Digidesign pioneered the integration of sampling and recording software. Sixteen years later, their Structure sampler promises to revolutionise the sampling experience for Pro Tools users.
I first started using Pro Tools way back in 1994. I arrived at the party too late for Pro Tools 1 and nobody ever found out what happened to Pro Tools 2 because, curiously, it skipped straight to Pro Tools 3, which is where I came in. Things were pretty basic back then, but even so, those clever chaps from Daly City already had one eye on the future...
Very early on, Digidesign commendably embraced the concept of the soft sampler with their Sample Cell program. The original version required a rather pricey dedicated hardware card in order to run, but was definitely the shape of things to come for your DAW in 1991, when everyone else was still deeply fixated with their Akai and Emu hardware samplers. Ten years later, Digidesign released Soft Sample Cell in response to the increasing dominance of software–based samplers such as Emagic’s ESX24. Soft Sample Cell did away with the dedicated hardware card and added a whole host of new features, but it did have its drawbacks, which included a rather clunky user interface and no ability to import Akai libraries. Still, it was the only sampler you could use natively within Pro Tools, and I happily got along with it for a good few years.
In the intervening years, Digidesign focused their efforts on making Pro Tools the de facto standard for audio recording worldwide and, it has to be said, didn’t do too badly! The down side was that they took their eye off the ball somewhat on the sampler development side of things, and Soft Sample Cell gradually faded into historical obscurity just as OS X hoved into view. So I jumped ship and bought MOTU’s Mach 5 soft sampler to keep up with the Joneses in the studio next door; and that, as they say, was that.
Recently, however, Digidesign have been very pro-active in bringing their own software instruments into the market, and the latest of these, Structure, marks their long–awaited return to the sampling arena. Given that they can arguably be credited with inventing the soft sampler in the first place, how does the grandson of Sample Cell measure up today against all the other new kids on the block that we’ve come to rely on?
The basic installation of Structure is simple enough, and the program ships with a 15GB library from East West and AIR, which incorporates the former’s Quantum Leap Orchestral Elements. In addition to your basic 15GB, you also get the rather more gigantic and appropriately named Goliath Structure Edition library from East West to install, should you wish. Spanning 10 DVDs and coming in at a whopping 40GB in size, this will run as a 30–day trial initially, with the option to purchase a license beyond that. And herein lies the rub as, in addition to the £350$499 you’ll pay for Structure initially, Goliath will set you back a further £488$695, making an ever–so–slightly buttock-clenching grand total of £838$1194 for the full Monty! More on this later.
Obviously, with a library as big as this, installation takes a bit of time. I managed it in 75 rather dull minutes on my go–faster Mac, but on the plus side, it did give me time to Hoover the studio, make some tea and have a bacon sandwich, so it wasn’t all bad. Once the basic program is installed, you have to manually drag and drop the library files from the DVDs into the appropriate Structure folder. This also applies to Goliath. Authorisation is via iLok in the usual way.
The structure of Structure (ahem) is very simple. There are three main panels to work from: the patch list panel, the parameter panel and the keyboard/Smart Knob panel. The patch list panel is fairly self–explanatory. A patch, in Digidesign–speak, is made up of ‘parts’. A part can be a collection of samples arranged into a multisample or just a single sample if you wish. You can also put insert effects into a part, as well as a ‘sub–patch’ or even a MIDI processor. A sub–patch is a way to control a group of parts within a patch; for example, you can use a sub–patch to trigger a specific sample when a key is released. A MIDI processor is not a million miles away from something you might find in Logic’s Environment. It sits above everything else in a part and affects all the samples within the part, like a global MIDI transformer; you can use it to change the notes in a scale, for example. It all sounds a little bit ‘wheels within wheels’ on paper, but in practice it’s much less complicated that it sounds, and gives you lots of interesting programming options should you wish to get stuck right in there.
