My thoughts on the Roland SP-808

I acquired an SP-808 recently ans was curoius in how it compared to the MPC2000XL.   Here's my initial thoughts.  More may come later.

This has turned to be a very interesting box. It was definitely designed with remixing in mind. Not my cup of tea, but may be interesting if you wanted to remix your own work.

Physical stuff:

-Machine has no memory, but pulls the samples directly off Zip disk.

-3 real-time knobs, 2 D-beam controllers.

-All of the buttons do double duty but thoroughly labeled.

-2 pairs of analog stereo ins (RCA though, big boo).

-5 pairs of stereo outs (RCA again).

-(Pro version comes with the extra outs and SCSI).

-Optical and coax digital ins and outs.

-Midi in, midi out/thru.

-DB25 SCSI, mic and phones connections.

-Personally, I think the hardware is very similar to the VS-880ex recorder. Ins and outs are different, end users are different, but I would speculate that the internal hardware is about the same but with a different OS.


The basic premise of the machine is you sample a lot of stuff. It's hard and sometimes impossible to work with short single hits of percussion due to the limitations of Zip speed, so the intent is to use phrases. You take the samples, put effects on them, resample them, change pitch, time stretch, trim chop and otherwise mangle the phrases. The onboard effects are OK and get the job done for the intended user. You take these phrases and sequence them on a 4 track sequencer. You can later merge tracks (bounce) to free up others. It's notable to mention that you can timestretch without changing pitch, or change pitch without changing duration. A handy and definitely necessary tool for the remix artist.

Another handy feature is you can feed it a series of samples (like off audio sample CD) and it will automatically trim and assign the samples to the 'pads'. Triming is OK, here you trigger the sample and adjust the endpoint then chop it off, but I haven't seen a visual display like I am used to on the MPC. You can also chop samples by ear where you play the phrase and hit a button and it cuts and assigns the chopped section to another pad assignment.

The 4-track sequencer is typical where you can real-time enter or step edit. There is a visual display for this. I haven't seen where you can sequence external equipment, but then again most remixers don't have any. You can however use an external keyboard for note entry.

The audio is stored in a compressed format, which is about a 2:1 ratio. It's not as bad as it sounds if you compare it to other forms of compression (mp3=10:1). Unfortunately my ears aren't trained enough to note much of a difference with the 2:1 compression. Roland is the only company left that I know of that still uses a compression storage format. The rest use the widely accepted PCM wave format.

D-beam. Initially, like many of us, thinks it's a very cheesy controller. Actually it's functionally no different than a theremin (no insult to theremin users intended). There's actually a pair of D-beams and can be assigned different functions.

The usage of the machine is very similar to the computer program Acid, if any of you have used it. If you enjoy using Acid, then you will enjoy using this machine. Though the hardest part you would be to get used to manipulating and bouncing around with 4 tracks. As a self contained sampler/sequencer it's not terribly different from the old E-mu SP-1200.

This is as much as I've been able to determine without a manual. I have one on it's way, so more may be discovered later.


Someone inquired about the abiltiy and quality of the pitchshiting and timestretching of the machine.  Here's my response:

"I don't do this much, so I'm not an expert in this area, but 'll give itshot:

Timestretch from 50-150% or by BPM. Also can timestretch to exactly match the length of another phrase (nice!). Echo's creep in on the extremes. It went to +/-20% fairly easily and the operation takes about 5 seconds. Artifacts from the original sample were amplified from the process. One sample I was using was a bass patch from the Pulse. It had a very quick attack (almost clicking) and the timestrecting turned it into a very audible click.

Pitch changes were +/-12 and Fine Pitch +/-100. Both amounts could be used on the same operation. There is also a Grade selection of 1-5. 5 being higher quality. With some samples I got a ringing for changes as little as +/-2. I've only pitched and stretched very little in my life, so I'm far from expert, but I didn't think the quality was that great.

Each operation was very easy to use. Pick phrase you want to stretch or pitch and bank/pad destination. The operations were very quick compared to the slow processing of the MPC2000XL which has timestretch, but the MPC's were a much higher quality than the SP-808's. I know Roland can do better in this area (thinking of the VP9000) but I think they had to sacrifice quality for quick operation. I used to complain about the MPC's slowness in this area, but not anymore, since that slowness yields better results than the SP-808's. There's also more option selection for timestretching on the MPC since good time stretching formula's can be different for different types of sounds (vocal,bass, percussion, etc), which you can select on the MPC.

I still have to figure out if you can keygroup samples like on a conventional sampler, since this method usually gives better pitch results that straight pitchshifting. Keygrouping, though, affects the duration of the phrase.

May 2000 - I decided to not keep the SP-808, so I sold it.