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IK MULTIMEDIA SampleTank 2 (MAC/WIN)

4/1/2004

electronic musician webclips additional contentThebest thing about romplers — sample-playback synthesizerswith a huge selection of recorded sounds in ROM — is theirimmediacy. Switch on the power, turn up the audio, select a sound, andstart playing. Ever since E-mu introduced the first Proteus, romplershave ruled the roost, onstage and in the studio. Even today, whensynthesists can choose from a multiplicity of sound engines thatencompass physical modeling and real analog synthesis, the most popularinstruments are still romplers: the Korg Triton, the Kurzweil 2600, theYamaha Motif, and the Roland Fantom series are just a few.

Until recently, the closest that soft synths came to such ease ofuse was IK Multimedia's sample-playback plug-in SampleTank. Fire upyour sequencer, open a plug-in, select a MIDI track, pick a sound, andstart playing. In SampleTank 2, those capabilities have been expandedand enhanced. SampleTank 2 is available in two editions: XL and L(that's down from three editions of the original). One of XL's manyimprovements is a library of Instrument Presets that's more than twiceas large as before with no increase in price.

Foremost among SampleTank 2's new features is the ability to importsamples from nonnative formats without the separate ST Converterprogram previously included with SampleTank XL. SampleTank 2 alsoprovides three sound engines: one based on sample playback, anotherbased on pitch shift and time stretching, and a third called SampleTankTime Resynthesis Technology, or Stretch.

SampleTank 2 now functions more like a traditional synthesizerthanks to over 50 new user parameters that encompass LFOs, 6-stageenvelopes, and multimode filters. The effects section has been beefedup considerably, and the user interface is greatly improved. All told,SampleTank 2 is a much better substitute for a rompler than theoriginal ever was.

LET'S GET TANKED

For this review, I used the Audio Units version of SampleTank XL2.0.3 in MOTU Digital Performer 4.12 and Emagic Logic Platinum 6.3.3,and the VST version in Steinberg Cubase SX 2.0.0. (SampleTank 2 alsosupports RTAS in Mac OS 9 and OS X, MAS and VST in Mac OS 9, and DX,RTAS, and VST in Windows 2000 and XP.) My computer was a dual-processorPower Mac G4/1 GHz with a gigabyte of RAM and over half a terabyte ofhard-disk space, running Mac OS X 10.3.2. The audio interface was aMOTU 2408mkII, and the MIDI interface was an Emagic MT4.

An installer program took care of installing the plug-in, whichinitially opened as a demo. When I entered my serial number, a windowdisplayed my computer's digital ID. I entered that number on IKMultimedia's registration Web site, and my authorization code arrivedalmost immediately by e-mail. Installation to authorization took onlyminutes. You are allowed three authorization codes, so you can installSampleTank 2 on your notebook and desktop computers and still have anauthorization left for the day you upgrade to a newer model.

The sample library arrives on eight CD-ROMs. Each disc has its owninstaller, so I installed the entire library one disc at a time. Iwould have preferred to install the contents of all the discs in onepass, but I can see the logic of this one-installer-per-disc system ifyou're short on hard-disk space. The entire XL library is over 4.5 GB.SampleTank 2 L has a 2 GB sample library, the same size as the previousXL's.

ONCE AROUND THE BLOCK

 FIG.1: SampleTank 2 offers dozens of improvements over the previousversion, especially with regard to its program-editing capabilities. Inaddition, the XL version's sample library has more than doubled in sizewithout an increase in cost.

Compared with the previous version, SampleTank 2 has more than twiceas many knobs and buttons on its bright-red virtual front panel (seeFig. 1). The group of four Instrument-specific parameter knobsis now labeled Macro, and eight dedicated knobs appear in the Effectssection. In the new Synth-Sampler section, eight additional knobscontrol parameters that depend on which button you click on —Synth, Filter, Envelope 1 or 2, LFO 1 or 2, or Velocity. An onscreenkeyboard is displayed along with pitch-bend and mod wheels.

