With the enormous power residing in today's computers, much of theworkload of traditional hardware devices has shifted to the desktop.One of the most common applications handled by the personal computer issampling. Last year, EM examined a large number of softwaresynthesizers and found that modern computers perform admirably asmegavoice synthesis engines (see “Going Soft” in the July2000 issue). In this roundup, we will survey 11 of the most popularsoftware samplers for the Mac and PC platforms (see the table“Software Sampler Specifications” for a complete list ofthe programs).
We won't cover every soft sampler out there; although thesoft-sampler market is modest compared with the soft-synth world, itstill has too many programs to explore. We're going to skip programs,such as Native Instruments' Battery, that fall into the drum orrhythm category. We'll also pass over programs that play only samplesand provide no significant editing, effects, or modulation options, aswell as those that require dedicated hardware, such as CreamWare'sPulsar series. This roundup includes representative examples from everyother category of sampling software available.
Software samplers come in several categories. Some work only asplug-ins — for example, IK Multimedia's SampleTank,Emagic's EXS24, and Nick Whitehurst's SamplerChan.Others, such as NemeSys's GigaStudio and Digidesign's SoftSampleCell, operate standalone only, whereas a third group —including Native Instruments' Reaktor, Speedsoft's VirtualSampler, and Koblo's Stella9000 — function as plug-insor standalones. Among the plug-ins, most are VST Instruments, but usingFXpansion's VST — DX Adapter (www.fxpansion.com)on the PC, you can load nearly all VST devices in a DirectX host, suchas Cakewalk's Sonar. (Among the Windows programs, onlyCreamWare's Volkszämpler and SamplerChan do not workin that configuration.)
You'll also find many prices for sampling software, from a low of$39 to a high of $699. Logically, the plug-ins are far less expensivethan the standalone programs, and in most cases, you get what you payfor. We were pleasantly surprised that several less-expensive programsturned out to be real bargains, offering far more features than weexpected.
In researching this article, we quickly discovered that manysoftware-based “samplers” aren't samplers at all, at leastnot in the sense to which we're accustomed. Of the group, all but threelack an internal recording feature, which makes sense because mostusers have other audio-recording software on their systems. That alsoreflects a primary difference between the hardware sampler and newsoftware samplers. Yet it's curious that the term sampler hasbeen adopted for this breed of software when sample player orsample processor might be more appropriate.
Traditional hardware samplers can record sound and play it backunder MIDI control. Between recording and playback, they provide ameans to edit the sound — inserting loop points, for example— as well as a way to assign sound to individual MIDI notes andVelocity ranges. All the audio and MIDI assignment data held in asampler's RAM can then be stored on a disk or some other permanentmedium and later retrieved to RAM. Soft samplers have many features incommon with hardware samplers, yet many also take new approaches tosample manipulation and playback.
The programs in this roundup share many features. All but oneprogram loads samples into RAM, which limits you to your computer'savailable memory. GigaStudio streams samples directly from yourhard drive, so a 400 MB piano sample isn't a problem. (VirtualSampler 2.7, now in beta, also has that capability.)
The range of effects included with the programs varies widely.Overall, plug-in samplers have a major advantage in the effectscategory because they allow you to pass their audio output to whateverthird-party effects you can access through their hosts. That capabilityopens up the world of VST and DirectX effects and gives you a massivenumber of sound-shaping options.
You'll find support for the most common audio-file formats that arenative to both platforms, with the Mac applications far more generousin supporting Windows WAV format than Windows apps are in supportingAIFF. Many programs can load the ubiquitous Akai format, SoundFonts, orboth. When all else fails, you can use a file-translator program toconvert files from almost any format imaginable to something that worksfor the software you choose (see the sidebar “Have It YourWay”).
Happily, most samplers are multitimbral and multichannel, though wewere amazed at the vastly different approaches used to create amultitimbral configuration. In some cases, setting up a multi is almostautomatic, but in others, that operation is buried beneath layers ofoptions. Most of the programs we cover have only a few (sometimes, onlyone) screens, which simplifies navigation by putting the main workingelements at your fingertips.
Many programs ship with various sample libraries. SampleTankXL wins the prize in that category with 2 GB of files ranging fromstandard orchestral instruments to special effects. NemeSys generouslyadds its renowned 600 MB piano sample to the GigaStudio bundle(talk about multisamples!), and many other programs include largesample or patch libraries to get you started.
Here, then, is our roundup of software samplers. There aretremendous advantages to using your computer as a sampler, but stickingwith a dedicated hardware unit is a good idea too (see the sidebar“Pros and Cons”). We tried to cover each program's mostsignificant features and mention likes and dislikes in each case. Wehighly recommend that you check out the demo versions available fornearly every program and see for yourself whether they provide thefeatures you need.
Emagic's EXS24 is a sampler plug-in that works as an AudioInstrument object within recent versions of MicroLogic AV andLogic Audio Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Depending on yourcomputer's speed and available RAM, you can open as many as 24simultaneous instances of EXS24, each with 64-note polyphony,without add-on hardware. Opening a Logic Audio file thatcontains EXS24 Sample Instruments automatically loads theappropriate samples.
EXS24 supports any audio hardware that works with LogicAudio. Users of Digidesign's TDM hardware can open as many as 32instances of EXS24 using the Emagic System Bridge (ESB) TDM.EXS24 has no sample-recording abilities, but you can use LogicAudio to record and edit samples for use in EXS24.
Using Logic Audio, you can automate any parameter changes youmake in the EXS24 plug-in window. When you record on an AudioInstrument channel assigned to an instance of EXS24, changing anEXS24 knob or slider produces MIDI data recorded for subsequentrecall.
The heart of EXS24's user interface is the plug-in window'sEditor view, which displays the main panel (see Fig. 1). With anappearance that emulates three-dimensional hardware, this view is thecoolest-looking visual interface of the programs we surveyed. Thewindow provides access to most sound-shaping capabilities, with aresonant filter, two envelope generators (EGs), and a pair oflow-frequency oscillators (LFOs) as well as controls for tuning,panning, sample start time, glide, and Velocity response. Some sliderssplit into upper and lower halves, allowing you to specify modulationranges. Poly, Mono, and Legato switches let you dictate how many noteswill play and whether envelopes will retrigger when you press a key. Atthe top of the window is a pop-up menu for selecting from a list ofSample Instruments stored on your hard disk.
