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electronic MUSICIAN

ROLAND SP-404

By David Battino | May 1, 2006

The SP-404 improves significantly on the popular SP-303 while picking up strong features from elsewhere in the SP line. Like the SP-202, it has a built-in microphone and can run on batteries; six AA cells can power the sampler for six hours. Like the SP-606, the SP-404 supports CompactFlash memory cards instead of the 303's flimsy SmartMedia format. Insert a 1 GB CompactFlash card, and the SP-404 will hold nearly six and a half hours of high-quality audio. According to Roland, it's the only sampler that can stream audio direct from flash media. That means you can play back entire songs from a single pad, or in a pinch use the SP-404 as a stereo field recorder (maximum stereo recording time is around three hours). The SP-404 could also be great for triggering sound bites in a theatrical production or in a live Podcast or radio broadcast.

Like its predecessors, the SP-404 is foremost a groove box — a cross between a sampler and a drum machine. You load up the pads with stereo or mono samples (either by recording them yourself or by importing them from the CompactFlash card), and then either sequence them into grooves using the pattern sequencer or twist them in real time with the device's dramatic, playable effects. Audio inputs let you apply the effects to external signals, too.

Big Box Value

FIG. 1: The SP-404 -combines some of the best features of previous Boss and Roland SP-series phrase samplers in a sturdy, -battery-powered box.

The first thing you'll notice about the SP-404 is its strong metal top, a rarity in this era of lightweight plastic gear (see Fig. 1). The sense of quality is reinforced by the smooth-turning rubber knobs and sturdy trigger pads, which light up when you press them. I smiled when I saw the display, which is backlit by a blue light that fades in and out almost organically. When the sequencer is running, the light pulses at the current tempo.

The case is a tad smaller than this magazine — compact, yet substantial enough that it doesn't slide around when you're using it. A laptop-style security slot on the back and a screw-down CompactFlash cover on the front keep your SP-404 and optional memory card from walking away as well.

Stereo line inputs and outputs are on RCA jacks (see Fig. 2). The unit's monophonic mic input has a dedicated trim knob. The first thing I sampled was myself scraping a fingernail along the grooved edge of the case, producing a crisp guiro loop (see Web Clip 1). The only recording-level indicator is a clip LED, and it's easy to unintentionally pick up handling noise with the mic, but by accounting for those challenges, I made some useful recordings. MIDI input can trigger individual pad sounds and control the sequencer's playback and tempo.

FIG. 2: Powered by a line-lump adapter or AA batteries, the SP-404 features MIDI In, stereo line-level I/O, and an antitheft cable slot. The front side has a headphone jack, a -CompactFlash slot, and a mono mic input with level trim.

At the bottom of the panel, 12 numbered pads trigger samples; in Sequencer mode, they trigger patterns. The pads are not touch sensitive, alas, but their samples do respond to MIDI Velocity, which is mapped to control volume. (I was also pleased to discover that the SP-404's sequencer records incoming MIDI Velocity data, something the pricier SP-505 does not do.) To the right are three more pads: Hold, which sustains a looped sample when you take your finger off the trigger pad; Ext Source, which unmutes an external audio signal; and Sub Pad, which retriggers the previously played pad, facilitating rolls. The pads are larger than those on competing groove boxes such as the Korg ES1mkII.

Above the pads are six Bank buttons. The four on the right address the CompactFlash memory; pressing them twice calls up an additional bank, for a total of ten banks of 12 pads. A row of five buttons above the Bank buttons controls Sample mode. The first two buttons, Lo-Fi and Stereo, set the recording format during sampling. The next three — Gate, Loop, and Reverse — affect playback. By pressing them, you can set a sample to play through once, loop indefinitely, play only while you're holding the trigger pad, or do any of the above while playing backward. Strangely, the 12 pads in each bank are mapped to successive octaves of MIDI notes beginning with B2 rather than C2. And although it isn't mentioned in the manual, you can toggle the Ext Source pad status by playing A#2. That could be handy for muting a remote mic during performance.

