The latest version of Magix's popular recording software adds support for native audio standards including ASIO and VST, as well as some tasty new features such as full plug-in delay compensation.
Samplitude is one of the longest-serving native-based digital audio workstations currently available, and has been passed around many different companies over the years, including SEK'D, a brief tenure at Emagic cut short by Apple, and Magix. Over this time, Samplitude has developed a loyal following and is now used for professional audio recording, mastering and post-production work all over the world, as an alternative to competing and perhaps better-known systems such as Nuendo and Pro Tools.
One of the reasons Samplitude has become popular amongst its user base is that it really delivers on the all-in-one promise made by so many developers, offering full Red Book-compatible CD mastering facilities in addition to multitrack audio recording, editing and mixing capabilities. However, like most DAWs, Samplitude has had its shortcomings, and most have these have been addressed in version 7.0, which now includes support for ASIO drivers, VST plug-ins (including VST Instruments), and hardware control surfaces. And imagine my delight when Magix released version 7.1 just days before the deadline for this review, offering even more functionality including a 'freeze' feature inspired by the release of Logic 6.
In terms of the all-important numbers, Samplitude offers a maximum of 999 audio and/or MIDI tracks (SamplitudeClassic is limited to 64 — see Professional Vs Classic box for more information), the ability to handle sampling rates up to 192kHz, and internal 32-bit floating-point processing for support of both 16 and 24-bit resolutions. And when it comes to dithering your digital signals, Samplitude 7 also implements the renowned POW-R (Psycho-acoustically Optimised Word length Reduction) algorithm. From an editing perspective, Samplitude includes features that are now regarded as indispensable in an audio workstation, such as unlimited undo and batch processing, along with some networking features for sharing work across many computers — an ability that's becoming increasingly important.
An interesting decision recently taken by Magix when they took on the distribution of Samplitude 7 was to introduce the 'SAM for Rent' sales model, where instead of paying out a single lump sum for Samplitude, you pay a small monthly amount to rent the software from Magix (surf to www.samplitude.com/de/sfr.htm for details). At a time when piracy is becoming a serious issue for music software developers, I think this is a commendable move, even though some potential users will baulk at the fact the minimum rental period is more than two years — 25 months. However, Magix have to protect their product, and a demo version is available so you can try before you buy.
One of the initially striking aspects of Samplitude is its relatively low system requirements, especially when compared with other native-based audio workstations. The manual suggests a 200MHz Pentium as the minimum for writing audio CDs and general audio editing, a Pentium II for real time processing with the standard effects, and a Pentium III for real-time processing with mix master effects. That said, Samplitude is optimised for Pentium III, 4, and Athlon XP processors, and Magix's web site recommends a 700MHz Pentium III or Athlon for mastering and a 1.8GHz Pentium 4 or Athlon for multitrack recording.
Samplitude is compatible with all versions of Windows from 98 and NT4 onwards, and Magix recommend a minimum of 64MB RAM for Windows 9x/ME and 128MB for NT-based Windows versions. However, personally I wouldn't even think of using a computer with those amounts of memory these days, although Windows did report that Samplitude was using less than 30MB of memory when it was first launched. Magix's web site is slightly more realistic about these specifications than their documentation, recommending the use of Windows XP and at least 256MB RAM.
The installation itself is a simple matter of inserting the CD, fending off the Director introduction screen if you have Auto Play activated in Windows, and running the installer. You won't have to reboot after the installation, and something that initially impressed me was the fact Samplitude only took a couple of seconds to launch, compared with the tens of seconds that applications such as a Cubase, Logic and Nuendo usually take. Admittedly, it seems to look through your VST plug-in folder in the background after the application proper has loaded, which is cheating, but it's commendable nonetheless.
Samplitude is copy-protected with the dreaded challenge-and-response code system, although you can obtain (and pay extra, of course) for a dongle if you'd rather, and personally I think this is preferable, especially if you want to use Samplitude on multiple computers. However, Magix offer a seven-day grace period to obtain the appropriate response code, during which time Samplitude is fully functional, and this code is generated automatically by their web site after clicking a link from within Samplitude and entering some registration information.
