Yamaha PS-55 Keyboard Wonder

Yamaha PS-55
Yamaha PS-55

Today I bought an incredible little gem of a keyboard called the Yamaha PS-55. It’s an arranger from the early 80’s and after watching the video I posted below I knew I had to RUN back to the store and grab it quick. The used music shop actually acquired it the night before so I had all night to check it out. This is definitely the best thing I’ve picked up so far this month. I’m a real 80’s fan and the Yamaha PS-55 just oozes with the New Wave sound I grew up with from around 1980 to 1984.

The Yamaha PS-55 is an arranger which for many synth enthusiasts might be taboo a bit, but there is just so much you can do with this little number that I couldn’t pass it up. It’s also not the most pretty looking thing and I’m not big with speakers in my synths, but this keyboard has such a fun and unique sound. The condition is near perfect with everything fully functional. You can’t tweak the sounds directly, BUT you can do a lot in the way of mixing, layering, adding effects, and using functions such as the arp or duet to spice things up. I have played for about two hours with it so far and haven’t been able to break away from it. What I’ve learned so far that I like is as follows:

There are two voice layers, one called orchestra and the other solo. You can layer these while controlling the volume, or play them individually with the other turned off. It adds variation in sound to the upper half of the keyboard. I have noticed that most of the sounds are actually quite usable and excellent. If you block out the names of the voices like guitar and clarinet, it’s easier to visualize this as a synth of sorts. The sounds are very 80’s and you can DEFINITELY get a very solid and cool synthpop sound out of the Yamaha PS-55.

There is also a sustain slider that allows you to sort of control the decay of the sound to give you that class bouncy analog sound much like the Juno series. You can tap the keys and they sustain very nicely with a sort of lively feel. It’s VERY analog sounding to me with a touch of digital. OR perhaps one might look at that the other way around. Either way, it has a vintage sound for sure.

There is a Stereo Symphonic slider that is effectively a panning effect that allows you to control the direction the sound is coming from the speakers. This also works in tandem with the CHORUS and TREMELO effects to give a rotary or wavering effect. Simply brilliant!! It’s another way to make the sound come alive.

There are volume controls for almost everything that makes sound on the Yamaha PS-55. This really allows you to MIX your sounds and “parts” or “tracks” very nicely. Add in all the effects, panning, and other variables, you can really get a very nice blend of music that can sound very unique. I love the sound!!

The three main effects are vibrato, chorus, and celeste. You can only choose one at a time using the slider, BUT, they do overlap so you can blend the vibrato with chorus, or the chorus with celeste. The Celeste effect is primarily for doubling or making the sound thicker. In fact all of these effects thicken the sound greatly and are really what gives the Yamaha PS-55 that analog sound.

There is a built in String and Violin Vibrato also when using those sounds. Again, if you block out the names and simply think of these as synth voices, they sound great. The vibrato is unique bucause it pulsates in a rhythmic fashion to both fatten the sound and give it a lively vibe. Again another brillaint and unique feature.

The drums sounds a bit like a TR-606 sound and they do sound good! (Duck!) They are rough and very punchy through my Mackie mixer. The hand clap is fantastic with several variations available. Patterns are not programmable, BUT they are solid and very useful. The fill button below the left speaker is fun as heck. You just slap that button and everything freezes while a pretty cool fill cranks out. Then just hit the left keys when ready and the groove kicks in again. It really is fun to jam with.

The arp is VERY basic with only two versions, but when you use it along with the bass grooves and drum machine it becomes more lively and unique. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but when you combine everything the arp just sounds different each time and really mixes well with the arrangements. The arranger “logic” or whatever you call it inside this Yamaha PS-55 is pretty cool and it’s quite easy to get a groove going that is decent for any retro sounding song.

There is also a duet function which is the equivalent to a harmonizer of sorts. It’s added to the right part of the keyboard when active and has another variation. It really adds to the melodies or leads with the right hand so I pretty much leave it on the whole time.

On the back there is a stereo output and an aux out. There is also an aux in for feeding another audio source through the Yamaha PS-55. You can connect a sustain pedal and volume pedal if desired as well. The phones jack is on the front of the keyboard.

