Roland SP-606 Review: More Than A Sampling Workstation

Roland SP-606 with Cakewalk P606The Roland SP-606 sampling workstation packs a tremendous amount of power into a small package. It’s a full-featured sampling workstation; it is a USB audio/midi interface; and its a capable hardware controller.

It follows in the footsteps of other Roland/Boss samplers, like the SP-505. It boasts excellent sample tools, long sampling times, CompactFlash support, sample-chopping and automatic-tempo matching; great real-time controls, 16 sample pads, digital and audio in and out, and a MIDI interface, all for a reasonable price.

The SP-606’s broad capabilities mean that it can play many roles, in both studio work and performance. While many users may look at the 606 as a drum machine or sampler, it’s much more capable, and should provide enough flexibility to adapt as users’ requirements become more demanding.

Features

  • 16 velocity-sensitive pads make it easy to enter rhythms or trigger audio
  • Extensive collection of effects, including built-in mastering capabilities
  • D-Beam controller can be used to filter audio, trigger samples, or to control a virtual synth
  • CompactFlash memory support (up to 512MB capacity) allows storing audio samples and import/export of .wav/.aiff files.
  • 4-track sequencer with up to 18,000 notes capacity, MIDI sequencing and BPM sync for audio phrase time stretching.
  • Comes with P606 software from Cakewalk, delivering extra power for PC users.

Overview

The SP-606 is a portable multi-function device that can be used in many music production and performance roles. It includes a matrix of 4 x 4 velocity-sensitive pads; a four-track recorder; built-in effects and mastering processing; a flexible D-Beam controller; digital and analog audio in and outs; and USB connectivity for PC and Mac connectivity. It can be used as a drum machine, a sampling workstation, a USB audio/MIDI interface, an audio sequencer, and a hardware controller.

The unit ships loaded with banks of percussion sounds targeted for to the hip hop and dance markets, but the 606 could be used for any type of music. In addition to the provided sounds, the unit comes with Cakewalk’s P606 groove-generating software, which can be used to create percussion and synth loops to use with the SP-606.

Roland SP-606

Roland has given the SP-606 a generous supply of controls, and a flexible set of interface options.

The front face is packed with knobs, buttons and rubbery, illuminated pads. A big LCD screen is easy to read and simplifies navigating the 606’s menus. The data-entry wheel makes it easy to scroll through long lists of samples or presets. The D-Beam is positioned to the extreme upper left, so won’t be in the way of any other operations. This avoids the possibility of mistakenly triggering it. Three switches are provided to select from the D-Beam’s settings, which lets you toggle through its functions instantly.

The Effects area lets you switch the two built-in effects engines on and off and helps you quickly make setting changes. There are three knobs that control effects settings. The Sequencer section features straightforward buttons to enable or disable each of the units 4 tracks, and for functions like stop, play and record.

Best of all are the 16 illuminated touch-sensitive pads, which make it easy to build grooves with feel. The pads can be set to several modes, letting you trigger samples or use them to turn loops off and on.

The D-Beam controller is showing up on more and more of Roland’s equipment, and it’s a welcome addition. It senses the proximity of your hand, a little like a theremin. The D-Beam can be set to trigger a sample, toggle a loop off and on, control a dedicated output filter, or vary the pitch and gate of a basic virtual synth voice. The D-Beam is fun to use and is very interesting visually, making it ideal for live performance. When using it to control the synth voice, you can limit the range and scale of the synth voice, making it easier to get musical results. The synth voice is not very flexible, but can be routed through the built-in effects to add interest.

Roland SP-606On the back of the unit, the SP-606 has all the connections you need for most situations. There’s a power connector and switch for the ubiquitous but annoying wall-wart. A USB connector is included, for hooking the 606 to a PC or Mac. In addition, it has MIDI and Digital In/Out. 1/4″ jacks are provided for getting stereo Audio Input and Output, Phones and a Foot Switch.

The construction of the SP-606 is solid, but not as tough as many performance-oriented devices. This should not be any problem for studio work, but users that plan on moving it frequently and using it for performance will want to invest in a good case to protect it.

