SP-404

How the Roland SP-404 inspired a new generation of producers and beatmakers

“To confuse and delight“ – Pete Kember, Sarah The !llstrumentalist, George Clanton, Katie Harkin, Voka Gentle, and Casper Clausen on the rise and rise of the Roland SP-404.

Roland’s SP-404 MKII represents a laudable return to the forefront of hardware sampling and stands proud on the shoulders of giants. With their unmistakable shoebox-shaped chassis and grid of light-up buttons, Roland SP samplers have for over two decades characterised the creation and performance of music in countless different settings; from underground beat-making battles to late night studio jams and arena rock shows. Of these, 2005’s flagship SP-404 has seen more iterations than any other model in the series, culminating this year in the most advanced yet.

I happen to be a longtime user of the MKII’s most popular predecessor, the SP-404SX – two of them have become staples in the touring setup of my band, Voka Gentle. My introduction to Roland’s SP series came while watching some of my favourite artists hunch over the (now rarely seen) SP-555, but it quickly became clear that the 404 had everything I’d need from a sampler. Its interface is ideal for a live setting, its substantial bank of effects can be played like an instrument via its row of assignable knobs, and it’s possible to access any sound from hours of samples with no loading time. The only real limitation was our own creativity, as we now began to trigger and manipulate sounds like we were throwing paint at a canvas.

A legend in the making

Despite predating the SP-555 by three years, the SP-404’s compact form factor, inherited from 1998’s SP-202 and 2001’s SP-303, proved here to stay. It fit comfortably into any setup, kept the key aspects of its interface accessible and even brought back the SP-202’s capacity to run on battery power.

I can think of few better people to illustrate the 404’s noble lineage than Pete Kember, AKA Sonic Boom. “I’ve always been old fashioned in my musical equipment tastes,” the producer and artist confesses. Aside from his founding role in the influential outfit Spacemen 3 with Jason Pierce, Kember has produced records with Panda Bear, MGMT and Beach House, and has collaborated with the likes of Stereolab, Yo La Tengo and many more.

SP-404

“I’ve been using the 404 for a relatively short period,” he says. “My introduction to the SP series was through the SP-202, which I bought when it came out. I was in America and could see straight away that there was nothing like it. The design was meant not to fail – to work easily and well. It had a built-in condenser mic and could run off batteries. I bought it while I was on tour, so I learnt to use it on planes, flying between shows. I used to make samples of the jet engines when we were taxiing toward takeoff.”

The subsequent SP-303 introduced pattern sequencing capabilities, 44.1kHz sound quality and, crucially, a host of new effects. Los Angeles-based producers like Madlib put the 303 to work crafting groundbreaking records such as 2004’s Madvillainy with MF DOOM. But the sampler would continue to cross genre borders with aplomb, enabling works like Panda Bear’s generation-defining, psychedelic collage album Person Pitch.

“Noah [Lennox, aka Panda Bear] did pretty much all of Person Pitch on two SP-303s,” says Kember. “It’s sort of a quintessential 303 album. He was also using it to trigger samples in his live show, and I did quite a lot of touring with him after that album came out. I was running the 303 samplers, amongst other things, so got more and more into them.”

Along with a host of eminent SP-303 users, such as the great Ras G, Kember would naturally come to incorporate the SP-404 into his work as a go-to piece of hardware. Casper Clausen of Efterklang and Liima tells us “the 404 sampler really entered my life because of Pete. When I mixed my solo album with [Kember], I was talking about taking it out live and asking how he would do it. And he said, ‘the 404 sampler would be perfect.’

“For me, it’s very important that it makes sense quite quickly. Then if I want to get deeper on it – find some secret stuff – then I can go into that other layer. I had an Akai MPC before, and there were too many pages for me. I got tired before I even started. What I love about the 404, and what I tell friends who are looking for samplers, is that it’s a simple sampler. You sample and then you start making the sequence. That’s what it is to me.”

A beatmaker’s best friend

Sarah Debnam produces music and online content as Sarah the !llstrumentalist. She was inspired to try the SP-404 after watching veteran lo-fi beat-makers like Dibia$e. “In my hometown, Raleigh, North Carolina, there was a little beat scene and a lot of artists were using the SP-404 during performances,” she explains. “The week I received my first SP-404, I did my first beat battle on it in Oakland, California. Dibia$e was in the crowd and I also got to meet him. I came in second place, which was really good for my first time using the 404!”

Dibia$e
Dibia$e performing with his Roland SP-404s. Image: Roland

LA-based Dibia$e shot to fame in the city’s beat-making scene after conquering the Los Angeles Red Bull Big Tune beat battle in 2010. His debut album Machines Hate Me appeared that same year, all but cementing his status as a key figure in the SP-404 realm alongside West Coast mainstays like Flying Lotus and Samiyam.

“I’ve taken my SP all over the world to do performances,” says the !llstrumentalist. “I like how portable it is – I don’t like taking a lot with me during performances. I now use the SP-404MKII for everything, for enhancing my workflow with my Native Instruments Maschine or making beats fully in the SP.”

The SP-404’s multi-effects section and lo-fi mode are the secret weapons for a whole scene of beatmakers. Lo-fi hip-hop and lo-fi house are centred around the dusty characteristics of the 404’s effects and filters, which can be tweaked and manipulated effortlessly. Cutting out the low-end before a break is a breeze, as is instantly applying a vinyl warp effect and note repeat for flair. Plus, the 404’s Lofi mode allows you to reduce the bitrate of your samples to achieve the low-resolution sound of old-school samplers. Check out Bad Snacks making a lo-fi beat on the 404 for Pickup Music below.

