Every month seems to bring a new crop of sample players to the sonic field, and it's getting harder and harder to choose the right software.
Although Samplebase Satellite is similar to other soft samplers in many ways, it does have a number of features that set it apart. Firstly, Samplebase is an Ilio company — Ilio's samples have had rave reviews in SOS, as well as in the working world, and a superb sample library is a huge benefit for any sampler. Secondly, although Satellite might not be unique as a sample player, it does everything you could expect it to do, and then some. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Satellite though, is the sample library that comes with it — or, rather, doesn't come with it. You see, instead of coming with a massive sound library included, like much of the competition, the Samplebase library comes in the form of 'Soundblocks' — small collections of samples (typically between 20 and 200MB) which can be downloaded from their web site for a small fee — usually between $19 and $49. This allows you to build up a sample collection based on your own precise sonic needs and keeps the cost of the player down. Satellite comes in two flavours: a free 'preset' player and a highly editable Pro version that costs just $149.
Satellite works stand-alone or as a VST or AU plug-in and, at its most basic level, is a sample player. You load in a sound, adjust the envelope and filter settings, if you like, and play. You can stack and/or split multisamples and use granular synthesis to retune the sample and/or time-stretch it. Satellite will also load loops, including 'sliced' audio (REX or RX2 files). Finally, you can mix and match loops in a Multi, assign them to keys and then play them together.
I installed both the Free and Pro versions of Satellite for the PC. Both versions installed quickly on my PC and without a hitch. Satellite is advertised as being compatible with Mac OS 10.4 and Windows XP, as well as earlier PC operating systems, but I managed to run it on a Vista machine with no real problems.
Samplebase include a free 'Ignition' Soundblock to get you going. It's more of a teaser than anything else, but enough to see how the software functions. Soundblocks are at the top of the sound hierarchy and include the raw samples along with information about keyboard assignments and layering, synthesizer and effects settings, looping and transposition information and the assignment of patches across the 16 MIDI and virtual mixer channels in Multis. In case you were wondering, you don't get access to the raw samples themselves, since they are locked up within the Soundblock.
Samplebase is a completely on-line entity, and you get an on-line account that contains all of your purchased Soundblocks and software. Other than the possibility of men in black helicopters grabbing keystrokes, the only downside of doing business on-line is the fact that if the Internet does go down, you're stuffed. I've had to pop onto the Samplebase site many times for this review and couldn't get a connection a couple of times, but for normal usage this shouldn't be a problem. The only time you really have to access your account is when adding more Soundblocks, or, rather irritatingly, if you want to view the Help menu. Without an immediate Internet connection on my music computer, I was reduced to saving the manual and clicking on the PDF file. There's also no contextual help available. That said, the manual itself is in depth, while the on-line tutorials are well done, especially for the novice.
Blocks Of Sound
What really sets Satellite Pro apart from everything else is the way the library is provided. Say your magnum opus needs nice cellos, or a movie score could use some Eastern European voices but you're on a tight budget: Soundblocks cost a fraction of what you'd pay for full libraries like Vienna and are a very cost-effective way of building a sample library if you know what you need. You can listen to demos of the on-line libraries just to make sure. While the Ilio samples are of a known quality, the rest of the Soundblocks I tested are also very good.
Soundblocks come in two different types: Construction Kits and Instruments — both of which are fairly self-explanatory. There are far too many Soundblocks to discuss here, but I must say the Electrohouse Soundblock made me want to set up a disco ball in the studio, while Garden Grooves begged me to turn down the lights. It isn't hard to pull in more Patches and play over the beat or re-cut the loops to your own specifications. Nor is it rocket science to bring in your personal elements (either synths or loops) to expand the song into one of your own. If making your own Soundblock from scratch is monotonous work, all the tools are there to create a custom song 'in the box'.
If you don't want to be a one-man band, the Instrument loops can be fun as well as useful. There are four or five riffs from the Memphis Horns included with the free Ignition Soundblock; I loaded them up and started playing, and it seemed I was in Frank Sinatra's The Man With The Golden Arm. The Red Hot Blues Guitar Soundblock was just as cool. You can build a song out of the four-bar riffs, or just throw a few of the riffs into an original composition: great fun to play with.
Satellite Free, as mentioned earlier, is the cut-down version of Satellite Pro. At this point it will only load Soundblocks, but, as long as you're happy with this and don't need to delve too deeply into programming, it works fine. The Pro version will play back Soundblocks and also any third-party WAV, AIFF and REX/RX2 files, although be aware that it will truncate rather than dither any 24-bit files, so you'll need to prepare such files accordingly before loading them in.
The Satellite screen is divided into four areas. The upper-left quadrant provides global screen selection, as well as loading and saving features, while the Producer and Soundblock icons section shows you what's loaded at a glance.
What displays in the upper-right section is determined by the three buttons at the top of the panel, which are labelled Control, Info and FX Info. The first, Control, displays eight control knobs. These have fixed assignments in the Free version but can be reassigned via drop-down menus in Satellite Pro. Typically, the top four knobs control the amplifier ADSR envelope, while the four below deal with the filters and volume.
The Info button replaces the Control section with information about the currently loaded Soundblock, including the type of patch and any loop information, such as the bpm speed or key. Patches come in several different flavours: Instruments, which can be basic synth voices or looping Instruments with integral MIDI sequences; Sliced Recycle-style Loops; and normal Loops and Phrases. Satellite can determine the tempo of the loop (if any) and suitably stretch the file to match the current song tempo.
