SampleTron gives you the sound of the Mellotron and many of its more obscure cousins, not to mention some serious potential for sonic malarkey, courtesey of IK's SampleTank player...
It's been a while since its initial announcement, but after a lengthy gestation period IK Multimedia's SampleTron is finally with us. Following relatively hot on the heels of SampleMoog, SampleTron is the second of IK's 'SampleXxxx' plug-in ROMplers dedicated to specific families of classic and vintage keyboard instruments. While SampleMoog was an anthology of Moog synthesizers, SampleTron is, unsurprisingly, an anthology of Mellotrons — or, more accurately, a potted history of tape replay keyboards from the Chamberlins of the 1950s through to the 1975 Mellotron Mk V and the Novatron of the late 1970s. However, the history lesson doesn't end there — SampleTron also covers other legendary and curious replay instruments from those halcyon pre-sampler days; the Mattel Optigan, Chilton Talentmaker and Vako Orchestron, all of which employed optical disks as their playback medium, and the 360 Systems Digital Keyboard, one of the earliest digital ROMpler keyboards — also known as the 'Digital Tron'.
Like SampleMoog, SampleTron's core library is hosted by a customised SampleTank player, this one being adorned with suitably vintage Tron-esque graphical controls. The layout and facilities are essentially the same as SampleMoog's; the SampleMoog review in the May issue of SOS describes these features in detail, so rather than reiterate them at length here, this review will mainly pick up on any operational and feature differences between SampleMoog and SampleTron.
For the uninitiated, here is a brief recap of what's on offer: 16 multitimbral Parts with integral Part Mixer, twinned with a library Browser with search facility. Each Part provides a full complement of synthesis parameters: low-pass, high-pass and band-pass filters in six, 12 and 24dB per octave flavours, two LFOs, two AHDSR envelopes, key range controls, velocity sensitivity controls, Macro controls appropriate to the currently loaded instrument, polyphonic and monophonic key modes, and a choice of SampleTank's Resample or Stretch synthesis engines — more on which later. Up to four effects ('wired' in series) are available to each Part, three of which are freely selectable from a total list of 32 types. SampleTron is also configurable to provide up to 16 stereo virtual outputs.
Interestingly, an early promotional PDF flyer for SampleTron from last year shows some subtle variations from the production version. One such variance shows the presence of a Global effects option, a feature subsequently abandoned for some reason, which is a shame, as this would be very useful for the processing of composite sounds spread across two or more Parts.
While the mere idea of sampled Mellotrons is like a red rag to a bull for some purists, those of a less dogmatic disposition will be pleased to find that SampleTron provides the means to enable sounds to behave in ways authentic to the original instruments. Mellotron sounds typically last up to eight seconds (the tapes are finite in length, not looped) and this is their default behaviour in SampleTron. However, this behaviour can be overridden (for sounds of a continuous nature such as strings and choirs) by adjusting Envelope 1's Hold time parameter, which is conveniently calibrated in seconds. Because these continuous sounds are looped within SampleTron, they can be made to play ad infinitum if you wish. One-shot sounds like vibes, piano or guitar are not looped and will of course decay and finish, regardless of how long the decay time is set. Looped rhythms from the Chamberlin Rhythmate, Mellotron Powerhouse, Chilton Talentmaker and Optigan all loop continuously, although curiously the Optigan and Orchestron instrument sounds default to an eight-second limit; since these were generated from optical discs, they would have played indefinitely. No problem — just crank up the Envelope 1 Hold time and they loop as they should.