Since modern operating system like Windows XP have networking features whether you like it or not, the practice of keeping studio machines away from the Internet makes increasingly less sense, especially when direct Internet access makes the registration process for applications like Samplitude so much easier. However, if you're not able to get Internet access on the computer running Samplitude, you can scribble down the challenge code and enter this manually on the registration web site. Magix apparently allow a maximum of three response different codes automatically before questions are asked, although users who do want to use Samplitude on different computers or, as Magix so eloquently put it, "change their computer's configuration more often than their underwear", will probably be better off with the dongle option.
- Magix Samplitude Professional v7.1.
- Asus A7S333 motherboard with Athlon XP1800 processor, 1GB DDR (PC2100) memory, ATI Radeon 7500 64MB dual-head graphics card, running Windows XP Professional.
- RME Hammerfall DSP sound card.
In Samplitude's world of terminology, the main multitrack project format is known as a Virtual Project, or VIP for short. Like a Pro Tools Session or a Nuendo Project, a VIP doesn't contain any audio directly, but is linked to associated audio files. This clarification is necessary because Samplitude deals with both VIPs and Wave (*.WAV) files as Projects, since the application is equally at home editing single stereo files as multitrack audio projects. Wave files are generally streamed from disk during recording and playback as you would expect, but it's also possible to record and play audio data directly from RAM as well, which Samplitude's manual recommends for short sections of audio such as drum loops.
When Samplitude first loads, you're presented with the Start Wizard, which makes it easy to locate a recent Project or start a new one — this Wizard can be disabled, but I found it helpful. When you start a New VIP, another window prompts you for the path for the VIP folder and some basic information to use as a starting point for the VIP, such as the sampling rate and the number of tracks to be automatically added, which I thought was particularly useful. Like most DAWs these days, Samplitude keeps all the required files for a VIP in a VIP folder, although the process is different from creating a new Project in Nuendo inasmuch as a VIP file is saved automatically when the VIP is created, while additional VIP files can still be saved separately for backups and if different versions are required.
Once you've created a new VIP, this will be displayed in Samplitude's main window, which, unsurprisingly, is called the VIP Window. Since Samplitude can be employed for many different tasks, such as multitrack recording or mastering a CD, you can configure the functionality that's presented to you in the VIP Window by selecting different Workspaces. A Workspace defines what menu commands and toolbar icons are shown in the VIP Window; a handful of basic Workspaces is provided by default, and you can configure your own if you desire to reduce the visual clutter.
Another neat feature of the VIP Window is the ability to divide it into two or three Sections, with each Section having its own independent zoom and scroll controls, so you can look at different views of the same VIP simultaneously in much the same way you might divide a spreadsheet or document in Excel or Word. By default, the VIP window is displayed as one Section, but two-Section viewing (which I found most useful) simply splits the window horizontally, allowing you to display one Track in detail at the top and the rest of the Tracks below, for example. Showing the VIP window in three Sections again splits the VIP window in two horizontally, but the lower Section is this time divided in half again vertically.
Recording audio in Samplitude is, as you would hope, extremely easy: simply select the appropriate audio input for a track, arm the track's Record button and press Record on the Transport window. By default, a Recording window will appear to show you the length of the recording so far, giving you the option to cancel at any stage, and once you've finished the recording Samplitude will prompt you as to whether it should be kept or deleted. This window can be disabled in the Recording Options window (where various other settings can also be made) to speed up the recording process.
Samplitude provides a range of options when it comes to monitoring your recording, allowing you to specify whether you want to monitor through your hardware, or through Samplitude, either with or without any insert effects you might have assigned to the tracks you're monitoring. You'll notice that I say insert effects, rather than just effects, and this is because any you can't monitor the incoming signal with any send effects that might be used on that track. This is made doubly annoying by the fact the send control itself still works, so you simply end up with more of the original signal, which is more than a little off-putting and means you have to disable the send controls or mute the auxiliary tracks during monitoring. However, the Samplitude developers are aware of this issue and I'm sure a suitable solution will be found for a future revision.