The lowpass filter has a choice of rolloff, with buttons to select24 dB Classic, 24 dB Fat, 18 dB, or 12 dB modes. The Drive knob allowsyou to overdrive the filter for distortion effects, and the Key knobprovides continuously variable keyboard tracking. At high resonancesettings, the filter can self-oscillate.
The ADSR generators are “hardwired” to control amplitudeand filter cutoff. You can modulate either envelope's attack time withVelocity; a split slider's two halves determine the minimum and maximumVelocity values.
Both LFOs offer a selection of seven subaudio waveforms. LFO1 ispolyphonic, providing each note with independent modulation, and itrestarts its cycle every time you play a note. LFO2 is monophonic; itruns continuously, simultaneously modulating all voices to which youassign it. That combination of LFOs offers maximum flexibility.
Switching from the Editor to the Controls view reveals a panel offields and sliders and affords an alternate approach to editing theparameters displayed in the Editor. Values are shown in percentages orreal-world numbers — decibels, milliseconds, and hertz. (InEditor view, you can see parameter values only as relative positions ofsliders and knobs.) Although the Controls view doesn't look as spiffyas the Editor, you can quickly see precisely what's in it.
In Editor view, pressing the Edit button opens EXS24'sInstrument Editor. Unlike the plug-in's Editor window, the InstrumentEditor is shared by all instances of EXS24. In that window, youcan assign samples to Zones, organize Zones into Groups, and assembleGroups into Sample Instruments. In each Zone, you can specify onesample's note or note range and enter its start, end, and loop points.Furthermore, the Instrument Editor lets you stipulate the volume,panning, Velocity range, and polyphony of all the Zones assigned to aGroup.
If you put an Akai sampler disc into your computer's CD-ROM driveand select Akai Convert from the Instrument Editor's Instrument menu, awindow will display the disc's contents. From there, you can easilyconvert programs, volumes, partitions, or entire discs intoEXS24's native format. Additionally, you can listen toindividual samples directly from the Akai disc. EXS24automatically converts SoundFonts when you move them to LogicAudio's Sample Instruments folder and SampleCell files when youmove their aliases there.
From the Instrument Editor, you can also open Logic Audio'sSample Editor for a selected sample; there, you can graphicallyposition start, end, and loop points. You can also assign effectsplug-ins and perform destructive sample editing in that window.
The small 58-page, spiral-bound manual has a brief tutorial. Awell-rounded, 165 MB library of Sampler Instruments is also included toget you started. After registering EXS24, you'll get a CD-ROMwith an additional 425 MB of samples, including duplicates from the 165MB library. Emagic embedded EXS24's code in Logic Audiorather than on the EXS24 installation disc; the installer simplyturns it on.
For users of programs other than Logic Audio, Emagic makesEXSP24, a sample player that runs with any VST 2.0 host on theMac and PC. It converts SoundFonts, but not Akai or SampleCell files,into its native format. The Instrument Editor is missing, and you can'tcreate Instruments without EXS24 for Logic Audio.
GIGASTUDIO 160 2.2
If third-party sample-library support were the main criterion,NemeSys's GigaStudio would win the prize as the mother of allsoftware samplers. Dozens of dedicated sample libraries are availablefor the standalone application, ranging from multi-CD timpanicollections to extraworldly ambiences. In addition, GigaStudiohas won the support of many PC sound-card manufacturers that havedeveloped custom drivers providing near-zero latency forGigaStudio users.
GigaStudio comes in two versions: the top-of-the-lineGigaStudio 160, which offers as many as 160 notes of polyphony,and the slightly scaled back GigaStudio 96, which has 96 notes.With significantly fewer features, the original GigaSamplerseries is also available at greatly reduced prices.
GigaStudio's opening screen is optimized for creatingmultitimbral and multichannel setups. Unlike most hardware samplers,GigaStudio lets you assign more than one patch to a MIDIchannel. It also supports as many as four streams of 16 channels each,so you can easily layer four patches on one channel. Each patch cancontain multiple layers, providing even more options for creatingextremely rich textures.
At the top of the Main Mixer screen are 16 channel slots for loadingyour samples and controls for adjusting each channel's volume, panposition, and tuning (see Fig. 2). You can reprogram the slidersto generate any MIDI controller, mute or solo a channel, and adjust thechannel's routing to the internal effects engine and your sound card.Clicking on the small arrow to the right of the patch name opens theInfo screen, in which you can pick any loaded Instrument, jump to theInstrument, and view performance parameters for that channel.
The middle of the screen has buttons to access the three other mainwork areas: Loaded Instruments, MIDI Control Surface, and DistributedWave. GigaStudio's basic structural element is called anInstrument, which is a set of keymapped zones that contain one or moresamples. The Loaded Instruments screen displays all the Instrumentsthat have been precached, which is a process GigaStudiouses to achieve near-zero latency (in brief, it loads a small chunk ofeach sample into RAM). Assign, at most, 16 controllers per channel inthe MIDI Control Surface screen and bring new samples into the programin the Distributed Waves window.
An Explorer-style window in which you can access all the WAV fileson your system is at the bottom of the main screen. Grab one or moresamples from your drive, drop them into the Distributed Waves window,right-click, and select Build Gig from Loaded Waves, and you have a newpatch.
In the Instrument Editor (a standalone application that runs withoutloading the main GigaStudio interface), you can modify manypatch parameters. You'll find screens to configure key and Velocityzones; set and enable loop points; and add amplitude, filter, and pitchenvelopes. Some parameter values have limits — for example, themaximum attack time for a pitch envelope is 10 seconds — and theamplitude envelopes are ADSR only. Additional flexibility in thosecontrols would be nice.
MAKE IT QUICK
Numerous features simplify your work flow. The QuickSound feature,for instance, scans your hard drive at startup and identifies any newsample files. The program can automatically build keymaps for samplesQuickSound locates, which makes creating large collections of soundeffects easy. Also, it is simple to set up links to the otherapplications — a sequencer and audio editor, for instance —that you will no doubt use in a GigaStudio session.
GigaStudio's small number of effects algorithms is one of theprogram's few drawbacks. If you're doing acoustic-instrumentemulations, though, that shouldn't be an issue. The program ships withonly three effects, and you receive a fourth, free, when you register.(NemeSys reports that other third-party effects are in development.)The effects sound great and are easy to apply and work with; the reverbquality is especially good. Creating effects automation is simple andlets you design interesting, time-varying sounds.
