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 number.
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 Transformer.
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 pressed.
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 Links.
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 parameters:
- level reduction;
- panning (left, center, or right only, though that could be useful for feeding external effects);
- loop on/off;
- reverse on/off;
- 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 Foundry Acid.
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 around.
SP-505 Specifications Polyphony
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 SmartMedia card
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 S/PDIF
(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
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.0SOUND QUALITY3.0VALUE4.0RATING 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.