Did you know that upgrading your sampler's memory could seriously damage its health? Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser find out why...
Not so long ago, upgrading your sampler's RAM meant buying an official memory expansion from the manufacturer. In recent years, though, we've seen the introduction of samplers designed to use standard SIMMs (Single In‑line Memory Modules). It's a move which has pleased most of us — after all, SIMMs are cheaper than custom memory boards, and we're free to shop around for the best price when we want extra RAM.
However, this very freedom is causing a problem: most of us believe that a SIMM's a SIMM, and that the main things to bear in mind when buying them are price and access time. But some service centres are seeing what amounts to a plague of sampler damage attributable to low‑quality RAM. We spoke to Mike Swain, of leading service centre Panic Music, about the situation, first asking him where the bad RAM is coming from.
"Mostly from suppliers in the Far East. Unscrupulous companies are buying up factory rejects and seconds from the major manufacturers, stripping the manufacturer's name off and just putting a part number on the device. These devices would quite possibly work in PCs: if one or two cells are dead or the chips aren't up to spec and are pulling too much power, generally PC boards can handle it. But with samplers, the question of speed and access time for memory is very important. Badly specified RAM can cause data corruption and, at its worst, failure of the main board — because RAM might be drawing too much current, everything overheats, from the main board to the SIMMs themselves. It could literally write off the main board. If a musician puts bad memory in a machine it may work initially, but after a few hours the problems start. You could be right in the middle of a session and find that you've lost everything, because the memory has failed. This problem is surprisingly widespread: we probably see between 10 and 20 samplers a month with bad SIMMs problems. In the old days, taking Akai as an example, an 8Mb memory board for an S3000 was £500, because they were custom memory boards, but every one was tested. Now the doors have been opened for poor‑quality memory to be fitted in samplers.
"I can't understand why people spend thousands of pounds on a sampler, and then hunt around for the cheapest, nastiest SIMMs. I don't think end users understand that memory is the heart of the sampler, and if they've got bad or slow memory, they'll get sample corruption and memory failure. And the price difference between bad and good SIMMs is only £15‑£20. Manufacturers can't control what people put in their machines — they can only make recommendations. In a lot of cases, manufacturers are getting bad press where it's not their fault."
Fortunately, the average musician can avoid the kind of RAM which can cause these problems, by choosing a retailer carefully. Mike says that the culprits are "mainly computer shops, although some music shops are also supplying cheap SIMMs, because they don't realise there's a potential problem.
"Always go to a reputable supplier for RAM," he advises. "Look for one of the major memory suppliers. Don't go to cheapo computer stores, and if you buy from a music store, look at who the RAM manufacturer is. There are a number of manufacturers — Kingston and Goldstar, for example — who make good memory. All suppliers of quality memory give a lifetime warranty, because they're buying from reputable sources, and they're testing the devices themselves before selling them on to the end user."
Thanks to Mike Swain of Panic Music (01954 231348) for his help.
Here are a few manufacturers of guaranteed SIMMs, although your sampler manufacturer will also recommend others. Emu's web site (www.emu.com) has a particularly good list.
- SIMMs International
Mike also revealed that Panic are seeing a lot of static damage to samplers, "as a result of electrostatic precautions not being taken by people while installing SIMMs and other upgrades. It's not just users: some dealers are also guilty. The most significant problem is failure of the DMA (Direct Memory Access) controller. Although we can't be 100% sure it's static damage, the circumstances most certainly point to it — unexpanded machines never have DMA controller problems, and every machine we've seen with DMA controller problems has had extra memory or boards user‑fitted."
Obviously, no‑one wants to see their sampler affected in this way, so we asked Mike what we can all do to guard against static damage.
"The manufacturers all provide warnings that electrostatic precautions must be taken. Make sure you're working on a table that's not covered in a synthetic material which might generate static. Before you remove any covers or handle the SIMM chip itself, make sure you've discharged any electrostatic charges you may have in your body — potentially several thousand volts — by grabbing hold of an earth: a water pipe or a tap or something. Ideally, SIMMs should only be changed in an anti‑static environment, with the machine on an earthed anti‑static pad, and the user wearing a grounded earth strap. Earth straps are cheap, and are sometimes included with quality memory. It's so important: the DSP chip that handles memory on most current samplers can cost £200 to replace, and electrostatic damage can destroy it. This has been the case in a number of situations, and because we can't prove it 100%, the manufacturers are picking up the tab for repairs under warranty. It's a major concern of all the manufacturers: the only way around it would be to supply machines fully loaded with RAM, which would make samplers more expensive.
"The static problem obviously arises when you're installing any upgrade boards, into synths and digital audio recorders as well as into samplers. You must take the same precautions."
We wondered whether musicians should get upgrades installed by their dealer. Mike only partly agrees:
"Actually, some shops don't understand the problem either. It's OK for shops with service departments, but even then I know one or two instances where big retailers are installing upgrades on the shop counter! We had one customer who was absolutely horrified: his machine was opened on the counter of a major hi‑tech retailer, and all the SIMMs were tipped out loose. The staff were just shuffling though them like a pack of cards!"