GigaStudio is not the best option for creating avant-garde oralien soundscapes, though it is great for playing back samples youcreated elsewhere. It's an excellent choice for anyone experienced withhardware samplers and for novices as well. The manufacturer madearrangements with Hollywood Edge to create QuickSound-compatibleversions of many of its best sound effects, and that will certainlymake it one of the most efficient sound-effects and Foley platformsaround. Rumor has it many Hollywood composers have dumped theirhardware and added GigaStudio to their racks — notsurprising, given the power and intuitiveness of the software.
Native Instruments recently released version 3 of Reaktor,its flagship modular sound-design software, and processing and playingsamples is an important part of the package. (Reaktor integratestwo formerly separate NI products: Generator, a soft-synthbuilder; and Transformator, a dedicated sampling app.)Reaktor ships with several dozen example sample players that usethe program's numerous sound-manipulation tools. Right out of the box,you will find time stretchers, sample granulators, as well as sampleplayers that have been optimized for loops and drum sounds. You cansubstitute your own audio files for any files used by the existingplayers, mixing and matching components to create unique sound-designtools.
Reaktor runs as both a VST and a DirectX plug-in, and it canalso be used as a standalone. More than just a sampler or sampleplayer, the program is a toolbox full of sound-generating andprocessing modules that you can combine in nearly any combination.Winner of an EM Editors' Choice award, Reaktor offerseverything from common synth elements (such as oscillators andenvelopes) to low-level mathematical functions. The software is atweaker's delight, yet if you stick with the hundreds of examples thatcome with the software, no assembly is required.
When you open an example, you'll likely see a massive array of knobsand sliders with abbreviated identifying labels. For example, News CoolMeat Chopper presents a multitude of parameters (see Fig. 3).Some divulge their names and functions when you hold the cursor overthem, and others don't. (If no text is displayed, the patch developerhasn't included any.) If you leave the Properties dialog open, you canmake changes to the displayed parameters, which are reflectedimmediately in the open device.
Building a multitimbral sampler in Reaktor is astraightforward process. Beginning in the Structure window, select 1 ormore of the 24 basic sample Instruments and paste it as many as 15 (ifit's mono) or 7 (if it's stereo) times. Then, connect the outputs ofeach Instrument to the Audio Out. All of the sample Instruments includepreloaded example audio files, so you should be able to hear audio assoon as you connect them.
Next, set the MIDI receive channel in the Instrument Propertiespanel for each instrument. If you have a multichannel sound card thatsupports ASIO, you can direct each sampler to a different physicaloutput; if you don't, mix all the signals to one stereo output.Substitute your samples for the default ones, and you're set.
The number of processes you can add to your samplers is astounding.If you're interested in waveshaping, drag a WaveWarp module and insertit between the sampler and the Audio Out. How about a morphing vowelfilter? That's also available to process samples, as are other filtersand vocoders, dynamics processors, pitch and time shifters, chorus anddelay effects, and more. Additionally, you can add, delete, or modifymodules, even as a sample plays back. Reaktor automaticallyincorporates any adjustments you make in real time.
Many of Reaktor's sample-transformation features are based onanalysis and resynthesis techniques. Those features are among theprogram's most impressive and are unlike anything short of SymbolicSound's hardware-assisted Kyma system. When you load a new file into aresynthesizing sampler, Reaktor performs a quick spectralanalysis of it, which it then uses for controlling the sample'splayback rate and pitch. You can save the analysis data, which makes itload more quickly next time, or you can discard it when you close thework session.
Among the modules that use the resynthesis process is the SamplePitch Former. This versatile module lets you control a sample's pitchand formants independently. Like other Reaktor samplers, you canincorporate a map of as many as 127 sample files in the Sample PitchFormer and then configure the sampler to move through themautomatically as it plays back. You can also slow down thesample-position pointer until it reaches a dead stop and freezes on asingle sample. For manual control, assign the position pointer to aslider or fader, or use an LFO or even a random function to automateit.
One reason Reaktor has such a large and loyal user base isthat Native Instruments has made it quite easy for users to sharepatches. Hundreds of user-contributed example files are at thecompany's Web site. Moreover, the thorough documentation —complete with tutorials and a reference entry for the more than 200modules — makes getting started with the initiallyaustere-looking program much easier.
Reaktor doesn't have as many ready-made templates as someother programs. Unlike GigaStudio, for example, Reaktordoesn't let you drag 16 samples to different channels on the interfaceto build a multitimbral configuration. Because Reaktor'sarchitecture is so open and flexible, however, with a little effort,you can create nearly any sampling process imaginable. Reaktor 3is as close to the “endless sampler” as any you'llfind.
SOFT SAMPLECELL 3.O
Digidesign's Soft SampleCell is the latest incarnation of acomputer-based instrument that, until recently, required dedicateddigital signal processing (DSP) hardware in one of your computer'sexpansion slots. Introduced more than a decade ago, SampleCell is apopular sampling platform for Macs and PCs. The first SampleCell, ajoint project between Digidesign and Opcode, was a Nubus card withediting software only for the Mac. A PCI version was later developedfor both platforms.
The latest edition, Soft SampleCell 3.0, works just likeprevious versions, but one element is missing: the expansion card.Consequently, Soft SampleCell costs $950 less than its PCI-basedcounterpart yet offers the same functionality and more, including a4-pole resonant filter. Instead of dedicated DSP hardware, SoftSampleCell harnesses the power of your computer's processor. Nowalmost anyone with a modern Power Mac, a compatible floppy drive (forthe authorization disk), and sufficient RAM to run OS 9.0.4 can runSampleCell, even on a computer without PCI slots.
Soft SampleCell is a Mac-only application that requires OpenMusic System (OMS) for MIDI communication. If you're a Mark of theUnicorn Digital Performer user who refuses to give up FreeMIDIin favor of OMS, Soft SampleCell won't suit your needs. If youhave Digidesign hardware, you have a choice of DirectConnect or DirectI/O for multichannel audio output; otherwise, you have to use SoundManager, which limits you to stereo output. If you invested inexpensive ASIO hardware with multiple outputs, you're out of luck.