Getting Started

To get started with the SP-606, all you have to do is plug in a pair of phones or hook the Audio Output into a mixer or amp, and turn it on. It comes loaded with four preset Pad Banks. Each Pad Bank saves the settings and samples for the set of 16 pads. When you turn it on, it defaults to Bank 1 and is ready for playing or recording.

Call up a pad bank, and the matrix of Velocity Pads is immediately assigned a new set of sounds. The hip-hop and dance sounds the unit ships with are useful, and let you get started playing and programming with the 606 immediately.

Sampling

Roland provides several sampling modes with the 606, making it easy to sample from any source:

  • Sample from the audio inputs
  • Sample via the USB connection to the computer
  • Automatically sample MIDI synced devices

There’s a dedicated control for selecting the sample source, and an Audio In gain knob. Because of the multiple input options, one can keep the 606 connected to multiple sounds sources in the studio, and switch rapidly between sources using the 606 controls.

Sampling is easy. You can sample in mono or stereo. You also have the option of sampling at full CD quality, or reduced resolution for extended sampling times. Considering the large sample capacity and memory card slot, we can see most users sticking with CD quality, and then using effects if they want a lo-fi or bitcrushed sound. If you need extended recording times, though, you can record at slightly reduced quality and have hours of sample time.

Sampling is as simple as setting levels, selecting a pad in a writable bank, and recording. If you are sampling from the computer or from another MIDI device, you can automatically sample a full loop’s length of audio directly to a pad. This works great in combination with the P606 software.

The 606 also supports resampling. This lets you select a destination pad, select the pad sources you want to resample, apply effects, and then automatically resample the mix to the new pad. This can be used to combine sounds, or add effects to a sound.

Once you’ve created and assigned your samples, you can play them back using the pads or sequencer. The 606 supports 8 voices of CD quality sound. It would be ideal if the 606 had 16-voice polyphony to match the 16 pads. In practice, though, the 8 voice limit is rarely an issue, especially when dealing with short, percussive sounds.

Sample Editing

In addition to the basic sampling functions, the SP-606 supports advanced editing. The large LCD screen comes in handy here. This lets you trim samples to clean them up. You can set the sample to be looped or not, reverse the sound, and set the trigger mode to normal, gate or one-shot. You can also chop samples into Recycle-style slices. This lets you pull individual beats out of a sample.

The BPM Sync option lets you set a native BPM (beats per minute) for audio loops. Once you’ve set this, loops will automatically stretch to follow tempo changes, without changing the pitch. The results are good for small to medium tempo shifts, and get weird (or interesting, depending on your perspective) with larger ones.

Effects Processing

The 606 has a powerful effects processor, featuring two stages that work in sequence. You can chose from a large range of effects (listed below), including Compressor, Isolator, Filter + Drive, Slicer, Reverb and Tape Echo. Each effect can be modified using three controls, resulting in a lot of flexibility. Each effect processor can be enabled or disabled using dedicated buttons.

Effects processing can be enabled or disabled on a pad-by-pad basis. Unfortunately, there are no effects send levels for the pads. This means that there’s no easy way to get varying effects levels for different samples.

If you need different effects or different effects levels for each pad, you can resample sounds using the effects chain to incorporate the effect into the sample. By mixing unaffected sample playback, effected sample playback, and resampled sounds, you can build a complex mix.

The quality of effects is very good for a sampling workstation. While they are not the quality of dedicated outboard devices or software effects, they are musical and useful.

Unfortunately, the SP-606 does not save effects settings or bank selection when you turn the power off and back on, and effects are not saved with sound banks. This is an annoyance, because it means that you may have to press a lot of buttons to configure a specific Pad Bank and effects combination. People using the 606 in performance may find themselves madly tweaking effects settings between songs, or opting for other effects processing as a result.

Roland notes that you can quickly access the first 16 effects using by going to MFX list, then pressing pad 1-16. Another option would be to resample pads with the effects in place.

In addition to the two sequential effects engines, Roland provides a separate dedicated mastering stage. This lets you compress or eq the complete mix. This lets you add a little polish to the mix, and bring up levels. While the quality of this stage, like the effects, does not compare to dedicated processors, it lets you get more of a studio sound without any extra gear, and can be very useful.

