Powerhouse Samplers

When you think of electronic musical instruments, one of the first that probably comes to mind is the sampler. Even when you play a synthesizer, chances
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When you think of electronic musical instruments, one of the first that probably comes to mind is the sampler. Even when you play a synthesizer, chances
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When you think of electronic musical instruments, one of the first that probably comes to mind is the sampler. Even when you play a synthesizer, chances are good that its sound sources were sampled. When you install a software instrument, it's most often a sample player of some kind. Samplers are everywhere. Since dedicated samplers first appeared in the early 1980s, they have changed the way that music is produced almost as much as digital multitrack recording has.

In the 20th century, samplers were defined by their ability to record snippets of sound and assign them to notes on a keyboard. You just plugged in a microphone or line input, armed and triggered sampling, and placed the recording into a keymap. Now that you have so many ways to get sound into your computer, though, a sampler's ability to actually record samples is beside the point. Today, the difference between a sampler and a sample player is that the sampler allows you to assign your own audio files to MIDI notes. That's something you can't do in sample players. Of course, any real sampler lets you do more than map keys. You can usually edit waveforms to varying degrees, even if it's only defining loops and indicating start and end points.

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FIG. 1: Ableton Live 6 features an optional software instrument called Sampler. With ample layering, sound-shaping, and modulation options, Sampler is surprisingly powerful.

Who Needs a Sampler?

Given that most recent sample libraries are bundled with sample players, the first question you might ask is whether full-fledged samplers are really necessary for music production. There are many factors to consider, including convenience, cost, flexibility, ease of use, and efficiency of resources. Let's begin with the latter and note that a multitimbral sampler usually puts fewer demands on your CPU, hard drives, and RAM than a dozen other sample-based software instruments. With a sampler, you don't need to learn and navigate a myriad of user interfaces, and you don't need to purchase a software framework you already have every time you add to your sample library.

Samplers allow you to tweak and extend a sound's parameters in ways that mere sample players can't. Because sample players limit your access to parameters, they necessarily limit your creativity, whereas a good sampler stimulates creativity. Want to make bees buzz in harmony? You can do that with a sampler. Want to play a trumpet two octaves below its normal range? No sweat. Want to transform a purring kitten into a growling gorilla? With a little effort, you can do that, too. When it comes to sound design, you just can't beat samplers.

Samplers are useful for every musical genre — not just electronic music, and not just the music that's most popular. If sample collections aren't available in the latest experimental genre and that's your style, you can create your own or twist available sounds enough to make them your own. Samplers ensure that your timbral palette is yours and yours alone. After all, musical sound is much more than the notes you play. Researching this article has convinced me that the audio-editing power inherent in samplers and the unique capabilities they bestow on their users will increase their influence on the future direction of music.

Different Strokes

Because so much software is available, I had to narrow the focus of this article so that it wouldn't fill the entire magazine or become diluted. I deliberately excluded sample players such as IK Multimedia SampleTank 2.2, which don't let you map note and Velocity zones. I left out percussion-oriented samplers such as Native Instruments Battery 3, which focus specifically on organizing drum kits. And I did not include loop samplers such as iZotope pHATmatik Pro, which don't provide tools for assembling traditional multisampled instruments. The sample-player category alone would have added dozens of products to the lineup, and I had to draw the line somewhere.

Because so many lesser samplers from small developers are available, I decided to concentrate on the 11 top samplers from well-known companies (see the sidebar “Forward into the Past”). Three run only in Windows, one runs only on the Mac, and the rest are cross-platform. Ableton Sampler, Apple EXS24, Digidesign Structure, and Propellerhead Reason NN-XT work only within their specific hosts. Of the remainder, Cakewalk DS864 is a DXi plug-in and Tascam GigaStudio Orchestra is standalone only; more than half run standalone and also support more than one plug-in format. Prices range from $199 for Ableton Sampler to $599 for GigaStudio Orchestra. EXS24 mkII is an integral part of Apple Logic Pro 7, which retails for $999.

Ableton Sampler 1.0 (Mac/Win)

Sampler ($199) is an optional add-on that first shipped in mid-2006 and runs only in Ableton Live 6. Given the small size of its graphical user interface, Sampler's wealth of user parameters makes it surprisingly powerful. Outstanding features include five envelope generators (EGs), three LFOs, and the ability to modulate sample-playback characteristics and morph between filter types in real time. Because of the way Live integrates its various functions, you can record a sample, drag it into Sampler, and immediately begin processing it into a playable instrument. Ableton relies on serial numbers for copy protection; Sampler requires its own serial number in addition to authorization for Live.

When you open Sampler, it appears in Track view at the bottom of Live's main screen. Sampler has six views you access with tabs on its title bar. Clicking on the Zone tab displays the Zone Editor in the space above Sampler (see Fig. 1). The left side shows a list of samples organized in layers, and the right side shows either the Key Zone Editor or the Velocity Zone Editor, depending on which button you press. Key Zones graphically display MIDI note assignments, and Velocity Zones determine the Velocity range to which a sample layer responds. Immediately above the graphical object representing each zone is another object representing its fade range, allowing you to specify crossfades between samples.

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FIG. 2: In addition to its main interface, Apple EXS24 mkII furnishes Sample and Instrument Editor windows for creating and modifying multisampled instruments.

The Sample tab displays the currently selected sample's waveform and lets you edit its assigned characteristics, such as root key, loop points, and sustain and release modes. Looping parameters are especially flexible and allow sustain and release loops that play once, repeat forward, or alternate forward and back. You can specify parameters such as panning and detuning, or whether a sample plays in reverse. Also in the Sample tab, the RAM button globally determines whether multisamples are loaded entirely into RAM or stream from disk.

