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Where does a sampler end and a sequencer begin? The answer to this used to be clear. Not too long ago the constraints on RAM and PC resources were so spartan that one device had trouble doing all buts it's specialized tasks. Sequencers used to only do MIDI, and only samplers did digital audio. Now sequencers like Sonar, Logic and Cubase lets you add a software sampler to the traditional mix of midi sequences and audio tracks. You can add plugins to these virtual sampler tracks and come up with sounds a hardware sampler can't do so easily. You can resample the track or render as audio. Is this cool? Oh yeah, it's redefining how most of us work and it has spelled some hard times for the hardware manufacturers.
Right now, software samplers are a hit. And for good reason. They do the basics that all samplers do, which is to map a set of sounds across a MIDI keyboard so they can be "played". They also do some things that hardware samplers cannot do, which is to add effects with any of your software plugins your sequencer supports. And finally, they do this easily, without loading and saving to and from proprietary (alien) disk formats or using obscure sample transfer formats using a SCSI connection to your PC, properly called SMDI. And finally, soft samplers are cheaper--LOTS cheaper.
So at this point you are probably saying. "(insert favorite profane term) Hardware samplers!, why bother when software samplers do it all and easier!"
Is the hardware sampler obsolete? I say no. Ok, I can see you guys now, all nervously twittering your tweaks whispering in the corner that the TweakMeister has gone stark raving mad. Heh! I have not, but I will tell you some of the creative and conventional uses of the hardware digital sampler that will instantly 1. Make you dust off your old hardware, and give it new reverence, and, 2. If you don't have a hardware one, lead you to an understanding of how the hardware sampler can be used to open groundbreaking sonic territories that a soft sampler cannot touch! Ok, let's roll. (ouch!)
1. Load sample cd roms of unique sounds relevant to the song at hand.
2. Build large banks of your favorite signature sounds that you can use in your songs.
3. Develop you own ultra high quality acoustic samples that will sound like a real acoustic instrument in the mix.
4. Use the world reknown orchestral libraries to score films.
5. Build custom sound sets for gigs with bands.
6. Live DJ shows involving spontaneous making of dance music.
7. Constructing audio loops with the sampler's on board sequencer, then resampling to make the loop a single file that can be exported to PCs.
8. Taking snippets of commercially available music from CDs, Vinyl, tapes, radio, TV and manipulating them creatively as part of a song
9. Using SMDI to dump samples from your PC's digital audio editor to the sampler. Any Wave file can be sent to the sampler and further programmed.
Take a finished song and cut it up into verses, choruses, intro, editing, break, etc. Put each on it's own key. Play the sequences by pressing and holding a key. Stutter a few keys. Or another variation on this theme is to record each track as a sample and play around till something grabs you. Get it? The drum track plays only when you are holding down the key, the vocalist who always sings behind the beat can get moved up, you can start and stop horns, stabs, strings, arps, in unusual ways because your are working in the more non-linear "anything goes" environment of the sampler, rather than in a "metronomic" sequencer.
Here we are going to make the sampler do what synths like the Korg Karma, Triton, Roland Fantom and Yamaha Motif do. Actually those synths got their ideas from people that use hardware samplers creatively. A little known fact is that the hardware sampler can do nearly everything those synths can do and do it better. While those synths force you to use an onboard sound, in the sampler you can develop your sound as the song progresses. Here's how, using the relatively underused digital (s/pdif) connection on the sampler :
1. Route the sampler's digi in from the s/pdif on your audio interface so you can record into the sampler that way.
2. Start in the sequencer and make some arps and beats till you settle on those you like the best.
3. record in the sampler as different samples.
4. Stack up the most beautiful pads your soft synths can produce in midi, now record an 4 bar two finger chord a 5th apart into the sampler. That's it, big, long, Phat. When you play this back on the sampler it's like have 24 or more synth voices on one key, using only 1 voice of polyphony.
5. Take your 1 bar beat (loop) in the sequencer and record the following samples from it a. 4 bars of kicks, b. 4 bars of snares, c. 4 bars of hats. Yep, map these to separate keys on one are of the keyboard, and all 3 to one key at another location.
6. Now lets put it all together. Map you drums to the bottom octaves, your arps to the middle octave and your pad to the rest of the keyboard. Congratulations, you have made a professional level soundset for your specific song. This is, by the way, the same way the utter diehard sampling professional works.
Time Out: Linear vs. Non-Linear Song Construction
OK dudez, I realized I probably just went over the top for some of you so let me explain. A linear approach to song writing will have everything line up perfectly. Your chorus is exactly 8 bars, your verse is exactly 8 or 16 bars and everything fits together like a bunch of building blocks . This is how sequencers work, and how we think and conceive of music in its pure form.
Now lets say we record these blocks into the sampler. Instead of lining them all up so the all start at the perfect clock division, like 1.1.1 or 9.1.1 or 17.1.1 , we instead play them in by hand in real time. Due to our inner groove, the sequences might start a little late, a little early, and add a "live feel" and may drop in and out unexpectedly. Instead of a chorus going all 8 bars, we might only let it play 3 and a half bars then rush into a break, tossing it little stabs of the verse. Hope you get what I am aiming at. DJ's have been doing this for years. This is an example of using linear sequences in a non linear arrangement.
This is a combination of the above two approaches, and i think it works best over s/pdif, though you can always use the analog i/o if you want. There's no rules here except for one. You are on a quest for groundbreaking Sonics and as long as you can make part of the song sound better, cooler, hipper, you keep going. Start with a sequence in the sequencer. Sample it. Record it back in using MIDI, and when you get it sounding better, render to wave and bounce to a sequencer audio track. Are we done? Let me ask you that, OK? Sample that again over s/pdif and see if the are any other possibilities you have by sequencing this sample. Back and forth. The result: Your music sounds creatively inspired because it is. You've broken all formal rules of linear sequence making and your sounds are different from anyone else's out there. You didn't rely on some pre-bought loop or some synth preset, you took those elements and crafted them into a totally unique sonic.
Ok, we've covered some unusual areas here that many of you may not have thought of. Some of you might think you can do all these things with a software sampler. Yes and No. Sure you can do them but the result will often tax your CPU to shreds, or at minimum be time consuming as you create and manipulate these files on a computer. The sampler is a simple record and go map operation. If you get to know your sampler intimately, you may be able to do all of this on the fly with the clock running.
The conclusion, my friendly tweaks, is inescapable. The hardware sampler is not dead. The soft sampler has simply taken away some of its more mundane uses, like making synth noises, drums, hits and vocal stabs and all the other "conventional" uses above. The soft sampler in essence has "freed" the hardware sampler to take on more creative roles allowing for what samplers do best, the creative manipulation of sounds, sequences, effects, loops and whole songs in a non-linear arrangement perspective.
May you keep your hardware hot, fired, and ready to take you to new dimensions of musical thinking.
George Martin "All you need is ears" 1979
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