Performance & Pattern Sequencing

Once you’ve got samples assigned, you can quickly switch between sample banks and play the samples using the 16 pads. You can also select prerecorded patterns and play them back, and use the workstation’s performance controls to vary the sound.

When performing on the SP-606, or when playing back recorded sequences, a full set of performance options are available. You can play rhythms or fills using the pads, use the D-Beam to filter the audio out, trigger a sample, or control a virtual synth, and you can tweak the effects controls. You can also mute or enable any of the tracks to build the mix up or down. With a little planning, you can build rich backing tracks and still have pads left to trigger sounds live.

Building patterns is a breeze with the SP-606. The unit supports up to four parts, and each part has dedicated controls. The 606 is limited to playing back 8 samples simultaneously, but it takes care of voice allocation across parts automatically.

To record a sequence, you just put it into record mode. The screen displays options for setting tempo, number of measures and time signature. Press play, and the 606 will play a measure lead-in, and then switch to Record mode. The 606 will loop the phrase as you add or erase elements in the track using the 16 pads, and other controls. You can switch tracks while recording by just pressing one of the track buttons.

It’s easy to build up complex multi-channel rhythms very quickly. You can erase part or all of a track as it loops, and you can even jam over the existing loop until you’re ready to record the next part.

Once you’ve got a set of pattern sequences close to how you want them, you can switch to Micro Function to edit details. This displays the stream of events that have been recorded, and lets you edit the details like the gate length or velocity of individual notes. This mode makes it easy to tweak minor flaws in otherwise good takes. When you’re done, you can name the pattern, using the wheel to select alphanumeric characters.

Once you’ve got patterns built up, the song mode lets you arrange the patterns into larger sequences. Songs are put together by selecting patterns and stringing them together in the order that you like. It’s a little repetive, but straightforward.

One limitation of 606 sequencing worth noting is that you can’t play back a sample at different pitches. Many samplers make it easy to play a sample at different pitches, so it’s surprising to see this absent. Our contact with Roland says this is because the SP-606 is designed to be a phrase sampler, and doesn’t do keyfollow of samples. The expectation is that you will sample entire phrases, instead of building musical lines from pitch-shifted samples.

If you prefer, you can resample pitch-shifted samples and save them to new locations, but this means means that playing a simple bass line with the SP-606 will eat up a lot of pad locations. Keep in mind the 606’s generous sample capacity, though, and it’s easy to find workarounds for this.

There’s also no support for mix automation of things like effects level changes. Given the large sample capacity, one can work around this by resampling phrases to include the changes.

Roland SP-606 memory cardCompactFlash Memory

The 606 makes sampling so easy that most users will quickly use up the internal sample capacity. Fortunately, Roland provides a CompactFlash slot that supports up to 512mb cards. Once you add a 512mb memory card, the sampling times are insane, over three hours at standard resolution, and over 6 hours at “long” resolution!

A locking cover is provided for the CompactFlash slot, so that you don’t have to worry about losing the card when performing.

Computer connectivity options

Roland makes the most of the 606’s USB connection. It lets you send audio in and out of your computer, letting you use the sampler’s audio jacks as a computer audio interface.

It also lets you use the 606 as a MIDI interface. You can even mount the 606’s memory card on your computer and copy files directly to it. This is a nice feature, because you can copy files to and from card without the need for a separate card reader.

P606 Software

In addition to the myriad capabilities of the SP-606, Roland provides a PC groove-generation application, Cakewalk’s P606. Mac users can skip this discussion, because no Mac version is available.

Cakewalk P606, Roland SP606

P606 is a groove-generator, very similar to Cakewalk’s recent release, Kinetic, but customized to work tightly with the SP-606. In fact, the SP-606 acts as a dongle, so you have to have the SP-606 connected in order to use the P606. Unfortunately, this means that you can’t use the software to make grooves on a laptop, unless you bring along the SP-606.

The EXT button on the SP-606 puts it into controller mode, and you can easily assign map controls on the workstation to those in Cakewalk’s software.