The Pitch/Osc tab displays settings for the pitch envelope and for the modulation oscillator, which generates various waveforms for amplitude- or frequency-modulating the multisample. The Filter/Global tab provides access to Sampler's resonant multimode filter, which offers 12 and 24 dB-per-octave morphing filter types that shift from one response to another and back again. Also available in Filter/Global are the Shaper, which imparts waveshaping distortion, and loopable ADSR envelopes for the filter and amplifier.

The Modulation tab displays modulation sources that include another loopable EG and three LFOs. You can assign one LFO to modulate pitch, volume, pan, and filter frequency; the other three sources provide menus to select two routings to 25 destinations. Destinations include unusual selections such as sample offset, loop length, and filter morph. You can even route modulators to modulate modulators. You'll find additional mod routings in Sampler's MIDI tab, which lets you assign MIDI Note, Velocity, Release Velocity, Aftertouch, Mod Wheel, and Pitch Bend to modulate two parameters each, selected from the same list of 25 destinations.

Sampler imports sample libraries in Akai S1000 and S3000, EXS, Giga, Kontakt, and SoundFont formats. For most, it copies the sample data into its library, but for EXS and Kontakt multisamples, it simply links to the original AIFF or WAV files unless you choose otherwise.

If you purchase Live on disc, it includes SoniVox's Essential Instrument Collection (EIC), which furnishes about 14 GB of sampled content (and if you download Live, you can purchase EIC separately for $119). Instrument categories include all the usual suspects, such as guitars, drums, and orchestral instruments, as well as electronic textures and a 3.5 GB grand piano. When you load most instruments, they'll open in Live's basic sample player, Simpler. To put them in Sampler so that you can access more parameters, just right-click on the Simpler title bar and select Simpler→Sampler from the contextual menu. When you save your changes, the instrument will be saved as a Sampler preset.

Apple EXS24 mkII (Mac)

Emagic first launched EXS24 in 2000, making it one of the mature products in this lineup; only GigaStudio has been around longer. First as an optional add-on to Emagic Logic Audio and later as an integral part of Apple Logic Pro, EXS24 has established its native format as one of a handful of de facto standards. The EXS24 mkII plug-in runs only as an Audio Instrument object within Logic Pro 7 ($999); there is no standalone version. It runs native on any Macintosh that can run Logic Pro, and it runs as a TDM plug-in on TDM-based systems courtesy of Emagic System Bridge (ESB) TDM. It can stream 24-bit, 96 kHz samples direct from hard disk and import a variety of sampler formats. EXS24's polyphony maxes out at 64 voices, and though it is not multitimbral, you can run as many as 64 instances if your system can handle it. Logic Pro and all its instrument plug-ins, including EXS24, are copy protected and require an Apple USB dongle to operate.

EXS24's main interface contains all the plug-in's knobs, sliders, and displays and provides access to its sound-shaping features (see Fig. 2). To load a program, just select it from the pull-down Sampler Instruments menu just above the prominent filter section. Instruments are arranged hierarchically in folders. Most of the sliders are split into upper and lower halves, allowing you to specify a range of values. For example, using the Level slider, you can control the minimum and maximum output produced by low and high Velocities. In addition, Logic Pro lets you automate any changes you make.

The filter offers six responses: 12 dB per octave highpass and bandpass, and 6, 12, 18, and 24 dB per octave lowpass. The Fat button boosts the bass when you increase the lowpass filter's resonance, and a Drive knob imparts warm distortion. If you don't need the filter, you can turn it off to save CPU cycles.

In the GUI's center is the modulation matrix, which offers ten modulation paths, each connecting one of 22 destinations with one or two sources. If you select two sources, the value slider will split and allow you to set a range. One source can control many destinations, and many sources can control one destination. The two ADSR generators and three 7-waveform LFOs are freely assignable mod sources. The envelopes have an additional Hold stage that you can set only in the Instrument Editor.

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FIG. 3: DS864 is just one of the DirectX instruments bundled in Cakewalk''s Project5. Its entire GUI appears in a ?single window.

Clicking on the Edit button opens the Instrument Editor, which allows you to assign samples and multisamples to zones, place zones in groups, and organize groups into Sample Instruments. Within each zone, you can specify a sample's note range, start and end frames, loop points, and other parameters. Buttons in the loop and start- and end-frame sections open Logic's Sample Editor, which displays the sample's audio waveform. There you can graphically adjust loop points and other parameters, as well as perform various waveform edit functions such as copy and paste, normalize, adjust tempo, convert sampling rates, and so on.

Clicking on the Options button reveals a menu for specifying preferences, importing foreign sampler formats, and saving and reloading instruments and settings. EXS24 imports Giga, SoundFont 2.0, SampleCell, ReCycle, and Akai S1000 and S3000 sample and instrument formats. Conversion is generally automatic and requires only that you select the files to be imported.

Logic Pro 7 comes with about 3.5 GB of sampled content that comprises mostly bread-and-butter instruments such as piano and drums, as well as orchestral instruments and a large selection of synth timbres. Because EXS24 also opens GarageBand instruments, any installed on your computer will appear in the Sampler Instruments menu.

Cakewalk DS864 (Win)

DS864 is one of several instruments that are part of Project5 version 2.5 ($259), a digital audio sequencer bundled with numerous soft synth and effects plug-ins. Once you install Project5, you can use DS864 in any host that supports DXi plug-ins. DS864 is a 64-voice polyphonic, 8-part multitimbral sampler that allows you to import and graphically map 16- or 24-bit samples in WAV or AIFF format and save multisampled instruments in its proprietary DP8 format. It can also import a few foreign sampler formats. Between the Project5 Fast Track Guide and online help files, however, the documentation barely scratches the surface of what you can do with DS864.

DS864's GUI comprises just one window, from which you can load and layer as many as eight multisampled parts, each assigned its own MIDI channel and audio outputs. Each part can be a different sampler program, and groups of as many as 128 programs are stored in banks. You can map note and Velocity ranges for each sample, and shape sounds using traditional techniques such as filtering and envelope modulation.

DS864's graphical mapper dominates its left side (see Fig. 3). When you add a sample, you can click on a tiny keyboard to set the root pitch and click-and-drag a rectangle in the display to define key and Velocity ranges. You can't enter mapping data numerically, but you can use onscreen knobs to adjust tuning, gain, panning, and key tracking. You can also invert the sample's phase and play it in reverse. Although DS864 does not offer the ability to define loop points (you'll need a separate waveform editor for that), you can choose to play loops either forward or alternating forward and reverse.

On the right side, DS864 has two filters; one has a fixed 12 dB-per-octave slope with resonant lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and notch responses, and the other is a 24 dB-per-octave lowpass filter with self-oscillating resonance. They can be arranged in parallel or in series, and each offers three modulation sources: an envelope generator, an LFO, and keyboard tracking.

Four EGs are dedicated to controlling the filters, amplitude, and pitch. All four are identical and go far beyond ADSR by providing eight stages and looping. Their modulation depth responds to Velocity and Aftertouch. Three especially versatile LFOs can modulate pitch, amplitude, and panning. In addition, one can modulate the multimode filter's frequency or resonance, and another can modulate the other filter's frequency or resonance. Along with knobs for controlling rate and depth, each gives you a choice of five waveforms, four trigger modes, and a knob to set the initial phase.

DS864 can import and edit multisamples in Akai S5000/S6000 (AKP), Kurzweil K2000 (KRZ), and SoundFont 2.0 formats, but program parameters such as filter and envelope settings are ignored. Project5 comes with 500 MB of sampler programs and banks in DP8 format from Q-Up Arts. Programs range from acoustic and electric pianos and basses to orchestral instruments and synths.

Digidesign Structure (Mac/Win)

Digidesign has introduced an RTAS sampler plug-in that is so new, it is still in public beta as of this writing. Structure (price TBD) is compatible with all versions of Pro Tools 7 and later, and like Pro Tools, it's copy protected using an iLok USB dongle. The plug-in supports 24-bit audio at rates up to 192 kHz and surround formats up to 7.1. Though you can limit polyphony to as few as four voices, it is theoretically unlimited, and it is 128-channel multitimbral (if your computer is up to the challenge). Structure is not a standard RTAS plug-in, however, because it's closely tied to Pro Tools' audio engine, which manages the distribution of sampler voices and audio tracks.

Structure's user interface provides easy access to a variety of windows. On the main page, the patch list is on the left, the parameter panel is on the right, and the keyboard/smart-knob section is below that. The latter furnishes an 88-note onscreen keyboard, six reassignable knobs, the Master output knob, and a wide parameter display (see Fig. 4). The knobs are linked to whatever parameters you choose, and each can be linked to multiple parameters. Associated parameter names appear above each knob, and turning one shows its value in the display.

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FIG. 4: Digidesign Structure uses Pro Tools 7''s audio engine to handle the distribution of sampler voices.

The main page lets you access parameters such as tuning, glide, and effects sends, depending on which tab you select. You can draw waveshapes or step patterns for the two LFOs, choose from six destinations, and set up randomization. The Effects page gives you five sends, each with slots for four global effects. Clicking on the effects processor's name displays its parameter controls. The browser lets you search your directories and display only certain file types, if desired, and the database lets you search previously scanned files.

In Structure parlance, a patch contains one or more parts, which are either multisampled instruments, insert effects, or MIDI effects modules. The parameter panel's content depends on what's selected in the patch list; if it's a patch, you can choose from four pages — Patch, Control, Mod, and Output — by clicking on tabs. If it's a part, you get five page tabs — Part, Filter, Amp, Mod, and Output. Selecting audio effects in the patch list displays the effects processor's control panel, and selecting a MIDI Module displays its parameters.

Structure's MIDI Modules serve more or less the same function as Native Instruments' Kontakt Script Processor or Tascam's iMIDI Rules Manager (which I'll discuss later). MIDI Modules change the way a part is played by randomly transposing controller values in response to how long it's been since the previous Note On, for example, or by triggering a particular response when you play a chord.

In the patch list, each patch has an Edit button; clicking on it opens an Editor window you can enlarge to any size you like. That's where you modify sampler parts within a patch. It has Treeview, Mapping, and Edit sections. The Treeview section lists the parts and all the samples within them. The Mapping section displays the selected part's keyboard and Velocity assignments and lets you graphically modify them. The Edit section displays controls for sound-shaping parameters such as the filter and two EGs. The resonant filter offers 20 modes, and you can edit the 10-stage envelopes graphically by clicking-and-dragging breakpoints. If Wave is selected, the Mapping section displays the selected sample's waveform and allows you to define loops and crossfades and perform other edits.

Structure was designed for quickly creating your own sampled instruments, and the ability to drag-and-drop Pro Tools regions directly into Structure takes advantage of the tight integration between recording and sample playback. Because it's still in beta at this point, I can't tell you much about what content Digidesign will include except that it should be larger than 10 GB. Judging from the handful of patches that accompany the beta version, though, it's obvious that Structure's content makes heavy use of keyswitches to play alternate articulations. In addition, Structure can load EXS, SampleCell, and Kontakt (versions 1 and 2) files just as if they were its own file format. Additional formats such as Akai, E-mu, and Giga will be supported through a free conversion tool at some point after Structure's release date.

E-mu Emulator X2 (Win)

In 1981 pioneering synth builder E-mu Systems unveiled the first dedicated sampler, the original Emulator. It was an 8-bit digital instrument that stored samples on 5.25-inch floppy disks. E-mu continued to build increasingly sophisticated hardware samplers until making the jump to software in 2004 with the introduction of Emulator X. The latest version, Emulator X2 ($399.95), is a 64-part multitimbral standalone application and a 16-part VSTi plug-in. It supports 24-bit sampling rates as high as 192 kHz, and it allows you to record samples directly into software using techniques familiar to hardware sampler users.