Soft SampleCell can open AIFF, WAV, and Sound Designer I orII files, but it has no facility for directly recording samples. Itdoesn't import non-native sampler formats such as Roland or Akai;however, translation programs can convert sampler discs to SampleCell'snative format. SampleCell is such a popular format that several othervirtual samplers support it.
TAKE IT TO THE BANK
The main window in Soft SampleCell displays a bank ofInstruments, each containing a sample or a multisample in mono orstereo (see Fig. 4). The number of Instruments in a bankdetermines the window's width. Each Instrument appears in what lookslike a channel strip showing its name, MIDI channel, key range, audiooutputs, panning, and level.
A button at the top of the Bank window opens the Sample Map window,in which you import samples, preview them with an onscreen keyboard,and define their Key Groups and Velocity Zones. Another button opensMisc Parameters, which contains controls for pitch-wheel range, tuning,and Velocity response. Also in the Misc Parameters window, you canspecify the lowpass filter's frequency, resonance, and slope (either 6or 24 dB per octave). The Resampling Quality pop-up, at its highestsetting, helps to minimize audio artifacts when pitch is transposedmore than seven semitones.
Other buttons let you assign three EGs, two flexible LFOs, matrixmodulation, and parameter response curves. In addition to the usualattack, decay, and release times, the EGs provide both a sustain leveland a sustain decay time. Matrix modulation offers 18 sources and 24destinations, adding flexibility that's missing from many samplers. Youcan use Velocity to control the sample start time, for example, orcontrol filter resonance with Aftertouch.
A button in the Sample Map opens the Loop window, an editor fordefining loop points and trimming audio. That integral loop editor isthe only way you can edit the contents of sample files in SoftSampleCell, whether they're located in open Instruments or on disk.For each file, you can specify a single sustain/release loop or oneloop for sustain and another for release. The program can createcrossfades and automatically locate potential loop points. A WaveformDisplay shows the entire sample, and a Loop Display zooms in on theloop points. An especially welcome feature is the ability to adjustloop points as the loop plays.
It is disappointing that Soft SampleCell has no effectsprocessor, but you can create auto-panning and simulate many effects inthe modulation matrix. To add reverb or compression, you can assignplug-ins to SampleCell's audio track in Pro Tools or yoursequencer application.
Soft SampleCell's 100-page manual comes in paperbound andbookmarked PDF versions, giving the advantage of holding a book in yourlap while searching its contents in Adobe Acrobat.
Soft SampleCell appears to be optimized for use with a ProTools system; however, it should be useful with any sequencing programthat supports OMS. Multichannel audio requires Digidesign hardware, sothose users who do not use Pro Tools are limited to stereo output.Although the program doesn't support third-party audio hardware andDigidesign feels no need for multiple instances, SoftSampleCell's well-conceived feature set makes it a flexible sampleplayer.
Nick Whitehurst's SamplerChan is the newest soft sampler onthe market, having come out of beta just days before this writing. Itoperates as a VST plug-in but doesn't run using FXpansion's VST— DX Adapter within Cakewalk's Sonar. The program is16-part multitimbral and supports samples as high as 32-bit, 44.1 kHzresolution. It provides special features for triggering samples and canautomatically generate rhythmic and strumming note patterns.
SamplerChan's interface is split into three main work areas:Mixer, Editor, and Wave (see Fig. 5). Each has features andprovides access to options related to different stages of your workflow. In the Mixer view, you set the levels for each of 16 MIDIchannels; assign a Program Change and, if necessary, a Bank Changenumber to trigger the sound on the current channel; adjust the twoeffects-send levels; and perform various file-maintenance operations.The large graphic Mixer interface is nicely laid out, but you can'tresize it.
Building a multitimbral setup in the Mixer is a breeze. First, draga file from the Explorer-style window on the left of the screendirectly into any of the 16 channel slots; then repeat as needed asmany as 15 times, and you're set. If desired, you can specify a maximumpolyphony (at most, 64 notes) for each channel. You can also enable thein-line limiter and route each channel to any of the eight possibleouts on a per-channel basis. To patch a channel into the plug-insprovided by your host software, assign it to either of the two effectssends.
SamplerChan, like many of the other programs, lets you workat various levels of its architecture, but some of the Editor'sperformance parameters are unique. For example, like the other samplersin this roundup, SamplerChan's patches consist of samplesassigned to parts containing various splits and layers. Parts arecombined into instruments, which are stored in banks. In addition tothe familiar tuning and volume controls that you can assign to asample, the program offers numerous ways to add nondestructive rhythmiccomponents that affect the way a sample plays back.
Using the tools under the Rhythm tab in the Editor, for example, youcan build long sequences of note events that trigger your sample eachtime a MIDI Note On is received from the host. We grabbed a single belltone from the hard drive, loaded it into SamplerChan, and thencreated a 24-note sequence that altered the sample’s pitch andVelocity. When Steinberg’s Cubase played a middle C,SamplerChan played the bell with the 24-note sequence we hadcreated. We continued to add layers to the patch by loading other drumsamples and building unique sequences for each of them. Before long, wehad some elaborate, evolving polyrhythmic textures playing back in syncwith the tempo of the Cubase sequence.
The Editor screen also provides features that are especially suitedfor working with drum sounds. Switch the display to Drum mode and dragany number of drum samples from the file area at the screen’s leftonto the Editor. SamplerChan automatically assigns each sampleto a different key, and you have an instant multisampled kit.
SamplerChan offers robust matrix-modulation features. Inaddition to traditional modulation sources, such as three multiwaveLFOs and three five-stage EGs, it has an envelope follower that tracksthe sample’s amplitude envelope and allows you to use it as a modsource. You can control the pitch of a sample with the amplitude-curvedata, for example; as the source sample grows louder, the destinationsample’s pitch gets higher. A less-familiar modulation destinationis the effects-send level; modulating it with an LFO, for instance,creates an effect that fades in and out during a recurring timeframe.
In the Loop
Access to SamplerChan’s extensive looping features isobtained in the Wave screen. You have options to automatically fadeloop points in or out, fine-tune a loop’s pitch and length, andset the loop direction (forward, backward, or bidirectional). LikePropellerhead Software’s ReCycle, SamplerChan offers toolsto slice a loop and manipulate the slices, letting you slow down orspeed up the loop without changing its pitch. You can even assign eachslice to a different key, providing options to completely modify ormangle the original loop or simply add a little swing to it.
