Roundup: Evaluating Three Great Samplers - EMusician

Battle of the Super Samplers

Three major sampling platforms duke it out for software supremacy
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When you and I talk about electronic musical instruments, we usually mean synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and MIDI controllers. Although synthesizers are most plentiful and get the most attention, samplers are equally essential. With a sampler, you can use readily available sound libraries in your music and create your own virtual instruments from any sound you can record. In recent years, the most versatile samplers are all software. Understanding their differences is essential to choosing one that suits your needs.

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Let’s begin by explaining how a sampler differs from a sample player. Samplers allow you to organize snips of audio and carefully craft them into data structures we call instruments and then organize those instruments into sample libraries. Multisampling—gathering related samples and mapping them to MIDI notes and velocities for intuitive playback—is precision work that takes patience and skill. Once the work is done, anyone with compatible software can play instruments you’ve created with a MIDI keyboard or sequencer.

A sampler player, on the other hand, ignores the first part of this two-part equation. It doesn’t let you arrange and rearrange samples, but it does let you play instruments crafted by someone with a sampler.

Either samplers or sampler players are included with most DAWs, but most can’t be used outside of their native environment. Apple EXS24, for example, works only in Logic Pro. Ableton Simpler and Sampler are integrated into Live, and you can’t use Propeller-head NN-19 or NN-XT outside of Reason.

On the other hand, Native Instruments Kontakt, Steinberg HALion, and UVI Falcon run standalone and in various plug-in formats for both Windows or the Mac, which means you can use them alone or in whatever DAW you choose. For that reason, this article will focus on Kontakt, HALion, and Falcon. Your criteria for which sampler you prefer will most likely depend on how you plan to use it.

THE CONTENDERS

Without a doubt, the most popular sampler in recent years is Native Instruments Kontakt. It’s extremely versatile, and it comes with a massive, ready-made library of sampled instruments. Kontakt’s deep and sophisticated synthesis architecture supplies a vast assortment of filters, modulators, and effects that support complex routings. Kontakt also has some of the most robust features available for virtual instrument designers, allowing them to integrate complex math functions and emulate multiple-microphone setups, for example. You can get a free playback-only version called Kontakt Player with less than half a gigabyte of content included. Although Kontakt Player can play many third-party sample libraries for Kontakt, many other libraries play only in the full version.

Steinberg HALion has been around the longest, but it has definitely kept up with the times. It’s the only popular sampler software I know that actually lets you sample (e.g., record snippets of sound, one at a time, directly into its memory, and map it as you go, the way you could with hardware-based samplers of old). As with Kontakt, you get plenty of factory content. HALion’s capabilities take it beyond just sampling, too, thanks to its wavetable and granular synthesis features. Two players are available, HALion Sonic ($250 separately, but bundled with HALion) and HALion Sonic SE (free), which doesn’t include any samples.

UVI Falcon is the upstart in this sampling trio. It has been around for fewer than three years, yet it has won over many enthusiastic fans. Though marketed as a synthesizer, it is also a formidable sampler. With Falcon, you can use sampled material as the basis for granular and plucked-string synthesis, and its mapping, processing, and playback capabilities are comparable to Kontakt’s and HALion’s. What’s more, you can map a different type of oscillator to each note, which means you can combine sampling and algorithmic synthesis in a single instrument. Falcon plays any sample library formatted for UVI’s free sample player Workstation, which comes with well under a gigabyte of content derived from UVI’s sample libraries.

ALL TOGETHER NOW

All three samplers have numerous traits in common. They all stream audio from your computer’s RAM, hard disk, or solid-state drive, which means you’ll want to adjust the audio buffer to match your computer’s resources. All three support high sampling rates and bit depth, as well as multiple outputs and surround sound (as long as your DAW supports them). In addition, all three are multitimbral and allow you to load and play many instruments simultaneously.

Samplers provide the means to create a multisample map by assigning each sample to play within a specified range of pitch and velocity. For example, you could record A below middle C played on a piano with moderate force and then map that sample to MIDI Note 57 with a MIDI velocity range between 42 and 84. Sample the same pitch played softer and harder, map the resulting samples to the same note, and then assign them to velocity ranges below 42 and above 84, respectively. Repeat the entire process for every pitch you want in your multisample. In all three samplers, multisample mapping is just a matter of clicking-and-dragging individual samples from your desktop or a browser to an onscreen mapping editor that’s laid out on a grid.

