Roland SP-808 & the Magic CF-Drive

In this galaxy just some decades ago a new musical machine was released by the Roland Corporation. They launched the SP-808 Groove Sampler, a multifunctional unit with the possibility to sample, to sequence and to do multitrack recording. Loaded with cool COSM effects, a virtual synthesizer, a 10-band vocoder and a step modulator this beauty was introduced in many studios. It was developed for producers, remix DJ’s and live performers like rappers and MCs.

Zip Disk

At that time it used a very sophisticated medium, the Zip Disk. Those disks were mainly used by graphical artists because you could save and load up to 100/250MB of archives, which was a huge difference in comparison with the 1.44MB floppy. With the iOmega Zip Disk you showed that you were totally into it.
The SP-808 needed the Zip Disk for active saving and loading samples and recordings. Active, yes, active. The Zip Disk was used in an active, all-the-time-working way, which means that the SP-808 was accessing the disk continuously. This movement produced a whining kind of sound, all the time and it influenced the silence moments in studios.
Besides the sound it appeared that the Zip Disk wasn’t fast enough for the users which led to the annoying message “DRIVE TOO BUSY”.

The modern media turned into the achilles heel of the SP-808 because users lost work due to the ‘click-of-death’ of unreliable Zip Drives. The result was that musicians left the SP-808 and went to other machines which were not depending on Zip Drives. The unit became largely available on the second hand market for an extremely low price. The SP-808 was nice but not. It had so much to offer but the idea of loosing all your creative work was more then enough to say goodbye to it.

E-Mix Studio Firmware

Roland released the SP-808e-mix studio firmware where you were able to at least use the SP without the Zip Disk. Well, you could use in standalone mode the effects, the synth, the D-Beam, the Step modulator and eh…what am I missing? Ah…the Sampler and the Multi-track recorder.
The most important parts of the GrooveSampler could not be used in standalone mode. Of course not, because you needed access to the Zip Disk.
So, the SP-808 became more and more a failure due to this Zip Horror.

MPC 2000XL Blue MCD

In 2004 AKAI released the MPC 2000XL Blue MCD. A Midi Production Center with a CF-Reader instead of a floppy or Zip Drive. This particular CF-Reader became the most important CF-Reader of all time because this one was able to work for the Roland SP-808.
This weekend (we’re talking about July 2020) I received this special MPC with the original MCD and I installed it into my SP-808.
After all those years my SP-808 saw the light. Finally it could breath normally without having a ‘Drive too busy’ drop out!

The Master Plan

Okay, here’s the deal. The plan is to recreate/reproduce this CF-Reader. I’m working for/with a manufacturer of computer products (Gembird Europe) and we have a dedicated R&D-team. This team of professionals have developed a lot of products the past 25 years. Some examples: e-Printer (rewarded in 2012 on CES), SilverShield Surge Protectors (remote controlled Surge Protectors over LAN/WiFi), e-Mic (Voice message mails, way before WhatsApp!) and the Flexi-Drive (using Hard Drives as floppies – Hot Swap)
Their experience made us decide to invest time in developing a replacement of the Zip Drive for the Roland SP-808/SP-808e-mix.

In this blog I will keep you updated on how the process is developing.
If the markers are right, I will launch a CrowdFunding campaign to make sure we can actually produce these replacements.
So, stay up to date and subscribe to my website.

Development Log

Friday 24 July 2020
Akai MPC 2000XL Blue version received from Japan. Unit contains original MCD

Sunday 26 July 2020
Video launched with replacement of the Zip Drive of the SP-808 with the MCD of the AKAI.
Result is that the drive is working.

Monday 27 July 2020
Pictures of PCB are sent out to R&D team in Netherlands/Russia.

Tuesday 28 July 2020
First feedback received from R&D team.
– Chip is not commercially available (anymore)
– Possible programming of controller PLDS. Will be expensive due to reverse engineering. Calculation will follow
– Ordered an FC-Chip which could be programmed. Will arrive within 3 weeks.

Wednesday 29 July 2020
Just received feedback that Chipset FC1307A is not produced anymore and that its Taiwanese Factory KTC is not existing anymore.
So my order of the FC-Chip has no use anymore.
– Mail sent out to Roland Corporation to ask if they can provide info about firmware or if they can allows to create a replacement for the Zip Drive to prevent copyright strikes.

Thursday 30 July 2020
Just discovered that the WAV-Converter for the SP-808 works with CF-cards. The cards are recognised as Zip Disks and thus possible to put samples on by just dragging and dropping.
I used my Macbook, which worked but suddenly gave a strange error. Had to reboot and then it worked again.
And old XP works flawless.

Received answer from Roland. Firmware is (of course) not available for the public domain. On the other hand there is no copyright infringement as the drive is developed for AKAI and not for Roland. They asked me to provide more info about the AKAI MCD to put me in contact who can give me advise on this development.

Author: Roger, TMM

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6 thoughts on “Roland SP-808 & the Magic CF-Drive

  1. Hi very good news i currently have 2 sp808’s upgraded to ex …….I would definately put down for 2 on your kickstart………….i am very very grateful for your efforts………i also really enjoy your videos( i too am a roland fan as well as sp808 have a vs2480, vp9000 and a vsynth xt

    1. That’s awesome!! Almost the same units. I regret that I sold my VP though…
      Buuuuut….last week I found the Alpha Juno 1 + PG-300, and Roland A-80 MIDI Master Keyboard and this week the JD-990 enters the studio.

      I also had contact with Roland about the Zip Disk process and I received positive feedback.
      I hope that we can move on this week.

      Thanks and we stay in touch!

    1. Hi Vadim,

      thanks for your reaction. The R&D-team informed me that the FC1307A is not produced anymore and that the producing Taiwanese company KTC is closed.
      So, we asked Roland if they can provide us technical information about the protocol of the SP-808.

    1. Hi Vadim,
      We’re not on the stage yet of creating a firmware dump.
      What I mean, I personally don’t have the knowledge to create a FW-dump.
      First we need an approval from Roland Corp to continue before we get an copyright infringement strike.
      The first contact with Roland is positive so that’s good.

      Meanwhile, what do I need to create this FW-Dump?

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