Gear Review – Roland SPD-SX sampler percussion pad

The SPD-SX is the new updated version of the SPD-S, a block of 9 pads similar to an Octapad, but with a sampler inside.  The original had a few flaws, and could only be expanded up to a half gig of sample memory.  That alone made it less useful for playing back a full set worth of loops like you would with a software solution like Ableton.

The new SPD-SX has 2Gig of memory built in, which is a considerable boost.  It also has a few other improvements, but I’m not going to go into a deep comparison between the two units.  My goal is to cover the in depth options that never seem to make it into most product reviews.  There are tons of reviews online where you can find out the statistics and features that are listed on Roland’s site – what I’m interested in is how those features work and if this sampler has more to offer than just a list of features.

As always, I recommend checking out and read their review first, if they have one, then come here to get the info that always seems to get overlooked.

I will admit my bias immediately.  Many recent products from Roland claim to have a focus on performance, but include features that really don’t stand up for actual live performance use.  I would say the SPD-30 live looping feature is one of these disappointments.  It’s great if you are a DJ with free hands to add a little something, but not useful for a drummer who needs to be able to control what he’s doing on the fly and doesn’t have free hands to set up loops and click buttons.

Take my bias into account, and know that I’m only commenting on the features I think are important to drummers like myself.  I feel Roland wants to go in the right direction but clearly needs to get some musicians involved, because often a simple little change would make all the difference in the world.

First the bad news:

1) Presets.  No one really cares too much about preset sounds with a sampler, because you can load your own sounds, but I must say these are the worst sounds Roland has ever packed into a percussion pad.  Perhaps their toy SP line of samplers have worse, but this unit could have included percussion sounds from previous Octapads, but it doesn’t.  You can get better 808/909 samples online for free, and the rest is just uninspiring.  There is only one acoustic kit and it sounds worse than most 80′s drum machine attempts at acoustic sounds.  I know, if you want good acoustic sounds, use software – but this product should inspire you to get away from software.  Oh well, they only offer a few kits anyway, so wipe the whole contents and start fresh.  This was a missed opportunity to impress customers testing the unit in a shop, but not a deal breaker for a sampler.  The sounds were just so laughable I felt I had to mention it.

2) The menu architecture is terrible.  I’m not going to say I expected any better because Roland (and Yamaha) are often outright nonsensical.  Say you want to initialize a whole kit?  Would you go to the Kit menu?  Nope.  How about the Kit/Pad menu?  Nope.  If you want to initialize a kit, you go to the kit FX menu (of course, where effect settings are made. . .), and you click on the ‘quick menu’ to get the option to initialize a kit.  This isn’t a big deal, because there are so few options/settings that you can just click around until you find what you need.  I just think it needs to be said, because there are reviews out there that would lead you to believe that Roland drum gear is easy to use, and aimed at the performing drummer! – bullshit.  It would only take a little organization to make this issue a non-issue.

3) There are not a lot of options to edit your samples.  Just the basics, which makes this unit more of a loop player.  The Yamaha DTX-12 for instance wins hands down in this area.  As an example, if you want to change the pitch of a sample, it’s not a simple setting, it’s a resampling process.  Resampling pitches up and down a few times will really degrade the quality of your sample.  You can of course just do all your pitch editing on your computer first.  But it needs to be said because you usually ‘assume’ that pitch is something you can easily experiment with on all samplers.  Another example of an option you expect from a sampler is layering.  You can have up to two samples play back on one pad, but there is no velocity cross fade or anything to alter how this works.  Most other Roland percussion pads (ALL other Roland percussion pads I’ve owned ) have some form of cross-fade to allow you to have a separate sample for harder hits.

4) Does it do live sampling as easily as shown on those Youtube videos?  Sorta.  This was the one feature I really hoped they thought out, and they are so close, but no.  You can use a sample option called “multi-pad” where you hit a pad to start sampling, then you hit the next pad to stop that sample and start the next, etc. etc.  This makes it easy to chop up a song into loops.  However, you still have to stop playing to save the samples and then edit their settings, which means it’s not really a live performance feature.  What you see in the Youtube video, is that they play the samples right after sampling, but before saving, so it seems, well, seamless.  You can do this, start playing the new samples before saving them, but they will not loop, they are all one-shot samples by default.  This is really disappointing, because you can go into a kit that has no samples yet, and set each pad to different sample options, loop, one-shot, polyphonic, etc.  So it would be so nice if you could set these options up in advance then sample into those pads and retain those settings, but no – you have to sample into an empty kit, and you get the default one-shot sample.  I’m not even sure why you can make these settings in a kit before sampling into it, because it’s useless.