Most instrument sounds extend (usefully) beyond the range of the lowest sample, and a few extend beyond the highest sample; however, should you wish to restrict the key range to that of the original sound, the Key Range parameter is at hand to make it so. Naturally, most sounds have no key velocity response by default, but it can be added if required to affect any combination of amplitude, pitch, filter cutoff, resonance, LFO 1 depth or Envelope 2 amount. Frustratingly, I couldn't get the latter parameter to respond in SampleMoog, and still had no joy with it here! If you want to emulate the classic 'half-speed Tron' sound, try transposing 'Classic Tron Violins' down an octave — this sounds excellent when combined with the same sound at normal speed, up the octave and on an adjacent Part. SampleTron is designed very much as a creative tool, so if you are not overly fixated on authenticity, there's bags of potential for tweaking, transforming and combining the core sounds to produce unique and personal textures.
Also featured in SampleMoog, the host player's synth engine with its choice of replay algorithms really comes into its own in the context of SampleTron. Here we find the most significant operational difference to SampleMoog: SampleTron offers a fourth replay method called PSTS (Pitch Shift/Time Stretch) in addition to Resample, Note Stretch and Phrase Stretch. Resample is the replay method employed by traditional samplers, and is suitable for all 'conventional' playback tasks. The Note Stretch algorithm is optimised for independent control of pitch, tempo and formant of instrument sounds, while Phrase Stretch is optimised for similar manipulation of phrase-based sounds. SampleTron's library contains a wealth of phrase-based material (see the 'Library' section of this article for more details) that is ideal fodder for the Stretch engines. Using these, it's possible to vary the tempo of rhythm loops without changing pitch, alter the pitch of instrument phrases without changing tempo, and even change the formant frequency of any sound for off-the-wall, alien effects.
The PSTS algorithm is a variant of the Stretch ones, offering a variable Grain control, but no control over Harmonics (formant frequency). IK say that this is the best engine to use with looped material, fine-tuning the Grain control to find the best-sounding results. However, I found there to be no hard and fast rule in this matter — seemingly similar types of loops and phrases responded quite differently depending upon the chosen Stretch method, so as ever: experiment, experiment, experiment!
Gforce's M-Tron (reviewed in the December 2000 issue of SOS) is the obvious competitor to SampleTron, and close comparison with SampleTron reveals that both instruments offer individual and valuable takes on the virtual Mellotron theme. On the one hand, M-Tron is essentially a fairly 'authentic' representation of a Mellotron M400. M-Tron's key range is limited to 35 notes (as is the original instrument,) and only one additional luxury, is provided in the form of basic envelope controls for attack and release times. Unlike the original, however, it can only play one sound at a time, whereas a real M400 provided three sound selections on each tape frame, and allowed a variable mix between the A+B and B+C sounds.
On the other hand, the SampleTron player pays scant regard to authenticity — unless you want it to — offering up to 16 simultaneous sounds, a raft of filters, envelopes, effects and other synthesis shenanigans capable of warping the core sounds beyond the remit of the original Trons. Whilst that may be influential in your choice of one instrument over the other, I actually found it to be of secondary interest to the differences between their core libraries.
Just as no two Mellotron tape frames sound the same — due to age, the generation of the recordings, the brand and formulation of the tapes, whether the original masters have been 'tweaked' and many other factors — M-Tron and SampleTron have their own unique personalities. One difference between the two instruments concerns the way in which the beginnings of notes on M-Tron appear to have been 'cleaned up', exhibiting little or none of the distinctive key-on 'spit' characteristic of tapes whose start points have been poorly aligned on the tape frame. Whilst arguably undesirable, this 'spit' was instrumental in producing a powerful, aggressive edge frequently put to good use by players. In contrast, varying degrees of 'spit' are apparent in many SampleTron sounds, and with the benefit of the host player's attack time envelopes, this can be optionally softened if you prefer a cleaner, more gentle approach. The differences between M-Tron and SampleTron are even more marked when comparing representations of the 'same' sounds. While you can hear that they are based on the same original recordings, tonally they are worlds apart, and nowhere is this more obvious than amongst the various choirs! Both instrument libraries offer sounds and tonalities that are not found in the other, and both have their subjective strengths and weaknesses.