An audio file is presented in the VIP Window as an Object, and each Object features the same five editing handles as Audio Events in Nuendo, enabling you to easily set the start and end points of the Object, along with a fade-in and -out and the overall volume level for that Object. However, Samplitude goes much further in this area and offers additional real-time processing parameters that can be set for each Object independently in the Object Editor, which can be accessed by simply double-clicking an Object.
The Object Editor is split into three pages: Object Effects, Position/Fades and Pitch-shifting and Time-stretching. Object Effects provides all the options you'd expect to see for a channel on the mixer (and are in fact pretty much the same controls as are available on Samplitude's mixer, which we'll discuss later), including inserts, EQ, dynamics, pan settings and auxiliary sends. The Position/Fades page enables you to set the start, end and length parameters for the Object numerically, in addition to providing finer control over the fade-in and -out with a choice of curves.
The final Pitch-shifting and Time-stretching page is particularly neat, providing real-time pitch-shift and time-stretch effects that are applied to the Object during playback. One interesting use of this feature would be when compiling backing vocals, for example, where you could slightly detune the parts or even transpose them to create harmonies, within reason. Additionally, the Object Editor offers some housekeeping options, allowing you to change the name of the Object and its colour, and offers a duplicate VIP Play/Stop button, along with a Play Solo button that plays only the Object being edited in the Object Editor — very useful.
Samplitude 7's Mixer window has gained infamy amongst users of other native audio workstations in recent times because it contains the Holy Grail of mixer routing features: full plug-in delay compensation. This means that if you use processing algorithms that have a high internal latency in real time, Samplitude will automatically delay the other signals in the mixer as appropriate, so all the signals play back in perfect time with one another. While many packages compensate for a plug-in's internal latency when the plug-in is used as an insert on a standard track, Samplitude is one of the first applications (shortly to be joined by Nuendo 2) that can compensate for the delays introduced by using plug-ins on auxiliary channels. This feature can be disabled if it's causing problems, but I found it generally worked well, especially when using plug-ins such as the UAD1's Realverb Pro on an auxiliary track.
Another aspect of Samplitude's signal routing abilities that impressed me was that the routing for each track can be configured independently in the Effect Routing window. This displays all of the processes that are applied to a track, from the Gain and Pan controls through the insert effects to the Volume fader, and shows the order in which these processes occur. Best of all, you can move any of these processes up or down in the signal path to completely reconfigure the way each track works on the Mixer. This is pretty neat.
One thing that you'll realise from the Effect Routing window is that Samplitude's built-in effects are handled separately in the signal chain from external VST and Direct X plug-ins. The use of external plug-ins can be configured in a separate window, where you can also force latency values for plug-ins individually, should you need to. It's also interesting to note that one of the differences between the use of an external plug-in and a built-in effect is that the built-in effects appear in modal windows, so you can't make changes in other windows while the built-in effect's editor is open, although fortunately the Play/Stop command is still available.
Samplitude's bundled effects are among the best I've encountered for those included with an application — the bread-and-butter dynamics and EQ algorithms on the Mixer and in the Object Editor, for instance, are very usable, and didn't have me reaching for my Waves plug-ins as usual. But perhaps the best aspect of the built-in effects is the flexible way they can be applied to your audio: for example, you can select an Object on the VIP Window and choose an effect from the Effects menu to destructive apply the processing off-line, but you can also use most of the effects in real time, applied to individual Objects via the Object Editor or to whole tracks via an Insert.
As already mentioned, the dynamics and EQ processes are very good, but that's just the tip of the iceberg — for a start, there are additional dynamics processes, including Multi-band Dynamics, which is also available on the Master stereo output. The real highlight for most users will be Room Simulator (see the Acting On An Impulse box), and there's also the very passable Amp Simulation — while I don't think this will give Line 6 any sleepless nights, it can give some good results, and it's certainly better than most generic distortion and overdrive effects. I also liked FFT Filter, which provides a real-time FFT graph that allows you to draw the filter response you want to apply to the signal, causing both the original signal and the effect of your mouse-drawn curve to be plotted on the graph in different colours, still in real time.