Emulator X2 comes with its own hardware, a 2-in/2-out USB MIDI interface called the XMIDI 2×2, which serves as a dongle and is required for the software to run. If you own an E-mu sound card or USB MIDI controller, however, those can serve as dongles too. An E-mu sound card offers the additional advantage of using PatchMix DSP to handle audio signal routing within Emulator, as well as DSP-accelerated effects.

The software is organized in a modular fashion and inherits some notable features from its hardware counterparts, including Z-Plane morphing filters and a hierarchical data structure with its roots in EOS (Emulator Operating System). Emulator's fixed-size GUI has two panes and a toolbar across the top, and you can optionally display a free-floating keyboard (see Fig. 5). The pane on the left contains the Tree view, a browser that enables you to locate sample content. When you open a bank, the Multisetup page appears on the right. It contains 64 slots (4 groups of 16, selected with tabs), each with settings for volume, panning, effects, and output assignment. You can select one preset for each slot and link MIDI Control Changes to various parameters.

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FIG. 5: Replacing generations of sampling hardware from E-mu, Emulator X2 is one of the few software instruments available that can actually record samples.

Typically, you'll save a Multisetup with all the presets you'll need in a song or sequence. A preset contains one or more voices assigned to respond to a single MIDI channel. A voice is a sample or a multisample assigned to keyboard and Velocity zones. Voices and Zones pages allow you to adjust voice parameters such as levels and tuning. The Voice Processing window offers sound-shaping sections such as a single multimode filter and modulators.

Fifty-five filter types range from 2-pole lowpass to Morph Designer, a user-programmable filter with up to six stages. Modulator tabs let you select from three 6-stage EGs, two 17-waveform LFOs, a lag processor, and three FM generators. Voice Processing's Cords section lets you connect 95 modulation sources to 105 destinations that include two lag processors, three function generators, and even other mod routings.

Emulator has a full complement of effects that can be part of a preset or a Multisetup. Each has plenty of user parameters and flexible routing. All the classic effects types are available, from reverb, chorus, and compression to parametric EQ, tube simulation, and beat-synced tremolo.

Emulator X2 has several additional features I should mention. One of these is TwistaLoop, a beat-detection function that analyzes a sample's rhythmic components in the same manner as time-slicing, and helps to locate and select loop points and regions. It also improves the quality of time compression and expansion and enables you to continuously control a loop's playback speed and choose which loops play and repeat in real time. TwistaLoop turns Emulator into a versatile groove sampler.

Another feature that other samplers lack (though third-party utilities offer similar functionality) is SynthSwipe, which automatically samples MIDI instruments and creates finished Emulator presets. After you set up parameters such as input level, note range, interval, Velocities, and durations (key up, key down, and pause), just click on Record, wait for completion, and save your new bank and samples. Emulator X2 can also resample its own output.

Emulator X2 ships with more than 3 GB of sample content that comprises four collections: Beat Shop One, Studio Grand, X-perience, and X Producer, which includes selections from Proteus X and a complete General MIDI sound set. Additionally, the included Emulator X File Converter application can convert Akai, E-mu Emulator III and ESi, EXS, Giga, HALion, and SoundFont files into Emulator's native EXB format.

Emulator X2 Platinum, slated to ship soon after this article appears, will include 32-bit and 64-bit native applications for Windows XP and Vista, the ability to stream from hard disk, and more than 20 GB of sample content. Emulator X 2.5, a free upgrade to X2 owners, should follow a few months later.

MOTU MachFive 2 (Mac/Win)

Still in beta as I'm writing this, MachFive 2 ($395) is the successor to MOTU's sampler plug-in, which first shipped in 2003. Version 2 adds standalone operation, a modular synthesis engine, and more. It supports AU, DXi, MAS, RTAS, and VST plug-in formats, and it opens most foreign sampler formats without the need to convert them to its native M5P format. MachFive allows you to drag-and-drop audio directly from Digital Performer and other supported hosts. It has extensive loop-editing and beat-slicing capabilities and full-screen waveform editing with unlimited undo and redo. It even offers a built-in tuner and real-time spectrum analysis.

MachFive supports 24-bit, 192 kHz audio and surround formats up to 7.1. Theoretically, it can play an unlimited number of multitimbral parts, and you can even specify which parts stream from disk. Unless you disable streaming, you can specify how much sample data will be preloaded into RAM. Polyphony is also unlimited, and it can receive on 256 MIDI channels. Like Digidesign Structure, MachFive uses an iLok USB key for copy protection.

Most of MachFive's GUI is in a single window, which is divided into sections such as a browser, parts list, display area, and so on (see Fig. 6). MachFive makes good use of contextual menus and windows you summon by right-clicking; right-clicking on almost any knob, for example, opens an Automations and Modulation window for defining control sources.

You can view eight parts at a time, each containing a preset; scrolling reveals additional parts. You can assign instruments to some parts and loops to others, and then save all the parts collectively as a performance. You can assign as many parts as you like to the same MIDI channel. MachFive's Expert mode opens a window for defining key ranges, Velocity zones, and keyswitches. You can create any number of layers within a preset and apply MIDI rules for switching between them.

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FIG. 6: MachFive 2 is the newest version of MOTU''s versatile sampler. Adding to the previous version''s features, it runs standalone, offers rule-based layer switching, and includes a 32 GB sound library.

MachFive's Mapping Editor lets you create voices from scratch using the Create Synth command and then layer them with recorded samples. Raw Oscillators lets you stack as many virtual analog oscillators as you like, each with a choice of five waveforms and individual gain, pan, and tuning. Organ Emulator provides nine onscreen drawbars for specifying harmonics, as well as percussion and rotating-speaker parameters.

Each of MachFive's two filters lets you choose from eight filter types, including lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch, and comb. A filter topology menu determines the filter routing in series with the effects and overdrive. Six loopable EGs can be either AHDSR (ADSR with an additional Hold stage) or Multi; a Multi envelope can have any number of breakpoints. An Edit button in the EG section opens a large window for editing envelopes, and you can save and reuse any Multis you create. In addition, you can modulate the amplifier, pitch, or filter frequency with any of 19 sources.

