The Roland SP-404 is a classic analog sampler and effector produced by Roland Corporation. The first model, SP-404 OG, was released in 2005, and the product has since been updated three times. The newest edition of the SP-404, the SP-404 MKII, was released in 2021 and met enthusiastically by fans.
Looking at the differences between the SP-404OG, the SP-404SX, the SP-404A, and the SP-404MKII is the same as looking at the evolution of the Roland SP-404 throughout the years. In this article, I will try to explain the main differences between the four products, while also tackling the SP-404’s impact on pop culture.
Released in 2005, the original (hence the OG) Roland SP-404 was a gamechanger. An analog sampling workstation aimed at beatmakers and electronic musicians looking for a reliable live-performing tool, the sampler quickly turned into a classic. Now discontinued, it can still be found in the used market at an affordable price.
With 29 effects (including a vintage-sounding Vinyl Simulator) and 12-voice polyphony, the SP-404 OG already boasted Roland’s terrific pattern sequencer with quantize mode. However, some much-needed features were still lacking – namely, the ability to import audio files from the computer. The original SP-404 still relied on CompactFlash card samples, meaning it was slower and harder to use.
- Great for music-equipment collectors.
- Includes most of the classic original Roland effects, including Vinyl Simulator.
- Decent build quality
- The slowest Roland SP-404.
- Relies solely on CompactFlash card for importing and exporting samples.
- Limited storage space.
The Roland SP-404 OG was an important milestone in the development of sampling workstations, paving the way for more powerful and versatile models. It is a great choice for collectors and musicians looking for a reliable live-performing tool.
Released in 2010, the Roland SP-404SX maintained all the charming features of its predecessor but dealt with its main weakness: a worrying lack of power. With sample storage upgraded to 32 GB and the ability to import samples directly from the computer, the SP-404SX can easily stand up against similar products in today’s market.
What makes the SP-404SX much better than the original Roland sampler is its faster workflow. It includes the same 29 effects of its predecessor but features a new shuffle mode that’s perfect for creating J Dilla-type beats on the spot. It’s accompanied by software that allows the user to create assignable bundles of samples.
- Much faster workflow.
- Samples can be imported via computer.
- New shuffle options in the quantize mode.
- Extended storage space.
- No dedicated button for the Vinyl Simulator effect.
The Roland SP-404SX is a powerful and versatile sampler that offers everything users need to create professional-quality beats and music. With its easy-to-use interface and robust features, this sampler is a good tool for unleashing your creativity.
Seven years following the release of the incredibly popular SP-404SX, Roland announced the SP-404A, the third installment of its classic analog sampler and effector. The SP-404A is as good as its predecessor, but it lacks some truly game-changing new features.
The main differences are the design and the fact it can be easily linked to the Roland AIRA Rhythm Performer (great for electronic-music performances). Aside from that, there are some original samples included in the SP-404A, including about one hundred high-quality samples by Loopmasters. No new effects were added to the product, and storage space is still limited to a maximum of 32 GB.
- Can be easily connected to the AIRA Rhythm Performer.
- Includes a sample pack by Loopmasters.
- Versatile sampler
- Not as many new features as the fans hoped for.
The Roland SP-404A is a good choice for anyone looking for a powerful and versatile sampler. While it may not have all the bells and whistles of some other high-end samplers, its ability to be easily integrated with the AIRA Rhythm Performer makes it a must-have in any electronic music enthusiast’s arsenal.
The Roland SP-404 MKII
The guys at Roland paid close attention to the needs of their fans while developing the newest edition of the SP-404 – the SP-404 MKII. Released in 2021, it boasts everything one could’ve asked for, including 32-vice polyphony and a few new effects – the first since the creation of the SP-404OG.
The design is impressive, especially once you notice the SP-404MKII comes with a sleek OLED screen. Aimed at lo-fi and hip-hop beatmakers, the added effects are pretty powerful. The Cassette Simulator is a classic in the making, the Downer is perfect for creating Vaporwave-style sounds, and the Resonator is ideal for making interesting melodies out of percussive sounds. There’s also a new Bus FX mode (learn more about buses here), which is great for resampling and making radical changes to full blocks of sound.
- Great new effects (especially Downer).
- Stunning OLED screen.
- 32-voice polyphony.
- Very useful Bus FX mode.
- No extended sample storage (still 32 GB).
The Roland SP-404 MKII is a great new edition to the SP-404 series that offers many new improvements and additions while still keeping the same great workflow. The new OLED screen is very impressive and the added effects sound great. The only downside is that there is no extended sample storage, but overall this is a superb update to an already fantastic product.
The role of the SP-404 in pop culture
If you have ever heard about Lo-fi hip-hop beats to study to, you already know how meaningful the Roland SP-404 is to pop culture. But this powerful machine was making waves long before nostalgic low-resolution beats filled with Vinyl Simulator became an Internet sensation.
The SP-404 was arguably one of the first analog machines that promised the same amount of options and control (especially in a quantized environment) as a full-fledged DAW. In a way, it proved to electronic musicians that it was possible to perform dense live sets on stage without having to use a computer.
The list of renowned musicians who have composed/performed using the SP-404 should be enough to justify its place in pop culture. Here are some of the best: J Dilla, Flying Lotus, Madlib, Radiohead, Grimes, and Oneohtrix Point Never.
The idea that progress always translates into something better is often wrong. Fortunately, it doesn’t apply to the Roland SP-404 sampler and effector. Since the original SP-404 was released in 2005, Roland paid attention to the needs of the fans and worked hard to expand on its now-classic machine.
The latest edition of the SP-404, the SP-404MKII, is the best available option right now, but you should also be okay with the SP-404SX and the SP-404A. The original SP-404 is a more limited piece of equipment, but it’s great for collectors.
Featured image – Elperfectoinsecto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons