The original Boss SP-202 Dr. Sample amazed musicians when it was released way back in 1997. That compact, battery-powered budget sampler offered professional sound quality and versatile effects for less than $400, making powerful sampling capabilities available to almost any musician. Over the years, several competing products have raised the bar for budget samplers, offering increased polyphony and even more effects. But Boss has answered the competition with its new SP-303 Dr. Sample, a significantly improved portable sampler that offers much more than its predecessor for the same $399 suggested list price. Even in the grim economic conditions of 2001, anybody can afford to make an appointment to get down with Boss's version of Doctor Love.
WHAT'S UP, DOC?
What does the new and improved doctor have to say? Quite a lot. Boss's SP-303 Dr. Sample is a sequel that's much more powerful and portable than Boss's popular SP-202. Like its predecessor, this little guy is fun, flexible, and built to please beat-matching samplists and DJs alike. Many of the SP-202's original features are intact, and several key new features have replaced what was missing on the previous version. The SP-303 now sports a sequencer, eight-voice polyphony, support for WAV and AIFF file formats, and 26 DSP effects. It can handle an optional 8 MB to 64 MB 3.3V SmartMedia card, which can provide more than an hour of sample time (in Long sampling mode). Even better, Dr. Sample's real-time tempo and pitch shifting sounds better than ever, giving you plenty of room to fix it while you mix it. Plus, the SP-303 doubles as an effects processor so you can run a microphone, guitar, or drum machine through it and tweak it to your heart's content. Bring on the sweet beat relief.
I THINK I HAVE SAMPLE-ITIS
Sampling with the SP-303 works very much like it did with the old SP-202: press Record and you'll see the big pad lights blink. Next, press the point on the location pad where you would like to place the sample, hit Record to start, hit Record again to stop, and voilà, a sample! Unlike the SP-202, the SP-303 lets you adjust the sample level after the fact, so you can be a little carefree with your recording level. However, if you're looking for pristine sound quality, you should adjust the recording level knob until the red peak light flashes a couple times, then back it off until the light barely flickers. You can plug your sampling sound source into the SP-303's stereo RCA inputs or the mono microphone input, which includes a trim knob. The unit also features stereo RCA output jacks and a headphone output.
You must select parameters like sample rate and stereo or mono mode before you record the sample. The default set is mono with the Hi-Fi 44.1 kHz sampling rate. Having a stereo sampling option is nice, but keep in mind that using this setting will double the amount of sample time used. Other sample rates include Long (22.05 kHz) and Lo-Fi (11.025 kHz), both of which provide longer sampling times than Hi-Fi mode. Although lower sample rates do indeed help save precious sample memory, the Long and Lo-Fi samples tend to sound muffled and sonically discolored. If you want a sound that's grungy and dirty, it's better to use the unit's built-in Lo-Fi effect, which turns a pristine, clean sample into a delightful, distorted mess and you can convert the sample back to its original glory with a simple press of a button.
Resampling is another new option on the SP-303. It allows you to create an entirely new sample from a performance consisting of multiple samples, effects, and effects manipulation. Resampling makes it easy to combine several samples into a fully orchestrated loop, freeing up effects when performance time rolls around. Although the SP-303's effects can process several samples at once, you can use only one effect at a time, so the resampling feature is a great way to get multi-effects capabilities out of the unit.
You can truncate samples that are too long by pressing the Mark button at the desired start and stop points. You can make permanent as well as temporary truncations, so if you want to create loops, make sure your samples are on the long side before you commit to a permanent truncation.
THE DOCTOR IS IN
All of the SP-202's original effects are present, including that sassy little ring modulator. But one of the most notable improvements on this kinder, gentler sampler is the inclusion of 26 new and improved effects, including a decent-sounding reverb, an impressive tape echo, chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, and panning. Other effects include wah, octave, compressor, chromatic pitch shift, slicer, and voice transformer. The equalizer and C.canceler (vocal eliminator) come in handy when dialing in sounds to a live mix, allowing you to boost or kill certain frequencies. As previously mentioned, you can use only one effect at a time, but you can process all samples simultaneously or even process specified groups of multiple samples. You can also use the built-in effects to process sounds from an external sound source plugged into the SP-303.