Two buttons near the display area let you toggle MachFive's Mixer view and waveform editor, and two others let you expand the waveform editor to fill most of MachFive's GUI or open it in a separate, full-screen window for detailed editing. The editor offers Sample, Stretch, and Slice modes. In Slice mode, you can enable MachFive's Loop Lab, in which you can define, stretch, rearrange, and map beat slices manually or automatically.

MachFive has a long list of multichannel effects processors with hundreds of presets, and you can save user presets. Effects include a simulated tape delay, a talkbox filter, an 8-band EQ, a 3-band compressor, and a convolution reverb with a large selection of impulse responses. You can link four effects and save them as a group, and you can apply as many as four insert and four part effects for each part simultaneously with four aux and four master effects. You can also apply effects and effects groups to individual samples and key groups. All time-based effects can be synced to tempo.

MachFive can now open foreign formats directly — even CDs for Akai, E-mu, Kurzweil, and Roland samplers — with no translation needed. It opens EXS, Giga, Kontakt, SampleCell, and SoundFont files, as well as loops in Acid, REX2, and Apple Loops format.

MachFive 2 comes with a whopping 32 GB of content that includes assorted loops and phrases, synths and ethnic instruments, vocals and sound effects, an 8 GB grand piano, and orchestral instruments from Vienna Symphonic Library. The bundle also supplies a handful of instruments and drum loops sampled in surround and at high sampling rates.

Native Instruments Kontakt 2.2 (Mac/Win)

Since its introduction in 2002, Kontakt has been Native Instruments' premier sampler. It is a semimodular instrument that runs standalone and as an AU, DirectX, RTAS, or VST instrument plug-in. In 2005, Kontakt 2 ($449) added some significant features, such as a new file format, convolution effects, 16-channel surround, and MIDI script processing. Kontakt is 64-part multitimbral and supports 32-bit sampling rates up to 192 kHz. It translates a dizzying variety of file formats, and its assortment of surround-enabled effects is quite impressive. Like other software from Native Instruments, Kontakt uses an automated online challenge-and-response copy-protection system.

Kontakt incorporates six methods of audio playback. The traditional Sampler mode loads data into RAM and changes duration when it shifts pitch. DFD mode is identical except that it streams data direct from disk and therefore cannot play samples in reverse. Tone Machine employs granular resynthesis to change pitch without affecting duration. Time Machine uses granular synthesis to shift pitch and stretch time. Time Machine II performs the same functions but is optimized for higher-quality transposition and time-stretching. Finally, Beat Machine specializes in creating and rearranging beat-sliced sampled instruments in the Loop Editor.

Kontakt appears onscreen as a rack of gear in a resizable window (see Fig. 7). It can fill your computer display or shrink to the size of a piano key. You can choose to show or hide its various editors, browser, keyboard, mixer, modulators, effects, and other portions of its GUI. On the left is the browser, which lets you view not only the contents of your sample library, but also every audio file on all your disks. The browser's database functions keep track of sample locations, and you can easily load programs or Multis into the main rack on the right. It can also load entire banks of programs and quickly switch between them in response to MIDI Program Changes. In addition, the browser displays effects and modulators you can drag-and-drop into the rack.

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FIG. 7: Native Instruments Kontakt 2 combines a flexible sampling engine, extensive programming capabilities, and versatile file translation.

Kontakt's front panel doesn't display synthesis parameters like EGs, LFOs, and filters in the usual manner. Instead, it supplies modulators you can add as needed. Modulation sources range from six LFO types and three EG types to a step modulator that lets you draw custom controller curves. Envelopes are AHDSR, DBD (two sections with a center breakpoint, suitable for modulating pitch), and Flexible, which allows you to create repeatable 32-stage controller curves.

Filters are categorized as effects, and you can choose from 13 types, from 1-pole lowpass to a CPU-intensive multimode filter that combines 3 stereo 2-pole filters in diverse configurations. Other effects include saturation, chorus, reverb, stereo simulation, modeled tube and transistor distortion, and a rather flexible convolution processor.

Kontakt's Loop Editor allows you to graphically define as many as eight loops for each sample. Likewise, the Mapping Editor lets you assign samples to notes and Velocity ranges, and it offers a choice of techniques for creating and editing zones. You can leave either Editor window in the rack or detach it as a separate window. Working with both windows open is especially convenient, because selecting a zone in the Mapping Editor displays it in the Loop Editor.

One feature that expands Kontakt's programmability is the Kontakt Script Processor (KSP). Kontakt furnishes a collection of ready-to-use MIDI-processing routines and allows you to create your own. The Script Editor lets you access scripted control panels and, unless they're password protected, edit existing scripts. The Kontakt 2 Script Library offers functions such as MIDI echo, automatic harmonization, arpeggiation, harp glissandos, and much more.

Kontakt claims compatibility not only with software formats such as EXS, Giga, HALion, MachFive, NN-XT, REX, SampleCell, and Bitheadz Unity, but also with sound libraries for hardware samplers, including most Akai, E-mu, Kurzweil, and Roland samplers and even Ensoniq EPS and ASR-10. It comes standard with a well-rounded 15 GB sample library that covers a lot of territory. In addition to the usual guitar, bass, and drums, the Kontakt 2 Library furnishes surround-specific synths and organs, beat-sliced loops, and KSP-scripted instruments that possess unique capabilities. Half the sampled content comprises strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion from Vienna Symphonic Library.

Propellerhead Reason NN-XT 3.0 (Mac/Win)

Just as EXS24 mkII is an integral part of Logic Pro, NN-XT is one of many instruments supplied by Propellerhead Reason ($499). Most Reason users don't look beyond NN-XT's functionality as a sophisticated sample player, but it's a very capable sampler that can load WAV and AIFF files and organize them into multisampled patches in its own SXT format. Another sampler in Reason is NN19, and rather than cover them both, I've chosen to write about the more powerful of the two. NN-XT can open patches in NN19's SMP format as well as REX files, which are native to yet another Reason instrument, Dr:Rex. It can also open presets and individual samples in SoundFont format.

