Sonic Reality's new Sampletank‑format library comes with a free player.
Sonic Reality's Sonic Synth comes on three CD‑ROMs and is based around a library of sounds for IK Multimedia's Sampletank virtual instrument, but to offer the user a complete package, a Sampletank LE player is included. The idea is that instead of presenting a themed set of samples, Sonic Synth offers the same type of sound palette you'd expect from a high‑end workstation synth. At the same time, it can take advantage of the high RAM capacity of modern computers to provide longer and/or more generously multisampled sounds than you'd get from a ROM‑based instrument. All the sounds are categorised into sections such as pianos, guitars, drums, basses, orchestral and ethnic instruments, pads, leads and so on, and in each case, the panel control settings of Sampletank are optimised for the patch in question, with effects added as needed.
Sonic Synth is VST‑ and MAS‑compatible (RTAS‑ and DirectX‑compatible versions are due soon) and it has most of the features of Sampletank XL, excluding that program's Akai sample import feature and sound library. The player can operate on up to four MIDI channels (one stereo output per plug‑in) and up to eight Sonic Synths can be run at once.
No minimum spec was provided with my review copy, but based on using it, I would suggest that you need 256MB of free RAM and at least a G3 or Pentium PIII PC. Up to 128‑note polyphony (CPU power permitting) is supported and up to four effects per plug‑in instance can be selected. Because the playback engine is a version of Sampletank, other Sampletank‑compatible libraries can be used to extend the soundset, and at the time of writing (mid‑September 2002), the Sonic Reality web site is offering Omnisynth (a serious attempt at creating a good GM soundset) plus a Sonic Reality library CD‑ROM of your choice with Sonic Synth for the basic download cost of the synth.
I've always found Sampletank's interface user‑friendly, but visually boring. However, once you've told it where the sample files are located, everything works without a hitch. Each patch loads quickly with its own control settings and effects (and the latter are fairly impressive). You can change effects or switch them off altogether to save on CPU overhead if you need to, but on the whole, they're actually reasonably efficient on CPU usage. In all, there are 20, including the usual reverb, relays, modulated delays, dynamics, EQ and distortion, There are also some useful guitar‑style effects such as distortion, wah, tremolo, rotary speaker simulation and so on.
The majority of the sounds are sampled exceptionally well, though I did come across one or two patches where low‑velocity notes didn't seem to trigger the sounds correctly, and on one violin patch, two notes refused to trigger at all on low‑velocity notes while every other note on the keyboard worked normally. All the sounds are comparable in quality with what you'd expect from a workstation keyboard, except where the sounds are built up from layers — these are sampled as a single sound, so there's no way to go in and change the balance. I particularly liked the acoustic basses and the strings (there are some surprisingly useable solo violins) as well as the ethnic instruments, though I felt the flute sounds were a bit mixed; some sound much more natural than others. There's a good choice of textural pads, synth leads and electronic basses, plus the usual sax, cello, marimba, piano and organ patches, all eminently useable. Also worth checking out are the excellent choral pads, which include a good Mellotron‑style choir and a 2001‑style 'Monolith' choir. A great piano needs lots of memory, but again those here are more generously sampled than you'd expect to find in a hardware synth, though the sounds do perhaps perhaps lag behind some of the dedicated piano libraries now available.
As Omnisynth is currently being bundled, I gave it a quick spin and discovered both economy and large GM libraries plus a few GS/XG‑style alternatives. GM tends to get a bad press, not only because the sounds are very safe, but because many are poorly sampled or crammed into too little ROM space. For example, it's not unusual to see the whole GM sound set squeezed into 16 or 32MB of ROM, but here each GM set is hundreds of MB in size, and the sounds are sampled to the same high standard as any of the other Sonic Reality libraries, making Omnisynth a real bonus. Again, Omnisynth includes a Sampletank engine and enables up to 32 instruments to be used at once.
In short, Sonic Synth provides a real alternative to buying another synth module. In addition to the sounds being of a high standard, they're also a little different in character to the familiar Korg/Roland/Yamaha soundsets. If you take advantage of the deal to include Omnisynth, you also get a seriously good set of GM sounds, so although the product lacks some of the style and visual appeal of some virtual instruments, it remains easy to use, it sounds good and it can be expanded using any Sampletank sample libraries. Definitely worth considering.
- Large sound library and player included.
- Easy to install and use.
- Sampletank has good internal effects.
- A small number of patches seem to behave inconsistently at low playing velocities.
A good software alternative to buying a new synth module.
- 800MHz Apple Mac G4 with 768MB of RAM running Mac OS v9.2.
- Emagic Logic Audio Platinum v5.1.3.