How did we survive before the connected age? Cell phones, e-mail, Web browsers and other tech goodies keep us plugged into the pulse of the world on a 24/7 basis, and we all know plenty of people who would feel naked as a newborn without a broadband connection or a mobile phone. Global connectedness and its instant data access are great enablers of today's digital music scene, bringing artists and fans closer together, as well as sites like Beatport.com, Dancerecords.com and iTunes shuttering traditional record stores at a breakneck clip.
The Internet has — arguably — been a boon for buying and selling music, but what about enhancing the tools we use to make music? Many small-shop sites have popped up hawking loops and sample CDs, but so far nothing has stood head and shoulders above the pack by offering a complete, integrated system for purchasing and playing samples online. However, that's set to change with Samplebase's Satellite and Satellite Pro samplers.
Samplebase (a subsidiary of Ilio) has designed Satellite as a one-stop shop for sampling needs, creating a VST- and Audio Units-compatible instrument that does away with the need for bulky sample DVDs and integrates with an online store for browsing and downloading new material. Sounds are culled from Ilio's widely respected sample libraries and sound designers, and a host of brand-new building blocks designed specifically for use with Satellite are also available. Is this Internet-connected upstart a worthy adversary for high-end samplers such as Native Instruments Kontakt or MOTU MachFive? Or is it a sampler of a different stripe, catering to producers who want to grab sounds and go rather than sifting through gigs of samples, fiddling with importing patches and tweaking parameters? I put Satellite and its online component, Samplebase.com, through the wringer and found rough edges and promising facets in equal proportion. (Satellite and Samplebase.com are components of the same system; Satellite is the software that runs as a stand-alone application or plug-in, and Samplebase.com is the online store for downloading content.)
SATELLITE VS. SATELLITE PRO
One of the most exciting features about Satellite is the price: It's free! The standard version of Satellite is 100-percent gratis, available for download from Samplebase.com with no strings attached, and while it's no replacement for a full-fledged sampler, it is a convenient way to get fresh, creative content delivered right to your desktop.
If you've used any of the stand-alone sample libraries based on Native Instruments' Kontakt Player, like those offered by EastWest, Garritan or FixedNoise, then you have a pretty good idea of how Satellite works. At its core, it's a sample playback engine. The big difference is Satellite's relationship with Samplebase.com, which offers relatively small groups of samples called SoundBlocks for download, ready for use in Satellite without any laborious patch setup or format conversion. You can tweak each patch's preset parameters to your heart's content, but you can't actually edit things such as knob assignments or effects parameters. You can build custom SoundBlocks by mixing and matching elements from diverse SoundBlocks and saving them to a new file, but you're still limited to working with each patch's template as configured by the original sound designer.
While each SoundBlock's presets are finely tuned to take full advantage of Satellite's features, if you want to really get your hands into the guts of each patch, then you need to shell out $149 for Satellite Pro. It's a reasonable price to pay because you'll gain complete control over knob assignments, effects, filters and waveform editing. It's not an ideal replacement for a full-fledged sampler with comprehensive routing and modulation facilities. However, it is a solid sampler and could be the ideal budget instrument for studios where sampling is required, but the raw power required for in-depth sound design isn't necessary. The best bet would be to grab Satellite for free and see if it fits your needs. If you find yourself longing for deeper control over SoundBlocks or wanting to create your own patches, then drop the cash for Satellite Pro. Both Satellite and Satellite Pro can import standard WAV, AIFF and REX files.
SoundBlocks use a lossless form of compression to keep downloads small and fast while maintaining CD-quality sound. As a result, loading patches does take a little more time than expected. There's no progress bar or other indicator letting you know how far into the loading process you are, so it's easy to wait 30 to 60 seconds thinking that Satellite has crashed and then have it snap back to life. Patience and a little faith that your sequencer hasn't crashed are required.
Samplebase's construction kits are a great inspiration and tons of fun to use. Midihead's EMP SoundBlock was by far the heftiest of the 12 that I downloaded, tipping the scales at a porky 120 MB but still chewing up far less real estate on my hard drive than the average sample CD or DVD. These construction kits are exactly what they sound like: groups of related samples and loops including drums, bass, leads, etc., all sequenced and patterned to work together to create the underpinning of a complete song. They're great starting points if you're feeling creative blockage and in need of a little juice to get you going. All of the loops tempo-sync automatically, so you can easily drop them into any arrangement without worrying about mismatched beats.
