From sports to computer programming, it seems that there's an extreme version of everything these days. So what is extreme sample conversion, and how is it better than the ordinary kind?
If you're about to make the switch from a hardware to a software sampler, or to a new software sampler, it's important to make sure that you can carry on using your existing sample libraries. Many software samplers will import other formats, but they may not support the particular format you need, or do a less‑than‑thorough job of conversion, leaving you with sounds that simply don't 'feel' right, even if all the samples end up in the right place.
When this happens, it's time to reach for a more comprehensive utility — like Wlodzimierz Grabowski's Extreme Sample Converter. As its name suggests, this stand‑alone application offers a wide range of import/export options, as well as promising more thorough conversions, but it's also capable of a lot more.
When I started reviewing Extreme Sample Converter, I expected to be mainly using it for format conversions, but within a few days found myself relying on it for audio file browsing and auditioning, at which it excels. Many audio editors and sequencers make it a tedious process to listen to multiple audio files one at a time, but with ExSC it's an absolute breeze. With Explorer‑style navigation in the left‑hand pane to track down the files you're after, you just choose a Source Format from the drop‑down menu at the top of the application, whereupon all files of this type appear in the window alongside. Clicking on a file in an audio or sample format automatically plays back that sound, as well as displaying the sample data in the right‑hand Graphics panel, complete with any looping information.
Better still, if you choose one of the preset/instrument Source Formats from the wide range on offer, you can not only play back any of the individual samples within it, but also audition the entire preset across the MIDI keyboard range, either with your mouse and the velocity‑sensitive virtual MIDI keyboard, or polyphonically, using an attached MIDI keyboard controller.
All the sample key and velocity mappings appear in the Preset window, making ExSC a wonderful way to learn how designers have assembled their creations from a bunch of samples. Only 'protected' formats such as Kontakt's monolithic files (where an instrument preset and all the samples it uses are combined into a single file) fail to open, giving an 'unknown file' error. This may prevent you examining some commercial libraries, but otherwise I found the range of ExSC formats very comprehensive.
Those with hardware samplers can also audition sounds from proprietary formats such as CD‑ROMs, Zip and magneto‑optical drives, as well as virtual disks hard drive files that contain raw data copied from such formats). I had no problems reading Akai and Emu CD‑ROMs, nor virtual disk copies taken from old Syquest 270MB cartridges used many years ago with my Akai hardware sampler. You can also create your own virtual disks and copy them onto Zip or MO media.
The various sample formats are also displayed with different icons, making it easy to see at a glance whether you're dealing with mono or stereo files in 16‑bit, 24‑bit or 32‑bit depth. This might sound trivial, but I quickly spotted some 32‑bit samples that I'd been working on and forgotten to convert to 16‑bit in their final versions, thus halving their file size. Overall, I quickly learned more about the sample libraries in my collection with ExSC than I had with any previous audio editor.
While browsing your sample groups in preparation for converting them to another format, you may have a few unwelcome surprises. Not all sample library developers are as talented as others when it comes to finding glitch‑free loop points, and you might hear more obvious clicks and tonal jumps once sounds are stripped of the various DSP effects offered in soft‑sampler formats such as Gigastudio and Kontakt.
ExSC once again comes to the rescue, courtesy of its built‑in loop editor. Clicking on the loop button in the Sample window splits it into two, horizontally, adding a lower, loop‑editor sub‑panel where you can examine the loop point more closely. To help with this, there's a wider‑than‑usual range of zoom settings, an effective auto‑loop function to save you time, and an elegant crossfade‑looping function that can help you mask any remaining discontinuities. Every looping editor seems to have its own strengths and weaknesses, but I found this one surprisingly good, yet easy to use.
Loop points can be stereo linked or different for each channel (although the latter option isn't supported in many sampler formats), and there's also a useful subset of audio editing commands such as fade in and out (handy if you discover any clicks at the beginning or end of your samples), and various trim and crop options to remove extraneous silence and so on. If your sounds still need more work, you can export them to your choice of audio editor, subject them to as many arcane processes as you like, return them to ExSC and save the final sample data to your destination format.
The conversion module is ExSC's core feature. In essence, all you need to do is select a Source format, then the desired Destination format, and click on the Convert button. Multiple selections are supported, so you can convert a lot of instruments in one hit, and the drop‑down Settings menu incorporates plenty of conversion options covering the import, export and sample‑export categories.
In general, you'll probably find most of these already have the most appropriate settings, but apart from various options specific to certain source/destination formats, you can, for instance, decide whether the samples belonging to your new instrument files should be stored in the same folder, a subfolder, or together in a separate Samples folder. This is boring stuff, but a few clicks here can really keep your libraries organised.
