Imagine a sampler with almost unlimited memory that doesn't cost a fortune, and runs on a PC using a standard soundcard. Martin Walker installs Gigasampler, and prepares to be amazed.
Anyone who has ever tried to replace real instruments with sampled versions will know just how much memory they tend to use. Many professional musicians find themselves filling the entire 32Mb (or more) of a hardware‑based sampler with a single acoustic piano, and often find themselves using two or three samplers running simultaneously. The problem is that many acoustic instruments sound odd if transposed by more than a few notes, which means that lots of samples are needed to reproduce the full range of the instrument. This in turn means that each sample has to be shorter to fit in a certain size of RAM. Continuous sounds have to end up with shorter loops (giving a bland sound), and long one‑shot sounds have to have their end portions looped to achieve realistic decay times.
Nemesys Music have designed Gigasampler to avoid these memory restrictions altogether, by directly streaming audio from hard disk as required — so the only restriction on sample length is the size of your hard drive (up to 18Gb apparently!) Another advantage of this technique is that loading times are greatly reduced, since rather than having to load sounds completely into RAM, they are always available, and RAM is only used for the buffers needed when running the software.
As long as you have enough space available on your hard drive, Gigasampler looks like a very attractive solution to a real problem, especially since it outputs audio via the PC soundcard, so no extra hardware is needed. All of the advanced functions of a typical hardware sampler are available, including 64‑voice polyphony, 16‑channel multitimbral MIDI operation, resonant filters, envelopes, LFOs, and looping.
An extensive sample library is provided with the package (including a 1Gb Yamaha C7 grand piano, and samples from Steve Stevens' Guitars, Bob Clearmountain Drums 2, Ultimate Strings, and Will Lee Bass), and an extra bonus is provided in the form of the S‑Converter utility, which allows any Akai S1000 or S3000 format CD‑ROM to be read directly, using either a SCSI or EIDE CD‑ROM drive. In addition, SMDI sample transfers are available over SCSI, as well as SDS sample transfer over MIDI, for those who already have hardware samplers that support these standards. Since the initial Gigasampler 1.0 release some months ago, Nemesys have been beavering away on version 1.5, which is reviewed here. The program now runs under Windows 98 and features multi‑output support with the Aark 20/20 soundcard (more on this later), as well as various other new features.
As you might expect, taking advantage of such a product needs a huge amount of hard disk space, and a minimum of 2Gb is advised (see box for other hardware requirements). You can choose between Full, Compact, and Custom installs, which differ mainly in the number of instrument sounds that are installed. The program files are best installed on one drive, with the instrument (.gig) files stored on the fastest drive you have for best performance. You will not really achieve the full potential of Gigasampler unless you have a vast acreage of available disk space, and with hard drives currently only costing about £40 a gigabyte you would probably benefit from adding another drive specifically for use with it.
However, the most important thing to note is that Gigasampler needs a soundcard with native Microsoft DirectSound drivers, or one specially designed to be Giga‑compatible. Make no mistake, unless your soundcard is such a beast you will not be able to run the program — judging by comments on the Internet, some people have ended up having to buy a second soundcard to do this. Emulated drivers will not work — for instance, my Event Gina didn't even show up in the list of available outputs, since it doesn't yet have DirectSound drivers available.
The Nemesys web site has a page which lists specific recommended options: these include the Turtle Beach Pinnacle, Aardvark Aark 20/20, and Creative Labs AWE64 Gold, using its S/PDIF output and an external converter like the Midiman Flying Calf. The Aark 20/20 card (reviewed in the August '98 issue), is a particularly interesting collaboration, since this now has Giga‑compatible drivers, and provides multi‑client, multi‑output support, so that each of the 16 MIDI channels can be allocated to any of its 10 outputs as required. If you were thinking of buying an Aark 20/20 anyway (at £999), the addition of Gigasampler will give you a software‑based sampler with wonderful audio quality, as well as eight analogue and two S/PDIF outs.
However, the beauty of DirectSound is that its outputs are available to different applications simultaneously — you could for instance allocate four of them to Gigasampler, and the remaining six to Cubase. The main disadvantage of this would seem to be that DirectSound can only currently be used for playback in Cubase, which is fine during mixdown, but not during recording.
For optimum sound quality, I used my AWE64 Gold with Gigasampler, but connected its S/PDIF output to the S/PDIF input of my Event Gina (with S/PDIF Input Clock selected), and then enabled direct monitoring for this input.