On board is a programmable three track recorder with which to record a drum, bass, and chord arrangement. You can then play melodies and leads on top. I haven’t used it yet because I find the live playing aspect very fun and rewarding thus far. The drums, chords, arps, and bass all play as auto if desired so you can take your hands off the keys to play leads. Then later you can trigger chord and bass changes. All of the buttons and sliders are very well placed. You can absolutely create an entire synthpop song AND play it on stage with just this keyboard. It would sound fantastic too!!!

If you ever see a Yamaha PS-35 or 55, I absolutely recommend you pick it up. It’s definitely a hidden gem and really fun to play. I must advise though that it’s probably most suited for synth users who like to incorporate new and unique stuff into their setup. It also has a very 80’s sound. It’s definitely not modern which is what I really like about it. The Yamaha PS-55 will definitely be a secret weapon in my setup, although after this article it may not be so secret anymore. Enjoy!

Here is the English Manual for the Yamaha PS-55

There are not that many videos on Youtube of either the Yamaha PS-55 or little brother PS-35 that I like, but below is one that is close. This really shows a good 80’s sound with the drums, arp, and bassline along with the sustained piano like melody. The PS-55 can definitely sound like a crappy toy in stock form, but if know what you’re doing like the guy in this video, the PS-55 then becomes a synthpop HIT!!

Sequential Circuits Drumtraks 80s Groove Box

Sequential Circuits Drumtraks 400
Sequential Circuits Drumtraks 400

Last weekend I picked up a used Sequential Circuits Drumtraks drum machine in near mint condition. I haven’t opened it up to check the OS version yet, but so far it performs beautifully. I hooked it up to my Roland TR626 so that I could sync it with my Roland Juno-60 and it really works well. As a fan of 80’s music who grew up during that period, I really enjoy the operation and sound of the Sequential Circuits Drumtraks.

I know it’s sample based and possibly easy to reproduce using a sampler, but I like the ability to tweak the sounds using the Drumtraks itself and the sound is still unique in my opinion.

The machine thumps really good and if you check out the great video below found on Youtube, you might just be inspired like I was. I have never seen one in Japan so I figured this might be my only chance. I’m still learning the ins and outs of this drum machine and I’ll post more info as I dive into what this machine can do in greater depth.

The Sequential Circuits Drumtraks really sounds great played along with my other analog synths for achieving that fun 80’s vibe.

Roland SP-808 converted to Edirol A6 with Hard Disk

Roland SP-808 Groove Sampler
Roland SP-808 Groove Sampler

Currently I have three ( yes three ) Roland SP-808 Groove Samplers with the crappy Zip Drives in them. I don’t use them much simply because the noise caused by the Zips are sometimes unbearable when using these devices. I have tried many times to install CF/SD and HDs to the SP-808/EX Samplers but none have worked. Thus today, I decided to take one of the SP-808 Samplers and convert it to an Edirol A6 Audio Workstation. The conversion, upgrade, or downgrade depending on your point of view went super smooth. The conversion process was done via midi using eight files and along with an IDE 3.5 to 2.5 adapter I was able to install successfully a laptop hard disk. My Roland SP-808 is now a fully functional Edirol A6 and the Zip noise is now GONE! My goodness, the silence is awesome and the SP808/A6 is now a joy to use.

There are some major differences between the SP-808 and the A6. I’ll write a few below that I’ve encountered. There may be some workarounds, but you will lose some functionality by converting the SP-808 to the A6.

1. If you have the OP-1 expansion board installed which I do, you will NOT be able to use the SP-808 WAV converter software anymore with the A6 external zip drive. The Format/Backup/Recovery of zip disks when attached externally to the OP-1 expansion board is radically different. You can kiss the WAV converter goodbye as all compatibility is out the window.

2. In addition, the SP-808 WAV converter will not work with the Edirol A6 hard disk when connected to the PC. The way to import WAV files it seems is to use a separate zip disk drive connected to your PC with an SP-808 zip disk inside. Using that SP-808 zip disk you can import you WAV files using the SP-808 converter software. Once you disk is complete, you then open up the disk contents in explorer and drag/drop the files into the Edirol A6 hard disk partition of your choice. When you re-attach the hard disk to the Edirol A6, it will now read the samples you imported. There’s just no escaping that zip disk or drive…laugh. I have all the SP-808 converters from 1.0 up to 2.2 and they all don’t allow me to directly import WAV files onto an Edirol A6 formatted Hard Disk.

3. You LOSE the SP-808 pad event sequencer, mono synth, D-Beam, BPM functions, and Midi sync abilities. It’s all gone folks and there is no workaround period.