When you open NN-XT, you see only the main panel containing three controller wheels, a few global controls, and an area for selecting patches. Alongside the pitch and mod wheels, a third wheel sends and responds to your choice of Aftertouch, Expression, and Breath Controller messages. The global controls furnish knobs for filter frequency and resonance, modulation decay, and amplitude attack, decay, and release.

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FIG. 8: One of two samplers in Propellerhead Reason, NN-XT lets you map samples, apply filtering, and route modulators in its Remote Editor window.

Opening NN-XT's Remote Editor reveals all its additional parameters in a single panel, most of which is dominated by the Key Map display (see Fig. 8). In the display, a list of samples appears on the left with a graphic representation of their assigned zones on the right. Clicking on either a sample or a zone selects it and displays the sample's bit depth, sampling rate, and file size. You can also select a zone by playing a MIDI note, if you enable that function. If you Shift-click to select noncontiguous zones, any changes you make will be applied to all the selected zones.

A row of knobs below the display accesses 15 parameters for each zone, with values displayed just above the knobs. Right-clicking on a zone reveals a contextual menu for editing and sorting zones, creating Velocity crossfades, and performing other functions. An Alternate function determines the degree of randomness for selecting between two zones during playback.

NN-XT's multimode filter has three lowpass slopes and highpass, bandpass, and notch responses. One AHDSR generator controls amplitude, and another is available for modulating filter frequency and pitch. The Modulation section provides routings to control filter cutoff and resonance, LFO amount and rate, and modulation envelope depth and decay. One multiple-waveform LFO can modulate pitch, filter, and amplitude, and a simpler LFO modulates vibrato and pan position. On NN-XT's rear panel are inputs that allow you to modulate various parameters with other Reason instruments and devices such as Matrix and Redrum.

Most Reason data is in the form of ReFills, a compressed storage format containing patches, samples, REX files, SoundFonts, and demo songs. Reason 3.0 comes standard with two ReFills, Orkester and Factory Sound Bank, totaling about 1.25 GB. Exactly how much of that comprises NN-XT patches and samples is hard to determine, but it's enough to keep you busy with NN-XT for quite a while. You can purchase additional ReFills from Propellerhead and third-party soundware developers. Reason requires a serial number to run and occasionally requests that you insert your original installation discs as a copy-protection measure.

Steinberg HALion 3.22 (Mac/Win)

HALion ($399.99) has been around since late 2001, and many sample libraries are available in its native format. The current version is 256-voice polyphonic and 16-part multitimbral, and it runs standalone, as a ReWire slave, or as an instrument plug-in for AU, DirectX, or VST hosts. It can import a variety of file formats and supports 5.1 surround and sampling rates as high as 384 kHz.

Other than GigaStudio, HALion was only the second sampler that could play samples direct from disk; now you can even specify how much disk streaming occurs, with settings from Very Very Low to High. It was also the first to let you recover RAM from a multisampled instrument using a function called RAMSave. After you've loaded an instrument and used it in a sequence, RAMSave actually keeps track of which samples the sequence triggers and deletes any that aren't needed.

HALion's GUI lets you switch between seven main pages: Global, Keyzone, Loop, Sound, Browser, Options, and Macro (see Fig. 9). In any page other than Macro, the circular Pitch/Modulation Controller dominates the lower-right corner. You'll probably spend most of your time in Macro, however, which affords access to the controls you'll use most frequently. You can select programs, play an onscreen keyboard, and adjust parameters affecting the filter, amplifier, LFOs, envelopes, tuning, glide, and so on. In the Macro page's center, you can choose from five views: Quick Controls, for hands-on access to any eight user-specified parameters; Global, for selecting from 16 programs; Keyzone, for an overview of zone assignments; and Program and Send Effects, for assigning insert and global processors.

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FIG. 9: Steinberg HALion is a ?multitimbral sampler with a variety of views. Its RAMSave feature deletes unneeded samples from memory.

Also in the Macro page is HALion's resonant multimode filter, which has a dedicated ADSR and a choice of ten filter types, six of which model filters in classic Waldorf synthesizers. Another ADSR modulates the amplifier, and you have fine control over the tuning of each multisampled instrument. Two LFOs offer ten waveform types. You'll find more comprehensive control in the Sound page, which lets you graphically position and add envelope curve points, define a stepped modulation envelope, add saturation using the filter's Fatness knob, and so on.

In the Global page, you can load and select 16 programs and change their volume, panning, audio output, transposition, key and Velocity range, and Velocity curve, as well as route insert and global effects. The Keyzone page gives you complete graphical control of sample mapping, layering, and Velocity scaling. The Loop page furnishes a detailed waveform display in which you can define start and end points for a sustain loop and a release loop. Although the Loop page is specifically for editing individual samples, you can apply most editing operations in all pages either to selected samples or to all samples in a program.

The Options page contains global settings that affect file loading, memory usage, resampling quality, audio outputs, and MIDI controllers. In the Browser page, you can locate HALion content, organize directories, assign program categories, audition samples, copy contents from removable media, and import samples and programs from other file formats. HALion imports Akai, E-mu, EXS, Giga, Kontakt (version 1), Kurzweil, Roland, and SoundFont 2.0 samples, as well as groove files from Zero-X.

HALion 3 is bundled with 2.5 GB of original content and more than 1.5 GB of soundware demos from developers such as e-Lab and Scarbee. In addition to a nice collection of orchestral instruments, you'll find an ample number of drum kits, synths, pianos, guitars, chromatic percussion instruments, and more. HALion's copy protection is by means of a Syncrosoft-compatible USB dongle.

