Sample and loop libraries have come a long way from being delivered on a humble audio CD — the most recent trend is to include a specific playback front-end for easy integration with your sequencer.
One of the more recent developments in the world of sample and loop libraries is for library producers to include some sort of playback device with the sample set. Two well-known sample companies, Zero‑G and East West, are now taking this route with a number of their products and, by teaming up with Native Instruments, are supplying libraries with a dedicated version of either NI's Intakt or Kompakt devices.
Kompakt is a slimmed-down version of NI's flagship sampler instrument Konkakt. Supplied as a front end to something like East West's Vapor — described later in this article, but essentially consisting of a collection of synth pad, bass, lead and arpeggiated sounds — the principle is not dissimilar to that at work in something like Spectrasonics' Atmosphere or Trilogy. In contrast (or should that be kontrast?), Intakt is a sampler device aimed primarily at those working with loops, and both Zero‑G and East West now have loop libraries that provide Intakt as their front end.
Two observations are worth making before digging deeper into these libraries. First, the versions of Kompakt and Intakt supplied here are specific to these products and, while both offer considerable playback and processing capabilities, they are not able to import samples from outside the library they are supplied with. Second, the sample and loop libraries themselves are rather like a Reason Refill and can only be accessed via the supplied version of Kompakt or Intakt, or from the 'full' versions of these applications, which has to be purchased separately from NI.
NI, Zero‑G and East West describe these libraries as either ' Kompakt Instruments' or ' Intakt Instruments'. Five such instruments are under consideration here: Zero‑G's Wired, Afrolatin Slam and Nu Jointz (all based on Intakt) and East West's Stormbreakz (using Intakt) and Vapor (which uses Kompakt). For further details on each individual library, check out the boxes throughout this article.
Wired provides over a Gigabyte of sample data consisting of both loops and samples aimed directly at dance styles such as trance. Within the collection, the various presets include construction kits, drum loops and individual instruments. The latter use Intakt's Sampler mode and include drum kits suitable for trance and house with plenty of 808 and 909-style samples. Other instruments include a good collection of bass synth sounds, a small number of bright and brash pianos, some analogue-style pads and a huge number of one-shot effect, hits, blips and bleeps. The loops are split into two main groups; instrument loops featuring basses, pads, and pianos, and drum loops that include full kits and individual elements such as kick, snare and cymbals.
The loops are organised in a number of ways. Some presets contain a single instrument loop mapped with pitch across the entire keyboard and use Time Machine mode to keep it in sync. Others user the Sampler mode and simply contain a collection of different loops, each mapped to a single key — there are both instrument lines and drum loops arranged in this way. Other presets use the Beat Machine mode and consist of a single drum loop beat sliced across a series of keys.
However, for instant gratification — and perhaps exploiting Intakt most effectively — the 14 construction kit presets are hard to beat. These tend to have a selection of keys operating in each of Sampler, Beat Machine and Time Machine modes, and typically contain some drum loops, individual hits, perhaps an few instrument loops and a bass or melody sound. While construction kit formats are seen by some as a 'paint by numbers' approach to music, Intakt allows you to 'play' the loops, hits and instruments in real time, resulting in a more creative process — and, frankly, it is also downright fun.
All the construction kit contents are derived from various loops and samples used elsewhere within the library, and this just emphasises why it is a shame that users cannot load individual loops and samples from within the library to create their own construction kits. This is not just a comment on Wired, as it applies to the other Intakt libraries covered in this review. That said, an upgrade to the full version of Intakt is not that expensive, and for anyone buying two or three of these libraries, upgrading ought to be seriously considered.
In terms of content, Wired has plenty to offer trance producers and all the essential elements are here to put together complete tracks. Given that there is over a Gigabyte of sample data, and despite one or two frustrating limitations of the dedicated version of Intakt, the combination of sample data and playback front-end is certainly very good value for money.
Versions of both Kompakt and Intakt have been reviewed in SOS in recent months. The full version of Intakt was reviewed by Simon Price in the June 2004 issue while in SOS August 2004 Paul White reviewed an earlier Kompakt-based 'sample library with virtual instrument front-end', Morphology, from Zero‑G. While interested readers can refer to these earlier reviews for context, a brief recap will be provided below.