Even if ‘multi-pad’ sampling is used as intended, I doubt anyone would trust their own stick hitting to cut up loops.  Why risk cutting off a split second of a kick?  People are going to use their computers to cut up perfect loops.  This feature is just for show, and it got my hopes up that this would be a useful live looper.  Please Roland, take this to the next level!

Similarly, there is also a ‘performance’ sample mode, where you start playing the pads to begin sampling, and it records your playing into a new sample loop, but then you have to stop playing and hit a ‘stop’ button to stop sampling, which means you can’t use this for seamless live looping.  You can’t even assign this ‘stop’ button to a footswitch, which could make it possible to stop your new sample right on the beat for a perfect loop, but no that would make too much sense.  You can assign other buttons/options to the footpedals, but not where it’s needed the most.  Sad Roland, just sad.  Do you even have performing musicians working there?  How hard would it be to implement this feature?

5) The effects architecture is severely limited.  You have a few performance effects to choose from, which apply to the whole kit, but you can only use one at a time.  These are for tricks you might do with one hand while playing pads with the other.  It would be good if you could assign a control pedal to the effect knobs so that you could play with both hands while adding filters or whatnot, but nope.  There are also two effects blocks per kit, but you can only have a sample routed to one or the other, not both.  So, if you want to have reverb on the entire kit, while having one other effect in use, then reverb has to be your performance effect, the other effects blocks can’t be used together on a sample.  This is really limiting, and cuts out the use of ‘performance effects’ for peformance, if you want reverb on the whole kit.  Even in other Roland units you can usually route one effect block into the other, or there is some global reverb parameter, because most people think reverb is this important.  Again, this unit is clearly made for playing back loops not drum hits.

Regarding effects, you can’t set the amount of effect for each pad!  You can have a pad go to the effect or not go the effect, but you can’t adjust the amount, so all pads that get distortion or reverb, get the same amount of distortion or reverb.  I can’t think of any gear I’ve used in the past 15 years that worked this way.  If it has effects, you expect to be able to vary the amount of each effect on each sound.  Sadly, this makes the SPD-SX closer to a toy than a professional piece of gear.

The effects quality is fine, not great, not terrible.  I find Roland is inconsistent with the quality of it’s effects.

Clearly there is a lot I’m not impressed by.  So, what do I like about the SPD-SX?  Mostly small things, baby steps in the right direction.  Some of these things might be things you expect in a unit at this price point, but they are the things I like about this unit.

1) I like the pads, they are very playable.  Not quite as good as the SPD-30, but almost.  Even though they are smaller than the SPD-30, I still found them to be easy to play on, and without cross triggering issues.  This is key for me, and it’s why I couldn’t use the Yamaha DTX-12 despite the fact that it outshines this Roland product in every single technical spec.  I’m not exaggerating here, the DTX has midi sequence triggering, great midi options including sync, lots of velocity cross fade options – 4 sample layers per pad, midi control features for your DAW, etc. etc.  But the pads on it were terrible, like playing drums on a beanbag – end of story, I got rid of it.

2) There are aux outs and good options for routing audio where you want it.  You can route input audio exclusively to your headphones, or have a click in your headphone mix that doesn’t go to the main mix.  This stuff is really useful.  If you could sync the click to midi, it would be awesome.

3) There is a ‘pad preview’ button that lets you only hear the pad in your headphones and not through the main output.  This is great for quickly determining which loops/sounds you have loaded without ruining your performance.  This is such a great feature, and eliminates having some kind of cue set up on a mixer.  Not to mention using a mixer would mean muting all playing loops while trying to find the next one!

4) There is an “all sounds off” button.  All samplers should have this.

5) You can play loops from one kit, then go to a new kit and play different sounds while the first kits loops still play.  This is something I had not expected.  It’s not perfect though.  If you have samples set to tempo sync, they will screw up as you scroll through kits with different tempos.  But even without any loops set to sync, there sometimes seems to be a brief glitch when you switch kits.  I would have to test this more to see if there is a way to use this in a live context without compromise.