By pressing the Extract Groove button, you can store a copy of thetime markers associated with a sliced loop and reuse them elsewhere.Those and other loop-manipulation features remove SamplerChanfrom the standard soft-sampler world and add considerably to its valueas a composition tool.
Perhaps more than most soft samplers, SamplerChan is alive-performance application. One useful performance feature is theaptly named Performer. The Performer’s virtual joystick (and manyother controls) lets you move among four quadrants. Like the physicaljoystick on certain Korg synths, you can map the joystick movements tonumerous performance parameters, such as filter cutoff frequency, LFOdepth, and the length of an envelope segment. You can even map themovements to the levels of different parts so that samples fade in andout as you move the stick around. You can record all joystick movementsin your host software to re-create or automate the performance of yoursounds. The Performer is a great feature that, by itself, is worth thesampler’s price.
SamplerChan’s Options screen offers various ways tocustomize the software. You can link to as many as three externalapplications directly within the program, optimize various aspects ofits performance, and specify as many as 99 levels of undo. Thedocumentation (in PDF only) does an especially good job explaining anaudio signal’s flow through the program, and it includes cleargraphic flowcharts. Lucid explanations help you understand how best toexploit SamplerChan’s resources.
SamplerChan is the most unusual program in our roundup.It’s an excellent choice if you’re interested in working withloops and grooves but don’t yet have dedicated tools for the job.It also makes sense for anyone who wants a more traditionalsoft-sampler experience. If the developer adds DirectX Instrumentsupport and works out the bugs with VST—DX Adapter, non-VSTusers will have a chance to use SamplerChan.
A sample player in the form of a VST Instrument, IKMultimedia’s SampleTank comes in DJ ($199), L($249), and XL ($499) versions; the main differences are thesize and scope of the included sample libraries. SampleTank DJand L are unable to open instruments found in only the XLlibrary; you can upgrade by paying the difference in retail price.XL also includes ST Converter, a utility that convertsAkai S1000 and S3000 files to SampleTank format.
SampleTank’s installer disc has 289 MB of mostlymultisampled instruments, in addition to 182 MB of third-party demosounds. Installing SampleTank DJ from a second disc has anadditional 323 MB of loops, electronic drums, and synth samples. Moveup to the L level for a wider palette ranging from electric andacoustic guitars to orchestral and vocal sounds totaling 593 MBtogether with the basic and DJ instruments. SampleTank XLsupplies another 613 MB and increases the variety of sounds even more,adding up to a grand total of 2 GB. The quality of the included soundsvaries considerably, but most sounds we tried out are pretty good. Allinstruments and samples are in a proprietary format, so you can onlyopen them in SampleTank.
Because it’s a VST Instrument, SampleTank requires a VST2.0—compliant sequencer program, though it loaded with no problemin Sonar using the VST—DirectX Adapter. Depending on CPUspeed, its maximum polyphony is 128 notes. With enough processingpower, you can run as many as 8 copies simultaneously in CubaseVST and 16 copies in Logic Audio. Each copy responds on 16MIDI channels, with a different instrument on each channel.
SampleTank appears onscreen as a plug-in window with manyknobs, buttons, and a display area (see Fig. 6). Choose specificinstruments from a category list that appears at the center of thedisplay area. Select one instrument for each MIDI channel, which youspecify with a row of 16 buttons, and stipulate the instrument’svolume and pan position. Clicking on an Info button revealssupplementary information for each instrument, such as multisample sizeand the copyright holder’s name.
Written in Stone
Instrument editing is minimal: because SampleTank is a sampleplayer in the strictest sense, reassigning samples or key rangesisn’t possible. Those capabilities would be a welcome addition toa future revision, along with user-defined envelopes and filters.
In any instrument, however, you can control as many as fourreal-time parameters using onscreen knobs or MIDI Control Change (CC)messages. Parameter names appear above the knobs and in greater detailon the display’s left side, just below the current instrumentname. If you click on the parameter value that appears just below eachknob, SampleTank displays its MIDI CC number and its value.Because you can change parameters with MIDI messages, you can automatechanges by recording them into your sequencer. You also can save anychanges you make to an instrument’s default parametersettings.
With pull-down menus containing 27 effects algorithms, you canassign as many as four effects to each instrument. Four slots foreffects each have an On toggle button and an indicator LED. The firstslot always provides compression and four bands of EQ; the other threeare user-programmable and range from envelope filter and rotary speakerto Slicer bpm, an effect that transforms a sustained sound into arhythmic phrase. When you click on a slot, four or five adjacent knobsare labeled with appropriate parameters. You can control all parameterswith MIDI CCs and sync some of the effects to MIDI tempo.
SampleTank’s Search function allows you to enterkeywords like "Indian" or "180 bpm" to quickly find samples appropriatefor your needs. You can specify the number of notes each instrument canplay, thus controlling its CPU usage, and indicate whether aninstrument plays polyphonically or monophonically.
SampleTank comes with a small stapled, 40-page manualthat’s also provided as an Acrobat file. EachSampleTank version includes a list of instruments in paper andPDF formats.
Stella9000 is part of Koblo’s Studio9000 suite ofsoftware instruments for Macintosh. Based on Koblo’s Tokyo engine,Studio9000 includes three soft synths; a virtual drum machine; andStella9000, an 8-note polyphonic sample player.Stella9000 works as a VST plug-in instrument, as a standaloneprogram, or with any software that supports OMS or FreeMIDI for MIDIinput and output. For audio I/O, Tokyo supports ReWire, Sound Manager,DirectConnect, Direct I/O, and MAS in addition to VST 2.0.
Stella9000’s highlights include freestanding operation,an amazing multimode filter, three invertable ADSR generators, asophisticated arpeggiator, and a modulation matrix with 16 sources and28 destinations. On the downside, Stella9000 is 8-notepolyphonic, and each instance runs on a single MIDI channel.Surprisingly, it does not have an effects processor or facilities forediting samples or rearranging multisample keymaps, though you cancontrol a sample’s start point.
Stella9000 opens SampleCell instrument keymaps (as long asthey’re assigned to a single MIDI channel), and it reads AIFF andSound Designer II audio files. (A WAV translator is available fromKoblo as a free download.) You can select from more than 250 factoryprograms in the Presets menu; most are effects or other sounds orientedtoward dance and techno music, and many sound a little out of date.It’s been almost two years since Studio9000’s lastrelease, and it’s due for an update to compete with stiffcompetition.