I would have liked a dedicated Roll button, as on the Korg. I also wished for a hi-hat cutoff option that mutes one pad when another is pressed. But as I discovered when I delved into its sequencer, the SP-404 is really more of a phrase sampler than a drum machine, and it offers a few work-arounds.

Causing Effects

I had a blast playing with the SP-404's effects (see Web Clip 2). The six buttons flanking the display toggle different effects: filter, pitch-shift, delay, Isolator (a DJ-style EQ), vinyl simulation, and multi-effects (a gateway to 24 more). The three knobs farthest to the right control effects parameters; on the filter effect, for example, the knobs control cutoff frequency, resonance, and distortion, and on the Isolator, they control low, mid, and high EQ. The 7-segment LED attempts to identify the current parameters; turn the knobs in Filter mode, and it displays CoF, rES, and drU (drive), for example.

To call up one of the 24 multi-effects, you press the MFX button and then turn the rightmost knob (carefully, because it's not detented). You can also select one of the first 12 multi-effects by holding MFX and pressing a pad, or you can select effects 13 through 24 by simultaneously holding MFX and the Vinyl Sim button and pressing a pad.

You can apply an effect to one pad or multiple pads and then resample your knob-twisting, pad-bashing performance to a new pad. After a few iterations (only one effect can be active at a time), you can easily transform wimpy source sounds into monstrous rhythmic textures.

New multi-effects beyond those in the SP-303's collection are Subsonic, which triggers a low-frequency sine wave during peaks; BPM Looper, which generates wild stuttering; and DJFX Looper, which alters the playback direction and speed for record-scratching effects. A video clip on Roland's Web site shows how to create bass lines by resampling the Subsonic effect, which is handy if you're using the SP-404 by itself. I also discovered I could pan mono sounds by resampling them with the pan effect, which overcomes a limitation of the SP-404's architecture.

Sampling and Resampling

Sampling on the SP-404 is fast. As with many multistep operations on the instrument, the next pad you need to press will start flashing to guide you. To begin, you hit the Rec button; the available pads start flashing. Hit a pad to select it, and the Rec button starts flashing. Hit Rec again, and you're recording. Hit it once more to stop. You can then trim the start and end of the sample with the knobs.

Before sampling, you can choose to record in stereo or in Lo-Fi mode. Lo-Fi mode saves space, although with so much memory on hand, it's more useful as an effect. I preferred the dedicated lo-fi effect, however (see Web Clip 3).

Hidden key sequences let you activate other sampling modes, such as sampling with a count-off, level-activated recording, and sampling at a specific tempo. The latter truncates sampling at the mathematically perfect point to make a loop based on the tempo you specify before starting (you can use the Tap Tempo button for that). I sometimes had to adjust the end point manually, but overall, tempo sampling was a time-saver.

Remembering the necessary key sequences was a pain, though. There's a huge reference chart in the manual (available online), but to give you an idea of what's involved, here are some examples. To enter Import/Export mode, you hold Cancel and press Resample, and depending on whether you want to import or export, you then press Rec or Resample. To swap samples between pads, hold down Del, press Rec, and then press the two pads whose samples you want to exchange. To set the MIDI Sync mode, turn on the power while holding the Time/BPM button and then turn the Control 1 knob. I'm glad that the SP-404 has so many features, but you'll need to read the manual thoroughly to discover and remember them. Fortunately, the manual is concise and easy to follow.

My biggest disappointment with sampling was that you can't resample a sequence. Because the SP-404 disables MIDI input during resampling, you can't drive it from an external sequencer to capture a loop, either. And tempo sampling isn't available during resampling; you'll need to adjust the loop point manually, which slows the creative process.

On a happier note, the SP-404 offers much better data compression than the SP-505. The SP-404 sounds great, too: deep and crisp. Although its compression crunches files down to half their normal size, the effect is almost inaudible. Subtracting the original WAV file from a version that I'd imported and exported yielded a whisperlike version of the original — so quiet it was detectable only on headphones. It takes the SP-404 about as long as the imported sample's duration to convert it to the machine's native format. I was even able to import a pink-noise loop I'd made on a granular synthesizer, though I had to adjust the loop point slightly to prevent clicks.