Gigasampler's main screen departs from the normal Windows format to mimic a rackmounting hardware sampler. I am always a little sceptical of this approach, since you lose the instant familiarity of the Windows interface, and this can initially make finding your way around more difficult. This one, however, is well designed, quick and easy to use after the first couple of minutes, and has the advantage of not taking up too much screen space if you run it alongside a sequencer.
There are three main sections: the Console, the Loader, and the Mixer, and both the Loader and Mixer appear as extra 'rack units' that can be shown or hidden as required, by clicking on the appropriate buttons on the Console. The Mixer simply shows a fader and meter for each MIDI channel (the Channels button toggles the display between channels 1 to 8 and 9 to 16) so that the relative output levels of each instrument can be adjusted.
The Loader coordinates disk storage and instrument selection — the biggest difference between Gigasampler and most hardware samplers is that the sounds are streamed direct from a hard drive as required, but of course this does mean that the sounds must be on the drive first. This seems obvious, but if you already have a library of Akai format CD‑ROMs, these will need importing first before you can access them (Giga‑compatible sound libraries can be streamed direct from CD‑ROM, unless the library is split over more than one disk). Nevertheless, once on your hard drive, sounds will take far less time to access than they would loading into the RAM of a traditional sampler.
Using the Import button on the Loader module, you first choose from three formats of instrument. The sounds on the supplied CD‑ROMs are all in Gigasampler format — 200Mb on the install CD‑ROM, 650Mb connected with the famous 1Gb piano, and a further 600Mb of demos from various other collections. Gigasampler Multi‑Disk format can span several CD‑ROMs, and Akai S1000 and S3000 formats launch the S‑Converter utility (more on this in a moment). Once you have selected a destination drive and directory, you click on Import and choose an instrument. Since importing speed is largely dependent on the speed of your CD‑ROM drive, it's possible to get much faster import speeds than with current Akai samplers, which can have difficulty working with drives greater than about 10x speed.
Other buttons on the Loader module include Save Perf. (Performance), which saves information on multitimbral sets of instruments (and mixer and configuration information if required), and Perf., which allows you to view them. Disk Manager lets you profile your drives (ie. scan them for Gigasampler instruments), as well as Adding, Deleting, or Changing GigaWorkSpaces, the drive and paths where files are stored. The Status window shows the default workspace, the number of registered instruments available, and a bar display showing the amount of disk space used.
Once you have registered instruments sitting in your hard drive, you can view them in the main Available Instruments window of the Loader. To load one of these into an available MIDI channel on the Console, you select it and then click on the Load button, or double‑click on the selected instrument. A right‑click with the mouse gives more options, including More Information, which brings up a specific instrument help file (if available) with note ranges, details of any MIDI controllers, special effects, and so on.
Once you have loaded a selection of instruments, and mixed their levels, you can hide the Loader and Mixer sections, leaving just the Console on display. The Status window of this section shows the version number and which available soundcard outputs have been allocated, and the Loading bar display shows how much of your RAM has been used for buffers. There is also a MIDI In LED to show that your keyboard data is being received, and a MIDI Loop icon, which animates when MIDI communications are active.
Various other applications can be launched from the Gigasampler Console to perform specific duties. The Seq button launches your choice of sequencer software, the Wave Editor button launches Sample Wrench XE (more about this later), and the Patch Editor button launches the supplied Gs.exe editor for turning a clutch of WAV files into an instrument.
This Patch Editor provides access to every parameter you can think of, and a whole lot more. A sizeable part of the printed manual is taken up with explaining the intricacies of Drag and Drop Mapping, Layering and Crossfade Layering, Resonant Filters, and Envelopes. One particularly interesting feature is Dimensions, which allows different sets of samples to be triggered depending on the status of controllers such as the mod wheel and MIDI controllers. For instance, this allows you to have separate sample sets available to a piano with the sustain pedal up or down, or to switch between different sounds depending on the position of the mod wheel. Up to five Dimensions are available to an instrument, and can give great flexibility of expression during a performance.
Thankfully there are a variety of AVI tutorials on the CD‑ROM to help you get started, since although the manual is thorough, it's a work of reference rather than bedside reading. Having explained everything in detail, Nemesys also make life far easier by introducing you to the Wizard Tool. This allows you to drag and drop multiple folders full of samples into the Wave Pool, and then tell the editor that there are (for instance) three velocity sets, a sustain pedal set, and a release pedal set, and that the note range is from A0 to C8. You then tell it which folder relates to which set, and a few seconds later the entire operation is finished, with the samples correctly mapped and pitch‑stretched across the keyboard in the correct velocity layers.