All five libraries are supplied in the same physical format. Each box contains a DVD-ROM and a slim printed manual. The manual covers installation and operation of the NI software, whether Intakt or Kompakt, and is pretty much identical whether supplied in a Zero‑G library or an East West one. Installation of each product proved straightforward, and the user is provided with options for installation of both software and samples. Each instrument is supplied as a stand-alone application and VST, DXi, Audio Units and RTAS formats. As with a Reason Refill, each library is installed as a single file in NI's NKS format — readable by NI software samplers, but not by others.
The final stage of the installation process requires authorisation of the library. This is based upon the combination of a supplied serial number and a system ID number generated by the installer that is specific to the host computer hardware and OS. If the computer has web access, the installer will make a connection to the NI web site where an Authorisation Key (essentially a long string of numbers) is generated. On my test PC, the Authorisation process took just a couple of minutes for each instrument. Authorisation can also be completed from another computer, or by post.
As mentioned in the main part of this review, East West's Vapor is supplied with Kompakt at its front-end rather than Intakt. At over 2GB, this sample library is huge. It also contains a massive number of preset instruments — I counted well over 300 Multis and some 800 individual instruments. The library is the work of programmer Marc Van Bork, who has a film and multimedia background, and this is reflected in the sounds. While they cover bass, lead, arpeggiated sounds and pads, there are many sounds that would work as a sound bed just to provide an atmosphere. There is also a hi-tech influence, so if you work to picture, these sounds would be more suited to a contemporary setting — modern horror, action or sci-fi rather than costume drama. That said, many of the individual instruments, such as the bass or lead sounds, would work just as well in a number of modern dance styles.
Given the number of sounds provided, prepare a thermos and some sandwiches before you start to browse! However, exploring is well worth the effort, as the sounds are always interesting and engaging. Many of the pads and sound beds just seem to go on and on evolving with few obvious loop points. Much of this is down to the length of the original samples used and, while this can mean Vapor is a little CPU-hungry at times, given the complexity of the results, one or two notes are usually enough.
One obvious plus for this Kompakt-based instrument, however, is the ability to build your own Multi instruments by combining individual samples of your choice from the library. Add in the basic, but very functional, processing offered by Kompakt and the range of sounds that could be conjured up by Vapor is staggering.
As shown by the various screenshots in this review, the Intakt user interface is identical for each instrument, with only the overall colour scheme varying between the two sample library suppliers — a nice cool blue for East West, while Zero‑G have gone for pale green. The same NI look is retained in the Kompakt user interface for East West's Vapor.
Despite some obvious operational differences between the two types of instrument, due to their somewhat different functions, each contains the same basic four elements to the user interface. From the bottom up, the first three of these are the Keyboard, Effects and Modulation sections. The fourth element, at the top of the window, is where the various samples or loops are loaded. In Intakt, this is termed the Source Edit section and, amongst various controls, it contains a waveform display for the currently selected sample or loop and tempo controls (including a button to sync tempo to the host sequencer). In Kompakt, this top-most element is split into two; the Multi section and the Instrument section. The Multi section allows up to eight samples (each termed an 'Instrument') from the library to be loaded, while highlighting any one of these allows its tuning, filter and amp control to be adjusted within the Instrument section.
Given Simon Price's June 2004 of the full version of Intakt, only the edited highlights need to be repeated here. Functionally, the dedicated version supplied with each Intakt-based Instrument (sample library) is the same as the full version, with the exception that these dedicated versions do not contain the File Browser. Each of the libraries contains a series of preset 'instruments' and these might contain a combination of loops, loop slices, individual samples or a mixture of all of these, with each mapped to a particular key on the keyboard. The samples can only be loaded via the drop-down File menu above the waveform display.
Unfortunately, given the absence of the File Browser in this dedicated version of Intakt, it is not possible to mix and match loops or samples between presets even from within the same library. So, for example, if you wanted to use three drum loops from one preset along side a bass synth sample from another preset, you would need to run two instances of the plug-in. Upgrading to the full version of Intakt (which costs about £90 but includes a further 1GB sample library) would resolve this limitation. However, as each instance of Intakt only added a two- or three-percent CPU overhead on my test system, it can be worked around.
