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Chicken Systems Translator

Sample Conversion Software [PC] By Martin Walker
Published January 2002

CHICKEN SYSTEMS TRANSLATOR

Ever found yourself really needing a particular sample CD‑ROM, only to find that it's not available for your sampler? Or perhaps you want to back up your sample programs in proprietary CD formats? Chicken Systems' PC utility Translator may be able to help.

Given the number of excellent hardware and software samplers that are now available, you might be forgiven for thinking that the modern samplist would have an easy life. Sadly, however, there's still one large fly in the ointment — each and every product has its own data format for loading and saving samples, programs, and multis. This doesn't present any problems if you buy one sampler and stay with it for life, but few of us do that: we buy one, build up a library of sounds, and then get tempted by a different product with bigger polyphony, built‑in effects, or computer‑based editing. Even the way data is stored tends to be proprietary: Akai CD‑ROMs are totally different from Emu and Roland CD‑ROMs, for instance, and when you format a dedicated hard drive for use with your hardware sampler it may well do this in a proprietary format too.

Manufacturers have long recognised that musicians may want to import sounds from other libraries, and many samplers now provide facilities to read a few 'non‑native' CD‑ROM formats, and then convert the sounds. However, these conversion processes tend to quite basic, and may not include the format you're interested in. Enter Translator, from US developers Chicken Systems, a PC (and shortly Mac) utility that can read dozens of different sample formats, including non‑standard disc formats such as Akai, Emu, Ensoniq, Kurzweil, and Roland, convert them to any other, and all in a comprehensive way that retains as many parameters of the original format as possible. It can even create image files in various formats, allowing you to burn your own proprietary‑format CD‑Rs.

Installation

I first mentioned Translator in SOS November 2000, in the context of software studios, but since then Chicken Systems have added a great deal to the original release, which at the time of this review has just jumped to version 2.5. It currently runs on Windows 95, 98, ME, NT 4.0, 2000 and XP, while the forthcoming Mac version (no release date given) should run on Mac OS 7.0 or higher.

When you first run it, a registration page requires that you enter Keycode and Unlock codes supplied on the 'Certificate of Authenticity'. However, my version was only supplied with an Unlock code, and in this situation you need to register at the Chicken Systems web site to get a suitable Keycode. This was emailed back to me in under a minute, allowing me to download the latest update while still on‑line. As Chicken Systems intend to add support for more sample formats on a regular basis, it pays to return periodically to see whether a new patch file has appeared. To make this as easy as possible there's even an Auto‑Update menu option in Translator which can automatically check whether or not a suitable update has become available.

Supported Sample Formats

  • Akai S1000, S3000, S5000, and MPC series.
  • Bitheadz Unity DS1.
  • Creamware Pulsar/Powersampler.
  • Emagic EXS24.
  • Emu 3‑series (E3, E3X, ESI32, ESI2x, ESI4x)
  • Emu 4‑series (E4, E4x, E64, E64000, Esynth and Ultra).
  • Ensoniq EPS/ASR, ASRX.
  • Korg Trinity/Triton.
  • Kurzweil K2000, K2500/2600.
  • Native Instruments Battery, Reaktor.
  • Nemesys Gigasampler, GigaStudio.
  • Propellerheads Recycle.
  • Digidesign Samplecell.
  • Seer Systems Reality.
  • Sonic Foundry Acid.
  • SoundFont.
  • Steinberg Halion.
  • Roland S700‑series.
  • WAV and AIFF.
  • Yamaha A3000, A4000, A5000.

Don't be misled by the huge list of possible translations on the Chicken Systems web site: not all of them have been implemented, and some of the older ones mentioned like the 20‑year old Ensoniq Mirage are never likely to be. If the translation has already been coded, its current status is helpfully given as either Level One (loops, tuning, and basic mapping in place), Level Two (envelopes, LFOs, and other modification parameters supported), or Level Three (everything possible has been converted).

I don't normally approve of developers advertising features that have not yet been implemented, but in the case of a sample file converter it is worth knowing what future formats are being considered before you buy it. In addition, not all of the above formats are available as both source and destination in every case. After all, with about 30 formats this would mean around 900 possible translations. By the way, if you only require conversion to Gigasampler format, a considerably cheaper Giga‑only version is available for £39.95.

Interface & Drive Options

Chicken Systems have decided to make their user interface as familiar as possible, by basing it on Windows Explorer. It has two main panes, the left‑hand one displaying drives, folders, and files while the right‑hand pane displays the contents of the currently highlighted drive, folder, or file. Your normal computer drives are always DOS‑formatted, and appear at the top of the drive list, while any SCSI, CD‑ROM, CD‑RW, USB, or parallel‑port drives are automatically detected when Translator starts up. Any found with proprietary formats are then grouped under the heading 'SCSI‑ATAPI Drives', and appear in the drive list beneath the DOS ones.