Sample Wrench XE is a stand‑alone WAV‑based sample editor that provides basic but comprehensive editing support at WAV level; if you prefer, you can launch your own choice of editor such as Sound Forge or Wavelab. The S‑Converter is launched automatically when importing Akai format CD‑ROM sounds and can also be run as a stand‑alone utility; this makes light work of converting an Akai program either to a set of WAV files, or to Gigasampler file format. The majority of the program information (such as filter and envelope settings) will be translated during the process.
After initially importing a smallish (50Mb) instrument to test things out, I made straight for the gigabyte piano. Any piano player who has played this will want a Gigasampler — it's as simple as that. The sound is rich, resonant and responsive, with each and every one of the 88 keys recorded in stereo, at three velocities, with pedal up and down versions (including soundboard resonance), and there is not a loop in sight. When you hit a high note you can hear the sympathetic resonances from the rest of the instrument, especially if you hold down the sustain pedal as well. This is the closest to the real thing I have heard from a sampled instrument. Although it uses four voices per note (three velocities and sympathetic resonance), and requires a Pentium II, 64Mb RAM, and 650Mb hard disk space to operate, there is also a light version which only needs 32Mb RAM and 450Mb hard disk space. As you would expect, audio quality is solely dependent on your soundcard.
One of the most important factors with any software‑based synth or sampler is the latency — however wonderful the sounds, it won't feel like a real instrument if there is an audible delay between pressing a note and hearing the sound. Thankfully, Gigasampler comes well up to scratch in this respect, with a typical latency value of about 5mS, depending on the soundcard: this doesn't alter even when all 64 possible notes are playing. This is achieved through the use of system RAM, which is the reason for the minimum 32Mb requirement. Although memory does not restrict the length of the samples used, it does limit the maximum number of samples — 32Mb will allow 216 mono samples (or 108 stereo), and 64Mb will manage 500 mono (250 stereo) and so on.
There should be no problems running Gigasampler alongside a MIDI sequencer — there is even a dedicated Seq. button to launch your chosen application. However, things get trickier if you intend to run a MIDI + Audio sequencer alongside. Apart from the fact that such a complex application as Gigasampler takes a large chunk of computer resources and memory, you are also likely to need two soundcards — one for sampling, and the other for hard disk recording and playback (unless you buy the Aark 20/20 card). Separate hard drives for each application wouldn't go amiss either, unless you are prepared to accept a lower number of notes and tracks when sharing a single drive between the two applications.
If you intend to run a MIDI + Audio sequencer at the same time as Gigasampler you will need a very powerful machine, and be prepared to accept compromises in both applications. In addition, to achieve the multi‑output flexibility of a hardware sampler, you will again need a soundcard such as the Aark 20/20, which currently puts the price of the total package to something like £1500 on top of the computer system. Users are reporting successes with the latest versions of Cakewalk and Logic Audio, but Cubase is apparently causing some teething troubles with clicks and pops (this is not a fault of Gigasampler, but illustrates the possible problems). Users running Gigasampler by itself seem extremely pleased with it (apart from those who buy it blindly and find that their soundcards don't support it!).
As with Seer Systems' Reality, an Audio Capture facility is provided, which records the entire stereo output from a Gigasampler performance as a WAV file, which can then be imported into a hard disk recording system, and replayed as an additional stereo track. This is a useful facility if you decide that your machine simply isn't up to running Gigasampler and a MIDI + Audio sequencer at once. Another possibility would be to use a second PC solely running Gigasampler, when it would become much more like a stand‑alone sampler, removing all possibility of software conflict.
If you need the ultimate multisampled sound that can be made only using extremely long samples, using Gigasampler is probably the only way to do it — but unless you are prepared to undertake the large amount of work required to create such mammoth files, you will also have to budget for a Gigasampler library. East West have already created various pianos, including Steinway, Bosendorfer, and Fazioli models, where every note has been sampled separately, with up to eight stereo velocities per note — the largest is 2.2Gb. Other orchestral collections will also be available (including the Gigasampler version of the Miroslav Vitous Symphony Orchestra library). I can see this system being very attractive to film and TV composers who need the ultimate orchestral sounds. The current limit of 16 MIDI channels may be an obstacle here, although many more than 16 instruments can be loaded (subject to memory constraints), and program bank change commands used to switch between them. I suspect that many people will also use Gigasampler largely as a cost‑effective soundcard‑based sampler, using shorter sounds, or those from existing Akai‑format libraries, and attempt to run it alongside their MIDI + Audio sequencer.