Windows XP, Pentium III/Athlon 700MHz CPU or faster, 512MB of RAM.
Mac OS 10.2.6 or later, G4 processor 733MHz or faster, 512MB of RAM.
Intakt has three modes of operation for the samples loaded within a preset; Sampler, Beat Machine and Time Machine. Sampler does pretty much what you might expect and, via the Keyboard section, samples within a preset can be mapped to zones across the keyboard. Zones can overlap to form layers if required. The Beat Machine uses Recycle-style beat slicing to allow loops to be chopped up, either so they can be played back at different tempos, or so the elements within the loop can be mapped to a series of keys for the creation of new loops. Users of other beat-slicing applications ought to find Intakt capable of all the essential 'slice and dice' functions. The Time Machine mode provides an approach more akin to that of Sony Acid or Ableton Live for tempo-matching loops based upon granular resynthesis and time-stretching. Time-stretching can be achieved without altering pitch and, as long as things are not pushed to extremes, the results are very good.
Within a given preset, different samples can operate in different modes. Helpfully, the keys within the Keyboard section are colour coded to show which mode each sample is operating in; yellow for the Sampler, blue for the Beat Machine and red for the Time Machine. When individual slices from a Beat Machine loop are mapped to a series of keys, these appear in a slightly different shade of blue.
Editing and settings for the various Modulation and Effects controls can be made at either the level of a single sample, groups of samples or globally. The Modulation section includes a Pitch Envelope, AHDSR envelope, two LFOs and an Envelope Follower. The last four of these can be assigned to modulate a range of other parameters such as filter cutoff or resonance, volume, pan or tuning. While this is not the most sophisticated set of modulation options ever created, this section is very straightforward to use and is capable of transforming a sample or loop in both subtle and extreme ways. The Effects section adds some further sound-shaping options but, while the Filter is perfectly capable, the Lo-Fi and Distortion effects are somewhat basic. If required, the order of these three effects can be adjusted by selecting one and then dragging left or right as required. The Delay effect is, again, somewhat basic but does the job and can be tempo sync'ed to the host sequencer. If more adventurous effects processing is required, Intakt features eight stereo output pairs, so particular samples can be passed to the host sequencer for processing via other plug-ins. All the various controls can be assigned to a MIDI controller for real-time parameter tweaking by holding down the Control button (on the PC) or the Command button (on the Mac), and then clicking on and moving the required hardware controller. This worked fine within Cubase SX3.
While the individual features described above are all available in other software applications, their combination within Intakt makes for a very effective and efficient loop manipulation tool. For construction kit-style work, the ability to map a series of loops and samples to individual keys makes it very easy to 'play' these loops in real time. This experience is considerably enhanced by the 'Legato' mode provided in the Time Machine. With this engaged, loops will play back in sync with each other. For example, imagine that two eight-bar loops are assigned to adjacent keys. If one is triggered on its own and the second is then triggered three bars in, playback of the second loop will start from bar three rather than bar one. This makes combining loops on the fly and dropping them in and out of playback to generate new loop combinations really easy.
Kompakt, on the other hand, is more of a sample-based synth device than a loop tool. Up to eight samples (each termed an instrument) can be loaded from the library into a Multi — and both East West's Vapor and Zero‑G's Morphology are supplied with large sample libraries and a comprehensive range of Multi presets. Each of the eight instruments can be edited independently not only for filter settings, tuning and effects, but also in terms of MIDI channel. This means that Kompakt can be eight-part multitimbral or that instruments can be layered by assigning them the same MIDI channel. The Mod Wheel can be configured to control crossfades between two instruments assigned to the same MIDI channel. Key ranges can also be specified, so splits can also be created.
The Reverb, Chorus, Delay and Master Filter within the Effects section are basic but effective and operate in a similar fashion to the effects in Intakt, while the Modulation section provides three envelopes and four filters. A lot has been crammed into a small space here — Kompakt's controls are... er... compact.
