Before you take off on your next transcontinental flight or bus ride with your laptop in hand, be sure to pick up Marcel Blum's Soundplant (Windows, $20 shareware; Mac, freeware) to amaze and annoy your tripmates. Soundplant turns your computer into a full-featured sample player that you trigger from the computer's keyboard. The program supports audio files in AIFF, WAV, AU, and MP3 formats (shareware registration is required for MP3 support on the PC, but it's free on the Mac). You can load audio files of any length your computer can handle into RAM or play them from your hard disk. RAM files are triggered with virtually no latency, and Soundplant can perform real-time processing on MP3 files without having to decompress the data. Pick up the latest release version for Windows as well as a beta version for the Mac at www.soundplant.org.
You can assign samples to any of 72 keys by dragging and dropping them onto Soundplant's onscreen keyboard, and the resulting Keymaps can be saved to disk. Five triggering modes are available: Sustain (each key press layers a new copy), Restart (retriggers from start), Kill (toggles playback on and off), Mute (mutes and unmutes while the sample keeps running), and Pause (pauses and restarts playback). You can assign alternate triggering modes to lowercase and uppercase letters (that is, with or without pressing Shift). Controls are available for setting each sample's start and end points, loop points, pitch, volume, and pan position. You can assign a sample across several adjacent keys and have Soundplant automatically adjust the pitch or playback offset, which is a nice touch. For example, if you assign a sample to eight keys with automatic offset, each key will play a different eighth of the sample for instant beat slicing.
Aside from its novelty value, Soundplant has a number of practical uses. It offers an optional link to your sample editor for contextual sound design. Depending on the quality of your sound card, you can use it as a performance tool. You can record your performances into any audio recording program, provided that your sound card supports full-duplex operation (most do). When you grow tired of your favorite computer game, Soundplant offers a refreshing alternative.