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How to Choose the Right one for your Studio
process of "sampling" audio is everywhere in the
modern studio. Sampling is just another word for recording sound on
digital media. We find this process of sampling audio in our sequencers, multi
track recorders, CDR recorders, in many workstation synths, in hardware samplers
(of course) and even in effects boxes. How interesting it is that we
not find any form of sampling in most soft samplers! What! It's
true. The entire class of products is mis-named. When we talk about soft
samplers we are really referring to software sample-playback devices that assign
samples to a keyboard or other controller. This mis-naming happened
when people compared these new devices to the hardware samplers they replaced. A soft
sampler, in general, does everything a hardware sampler does, except record the
samples. When we talk about software samplers here, we mean a software
device that maps audio files to a MIDI keyboard or controller.
When you assign samples to a keyboard they can be played like a piano. You can record the MIDI data from your keyboard or controller and trigger these samples on playback. The all important feature is that you can assign a sound to any key(s) at any pitch you want. A decent soft sampler lets you layer sounds, stacked on top of each other like a layer cake. You can map the keyboard to emulate traditional instruments, drum kits, or you can place a whole bunch of loops and beats on the keys. I often build new keymaps for each song and build a completely fresh sound out of all the samples I have that fits the song rather than hunt for a preset that will work.
Samplers vary greatly in complexity, from the ultra basic, like Absynth, lets only lets you put one sound in a keymap, to Kontakt, that will let you put hundreds of samples across a single keymap with different modulators for each sample and let you build massive libraries of tens of thousands of presets.
The more features a sampler has, the more things you
can do with it. Samplers usually have a synth engine inside that
let you do creative things when you
apply synthesis functions (envelopes, LFOs, filters and looping) to the samples.
In the "big" softsamplers like Kontakt2, Emulator X and GigaStudio you have
exacting control of the sound and can go way out if you want.
Why we use Soft Samplers
Two words, Realism and Creativity. First, Realism. While few are going to be fooled when you try to play a string section from your MIDI sample based synth, you will fool more of the people, more of the time, using an excellent set of quality samples. Don't get me wrong, you can go really far with a synths emulating acoustic instruments, especially if you have good technique, but when it has to sound real, you need a sampler and a great set of samples.
Second, its for Creativity. When you
map your own sounds to the keyboard and play them with your hands the brain
hears pathways open and you find cool stuff to do. Many trippy beats,
hooks, special effects have been discovered this way. You never know what
gold you might mine.
Premium Sample Libraries
But you don't have to make samples to use a sampler or softsampler. You can simply buy libraries. The past few years have seen a massive changeover from sample cd-rom libraries (mainly designed for hardware samplers) to DVD based libraries which can hold several gigabytes of samples. Indeed we can now get massive orchestral libraries like the Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) (240 GB) which lists for nearly $6,000 or the East-West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra Platinum (68 GB) which lists around $1000 or huge "general" libraries like the East West Goliath (40GB) at a modest $500. There are also high end specialty libraries like the Quantum Leap Rare Instruments (RA) and Quantum Leap Symphonic Choir, both coming in around $500. (These used to cost over $1000 when released) Here ya go, check some out on audio-pro-central But if you are new, you aren't ready for these yet. Who buys this stuff? Professional composers, film soundtrack makers, those that make music for TV and Radio, commercial studios and producers, and those who want the best and can afford it.
The quality of sample libraries is like it is for other gear for our studios. There is cheap stuff that is usable and cheap stuff that is total garbage. There's lots of mid range stuff that is great, some greatly disappointing, and high end stuff that is truly stellar, but you pay dearly for it. Make sure you listen to demos--that is how the library sounds under the best of conditions. The choice has a subjective element too, so take all opinions, including mine, with some grains of salt. You are buying a library for your music, not anyone else's.
You can go quite far these days with the sample libraries included free with many soft samplers and there are many reasonably priced libraries that have excellent sound quality, mix-ability and playability. The higher priced libraries contain more articulations of instruments, that is, more nuances, that makes the instrument more realistic, and in many cases, nearly indistinguishable from a real player. And there are more samples in a premium set's instruments. For example, an old hardware sampler string section in an inexpensive library may consist of between 5-24 short, looped samples stretched along the keys. Your modern DVD based premium library may use 50-300 longer unlooped samples to make a single string section preset. You can guess which one is going to sound more real.
You should be getting an idea of the computer
horsepower required. Pressing a single key on a massive string section
preset in a premium library is like starting 5-8 audio files playing. Hold
down a chord on a few tracks and you may quickly drain your computer's CPU and
audio streaming capacity. Hence the big libraries are for those who have
the fastest DAWS, with powerful CPUs, lots of memory and fast hard disks.