Somewhat oddly, and despite downloading the latest version of the Kompakt software via the web, I could not find a way in the version of Kompakt supplied with Vapor to allow assignment of MIDI controllers to particular parameters. This had worked fine in Intakt — although as far as I could see, there is no description of how to do this in either manual. As with Intakt, Kompakt has multiple outputs and individual instruments can be assigned as required if you need to add further processing to particular instruments via the host sequencer.
Given the many long, evolving samples supplied with Vapor, the sample layering and the internal processing, it is possible to create some really complex sounds — and the Kompakt user interface makes this very easy to achieve. However, as a result, Kompakt does demand a little more CPU resource than Intakt. Usefully, the Multi section includes a measure of CPU usage that changes dynamically as the plug-in is playing.
Afrolatin Slam, also a Zero‑G Intakt-based title, provides a collection of loops and single hits of African and Latin percussion, although there are the occasional instrumental loops include as well. The producers, Francis Fuster and Sultan Makende, have some impressive credits including Paul Simon, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Leftfield to name but a few, so the contents ought to be the genuine article. As with Wired, the loops and samples are provided within a single NKS library file (just over 460MB in size) and can only be accessed via the supplied version on Intakt.
The preset instruments are presented in various categories based upon style. These include African, Caribbean, Afro-Latin fusion, Latin American and various 'miscellaneous others'. The biggest groups are the African and Latin American, with more congas, bells, talking drums and tambourines than you could shake a shaker at. In the main, the instruments are either Sampler-based kits or Beat Machine loops, where a single loop is presented in both a complete form and as slices mapped across they keyboard. Some loops are also given the Time Machine treatment.
The various kits are well recorded, and the drums have plenty of body, but real aficionados of these musical styles will probably find the lack of multisamples somewhat limiting. Individually, the loops are excellent and I found that adding a couple of well-chosen percussion loops from this selection added just enough flavour of the style to easily spice up a track based on more conventional instrumentation.
While the loops themselves are good, I'm less convinced that they have been presented at their best with Intakt. The majority of the presets contain a single loop and, as there is no way to audition loops without loading the instrument into Intakt, browsing through the library to find the two or three loops that might work together is, frankly, a chore. This could have been partially resolved by providing more presets that contained Time Machine loops, with different loops mapped to each key. These could then be played alongside each other in much the same way as the construction kit presets within Wired.
There is no doubting the power, flexibility and sheer 'bang for buck' of many of the current crop of software samplers. However, a consequence of the expanded choice of sampler (hardware or software) has been a proliferation of commercial sample formats. While not that long ago audio CDs and Akai libraries used to dominate, now sample and loop libraries can appear in a wide range of formats — and format conversion can be both problematic and time-consuming.
As typified by the five libraries described here, a more recent trend is to bundle a dedicated front-end with a sample library. Of course, this can be genuinely useful to the user, particularly for those still in the early stages of building their computer-based music system. For the company supplying the front-end, they will be hoping that the user acquires a taste for their software and moves on to their more upmarket offerings. In the case of these Intakt and Kompakt-based libraries, the advantage for the sample-library developers is that the material has a degree of copy protection — the samples can only be used with the supplied front-end, and that front-end has to be registered to a single user via a unique serial number.
From the perspective of the user, however, I do have some concerns about this approach. Yes, I know that 'exclusive' sample libraries have been around for some time (Reason 's Refills for example), but will those who have invested both money and time in their own particular choice of software sampler and loop manipulation tools really want to invest in a sample library that they cannot use with those tools? Some potential purchasers might find this restrictive.
In contrast to Afrolatin Slam, Zero‑G's hip-hop-inspired Nu Jointz library makes better use of the construction kit possibilities of Intakt. With about a Gigabyte of sample data, there is a good range of downtempo loops featuring drums, electric and acoustic bass, guitars, piano, turntable scratches and even the occasional trombone loop for good measure. The preset instruments are clearly organised into a number of categories such as 'Construction Kits', 'Drum Loopz', 'Instrumentz', 'Single Hitz' and 'Bitz N Pieces' which, aside from rather too many 'z's, make it very easy to get at what you might want to audition.