The software is designed to make it easy to create short grooves. It has three built-in soft synths, including an analog modeling synth, a “groovesynth”, and an ACIDized file player. It has a library of built-in grooves that you can work with and edit, or you can create your own.

The software makes short work of creating riffs and drum patterns. Virtual effects are also included, and a 16-part mixer is provided to let you build up mixes.

To get more of an idea of what P606 is all about, check out Synthtopia’s review of the similar Cakewalk Kinetic application. The unique features of P606 include a different user interface and integration with the SP-606 hardware.

Once you’ve created grooves in the P606 software, you can easily transfer them to the SP-606 workstation. For example, you can create up to 16 tracks of loops in P606, and export them to the pads on the SP-606. Once you’ve saved the audio loops to the workstation, they can be triggered or turned off and on using the 16 pad matrix.

While both the SP-606 and P606 are powerful and easy to use, there is little overlap between the functionality and interfaces of the hardware and software. It would be great if Roland had included a virtual SP-606 in software that could be used to assign samples to pads, organize banks, and to use within sequencers. A virtual counterpart could streamline dealing with samples, and would be great for recording.

Summary

The Roland SP-606 is a tricked-out sampling workstation that combines extreme flexibility and powerful performance options at a great price. Users looking for a drum machine, sampler or USB audio/MIDI interface may want to consider the SP-606 because of the wealth of options it provides. In a pinch, it could be used for basic multi-track recording, given the large sample capacity.

The matrix of touch-sensitive pads, along with the 4-track sequencer, make it easy to create complex grooves with feel. The addition of Cakewalk’s P606 gives PC users a powerful tool for creating new samples and loops to work with. Finally, the numerous performance controls found on the SP-606 make it more than just a sampling workstation, they make it an instrument.

While the features set and sounds on the SP-606 are tailored to the hip-hop and dance markets, it can just as easily be used for other types of music. Anyone interested in a poweful, inexpensive sampling workstation should give the SP-606 a look.

Pros

  • Great mix of features at a fair price
  • Multiple functions – sampling, drum machine, audio/midi interface and more
  • Pads are good sized and sensitive and make it easy to add life to grooves
  • Automated loop capturing streamlines sampling
  • Integration with P606 adds a lot of flexibility
  • D-Beam controller a fun and powerful performance tool

Cons

  • Not as rugged as many performance-oriented devices.
  • Effects settings & bank settings are lost between power ups.
  • Limited performance controls for dealing with pitched material
    ; no sequencing of parameter adjustments.
  • Can’t use P606 without SP-606 connected.

SP-606 Specifications

  • Maximum Polyphony 8 voices
  • Sampling Modes STANDARD/LONG
  • Sampling Frequency 44.1 kHz
  • Data Format SP-606 original format (.WAV/AIFF import/export possible)
  • Internal Memory Samples: 128 (8 Banks) (Including Pre-loaded Sample Banks)
  • Card Memory Samples: 384 (24 Banks)
  • Effects Section Multi-Effects: 2 systems, 45 types, Mastering Effect: 2-band Compressor
  • Sequencer Section Mode: PATTERN, SONG, Tracks: 4, Resolution: 96 ticks per quarter note, Song Steps: 999, Songs: 25,
  • Patterns: 140 (Including Pre-loaded Patterns), Maximum measures per Pattern: 32, Beats: 2/4—32/4,
  • Tempo: 40.0—200.0, Pattern recording method: Real time, Step Recording (Note/Sample), Maximum recordable notes: Approximately 18,000 notes (Approx. 8,000 per Pattern)
  • Display: 128 x 64 dots (Backlit graphic LCD)
  • Controllers: Control Knobs x 3, D-Beam, Pads: 16 with velocity sensitivity