Stella9000’s architecture is synthlike; it’s almostidentical to Vibra9000,Studio9000’s most refinedvirtual synth. However, in place of the synth module’s oscillatorwaveforms are samples and multisamples. All of Stella9000’scontrols transmit MIDI, and you can control every parameter from yoursequencer or any external MIDI source.
One of Stella9000’s especially welcome aspects is thatit has only one window, which lets you see what’s going on at alltimes (see Fig. 7). The onscreen front panel contains 68 knobs, 18buttons, and many stylized pop-up parameter displays. Flashing LEDsprovide plenty of visual feedback when data is sent or received. Thepanel is divided into sections labeled Sample, Filter, Env, LFO, Arp,Mod, and Global. The Sample section has controls for sample-playbackoffset, tuning, Velocity modulation, and pitch-bend range, as well asamplitude attack and release. Buttons turn on looping and reverseplayback.
Stella9000 has the same Filter section as Vibra6000and -9000, and it’s one of the coolest filters ever. Inaddition to balancing the output of simultaneously available lowpass,bandpass, and highpass filters, you can change their stereo positioningwith the Spread knob. A pop-up menu reveals eight types of filters,including 2-pole, 4-pole, 8-pole, and a notch filter with two 4-polefilters. Two comb filters produce resonances at multiple frequencies,and there are combinations of two or four 2-pole filters. Additionalknobs control cutoff, resonance, key tracking, Velocity sensitivity,and distortion.
Stella9000’s three LFOs have separate unipolar andbipolar outputs and a choice of six waveforms. Each LFO has its ownattack-decay envelope, and dedicated lowpass filters can reshape theLFO waveforms. You can sync LFO rate to sequencer tempo.
The modulation matrix provides eight source-to-destination routings,each with its own depth control. Modulators include envelopes, LFOs,note number, pitch bend up or down, and real-time controllers.Destinations can be nearly any front-panel parameter, includingmodulation depth.
Studio9000’s minimum system requirements are more modest thansome: you need 40 MB of free RAM, Mac OS 8.0, and 16 MB of disk spacefor installation. You can select which instruments toinstall–Stella9000; Gamma9000; or Vibra1000, -6000,and -9000–depending on your resources and requirements.
Unity DS-1 2.1.3
BitHeadz’s Unity DS-1 was the first full-functionvirtual sampler available for Macintosh, and it’s still one of thefew virtual samplers that records samples. With comprehensive sampleediting, extensive modulation routing, and the ability to work alone orwith all popular sequencers, Unity goes beyond emulatinghardware and embraces the advantages of software-based samplers. On theMac, nothing else comes so close to reflecting a hardware-basedsampler. A scaled-down Unity Player ($199) is also availablefrom BitHeadz.
Unity is optimized for G4 and Pentium III processors, but itwill also run on a 200 MHz PowerPC 604 or a Pentium II. On Macs withdual processors, Unity processes most voices on the secondprocessor and leaves the main processor available for your multitrackaudio-recording program. With sufficient CPU power, Unity playsas many as 256 phase-locked stereo voices. You can open as many aseight copies of Unity at the same time, providing 128independent MIDI channels.
To make efficient use of memory, Unity DS-1 is a suite ofapplications divided into Unity DS-1 Editor, MIDI Processor,Keyboard, and Mixer. At first, so many applications appearto be a hassle, but to play Unity as a standalone program, youonly need to run one. When you use a sequencer, the Unity engineruns in the background, so you don’t have to open any additionalprograms. Also included are a number of utilities for organizing samplelibraries, playing Standard MIDI Files (SMFs), and accomplishing othertasks.
In the Unity DS-1 Control Panel, you can specify parameterssuch as the maximum RAM (as much as 1 GB), maximum polyphony, samplerate, Velocity curve, MIDI and audio I/O devices, controller routings,and other details of Unity’s operating environment. TheControl Panel gives you the most direct control of how the Unityengine functions.
For live performance, Unity DS-1 MIDI Processor lets youspeedily select and play sounds, set up splits and layers, and useUnity’s sophisticated arpeggiator. You can modify tuning, panning,effects sends, and other real-time parameters as well.
The Mixer displays 16 MIDI channels, each as a differentchannel strip, with a master section for controlling overall volume andglobal-effects depth. You can select sounds, mute and solo channels,and control the same real-time parameters that you can with the MIDIProcessor.
Whether you’re tweaking programs for a particular project,creating samples from scratch, or retooling a sample library createdfor another sampler, the heart of Unity is the Unity DS-1Editor. The Editor provides tools to manipulate samples,multisamples, and programs.
The Editor’s Samples page is a full-fledged sampleeditor in which you can view and edit every waveform in the currentbank (see Fig. 8). You can define sampling rate (as high as 96 kHz),bit rate (from 8 to 24), root note, fine-tuning, tempo, loop points,and other details. Converting mono samples to stereo (and vice versa)is easy using a single pop-up selection.
The Samples page’s Munge menu provides powerful audio-editingfunctions, including normalize, pitch shift, time stretch, changelength, split, invert phase, and crossfade loop. Although there’sno dedicated loop-editing window, an auto-loop feature lets you scrollthrough potential loop points. You can even play the samplecontinuously as you adjust loop points.
The Record button on the Samples page opens the Record window, whereyou record samples in stereo from your computer’s audio inputs.Although you start sampling by hitting the Record button, youcan’t set a threshold that triggers Record as you can with mosthardware-based samplers.
The Multisamples page is where you insert samples into the differentzones in a multisample. Zones can be displayed in an onscreen keyboardor a list. You can designate each sample’s key and Velocity range,start point, tuning, volume, panning, and so on. You can even definecrossfades between zones, mixing a sample from one zone with another atthe split points at which one zone ends and another begins. That helpsto minimize transitions between zones.
The Programs page is divided into Configuration, Main, Modulation,Effects, and Global sections, each of which is accessed by clicking ontabs. On any Programs page, you can open, add, and delete programs froma bank. An overview of the program’s algorithm appears on theConfiguration page, where you can graphically route oscillators,filters, and effects to the output.
The Main page displays parameter controls for two oscillators andtwo filters. There are 16 filter types, including lowpass, highpass,bandpass, and allpass with varying characteristics, slope, threshold,and comb.