The material itself is quite gritty, so this is definitely hip-hop territory rather than R&B. In particular, the drum loops, many of which have had some lo-fi processing applied, would sit quite happily within some of the less cheery contemporary hip-hop and rap-based tracks around the charts at present. The majority of the drum loop presets include two or more loops mapped in various ways across the keyboard, and this does make it easy to mix and match between each small collection of loops.
The construction kits, of which there are over 40, take this a little further. Most of these include a variety of drum, percussion and instrument loops with the occasional sample or three thrown in for good measure. In many of them, a 'master' loop is included to illustrate one way in which the individual loops might be put together. However, as with Wired, the fun is in triggering the loops from a keyboard, and just experimenting to see what can be created. While some of the kits work better than others, it is easy to see how a complete bed could be created from the loops provided and, by running two instances of Intakt, I was easily able to piece together a pair of the construction kits for further variety. If I could just invite Eminem around for a couple of hours to supply a top line... Whatever your views might be on music by construction kit, the way the Nu Jointz library has been implemented with Intakt certainly makes it easy and adds a certain creative element.
Intakt and Kompakt are, on the whole, easy to use and flexible tools for loop or sample manipulation. In addition, the sheer size of some of the sample libraries discussed here suggests a huge amount of work on the part of their developers — there is plenty of material to inspire musical production — albeit that some of the libraries are better configured than others to work with the supplied front-end. On a less positive note, do you want to be constrained to having to use a dedicated interface?
This said, it is very difficult to argue that something like Nu Jointz, Stormbreakz or Vapor do not offer very good value for money and, if you are already a user of NI's software samplers, then you should certainly pick the library that suits your musical style and give it a serious listen. If several of the Intakt libraries might appear in your shopping cart, then make sure you also budget for the upgrade to the full version of Intakt, as the additional flexibility would be well worth the extra outlay.
Stormbreakz offers a subset of East West's 6GB Stormdrum title, although at well over 2GB of sample data, Stormbreakz itself is not exactly small. Two of the six loop categories available in the larger title are featured here; Big Beats and Fastbreaks, although there is also a smaller selection of other loops and a number of individual drum hits. All the loops tend to use Intakt's Time Machine mode, while the hits use Sampler mode and are organised into a number of electronic and processed kits, each of which is stored as a preset instrument. For the loops, the majority of the presets contain a number of different loops, each mapped to a separate key and with Legato mode switched on. Many presets contain 10 or more loops, while some also contain processed versions of the same loops for additional variety. As described elsewhere in this review, this organisation of the material is ideal for using Intakt to lay loops beside each other or in a sequence.
In terms of style, the Big Beats are exactly that. Mostly mid-tempo, loud and aggressive, they would definitely work with straight rock (the Red Leppelin preset, for example) or more contemporary rock/nu-metal styles (such as Linkin Park). Played at lower tempos, some loop sets might also work in a hip-hop context. The moods are quite dark and ominous and the majority of the loops sound very live, with plenty of ambience. The loops in the uptempo Fastbreaks category are more electronic-sounding and busier than the Big Beats but, again, the mood is aggressive with just the right amount of lo-fi edge. At slightly slower tempos, these could also work in contemporary rock pieces while, at 140bpm at faster, some of these would not be out of place in dance-orientated material — provided it needed a little bad attitude.
Throughout, both playing and sounds are excellent. There is plenty of choice provided and, given the way the loops are organised into the presets, Stormbreakz makes good use of Intakt's Time Machine mode. For those impressed (as I was) by this 2GB collection, East West offer an upgrade price to the full version of Stormdrum. As well as more loops, Stormdrum also includes Kompakt and a bigger collection of single-hit drum kits.
- Both Kompakt and Intakt are easy to use and offer plenty of flexibility.
- Lots of samples!
- Generally, these libraries offer good value for money.
- Samples cannot be used with other sample- or loop-playing software.
- Documentation could be improved.
- Some of the libraries could have been configured to make better use of the front-end.
If you are already an NI user or don't mind being restricted to using these libraries with either Intakt or Kompakt, then each of these libraries has plenty to offer... just make sure your hard drive has plenty of spare capacity!