The parameter panel has five tabs above it that switch it through a variety of functions such as effects, database and a setup page. Filtering is taken care of via a five-stage envelope, and you have the choice of 12 or 24 dB/octave low-pass, band-pass, high-pass and Hi-Q filters to play with. The keyboard/Smart Knob panel sports a helpful virtual keyboard that you can play by swooshing your mouse over it. This makes doing the intro to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ very easy, which is always a bonus. The keyboard changes colour, too, depending on what you’ve programmed into your part, so you can clearly see zone or sample switching information. It all helps. Directly above the keyboard are the six Smart Knobs. These can be assigned to a variety of features, but in the library patches they are usually set up to operate filter controls, effects sends and so on. As with the Smart Knobs that you find on Digidesign’s other synth, Hybrid, you can assign the knobs to control multiple parameters simultaneously too. There is also an info bar that runs between the keyboard and parameter panels and tells you various snippets of useful data about the patch you’ve selected to play.
For me, perhaps the most exciting element of Structure, apart from the mighty library, is its direct integration with Pro Tools. You can literally drag a Region out of the Region List and drop it into Structure, whereupon it becomes a sample that you can play. This might not sound like earth–shattering news to some, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to resort to using the Transpose function in the Audiosuite Pitch–shifter plug–in to manipulate a sound into a melody or a riff or some such. I’m one of those allegedly strange creatures that use Pro Tools for MIDI as well as audio, so this kind of integration really is a big plus point. It puts me in mind of how it must have felt for the ’80s sampling pioneers, who would marvel at being able to play a dog’s bark at different pitches on a keyboard. Sure, I can import a WAV into any of the other soft samplers I’ve got, but the immediacy of just grabbing a Pro Tools Region within the Session I’m working on and pinging it straight into an integrated Pro Tools sampler is fantastic. It’s certainly going to save me some time on the next occasion when I need to do something like that. And time is money, right?
And so onto the important question: how does it sound? Well, without putting too fine a point on it, it sounds utterly fabulous, with the best of the best to be found in the optional Goliath library. There are so many brilliant and inspirational sounds hiding in the folders of Structure that it’s probably easiest to say that you will hit gold much more often than not while hunting for sounds that ‘do the do’. That’s not an everyday occurrence for me, certainly, even on my Korg OASYS! The East West strings are full and lush, just as you would expect, while the Choir bank in Goliath is breathtaking. The pitched percussion is excellent: some patches have as many as 10 different samples per note within the actual range of the instrument. And that’s just the kalimba! Structure also features patches set up for surround and the FX section boasts some surround effects, so they clearly have Hollywood as much in mind as Cricklewood, as you’d expect from Digi. ‘Big Finger Bass’, from the basic library, is superb, with key–switching that includes harmonics, pops and slides, half–tone and whole slides up as well as pull–offs. It really does start to blur the edges between what’s a sampled, sequenced bass line and what’s the work of real pickups, fingers and thumbs, when used in the right context.
Digidesign have also included a few ‘best of’ patches from their other software instruments Hybrid and Xpand!, especially in the synth bass, pads and lead synths division, and very good they are too. Some of the pads have a real ’80s quality to them that I find very appealing in a Korg DW8000 kind of way. The electric guitar section has some classics, including a great rockabilly lead patch complete with velocity–switching bendy twangs. And the ‘Get Guitar’ staccato stabs are perfect for your next Keef Richards sound–alike gig!
The electronic drum kit section even has time and space for a little political commentary with the bizarrely named ‘Bush Is A Fairy’ kit, and the pitched Ethnic bank is particularly excellent, especially (and I never thought I’d see these words in print) the wonderful bagpipe patch.
However, I was disappointed to find that the little up/down arrow buttons on the patch control panel don’t let you nudge up or down the vast list of sounds, as I’d expected. Instead, they just bring up a huge list that contains all the sounds in the entire library. I asked Digidesign about this, and they said that letting the user switch patches from there could cause trouble with very big patches that need a lot of loading time, which certainly makes sense.
Compared to some of the other soft samplers on the market, the sample-editing options in Structure are quite basic. Editing is pretty much limited to changing the start point and end point; you can cut, copy and paste bits of the samples, too, but that’s about your lot. There’s no time–stretching, reversing, pitch–shifting or any of the other things you take for granted these days. However, I don’t think it’s a deal–breaker, as you can do all of the above within Pro Tools anyway. You just have to make sure that you mangle your raw sample first in Pro Tools before you then chuck it into Structure to play with some more. It’s simple, really, and probably quicker too.
