Hardware and software blend into a DSP-powered sampling system.
CreamWare is known for products that combine high-quality DSP-based audio cards with innovative software designs. Among the company's most recent efforts is PowerSampler, which serves up the best features of hardware- and software-based samplers as it avoids their pitfalls.
PowerSampler, which is PC and Mac compatible, is three products in one: a 32 virtual-channel PCI audio card; a software environment with an array of performance, driver, and interface options; and STS-3000, a sampling application. This hybrid package offers consistently high sound quality, low latency, and a competitive set of capabilities.
PowerSampler offers distinct advantages over dedicated sampling hardware and software samplers. Its lowest latency, an incredible 2 ms, guarantees that the system responds with the feel of a hardware device. Because it uses the computer's RAM for samples, a computer with 256 MB of RAM yields more sample space than most hardware samplers, which tend to top out at 128 MB. Finally, it's much easier to perform operations by using the computer's monitor than by staring into most samplers' modest LCDs.
PowerSampler has advantages over sampling software as well. Because its DSPs perform the audio data crunching, there is little drain on your system's CPU, even when playing a large number of 44.1 kHz samples. That frees your system to run other applications, such as a hard disk recording program, in tandem with PowerSampler. It also ensures (with a few exceptions) consistent and reliable polyphony regardless of the computer's platform or power. Because PowerSampler has its own audio hardware, the sound quality is not affected by the type or brand of sound card you own.
SAMPLING SPECSThe PCI board supplied with PowerSampler has stereo digital audio I/O through an 1/8-inch S/PDIF connector. Its stereo analog I/O is accessible through 1/4-inch TRS jacks. The supplied software supports common audio formats up to 32-bit, 96 kHz. With 16-bit, 44.1 kHz samples, PowerSampler offers 32 simultaneous stereo voices.
When connecting digitally, PowerSampler operates as a word-clock master or slave. You can choose from transfer rates of 32, 44.1, 48, or 96 kHz at 16- or 24-bit resolution. To interface the board to your system, a broad variety of software driver options are provided, and a built-in software-mixer window lets you manage signal routing and levels. MIDI In and Out ports are provided, as is an internal MIDI driver for connection to another program running on the same computer.
The two stereo physical outputs (one analog and one digital) may seem limiting, but you can get around that by configuring up to eight stereo channels internally for routing to other audio applications using ASIO or EASI. You can also get an additional eight analog ins and outs using the optional Luna 2496 breakout box ($598), which is connected through the board's Z-Link jack. Adding a 16-channel ADAT interface is another solution, but that requires the optional Z-Link/ADAT expansion plate ($198). There is no RAM on the PowerSampler board - if you want more sample memory, just add RAM to your computer.
One thing you should be aware of: real-world usage varies from the best-case specs quoted in product literature. For example, you lose two to four notes of polyphony for each of the PowerSampler audio drivers (other than stock WAV drivers) that you enable. Also, PowerSampler's mixer uses significant CPU cycles while onscreen. Simply kill the mixer display if you need to counter this - it's still functioning even when not visible.
If you take advantage of the 24-bit hardware support, the board will use a second PCI channel. Finally, if you crank PowerSampler's word-clock rate to 96 kHz, you can't use the sampler software. According to CreamWare, there isn't enough DSP power to support the high transfer rate and the sampler software simultaneously. That isn't a problem, however, if you do your high-rate recording when the STS-3000 application is not running.
SAMPLER IN A BOXAlong with the sound card, the PowerSampler bundle contains an installation CD; an Akai-format sample CD with various synth, acoustic instrument, and drum samples; two MIDI adapter cables (to convert the card's mini-DIN MIDI jacks to standard MIDI connectors); and an installation booklet.
The PowerSampler board itself is compact and cleanly laid out. To double the polyphony, connect two PowerSampler cards using their internal S/TDM bus connectors. CreamWare's SCOPE and Pulsar systems can use a connected PowerSampler card in a similar way, but PowerSampler software won't recognize those systems.
PDF-format manuals for the hardware and software load onto your system during the software installation, ready for online perusal or printing.
ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLYPowerSampler's toolbar (see Fig. 1) provides quick access to the STS-3000's Main, KeyGroup, and SampleEditor pages; the Mixer window; and a file browser. (The browser can display partitions from Akai-format CDs.) You access configuration dialog boxes from two menus at the display's top right.