You can route 12 sources to 60 destinations on the Modulation pageas well as program flexible LFOs and five-stage EGs. The number ofmodulation routings, LFOs, and envelope generators is practicallyunlimited, depending on your computer’s horsepower. LFOs can syncto your sequencer’s tempo.
The Effects page is divided into four quadrants containing controlsfor two insert effects and two global effects. Pop-up menus providelists of effects types, with different sets of parameter sliders foreach effect. Insert effects include everything from flanger andmultitap chorus to parametric EQ and distortion. Global effects arelimited to reverb, reflection, and delay.
The Unity DS-1 Manual is a 274-page PDF file that’sclearly written and well indexed, though bookmarks would be nice.Unity comes with a well-rounded, 300 MB sample library thatincludes a 12 MB General MIDI (GM) bank. An abundance of Unity-formatdiscs, ranging from classic keyboards to percussion hits andbreakbeats, is available from BitHeadz and other manufacturers.
Unity DS-1 is a mature program with a lot of function andflexibility. If other samplers replicate its breadth of capability,many people will find replacing samplers with computer software mucheasier to accept.
Virtual Sampler 2.56
Speedsoft’s Virtual Sampler runs as either a VST or aDirectX Instrument and also functions as a standalone application.It’s a surprisingly deep program considering its price and offersadvanced features such as the ability to draw filter curves and LFOshapes by hand and employ any of 15 Velocity curves. As an added bonus,it can load VST Instruments and pass their output through itsprocessing stages.
Virtual Sampler is available in two versions. The standardversion ($40) has all the features of the professional version ($75)except ASIO support and the ability to import Akai samples. Inaddition, rather than functioning as a DirectX or VST Instrument, thestandard version works only with DirectX.
Virtual Sampler provides as much as 64-note polyphony and 16discrete outputs. Its main screen toggles among 12 work areas, only oneof which can be open at a time (see Fig. 9). An onscreen keyboardappears at the bottom of the display, regardless of which work areayou’re in. Various icons, such as those for file management, arealways accessible at the top of the display.
The program has the ability to manage enormous amounts of data. Atthe bottom layer of its architecture are Splits (keymaps) that definethe range over which individual samples are triggered. Splits includevarious performance parameters, such as an amplitude envelope, twofilters, two effects, two LFOs, and a setting for both pan anddetuning. A single Virtual Sampler voice can have a maximum of65,535 Splits, though it’s unclear what you would do with somany.
A Preset is the next higher level and includes a MIDI Channelassignment, a discrete output route, and a location in a VirtualSampler Bank. A Bank holds as many as 128 Presets, and each isassigned a Program Change number according to its location within theProgram map. You can load a limit of 64 Banks during any work session.Like some hardware devices, Virtual Sampler uses the term Multifor a specific setup of 16 Presets, one per MIDI channel. You can storeas many as 16 Multis and access them with a combination Bank/ProgramChange command. Fortunately, Virtual Sampler’s Bank Managerfeature keeps track of the files that you’ll accumulate.
A list of the currently loaded samples appears on the Sample page,with controls to set the sample start and end points, adjust looppoints, and perform various DSP functions. A large graphic display ofthe selected sample appears, and though you can zoom in to a high levelof magnification, no increments show you precisely where you are inyour sample. One handy feature lets you see exactly where any givensample is being used; just click on the Used column for a list of thePresets employing the sample, complete with the sample’s Bank andSplit locations. You can also replace that sample with a new one andretain all the settings and performance parameters of the original.
Assigning Splits to key zones is simple using the dedicated Zonesscreen. On that screen, you can either use the Hi or Lo Key scrollcontrols to set a range, or drag the beginning or end of the horizontalbar that represents each Split in the Split window. By toggling theView menu to Velocity, you can adjust the Velocity zones for each Splitwithout leaving the work area.
Virtual Sampler has manifold effects and can use VST plug-ineffects even in the standalone version. Its envelopes are particularlyeasy to use. The single five-stage amplitude envelope can havelogarithmic or linear segments on a segment-by-segment basis. If youdesigned an envelope but want to change the time it takes to evolve,click on the EG-multiplier button and scale the envelope from 1 to 50times in single-unit increments (15, 25, 35, and so on). You can saveas many as three envelopes and reuse them during the same work sessiontoo.
Many conveniences make your work flow smoother. One is the abilityto preview a Preset by triggering it with a single note or with one ofseveral chords. If you want to hear what the preset sounds like playedas a major seventh chord, just set the Chord dialog to that chord;whenever you play a single note on the virtual keyboard, you’lltrigger the full chord. One minor nuisance is that when you hold downan arrow key to change a parameter value, the values do not scroll, soyou must continually reclick the mouse to increase or decrease thevalue. As a work-around, you can just double-click on the parameterfield and type in the desired value.
Virtual Sampler can import WAV and AIFF samples, SoundFonts,and even Steinberg LM4 drum kits. It also reads AKAI S-1000 andS-3000 data and retains presets (including Splits) and samples(including loop points, panning, and volume). We have hardly touched onthe range of customization options, from altering the program’sresponse to controller messages to scaling key tracking, which rivalthose of some hardware samplers. The program includes well-written andthorough documentation and was stable throughout the testing period.Virtual Sampler is a real bargain and well worth a look.
Noted for its sampling hardware, CreamWare recently releasedVolkszämpler, a software-only application that runs as aVST plug-in. The program ships on a single CD-ROM and includes a modest(by our standards) 70 MB of samples from diverse commercialcollections. It offers as many as 32 stereo notes of polyphony, and youcan run multiple instances if needed. A Mac version should be availableby press time.
Volkszämpler loads a startup screen with four imagesappearing across its center. Clicking on an image opens one of the fourseparate work areas, which is a nice arrangement because it lets youview only the area you want to work in (see Fig. 10). However, withmultiple windows open, the screen can easily become cluttered, and youcan’t arrange or tile the open panels. Nor is there "flyover help"or even any text describing what each screen is for. After you becomefamiliar with the software, that won’t be a problem. You canresize only some of the windows, and none use the standard Windowsconventions to indicate that they have that capability. Once you getpast the nonstandard interface, however, you’ll discover usefuloptions.
From the Top
You must create a new Program (Volkszämpler’s basicpatch) before you can audition or load samples. Access samples from theSample Browser window, which toggles between a view of your samples andProgram files (a maximum of 999 Programs can be loaded in one worksession). To load a sample, drag it from the Browser to the KeygroupList. If the Sample Editor window is open, a waveform displayappears.