You can control any knob with any MIDI Control Change (CC) message,but making assignments isn't as simple as selecting MIDI Learn,clicking on an onscreen knob, and moving a control on your hardware.Instead, when you click on the MIDI Ctl button and then a knob, apop-up window appears for you to define your MIDI controls (see Fig.2). Using that technique, I was able to control 16 independentparameters with an Evolution UC-16. You can also assign multiplecontrollers to control one parameter, or one controller to controlmultiple parameters.

 FIG.2: To assign a MIDI CC to any onscreen knob, click on the MIDI Ctlbutton and then a knob. Scroll through the controller numbers in thepop-up window that appears to define minimum and maximumvalues.

The original SampleTank had 16 buttons for selecting whichmultitimbral part to display for editing. SampleTank 2 displays all 16parts simultaneously in the Mix window, and you select a part by simplyclicking on it. In addition to the MIDI channel and Instrument name,each row in the Mix window lets you change the Preset's maximumpolyphony, volume, pan, solo or mute status, and audio-outputassignment. The MB column displays how much RAM a Preset uses, andclicking on a button at the top of the column displays SampleTank'stotal RAM consumption. Each part also has an Empty button for deletingthe current Instrument, and a tiny graph displays the Part's outputlevel.

Red is no longer the only color available for SampleTank 2's userinterface. Tiny, continuously variable Color, Luminescence, andSaturation knobs let you choose from a seemingly infinite palette ofcolors and shades — even black and white.

JUST BROWSING

 FIG.3: SampleTank 2's Browser window reveals Instrument Presets withindirectories in a hierarchical fashion.

The Browser window is an improvement over the original, but it'sstill a little cumbersome, mostly because it's so small. Previously,you double-clicked on folder icons to reveal their contents and clickedon a single triangle to move up through the folder hierarchy. Now youclick on triangles that open and close directories within directories,as you would in the Macintosh Finder's List view (see Fig.3).

To assist in locating the Instrument you want from a choice ofhundreds, SampleTank 2 provides a Search function. Just click on theSearch button and type in a keyword, and all the Presets associatedwith that keyword will appear in the Browser. If a factory keywordwon't get you where you want to go, you can also assign user keywordsby typing them into the appropriate field when an Instrument isselected. The Search function isn't perfect, though; when I searchedfor the word “old,” expecting to find a Preset called OldOrchestra Recording, it wasn't among the four Presets that appeared inthe list.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

IK Multimedia
SampleTank 2 (Mac/Win)
sample-player plug-in
L edition $299
XL edition $499

FEATURES4.0
EASE OFUSE4.5
QUALITY OFSOUNDS3.5
VALUE4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO5

PROS:Large sample library. Instruments load quickly. Choice of soundengines. Extensive real-time editing. Good integrated effects.Sixteen-part multitimbral with up to five effects for each part. Userassignment of MIDI CCs. Imports foreign formats. Three installationauthorizations.

CONS:Small type for parameters. Can't redefine split points. Can't assignuser Macros. Instrument LFOs don't sync to tempo.

Manufacturer
IK Multimedia US LLC
tel. (954) 749-3016
Web www.ikmultimedia.com or www.sampletank.com

NOW I'M DOWN IN IT

Unlike its predecessor, SampleTank 2 can sync loops to sequencertempo. To change tempo without transposing pitch, though, you need toswitch the sound engine from straight sample playback (which IKMultimedia calls resampling) to Pitch-Shift/Time-Stretch (PS/TS). I waspleased that the sync function worked with user samples as well asfactory loops.

However, as soon as I imported a loop containing pitched materialand clicked the PS/TS button, I heard harmonic distortion and otherundesirable artifacts. They became even more pronounced when I changedthe sequencer's tempo. On the other hand, the artifacts were barelyaudible on drum and percussion loops. I wasn't surprised, then, to findthat all the factory loops were drums and percussion. Obviously, PS/TSisn't meant for changing the tempo of pitched loops.

I was surprised to discover that if I set the tempo to a multiple ofthe loop's original tempo, the loop played at its original tempo ratherthan at the multiple. For example, if the loop's original tempo was 80bpm and I set the sequencer's tempo to 40 or 160 bpm, the loop playedat 80 bpm, regardless of whether it was a factory loop or one that Ihad imported. IK Multimedia is working on a solution.