Boss has also provided some sweet and nasty sonic decimator type effects, including distortion, overdrive, fuzz, lo-fi (bit degrader), and some average noise effects, like a noise generator, a radio tuning effect, and a vinyl simulator (for those who crave radio static and dust pops). Although the SP-303 can sample at only 16 bits, you can grunge up your samples by applying the Lo-Fi MFX effect, which decreases the sample's bit rate during playback. You can modify the effects using the three large control knobs located at the top of the unit. Knob three (CTRL 3) acts chiefly as a mix control, determining the amount of processed sound versus dry signal that is audible. The other two knobs (CTRL 1 and CTRL 2) control the color and the intensity of the effects patch.
THE DOCTOR'S TOOLKIT
Dr. Sample now ships with a 99-measure, 7,500-note real-time sequencer. The sequencer offers a good variety of basic functions, but it is intended more for use as a creative tool than as a professional sequencer. By playing along with the metronome, you can record short sequences of loops, or you can even create drum grooves by playing one-shot drum sounds on the pads. Boss has wisely included a quantize function to clean up any rhythm discrepancies in a recorded sequence. Because the unit does not have a MIDI Out port, however, the sequencer can control only the SP-303's internal sounds.
Dr. Sample works exclusively with 3.3V SmartMedia cards in 8, 16, 32, and 64 MB increments. Boss is currently testing 128 MB cards for use with the unit, but at this time it does not recommend using them. SmartMedia cards are a great storage option because they are affordable and easy to find. The cards also let you transfer WAV and AIFF files from a PC or Mac (with SmartMedia card read/write hardware).
Without a SmartMedia card, you have access to two banks of eight samples each. With a SmartMedia card inserted, Dr. Sample offers access to a maximum of four banks of eight samples. Also, you have the option of saving banks A and B (16 samples) to the SmartMedia card for recall later. You can save as many as seven blocks of 16 samples (in two banks) for 112 samples; the additional C and D banks give you 128 total samples. You can also save sequences on SmartMedia cards.
The latest Dr. Sample operating system lets you play samples on separate banks simultaneously. We received a unit with an older operating system, which did not allow us to test this feature. If you have purchased one of those earlier units, you can contact Boss product support at (323) 890-3700, extension 2770, to obtain a SmartMedia card upgrade.
The three-digit message screen has also come a long way. The trios of letters are sometimes puzzling, and the manual's appendix thoughtfully includes a list that explains them all, but most are fairly straightforward. For instance, if you see the letters DEL, think twice before you delete your beautiful new multisampled vocal track. Other messages include the effects parameter indicators, such as BIT for bit rate adjustment and RAT for sample rate. That simplicity proves helpful because when you're dealing with so many effects, it's easy to forget just what parameter each knob controls.
Dr. Sample makes a great rehearsal tool, and if you're new to sampling you'll find that it's one of the easiest-to-learn samplers on the market. While the SP-303 is a great improvement over the SP-202, the lack of battery-powered operation (which made the original unit a portable powerhouse) and the absence of a built-in microphone for sampling on location are disappointing. But the machine's excellent effects, powerful sampling capabilities, and large, luminous trigger buttons make it rewarding to work with regardless of those minor inconveniences. Further, its lean, mean design, simple manual, and PC/MAC file import-ability (with an optional SmartMedia Card writer) make Dr. Sample a convenient way to get samples from studio to gig. If Dr. Sample doesn't cure what ails even the most seasoned sample-heads, their condition must be chronic.
SP-303 Dr. Sample
PROS: Lots of effects. Eight-voice polyphony. Resampling. Up to an hour's worth of sample time (with optional card). Affordable price.
CONS: No battery option or built in microphone. No S/PDIF or digital optical output/input.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4.5
Contact: tel. (323) 890-3700