All three samplers allow you to automate musical events and processes though the use of a scripting language. You can use prewritten scripts or write scripts yourself. Scripts let you modify instruments to automatically play glissandos, generate chords, or create instant harmonies when you play a single note, for example. You can also use scripting to customize an instrument’s user interface completely or simply to add your own onscreen graphics. If you want to create custom graphical interfaces without scripting, you can do that with HALion and Falcon.

Another feature that Kontakt, HALion, and Falcon have in common is that they all furnish an outstanding collection of effects processors, ranging from algorithmic reverbs and guitar amp simulators to unique filters and multiband EQs (see Figure 1). Each lets you create a complex chain of effects and place them at various points within an instrument’s organizational structure to optimize flexibility and control.

Fig. 1. In this view of Kontakt, you can access an instrument’s insert effects and change their parameters.

Fig. 1. In this view of Kontakt, you can access an instrument’s insert effects and change their parameters.

NATIVE INSTRUMENTS KONTAKT 5

The most popular sampler by far is Kontakt, from Berlin-based Native Instruments (NI). Many consider Kontakt the sampler that toppled the long-time supremacy of hardware samplers, if for no other reason because it can access mountains of sampler data. Soundware companies the world over have embraced this software. Sample libraries formatted for Kontakt are a de facto standard. Most commercial sample libraries are available only for Kontakt or Kontakt Player. The full version comes standard with the Kontakt Factory Library, a 43GB collection of multisampled instruments encompassing diverse instrument types and musical styles.

Along with such near-universal support, Kontakt lets you create extensive multitimbral setups that can host as many as 64 independently addressable sampler instruments and innumerable effects processors routed any way you want them. Kontakt also supplies a versatile array of tools for customizing any sample library, whether it comprises third-party instruments or instruments you create yourself. Another advantage is Kontakt’s support for NKS (Native Kontrol Standard), a format that lets you share data with Native Instruments hardware to enhance workflow.

You can buy Kontakt by itself, but NI makes that a tough choice by offering the software and soundware collection Komplete 11 for $200 more. (You can upgrade from Kontakt to Komplete later, if you’d rather, but the upgrade will cost you $400.) Komplete comprises Kontakt and 44 additional products such as Guitar Rig Pro, Reaktor, Massive, Absynth, Studio Drummer, and enough high-quality sample libraries to fill almost any musical need. Komplete has roughly three times as much sampled content as Kontakt, giving you a huge range of timbral choices.

ENDLESS LIBRARIES

Other than the occasional dialog box, Kontakt’s GUI is confined to a single window you can resize to your liking (see Figure 2). Kontakt presents three different approaches to organizing files, depending on which tab is selected in the browser and whether a particular sample library supports Kontakt’s library format. With the Libraries tab selected, you have easy and immediate access to any third-party libraries conforming to Native Instruments specifications, as well as Kontakt Factory Library. Clicking on any library’s Instruments tab will reveal its contents, and double-clicking on any instrument listed there will load it into the Rack.

Fig. 2. Kontakt displays most parameters in a single window. In this screen shot, you can see some installed libraries on the left and the Performance Views of two instruments on the right.

Fig. 2. Kontakt displays most parameters in a single window. In this screen shot, you can see some installed libraries on the left and the Performance Views of two instruments on the right.

For sample libraries that are not formatted to appear under the Libraries tab, you can view and load them by selecting the Files tab. That will allow you to navigate your computer’s file system to locate Kontakt-compatible instruments. To help you quickly find the instrument you need, you can search for file attributes by keyword. Similarly, you can open any instrument listed under the Database tab, which allows you to find any Kontakt file arranged by category, no matter where it’s located on your computer’s drives or network.

Another tool for helping you organize and quickly find instruments is the Quick-Load Browser. You may select any instrument listed in the main browser under the Libraries, Files, or Database tab and drag it into the Quick-Load Browser, where you can also create custom directories to organize sounds the way you want. If you frequently use the same instruments, Quick-Load will speed your workflow considerably.

Once you’ve loaded an instrument, you can view or hide its main user interface, called Performance View. Performance Views are usually customized to take advantage of an instrument’s unique characteristics. For example, an organ’s interface may display drawbars you can easily access, and a sampled synth’s interface may display controls for the filter, envelopes, and effects.