Translator also offers an intriguing third option, Virtual Drives. These are effectively large image files saved on your computer's hard drive, but appear within Translator as additional proprietary‑format SCSI‑ATAPI drives. You can either make a fresh one of a user‑specified size in Akai, Emu, Ensoniq, or Roland format (and in the special case of Akai specify a partition size as well), or create one from an existing SCSI‑ATAPI drive. The virtual drives then appear at the bottom of your drive list: you can drag additional files to them to compile a new CD‑ROM, delete or rename existing ones, and then use your favourite CD‑burning application to create a disc in this format from the image file.

Translator's Options dialogue box.Translator's Options dialogue box.

The icons for drives, folders and files appear just as in Windows Explorer, but Translator also uses its own set of icons to display other known items. For instance, if you open an Emu drive you'll be able to see the contents of its Banks, Presets, and Samples, while an Akai drive will display its Partitions, Volumes, Programs, and Samples.

An optional Wave View splits the right‑hand pane horizontally into two to make room for a waveform display of the currently selected sample, complete with loop area if available, and lets you audition it through the DirectSound drivers of your soundcard.

Sample Conversion

Two methods are available to convert files, depending on their type. If your file is already in DOS format, and you want to convert it to another DOS‑based format, you right‑click it and choose the Convert option. You then get a list of available DOS formats to choose from, and selecting one of these starts the conversion process. Single Sound Mapping also lets you take a bunch of samples in a single Windows folder and combine them into a single instrument in your chosen format.

The second method applies to non‑DOS formats and allows you either to convert DOS files and send them to a proprietary SCSI‑ATAPI drive, or vice versa. You just locate the source file and make it appear in the right‑hand pane, and then locate the destination folder in the left‑hand pane. Then you drag the source file to the destination folder, and choose the destination format. The source can be a single sample, a program containing multiple samples, a folder containing multiple programs, or the entire contents of a drive. You can also double‑click on the source file, which launches a Browse for Folder window for you to choose your destination, and I often found this easier.

There are absolutely loads of setup and conversion options, the majority of which apply to specific formats and include such destination options as whether to write files in S1000 or S3000 format for Akai files, 1.0 or 2.0 format for GigaStudio, Intel (PC) or Motorola (Mac) format for Reaktor, translate SoundFont Presets or Instruments, and so on.

Other Useful Features

  • Translator can deal intelligently with dual‑mono samples, including those with names ending in ‑L and ‑R, converting them to a single stereo file during translation if the destination format allows it.
  • If you have a Peavey, Ensoniq ASRX, Kurzweil, or Emu sampler from the ESi onwards, it can use the SMDI protocol to take samples from any drive and send them direct to the sampler or vice versa — if it's detected on the end of a SCSI chain the sampler will simply appear as another drive in your list.
  • Four stand‑alone DOS‑based utilities are also included with the package to read, write, and format Akai, Emax, Ensoniq, and Roland‑formatted floppy disks, and you can also launch these from within Translator using toolbar buttons.
  • Samples from the Roland S700 series can be compensated in both directions using the coding from Roland's own Emphasis‑Deemphasis filter.
  • Drives can be Logged, wherein a text file is created with a full contents readout, complete with file types and sizes.

In Use

Getting started is easy: you just attach the desired drive or insert the appropriate CD‑ROM into your drive and start Translator for it to be detected, or click the Refresh option or use the F5 shortcut to examine a new one. There is a printed manual, but software is updated so quickly nowadays that the electronic help file is far more up to date, particularly in the area of supported formats.

I was impressed by the number of available options, and the thoroughness of the conversion, which is something that converters built into hardware samplers often fall down on. Whereas getting a group of samples correctly key‑mapped in the destination format is obviously the most important consideration, sample programs offer plenty of other parameters such as velocity layering, filtering, envelopes, and LFOs. If the destination format supports similar functions then it's important to try to translate them.

With about 30 input and output formats, there's no way I could reasonably test out every one to see how close each translation was, so I decided to examine various examples at random with both Translator 2.5 and CDxtract 3.6 revision 2 to see how the results compared with the original format.

The majority of multisampled instruments, as well as most beats and grooves, don't employ the special features of most hardware samplers. In these cases both Translator and CDxtract performed very well, and I was pleased with the results using both utilities on a variety of import formats including Akai and Emu CD‑ROMs and SoundFonts. However, there were still subtle differences. With Akai S3000 to Gigasampler conversion, for instance, Translator consistently produced a less dynamic velocity response than the original when compared with CDxtract, although this is a simple tweak to correct manually.

With more complex source material, on the other hand, Translator preserved the filter settings, whereas CDxtract ignored them. However, neither of them got very close to original vibrato and tremolo settings, which benefited in both cases from a little manual LFO tweaking. Translator also scored where multiple Akai programs used the same samples: converting the entire folder with Translator created a single GIG file containing the various instrument options, whereas CDxtract created a separate GIG file for each one, taking up far more space on the destination drive. Overall, I gained the impression that Chicken Systems' claim of the most thorough conversions is borne out in practice.

