SP-808 Disk Upgrade

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Historical note: Roland’s original SP-808 “groove sampler” was an innovative product in its day. Part of its innovation was that it recorded and played samples directly from its internal ZIP drive. The original model sported a 100MB ZIP drive, the largest available at the time the SP-808 was introduced in 1998. The replacement SP-808EX substituted the newer 250MB ZIP drives. This was a significant enhancement because very long recordings could be made, important when the SP-808 doubled as a multitrack recorder.

The 250MB ZIP drives became available to the personal computer marketplace long before the SP-808EX was introduced. At that time I embarked on an experiment to see if the original 100MB ZIP drive could be replaced with one of the new 250MB ZIP drives in a stock SP-808. The following was published on the delora.com website in Spring of 1999. These DIY instructions became quite popular with musicians around that time who had made the SP-808 an important component of the studio or stage kit.

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Of course a decade later this is more of historical interest than practical interests since portable samplers like The SP-404 or SP-555 now feature gigabytes of storage using standard Flash memory cards. Still the SP-808 has its charms and used ones can still provide a novel workflow or performance capabilities.

One final bit of "SP-808 modding" is that it was well know in certain circles that an SP-808 could be upgraded to an SP-808EX by using this modification and updating its firmware with one of the early SP-808EX updates that Roland made available. This was completely unsupported by Roland. If you wish to pursue such a modification of your SP-808 then do some Internet searching and you will likely find the instructions for performing the firmware upgrade.

I have been using a SP808 that I upgraded to the new Iomega ZIP250 drive for about 6 weeks now and would like to share my experiences.

First, this is not an official upgrade by Roland. Roland does not support this upgrade in any fashion and would caution you that doing this upgrade may invalidate your warranty if the upgrade causes any problems. Roland will not support this upgrade either so if you have problems with it your on your own.

Second, please do not attempt this unless you are experienced with working with delicate electronics equipment. At a minimum you should be comfortable with opening up a computer chassis and changing a hard drive or a CD drive. While the work is not difficult or tricky in any way you do need to use caution and safety (like make sure the unit is unplugged before doing anything!!!). If you are not confident that you "know what to do", I recommend having a friend that is or even a service shop do the upgrade.

Third you accept all liabilities of doing this upgrade. Roland nor Harmony Systems Inc does not warrant the suitability in any way. If it works for you, great. if it doesn't work then your on your own.

What is it?

Iomega introduced a new ZIP drive this year that has a capacity of 250MB per cartridge. The cartridges are physically the same size and the newer drive can still read and write 100M cartridges. The cost of the cartridges is about twice that of a 100M so the per bit cost is a good value.

Originally these drives were just introduced in SCSI and Parallel port interfaces. The SP808, however, uses an IDE (also referred to as an ATAPI) internal ZIP drive so the original offerings were of no value to the SP808 owner (with a minor exception being as a larger drive for external libraries - BUT NOT BACKUPS). Within the last two months though the internal ATAPI ZIP250 drives have been showing up in computer superstores and on-line for prices between $150 and $170. This drive is a drop in replacement for the internal drive that is included in a stock SP808.

What are the benefits?

Simply, increased record time. A standard SP808 offers 23 minutes of stereo recording. At the lower sample rate you can extend this to be 32 minutes of stereo. This is probably the biggest practical limitation of the SP808 for use as a general purpose hard disk recording device. The lack of long track recording times limits it use for conventional songs one at a time and prevents long sets to be recorded.

Modifying the SP808 with the new internal ZIP250 gains you just over *one hour* of stereo recording time at 44kHz, or over 90 minutes at the lower sample rate of 32kHz. This is a seriously useful improvement to the normal operation of the SP808.

In order to qualify the new drive under use I have been using it since I made the change over six weeks ago. Operation is transparent and I experienced no surprises. Compatibility with the ZIP100 cartridges was fine as I have been able to intermix usage of 100M and 250M without issue. Most importantly all of my existing 100M cartridges worked fine. As a measure of the utility of the increased storage I recorded three separate takes averaging 15 minutes each of the same song but with differing performances. I then proceeded to craft a single 8 minute mix from the 45 minutes of material making heavy use of the phrase editing capabilities of the SP808 as well as moving segments between the linear recording tracks and the sample pads. This work without issue [see additional note of a caution].

How do you do the change?

The SP808 is easy to open up by removing the screws from the bottom. Once the bottom plate is removed the entire electronics of the SP808 is easily accessible. The ZIP drive is mounted in its own little removable area and can be slide out by simply unscrewing its mounting, much like the way a hard drive is removed from a PC. The wide ribbon cable and power cable connected to the original drive should be detached before removing the drive. Take a moment before doing this to write down on a piece of paper the orientation of each cable, paying attention to the red strip on the ribbon cable and where it is in relationship to the ZIP drive. Do the same for the power cable as it is important to reconnect these in the same orientation.

Once the old drive is removed simply slide in the new one, reattach the cables as before, and secure the drive by screwing in the mounting screws. At this point, unless you are experienced and confident, I would cautiously turn the unit over (right side up) with the bottom cover removed and place it on a surface that is free of anything (so nothing is poking under the unit). Reattach power and give it a try to verify that everything is working. At the first sign of trouble after turning it on (like no display) IMMEDIATELY SHUT THE UNIT OFF AS SOMETHING IS MISCONNECTED. Recheck your work and fix whatever mistake was made.

After a successful test remove power, unplug, and proceed to attach the base metal plate as originally placed. Your SP808 is now ready for duty!

What to do with the ZIP100 drive you removed? It will work in a computer so that is one possible use. At a minimum I recommend keeping it so that should you ever need to return the SP808 to its original condition you can do so.

Other issues

If you have the I/O and SCSI expansion and are using an external SCSI ZIP drive for backup then you will need to give serious consideration to also purchasing a ZIP250 external SCSI drive. The SP808 allows mixing of cartridge types for some operations between the two drives but this is limited to reading songs and samples from the external drive to the internal drive. The most important limitation without an external 250M drive is that you can not backup unless both cartridges are the same. This soon became a major hassle for me so I succumbed and purchased an external ZIP250 and have been very happy with the pairing.

If you are taking advantage of the converter program for getting samples in and out of the computer you will need to have a 250M drive on the computer for complete flexibility. However in practice this has not been an issue for me as I can move a sample to a 100M cartridge and then read and write that in the standard 100M ZIP on my computer.


Upgrading the SP808 to a 250M ZIP opens up the possibility of using it for serious HD recording projects. Granted you are limited to only recording a single stereo pair at a time but for studio use that may not be an issue. With the additional recording time I have decided to use the SP808 as a work horse recorder and will hold off on considering another HD system until my needs require something as capable as the VS1680.

Notes and Cautions

While generally abusing the SP808's phrase editing on an almost full ZIP 250 cartridge I experienced a couple of "Drive Busy" errors while only playing back 3 tracks. This is usually an indication that the hard drive is not being able to keep up. In each case a simple bounce was all that was needed to fix the problem and in each case the problem occurred in a region where every track was a short phrase. I have experienced this one other time with a ZIP100 drive so I do not believe that it is because the ZIP250 if slower. Rather, I would expect that you will see this more often when you have a disk full of small phrases being reassembled from all over the drive. In computer DAWs this happens when the hard disk is highly fragmented and I suspect this is the case here. I do not believe this to be a practical issue but it is something one needs to be aware of.