Tascam GigaStudio Orchestra 3.21 (Win)

Introduced in 2000, GigaStudio has been around longer than any other program surveyed here; its predecessor, GigaSampler, was first unveiled in 1998. Both programs were the first (and for years, the only) software instruments that could stream samples direct from disk in real time. They pioneered the concept of keyswitching, a practice that has become standard for instantly selecting different articulations of sampled instruments. Unlike most of the instruments surveyed here, GigaStudio is a true sampler in that it can record instruments directly, and its editing capabilities are quite deep. Thanks to GigaStudio's long-standing stature among audio professionals, a large selection of sample libraries in Giga format is available from third-party soundware developers.

The current version, GigaStudio Orchestra 3 ($599), has theoretically unlimited polyphony (limited only by hard-drive and processor speed) and 128-MIDI-channel reception. It can host VST effects plug-ins (in addition to its own NFX format) and can operate as a ReWire client. It plays and records 24-bit audio at rates up to 96 kHz, and it can record as many as 64 live audio inputs simultaneously. You can link GigaStudio to other programs on your computer — a sequencer, an audio waveform editor, and GigaStudio Instrument Editor — and open them with Quick Launch buttons in GigaStudio's toolbar. Also in the toolbar is the Audio Capture tool used for recording samples.

GigaStudio's GUI is divided into panes you can view, resize, or hide at will (see Fig. 10). The QuickSound Loader pane serves as a browser for locating, auditioning, and loading instruments, performances, samples, and impulse responses. The MIDI Mixer pane provides 16 slots, one for each MIDI channel. Port tabs at the bottom of MIDI Mixer let you select MIDI ports for 8 groups of 16 MIDI channels. You can assign multiple instruments to the same MIDI channel by clicking on the Stack Instruments On Active MIDI Channel button in QuickSound Loader.

Whereas GigaStudio Instrument Editor is a separate application for creating instruments and saving changes permanently, QuickEdit is for editing instruments nondestructively and saving them as part of an instrument or performance file. A button on each slot in MIDI Mixer opens the QuickEdit window, which comprises four sections: Keyboard, Articulation, Wave, and Dimensions. Pressing a note on the Keyboard selects the sample assigned to that note and highlights its key zone. The Articulation section lets you shape the selected sample by accessing GigaStudio's multimode filter (with a curve display), three EGs (a 2-stage and two 6-stage), and sine-wave LFO. The Wave section displays the selected sample's waveform and superimposes modulation curves such as EGs or LFOs, which you can modify graphically. Dimensions displays real-time control sources such as Velocity splits, sustain pedal, keyswitches, and so on.

When you open the DSP Station pane, it replaces MIDI Mixer and more closely resembles a real mixing console. It provides the means to mix, route, and process audio. Clicking at the top of a channel opens a Wide Channel view, in which you can assign insert effects and aux buses, set up dynamics and EQ, and control the stereo image.

Another feature I should mention is Intelligent MIDI (iMIDI). It applies performance algorithms that enhance realism by automatically alternating sounds during repetitive passages, allowing you to play more authentic legato lines and so on. You can assign iMIDI routines to instruments using the iMIDI Rules Manager, which allows you to add, initialize, and edit rules that control supplementary functions.

GigaPulse is Tascam's integrated convolution reverb processor. It uses impulse responses to model acoustic spaces, microphones, and instrument resonances. Operating as an NFX plug-in, it allows you to position mics within virtual space on a Placement Selection Grid. GigaPulse includes a large number of impulse responses, and the Pro version allows you to import your own. GigaStudio comes with four additional NFX plug-ins: reverb, chorus/flanger, tap delay/auto pan, and EQ.

GigaStudio comes with the GigaPulse Pro convolution reverb and a 17 GB sample library that includes orchestral samples from Vienna Symphonic Library and GigaPulse impulses from Notre Dame de Budapest. Giga Virtual Instrument (GVI) has effectively replaced two previous versions, GigaStudio Ensemble and Solo. On the horizon, Tascam plans to ship a major upgrade later this year; GigaStudio 4 will support Windows Vista 32, Vista 64, and XP64.

Yellow Tools Independence 1.5 (Mac/Win)

Although Independence ($499) first shipped at the end of 2005, it is still relatively unfamiliar to many audio professionals, despite its respectable sampling power. It features a multiple-page user interface, extensive customization features, and a sizable collection of effects. Independence runs standalone and as a plug-in for AU, DXi, RTAS, and VST hosts. It supports surround formats up to 7.1 and features a built-in multitrack mixer.

Independence divides its GUI into two main sections, basics on the left and working areas on the right (see Fig. 11). Basics include sections for loading instruments, adding and removing layers, and changing project, layer, and MIDI parameters. Clicking to load an instrument into a layer lets you select from a menu divided into categories. Each layer is assigned to a MIDI channel, and you can assign an unlimited number of layers to the same channel.

The parameters that appear in the working area depend on which button is selected across the top; each button selects a different editor. Quick Edit lets you access parameters such as volume, panning, tuning, filter, and effects. The filter section lets you select from ten lowpass, highpass, and bandpass presets or create your own. Remarkably, slopes vary from 12 to 72 dB per octave.

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FIG. 10: Tascam GigaStudio Orchestra 3 is the latest version of the sampler that introduced hard-disk streaming and keyswitching. It delivers impressive programmability and 17 GB of content.

Another view, the Modules Editor, affords access to modulators and other modifiers. That's where you'll find an insert filter and effects, mod wheel and other controller routings, tempo-synced LFOs, graphic EGs, and a menu for specifying keyswitches. You can freely route mod sources to destinations and specify curves for the EG's time segments. Envelopes can be assigned to modulate volume, pitch, pan, filter frequency or resonance, and even the depth of other EGs. EGs come in AHDSR and unipolar or bipolar free varieties, and you can add as many breakpoints as desired to free envelopes.