EDITORS APLENTY

Clicking on Kontakt’s wrench icon reveals or hides its editors. You can choose exactly which editors are visible by unfolding them. If the library’s developer allows it, you can edit keymaps, individual samples, modulation routings, scripts, insert and send effects, and quite a few other parameters that affect and define an instrument’s sound and performance capabilities. Use the editors either to modify existing instruments or to define the parameters of instruments you create yourself.

The Wave Editor displays the sample assigned to whatever zone you select in the Mapping Editor. View and edit the zone’s start and end points, display a grid derived from the sample’s rhythmic content, place markers to divide loops into slices, and much more. Kontakt can also map slices automatically. In addition, the Sample Loop tab lets you view, create, and edit as many as eight loops, each with any of five loop types. The Wave Editor affects only playback and doesn’t change the sample data destructively. For functions such as normalizing to peak levels, copying and inserting contents from the Clipboard, and reversing or fading portions of a sample, Kontakt provides a separate Sample Editor. Whenever you need additional audio editing capabilities, you can link to an external editor application such as Adobe Audition or Steinberg WaveLab, which will open at the touch of a button.

Kontakt’s architecture delivers such an enormous assortment of audio building blocks within its various editors that it excels at subtractive synthesis, too. Using samples as oscillators, you have 37 filter types to choose from, along with myriad envelope generators, LFOs, and other modulation sources. Available filters include adaptive resonance filters that vary the resonance amount in response to changes in amplitude, and two formant filters that emulate the human voice by morphing between vowel sounds.

STEINBERG HALION 6

HALion is the oldest surviving major sampling platform in a field that has seen many competitors fall by the wayside. Like Kontakt, most of its user interface appears in a single window by default (see Fig. 3). The window’s left side hosts the Slot Rack, which holds as many as 64 instruments. On the right side is the Program Tree, displaying all the layered elements that make up the currently selected program and allowing you to alter its structure.

Fig. 3. HALion’s interface displays a wealth of user parameters and information.

Fig. 3. HALion’s interface displays a wealth of user parameters and information.

Many functions have dedicated editors that allow you to focus on the task at hand, whether you’re mapping samples, manipulating wavetables, creating libraries, or whatever. HALion’s user interface lets you simultaneously open many different editor windows and distribute them around your display.

You access most functions in the window’s center, where you switch between the browser, various editors, macro controls, a sample recorder, and much more, depending on which button you click. Below that, by default, are eight Quick Control knobs that you can very quickly assign to multiple parameters simultaneously. You can split any portion of HALion’s GUI into as many sections as you need. You can also undock any section into a separate, free-floating window, or set up tabs to access any section. Whether you prefer the GUI in a single window or in numerous windows, HALion lets you customize your workflow.

HALion 6 includes an excellent 30GB factory sample collection, though it’s rather short on orchestral instruments, in particular. It also comes with HALion Sonic 3, a multitimbral sample player and virtual synthesizer workstation. Sold separately, Sonic includes almost all the same content as HALion, but is more limited in the number of MIDI and audio channels and lacks any sampling features.

Like Native Instruments, Steinberg sells an extended software and soundware bundle. For $150 more than HALion, you can buy Absolute 3, which also includes HALion Symphonic Library, Groove Agent 4, Retrologue 2, Padshop Pro, and more.

USER SAMPLING

As mentioned above, HALion is the only popular sampler software that lets you create samples without any opening an audio recording application. The technique is very much like sampling with vintage sampler hardware, except that you can sample sounds originating in your computer as well as sources plugged into your computer’s audio hardware.

If you’ve ever sampled with a hardware instrument, the procedure may be familiar. Start with a new program and open the Sample Recorder. Choose an audio source and specify parameters such as whether you want sampling to trigger manually or to start and stop automatically when the signal level exceeds and falls below a defined threshold.

You can set up the Recorder to initiate sampling when it sees a MIDI Note On and stop when it sees a MIDI Note Off. In Auto-Next mode, you can automate sampling so that HALion records and maps each successive note you play on an instrument. The Fill Gaps feature transposes samples so that pitches between samples are automatically distributed across the keyboard—a real timesaver.