In addition to a vocoder, a stereo enhancer on the Master channel, and a general-purpose delay, the final Samplitude effect that can be used in real time is Dehisser, which can come in useful if you've got a noisy recording, or to combat the effects of Amp Simulation! If noise reduction is your goal, there's also an additional Noise Reduction process available for off-line processing.
The behaviour of the Mixer is particularly interesting, and the first thing you notice is that it is displayed in its own independent window, rather than as a child window in the main Samplitude application. This is particularly useful for those with more than one display as it means you don't have to maximise the main Samplitude window across all the monitors. The Mixer window also stays on top of the VIP Window, which is especially handy on single-display systems when you might want to carry out a quick function on the VIP window, such as clicking in the timeline, without having the Mixer window disappear behind it.
Considering Samplitude's advanced signal routing, one problem that did surprise me with the Mixer window was the way the volume faders suffered from zipper noise when moved during playback. Fortunately, however, there's no problem when the volume for the track is automated, and I presume most users wouldn't ever need to record the real-time output of the mixer anyway. Still, it would be nice if, in an otherwise flawless mixer design, this could be improved in a future version.
The Mixer window can be configured in appearance with a selection of skins (I found the default skin to be adequate) and different ways of presenting the controls in the window. In addition to the default Mixer, you can also select a different functional appearance from the window's own pop-up menu, with options including Multitrack, Recording and Single-track Mixer. Multitrack Mixer presents a condensed version of the Mixer without the level meters or any other visual paraphernalia, which is useful when you want to get more channels on the screen horizontally for working with large mixes, and Recording Mixer offers a Mixer with extra-large level meters, in case you need to keep an eye on them from halfway across the control room. Finally, the Single-track Mixer presents all the mixer controls for a single track, much like Nuendo's Channel Settings window, but with the addition of the Master channel as well, making this view ideal for mastering. The Single-track Mixer also automatically updates itself so the track displayed in the window is linked to the selected track on the VIP window, which is a nice touch.
Staying with subject of appearance, one thing I did like in the default Mixer mode was the way that, just like in Pro Tools and Logic, all the relevant controls are available on the screen at once, including inserts, sends, and the built-in EQ. You can toggle the display of these controls, should you want to, and also specify whether you want two or eight inserts and sends to be displayed on each track.
One particularly neat trick of the Mixer window is its ability to be resized just like any other standard window. However, rather than conceal parts of the Mixer and force you to scroll around it via a window's scroll bars, the Mixer is simply redrawn to fit the smaller available area. Of course, the legibility of the Mixer gets worse as the graphics become smaller, but it remains completely functional and animated, which I thought was a nice touch.
The ability for an audio workstation to work in surround is a prerequisite these days, and Samplitude has a toggle that transforms the Mixer into a fully operational 5.1 environment. While this is undoubtedly the most common multi-channel format currently used for both music and media work, a more flexible handling of multi-channel formats to allow for 7.1 or four satellites would have been more in keeping with the competition. Nuendo, in particularly, is noticeably more powerful in this area: version 1.x can mix in up to eight-channel formats from mono or stereo sources, where version 2 will support 12-channel formats from multi-channel sources. However, I imagine Samplitude's developers will add support for other formats as more of the industry demands them in the future, and if you only need to work in 5.1 (perhaps for DVD-A/V) with mono and stereo sources, Samplitude will be perfectly fine.
When it comes to automating Samplitude's mixing parameters, there's both good and bad news. The good news is that the volume and pan automation is extremely well implemented; the bad news is that automating any other parameter isn't quite so easy.
To manually draw in volume or pan automation, you simply enable the Volume or Pan Curve button next to the appropriate slider on the Track Properties of the track you want to automate in the Main Window. The Volume Curve button is displayed in yellow when active and the Pan Curve button in blue, and these colours are used for the lines plotted on the track itself, where you can drag handles on the appropriate line to add points and shape the line as desired. A nice touch is that while the automation data itself is independent of the Object, the Object's waveform on the track is always automatically redrawn to reflect the dynamic changes caused by the Volume automation, just as it is when dragging the Volume handles on an Object.
