Good things are cooking in Modena, Italy. From the cucina of IK Multimedia comes a new multitimbral VST sample playback instrument, SampleTank 1.1, with four stereo outputs, onboard effects, and a proprietary file-compression scheme that cut sample sizes in half.
SampleTank comes in two flavors: XL and L. Although the plug-in is identical in both bundles, the sound sets differ. Version XL of SampleTank includes 450 instruments (orchestral sounds, electric and acoustic instruments, and synths and loops) and ships with the STConverter utility that lets you translate Akai S1000 and S3000 sounds to the SampleTank format (see Fig. 1). The L version includes STConverter and 200 sounds that should work well for film scoring and general songwriting purposes.
Also available is SampleTank LE, which is limited to stereo output and four MIDI channels. SampleTank LE is bundled with a number of third-party sound libraries. For this review, I used the XL bundle with SampleTank 1.1 on a Mac G4/400 MHz with 704 MB of RAM.
SampleTank is copy protected by an authorization code. You can try out SampleTank without authorizing it, but you are limited to three notes of polyphony. IK Multimedia has set up a SampleTank Web site where you register and receive your authorization codes. To get your authorization code, enter the product's serial number and a digital ID number that is unique to your computer. The SampleTank installer generates the number for you, and the authorization response is immediate.
The alphanumeric strings you need to enter to complete the authorization process are quite long, and it took me a few tries to get it right. The version that came on the installer CD-ROM (version 1.0) also had problems remembering its authorization codes and recognizing its own sound library. However, the free version 1.1 update remedied the problems.
By the time you read this review, most SampleTank bundles will contain version 1.1. IK Multimedia says that version 1.1 is optimized for Mac G4 multiprocessor machines, has a new resampling engine, and allows the L version of the plug-in to read any sounds in the SampleTank format. (Previous builds of this version could read only their preassigned stock sounds.)
AUDIO FILE PHILOSOPHY
SampleTank has its own proprietary file structure that is composed of three file types: STH, STI, and STW. The files contain the instrument's name and description (STH), its program (STI), and its waveforms (STW). All three files must be kept together in the same root folder for a sound to load correctly.
Waveforms are compressed using IK Multimedia's 2:1 compression scheme, which the company has dubbed 2Pack. Samples are stored on your hard drive and played back in their compressed state. SampleTank does not use an encode and decode scheme (compressing and uncompressing waveforms as you go). Rather, it's a file-format player, much like an MP3 player. That means that the sounds you loaded use less RAM and require less storage space on your hard drive. For example, a multisampled grand piano patch that might normally necessitate 28 MB uncompressed is only 13.8 MB using 2Pack.
With the STConverter utility, you can choose whether you want to export an Akai file as a compressed or uncompressed SampleTank instrument. Advertisements for SampleTank claim that it can also import AIFF and WAV files, but the manual lacks directions about how to accomplish that task. As it turns out, that feature didn't make it into the software's first release. According to IK Multimedia, plans exist to integrate the function directly into the VST plug-in itself, but until that happens, STConverter will be updated to handle the task. As with SampleTank, STConverter that comes on the SampleTank XL CD-ROM should be updated to version 1.1. The download is free, and the update fixes some of the bugs.
With such an extensive collection of sounds — some are freshly baked for SampleTank, and others are reconstituted from IK Multimedia's GrooveMaker sound sets — the plug-in's well-implemented file system is greatly appreciated. A button on the plug-in labeled Root (see Fig. 2) lets you select SampleTank's default sound folder. That is an invaluable feature because it allows you to store SampleTank's many presets on a drive other than your system drive.
My system drive, for example, is crammed with applications, and I don't have enough space on it to store samples. With SampleTank, I can keep the samples on another drive (internal or external), even though the VST plug-in itself lives in my System folder. That's a cool feature.
You can easily browse through Patches in a familiar files and folders window directly on the plug-in's face (see Fig. 3). When you see the sound that you want, double-click on its name, and it loads. Once loaded, the patch's moniker and its associated real-time controller knob assignments appear in an easy-to-read font to the left of the files and folders area. At first glance, the plug-in's browser window appears rather hokey. But in use, it is elegant in its simplicity and user-friendliness.
To make finding sounds a snap, IK Multimedia has implemented a brilliant Search feature. In the text field labeled Search/Select, type in the name of the sound you are looking for. Press the Search key, and a list of sounds is generated. If you enter piano, for example, every patch with that word in it will appear in the plug-in's Browse window.
I lost the patch I had loaded, but I remembered its name: Hell's Bells. I typed in Hell's Bells and hit Search. SampleTank found the program and automatically loaded it for me. I can't say enough good things about the Search-function-and-Browser-window combination. It makes finding and loading presets as easy as dialing sounds on a good hardware sound module.