I did discover various small bugs while using Translator, although the main translation formats worked extremely well. Thankfully Chicken Systems are amazingly responsive to user feedback, and users are invited to email to them any files that don't translate properly, so that the problem can be quickly resolved, often within a day or two. A Test Mode option is available, which strips out the audio data and compresses the rest of the file to typically under 100K so that you don't have to send large email attachments. The previous version 2.1 went through 129 builds in its lifetime: although this wouldn't be good news with a sequencer, it makes a lot more sense with Translator, especially since each update file is only about 3.5Mb in size.

Final Thoughts

Translator provides extremely good conversions of a huge range of sample formats, and its ability to create image files in Akai, Emu, Ensoniq, and Roland formats will make it invaluable to musicians wanting to back up or create libraries. It's not surprising that many sound developers are already Translator users, including such luminaries as Eric Persing of Spectrasonics, who apparently used it to convert his latest Metamorphosis release from Roland to Akai format.

It does still have some rough edges, and I initially had a few doubts about its stability, but the more I worked with it, the more I appreciated its powerful and comprehensive translation options, as well as being reassured by the rapid response of the developers to bug reports and specific conversion issues. Whatever native format your sampler uses, you will always get best results if you buy libraries in that same format, but whenever you use non‑native formats Translator should give far better results than the utilities built in to hardware and software samplers.

The Competition

If you want mainly PC‑based conversions, FMJ Software's Awave Audio is now at version 7.2, and provides an impressively long list of supported individual sample formats, as well as some higher instrument‑level support including Gigasampler, Reaktor, and SoundFonts. It also features some built‑in sample editing and looping functions, as well as supporting MIDI SDS and SMDI transfers and batch processing. It doesn't read custom format drives at all, but at its shareware price of $59.95 (from www.fmjsoft.com) it's still an extremely useful utility.

Although it's sold as a stand‑alone utility, Bitheadz' Osmosis is primarily marketed for Unity DS1 owners, since it can read Akai S1000/S3000 and Roland 760/770‑format CD‑ROMs, Zip disks, and sampler‑formatted hard drives, and can then convert their instruments into Unity DS1 or Samplecell formats, and the samples into Unity DS1, AIFF, or WAV formats.

For a wider range of more general‑purpose conversions, the only real competition is the shareware CDxtract (www.cdxtract.com), now at version 3.6 revision 2, which can read SoundFonts, Samplecell/PC, and Kurzweil K2000/2500 bank files on DOS‑formatted drives, as well as a comprehensive selection of proprietary non‑DOS formats on CD‑ROM, Zip, Jaz, and hard disk including Akai S1000 to S5000 and MPC2000, Emu 3 and now 4‑series, and Roland S7xx. Samples can then be saved in WAV, AIFF, or MP3 formats, and programs can be saved along with their respective samples in Emagic EXS24, Gigasampler, Mesa, Pulsar, Reaktor, Akai S5000/S6000, Halion and SoundFont formats.

It's an attractive and well‑written utility, and also has a useful database facility to catalogue your sounds. On the other hand, Translator offers a more comprehensive list of formats, as well as disc image writing. In some of my tests Translator also converted more parameters than CDxtract, although on others perhaps the opposite would occur. In a perfect world we'd all buy both applications and use them side‑by‑side, but if not your decision should be based on which formats you need converting, and whether or not you need image‑writing capability. If you don't, at $79 CDxtract is almost half the price of Translator, and I've always found it very easy to use and extremely stable.

Pros

  • Reads the biggest range of DOS and proprietary sample formats of any utility.
  • Performs detailed and thorough conversions in a reliable and efficient manner.
  • Writes Akai, Emu, Ensoniq, and Roland-format image files.
  • Supplied with DOS-based utilities to read Akai, Emu, Ensoniq, and Roland floppy discs.
  • Pro-active user support.

Cons

  • There are still a few cosmetic rough edges left to tidy up.
  • Packaging provides misleading information on supported formats.
  • Mac version not yet available.

Summary

Translator is an ambitious utility which provides the most comprehensive sample conversion facilities available to date, and despite a few teething troubles should prove invaluable to many samplists.

information

£99; Gigasampler-only version £39.95. Prices include VAT.

www.chickensys.com

test spec

  • Chicken Systems Translator v2.5.
  • Pentium III 1GHz PC with 256Mb RAM running Windows 98 SE.
  • Motherboard: Asus TUSL2-C with Intel 815EP chipset.
  • Other software used: Tascam/Nemesys GigaStudio 160 v2.20.42, Native Instruments Reaktor 3.04, Steinberg Wavelab 3.04c build 67, Akai and Emu-format CD-ROMs, various SoundFonts.
Published January 2002