No sample-format conversion can ever be 100 percent perfect, since each sampler engine offers a different set of features, and thus some settings from the source may have to be discarded if the destination has no idea what to do with them. For instance, Kontakt scripts will have to be abandoned when samples are converted to other formats.
This is where conversion can become frustrating, so I spent quite a few hours trying out conversions between Giga, Kontakt and SFZ formats in particular. All the samples appeared in their destination formats with mapping intact, and I experienced very few problems with my conversions. There was the odd anomaly, such as a few Akai 44.1kHz audio files appearing inside ExSC with a claimed 44Hz sample rate, but a couple of clicks in my external sample editor cured this.
As with all converters, I experienced alterations in velocity response (with notes of maximum MIDI velocity, the levels were always identical for each destination format, but quieter notes played at differing levels), but all my conversions nevertheless played well. I have heard of musicians occasionally noticing strange envelope changes, such as string attack/decay envelopes being converted into organ or piano shapes, or altered sample loop points, but I didn't suffer from anything like this.
Those who do find their conversions sound different from the source format have another option inside ExSC, and that's the Patch Editor, in which you can modify envelopes, filters, LFOs and so on before the conversion process. This is, in essence, a spreadsheet containing various parameter 'boxes' you can edit, and is no substitute for hearing the final result being played from your new sampler. However, it's a useful tool, especially once you've gained enough practical experience to know what tweaks are likely to be required, and could well overcome the occasional problems that other utilities sometimes have.
Some library developers map samples across key and velocity splits, apply a little filtering and enveloping to taste, and then use few, if any, of the more specialised features of each format. This, of course, makes it easier for them to convert their products to run across multiple formats, and if your libraries are like this you may find that the import options in your sampler can cope reasonably well with such conversions.
However, that's not always the case, and when things get more complex, ExSC is a valuable companion that should help musicians move more smoothly from one sampler to another. It's also the only converter I know of that includes hardware and VSTi converters and a decent loop‑point editor, and it's cheaper than the competition, which makes it an absolute bargain.
Overall, I was very impressed with what it has to offer. If your current sampler doesn't do justice to libraries in other formats, check out the current ExSC import/export options on the web site and then download the demo to see if it can do better. You may be very pleasantly surprised, and then, like me, get hooked on its other features and find that it has become an indispensable tool!
Since this is a PC‑only utility, there are two obvious alternatives to consider. Soundlib's $139 CDxtract 4 (www.soundlib.com) is good, but hasn't been updated for some time: for instance, it currently reads Kontakt sample libraries only up to version 3, and crashes if you attempt to load a Kontakt 4 file. Its author has written a more powerful conversion engine that's been used inside Halion, Mach Five, Live and Stylus RMX, but the new features won't apparently appear in the stand‑alone version until version 5, which makes it hard to recommend at the moment.
Chicken Systems' $150 Translator Professional (www.chickensys.com) has been under continuous development for quite a few years now, supports even more conversion formats than ExSC if you need them (including Kontakt's monolithic files), and is sometimes more thorough in its conversions, but can be confusing at times. However, it's available in various Special Editions with a single destination format for about half the price, and a more limited free version is also available for you to try.
For automated capture of MIDI synths with advanced loop functions, PC users could also take a look at Soundlib's Mac/PC Samplit and Skylife's SampleRobot, while Mac owners can try AutoSampler, ExsManager and Keymap from Redmatica (www.redmatica.com).
VSTi Converter, VSTi Converter Real‑Time, and Hardware Converter are three extra ExSC facilities that let you capture the sounds of software and hardware synths and convert them to any destination sampler format. You simply define how many key regions and velocity splits you want (up to 128 of each are available) and then start sampling, whereupon a sequence of MIDI notes and velocities is automatically played while the audio output is captured.
Llike the export function of a sequencer, the standard VSTi Converter operates at the full speed of your processor, so your new preset appears with all its samples ready mapped in the ExSC preset window within a few seconds. The VSTi Real‑Time version is included to allow the experimenter to modify soft‑synth controls during the capture process, for the personal performance element. The hardware version, likewise, captures your external synth/keyboard sounds in real time, and also provides manual stop/start options so you can capture sounds with a microphone without MIDI triggering.
You might think these converters are simply designed to clone commercial synths, but they actually provide a handy way to assemble new creations, since each one also features a 16‑slot Virtual FX Rack that accepts VST and DX plug‑ins, so you can assemble effect chains to treat your synth patches while they are being captured. These options are a great resource, and greatly extend the usefulness of ExSC.