Why do I like (Roland) synth’s/samplers from the 80-ties?

Nowadays you only need a powerful mac or pc, a piece of (freeware) DAW/sequencing software, some plug-ins, a decent audio interface and a couple of speakers to create some great music. Software samplers with libraries of several tens or hundreds of GB’s are no exception. With all those big libraries you can achieve very convincing, realistic results. But to my ears it’s often too sterile, too clean, too perfect.

This is where my love for 80-ties (and early nineties) stuff comes into play. I’ve got a bunch of Roland 12 bit samplers (S-550’s and S-330’s), all bought within the last 5 years. They all have tiny memories, not even 1 MB, they miss all the detail, finesse and ease of use of modern sample players/sample libraries, but the instruments and libraries created for them have one thing: character.

from top: SP-700, S-550 x 2, S-330 x 2

Maybe my love for instruments from this period has also to do with my age (1975). Around the second half of the 80-ties I started to gain interest into music technology, but couldn’t afford to buy all (or some) state of the art equipment of that day and era. Nowadays you can buy these classics for a couple of tens of Euro’s/Dollars. Back in the days a Roland S-550 would set you back about €3500,-!! The Akai S-950, my first sampler bought new in 1990, cost about fl. 4800 (+/- €2200,-), I delivered a lot of newspapers for that! But I still use it from time to time. Do you think you will use the same software you use now in about 20 years from now:-)

Two years ago I bought a Roland JX-10 for something like €300,-. This is a great synth, especially for pads or hard synced sounds. If you’d compare it with something like a NI Massive virtual synth, a fantastic plug-in, I still would choose the JX-10 soundwise. Why: character, warmness and just fat sounding. Although the NI Massive can produce trouser-flappering bass, it again sounds too sterile and clean to my ears….

Another thing that strikes me is the build quality. All my Roland gear is still working perfectly. Only trouble I had was the FX board of my MKS-20 that died, Roland Benelux did a great job fixing it. Thumbs up, they still service 20+ year gear!! Another favorite of mine is the MKB-1000. It’s a master keyboard, with a wooden keyboard, which is a joy to play. The thing is build like a tank, it weights about 50kg (100 Ibs), and is virtually indestructible. It’s a fairly simple device, but it does what it must do, and does it without problems since 1984. Another great Roland machine, the S-750 sampler (1991). Specs are 16 bit, 18 MB sample memory, the GUI monitor output/mouse (like the S-550/330) makes it a breeze to use. Fantastic DA convertors by Apogee and a very pleasant sounding filter. Again, loading samples with modern software counterparts is a lot faster, I still like working with it. There’s a great Roland library (S7x0, for S-770, S-750, SP-700,S-760 and DJ-70 (mkII)), co-created by Eric Persing, founder of Spectrasonics. Highlights of this library are i.m.o. the “Keyboards of the 60-ties and 70-ties” Vol. 1 & 2 and “Orchestral Family” Vol. 1 & 2. When they were released the Orchestral family would cost about fl.1200,- (€500,-), now you can buy it (if you are lucky, you don’t come across them that often) for something like €50-€100,-. It doesn’t have the detail of -for example- the VSL library, but when used in a mix it holds its place better than the VSL library. I often use ’em both when doing classical oriented tracks, when you layer them it broadens the sound, partly to do with slightly different tuning.

Don’t see this post as an add for Roland, I’m not a huge fan of their new products (with the V-piano as exception, can’t wait to see spin-offs of this in other products, right now I think it’s too expensive), but I want to make clear that back in the days they built machines where costs were of minor importance of build and sound quality. Of course, more companies built great equipment, but I have the most experience with Roland. Today I feel that most things (not only musical instruments) are produced to make the most profit for the company, not to create the best possible instruments. I’m afraid that you can’t turn it back. However, the good news is that you can buy these (underestimated) classics for almost nothing and -within their boundaries of technical performance- you can create some fantastic sounding music!

24 thoughts on “Why do I like (Roland) synth’s/samplers from the 80-ties?

  1. I just wanted to point out something that so many make the mistake of repeating over and over regarding the S Range samplers. Yes, while it does have a great library one must keep in mind the ‘Great Library ‘ tag line to describe arguably the best hardware samplers ever made has become long in the tooth and actually detracts from its real greatness which is its ‘Sound and filters’. The S range library was great in the 90’s a reputation mostly gained for its Orchestral sounds. However compared to today’s massive gigabyte multi sampled offerings it simply cant compete in terms of realism. Of course give the S Range unlimited memory and it would easily beat all of the soft samplers. But when you compare the library with the massive soft sample libraries today it isn’t quite as great. Obviously how can a Piano sample of about 10mb compete with one of those multi gigabyte Piano samples. It will in character but not realism.