The same applies to looping; you don’t get multiple or release loop points here. Looping and editing is very simple: a wide zoom setting will give you a coarse edit range, and the closer in you zoom, the more precise your edit point will be. Creating a loop is just a matter of clicking the Loop button in the wave editor, dragging the edit points to your chosen place with the mouse and then clicking Edit Xfade. You then drag your crossfade out to your desired amount and you’re done.
Again, I don’t really have a problem with that; let’s be honest, how many of us really take the time to record, say, a horse cough through a loudspeaker next to a mic placed in a vat of Cointreau and toenails, and then put multiple loop points on the resulting sample so that it sounds like the horse is saying “I like a l–l–l lot a lot a lot”?
However, I would have appreciated the ability to scrub the audio to find your edit point, as you can in Pro Tools. I found myself Ctrl+Shift–ing the keyboard a few times in an instinctive attempt to do so. Bearing in mind that Structure is a Pro Tools–specific sampler, it would have been nice to have had a little cross–pollenisation with some of the workings of the main program such as scrubbing and Tab to Transient, but I’m being picky.
Digidesign have been away from the soft–sampler market for many moons, but I don’t think it shows. It would have been easy for them to over–compensate and bring out an impossibly ambitious ‘son of Soft Sample Cell’, but they didn’t. With Structure, they’ve released a solid, simple, unintimidating, easy–to–use, easy–to–understand, great–sounding sampler that integrates with Pro Tools and comes with a phenomenal 55GB library that just happens to sound amazing.
Try as I might, though, I can’t help feeling that the combined price of Structure and Goliath is leaning towards being a little off-putting. A price of £350$499 for the basic sampler in itself is not something I would personally baulk at too much, although it is more expensive than its competitors; the direct integration with Pro Tools is a big bonus and the basic 15GB library is very good too. But Goliath is the star of the show, in my opinion, and so to really get the most out of Structure you’d want both. And that’s where it all starts to feel a little bit like paying to go and see Barbra Streisand. To put things in perspective, MOTU’s Mach 5 Mk2 costs £299$395 and comes with a very good 32GB library as standard (although if you have Plugsound or Plugsound Pro, you’ll already own half of it). That leaves you with a 23GB deficit in the sound department compared to Structure, but you’ll have £450$800 in your hand to spend on Curly Wurlys. It’s a tough one.
What might be more telling, however, is that I was working on some music for a TV programme yesterday and I found myself reaching for Structure all the time to provide me with sounds, largely subconsciously. It speaks volumes that something I’ve only had for a couple of weeks has already barged its way to the front of my plug-in queue as a one-stop shop for all my music requirements, but you really do need the Structure/Goliath combo. Just having one without the other would be like buying a brand-new BMW but without the leather seats. You’d forever be looking enviously at the other BMW owners reclining in their opulent splendour while you sit in your Blue Peter Beemer and get itchy legs. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Structure is very, very good, and you probably won’t regret it if you buy it. Just don’t look at your credit card bill next month
There are many other software samplers with varying degrees of Pro Tools compatibility, including MOTU’s Mach 5, Native Instruments’ Kontakt 2, IK Multimedia’s Sampletank XL and Emu’s Emulator X. All of these instruments are cheaper than the basic version of Structure and have a more extensive feature set, but with Goliath added to Structure, the whole suddenly becomes dramatically greater than the sum of the parts.
Structure supports a variety of third–party sample–library formats, such as Sample Cell (obviously), Kontakt 1, Kontakt 2 and EXS24. It will also import REX files. Surprisingly, though, there is no support for anything Akai–flavoured. Personally, I think this is a bit of an oversight, as there are still lots of people who have vast Akai libraries that they use on a daily basis, myself included. Obviously, it can be argued that a great many of us will have already converted them to Kontakt or ESX24 format and can therefore port them again into Structure without too much fuss; however, I’ve yet to find a conversion method that works perfectly every time and doesn’t throw up some glitch or other somewhere along the line. The more times we are forced to convert and re–convert our data from sampler to sampler, the more chance there is that our beloved archives start to become Chinese whispers of themselves.
Digidesign told us that, according to their research, EXS and Kontakt are the two most popular formats, and that they had decided to concentrate on making the import of these formats easy, rather than trying to support as many formats as possible. Akai support is something that will be considered for future versions of Structure. That said, I didn’t encounter any problems with the small amount of material I tried converting from my Kontakt 2 folder.