Sampling workstations have been around for a while in various guises. One of the first such units was the Akai MPC-60, which quickly became a standard fixture in hip-hop production studios. Other noteworthy early entries include the E-mu SP-1200 and Roland W-30, the latter being a favorite creative tool of remixer extraordinaire Armand Van Helden and the Prodigy's Liam Howlett.
Recently, new sampling workstations have been popping up all over the place, with manufacturers such as Akai, Ensoniq, and Roland placing their own spin on this celebrated remix and composition instrument. Yamaha has just joined the marketplace with the SU700 Sampling Unit, a desktop machine that combines a sampler, sequencer, mixer, and effects. Although the unit lacks a synth section, which keeps it from being a true, traditional all-in-one workstation, it offers plenty of creative power to users whose main focus is sample-based production.
OUR FEATURE PRESENTATIONAt the heart of the SU700 is a 16-bit stereo sampler with 64-voice polyphony. The unit comes stock with 4 MB of RAM that provides 22.3 seconds of stereo sampling at 44.1 kHz; a pair of stereo outputs; and a pair of analog inputs for sampling external sources. Sampling frequencies are 44.1, 22.05, or 11.025 kHz through the analog inputs or 48 or 32 kHz through the optional digital inputs. RAM can be expanded to 68 MB, allowing nearly 6.5 minutes of stereo sampling time at 44.1 kHz. Expansion options include the ASIB1 SCSI board ($250), which supplies a SCSI port for connecting a CD-ROM or hard drive, and the AIEB1 Expansion Board ($250), which features six assignable audio outputs and optical and coaxial digital I/O.
The SU700 also offers a built-in 42-track sequencer with a 20-song, 32,000-note capacity. Tempo can be adjusted from 40 to 299.9 bpm, and the unit sends and receives MIDI Time Code. The effects section provides 43 different effects, up to 3 of which can be used simultaneously. Effects include standard reverbs, distortions, delays, chorus, phase shifting, flanging, and compression, and several unusual ones like auto synth, scratch, and jump, which cuts up a sample and rearranges the pieces in random order.
GETTING LOOPEDPerhaps the SU700's most appealing feature is its control layout, which provides instant, easy access to most of the unit's functions. Along the bottom are ten sample track pads, an Audio In track pad, a master track pad, four switches for selecting sample track banks, and four switches that select Play, On/Mute, Roll, and Loop Restart modes. Here is where the SU700 differs from other sampling workstations: the sample pads are arranged in three groups with different functions. Two pads control continuously looped samples; four Velocity-sensitive pads control composed loop samples, which are created drum machine-style by triggering Note On/Note Off patterns; and the remaining four Velocity-sensitive pads control free samples, which are one-shot, nonlooping samples. Four banks provide a total of 40 sample tracks for composing songs.
In the upper left corner are 22 knob-function buttons that let you select the parameter controlled by the 12 rotary knobs located above each pad. This section features several sound-modification functions, including EQ (low and high only), LFO, Filter, Effects, and Groove (more about this later). Next to the knob-function section is the job grid, featuring buttons arranged in an 8 by 4 configuration for quick access to sequencing, sampling, disk, and system tasks. Directly below is a set of buttons dedicated to saving scene "snapshots" of knob, mute, and effects settings and assigning location markers (eight per song). Below that is a row of satisfyingly chunky transport controls. A sample start/stop button, jog wheel, and ribbon controller, which can be used to manually control effects such as "scratching" and filter cutoff, complete the front panel layout.
The SU700 is much easier to operate than it first appears. The control layout seems a little overwhelming, but it quickly starts to make sense once you've sampled a few sounds and started working on a tune. The unit performs several sampling functions automatically, such as removing silence at the beginning of a sample and selecting ideal loop points. If you have a halfway decent sense of rhythm, you can create perfectly looped samples on your first try.
IT SLICES, IT DICESEven more impressive is how the SU700's slice mode chops up beats with the precision of a Benihana chef. This feature automatically matches the tempo of loops without changing pitch, regardless of the tempo of the original loop. To test this feature, I sampled a variety of drum patterns that originated at 112 and 144 bpm, a 90 bpm bass line, and a couple of phrases from Primal Scream's "Kill All Hippies," which clocks in at 84 bpm. After selecting an overall tempo of 135 bpm, I hit the play button, and to my amazement, all of the patterns were in perfect sync.
From here on out I was in remix heaven. Although the bass line was in a different key from the song phrases, it was easy to dial in the proper key using the pitch control in the SU700's knob-function section. Next, I modified a straightforward, four-on-the-floor drum pattern using the Groove function's timing control, setting the resolution to 16th notes and adjusting the range until the pattern started to swing. Then I filtered out the vocals, resampled the bass line with extreme LFO modulation to get a pulsating synth effect, and added distortion to one of the drum loops. Within minutes I was well on my way to completing a funky, banging hard house remix of what had started out as a disparate group of samples.
The SU700 is an outstanding remix and composition tool, but it's equally powerful for live performance. The scene, marker, and on/mute functions, ribbon controller, and knobs provide plenty of creative options for constructing or modifying songs on the fly. However, the unit's floppy drive is too slow for loading data during a gig, so you should plan on installing the SCSI board for hard disk access and maxing out the RAM to the 68 MB capacity if you plan on using the SU700 to perform an entire set.
BLOCK-ROCKIN' BEATSYamaha may not have been the first company on the block with a sample-based desktop workstation, but with the SU700 it has made several welcome improvements that were worth the wait. Thanks to its automatic sample-editing and beat-matching functions, the SU700 ensures that you'll spend most of your time working on creative ideas instead of tweaking controls to perform mundane tasks. Putting together remixes and compositions has rarely been more simple or satisfying.
Christian St. Peter is a Los Angeles-based trance artist/remixer. Look for his latest 12-inch single on Euro Trash Records this summer.
SU700 Sampling Unit $1,295PROS: Excellent beat-matching capabilities. Quick, easy sampling functions.Comprehensive control layout.
CONS: Limited EQ section. Slow floppy drive.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4
Contact: tel. (714) 322-5011; fax (714) 739-2680; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.yamaha.com