SYNTHESIS READY

HALion 6 also offers a nice range of waveform-generating capabilities using samples as source material. Its wavetable synthesis, in particular, provides some deep and interesting creative possibilities. Of the two approaches that HALion takes, the more flexible type of wavetable synthesis works with user samples. You begin by opening a sample and changing it from Sample to Wavetable in the Zone Editor, which extracts the sample’s spectral data and resynthesizes it as a wavetable oscillator.

The Wavetable Editor lets you specify as many as 256 segments in a wave sequence, define markers and their distribution, determine crossfade envelopes, and change the rate that segments are scanned (see Figure 4). Enable loops, edit harmonics, normalize levels, shift formants, and more. Display the wavetable in three dimensions and layer as many as eight identical wavetables for a thicker sound.

Fig. 4. In HALion’s Wavetable Editor, you can create and edit wave sequences and crossfade envelopes while viewing its spectrum in three dimensions.

Fig. 4. In HALion’s Wavetable Editor, you can create and edit wave sequences and crossfade envelopes while viewing its spectrum in three dimensions.

In the second approach, Anima is the easy-to-use, dual-oscillator wavetable synthesizer you’ll find in HALion’s instrument library. It comes with more than 300 preset wavetables, and its GUI makes it more like using a typical softsynth, with a suboscillator, its own modulation matrix, and other features you’d associate with synthesizers.

Granular synthesis is available, as well, and it also takes two approaches. As with wavetable synthesis, the first works with user samples. Once you’ve transformed an audio recording from Sample to Wavetable in the Zone Editor, you can get a lot of mileage simply by changing the number and duration of the grains. Experiment with changing the Direction, Pitch Interval, and Position parameters.

Skylab is HALion’s simplified granular synthesizer. The instrument library supplies a large variety of Skylab presets, with an especially large number of sound effects, musical effects, and pads. Skylab’s Oscillator page presents simplified controls for editing granular parameters, and you get a variable-state filter, three envelopes, a modulation matrix, and an integrated arpeggiator.

BUILD YOUR OWN

In addition to giving you the means to create your own sampled instruments, HALion furnishes all the tools you need to create and customize an instrument’s user interface. The Macro Page Designer is an editor that lets you click and drag knobs, sliders, switches, and other controls from a palette onto a bitmapped background you’ve imported and map all those controls to whatever parameters you wish.

Once you’ve created a custom multisampled instrument, you can export it, along with all its graphical assets and source files, as a Sonic SE instrument. That means anyone with Sonic SE can open and play instruments you’ve created, which gives HALion a tremendous advantage over other samplers if you want to create and distribute original sample-based instruments.

As you explore HALion, you’ll discover just how much depth lies beneath the surface. Like Kontakt, it has capabilities you won’t discover unless and until you need them. If you’re serious about assembling multisampled instruments, HALion provides all the tools you may ever need.

UVI FALCON

Although UVI has long been well-regarded as a sample library developer, Falcon is marketed primarily as synthesizer. That may be why it’s bundled with so much less multisampled content than its competitors. Its total factory content, called Falcon Factory, adds up to less than 1 GB of compressed data. Although it has a terrific selection of synth patches, you won’t find the type of multiinstrument sample libraries that are bundled with Kontakt and HALion. UVI sells many such libraries separately, though, and Falcon comes with a $100 voucher toward any purchase.

Until Falcon came along, you needed the free sample player UVI Workstation to play UVI’s sample libraries. Falcon can open any soundware that Workstation can, but instruments created in Falcon open only in Falcon. You can’t export Falcon instruments to any format other samplers can read; nor can it open files created for other samplers or synthesizers. You can, however, export sliced loops or individual slices as WAV files.

In many ways, Falcon’s GUI resembles HALion’s, except that it’s always contained in a single window. By default, parts in a multi are listed on the left sidebar, but it can also host Tree view, which displays a part’s hierarchical structure, or List view, which displays all the settings for a part and the program assigned to it. The browser that appears on the right sidebar is where you access samples, programs, modulators, effects, and so on. Between the two sidebars, you can choose from several views, but you’ll probably spend most of your time in Edit view, which displays editors stacked in levels (see Figure 5). That’s where you edit parameters for programs, layers, keygroups, oscillators, and mapping. Like HALion, Falcon also gives you the ability to create custom GUIs for the instruments you create.

FIG. 5: In this view of Falcon’s user interface, you can see Tree view on the left, the oscillator module browser on the right, and a few open editors in between.