The Performance view lets you access Independence's flexible humanization features. You can set up as many as 32 variations for each sample, each of which will play whatever alternate sample you specify, either randomly or in order. Variations are useful for playing alternate hits on the same drum, for example, thus avoiding tedious repetition. The same page lets you set up Advanced Legato mode for assigning numerous parameters to individual samples to simulate legato playing techniques.

The Mapping Editor allows you to graphically create custom note and Velocity zones in a zoomable display. Clicking on a zone opens a waveform-editing window in which you can define start and end points, loop points, fades, and crossfades. It also displays various parameter values for the selected zone. Right-clicking in the window plays the selected sample. Additionally, the Mapping Editor features automatic groove recognition, and you can switch to Slice-Edit mode in the waveform display and adjust sensitivity for auto groove recognition. It can also import MIDI files and allows you to edit them as if they were keymaps. Independence can even play several MIDI files at the same time.

Yet another working-area view is the Mixer, which provides individual channel strips for each instrument and unlimited buses. In addition to the usual mixer parameters, each channel has inserts with an unlimited number of effects. Dozens of effects range from chorus, bit reduction, and additional multimode filters to a 6-band parametric EQ, mic and preamp modelers, and a convolution processor called Origami.

Independence is bundled with an 18 GB sound library that includes orchestral instruments from Kirk Hunter Studios, pipe organs from Notre Dame de Budapest, and many original sounds from Yellow Tools, a company that first made its mark as a soundware developer. Percussion, saxophone, and bass samples from Culture, Candy, and Majestic, respectively, are in abundant supply. You also get lots of guitars, pianos, and synthesizers, and Independence can open content from any current or future virtual instruments from Yellow Tools. For copy protection, Independence relies on a proprietary USB key ($40), which comes with software for managing authorizations.

Superior Software

As you can see, your choices are legion if you're shopping for a sampler. Which one you choose, of course, will depend on your needs and your budget. If you already own a substantial sample library, compatibility will no doubt be a deciding factor. You should carefully consider how much sound design you might want to do on your own, both now and in the future. The majority of samplers surveyed here will likely be around for a while, and you'd probably prefer software that will evolve as your need for a sampler grows.

If most of your work is in a sequencing environment, then a multitimbral sampler is usually easier to use than one that requires you to open numerous plug-ins whenever you want to play several instruments at the same time. A single instance of Emulator X2 can open 64 different instruments on as many channels, but you would have to open 64 different instances of, say, EXS24 mkII to achieve similar performance. Granted, the computer you own now may not handle 64 parts simultaneously, but nonetheless, multitimbral operation is very desirable.

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FIG. 11: Yellow Tools Independence has a multiple-page GUI and an 18 GB collection of sample instruments. Owners can download a free utility

For anyone who cut their teeth on hardware samplers, the advantages of being able to actually make recordings within samplers may be apparent. Emulator X2 and GigaStudio 3 have that ability, but programs such as Structure and Ableton Sampler provide the same functionality because they're so tightly linked to their hosts' recording engines. As soon as you record audio into a track, you can open it in your sampler and begin turning it into a playable instrument.

What does the future have in store? A few samplers already work a lot like multitrack recorders; sequencing programs will probably gain new features that offer and extend sampling functionality. It's possible that audio tracks and clips will eventually let you define note and Velocity ranges so you can trigger them with a MIDI keyboard. Expansive sample libraries are already becoming the norm, and several sampler makers have told me that their next update will include much larger libraries. Obviously, more powerful computers and larger, faster storage will eliminate concerns over resource conservation. In the future, samplers will offer deeper functionality, more and better effects, and truly unlimited polyphony. Software samplers already offer capabilities that make hardware samplers obsolete, and fortunately for us, that trend is bound to continue.

Geary Yelton has been experimenting with audio recording since the age of ten and working with computer audio since 1984.


Six years ago, Associate Editor Dennis Miller and I wrote an EM cover story detailing the state of the art by exploring 11 software-based samplers (see “Soft Sampling” in the October 2001 issue, available online at www.emusician .com). Obviously, a lot has changed. Only two of the samplers covered here even existed then. Popular programs such as Bitheadz Unity and Digidesign SampleCell have vanished completely. Hardware samplers have all but fallen off the map. Computers have grown far more powerful, enabling software to do things that hardware never dreamed of, like playing massive multisamples from RAM or streaming 2 GB pianos direct from high-speed 500 GB hard disks. Back then, we were concerned that desktop computers didn't have enough zip to offer reliable polyphony, and that audio file formats were all over the proverbial map. Control surfaces were still uncommon in 2001, giving hardware the edge for tactile control.

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FIG. A: Although some keyboard samplers can import samples and SoundFonts, you''ll need Chicken Systems Translator Pro to transfer instruments from software samplers to hardware.

Of all our concerns, the one that remains today is obsolescence. When new operating systems replace old ones, or when new processors send old hardware to the scrap heap, there's a risk that software won't run on updated computers unless the software developer updates the sampler too. On more than one occasion, I've avoided retiring an old computer simply because I wasn't willing to stop using perfectly good software that was no longer current (Antares Infinity, Korg OASYS PCI, and Opcode Galaxy come to mind). Still, if you stick with a developer you trust to be around in a few years, and your software is popular enough to have a wide user base, you should feel almost as confident that your software will work in ten years as you are that your hardware sampler won't break and parts will continue to be available.

Lest you think that hardware samplers have become obsolete, they still serve a crucial function: playing samples onstage. Many modern synthesizers have the ability to import user samples, but you'll need a file translation utility to export mapped sampler instruments from software (see Fig. A).


Ableton www.ableton.com

Apple www.apple.com

Cakewalk www.cakewalk.com

Digidesign www.digidesign.com

E-mu www.emu.com

MOTU www.motu.com

Native Instruments www.native-instruments.com

Propellerhead www.propellerheads.se

Steinberg www.steinberg.net

Tascam www.tascam.com

Yellow Tools www.yellowtools.com