What are Software Samplers?
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What are
Software Samplers?

How to Choose the Right one for your Studio

by Tweak

 

The 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 usually do 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.
 

Tweak's Pick for a SoftSampler

Kontakt 3--see my review 

 

 

 

 

 

Steinberg HALion Digital Sampler (Macintosh And Windows)
HALion 3 is the latest version of Steinberg’s award-winning software sampler. Over 50 new features in HALion 3 include 27 added effects, new sound management tools and RAMSave technology. The sleek new user interface and expanded routing functions add even more flexibility to the HALion experience.
 

 

IK Multimedia Miroslav Philharmonik Software Synth
A powerful integrated Orchestral Workstation combining the legendary Miroslav Orchestra and Choir sample collection masterpieces with a dedicated plug-in instrument.
 

Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Symphonic Instrument Soft Synth (Macintosh and Windows)
The MOTU Symphonic Instrument is a cross-platform instrument plug-in that gives users quick and easy access to an enormous 8GB library of quality orchestra sounds for composing, sequencing and rendering realistic orchestral performances. The MOTU Symphonic Instrument can be used with any compatible host application (VST, Audio Units, DXi, MAS and RTAS), where users can load up to sixteen different instruments per instance of the plug-in to create ensembles of any size and scope.
Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) MachFive Universal Sampler Plug-In
The most critical thing you need from a sampler is easy access to your sounds. MachFive (tm) offers unprecedented sound bank management, helping you concentrate on the music – not file handling chores on your hard disk. MachFive always remembers where your sounds are located, and it has been optimized for browsing and loading libraries. Even multi-gigabyte libraries are quickly and efficiently scanned
 

Sampler Basics:

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. 

Vienna Instruments Vienna Special Edition Software (Mac and Windows)
This Special Edition of Vienna Instruments brings together the complete orchestra and more in an affordable Collection. It is the ideal, resource-saving companion for orchestral arrangements on the laptop, or for newcomers to the world of Vienna Instruments, offering a useful cross-section of Vienna Symphonic Librarys over one million samples.

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 premium libraries. 
 

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. 

IK Multimedia Total Studio Bundle
The Total Studio 2 Bundle is the most complete solution for any DAW available on the market today, with a collection of 12 award-winning plug-ins, including 5 virtual instruments and workstations, plus 7 essential effects plug-in suites, covering every guitar, bass, mix and mastering need with over 160 accurately modeled effects in one all-inclusive package, and offered at one amazing price of up to 80% off regular list prices.

Recently, several excellent orchestral sample collections have become available inexpensively.  The MOTU 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 orchestral library.
 

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 notes.
 

Kontakt --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).
 

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Emulator 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 inexpensive.
 

 

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 effects.
 

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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
 

These have become quite popular with today's emphasis on Beats and Drum tracks.  The more popular ones include Motu's BPM, Native Instrument's Battery, FXPansion's BFD, Native Instrument's Maschine and the Toontrack Superior Drummer 2.0  These are interfaces dedicated to building great sounding drum maps.  Not the thing, of course, for sampling the Steinway in the living room.  Exotic sounding drums and loops can be found in Motu's Ethno.
 

Do you even need a Soft Sampler?
 

You might not.  You might already have one, or five, and not know it. Sequencers like Fruity loops can be used as a basic soft sampler out of the box.  Reason has 3 different samplers in its rack.  Reaktor can be used as a basic sampler. Absynth can be used as a one-shot single sample sampler.  Logic has the EXS24mk2. Garage Band's sample playback devices, UltraBeat (a drum sample/synthesis program).  Cubase comes with a basic version of Halion and a drum sample plugin.  Sonar has its Dimension LE and Dimension Pro products.  You might be able to get along fine with what you already have. 

Another way to get nice sounding samples into your compositions is to use audio loops, such as Acid Loops or Apple Loops.  Logic pro 8, as one example, comes with a huge library of Apple Loops.  You can often extract samples froim an audio loop by slicing it up and triggering it on the keyboard. 

Increasingly, sample makers are bundling their own sample playback interface with their product so you don't have to have a soft sampler.  While all these use samples at their core, you cannot load samples in or export them out.   Most of the East-West stuff used to come with a stripped down Kompakt or Intakt player.  Now they come with their new proprietary "Play" interface. These are great for just using the supplied presets, and some may let you edit them and save more.   But you won't be importing anything with these proprietary-playback interfaces. You won't be able to alter the keymap of samples.  I really believe the best soft sampler is the one that lets you import a variety of formats and does not prevent you from using the supplied sample library at the sample level.  The trend towards preventing the user from accessing the samples they just licensed appears to be getting more common.  I suggest you consider carefully whether you want to support this trend.     

Then there is the shade of grey between soft synths and samplers with the Spectrasonics stuff like Trilogy, (or Trillian..coming soon) Omnisphere, and Stylus RMX.  While proprietary, these libraries offer great value.  Yet you should know, there is no way to get your samples in or out.  When this kind of "Rompler" like device is not going to cut it, you need to get a real soft sampler that imports .wav or .aif and you need a library of samples that you can access as .wav or .aif files.  Or you can do what I do, make your own samples in your own studio with mics and hardware synths.  No one can put any restrictions on you that way and it is one of the most satisfying ways to make music, knowing you made it all from scratch!

To Conclude

When you start using a sampler, hard or soft, for the first time you will be amazed at the difference it makes in your sound quality and sound possibilities in your projects.  You can dramatically reduce the difference between a pro studio and your studio using great samples.

Rich the Tweakmeister

 


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"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), U.S. philosopher
 


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