    What really makes the S Range great is its sampling and editing capabilities, and of course its sound. Its a great shame really that the S range has never been given the tag as a true samplists tool like the Akai MPC range. But then why would it when almost everyone mentions it in light of its great sounding library. The fact is when paired with the mouse and the screen the S range most definitely is the ultimate samplists tool and if you pair it with an MPC it can do everything the MPC can and a lot lot more. The only true Akai MPC that can give the S range a run for its money in terms of sound manipulation is the Akai MPC 4000.

    The S range is incredibly fast when sampling direct in to a patch and even today it can easily compete with any software sampler for editing. I would even go as far to say that it is better than most in terms of what you can do with the sounds once they are in the sampler. I have native instruments Kontakt. It can do all those marvellous things. But how come no matter what I do with it I can still get a bass sound from my S770/50/60 to blow away anything Kontakt can produce without having to use a swathe of FX and processing. I also have sample Tank which is utter drivel and simply cannot be called a sampler. Halion is decent, I quite like the interface ( a little Roland in style) but again doesn’t come close to the S range in terms of punchy, warm sound, none of them do. That’s what makes the S range brilliant these days, its isn’t its dated 90’s library, its the sound you can get from your Roland S range sampler.

    There are a couple of myths going around.
    The S770 does have early apogee converters but the S750/60 does not. However you can place those samplers side by side and they will sound 100% identical. The sound of those sampler comes not from the converters, but how Roland deals with the sound at the input – output stage (emphasis). A few S770 owners have tried to increase the value of their machines by throwing in it has “Apogee Converters” to give the illusion the S770 is the best one. Of course because they have an agenda probably because they want to inflate the SH price as they intend to sell them. Its the same with many bits of old gear some of which is massively overpriced (particularly analog synths). However, at this time none of the S range is overpriced in my opinion. I’ve seen S770s and S750s for as low as 250 pounds, and even less for an S760. Any of them are a steal at anywhere near those price ranges.

    A must have addition is the Monitor and mouse. To use these samplers without them totally dilutes the experience and of course editing will be a lot slower for the user and thus will never become a true samplist because it will be a chore.

    It matters not which of those three you have, they all have identical features in terms of sound manipulation but there are a few differences between the S770/50 and the S760. For example the S760 can import Akai format, has 32mb memory versus the S770 16mb, and S750 18mb. The S760 has 32 note polyphony versus 24 for the other two. But the most important addition to the S760 which wasn’t so obvious back then, but its now is the inclusion of the S video connection which opens the door for a lot more display choices. The S760 was released five years after the S770 so it stands to reason there area few additions. But nothing changed in terms of sound editing features, filters and of course the all important sound.

    if I had to choose one I would simply say any one will do me. I have no personal favourite. If I were new to the range I would probably go for an S760 for one reason only, the inclusion of the S video connection. If I were obsessed with sampling digitally which I am not because part of the samplers charm is to sample sound through its analog inputs then I would go for either an S770 or S760 both of which have digital inputs

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your great comment! You’re right about the fact that when it comes to realism, the soft samplers rule, esp. piano’s. I haven’t heard a good, realistic and playable piano from any HW sampler I’ve come across (the Kurzweil K2x00 tripple strike piano is the only exception in terms of playability, but that’s actually a preset from a rompler…). Some acoustic guitar samples are still usable, same applies for some (third party) drum CD’s. But when it comes to string sections, that’s a bit of another story to me. I have a lot of VSL stuff that I use often, but sometimes it’s a bit too sterile too me in some situations. Then I grab the Roland Symphonic Orchestra, load it in the S-750 and use that instead of the VSL stuff. Blended in a mix you don’t hear all the details of the samples, but more the overall character. Another thing I sometimes use is to double parts, so you get VSL and Roland sections in unison. This gives a much bigger and lifelier sound. One pitfall: phase cancelling can sometimes occur. Shifting notes can overcome this.