I'd been looking forward to trying out SampleTank 2's much heraldedother new sound engine, Stretch, since it was announced a few monthsago. It's designed to smoothly transpose pitch with the tempo andformants intact, making it possible to play instant vocal harmonies,for example. Stretch works quite well as long as the source sample is asustained monophonic tone. When I stretched one sample of a synthesizedsax tone, for example, I was astonished when it transposed convincinglyup and down the entire keyboard with no apparent artifacts (hear Web Clip 1). When Stretchworks, it's a remarkable feat of technology.

The moment I loaded up a loop and clicked on the Stretch button,though, it was transformed into something that sounded similar butdifferent, full of odd noises and thumps that weren't present in theoriginal loop (hearWeb Clip 2). I was alsodisappointed that the stretching process introduced similar thumps to asweeping synth tone that I'd sampled. Obviously, you need to experimentto find sounds that are appropriate for stretching.

CHECK OUT THE LIBRARY

Anyone composing music with computers appreciates quick and easyaccess to an array of sounds. SampleTank 2's library is vast enough toencompass a broad palette of traditional musical timbres that representquite a few instrumental families and provide hundreds of individualInstruments. No matter which Preset you select, load time is minimal.The Browser divides Instrument Presets into 14 categories. You can alsocreate your own categories by simply placing a new folder in theSampleTank Instruments folder on your computer desktop; likewise, youcan rearrange factory Presets into whatever folders you prefer.

A Program Change Association window lets you assign a MIDI ProgramChange to any Preset. Simply click on an Instrument name and then onthe Program Change button; a Program Change Association window willappear in which you can click and drag in a field to scroll throughpatch numbers.

Besides Bass, Drums, Guitar, Piano, and Organ, other categoriesinclude Brass, Percussion, and Woods and Winds. The Ethnic categoryfeatures nonorchestral instruments that don't fit comfortably in othercategories, such as accordions, harmonicas, mandolin, and whistles, aswell as world instruments such as bamboo and Indian flutes, kalimba,shakuhachi, and sitar. Strings are divided into Cello, Double Bass,Viola, and Violin folders that contain solo and ensemble instruments.Multistring ensembles are in the Orchestra folder, along with variousfull orchestras, orchestral percussion, and a few more instruments suchas harpsichord and glockenspiel that are difficult to fit into othercategories.

The quality of the samples is consistently excellent overall (hearWeb Clip 3). Five years ago,the pianos would have been some of the best you could buy, and theystill sound quite good. I especially like the Acoustic Grand 1 and 3;to my ears, both have a very nice tone and a decent touch response,though neither responds realistically to playing forte. The Stringsdon't provide as many articulations as a dedicated string library, ofcourse, but they sound very nice. Guitars are a mixed bag, and I wasgenerally disappointed with the synths. For electronic sounds, though,I always prefer a synth plug-in to samples. SampleTank's usefulcollection of drum and percussion Loops covers a variety of musicalstyles and tempos (hearWeb Clip 4).

Most but not all of the Presets manage to avoid unevenmultisampling. Some Instruments have certain ranges of pitch that stickout a bit, but none are terribly serious. As is often the case withsample-playback synths, at least half the Instruments are notmultisampled as much as I would have liked. The transposition artifactsthat result from too few samples were often obvious, especially forInstruments with sampled vibrato. Still, with more than 4.5 GB ofsamples, SampleTank 2 is a step up from most hardware-based synthworkstations.

EXOTIC FOREIGN IMPORTS

Some developers call their products virtual samplers even though youcan't record samples directly into them, as you can with a truesampler. IK Multimedia calls SampleTank 2 a sample player, becauseplaying samples is exactly what it does. Nonetheless, a few of itscapabilities make it more like a sampler than a synthesizer. It canimport samples from numerous formats, and it provides a few tools foryou to turn those samples into Instrument Presets by organizing them ona keyboard, specifying Velocity ranges, and shaping the sounds usingfilters, envelopes, and other synthesis parameters. You can't assignuser Macros, however, so real-time control is more limited than withfactory Presets.