Those with average to mediocre performing laptops should not enter the arena of
Orchestral Libraries for the Common Man
One way to think of building your sample library is as a lifelong project. You collect samples as you go along. You'll get a starter set with your soft sampler of choice, and you build from there. All the expensive libraries mentioned above have cheaper versions, and some have an upgrade path. For example, the East-West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra (EWQLSO) comes in a Gold and Silver edition. Emulator X2 has lots of inexpensive libraries. ProSamples offers scores of multi format CD-roms which can be bought one at a time. There are also hundreds of Akai and Emu sample cd roms from the hardware sampler days that can be imported into many soft samplers. Prices are dropping significantly on these now as the industry moves towards the larger DVD based libraries. Finally, there are massive amounts of WAV file and audio sample CDs in circulation. Just create your own .WAV file from these and drop them in your soft sampler of choice. Its harder work this way as you have to do all the programming, but the results can be great.
Recently, several excellent orchestral sample
collections have become available inexpensively. The
Symphonic Instrument is one and the
Miroslav Philharmonik, which is actually an older classic orchestral library
now in plugin form, are both available for a fraction of the cost of a full
Choosing a Soft Sampler
There are 2 basic considerations you must heed
to get the right product for your rig. 1. Does your sequencer and
soundcard of choice support it? How well? 2. What libraries do you
want to run (if any) or what kind of instruments do you want to build (drum
maps? Grand Pianos? Synths? Beats and Loops? As you might
guess, the performance of any soft samplers will vary dramatically along the
lines of all the variables mentioned above. I can't get into all these
issues here--those are the things you have to research. But here's a few
--the top of the Native Instruments Sampling line, works with most computer
platforms and sequencers. It can load the many variations of the East West
libraries as well as nearly all soft sampler formats and old sample cd rom
formats. They are trying to to it all Kontakt is a great
choice if you run multiple sequencers on multiple platforms, and want to be able
to load many different formats. The Kontakt 2 Synth Engine is quite
incredible, with many ways to warp pitch and time, build scripts for drum
patterns, arpeggios as well as the usual filter/LFO/envelope/effects parameters.
Its my pick for a soft sampler for all the reasons above. For Beats and
Loops I suggest Intakt, but if you are doing
anything elaborate emulating instruments, go to the top of the class. Kompakt is a good for just loading libraries (many of the East West
libraries come with a limited version of Kompakt).
X2--The Emulator is based on the
the Emulator Operating System (EOS) which was at the heart of their hardware
samplers (which in their day, were considered hi-end gear). Emulator X
runs only on
systems using Emu soundcards and audio interfaces and is PC only.
Unlike most soft samplers, Emulator X actually can sample and re-sample audio.
Its great for building complex instruments and has a comprehensive synth engine
with lots of filters, eqs, effects. However, while Emulator X can import
libraries from Gigastudio, soundfonts, Akai, EXS and HALion, it won't load
Kontakt or any of the East West Libraries (which come with their own stripped
down sample playback editors). Emu has its own custom libraries which are
EXS 24--This soft sampler is available
in Apple's Logic Pro application. It is quite powerful though it looks,
compared to the others, graphically crude. It only works in Logic and will
not run the East West stuff, but will run versions of the Vienna Symphonic
Library, the Peter Siedlaczek Advanced Orchestra Extended, and many of the
inexpensive Pro Samples Series CD-Rom. It will also load all the Garage
Band instruments. The EXS 24 will load Akai, Giga, Soundfonts, REX. It's
synth engine is compact, trading off complexity for ease of use.
HALion-- HALion is a cross platform soft
sampler by Steinberg, and it of course will work with all flavors of Cubase and
Nuendo. But it can also be used in Sonar, Digital Performer. It will load libraries in Akai, Emu, Giga, Kontakt, EXS24,
Soundfonts, REX and more. It also has a complete synth engine and lots of
MOTU Mach Five--Mach Five is a cross platform soft sampler that can run in Cubase Sonar, and of course Digital Performer. Since it can be run as an Audio Unit, it should work in Logic as well, though check to make sure it passes the latest AUVAL. There is RTAS support for Pro Tools LE. It imports Akai, Emu, Giga, EXS, Halion and others.
IK Media Sample Tank--Sample Tank gives
you its basic interface and the ability to add "modules" to extend your library.
It's cross platform, and supports VSTi, DXi, RTAS, MAS and AU. That's
Cubase, Sonar, Pro Tools LE, Digital Performer and Logic for those who'd rather
think of sequencers.
SoundFont--The SoundFont soft sampler engine comes standard with Creative Labs Soundblaster cards, so the price is right. There are many free soundfonts on the web and many inexpensive libraries available that are quite good. However, the soundfont engine does not import other formats. But happily, most soft samplers will import soundfonts, making it a great way to start. SoundFont files can be used on both Macs and PCs in Kontakt, Halion, EXS and others. However, they are at their best, in my opinion, on a PC using a creative labs Soundblaster card.
Drum Kit Oriented Soft Samplers