Roland SP-808


I’ve been using the SP-808 since around 2004 and, even 10 years later, I can’t bring myself to sell it.  For all of the positives about it (and there are many), it is a flawed machine in that it won’t let you use anything other than zip drives for storage.  The reason for this is that it was an entirely new concept when it came out and it reads and writes directly to and from the zip drive.  In other words, it has no RAM.  This leads to a few negatives.

First, the polyphony is limited to 4 voices and that is between the tracks and the pads.  Second, zip discs/drives are relatively slow and can be very unreliable.  As a result, you run the risk of losing your work at any time.  I, personally, have never had a disc or an internal zip drive fail on me.  I have, however, been through no less than 5 external SCSI zip drives and they always develop the “click of death” sooner or later.  There is one mythical card reader that supposedly works in the SP-808 and the model number of it is IISDMC.  In 10+ years of watching for one, I have never seen one for sale, ebay or otherwise.  I’ve tried 3 different CF readers and a couple of PCMCIA readers and none of them worked for me.  If you would like to undertake this quest to find a working solution, you are looking for an IDE drive that is hot-swappable and follows true ATAPI protocol.  That much we know.

(edit: I have since also seen an SP-808 with an Addonics Ultra Digidrive reader that works)

We also know that you can download the operating system for the Edirol A6 and install it on an SP-808.  This will allow you to use a hard drive in it BUT you lose many of the things that make the SP great.  In my view, this has always been a non-solution to the problem.  This whole storage issue has been beaten to death for over a decade in many far distant corners of the internet.  Someone will come up with a great idea that sounds like it might lead to something (google SP-808 + VS-840 for some interesting reading) and then it either ends in tears or they are never heard from again and we are left wondering if it worked, only to assume that some horrible fate has befallen them.  Or maybe it worked and they are in their lab making piles of glorious music.  Maybe a government conspiracy to keep the SP-808 down? It’s really quite amazing that there is still no real answer to this.  If there were, this machine would become insanely sought after overnight, I think.  But as it is now, you can get them very cheap (around $150 or so these days).

All of that being said, there is still a ton you can do with this machine.  The built in effects are excellent.  Each algorithm has tons of parameters you can tweak and you can save hundreds of presets for easy recall later on.   So that’s cool.  There is also a built in monosynth that, allegedly, is derived from the JP-8000 engine.  Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it really doesn’t matter because, wherever it came from, it sounds good.  Hard to play on the machine itself, but midi it up and off you go.  With the effects, you have a cool step sequencer so you can take any effects parameter you want and tell the 808 how to modulate it over how ever many steps you want.  The downfall with the effects?  You can only use one at a time and, since the onboard synth itself is an effect,  you can’t run it through the effects while playing it.  But that leads me to my next positive about the SP.

There is a shitload of storage and your samples are organized more simply than on any other sampler I’ve seen.  Whack a 250mb zip in there and you have over an hour of sampling time, in stereo.  Go a step further and put a 750mb drive in there (yes, it works) and you have several hours of sampling time.  And for each disc, you can store 1,024 samples.  So as for there only being one block of effects, it’s not as bad as it sounds because you can re-sample and re-sample endlessly and it’s easy to keep track of your samples.  They are divided into 64 banks of 16 samples each.  So where this fits into my workflow in 2014 is that it sits at the end of my chain of machines and allows me to capture loops and snippets of live playing to my heart’s content and re-sample and effect the shit out of them.

The actual editing of samples onboard is limited.  Put it up against, say, the ESX, and it looks downright primitive.  You can’t really do live pitching of a sample, you can’t play chromatically, there’s no LFO modulation and really, no real-time tweaking at all outside of the effects.  But I’ll let you in on a little secret.  The time stretching can wreak major havoc on a sample and hardly anyone realizes it.  Sure, it’s no 12-bit Akai sampler, but take a drum loop, timestretch it 150% one way and then timestretch that 150% the other way (or vice versa) and you’ve just completely mutated your loop.  Keep taking it back and forth to either extreme and it yields some really interesting artifacts and swing that you would never have expected.  Same thing with a melody or bassline, it will totally fuck it up in the best way possible.  Or try this, stretch a sample out by the max 150%, make a reversed copy of it, re-sample that to another pad with reverb on it and then make a reverse copy of THAT on yet another pad.  Just try it and you’ll wonder why these don’t go for a hell of a lot more $ than they do.  I just take a sample and dedicate an entire bank of 16 slots to it.  You don’t have to take the time to scroll through a list of generically named samples and tell the 808 where to store the re-sample you just did.  And you don’t have to keep deleting things to avoid running out of space.  You hit a pad that you want to sample to, play the sample through the effects or whatever and bam, you still have your original sample and you have the re-sample right next to it.  Keep what you like, delete what you don’t.  Fuck with it ever further, whatever you want.  It doesn’t really matter because you have hours of sampling time and 1,024 sample slots.  😉

What do you not want to use the SP-808 for?  Well, it really sucks as a drum machine if you want to do anything but the most basic programming.  The zip disc simply can’t keep up with anything complex.  The onboard four track is great for just recording input from your other machines (and then sending it to a pad for safe keeping).  But you probably don’t want to try to sequence your whole song with the linear event recorder.  You can (and that is what Roland really intended it for) but, again, nothing too complex.  Also, the SP-808 can not make sandwiches worth a damn.  But then neither does your old 12-bit Akai or any of the flavor of the week software samplers.  😉

All of this is to say that it really takes a beating whenever I see someone ask if they should buy one but, yes, the SP-808 has its place even today.  Just use it for a huge sample tank that has the effects and timestretching you need to royally fuck up any sample you care to put into it.  Pair it with another sampler more suited to drum programming and never look back.  Just don’t expect it to be an all in one solution or the only sampler you’ll ever need.  And whenever someone finally figures out how to fix the zip drive limitation on it, look out, these things will be in demand.


Literature & Software

SP-808 Owner’s Manual
SP-808EX Owner’s Manual
Wave Converter Application (PC)
Wave Converter Application (MAC)
OS Version 1.050 (PC)
OS Version 1.050 (MAC)
SP-808EX OS (PC)
Info on CF Reader installation


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