PowerSampler's overall configuration, which includes the enabled drivers, selected sample rates, audio I/O and MIDI options, mixer settings, and voice presets, is called an Environment. You can save and restore Environments, and a default Environment loads when PowerSampler starts. You can change the default to the currently loaded Environment through a menu option.
Audio-driver options in a PowerSampler Environment are vast. You can choose from ASIO (16- or 24-bit, but not both), EASI, TripleDAT, NemeSys GigaSampler, 16-bit stereo WAV, and three versions of multiple WAV. Multiple WAV lets you configure up to eight pairs of stereo WAV drivers for routing audio to an internal hard disk recording program or for sending multiple audio applications to PowerSampler simultaneously. The Mac version supports Sound Manager, ASIO, and EASI, and uses Open Music System for MIDI. Under Windows, DirectSound is supported but only as an input. If you enable the ASIO or EASI drivers, keep in mind that these use DSP power, resulting in a loss of three to six notes of polyphony each.
You can route MIDI internally (for triggering the sampler from a sequencer) or externally (to send MIDI data out the MIDI ports), but not both. Get around this limitation by using the MIDI ports on a sound card or standalone MIDI interface in conjunction with PowerSampler's MIDI options.
The Sample Rate Setting dialog box is where you configure the S/PDIF port as a word-clock master or slave and set the sample rate and resolution. The Ultra Low Latency Interface dialog box lets you select from five latency options. At 44.1 kHz, these are 3, 4, 7, 13, and 25 ms. Different latency rates are available at different sample rates. Low latency isn't free, however: the cost is system CPU cycles. If you find things run sluggishly, increase the latency time to free up some CPU muscle.
MIX IT UPOn startup, PowerSampler acts as a standalone audio board. Its flexible 24-channel mixer manages the system's audio capabilities (see Fig. 2).
The mixer integrates fully with the STS-3000 sampler (when it is loaded) but you can also use it for other purposes. For example, you can mix audio channels coming into PowerSampler from its external hardware inputs, and ins and outs from internal sources (such as other audio applications). You can use the various options to mix audio sources and route them to a hard disk recording program, or you can create a monitor mix of your hard disk recording program's own audio outputs.
The mixer's 24 channels are arranged in three groups of eight, and you can view one group at a time. You can also toggle the view to show the effects-control page. Click on the appropriate label to select a channel group.
Right-clicking on a channel strip's Input or Output Routing fields brings up an options menu. Route a channel strip's output to more than one destination to monitor any channel's output without taking it out of its set routing. You can save mixer presets, which is useful because setting up complex routings with large numbers of signals is time-consuming.
In addition to a volume fader, level meter, Pan pot, and Mute/Solo buttons, each channel strip offers Chorus and Delay sends. A stereo-link button gangs adjacent channel strips, and a Mix button routes the channel's output to the Master channel. Naturally, you can route the Master signal to any of PowerSampler's available outputs.
The number of built-in effects PowerSampler offers is meager in comparison with most newer hardware samplers; the only choices are stereo Chorus and Delay. One work-around is to use the sends to route audio out the S/PDIF port to an external digital-effects unit and then back through the returns.
PowerSampler's Delay sounds fine, and I particularly liked it on drum loops with delay times set to match the loop's tempo. The Cross Feedback setting feeds the left delay output into the right channel and vice versa. This yields more variations in rhythm and stereo-field placement while matching the original loop's tempo. You can type values for the delay directly into the data fields, which is easier than using the finicky onscreen knobs. Alternatively, you can use keyboard shortcuts to adjust most of PowerSampler's controls.
You can route each effect's outputs to any of PowerSampler's available destinations. Each effect has a Mix for sending the effect to the Master output in addition to or in place of the separate outs.
SAMPLER SCENARIOSThe STS-3000 software is the heart of PowerSampler. It's compatible with a variety of audio and sample formats: Akai S1000 and S3000, SoundFont 2.0, AIFF, and WAV. The PDF manual is complete, with plenty of illustrations, examples, and a tutorial. STS-3000 lets you group samples on your hard drive and CD-ROM drive for accessing, configure or edit a large number of performance parameters (such as output and MIDI channels, volume, delay and chorus sends, envelopes, and panning), edit samples or record new ones, and more.