6) It has two USB ports, one for storage and one for connecting to a computer.  With the computer connected, you can send audio and midi through USB.  This works really well, and is quite useful.  I only tried it with Logic, but assume the drivers are up to speed with all the other DAW’s.  I would caution however to not stay connected to the computer if you don’t have a DAW running, because it affects pad performance badly.  I was testing the polyphony and found that while playing a roll on a single pad, some hits did not trigger. This seemed really mysterious when I changed the sample to mono playback instead of poly (it had a long decay, so I was playing fast enough to try and eat up the polyphony).  The same problem happened in mono mode, which it shouldn’t, and is really serious.  But I figured out it was because I had left the USB cable connected to the computer and didn’t have my DAW running.  I removed the USB cable and the pads worked properly again.  I guess that’s a big no-no, they should put that in the manual.  By the way, the polyphony is 20, which I assume is 10 stereo samples – not great compared to almost any other non-Roland sampler.  I can’t believe the SP series samplers have such terrible polyphony (SP-404 and SP-555 both have 12 voice), while the MC808 (which can sample), has a generous 128 note polyphony. If you are playing drums over top of loops, 20 might not be enough once you factor in the decay time of cymbals and stuff like that.

7) There is software for managing your samples and it’s easy to use.  This is a must in this day and age, and I can say it’s much simpler and easier to use than the software that comes with the MC808.  True, the MC808 is a way more complex machine, but that’s not where the software fails – you have to use it a while before you understand if you are editing samples directly on the machine, or locally on your computer – same for saving, importing exporting, it’s all confusing.  The SPD-SX software is simple.  I wish you could audition samples from the pad layout in the software, but you can audition them before assigning them to the pads.  There certainly is room for improvement in the software, but it does the trick.

So, what do I think over all?  It really depends on what you want this thing for.

If you want great acoustic sounds, this pad is never going to give it to you.  Sure you can sample, which you can’t on the SPD-30.  But there are no sample parameters to make your percussion samples sound realistic.  Playback is static.  The only modulation is velocity to volume.  Even the SPD-30 has sample cross fade, and some kind of pitch modulation.  A rack sampler like the Yamaha A4000 has so much more to offer in this area; multiple modulation routings, sample level LFO, etc, etc.  So if you want great percussion sounds built in, get the SPD-20 (it’s better than the SPD-30 for percussion!).  Or, just trigger software.  However if you are only going to trigger software, why pay more for the sampling options?

If you want electronic sounds, this pad does have great DA converters and can reproduce nice bass, so sample up your Jomox or whatever you have, and this pad will allow you to start playing those sounds.  Again though, save yourself some pain, and do all your sampling on the computer.

If you want something to play back loops while you use other drums to play over those – that seems to be what this unit was made for.  You don’t need to add modulation and velocity cross-fades to loops, you just want static playback, and this does it.

If you use a computer live, but are worried about drum software eating up CPU, this might take some of that load off.  The 2Gig memory means you could even throw backing tracks in there.  Perhaps three big loops on the top pads and percussion/drum sounds on the other six.

So why does this unit suck so much when a few simple tweaks would make it so much better?  It’s because most big companies like Roland don’t make new products.  They take the brains of an old product and throw it in a new case, then they tack on an interface and try to re-organize the menus to make sense, even though the internal organization was originally intended for some other piece of gear.  They didn’t remove pitch playback and layer crossfade.  They didn’t forget to allow reverb to be set on a per-sample basis.  Those things were never in the SP-202 that came out 12 years ago!  That’s the problem with this product.  Instead of Roland’s R&D department building a new product with performance features in mind, and all the modern expectations of a sampler, they just updated their SP line, which is based on the original SP-202 that came out in the year 2000.

Roland isn’t the only one to do this.  They all do.  Yamaha had great success updating it’s Q series sequencers and cranking out portable arrangers with the same basic brain, and then hit gold with the RM1X and RS7000.

But this is at the core of why this product, at this price, is just so disappointing for someone who expects a new modern sampler in a nice octapad.  I’m not expecting the power of a rack sampler, but seriously, this unit is so limited, and they cut corners in just about every area (well to be fair, those corners were never there to be cut, they just didn’t add them.)

Software is relatively easy to make, update, change, and re-purpose.  That’s why it’s kicking hardware’s ass in terms of how fast it improves, and it usually gets cheaper year after year.  I wish some boutique hardware manufacturer would make a sampling pad that is software based and gives users the features they want in a live looper/pad sampler/performance thingamajig.  But who?  (don’t say Alesis. . . )

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