There is one other significant area in which SampleTron and M-Tron differ. IK claim that all of SampleTron's sounds have been sampled chromatically — and while this is true of some categories, such as the Optigan, Talentmaker and Rhythmate phrase and rhythm sets, it is not always the case with the instrumental sounds. Examination of the key ranges in Zone Edit mode reveals some keygroups that span two-, three- or even four-semitone intervals. Indeed, certain sets do not extend to the top of the original instrument's range — in some cases the last couple of notes are missing, or else the last few upper notes are generated from samples extended beyond their natural range. For example, the entire upper octave of 'MlTrn Choir' from the M400 & Mk V category is derived from one sample. One can, of course, apply the Note Stretching synth engine algorithm to this keygroup to avoid the manic escalation of the Choir's formant frequency and vibrato speed, but it's a bit of a shame to have to resort to this workaround. In contrast, M-Tron's sounds have been chromatically sampled across their entire key ranges, so from this point of view it offers the most faithful Mellotron emulations of the two instruments. That said, the issue of sample frequency does not appear to detract from the overall efficacy of SampleTron — it still belches forth that essential eerie, Gothic charm that is the signature Mellotron sound.
Notwithstanding SampleTron's additional flexibility, both instruments offer something unique and indispensable; owning both is not overkill, but is in fact a Rather Good Idea. With the release of the feature-enhanced M-Tron Pro now imminent — which includes an expanded library, a synthesis engine akin to Gforce's Virtual String Machine, sound layering and the ability to play samples in reverse — it will be interesting to see if the balance of power tips in Gforce's favour, or whether the two instruments will continue to complement one another.
- Mellotron M400, Mk V and Mk II
- Mellotron Powerhouse (rhythm machine)
- Optigan (analogue optical disks)
- Chilton Talentmaker (revamped Optigan copy made by the Italian company Galanti)
- Vako Orchestron (analogue optical disks, based on Optigan technology)
- Chamberlin Music Master 600 and 400
- Chamberlin Model 200
- Chamberlin M1and M4
- Chamberlin Rhythmate (drum machine using tape loops)
- 360 Systems Digital Keyboard
- Roland VP330
Once again, IK Multimedia have teamed up for this library with Sonic Reality's Dave Kerzner, the man responsible for amassing the material in SampleTron's 2.4GB library, itself collected over a 10-year period. The 'classic' Mellotron sounds we all know and love are now fairly ubiquitous, and can be found lurking within numerous virtual instruments, CD-ROM collections and even free on the Internet. They're here too, occasionally with an unusual twist, and bearing in mind the vastly different personalities of such instruments, are quite likely to sound different to any Tron sounds you already have at your disposal. However, this collection boasts other instrumental curiosities from the past with which some may not be familiar. In particular, the Chamberlin Rhythmate and Mellotron Powerhouse are amongst the earliest drum machines, yet must have sounded remarkable in their day, using tape loops of real drum and percussion performances. These authentic sounds and performances from another era are bound to be attractive to those with a taste for the genuinely retro.
Similarly, the Optigan 'band-in-a-box' loops ooze retro appeal, and have found fans in artists including Crowded House, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainright and Steve Hackett. The Mattel Optigan used floppy optical disks as the playback medium to contain its manifestly analogue recordings; these disks inevitably became scratched and dusty, all of which was plainly audible along with the recorded sounds. Chord buttons triggered complete band performances, while the keyboard played cheesy organ sounds, also stored as recordings on the disks. It's somewhat surprising that Mattel never exploited the obvious potential for more adventurous keyboard sounds; however, a company called Opsonar did see the potential, and after their initial development efforts the instrument was adopted by David VanKoevering, who manufactured a range of Vako Polyphonic Orchestrons using the same optical technology. These were very much intended as competition to the Mellotron, offering strings, choir and other orchestral sounds that could be played continuously without the Mellotron's eight-second limit. However, the poor sound quality and paucity of sonic material for the instruments (only eight Orchestron disks were ever produced) ensured that they were never able to usurp the Mellotron's throne.