      I also thought the S-750 had Apogee convertors, silly me! I haven’t had a chance to compare the S-750 against the S-770/760, but I did compare it with the SP-700, the S-750 was clearly the better sounding unit. Recently I bought a Akai S-1000HD filled with 32MB for almost nothing (this week a S3000XL for even less, but I haven’t picked it up yet) and compared the two using the same drum samples and a Fender Jazzbass multisample and I must admit I somehow did like the sound of the S1000. It seemed to have a more open, roomy sound, but less thight and more grainy than the S-750. A total different sound character, but I think that they complete each other……

  2. Totally agree with you, Roland gear from the late 80’s are my favorite equipment too 😉 For now I have Alpha Juno 2, S-330, D-110, D-50, MC-50. Cheap, built like tanks (Made in Japan) and with a “magic soul”!!

    • Hi Antonio,

      Thanx for your post! Do you still use the MC-50 sequencer? The D-50 is on my “to buy” list 🙂
      I used to have a D-20 (couldn’t afford a D-50 in ’88, lol), it sounded not even close to the D-50, but it had a 8 track sequencer, that was a revelation for me. Used it until ’96 as my sequencer, then bought Logic Audio…..
      Got any tracks online with the Roland equipment? Always curious:-)

  3. Hi! MC-50 to be honest gets used very little, software is more easy and makes you lazy -_- would like to use it more, it’s a nice piece of equipment, but I am also lacking a bit of space ^^

    I had a D-20 for quite a bit, I bought it because I wanted a cheap D-50 too.. it doesn’t sound the same but it’s still good imho, the only thing is that it’s way too big for what it has to do!! that’s why I exchanged it for a Doepfer MS-404 (nasty!) but also got a cheap D-110 that is basically the same as D-20 but just 1U size. Then a D-50 turned up too for very cheap (150€), so I bought that too! 😀 On my Youtube there is some Alpha Juno in action! 😉

  4. nice read! i just bought an 18mb s750 fir 75€….which included a 100mb zip drive and 2gb jaz drive as well as 3 dvds full of all the roland sample cds…good times! anyone every fitted a card reader into one of these?

  5. Hello everybody!
    I’m about to buy an used S-770…… I know I’ll have some problems to make it work properly… Can somebody help me out on finding its libraries? Can’t wait to use it!!!!

    Thank you!


    • Hi Michele,
      On group there’s a small collection of samples:
      You’ll need an (old) mac or pc with floppy drive to get those images on floppy disk using Smac (Mac OS9) or Sdisk (win 98).
      On Sgroup you can also find the latest sampler OS versions.

      The CD-ROM sample library made by Roland for the 700 series samplers is still pretty good. The ones I really like are the Orchestral family (vol 1 & 2) and Keyboards of the 60’s and 70’s (vol 1 & 2).
      You don’t come across these CD’s very often, I would look on Ebay regularly, you might find some over there.

      Good luck with the S-770!!


  6. None of those Roland samplers have Apogee converters. The S770, S750, the S760– none of them have Apogee converters. And it doesn’t matter; they all sound great.

  7. I think the rumour is that apogee designed the digital converter not the adc, which is very Roland pre emphasis etc. digital is only on s770. This could well be true as the s770 was a colab between Roland Japan and Roland r&d USA. At that time apogee were the king as far as quality digital converters were concerned.

  8. i got a S770 from my uncle couple weeks ago, and most solo strings from orchestral family sounded like shit…they were weird looped (very prominent IMO)
    but ensemble strings were totally OK.
    was that normal ? or i did something wrong?

    btw, does anyone have the following cds?
    Roland L-CD703 CD-ROM ´Modern Sonics Vol.1´ für …() 1992 – 1993
    Roland L-CD704 CD-ROM ´World Music Vol.1´ für S-…() 1992 – 1993
    Roland L-CD705 CD-ROM ´Rhythm Section Vol2´ für …() 1992 – 1993
    (copied from http://www.roland-museum.de/z_syn_sam_a.php?l=en )

    i have Foundations + Rhythm Section Vol1 + OF 1&2
    they are rarities now, maybe we could share with each other…

    • Hi kA, solo strings should be OK. Haven’t got any problems with them. Is the CD-ROM free from scratches? What kind of CD-ROM player are you using (see list)? Other sample CD’s behaving faulty? Try loading some other sounds first and then the solo strings, just to check if it isn’t a memory error.
      Can’t help you with the CD’s you asked, haven’t got those 🙁

      The Roland sampler compatibility Guide

      Enjoy the S770!!

