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Roland SP-404 MKII review

Roland’s SP-404 is a modern cult classic that’s inspired a generation of beatmakers and performers. We take this update for a spin…

  • £440
Roland SP-404 MKII
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

Roland has upgraded the old 404 formula just enough to bring the much-loved sampler into the modern era, with a slew of upgrades that really increase the usability of an already very easy to use instrument.

Pros

  • Velocity sensitive pads invite immediate playing.
  • Plenty of effects to add new flavours to your samples.
  • New DJ mode expands functionality even further.
  • Skip Back Mode is handy for not losing those late night ideas.

Cons

  • Sequencer still fairly limited compared to other grooveboxes.
  • Only four knobs means that there’s not a ton of hands-on control.

MusicRadar Verdict

Roland has upgraded the old 404 formula just enough to bring the much-loved sampler into the modern era, with a slew of upgrades that really increase the usability of an already very easy to use instrument.

Pros

  • + Velocity sensitive pads invite immediate playing.
  • + Plenty of effects to add new flavours to your samples.
  • + New DJ mode expands functionality even further.
  • + Skip Back Mode is handy for not losing those late night ideas.

Cons

  • - Sequencer still fairly limited compared to other grooveboxes.
  • - Only four knobs means that there’s not a ton of hands-on control.

Roland SP-404 MKII: What is it?

Roland surprised a lot of beatmakers this past month with the announcement of the new SP-404 Mark 2, which sees the iconic sampler getting greatly expanded in a number of ways. Previous versions of the 404 have been instrumental in the LA beat scene, where the combination of affordability and ease-of-use made the machine a favourite of many, both on stage and in the studio.

Part of what made the 404 so easy to use was that it was fairly limited in what it could do. Even though previous versions included a sequencer, most users bypassed the sequencer altogether and recorded their beats in real time by tapping on the pads and resampling the result. Given the bevy of built-in effects that also can be applied to the built-in input, the 404 became a quick way to take your source material and flip it on its head. While later versions of the 404 increased some functionality, this Mark 2 is a completely new machine. 

There is now 32 voice polyphony, 160 samples per project, and 16 projects in all, which mean a greatly expanded SP. Most important is the addition of a new OLED screen, which replaces the old LED screen which simply had a three number reference. The OLED screen holds a lot of information, particularly for waveform editing, something that was unheard of on old versions of Roland samplers! 

Roland SP-404 MKII

(Image credit: Future)

RCA connections have been upgraded to ¼” jacks for both ins and outs. The addition of an SD port on the side makes this a very fully featured machine for how small the footprint is. 

Roland SP-404 MKII

(Image credit: Future)

Power comes from three possible sources – an included AC adapter, six AA batteries, or through the USB-C port. Impressively, the USB-C port can also be used to connect the SP-404 mk2 directly to iOS devices and it allows it to act as an audio interface when connected to your computer. Like other recent devices in the Roland AIRA range, it’s possible to stream four inputs and 14 outputs via digital driver directly to your computer. Having a machine that is portable and battery powered while still having this digital capability is exciting for SP users indeed. 

Roland SP-404 MKII: Performance and verdict

There are now 37 effects in total, including new bespoke input effects like guitar amp sim and vocoder. Like the other digital effects in Roland’s current lineup these sound great but don’t necessarily impart a ton of character. New on the mk2 is the addition of busses for routing the effects in several configurations. The busses can hold any of the 37 effects, and bus routing can be changed from serial to parallel for quick mix changes. The mk2 features 17 (not 16!) velocity sensitive pads (the 16 pads plus the Sub Pad) – these work well given their smaller size and are fully capable of bashing in your beats. Mute groups, customised sample playback settings per pad, and roll settings per pad make this a very capable sample performance machine. 

Also consider...

Elektron Digitakt

(Image credit: Future)

Elektron Digitakt
Less portable and more focused on sequencing, Elektron’s well-spec’ed sampler is a hugely creative instrument nonetheless.

Akai MPC One
Akai’s current crop of standalone MPCs are great for on-the-go beatmaking. The One is the cheapest and most compact of the range.

One of the most interesting additions to the new mk2 is what Roland has dubbed Skip Back mode. Essentially, Skip Back mode means that the SP-404 mk2 is always recording audio in 25-second chunks. When you press the Mark button, the last 25 seconds of anything that you played are displayed as a waveform on the screen and can be saved, edited, or assigned to a pad. Never will you struggle to reproduce that sloppily played pattern you half-heartedly came up with, only to be lost in the sands of time!

The SP-404 mk2 has the addition of a new envelope function for your samples. The old version had no envelopes at all, so this is a huge improvement for sound sculpting and sound design and saves precious resampling time if you’re trying to create pad-like sounds. 

It’s now possible to connect an iPhone or iPad and sample directly over the USB connection on the 404 mk2. Given that each sample can be up to 16 minutes long and that each project can hold up to 160 samples per project, this means that each project in the 404 mk2 can now be its own entire sonic universe. With the incredibly quick project load times, you can even store separate tracks in different projects and have a huge library of audio to work with. 

DJ mode lets you play two different tracks at once and includes sync functionality

Another new feature on the SP-404 mk2 that was inspired by the 404 community at large is a completely new DJ mode, which lets you play two different tracks/samples at once and even includes sync functionality. When in DJ Mode, the pad functionalities change to reflect what is screen-printed on the pads themselves. Each ‘channel’ has separate volume controls, the ability to nudge tempo up or down, and the ability to choose which channel goes to the headphone output, which can act as a separate Cue control. 

Librarian app

Roland has given 404 heads even more connectivity through the new 404 mk2 Librarian app, which not only allows for sample management and editing, but also lets users import, export, and save full projects to and from their computer, greatly extending the usefulness of the device. The app also gives full control over sample playback mode, start and end point – essentially everything that you can do on the 404 but with the addition of seeing all of the parameters all at once, on the convenience of your screen.

Roland SP-404 MKII

(Image credit: Future)

Overall Roland has given the 404 an upgrade without changing its core workflow, which is dependent on being able to do almost everything you need to without looking at the screen or menu diving (even though there is a bit of menu diving in this new iteration of the 404). Given the huge access to samples and sounds, the plethora of effects, and the new DJ mode and Skip Back Mode, a lot of beatmakers are going to find the SP-404 mk2 at the centre of their DAW-less setups.

MusicRadar verdict: Roland has upgraded the old 404 formula just enough to bring the much-loved sampler into the modern era, with a slew of upgrades that really increase the usability of an already very easy to use instrument.

Roland SP-404 MKII: The web says

"The new OLED screen turns chopping samples from a chore into a pleasure."
Engadget

Roland SP-404 MKII: Hands-on demos

Roland

Loopop

BoBeats

Sarah2ill

Roland SP-404 MKII: Specifications

Roland SP-404 MKII

(Image credit: Future)
  • 32-voice portable sampler with 16GB internal memory and 37 onboard effect types. 
  • I/O: Stereo pair jack line inputs, stereo pair jack line outputs, headphone out, guitar/mic in, MIDI in and out (via adapter), USB.
  • CONTACT: Roland