FIG. 5: In this view of Falcon’s user interface, you can see Tree view on the left, the oscillator module browser on the right, and a few open editors in between.

WORKING WITH SAMPLES

To create a multisampled instrument, begin with a new program and drag some samples into the Mapping Editor. The lower in the Mapping editor you drag a sample, the smaller its pitch range. If you drag it to the very bottom, you assign it to a specific pitch. If you drag it to the vertical center, it gets a 7-semitone range. Near the top, it’s an octave, and at the very top, it’s assigned to the entire keyboard. This technique lets you rather quickly map an entire multisampled instrument.

Once you’ve imported some samples, Falcon gives you lots of ways to massage them. It has seven types of sampling oscillators that treat samples as malleable material. The Sample oscillator simply plays back samples and transposes their pitch if assigned to more than one note on the keyboard. Unless the sample contains slice data, such as an Apple Loop or Acid WAV file, transposing also changes playback speed, as you’d expect. You can change the start point and specify the transposition quality, and you can choose whether a specific sample streams from disk or from RAM.

The Slice oscillator automatically detects beats and converts them to slices, making it ideal for drum loops and other repeating patterns. Stretch lets you transpose pitch while keeping the tempo steady or change the tempo without affecting pitch. IRCAM Stretch can transpose by greater pitch intervals or time multiples with fewer undesirable artifacts, even with complex audio content like a full mix, but it requires more processing power. IRCAM Granular delivers all the usual tools for granular synthesis, and IRCAM Multi Granular can play as many as eight grain streams simultaneously. IRCAM Scrub combines IRCAM Granular and Stretch, making it ideal for modulating the play position in real time.

Rather surprisingly, Falcon does not allow you to use your own samples for wavetable synthesis. You can select from an impressively large assortment of preset wavetables, but you can’t import samples or even slices into its Wavetable oscillator.

No matter which sampling oscillator you choose, selecting it in the Mapping Editor will display its waveform in the Oscillator Editor, which functions as Falcon’s sample editor. There, you can click-and-drag to select portions and then right-click to select actions such as creating loops, normalizing, reversing, fading in or out, and applying any of Falcon’s filters or effects.

THE ONE YOU WANT

As you’ve probably guessed, each of these three samplers has advantages and disadvantages. Kontakt has a wealth of useful features and extreme programming depth, but its most significant advantage is its popularity among sound developers. The sheer volume of content available for Kontakt is staggering. If you work with third-party sample libraries, needing Kontakt or at least Kontakt Player is unavoidable. Even if you never buy another sample, though, Kontakt is the hands-down winner if you want a large collection of libraries bundled with your sampler. On the other hand, if you prefer to do your own sampling, Kontakt does not record samples on its own. It also lacks any tools for wavetable synthesis, and its granular capabilities are somewhat limited.

HALion is one-stop shopping that delivers user sampling, extremely versatile editing tools, and comparable programming depth. It has a GUI that lets you open editors and spread them across your display, and it has some very respectable synthesis capabilities. It’s also the only sampler that lets you create a custom-designed, multisampled instrument anyone can open with a free sample player. Unfortunately, HALion is not supported by most soundware developers, making it less than ideal if you depend on sample libraries from companies other than Steinberg.

Neither Kontakt nor HALion comes close to matching Falcon’s versatility as a synthesizer. With several sample-based oscillator types to choose from, you might be surprised how much Falcon can do with samples. However, it plays only soundware from UVI and companies that license UVI’s sound engine, such as MOTU, PSound, and a handful of others, and its sample-editing tools are less robust than the tools in dedicated samplers. If you want a sampler for developing sound libraries you can distribute to a large audience, Falcon is not a good choice, but if you want a sampler with unmatched capabilities as a synthesizer, it may be your best choice.

As I said, which sampler you choose depends on what you want to do. If you want the broadest choice of sample libraries, Kontakt is the obvious choice. If you want to do your own sampling without relying on external applications, HALion is the way to go. But if you want the most versatile software for sampling and synthesis, you won’t go wrong with Falcon. They’re all worthy of owning and learning to use, and I don’t think you’d be disappointed with any of them.

EM editor-at-large Geary Yelton has been using software to edit sampler data since 1986, when he first got his hands on Digidesign Sound Designer.