The Roland SP-404 mk2 is in… Initial Thoughts

Got mine Wednesday… been knocking on the pads quite a bit. Never had a 404 (but got the 202 and 303)… mostly a heavy MPC user… so my thoughts come at this through mostly an MPC lens, but definitely with appreciation of where the SP line has come from in previous generations.

One of the first things I did was hook up my iPad to the mk2 over USB C. I will tell you, this is an amazingly seamless connection that carries audio and midi data like a champ. Some apps you may have to worry about routing, but stuff like Koala Sampler and Korg Module Pro work wonderfully. You can throw audio and samples around so damn fast it’ll make your head spin, and is just *chef’s kiss* for bouncing effects back and forth. Even better, if you have Audio Bus 3 or AUM, you can access the stereo inputs, or two stereo outputs directly. Heck, you can even route to outputs 1/2/3/4 as mono, and get your iPad four mono track outputs as it honors those outputs correctly. All of this works without going into any special modes, or booting the 404 as a controller or anything else. Seriously a killer feature in my mind.

Overall I found sampling just as fast and natural on the mk2 as I have on previous SPs, and getting content onto pads is a bit faster than the workflow on the MPC. There’s also, as usually plenty of editing you can do for start/end points, pitch/speed options… and now we’ve also got Chop and Envelope. Chop is quite solid and I can see this being a consistent part of my workflow, but I’m not entirely sold on envelope. I was really hoping that with GATE on it would honor the envelope release, but instead you just get a hard stop. So Attack/Hold/Release really only effect the sample as the sample would play from start to end… and GATE off effectively plays the pad as a ONE SHOT, and GATE on effectively plays it as NOTE ON with no release. I’m hoping it is a bug or something that Roland will adjust (or maybe is a parameter setting to find), but so far I haven’t stumbled upon anything.

Pattern Sequencer is sufficient for knocking out beats, but there is no grid edit. Personally I am comfortable with the DEL and hold a pad method of removing events because I do it frequently on the MPC, but I can certainly see people not enjoying the “by ear” and “get good” for timing on the mk2. Honestly, this is probably where people will need the most practice if they want to get all in on the SP, but I could be wrong. I’ve also found a few bugs in the Pattern Sequencer firmware, such as when adjusting Pattern loop points, Start doesn’t seem to make any change, while End can be changed. Still, I think trimming and duplicating patterns will lead to some super fast workflows in the future, and I’m confident that Roland will suss out some of this early day issues.

Going to confirm with Ill here… the noise floor on this is just so much lower, as to be non existent, especially compared to the 202 and 303. If you’re looking for that dirtier sound, the Cassette FX seems to have you covered, but I can absolutely give a thumbs up that the mk2 is going to capture your audio without coloring it *until* you want it to with effects. As an FX box the mk2 is also covering a large amount of ground with the 37 FX. I understand that Roland will likely add some more banks, so hopefully we’ll see another 32 or so added over time, but for what is on offer I think most people will be happy with what is here, and besides subsonic not being represented (at least yet)… I think it covers a lot of ground from the 303 quite well, and reviews seem to be positive on a lot of the effects with the 404 og/sx/a, but this is not a space I have experience. So cassette, vinyl (303 and 404), and lofi all sounds quite good to me, and cleaner in a generally positive way than the 202/303.

Pitch shifting compared to the 202 is definitely different. Given how the SP-202 creates sounds, and the sample rate that it works at though, I don’t think you’re going to recreate the 202 with the mk2. Whether you love the 202 sound or just want to pitch up/down though… well the pitch goes +/- 12 semitones on the mk2 compared to the 202’s -4 semitones and +2 semitones. On the other hand, at least for me, I can see this as a nearly drop in replacement for even the 303… and heck it might even cover both well enough for me to pull them out in favor of the mk2.

Although I’d kind of like a few more options for ordering and editing the 4 bus FX. No joke, 4 is pretty damn sweet. Right now I’m thinking of them as 2 mastering FX for doing stuff that I want to be “my sound” for whatever I run through the mk2… and still having 2 bus FX for samples to do some special and specific effects. The biggest drive I have is that it’s just a hassle to get at and edit the 2 master effects, and they take up a limited number of favorites slots. Something Roland should probably re-implement, but to get it off the ground and running this at least gets the job done.

Storage… 16gb is pretty nuts. Sure a lot of us have way more samples… but just consider this an opportunity to curate and actually stick with the stuff you love or want to work with. Otherwise you’re going to end up with tons of junk, just like you’ve got on your MPC, computer… or wherever else you store your sample collection. Max sample time is 16 minutes per pad, and this ought to be more than enough sample time for folks looking to dump tracks to and then go searching for samples and chops. Don’t forget, this thing still operates fully functionally when hooked up over USB C… so you can use your computer, phone, or tablet to shuffle off samples and mess with stuff from there without committing a lot of storage on the SP. Backups work fine… though if you load your SP up with 16gb of audio, you’re only going to be able to backup twice to a 32gb SDHC card. So keep it in mind if you’re going to use the mk2 as your workhorse. Also the import/export is “fine”… but I do find it to be a bit clunky overall… but will try it out a bit more. I suspect for getting samples around, this is where the App will shine, but I tend to be a more standalone kind of person myself. Should check it out though as it might open up some things for me that I’m not considering right now.

Velocity sensitive pads are nice… though they do take quite a hit to get to full velocity. I’m going to have to mess with the settings to see where I land… so while nice, I’d put it as better than an MPC 500 for sensitivity but under the MPC Live for me at the moment. Fixed velocity and 16 velocity are a savior here when you’re just struggling… and a nice feature.

Chromatic mode is nice, but man… you cannot play them into Pattern mode. Which is a big *booooo* for me. Hopefully another thing that can be added in a future update, but for now, it looks like if you want chromatic, you’re going to need to use multiple pads with multiple samples, or record your chromatic performance into a new pad as a loop. Something that is the 303/404 way, so I cannot hate on Roland for implementing it this way, but it’s just a bummer when this is such a good effect on stuff from Akai MPCs to the Pocket Operator KO-33.

What else? Oh Skip Back is a solid feature. I’m on the fence of whether 25 seconds is too much or not enough… but even just having the mk2 at an end of chain gives you one last chance to grab some kind of “holy smokes that was awesome” content… and I suspect it will be a quicker way for recording some types of audio into the SP without having to hunt and peck for a sound over long streams of audio content.

Size wise, I’m figuring it is about 1/3 the size of an Akai MPC Live mk2… so much more back packable. Being able to be powered over a USB C connection is handy, and battery power is always refreshing, even if it would have been nice for it to have a rechargeable solution built in.

Overall, I think for the price this is a strong competitor with a lot of other devices in this price range, and it’s a pretty easy thing to recommend to others if they are looking for a Swiss army knife of a sampler/fx box/pattern sequencer…

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