There's no shortage of great material on Samplebase.com. Producers and sound designers such as John “Skippy” Lehmkuhl, Kaskade, Vienna Symphonic, Catalyst Audio and many others are available in abundance — all at the eminently reasonable price of $19 to $49 each. While each SoundBlock contains plenty of quality raw material, each is focused and compact enough that there's never a sense of feeling overwhelmed by gigs and gigs of sounds. You can't beat fresh inspiration for less than $50. All of the SoundBlocks I tested sounded great, and I ended up reaching for Skippy's beats and the Catalyst loops on a regular basis. The analog leads by Patchen are also top-notch.
While switching multis in a large construction kit — if those multis contained WAV loops that needed time-stretch/pitch-correction analysis — Satellite would pause for five or six seconds to perform a one-time analysis algorithm on the multi before pulling up the new bank. Similarly, with the load times mentioned earlier, I'd like to see Satellite offer some sort of reassuring message or progress bar indicating what is happening.
Satellite also seems to use an unusually large amount of processor power. A single instance of Satellite playing back a single note from Patchen's Vintage Analog Leads SoundBlock consumed anywhere from 14 to 20 percent of my 2.8 GHz dual-core processor PC, and stacking additional notes bumped that up an extra one or two percent each. That behavior was relatively consistent across SoundBlocks, and as a result, complex arrangements with multiple instances of Satellite can chew through CPU power rapidly.
NUTS 'N' BOLTS
Satellite is structured much like any other sampler, offering multis that can contain as many as 16 separate patches, each of which is controlled individually using Satellite's large mixer panel. All 16 channels have a volume fader and two effects sends, and can be routed to individual sound outputs or effects buses, offering the potential for additional processing through the host sequencer.
Each patch within a multi goes through a standard battery of subtractive synthesis tools — pitch, filter and amplitude sections all feature five-stage envelopes, velocity sensitivity and individual LFOs for hands-off modulation. I was glad to see that each section featured an LFO, but I would prefer seeing a bit more modular approach, where more than one LFO could be assigned to a single destination. Still, each LFO does provide tempo sync and five different waveforms, so while advanced sound design is probably outside Satellite's scope, it certainly covers basic modulation well.
Satellite's well-appointed filter section boasts 10 different filter types including highpass, lowpass, bandpass and band-reject filters in 12- and 24-pole flavors. The filters do sound decent, if a bit brittle at high resonance, but I did notice one big problem: Turning the cutoff knob during playback causes a stepping sound as the filter moves from zero to 100. It was particularly evident during fast filter sweeps on a sustained lead sound with high resonance, where movement throughout the knob's range produced a rough, edgy stepped effect rather than a smooth, constant sweep. Such behavior can be expected when working with MIDI control messages, but I was expecting Satellite to have better internal resolution. Hower, Samplebase assured Remix that it is aware of the problem and is working to fix it hopefully with the next software update. (It is also working on RTAS support for that update.)
Effects in Satellite are standard issue. Eighteen separate processors are provided, and they cover all the bases from delay and reverb to compression and chorus. I didn't really reach for Satellite's onboard effects to sweeten up the sound, but Samplebase's sound designers put them to good use in every SoundBlock. The ability to route each patch in a multi to two inserts and two effects sends also bumps Satellite up on the flexibility scale, and further routing to separate soundcard outputs opens up the possibility for external processing.
FLOATING IN SPACE
Satellite is a great tool for budget sampling, and the Pro version contains enough power to keep somebody looking for a simple and straightforward sampler satisfied for quite some time. All of the SoundBlocks sound great, more are added on a regular basis and they're reasonably priced. While Satellite Pro isn't as modular or as flexible as more advanced (and expensive) samplers, on a price-to-performance scale it's a good buy.
Satellite Pro really wasn't intended to compete against those big boys. It's a way for Samplebase to deliver delicious morsels of audio goodness to your doorstep without the hassle of importing sample CDs or setting up patches. In today's data-clogged world of sample libraries spanning multiple DVDs and dozens of gigabytes, there's something refreshing about swinging by Samplebase.com and picking up a couple of inexpensive but inspiring SoundBlocks. It's simple, straightforward and keeps the focus where it needs to be — on making music.
SAMPLEBASE SATELLITE PRO > $149 (OR FREE FOR SATELLITE)
Pros: Great price. Outstanding selection of sounds. Convenient Internet delivery for new sound banks. Good synthesis and effects tools. Fully automatable with assignable knobs.
Cons: No option for direct-from-disk streaming. Slow load times. Low knob resolution.
Mac: G4, G5 or Intel/800 MHz; 1 GB RAM; OS X; VST or Audio Units host for plug-in use
PC: 1 GHz; 1 GB RAM; Windows 98/ME/2000/XP; ASIO-ready soundcard; VST host for plug-in use