The SP-505 is, in some ways, a more modern version of the SP-808 and that is how I’m going to discuss it here. Things the two have in common are the ability to store hundreds of samples, a single effects unit and a four track sequencer. Things that are different on the 505 are an autochop feature with a large screen to do your editing on, a pitching function so you can sort of play chromatically and, perhaps most importantly, storage to 3.3V Smartmedia cards. Connection-wise, digital inputs come standard, as opposed to needing an upgrade board on the 808. Build-wise, the 505 feels decidedly cheap as opposed to the hefty, menacing black presence of the 808.
So let’s talk storage. With no memory card, you have 16 banks with 16 samples each. But that is a little misleading because the first 4 banks contain factory samples and can not be edited. Whether this is a positive or a negative depends on how you look at it, as there are some quality 808 and 909 samples. With the remaining 200+ slots, you have 4mb to fill them up. But drop a Smartmedia card in and you have a ton more space. No matter what size card you use, you get access to an additional 16 banks, but you can use any 3.3V SM card up to 128mb. With 128mb, you will have more storage than you could possibly need, for most applications. With well over an hour of sampling time, you will probaby run out of slots to save in before you will run out of time. So if you put this up against an 808 that has been EX’d with a 250mb drive, you have right around half the sample slots and half the sampling time. The big difference? It is much more portable, there is no whine from a zip drive and you get 8 voice polophony instead the 808’s 4 voices.
The main difference with the 505’s sequencer is that it it is capable of sending note messages to external gear where the 808 could not. Another nice thing is that you can easily set the midi channel for each track to whatever you like. What you lose with the 505 though, is that it no longer functions as a four track audio recorder; it only records events and only does it in real time (the 808 had step sequencing). All in all, I would have to say that the 808’s sequencer/4-track section is more useful but the 505’s sequencer is much easier to use.
The 808 wins hands down when it comes to effects. While both machines have a single block of effects, those on the 808 are higher quality and much, much more customizable. That is not to say that the 505 is a slouch. It has many of the same algorithms, there just isn’t much editing to be done. Instead of being able to menu dive into a dozen or so parameters on the 808, you get one parameter tied to each of the three knobs on the 505. Still better than, say, the ESX1. I really like the 505’s rate bit, distortion and amp-sim effects.
In the end, I kept my 808 and sold my 505. A big reason is that I don’t really need my rig to be portable so it makes more sense to have twice the sampling capacity and the more tweakable effects. But if you plan on using one of these for gigs, I would have to recommend the 505 instead. The storage media is less prone to failing, it is smaller and lighter and it carries over just enough of the 808’s functionality to make it a very useful piece. Well worth if if you can get it for around $150 or less, but they often go for over $200. Tip: if someone is selling one where the RCA’s cut out intermittently (a common issue with them), it might be worth grabbing at a discounted price because it is extremely easy to pop it open, re-solder the RCA’s to the board and close it back up. I’ve gotten good deals on 505’s a couple of times this way (I’ve bought it 4 separate times, lol).