• Price: $444/£433/€499
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Roland SP-404 MkII Sampler Review

Phil Morse
Last updated 4 July, 2022

2678

The Lowdown

The Roland SP-404MkII is such a huge leap forward over the original SP-404, it deserves to be seen as a new device entirely. If you’re looking for a truly usable, hands-on sample playback device that is also a genuine sampler, and that has a lot of power under the hood, this could be right for you. It’s especially suited for DJs, due to its bias towards performance, and a form factor that would fit well into most DJ set-ups.

Video Review

First Impressions / Setting up

The original Roland SP-404 needs no introduction. It was a legendary sampler, beloved of hip-hop producers and performers. So perhaps wisely, the new Roland SP-404 MkII doesn’t deviate too far from those roots, looks-wise.

So what’s it got? Well, it’s a genuine sampler with two 1/4″ inputs on back and a switchable mic/instrument input on front with gain.

Of course it’s also a sample player – you get 16 projects, each with 160 samples (16 per bank A-E), a basic sequencer with 16 patterns per bank across 10 banks in the sequencer, and it’s even a “mini DJ controller” with a full DJ mode.

Read this next: 4 Ways To Add A Sampler To Your DJ Set-Up

It has a headphones jack (1/4″ & 1/8″) that can be used for cue mix, plus it’s a 2-in, 4-out audio interface via its USB-C socket, and it’s also a FX box with 37 internal FX, 16 input FX, 5 shortcut buttons (configurable), and knobs to control parameters.

Powered by 6 x AA batteries giving three to four hours of use, it also has a power supply and can be powered via a sufficiently capable USB-C supply.

Front and back panels on the SP-404 MkII.

As far as what else is new, of course there’s now a hi-res screen, there are four more pads per band, it is now velocity sensitive, and with more voices, more FX, 16GB of internal memory (one shots, loops, stems, and up to 16 minutes per sample slot) – plus you can add an SD card for more memory.

Probably the only thing missing from the original is the built-in mic – no big deal as you’d never use it for serious sampling anyway.

In Use

Sampling

When it comes to sampling, it’s all pretty simple: you Hit Record, choose an empty pad, and… record! You can then normalise, set start/end points and so on.

You have options like count in, gate recording (it only starts when it “hears” a noise), you can record with a metronome, and usefully, you can resample – in other words, record yourself playing back samples. Remember overdubbing on four-track cassette systems? That.

We liked the “Chop” mode, where you can easily chop up longer samples manually, but auto-mark them too on time divisions or transients – but we REALLY loved the constantly running 25-second buffer, which records everything whether you’re recording or not. If you accidentally perform some gold, it’s there and you have what’s left of those 25 seconds to recover and save it. Genius.

Playing back

This is a powerful sampler, especially suited for DJs, due to its bias towards performance, and a form factor that would fit well into most DJ set-ups.

So for playing back, the pads can be velocity sensitive, 16-pad velocity sensitive (same sample at different volumes across all 16 pads), fixed sensitivity, or chromatic (ie the sample changes pitch across the pads – no scales, though).

“Gate” mode plays pads for as long as you hold a pad down, as opposed to the sample playing to the end once triggered, and there’s also a loop mode, which will loop samples. You can set loop points, and also play in reverse, “ping pong” (sample plays forward, then back, etc), use envelopes… it’s pretty comprehensive.

There’s volume and panning per pad, and we loved the pitch/speed adjustments, with “vinyl mode” (speed and tempo linked), or timestretching/pitch shifting of samples, the latter by semitones. As with DJ gear, usually about 15% is OK before you start hearing artefacts.

The screen by default shows the sample’s BPM when playing back samples, or it can show the waveform when you’re in sample edit mode.

Effects

They’re split into two “Types”. “Input effects” include vocoder, chorus, reverb delay, auto pitch, guitar amp, saturation, vinyl/cassette, compressor… lots of choice in one FX “slot”.

There are four “main mix” mix effects slots with 37 to choose from, five of which can be accessed via the top panel (configurable), 16 of which are selectable via pads, and all of which can be controlled with the four knobs. Think resonator, delays, EQ/isolator EQ, DJ-style loop, lo-fi, vinyl sim, phases, wah-wah, phaser distortion, compressor and so on.

It’s worth noting that FX settings are global, not saved with projects, and not saved when unit turned off – although they can be saved as favourites. I guess Roland wants you to pick your favourites and use them universally.

You get three to four hours of use when powered by battery, so creating on the go is a breeze.

Sequencer

It’s all pretty simple here, too: you find an empty slot on the pads, or you can add notes to an existing sequence. You can set sequence tempo, length in bars (4-64), and things like the grid options for quantising.

But there’s no step sequencer – you just play live. There is, however, an undo, and you can hit Record twice for practise mode.

You can chain patterns, 16 in total, to build up bigger performances.

DJ mode

Yup, you can actually DJ on this! By dragging full music tracks into your slot and banks (which is easier on a computer using the companion app), you can build up a “set”. The unit has pitch bend/BPM change, and you can use the knobs at the top to mix.

There’s a sync button (naturally), you can tap tempo, and even a little crossfader on the screen, plus with cue mix available in the headphones, it is indeed possible to perform DJ sets on this.

You can DJ perfectly well using just this sampler, or add it to a more hybrid DJ/producter set-up.

Learn to DJ with us: The Complete DJ Course

Conclusion

We found this to be an extremely “usable” and immediate sampler. and therefore lots of fun. Shift functions were obvious, buttons blinked at us when they could do something to encourage us to explore exactly what, and at any time we knew we could hit “Exit” three times to stop everything playing.

Read this next: Getting Started Making Electronic Music Without A Computer

Overall, despite being a massive improvement over the original, at the same price, it is just as easy to use as the old one.

No there’s no step sequencer, and in playback, it lacks polyphony and any kind of scales. But it’s easy to use, portable, it can actually record, it works on batteries… and as a hands-on sampler and sample playback device for DJs and performers, it hits the spot.

You could also look at the Novation Circuit Rhythm, the 1010music Blackbox, and even the Pioneer DJ DJS-1000 (although the latter costs many times more)… but overall, we can see many DJs and performing electronic musicians taking to this likeable little unit.

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