The Boss and Roland line of SP samplers (particularly the SP-303 and SP-404) are some of the most important instruments in hip-hop history. Right up there with the MPC and the Technics SL-1200. They have been used by the likes of MF Doom, Madlib and J Dilla, and are a favorite among lo-fi hip-hop artists everywhere. They have also been used by numerous other musicians such as Panda Bear, Four Tet, Oneohtrix Point Never and even Radiohead. But the original SP-404 was released in 2005. And while it was succeeded by the 404SX and the 404A, these were extremely minor updates that did things like switch from the aging and slow CF card format to SD. However, the new SP-404MKII finally updates the classic sampler for the modern age without sacrificing what made the OG so appealing.
Physically, the 404MKII is very similar to previous versions of the 404. There are four buttons on the top; a circular window below, flanked by six effect buttons; and pads on the bottom for triggering samples. At least the MKII looks better than the A. The 404A is designed to match the rest of Roland’s AIRA line – that means stark black accented with garish red and green. It’s… a look. But not one that everyone (including myself) can get behind. The new version is a much more subdued gray and black, with white and muted orange accents.
Beyond pure aesthetics, however, there are some massive upgrades in the MKII. The two most obvious differences are the detailed OLED display that replaced the old-fashioned seven-segment LEDs, and the transition from a 12-pad to a 16-pad layout.
The screen represents the biggest change to the SP experience. Editing samples on an OG 404 can be painful. The three-digit LEDs only gave you generic start and end points, and because of the high resolution needed to create perfect loops, the range was very small. That would result in a sample having to be trimmed multiple times to remove all the excess. The OLED on the SP-404MKII has a high enough resolution to display the actual waveform while it is being edited. You can zoom in and out as needed to crop as little or as much as you want. I would even go so far as to say that recording and editing samples on the MKII is not only easier, but actually quite fun.
The 16 pads give you access to more samples and patterns to build your beats from. Also, the four-by-four grid has become a sort of standard. It’s the layout Akai uses on the MPC, on Pioneer’s DJ gear, on the Native Instruments Maschine, Ableton’s Drum Rack, and even some of the larger members of the SP family, such as the 808 and 606.
There are also other more subtle changes. First, those 16 pads on the front are all velocity sensitive, a first for the SP line. That said, it’s nearly impossible to get full speed out of it without just turning on the fixed speed. Some finger drummers in particular may prefer to turn on fixed velocity to keep melodic and percussive elements mixed consistently, but it can also make things sound a bit robotic and unnatural. Just something to keep in mind.
Roland has also added MIDI to the back of the SP-404MKII. The previous versions only had MIDI IN. Now the 404 can be used to sequence external gear, or even connected to a PC to control your DAW via USB-C. That makes the 16-pad layout even more important, as it’ll probably better match whatever you’re connecting. Oh. and that USB port can also be used to stream audio to your PC.
This is also the first time Roland has ditched RCA in favor of ¼-inch jacks for the audio inputs and outputs on an SP. Now, this is a net positive, but there is a downside. Often an SP is used to sample directly from vinyl and most turntables use RCA. That means there will be an intermediate step to get loops from a record to the 404. But it does make it easier to sample directly from an instrument. Synths, drum machines, guitars and basses generally use ¼-inch plugs. And since the MKII’s ins and outs are balanced, it should be less susceptible to noise and interference.