STS-3000 allows you to load up to 16 stereo programs simultaneously in RAM. Load times are reasonably quick - much quicker than those of some hardware samplers. A 70 MB program, for example, loads in 90 seconds. Meters on the main STS-3000 display panel's Memory page provide feedback on memory usage. Each program contains one or more KeyGroups, which specify the range of MIDI note numbers that the program responds to. KeyGroups contain four zones into which you can load samples. Using this hierarchical structure, you can create a program that uses a single mono sample or more complex stereo programs containing multiple samples with Velocity sensitivity. Zone crossfading, which blends samples at crossover points between KeyGroups, is supported but uses an additional note of polyphony.
With STS-3000 you can directly import SoundFont 2.0 or Akai S1000 and S3000 programs with their internal playback parameters intact. A native format called Scope is also supported. STS-3000 handles 8- or 16-bit mono and stereo sample files. To hear samples, drag one from PowerSampler's browser to one of the four zones in the KeyGroup (see Fig. 3). Stereo samples take up two zones. Unfortunately, there is no way to directly audition samples from the browser.
Many program parameters, including loop points, are nondestructive and don't affect the original sample data. Samples are always loaded from their original locations; PowerSampler uses a pointer system to reference the drives' data. That efficient method lets programs include samples from various drives (including CD-ROMs) and subdirectories.
The Preset panel stores groups of 16 programs - complete with parameters, sample locations, and settings - ready for loading. You can save and recall presets. Although PowerSampler's main panel allows only 16 active programs at once, the Pool panel has room for 128 program references and also has its own preset list. Pool programs are loadable using MIDI Program Change commands. The Load Once switch caches programs in RAM for as long as possible to minimize subsequent reloading.
PARAMETERS FOR CHANGEAmong the options you can choose from on the STS-3000 Main page are program-level settings for MIDI channel, overall level, panning, output-channel routing, tuning, and transposition. The Priority setting lets you manage which programs are usurped if PowerSampler runs low on polyphony. Additional pages affect settings for entire programs. These include Loudness, Filter, LFO1, LFO2, Pitch, MIDI, Tuning, and Soft (which contains MIDI soft-pedal settings).
The Loudness page features the Modulation Matrix, which is a flexible way to map modulation sources to controllable parameters. Sources include standard MIDI controllers, envelopes, and two LFOs. To set a modulation source, click on a parameter's label and choose from the menu. You can use more than one modulation source to control a single parameter, adding to expressive capabilities.
The two LFOs (each with triangle, sawtooth, square, and random waveforms) feature graphic displays for editing delay, speed, and depth. You can set these values numerically as well. Engaging De-sync allows each of PowerSampler's voices to be modulated independently with the start of the LFO cycle synched to the start of each individual voice rather than all voices sharing one LFO cycle.
Aftertouch, Pitch Bend, and other modulation sources can be employed to affect pitch changes. In addition, each program has an overall tuning control adjustable between 50 semitones and 50 cents.
The KeyGroup List panel provides all the tools needed to create and manage zones, load samples, and edit parameters. A MIDI-to-Span function is available for setting KeyGroup ranges using MIDI input.
Global KeyGroup settings include overall loudness and tuning values, zone crossfading, pitch modulation, and detune. A MuteGroup control lets you associate mutually exclusive KeyGroups, which is useful for coordinating open and closed hi-hat sounds, for example.
The Loop page is used to set and edit looping for a sample. You can loop samples with or without the data trailing the loop points being played on key release, from beginning to end, or not at all. Loop points set here override but do not overwrite settings in the raw sample unless you explicitly save the sample and its settings. The Loop-tuning setting tweaks the pitch of just the looped part of the sample.
I enjoyed exploring the capability to use different resonant-filter settings for each KeyGroup in a program. For each KeyGroup, you can choose which modulation sources will affect the filter's frequency, resonance, and key-follow values. This allows subtle (or wild) changes in filtering for pitches up and down the keyboard.