Then there are the Mellotrons' predecessors, the Chamberlins. Many of the recordings originally made for the Chamberlins became central to the Mellotrons' sonic arsenal — and it's fascinating to hear how different they sound on the older Chamberlins. The sound quality is often distinctly past its sell-by date, with tape drop-outs, distortion and glitches. Wow and flutter occasionally makes things all but unrecognisable, yet somehow these recordings are charming in an ironic way, and perfectly in touch with the current lo-fi zeitgeist.
The 360 Systems Digital Keyboard was an 8-bit ROMpler that was capable of playing up to 32 sounds stored on pre-recorded ROM chips. At $3500 for the basic machine, it was vastly expensive — and despite being marketed as a 'Digital Tron' for the modern age, it curiously failed to evoke any of the Mellotron's Gothic appeal. Limited memory (and therefore short loops) resulted in sounds that were strangely static — although they must have seemed like a revelation at the time of its release. Nevertheless they're highly deserving of inclusion, particularly '360 El Gtr', which is pure period Mike Oldfield in the upper registers!
The last two items are particularly interesting choices for inclusion in this collection, since neither of them can be classified as replay instruments. Three variations of choir sounds from the Roland VP330 are represented, although only 'VP Choir' is closest to the actual sound of a VP330. The first two presets 'Genechoir' and 'Super VP Choir' appear to have been layered with Mellotron choir — nevertheless, they sound good, and are bound to come in useful. The 'Rolf Harris' Stylophone is very much a bonus inclusion, and rather unusual in that the samples are unlooped, quite short, and decay in volume, unlike the real thing. Adding some pitch vibrato and playing in mono (non-legato) mode certainly brings back some memories (yes, I had one too) but any attempts to play 'Space Oddity' are thwarted due to the truncated, decaying nature of the samples — shame.
Interestingly, that 2007 promotional flyer I have for SampleTron lists an additional tape replay instrument in the library: the Birotron, now commonly associated with the term 'ill-fated'. Based on an 8-track cartridge continuous replay system, the Birotron was dogged by unreliability and lack of sufficient funds for further development, and few were built. The reasons for its eventual non-inclusion can only be guessed at. Perhaps the model used for sampling croaked its last before the project was complete? Sadly, we may never know.
Some of the criticisms mentioned in the recent SampleMoog review seem less applicable to SampleTron; for instance, the yellow-on-black text of SampleTron's Part Mixer and Browser panes is much easier to read than the dark red-on-black text of SampleMoog. The lack of Global Part editing is also less of a drawback, since multi-Part composite sounds made in SampleTron are comparatively less likely to demand identical edits for each Part than they might do in SampleMoog. However, the lack of a Global, MIDI controllable volume control is still a major inconvenience, and hopefully IK might implement one in a future player update. The SampleTank player is nevertheless a capable host on which to base a sampled virtual instrument, and an ideal creative vehicle for the sounds offered by SampleTron's library. The library itself is packed with classic sounds to please retrophiles of all musical persuasions, as well as plenty of material that will certainly raise smiles, if not giggles of delight. SampleTron should be considered a worthy addition to any Mellotron aficionado's collection.
Quite a few other Mellotron-based sample libraries are now available.
- Gforce M-Tron (VST instrument) www.gforcesoftware.com
- Sonivox Mellotron Vintage Synth (VST instrument): Strings, Choir and Flute only. www.sonivoxmi.com
- Hollow Sun NewTron Bomb (sample set). www.hollowsun.com
- Batsounds MellowSound (VST instrument)
- Dream Vortex Studio Nanotron (VST instrument) www.dream.vortex.btinternet.co.uk/5627/
- Tweakbench Tapeworm (VST). www.dontcrack.com/freeware/downloads.php/id/3864/software/Tapeworm/
- Taijiguy Mellotron (sample set for sfz players) http://realmusicmedia.net/Mellotron.html