Possibly the best feature of Samplitude's volume and pan automation is that when the Volume or Pan Curve button is active, the Volume or Pan slider on both the Main Window and Mixer becomes a 'trim' fader instead. Dragging either the Volume or Pan slider adjusts the automation proportionally, and you can even see the effect of this while you're dragging the slider, as the Volume and Pan lines on the relevant track are automatically redrawn.
From a personal perspective, this is exactly the way I want to use automation and have my control surface respond — but what if you want to record fader movements as the Project is playing to create automation data, rather than manually creating points with the mouse? This is no problem either: by enabling the Automation button on the Mixer window, you can now drag the Volume or Pan sliders on the Mixer or your control surface while the Project is playing to record the automation data instead — the Volume and Pan sliders on the Main Window retain the trim function. When the Automation button is enabled, the Mixer and control surface faders will move (assuming your surface has flying faders, of course) according to the volume data recorded; and disabling the Automation button will cause the movement to cease and the faders to revert back to the trim behaviour.
Overall, I think Samplitude's handling of volume and pan automation is really quite elegant, and it's successful because it doesn't require the user to be concerned about what automation mode they might currently be using. While it doesn't have the same number of features as Pro Tools or Nuendo 2, for example, it doesn't have the complexity either — in this respect, Samplitude feels like the developers have thought about what people really need to do with automation and distilled an appropriate solution accordingly.
Unfortunately, however, that's where the elegance ends, because automating anything other than volume or pan is a pain in the proverbial, and relies on having to set up the snappily named 'MIDI Controller / VST Automation Curve Settings' window. Here, a plug-in is selected and you can allocate up to 16 parameters to be controlled by additional curves you have to configure manually. Compared to the incredibly simple facilities for automating plug-ins in Nuendo or Pro Tools, this is perhaps the only area of Samplitude that could really do with an overhaul.
One area where Samplitude micturates on most of the competition is in the mastering and archiving department, since it provides built-in tools for writing Red Book-compatible audio CDs and standard data CD-ROMs of all the files in the VIP folder. Track indices for your CD can be placed directly on the VIP Window, and you don't even need to bounce the VIP down to a stereo audio file beforehand — Samplitude simply takes whatever is being output from the Master stereo output, which is very useful.
While some would argue that an audio workstation should concentrate on recording, editing and mixing, and Samplitude perhaps leans more towards post-production anyway, there's no doubt that having built-in CD burning tools in your recording, editing and mixing environment is incredibly useful. If, for instance, you want to give a client a quick CD to take away with them, being able to place a few CD markers and hit the Write CD button is very convenient. And being able to archive all the data files within a VIP to CD-ROM is just the icing on the cake — I miss these features in other applications.
Samplitude is a powerful audio workstation and I hope this review will encourage new users to at least download the demo and check out its feature set. Even if you're already a hardcore user of another package, Samplitude offers many tools, including the CD-burning and effects, that could make it an ideal mastering and all-round post-production application for your work.
However, despite its power, there's no doubt that in some areas, such as the MIDI and surround support, Samplitude faces increasingly stiff competition from packages like Nuendo, perhaps its most obvious rival in the native DAW market. At the time of writing, Nuendo 1.x can be purchased for £699, with a free upgrade to version 2, which promises to equal (and in some instances better) most of the features offered by Samplitude. On the other hand, Nuendo 2 won't feature a real-time convolving reverb, audio CD burning or built-in archiving to CD-ROM, and its final retail price (while not available at the time of going to press) could be 25 percent more than the cost of SamplitudeProfessional.
While SamplitudeClassic does have a reduced feature set, it also has a reduced price, and if you're looking for a solid, native-based audio production tool on a budget, there is little to compete in this area of the market.
At the end of the day, there's much to like about Samplitude: its no-nonsense interface, while not the most attractive piece of design work ever conceived, is very functional and allows most operations to be carried out swiftly, since most of the controls are presented right in front of you and are just a single click away. If you're looking for a native-based audio workstation and aren't too worried about extensive MIDI and surround functionality, Samplitude is definitely worth consideration. Coupled with ongoing support and a helpful 'registered users only' web forum, it could end up being your new best friend.