Software & Signal Synergy - EMusician

Software & Signal Synergy

Several years ago, I was talking about computers with some pals in Germany who use Samplitude as their DAW. I mentioned how my computer, which was integrated specifically for music, didn’t have the incompatibility/stability issues that others were reporting with Windows machines.
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There was a pause. Then one of them said “Well over here, we just buy the cheapest Windows computer we can find, then use an RME interface.”

Samplitude (www.samplitude.com) and RME (www.rme-audio.com) are very popular in Europe, but never really hit in the U.S. Samplitude was first written for the Amiga, as the first 16-bit audio editor available. It was licensed to a company that also licensed the name of the original developer studio Sek’d (Studio of Electronic Klangerzengung) in Dresden, whose unpronounceable name was matched only by the puzzling icons they used (“I think this one means spin your monitor, then shoot arrows at it”). The engineering quality was never in dispute, but the GUI and documentation made for a steep learning curve.

Things looked up when Emagic announced distribution. Cool! Major recognition, reputable company, big announcement at trade show. Uncool! Emagic gets acquired by Apple and ditches Samplitude shortly thereafter.

Then Magix, known mostly for quality consumer software, finally took over marketing. Throughout all this the program kept getting refined, features were added, MIDI support went from sketchy to serious — and comments would pop up on U.S. Internet forums from users wanting to champion this great software they’d just “discovered.”

Samplitude 8.2 (S8 for short) comes in three flavors. Master ($349) does four channels and takes advantage of the excellent bundled processors, while Classic ($629) is a lighter version of Professional ($1,249), which has the whole enchilada. Or does it? Well, almost. Sequoia 8 moves the package up one more notch with extra editing features, many oriented to broadcast. It’s probably overkill for most musicians, but Sequoia is a beautifully crafted piece of software (at $3,349, it better be). Various crossgrade/upgrade pricings are available.

Synthax (www.synthax.com) now handles Samplitude and RME in the U.S., raising the visibility of both. It’s an uphill fight to compete in a Pro Tools world, but Samplitude 8 has the chops to qualify as a contender.

THE SAMPLITUDE EXPERIENCE

It seems pointless to write a full-blown review of such a sophisticated program when you can get the specs from the web, download a demo, and test it yourself. So let’s talk context — how does this fit into the big picture?

S8 is a native-based, Windows-only multitrack recording/editing/mastering/burning application that runs on anything from Windows 95 through XP Pro. It supports ASIO, MME, and WDM drivers; DirectX, VST, and VSTi plug-ins with automatic delay compensation; sampling rates up to 192kHz; and uses a USB dongle for protection.

Many proponents claim Samplitude sounds better than other platforms. At unity level, differences compared to other DAWs sound minimal to me. However, the EQ and other processing is extremely transparent, which I believe is what people are hearing. Some might prefer processing with more of an attitude (and S8 has some plug-ins for that), but Samplitude is faithful to the audio. For example, turn up the treble, and the sound gets sweeter but not grittier. Magix pushes S8 for mastering — with good reason. There’s even Pow-r dithering.

S8 also has a Melodyne-like “elastic audio” function that can break notes into separate objects that are easily pitch-corrected (or pitch mangled, if you prefer), automatically or manually. This is significant added value.

Surround includes effects packages with EQ and dynamics, and the convolution reverb from S7 is now surround-capable. And, every object can go anywhere in the surround field.

V8 Pro also adds improved file and object management/archiving, and some new toys: Robota Pro (very nice “analog” 8-voice drum machine with integrated step sequencer), and for those who are never satisfied (“but it’s too clean and accurate!”), the Analog Modeling Suite provides a classic “analog” compressor with saturation, and a “transient designer.”

MIDI, traditionally Samplitude’s weakness, continues to improve. There’s no groove quantize, but there are several types of group edits, a drum editor view, “multi-lane” graphic controller editing, and solid soft synth implementation. For extensive MIDI editing, S8 can be awkward. But if you’re mainly interested in laying down soft synth and drum parts, it’s easy. Besides, with ReWire support, you can take advantage of the MIDI editing in programs like Reason, Live, or Project5.

S8 is also compatible with more video formats and external hardware controllers, offers full-screen video output on a second monitor (or TV), burns basic DVD-Audio discs (stereo only), and includes Remix Agent — a “beat detective”-type function. It’s not like acidization (which unfortunately, S8 doesn’t support); it works only with objects longer than 15 seconds, so short loops are out. But you can match projects to material with a pre-existing tempo, and vice-versa. Other useful features are folder tracks, track freeze, improved take management for loop recording, three audio effects new to version 8.2 (flanger/chorus, analog delay, modulatable filter) . . . you get the point. The Pro version even bundles the Magix Movie Edit Pro 10 video creation program.

Short form answer: Samplitude 8.2 is a thoroughly pro, extremely flexible program. The learning curve will throw you at first, but the rewritten documentation is a plus. In fact, once you get the hang of the interface, you can move around pretty fast. The graphics are a fine combination of no-nonsense basics and aesthetics; S8 is extremely well-designed, and clearly the result of engineers who place stability and functionality as top priorities.

Can S8 wean you away from your current host? Maybe, maybe not. But I suspect quite a few people who download the demo will find that S8’s design philosophy matches how they want to create music.

RME FIREFACE 800 AUDIO INTERFACE

You can’t download a demo of this cross-platform, 192kHz FireWire 400/800 audio interface, so a little more detail is warranted. It’s like other RME products: Built like a tank, useful applets, significant additional features (remote control, dim, submix mode, internal loopback, flash memory for updates, etc.), low latency, fine-sounding converters and mic pres, and it just plain works. But like S8 Pro, there’s also heavy checkbook impact ($1,799, thanks to the current weak dollar).

The manual gets extra points for bluntly describing the technical limitations of doing audio over FireWire. But it also notes FireWire offers convenience, portability, hot-plugging, and transportability among platforms (including Mac/Windows). Overall, the package has a straightforward, “let’s-get-to-work” vibe.

I/O is eight analog balanced line ins/outs, with one switchable to Instrument (you can enable drive and speaker emulation in the applet). Two mic pres are always available, and two more can sub for ins 7 and 8. The mic ins have front panel connectors (XLR and 1/4"), gain controls, and phantom power. The instrument input and gain controls are also on the front panel. Other I/O includes MIDI in and out, SPDIF coaxial connectors, word clock in and out, and a pair of ADAT optical interfaces (16 channels total). One ADAT set can do optical S/PDIF instead.

Just about everything has to be set up with the FireFace settings applet. I have mixed feelings about this; it would be nice to have physical switches for instrument drive/emulator options, and mic phantom power. Then again, a software switch won’t get hit by accident, so there are advantages to RME’s approach.

While the FireFace 800 is not cheap, I’m as impressed with it as I was with the MultiFace (reviewed 05/04) because it pulls off the “interface hat trick” — great construction, sound, and software.

A NICE PAIR?

I’ve been using Samplitude/Sequoia more and more lately for “mostly audio” projects that don’t use a lot of looping; the ability to take something from inception to mastering (then burn a CD) is pretty compelling. I also like the DSP very much, due to its neutral sound. And teamed with the RME interface, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that the combo is exceptionally stable.

Samplitude is definitely not the dominant host in the U.S., but you needn’t follow the herd. Download the demo, then get past the learning curve; you just may find the host you’ve been looking for all these years.