The FX Info button brings up the effects screen. There are four effect slots: two channel sends and two FX buses. The effects themselves are quite extensive and include the usual suspects, from delays, chorus, flangers, phasers, rotary effects and reverbs to filters (including a wah-wah), distortion and bit-crushers. There are also channel-type effects like EQ, compression, limiting and auto gates/panners for the mixer. There are 119 presets and nine open patch slots, but Satellite Pro also lets you save FX settings within Multis. The effects are quite usable, though they do seem to be geared towards electronic music. You won't want to toss your high-end software or outboard overboard, but for adding a little reverb to acoustic samples, or effects to your synth sound, they work fine.
The bottom two thirds of the Main page are occupied by the Multi and Patch Selection module on the left and another switchable pane on the right. The Selection module lets you explore the loaded Soundblock's Multis and associated Patches using the selector arrows. There are 16 slots for the Multis' Patches, each corresponding to a Mixer channel. The mixer is a virtual audio mixer, rather than a MIDI mixer, and each Patch can have its own MIDI channel or share one with another mixer channel's Patch, which makes it easy to stack and layer sounds.
The mixer itself is a fairly straightforward affair, as you can see from the screen on the first page. However, there are three further views, namely Details, Browse and List, which reveal controls for some additional functions.
Details is where you can arrange key-mapping, set tuning and adjust the gain, polyphony and transpostion of patches. It also allows you to determine whether a sample will be stretched and if so, whether in pitch and/or in time — and you can then adjust the 'grain' size, which has eight different settings, going from nice and smooth to seriously lo-fi.
The Browse and List pages let you find and load in individual Multis or Patches from your hard drive and then save them as personalised Multis. Once you've loaded in your Multis and/or patches, the List page displays them and you can rename, delete, and generally muck about with them to make your own Soundblocks. It sounds a bit convoluted to use the three pages to get your Multis and Patches up and organised, but in practice it works well. There is simply no easy way to deal with hundreds of available possibilities and the three pages help keep you focused on the job at hand.
Things start to get really interesting when you turn to the pages that are completely unavailable in the free version of Satellite — and I was surprised to find just how deep the programming possibilities go. The Patch page replaces the main page with more synth controls for mutating your samples: pitch control, filtering, envelopes and LFOs are all here, and in fairly standard forms, but you do have five-stage envelopes instead of the usual ADSRs. The extra stage is a Rise/Fall fader that adds a time variant after the Sustain. For example, the amp envelope fader can either raise the volume back up to full before Release or to zero over time. While not as fancy as multi-stage breakpoint envelopes, this element adds a nice twist.
The filters sound good but do get peaky quickly — if you don't watch out for resonance you can blow a speaker. However, there is envelope and LFO control over both cutoff and resonance, which is always nice and overlooked too often. Unless you are into serious modulation routing (there is no modulation matrix), you should be able to do just about anything you'd want to do: after all, this is sample-based synthesis, not modular virtual analogue.
The Effects page is fairly simple, allowing you to select and edit effects. There are only six parameters to control and you can't change assignments, so once again, tweakheads will have to look elsewhere. The knobs seem to put the most important parameters under your fingertips, but more control is always nice. Once you do get an effect you like, you can save it and use the FX List page (which operates like the main List page) to shuffle and rename all your effects.
The last Satellite Pro-only Page is the Keymap page, where you import samples, edit them and assign them across the keyboard. The Waveform section in the upper right lets you edit the pitch, volume, pan and start and end points of the selected sample. This process doesn't change the original sample on your hard drive, only how it works in the Soundblock within Satellite.
Once you have the sample whipped into shape you can assign it to the keyboard for key and/or velocity splitting within the keymap zone display at the bottom of the screen. There is a lot going on here — it's a really nice feature and almost worth the price of admission on its own. While Satellite might not be a tweaker's paradise elsewhere, you can get down and dirty here. One note: my Sonar DAW software wouldn't play well with this page and kept locking up, so I simply used the stand-alone version of Satellite Pro for my editing in this area.
Despite putting a world-class sample library at your virtual fingertips, Satellite faces a lot of competition as a sample player. As an integrated loop-player, however, it edges into a different league. It's not quite the same thing as Ableton Live or Project 5, since it doesn't record, but you can use it within a DAW to make up for the missing elements.
It's easy to massage all your loops and synth samples into Multis for an entire song, and some of the construction kit Soundblocks show just how powerful this ability is. I downloaded both MIDIhead and Patchen's kits and had lots of fun playing through the 10 to 15 Multi 'songs'. Each one of these Multis uses about five loops mapped to adjacent keys, and builds from a basic drum/bass rhythm by adding leads or licks, breaks and change-ups, or just by dropping lines out. Each loop will play for a few bars, and if you can count to four you can mix and match them. The key is to define and refine your presets before playing, rather than loading samples and loops once you're getting into a performance. If you sort that out beforehand, Satellite Pro is very fun and performance oriented.
To sum up, if you're in the market for a sampler, I think Satellite Pro has a lot to offer. While it might not excel in any single area, the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts: the synthesizer sounds good, the granular sample stretching can get a little grainier than you might want at extremes but is great with reasonable settings, sample editing facilities are well covered, and the price is certainly right, even though the software doesn't come with a large, pre-installed library. Indeed, the last could be a positive point, as the Soundblocks concept should appeal to anyone on a budget or simply looking to save the hard disk space that a modern multi-gigabyte library will take up. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this software is also lots of fun!