In the Keygroup window, you choose a key range by setting the Highand Low key points. Then open the Options subwindow to accessadditional performance parameters. The Options window provides accessto four screens: Global, Zones, Filter, and Envelopes 1 and 2. In theGlobal screen, you set Tuning, Volume, Pitch-modulation sources andamounts, and LFO levels for all the Zones in a program. If you move tothe Zones screen, you can work in even finer detail on individualZones, setting a tuning offset and Playback mode (one-shot, looping,and so forth), for example. The Zones area splits into six additionalsubwindows, and it’s difficult to remember each setting’slocation. To illustrate, Loudness and Pan settings for each Zone are inthe Main Zone window, but Tuning and Filter controls are in theAdditional window.
You can tweak your Program using a single filter, but you’llfind only resonant 2-pole low-, high-, and bandpass types. Modulatingthe filter resonance and frequency is easy, but a small glitch in thecurrent version makes it difficult to select all the sources using themouse (the manufacturer says that will be fixed in the next upgrade).Also at your disposal are two ADSR envelopes that are a cinch tomanipulate by entering numerical values or by dragging on the envelopedisplay itself.
You can make adjustments to parameter values by dragging with themouse; in most cases, moving vertically produces coarse changes, andmoving horizontally provides finer control. Further, you can typevalues directly into most parameter fields. Sometimes, the range ofparameter values isn’t intuitive; filter frequency ranges from 0to 99, for example, and there’s no indication of how thatcorresponds to hertz values.
In the Sample Editor screen, you can perform standard edits such ascut, copy, and paste as well as reverse and extract (crop). You canalso access the two built-in DSP functions, Normalize and DC Offset.Zooming is easy: just highlight a range while holding down the mousebutton; when you release, the display fills with the highlighted range.You can use the + and — keys on your keyboard (but not on thenumber pad) to zoom within fixed levels. Recording (threshold with aprerecord option, manual, or MIDI-triggered) occurs in the SampleEditor window as well. Before recording, you must assignVolkszämpler to an insert in your host software and createa new Program.
Volkszämpler packs enough features to make it a useful tool foradding sampling capabilities to your rig. Many features, though, areburied in sub- or even sub-subwindows, and keeping track of featurelocations is often hard. Moreover, we ran into occasional displayglitches, even with an update from the manufacturer.
Still, the program supports files with resolution as high as 32-bit,96 kHz. It is also among the more efficient samplers in the group. Welayered ten 16-bit, 44.1 kHz mono samples in a single Program usingextensive modulation, and Cubase’s VST Performance meterbounced comfortably between 10 and 20 percent. With a bit of addeddevelopment, perhaps including a little design rearrangement,Volkszämpler could be a good choice for your first softsampler.
Malcolm Haylock’s VSamp costs a fraction of what othervirtual samplers cost, yet it probably performs most sampler functionsthat you need, and it’s easy to set up and use. In addition to astandalone version that works with OMS or FreeMIDI, you also getVSamp VST, a plug-in instrument for VST 2.0 hosts. The 20-pagePDF manual clearly explains every window, command, and function.VSamp runs on any Power Mac, Centris, or Quadra.
VSamp offers sample playback on 16 MIDI channelssimultaneously, with as many as 64 notes and 128 samples per channel.On a fast computer, more than a thousand notes of polyphony arepossible. Despite its benefits, VSamp doesn’t recordsamples, and it has no effects processing. The program offers stereooutput through the Sound Manager, and the plug-in version provides fourassignable stereo outputs.
Samples are assigned to Instruments; Instruments are arranged inBanks. Samples must be in the same folder as their associatedInstrument and Bank. VSamp provides windows for editingInstruments and Banks but has no sample waveform editor; setting loopsrequires a separate audio-editing program.
VSamp’s appearance is utilitarian and not very exciting.Its Instrument Editor looks like a spreadsheet with all samples listedin a column and essential parameters displayed in rows (see Fig. 11).Each row shows a sample’s name, file type, lowest and highestpitch, original pitch, pan position, and Velocity range. Click on theSample field to insert a sample; you enter most parameter values bytyping them into their appropriate fields, but you can enter pitch databy clicking on the field and playing a note on your MIDI controller.You can also copy and paste data between fields.
At the top of the Instrument Editor is a checkbox for Track, whichallows all the Instrument’s samples to change pitch in response toMIDI notes; uncheck it for unpitched drum samples. Amplitude, Filter,Tuning, and LFO buttons open another window each. The Tuning windowlets you specify pitch offsets and pitch-bend range. The LFO windowsupplies four knobs for setting frequency, mod-wheel depth, and theamount of pitch and filter modulation.
An AHDSR envelope is displayed graphically in the Amplitude window;view or enter values for each stage in five corresponding fields. Twoknobs determine how the envelope responds to Velocity and Expression(CC 11). You can assign an amplitude envelope to either an entireInstrument or one sample at a time.
The lowpass filter has six knobs: Frequency, Resonance, Pitch Mod,Velocity Mod, Breath Mod, and Gain Trim. Click and drag to change theirvalues or type in the corresponding fields. Values entered in theFilter window are applied to the whole Instrument. Regrettably, thefilter has no envelope control.
The Bank Editor window contains a list of a total of 16 Instrumentsthat you assign to MIDI channels and audio outputs. (Unless you’reusing VSamp VST, your only audio output is Output 1, the SoundManager.) You can assign as many as four Instruments to the same MIDIchannel. Add Instruments to a Bank by clicking on an Instrument fieldand selecting from a list in the file dialog.
When the Keyboard window is open, you can play notes with your mouseand play a range of 14 notes from your computer keyboard. Unlikeonscreen keyboards in other virtual samplers, VSamp’skeyboard can’t be used to specify key ranges while you’reediting Instruments.
You can download trial copies of VSamp and VSamp VSTat www.kagi.com/smaug/vsamp/. After paying a registration fee andobtaining an authorization number, you’ll receive access to theVSamp FTP site, which has more than 160 MB of downloadableVSamp instruments and samples.
EMassociate editorsDennis MillerandGeary Yeltonhave been sampling everything in sight for thepast three months and will be giving their computers a much-neededvacation soon.
We welcome your feedback. E-mail us email@example.com.