      • ah ok, after listening to the following demos, i am very sure that wasn’t my fault.
        (as far as i know, L-CDX used the same samples from OF1+2 )

        take “021 STR-Vla1 Bryt vb” as an example,the ending note was the weird looped one.
        if note duration is short enough, i guess everything is going to be fine, but that’s way too restrictive…

        some notes are well looped though.
        that would be cool if we could trigger those ‘well looped samples’ using MIDI CC, also, it could provide us some tone variations.

        anyway, solo strings are not really important to me, i need ensemble strings more than often. IMO harp is the only thing missing in OF.
        (what a great loss!!!)

        yea..they are like nowhere to be found, and my uncle replied me that he didn’t know any of those CDs at all. seems like they didn’t come with the sampler (WTF?!)

        • Indeed, the L-CDX series library is derived from the L-CD series. At least the orchestral and rhythm section CD’s. Maybe it’s easier to get those CD’s 🙂
          I’ve got the Orchestral Library and I’ve never experienced weird looping points, I guess is’t the CD. Check out the solo Cello, that’s still a very fine sounding patch (hopefully that one doesn’t have the looping issue). And the violin sections are great, I use those a lot, mostly layered with some VSL strings. VSL is closer miked (I think), Roland has more room to it. Those two blend very well.

          It would be a nice gesture from Roland if they would put the whole library online! And Akai. The E-mu library I don’t care for, I don’t like that one very much….

          • um….i have compared my string-sounds with those demos, they sound exactly the same, so i guess that’s fine

            ‘Vc Arco p nv’ + ‘Vln4 no vib’ sound the best/ most natural out of solo strings IMO

            my uncle also gave me an AKAI S3000XL, complete AKAI factory library (8cds) and a full set of Pirated Miroslav library (6cds). he said a legal Miroslav library set was like 4000USD back then…..more than double S3000XL’s price -_-”

            as for AKAI factory library, i would say its Strings suck, barely usable for modern music, but the rest is OK.

            i dont have anything from EMU, but i read from forum that EMU’s tones are the fattest out of all.

          • Yeah, a lot of E-mu users are very happy with them. I’ve got an E4XT Ultra, nice machine, but the library that came with it (EIII) isn’t my thing. The Orbit board is OK, some nice basses, but I hardly use it. The optional FX board is useless, reverbs are really grainy, low resolution. No comparison to the FX of the EPS. Or the Kurzweil KDFX board, those are really amazing FX for a hardware sampler. They do hold up against high-end reverb units. And they were in the same price range as the E-mu E4’s… But maybe they’re great for hiphop, never done that…

            I don’t have the original Akai library for the S1000, but some Clearmountain stuff (drums, with some nice cymbals) and the Miroslav Vitous library (indeed very expensive back than) and a lot of other 3rd party CD’s, which are stil usable today. You don’t come across the original Akai library that often, I’ve heard people say that it’s outdated, but I’m always curious 🙂 Besides the strings, it’s OK you say?

    • Eh, no. 80’s libraries don’t have that hyped, compressed sound. I’ve got a pretty large collection from different brands, but snares weren’t that heavily processed back then. Of course you can do that yourself with the basic library sounds, but they don’t sound like that straight out of the box. That’s more FL studio stuff:-)
      But if you want to sample your own drum sounds, I would recommend the EPS16+, after the S770/750 my favorite sampler. The Roland S7xx have a warm, polite sound IMO. The EPS is more punchy, gritty sounding, but still very pleasant with a lot of body. Everybody’s always talking about the Akai S950 (or MPC60, same sampler engine) for drums, but I prefer the EPS. Although the editing isn’t that straightforward as on the Akai’s or Roland’s, actually it’s horrible, too many functions for me. But soundwise it’s great. Also the FX engine is very nice, uses the same algorithms as the DP4, which is a sought after unit.

      • ah ic, thanks for the info, i asked because i remember hearing similar snare sounds from some 90s music.

        let’s see if i can get an EPS from ebay 🙂

  9. ah i shall ask my uncle for KDFX (he has a Kurzweil K2XXX keyboard)

    not sure if that’s a typo,
    but i dont have S1000 library neither (i own S3000XL library)
    indeed “outdated” is a right word for AKAI factory libraries, even for S3000XL’s, as many patches sound instantly 90s or maybe ..80s.

    anyway, IMO keys, basses,drums, percussions, are still usage to some extent.
    at least there are some oriental percussions that are hard to find among vintage-synths, eg. Taiko

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