Two envelope types are also available. As with filters, each KeyGroup has its own envelope settings. Env 1 is an ADSR envelope with attack and release times alterable in accordance with the trigger-note Velocity. Env 2 is a four-stage ADSR envelope with settings expressed in terms of rates and volumes for each stage, providing more flexibility over attack and initial decay than Env 1.
There's simply not enough space here to discuss all the ways you can shape sounds in PowerSampler. Two important pages deserve mention, however: at the program level, a MIDI control page lets you set channels, program numbers, key ranges, and the like; a MIDI tuning page lets you set tuning offsets on a note-by-note basis.
SAMPLE EDITINGPowerSampler's SampleEditor window contains basic tools for recording and editing stereo sample data, such as the familiar Cut, Copy, and Paste options, along with some additional tools (see Fig. 4). You can see your sample data on the large graphic-waveform display, which you can split when editing loop points. You can zoom in on the display and scroll during playback.
The AutoSelect feature automatically loads the SampleEditor window with any highlighted zone's current sample. You can't edit a sample file directly, though; it must be part of a program.
You can trigger recording with the Rec button, with a MIDI Note On trigger, or when the sampler's input level crosses the threshold you have set. Threshold-triggered recording solves synchronization problems and saves you the trouble of trimming unwanted leading sample data. The Pre Record option uses a buffer of up to 333 ms so you can add sound to the start of a recording after the fact. This ensures that sharp attacks are captured intact.
The SampleEditor's meters display playback and record levels. A single pot applies a boost of up to 12 dB to both channels. Because recordings are limited to stereo samples, mono signals can be stored in either the left or the right channel.
Editing tools include peak-level Normalize, DC Offset, and Mute, which simply zeroes the selected data. In addition, there are some rudimentary commands to set and edit loop points. The Snap function causes a loop-point edit to "snap" to nearby values matching the slope of its corresponding loop point. This reduces popping and smooths your loop.
The SampleEditor's unaltered playback signal is presented on PowerSampler's Spl L and Spl R outputs (Sampler Left and Sampler Right). To hear the outputs, assign them to the inputs of channels in the mixer.
Although serviceable, the SampleEditor is basic. For example, there is no crossfade loop tool. A number of third-party editing tools are much more comprehensive in ability, but no provision is made for using an external editor. If you edit data outside the program, be prepared for extra mouse work getting your edited samples into PowerSampler programs before you can use them.
POWER DOWNPowerSampler is a great-sounding tool with most of the features and capabilities of a basic hardware sampler at little more than a software-sampler price. However, some areas in the software need work. To maintain a standard look and feel on PCs and Macs, CreamWare uses an interpreter: an extra layer of code between the user interface and the operating system. This causes problems with the user interface, namely slow redraws, slow response to user input, flickering cursors and display elements, and hard-to-manage windows.
Some sluggish operations are simply unbearable. For example, the Sampler Window redraws its display every time you click on the window. In one test, a 64 MB sample caused a 20-second redraw time. A third-party dedicated audio editor took about one-tenth the time to redraw the same data.
Standard Windows interface capabilities, such as cursors, file Open and Save dialog boxes, context sensitive help, and floating tool tips are missing from PowerSampler. And if you use a screen resolution less than 1024 5 768, menus in the Mixer display run off the screen, prohibiting the selection of some options. Mac users will no doubt have their own list of interface beefs.
Despite the manufacturer's claims that you will forfeit very little CPU power when using PowerSampler, some operations do impose penalties. A faster setup than my 366 MHz Pentium test system should give better results.
I also experienced a frustrating lack of response to my e-mail and telephone inquiries to CreamWare's North American support.
PowerSampler's software has made great strides from the 1.33 release to the 2.03 version covered here. As soon as CreamWare squashes those few remaining bugs, there will be even more reason to recommend PowerSampler. If you are looking for an inexpensive sampling solution but want the power and sound quality of a hardware unit, you may find PowerSampler an excellent fit. Musicians working with very large samples will appreciate PowerSampler's ability to use system RAM. If your setup includes other ASIO or EASI compliant programs, you'll appreciate PowerSampler's support for those drivers and their multiple direct audio channels.
If you are not into programming sounds, PowerSampler offers easy access to Akai, SoundFont, and other sample libraries. But if you do like to do your own sampling, looping, and tweaking, PowerSampler's deep set of parameters and settings can help you take your sounds just where you want them to go.