Connectors

  • Headphones Jack, Output Jacks L/Mono, R, Input Jacks L/Mono(MIC), R, Foot Switch Jack, Digital Audio
  • Interfaces (COAXIAL, IN/OUT), MIDI Connectors (IN, OUT), USB Connector (compatible with MIDI, audio and mass storage class), AC Adaptor Jack
  • Power Supply DC 9 V (AC Adaptor)
  • Current Draw 1,000 mA
  • Dimensions 358.3 (W) x 271.2 (D) x 84.0 (H) mm / 14-1/8 (W) x 10-11/16 (D) x 3-5/16 (H) inches
  • Weight 2.3 kg / 5 lbs 2 oz (excluding AC Adaptor)
  • Accessories Owner’s Manual, AC Adaptor (ACI Series or PSB-1U), USB Cable, CD-ROM (USB MIDI/AUDIO driver, P606 software), Memory Card Protector

Driver System Requirements:

Windows 98/Me

  • Operating System Microsoft® Windows® 98, Microsoft Windows Me
  • Computer Windows 98 / Me compatible computer with a USB connector that supports USB Specification Revision 1.0 or higher
  • CPU/Clock Pentium, Celeron™, Intel-compatible Processor/400MHz or higher
  • Memory 64 MB or more

Windows 2000/XP

  • Operating System Microsoft® Windows® XP Home Edition, Microsoft Windows XP Professional, Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional
  • Computer Windows XP/Windows 2000 compatible computer with a USB connector that supports USB Specification Revision 1.0 or higher
  • CPU/Clock Windows XP: Pentium, Celeron™, Intel-compatible Processor/600MHz or higher, Windows 2000: Pentium, Celeron™, Intel-compatible
  • Processor/400MHz or higher
  • Memory 128 MB or more

Mac OS 9

  • Operating System Mac OS 9 series
  • Computer Apple Macintosh computer equipped with a USB port as standard equipment
  • OMS Version (for OMS Driver) 2.3.5 or late
  • FreeMIDI Version (for FreeMIDI Driver) 1.35 or later
  • CPU/Clock PowerPC G3 / 400 MHz or better
  • Memory 128 MB or more (You must turn virtual memory “off” before using this driver.)

Mac OS X

  • Operating System Mac OS X v10.2 or later *This will not operate in the Classic environment of Mac OS X. When using this, the Classic environment must not be running simultaneously.
  • Computer Apple Macintosh series computer with on-board USB
  • CPU/Clock PowerPC G3 / 400 MHz or faster (PowerPC G4 recommended)
  • Memory 256 MB or more

P606 System Requirements

  • • Operating System Microsoft® Windows® 2000/XP
  • • CPU/Clock Pentium®-class, Pentium4 1.7 GHz or higher recommended
  • • Memory (RAM) 256 MB or more, 512 MB or more recommended
  • • Display 1,024 x 768 pixels or higher
  • • Hard Disk 500 MB or more
  • • USB Port
  • • CD-ROM Drive (required for installation)

Effects

  • 001 FILTER + DRIVE
  • 002 REVERB
  • 003 DELAY
  • 004 TAPE ECHO
  • 005 ISOLATOR
  • 006 COMPRESSOR
  • 007 LO-FI PROCESSOR
  • 008 GUITAR AMP SIM
  • 009 OVERDRIVE
  • 010 PITCH SHIFTER
  • 011 FEEDBACK RIPPER
  • 012 REVERSE
  • 013 TUMBLING
  • 014 FLANGER
  • 015 STEP FLANGER
  • 016 BPM AUTO PAN
  • 017 AUTO PAN
  • 018 BPM TREMOLO
  • 019 TREMOLO
  • 020 BPM SLICE+FLANG
  • 021 SLICER + FLANGER
  • 022 ROTARY
  • 023 CHORUS
  • 024 PHASER
  • 025 STEP PHASER
  • 026 RING MODULATOR
  • 027 STEREOIZER
  • 028 SPACE-D
  • 029 LOW BOOST
  • 030 EQUALIZER
  • 031 RADIO TUNING
  • 032 VINYL SIMULATOR
  • 033 GATE
  • 034 NOISE GENERATOR
  • 035 ENHANCER
  • 036 DISTORTION
  • 037 FUZZ
  • 038 WAH
  • 039 CENTER CANCELER
  • 040 CHROMATIC P.S.
  • 041 VOICE TRANSFORMER
  • 042 OCTAVE
  • 043 SUBSONIC
  • 044 OSCILLATOR(PAD)
  • 045 ENVELOPER(PAD)

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