Gigasampler is a truly innovative piece of software that does exactly what it says on the box, providing a huge amount of sampling power for a relatively small outlay. It will be ideal for those who currently find it difficult to achieve realistic or evolving sounds using more traditional hardware sampling technology where the entire sound must be held in RAM. Nemesys are to be congratulated on a fine product that should certainly find its own niche in the marketplace, especially if a dedicated and comprehensive library of professional sounds is developed.
An Ever‑Expanding Range
Just as we were going to press, Nemesys sent me brief details of the imminent release of Gigasampler LE (Lite Edition), which as its name suggests is a cutdown version selling at a cheaper price. In essence, the main engine is identical, providing the same 32‑bit audio processing and huge sampling capabilities, but with a maximum of 48‑note polyphony rather than 64, without the Audio Capture feature, and only supporting two hardware channel outputs (this only currently affects Aark 20/20 users).
The projected low price of £169 in the UK also reflects the fact that the bundle is much smaller, with the omission of Sample Wrench, the Gigabyte piano, and the S‑Converter. These will still be available separately, as will upgrades to the full version of Gigasampler. I personally think that this version should sell and sell at the price, since it still provides what most people need without significant limitations, although the S‑Converter option will still be an essential purchase for anyone with an Akai‑based sample library. To this end, a third version of the program is being released too, which comprises Gigasampler LE, but does include S‑Converter.
- MIDI: 16‑part multitimbral
- Polyphony: up to 64 notes.
- Supported sample rates: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz (dependent on soundcard).
- Audio processing: 32 bit.
- Filters: low‑pass/band‑pass/high‑pass with dynamic resonance.
- Envelope generators: EG1 (AHDSR), EG2 (ADSR), EG3/LFO.
- Looping: yes (if required!)
- Pentium 166MHz MMX processor.
- 32Mb RAM.
- 2Gb hard drive space using any drive with <10mS access time (full performance only achieved with 9.5mS or faster, and a 512K cache).
- Soundcard with DirectSound drivers (or Giga‑compatible drivers).
- Windows 95 or 98.
- MIDI interface.
- Pentium II 266MHz processor.
- 128Mb RAM.
- 6Gb hard drive space on Ultra DMA, Ultra ATA, or Ultra/UltraWide SCSI drive.
As you might expect, Gigasampler employs software protection, but while I fully recognise how important this is to the manufacturer, I am not very happy about the method adopted. Each package comes with a CD key number that needs to be entered during the installation. After rebooting, the first time you run the software it profiles your hard drives, and lets you select a suitable soundcard. However, once you finish this procedure, a screen appears explaining that you have a five day evaluation period. During this time, you must register your installation with Nemesys, either by email, fax, or phone, and then you will get a Gigasampler key number. One of these will be supplied 'per qualified CD Key and Registration number.'
I have come again this particular protection system only once before, and it also seems to place several innocuous looking files inside other random folders (I discovered one inside my Wavelab plug‑ins folder for instance). Other tiny hidden files are also installed that will stop Gigasampler working if they are accidentally moved. You will be safe if defragmenting your drive with the standard Windows Defragmenter, but not with Norton Utilities (unless special precautions are taken). The worst of this protection method is that the Registration number is generated randomly when you install the software (I tried three times, and got a completely different number on each occasion) — if you ever have a major crash, or buy a new PC, you will need to persuade Nemesys to give you another Key number to install Gigasampler again. This is even worse than the dreaded hard disk install, which at least lets you move your install back on to floppy, and normally gives you two tries as well.
To give them their due, Nemesys emailed me my key number half an hour after they received my online details, and the web site does claim that they will give you a new number in case of accident, but this is still a worrying form of protection for professional musicians.
- You need never run out of sampler space again!
- Comprehensive instrument parameters including resonant filters.
- Supports Akai‑format CD‑ROMs.
- Realistically needs a powerful PC and a huge hard drive.
- More expensive than most MIDI + Audio sequencer software.
- Tricky to run on the same PC as hard disk recording software.
An inspiring piece of software which overcomes a fundamental limitation of traditional hardware samplers — but a large investment of time and/or money may be needed to get the most from it.