture (LC) section, but you can just as easily kill the joy if you play a clam, because there's no way to undo the previous overdub. Pressing the Rec button will turn off overdubbing and give you time to practice your next part, but it's safer to save recordings-in-progress to pads. If you subsequently make a mistake or want to try a new direction, you can simply copy the pad's contents back into the LC memory and resume overdubbing.

To do that, erase the current loop by holding Effect Assign and pressing Rec. Set the LC duration to the length of your loop in bars, and then press Auto Start and Rec to put the LC into audio-trigger mode. Hit the pad you want to transfer, and the LC will resample it. Web Clip 12 illustrates this technique, combining multiple loop variations into an evolving song.

BONUS MATERIAL
Check the specs! Click for a PDF of the product specifications for the SP-555.
Web Clips: Click for audio clips and videos that accompany the March 2008 issue of EM.

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