 

On the other side of the Atlantic, artist and instrumentalist Katie Harkin produces solo material under the moniker Harkin; alongside her work performing with acts such as Sleater Kinney, Wild Beasts and Kurt Vile. “I first used it with Wild Beasts,” she remembers. “I’d never used a sampler before, but I toured with them playing the 404 and keyboards in about 30 countries. So it went a long way!”

For Harkin, the SP-404 would inevitably find its way into the studio as a compositional tool. “It’s good as a creative refresher,” she says, “to occasionally break away from writing and playing into a computer. There are some new songs I’m working on that started life in the 404. On my last record, there’s a song called Red Virginia Creeper – a lot of that is still what I originally played into my 404.

“I started with a bass loop and played a guitar straight into it, and sampled some beats from the drum machines I had. There are a lot of weird sounds that I kept that are irreplaceable. It’s more vulnerable to human error – in a good way.”

Sarah, The Illstrumentalist
Sarah, The !llstrumentalist with her SP-404 MKII. Image: Jonathan Weiner for MusicTech

Producer’s playtime

Somewhere between a piece of studio hardware and a musical instrument, discussion about the SP-404 and its range of applications naturally raises a key question: what does it mean to play a sampler? LA’s George Clanton creates psychedelic pop and vaporwave under his own name and as Esprit, all the while heading up the cult label 100% Electronica.

“It’s like a Bop-It,” he considers. “A children’s game of some kind. I saw over the Thanksgiving holiday a little kid playing with an iPad, and she was playing this game that was almost like an SP-404. You had to press the button at the right time and beat the level by playing all the bits of the song at the right moment. The only difference for an artist in performance is that you get to decide when that is.

“I initially turned to the SP-404 because it was like a big, expensive blinking iPod Nano. All it had to do was be a playback device. But when I got it, I found I had more buttons to work with. So now, maybe I’ll start with the drums and the bass – and people will go ‘oh, I recognise this song!’– and when I’m done intro-ing a song, I’ll turn all the elements off for a second – and then turn them all on and have the full song going. So I can really control things, which is something you can’t do with an iPod!”

Likening the 404 to other tactile gadgets, Harkin continues: “You can’t escape that it’s essentially an exaggerated Game Boy in its shape and size. It’s easy to fit into any situation, whether on your desktop or taking it out with you. I’m by no means anti-computer music and definitely use them for recording, it’s just about having that option. The physical dimensions of it are more akin to play. It’s like an overgrown hand-held console. That’s not to say it’s childlike, but it is tactile.”

Dibia$e
Image: Roland

But can’t a laptop do everything a sampler can, and more? “I have done tours with laptops,” says Harkin, “but for many reasons, I prefer using the sampler. from a writing perspective, I prefer the lack of screen, and there’s also just something about creating on the same device you do your taxes on that is a little unpoetic [laughs]. It’s also nerve racking taking a computer on tour. We were onstage at Austin City Limits festival and it rained for the first time in three months, after a drought. One of the computers got drowned onstage. These things do happen, so having something like that, with a removable card, is pretty useful.”

Powerful performances

As Voka Gentle, we decided long ago that laptops onstage weren’t for us. We wanted everything to be played, triggered or looped on hardware and not simply rolling as a backing track. We are, as it turns out, not alone.

“In the 90s and early 00s there was something about a computer being onstage that was super exciting,” remembers Casper Clausen. “But, at some point, we all started looking for other ways to take the attention away from the computer.”

George Clanton holds a similar view. “You can do any of this stuff with a computer but I personally don’t like seeing the computer onstage. It’s distracting. Having the Apple logo – and how many times has the computer given out at the wrong time, just in your regular life? I didn’t want to bring that into the equation. I also use the SP’s Delay button all the time. If I screw something up, I just turn that on, fix it and turn the delay off, and no one even knew. It was just fun, quirky and psychedelic. If I was on a computer, I wouldn’t have the option to screw things up like that.”

Every SP-404 user has their own unique story to tell. “Before COVID-19, I had all these CRT TVs,” remembers Clanton, “and I wrote a piece of software where you could touch a TV screen to trigger a sample. I had each artist from my label do a bit of song, all in the same key and tempo, and divided over 18 different sounds. Two people would come up at a time and play these giant samplers with each other and make a song. It would run off an SP-404 behind the scenes through MIDI. And that’s what an SP-404 is to me. It’s like a game.”

Sixteen years after the first SP-404 saw the light of day, its legacy continues to shape the craft of musicians all over the world. The MKII is the latest in a list of iterations and reboots, yet at its heart, the 404 remains an unmistakably unique instrument, ready for almost any musical challenge; from gentle field recordings to an onslaught of industrial rhythms. So recognisable is its layout and workflow, it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

SP-404
Image: Roland

“It’s such a staple,” says Katie Harkin. “I’ve worked on multiple different projects – if you can find your way around a 404 then there are a lot of live applications for it, across genres. You could walk into almost any band setup and someone would have a use for it, you know?”

Casper Clausen agrees. “There’s something about the interface and how that speaks intuitively to you. The machine has an intuition that makes you want to use it. Some machines have too many options, too many layers. What’s brilliant about the 404 is its logic. It’s so simple.”

“It’s critical to the way I do things now,” reflects Clanton. “I evolved with it. It wasn’t a computer, it wasn’t an iPod…and that’s what I want. To confuse and delight the audience.”