4. You lose six sampling pads. Thus you now have 10 pads rather than 16 for sample playback, however you DO get 4 sample pads back as favorites. These 4 pads though apply to all sample banks so you do not get 4 favorites for each bank. In addition, the remaining two lost sample pads are used for sequential playback of sample pads which is a unique feature to the A6. Pad Favorites and Pad Sequential playback are cool features and may allow you to apply them in creative ways to your mixes.

5. You also will have differences in the number and type of effects. I can’t detail them right now, so you’ll have to check the manual but so far the changes aren’t that critical. If you are heavily into effects and if you have a few favorites, I strongly suggest you consult the manual beforehand to ensure you can either replicate or create the needed effect.

6. I can’t verify this, but some have indicated the sample pad response is a tad slower on the A6. Thus if you press the sample pads you they may not react as snappy as you like. They seem fine to me, but I’m not a hardcore beat sample user. My initial feeling is that complaints are a bit on the picky side, but I could be wrong.

Roland Edirol A6 Audio Workstation
Roland Edirol A6 Audio Workstation

So with all these “missing” or “crippled” functions on the A6, why on earth would one want to convert their SP-808 Sampler box to an Edirol A6? The following reasons my not be the ideal reasons for everyone, but for me they work great and so far I’m happy with the conversion.

1. The Zip drive noise and unreliability is gone gone gone!!! I can now sample in silence and enjoy the SP-808/A6 in a quiet atmosphere. That zip whine gives me a headache after a while so I’m happy to say the A6 box runs silent. For me that adds to my creative whim.

2. I can substitute lack of MIDI clock sync with MTC Time code linked with a Roland XP-80, VS-840, or few other devices I have. Synchronization is excellent and I don’t think about the midi issue at all. Most people only have Midi clock experience and little with MTC so I understand the apprehension, but if you have the hardware it’s a non issue.

3. By using the 2.5 HD, you can easily remove the drive and plug it into your computer with an easy to find USB/HD cable. The HD will appear on the PC and you can access it via the SP-808 wav converter. You can also access the data folders and build your banks for later transfer to the HD as well. Getting LOTS of wav samples onto the HD is not a problem UNLIKE the external zip if formatted with the A6 and the OP-1. You will also have to adhere to the 10 only pads that allow sample triggering. Any other samples allocated to the remaining 6 pads will go undetected. Also note that all partitions will show up on the computer. So you can import WAV banks to all partitions which is cool. Then insert the HD back into the A6 and jam away.

4. If you have a 2nd or 3rd SP-808 like I do, you can utilize the D-Beam, Mono Synth, Sequencer, etc. on that machine. Then you can use the A6 to record if you like.

5. Triggering the A6 sample pads via midi is simple and very flexible. You can even trigger the sequential pads and pad favorites 1-4. Thus you could use the second SP-808 to trigger the A6 pads if you like while at the same time triggering the SP-808 pads. It’s like using the A6 as a sound module. I have a Roland VS-840 converted to SD card reader which operates really well. Using this with the A6 is a great combo. In fact, the Edirol A6, SP-808EX and VS840 would make a nice triple threat.

6. The A6 is actually thought of more as a Hard Disk recorder than a Sampler now. You get additional V tracks for each track so that you can record multiple takes and toggle between them. This allows for some additional creative usage unavailable on the SP-808.

There are likely more positives and negatives for whatever side you take above, but for now these are the main ones I’ve encountered. If you have converted your SP-808 to the A6 or have made any modifications, please comment. I’m about 99% sure that NO hard disk can be used in the SP-808 and I only ever heard of one CF card reader out of hundreds that claims to work. That reader is no longer available and I don’t have any info on it unfortunately. Thus right now, the only option is to make due with the Roland SP-808 as is, sell it, or convert it to an A6.

I do know this though. Should anyone develop or find a way to get an HD or CF/SD card into the SP-808, the value will go up with these samplers. Despite the low polyphony of 4, I think the SP-808 could become a real classic provided that nasty zip drive gets dropped in the near future. We’ll see. Until then, I have three Roland SP-808s that I’m trying to find uses for. I’m sure quite a few other SP-808 owners are in the same boat.

Note: I originally bought one SP-808 when it first came out used. The second one was given to me broken but I repaired it. The final third I bought at a rock bottom price because it had the OP-1 expansion board installed. Just FYI for those wondering why I would have three units.