Sequencing Events

The SP-404's very basic sequencer offers drum machine — style recording of patterns as long as 99 bars. You can set input quantization from 32nd notes up to quarter notes, and although you can't swing quantize by a percentage, you can quantize to triplets for a swing effect. You can erase individual hits. During playback, you can cue up the next pattern by hitting a pad, and the SP-404 will switch on the downbeat. If you want to switch immediately, just hold the Sub Pad button and press the desired pad.

Unlike the Korg ES1mkII's sequencer, the SP-404's sequencer can't chain patterns into songs or record knob movements. And unlike the SP-505, the SP-404 doesn't have a single magic button that time-stretches all samples to fit a common tempo. You have to set each pad to Pattern mode individually. The time-stretching works best on sparse, percussive material.

Feelin' Groovy

Roland designed the SP-404 for beginners looking to get into sampling and groove making, but soon discovered that its battery-powered portability and extensive sampling time endeared it to traveling pros as well. The instrument has some frustrating limitations when viewed as a drum machine, including the lack of true swing quantization, hi-hat cutoff, pattern chaining, and an Accent button. If you want Velocity-sensitive pads, USB connectivity, and digital audio I/O, you'll need to step up to the SP-606. But load the SP-404 with songs, loops, and textures from a CD or a computer, and you'll have an inexpensive sampling partner that sounds great.


David Battino (www.batmosphere.com) is the coauthor of The Art of Digital Music (Backbeat Books, 2005) and the editor of the O'Reilly Digital Audio site (http://digitalmedia.oreilly.com).

SP-404 SPECIFICATIONS
Polyphony (12) notes (6 stereo samples)
Audio Inputs (1) unbalanced ¼" mic, (2) unbalanced RCA line
Audio Outputs (2) unbalanced RCA line, (1) ¼" stereo headphone
Additional Ports (1) MIDI In
Program Memory (24) internal user locations, (96) optional external-card user locations
Maximum Sampling Time 11 min. (Lo-Fi)/2 min. (standard) with internal memory; 772 min. (Lo-Fi)/386 min. (standard) with optional 1 GB CompactFlash card
Sample Import Formats WAV, AIFF (stereo/mono, 8/16-bit, 44.1 kHz); loop points ignored
Effects Processing (29) types, (1) simultaneous; enabled per pad
Sequencer (1) track; (8,000) notes internal (8,000 per card); (99) bars per pattern; (24) user patterns internal (96 per card); 96 ppqn resolution; basic quantization; MIDI Clock and Song Position Pointer sync
Controllers (3) assignable effects knobs; (6) effects toggle buttons; (1) Tap Tempo button
Dimensions 7.0" (W) × 2.9" (H) × 10.1" (D)
Weight 2.9 lbs. (excluding adapter and batteries)

PRODUCT SUMMARY

ROLAND
SP-404

portable phrase sampler
$449

PROS: Almost six and a half hours of sampling with optional 1 GB card. Battery-operable. Playable effects. Audio file import/export.

CONS: Can't resample sequences. No Roll button or variable swing quantize. Numerous unlabeled key combinations.

GUIDE TO EM METERS
5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed

On a scale of 1 to 5
FEATURES...4
EASE OF USE...3
AUDIO QUALITY...4
VALUE...4

MANUFACTURER

Roland U.S. www.rolandus.com

FOURPLAY

Sometimes guessing wrong leads to a happy surprise. In my September 2002 review of the Boss SP-505 (online at www.emusician.com), I surmised that the Roland subsidiary had jumped from 303 to 505 because 4 is an unlucky number in Japan (think how few Roland products have a 4 in the name). But apparently those cautious days are gone, because the SP-404 is a bold new entry in the groove-sampling scene.

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