The SampleTank Patches are multisampled, and a third of the sounds in XL are Velocity zoned (in which different samples are mapped to different Velocity ranges on a single key). Each Patch can have its own set of as many as four global real-time parameters. Those parameters are programmed into the Patch and cannot be switched. For example, one Patch might have Cutoff, Res (resonance), Touch (Velocity sensitivity), and Tuning, whereas another Patch might have only Attack, Touch, and Tuning.
The real-time parameters have an associated control knob, with the current value shown beneath. Click on the value, and its number changes to show the knob's assigned Control Change (CC) number. That is convenient for mapping SampleTank's CC numbers to an external controller for real-time tweaking and automation.
As many as 16 Patches can be loaded into the SampleTank plug-in at the same time — one for each of the available 16 MIDI channels. Every Patch can then have as many as four effects (depending on what your CPU can handle). The first effect slot is set to EQ/Compression. The other three slots can hold any of the 20 other effects, such as Reverb, Delay, Envelope Filter, Tremolo, and Lo-Fi.
The EQ/Compression effect is fairly rudimentary, but having it built into the plug-in is handy. The EQ gives you low and high shelving with a sweepable mid. The dynamics control simply determines the amount of compression in decibels.
The other effects sound pretty good — a bit gritty perhaps but perfect for getting that dirty street sound heard in contemporary pop and dance productions. I especially like the distortion and delay effects, such as Phonograph and Slicer BPM.
The quality of SampleTank's Patches varies widely. Some sound amazingly sweet (many of the acoustic pianos, basses, and cellos), whereas others are unimpressive (some of the lead sounds and the special effects loops). The 2Pack compression scheme tends to impart a sort of rough, digital edge to the plug-in's overall sound quality. That is not necessarily a bad thing — just a unique sonic coloration.
To check if a sound has 2Pack compression, click on the Info button on the SampleTank interface. A third of the sounds in XL, 150 Patches, use 2Pack compression.
I liken SampleTank's fidelity to that of a MiniDisc recording compared to a 48 kHz DAT recording. In some instances, the sound sits just right in a mix, whereas at other times, it requires help from an effects plug-in (such as Renaissance Compressor by Waves) to warm it up.
To modify a sound, version 1.1's resampling engine allows you to select the Quality or Performance option. That is accomplished by going into the plug-in's SampleTank Settings.txt file, located in your Preferences folder. Using a text-editing program such as SimpleText, you can type in the setting you want on the appropriate line and resave the file. Selecting Performance exacerbates the rough, digital edge in the sound. However, that setting lets you stretch your CPU power further. Although it is less efficient in terms of CPU usage, selecting Quality helps the samples sound much better.
I used SampleTank mostly with Emagic Logic Audio but also tried it in Steinberg Cubase VST. (By the time you read this, a MAS version of the plug-in, compatible with Mark of the Unicorn Digital Performer, will be available.) In Logic Audio, I had good luck getting the plug-in to see its Patches. However, Cubase VST sometimes had difficulty finding the Patches.
On the other hand, Logic Audio doesn't recognize the individual outs of virtual instruments or have multitimbral functionality. However, in Cubase VST, those features worked as expected. Latency was not noticeable using Digidesign's Direct I/O or the Mac Sound Manager with either host program.
FILL 'ER UP
Although $499 for a VST plug-in seems a bit steep, SampleTank is a wonderfully useful VST Instrument. Some preset sounds in the accompanying libraries are a bit rough, but most are decent. A few are downright impressive.
IK Multimedia's 2Pack compression algorithm isn't the best sounding in the world, but it certainly helps you cram tons of sounds into your computer's RAM. SampleTank's Search function is excellent, and its user interface makes dialing up sounds a real breeze (which is not something I can say for every virtual instrument). I highly recommend this plug-in.
Visit Erik Hawkins's fledgling record label atwww.muzicali.comto hear music made with today's hottest new studio gizmos and to purchase his new virtual studio recording book, Studio-in-a-Box (ArtistPro/MixBooks).
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: PPC 604/200 (G3/G4 recommended);
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended); OS 8.5
PC: Pentium/200 (Pentium III/500 recommended); 64 MB RAM
(128 MB recommended); MMX with Windows 95/98/ME/2000/NT 4.0
SampleTank 1.1 (Mac/Win)
VST software sampler
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.5DOCUMENTATION3.0VALUE3.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent patch library interface. Search function. Samples can be stored on a hard drive other than where the actual plug-in resides. Sixteen-part multitimbral. Each part can have its own set of associated effects. Onboard effects. Imports Akai sound files.
CONS: AIFF and WAV import features not implemented. Occasional problems seeing its own patches. Bundling scheme makes differentiating between SampleTank packages confusing. XL bundle overpriced.