SampleTank can import WAV, AIFF, and Sound Designer II samples andAkai S1000 and S3000 samples, banks, and programs. The Mac version canalso import SampleCell banks and instruments. When you click on theImport button, a pop-up menu lets you select S1000-3000, Samples,SampleCell Bank, or SampleCell Instrument. If you choose Samples, afile dialog opens to select a folder full of WAV, AIFF, or SDII filesto import. Once you select a folder, you can check the checkboxes ofthe individual samples you want to import in the Sample Conversionwindow. SampleTank does more than import a bunch of samples randomly,however; if the original pitches and maximum Velocities are in theirnames, it can automatically assign them to root keys, transpositionranges, and Velocity ranges. If you import loops, you can specify tempoin their names, too.

 FIG.4: Clicking on the Zone button displays an Instrument's keyboardmapping, but SampleTank 2 doesn't offer the means to edit splitpoints.

For example, let's say you import four samples named Bass C1 v64,Bass C1 v127, Bass C2 v64, and Bass C2 v127. SampleTank will map thefirst sample so that C1 is the root and it will play at any Velocity of64 and below; higher Velocities will play the second sample. Inaddition, SampleTank will automatically create a split point halfwaybetween C1 and C2. If you want a different split point, though, you'reout of luck. Clicking the Zone button will display keyboard splits, butyou can't edit them (see Fig. 4).

SampleTank's technique for importing raw samples into ready-to-playPresets is quite clever, though obviously you need to prepare inadvance by naming the samples with SampleTank in mind. Still, renamingsample files is probably easier than graphically mapping them byhand.

I was able to import Akai data from several different developers'CD-ROMs. Just click on Import, select S1000-3000, and insert a discinto your CD or DVD drive. Then select the data you want to import andwait until the translation is complete. I hope that someday SampleTankwill import additional sample formats, such as Giga, HALion, andEXS.

PROCESSING PLANT

SampleTank 2's selection of 32 insert effects offers practicallyeverything you might hope for in a synth workstation. Preamp, tonecontrol, and cabinet effects are borrowed from IK Multimedia'samp-modeling plug-in, Ampli Tube. Parametric EQ, compression, andlimiting are on loan from the T-Racks mastering plug-in. In addition tothose and the original SampleTank's effects, SampleTank 2 supplies achannel strip, spring reverb, envelope filter, multifilter, phaser,envelope flanger, crusher, and overdrive. EQ and compression are alwaysavailable. You can choose up to four more effects for each Preset.

Five simultaneous effects for each of 16 parts mean you can use upto 80 effects at the same time from one instance of SampleTank 2. Youshould be aware of a couple of caveats, however. Obviously, yourcomputer needs a fast processor to handle such CPU-intensive activity;don't expect 80 effects with a 3-year-old computer. Even with mydual-processor G4, reverb in particular placed such a strain on theprocessor that the only way to load even half that many effects was toavoid using reverb. Could your computer handle 16 reverbs? Thelimitation is in the hardware, not the software. It helps thatSampleTank 2 provides ways to conserve CPU load, such as allowing youto limit polyphony for each Instrument.

Because each effect has as many as eight user parameters and you canassign each knob to a MIDI CC, you can automate all effects parametersby recording MIDI in your sequencer tracks. A few effects can sync totempo, including the Effects section's filter LFO and all effects witha tempo function: delay, flanger, autopan, tremolo, and slicer. (TheLFOs in the synthesis architecture do not sync to tempo.)

TANKS FOR EVERYTHING

When you sit down at a synth workstation, you expect hundreds ofsounds, built-in effects, and ease of use; SampleTank 2 offers the samefunctionality in a plug-in instrument. The latest version includes amuch larger library of ready-to-play samples than its predecessor andoffers dozens of new and welcome features. The multi-effects processorenhances the samples quite a bit, and I appreciate the improvements inSampleTank's ability to import your own samples. SampleTank 2's editingdepth is way beyond its predecessor's, and its user interface makesediting accessible.

SampleTank 2 holds plenty of promise for anyone who's turning aphysical studio into a virtual one. It is a suitable replacement forthe sample-playback synths that so many musicians rely on every day. Ihave little doubt that SampleTank 2 will become a plug-in that manyusers won't want to sequence without.


No longer a velveteen rabbit, EM associateeditor Geary Yelton lives in Charlotte, North Carolina,with his lovely wife Pam.



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