Sonicware SmplTrek

Sampling Groovebox
By Robin Vincent

Sonicware’s SmplTrek packs an ambitious sampler, sequencer and recorder into a single portable box.

The Sonicware SmplTrek may have lost a couple of vowels in its fight for position amongst other portable sampling grooveboxes, but with integrated MIDI sequencing, live looping and mixing, it might well have a lot more to offer.

The workflow feels a bit like a hardware version of Ableton Live Lite, or perhaps more accurately like Roland Zenbeats with its orientation of tracks at the side and scenes along the top. In full flow, it’s really more of a hybrid digital portastudio than a beat‑making groovebox, as it combines live recording with clip launching, scene triggering and playful sampling endeavours. Finding the flow can take a bit of patience and dedication as you first have to wrestle the interface into submission.

Form

SmplTrek is a thick but compact box of black plastic designed in part to be held in two hands like a portable games console. As you grab either side the navigation D‑pad and a couple of buttons locate right under your thumbs, although I found that there’s not much you can do with just those controls, so it inevitably ends up on your desk. It has a handy screw thread on the bottom for mounting it on a mic stand for a more live‑performance vibe.

Across the front, you have 16 scene buttons and 15 track buttons, which double up as velocity sensitive finger‑drumming pads. There are a handful of other buttons to get to the things you need, and everything lights up beautifully except for the array of black, Volca‑style knobs, which are really hard to see. In the centre is a small but readable screen about the size of an Apple watch; this is where the action happens.

On the back is a pair of quarter‑inch line inputs that can handle guitar and microphone levels, and a pair of line‑level outputs. Very welcome 5‑pin DIN MIDI in and out and a DC power socket complete the back panel. On one side, you’ve got a micro USB port and SD card slot. SmplTrek has no internal memory, so everything’s done on the SD card (not included). The USB port is useful for data transfer but also turns the SmplTrek into a 2x2 audio/MIDI interface and controller for a phone or computer. On the front edge there’s a 3.5mm headphone socket, and on the top we’ve got 3.5mm analogue sync in and out.

The SmplTrek’s back panel offers quarter‑inch audio I/O and, joy of joys, full‑size MIDI I/O ports.

In line with Sonicware’s love of portability, the SmplTrek can take six AA batteries, although it did come with a power supply which, I think, is a first for Sonicware boxes and much appreciated. It has a reasonable built‑in speaker so you can impress your friends with your beats while out and about. For sketching out ideas or sampling on the go the built‑in mic is brilliant, but you’ll need a pair of headphones if you don’t want to risk feedback or find yourself resampling the output of the speaker.

Overall, it’s quite a neat box, with a good weighty feel and a clean layout that doesn’t look too complex or busy. And that alone makes you feel you can pick it up and go and get on with making some music.

Function

The SmplTrek has five track types to choose from, which dictate the content of the track’s clips. You can set a track up as an audio loop, or a one‑shot sample; you can have a sample‑based instrument, a drum kit track or a MIDI track. There are no virtual or hardware instruments, so everything is sample‑based unless you MIDI out to an external synthesizer.

The review model was running firmware v1.4.99. This brought in some very welcome expanded features and improved some of the more laborious user interface functions. The interface can be very challenging. It’s almost like a not‑so‑fun side‑quest in a video game designed to distract you from your ultimate purpose. You just have to grit your teeth and learn your way around it, and it does start to open up.

The SmplTrek has 10 tracks for your sampling, drumming and sequencing clips that you can arrange over 16 scenes. The latest updates boosted the number of drum and instrument tracks to four of each. In addition, there are three audio tracks for recording vocals or live instruments alongside your song. You can also route through an external source or connect a computer or phone via USB for sampling or mixing alongside. To help with the mixing, there’s EQ and a choice of 32 effects.

Loop Mode

The original concept for the SmplTrek seemed to be to keep the sampling and sequencing as two different functions. You would spend some time capturing and processing samples and then use the sequencer to import them as loops or instruments for arranging. This created a bit of a disconnect as you couldn’t sample into the sequencer, so you would have to keep navigating to and from the sample pool to find your newly sampled samples and bring them back in. With recent firmware updates you can now sample directly into a clip.

Being able to record directly into a clip is what gives SmplTrek its live looper feature. It’s not quite what I expect live looping to be. Rather than automatically overdubbing, you have to hit the right combination of buttons to record another loop alongside the first on another track. If you set up each track to be in loop mode then you can step down through them quite smoothly in order to keep layering up loops. But it doesn’t have the flow of features, the overdub, undo/redo and so on that you’d expect to find in a dedicated looper.

You can transfer your own loops and samples to the SD card and import them into the clip, which you should undoubtedly do because the included library is almost entirely non‑existent; not a drum loop in sight. In the Preset folder, you get about 24 single instrument samples that are intended for instrument tracks, and 12 drum kits. You can download a 1GB sample pack free from a third party, which is not very easy to navigate and has a naming convention and folder system that doesn’t lend itself to the tiny SmplTrek screen. But you could see it as an encouragement to build your own library. When importing you just have to be aware that there’s no automatic time‑stretching or beat detection, so you’ll need to do some editing to get your loops to fit.

One Shot

For a one‑shot track, you are pushed directly into the pool where you can explore the sample library, such as it is. As with the loop mode you can, of course, load your own samples, or sample something straight in, but unlike loop mode this happens outside of the track, in the separate sampling section. If that sounds a little confusing, then that’s a feeling you get used to when learning the SmplTrek.

Anyway, once you’ve selected your sample from the pool, you can leave it to be triggered on the pad in a live performance or sequenced in a pattern. These are not melodic tracks as such; this is more about cymbals, percussion and sound effects being triggered, but you can do all sorts of things in the automation lanes. You can edit the pitch, velocity, level, panning, send amount, micro‑tuning and gate length for each step in the pattern. The editing detail is really very good, as is the sample editing, which we’ll come to in a minute.

Instrument

Instrument and MIDI tracks essentially work in the same way, with a piano‑roll style sequencing view. For MIDI, each new track gets an automatically allocated and incremental MIDI channel number, whereas for instruments, you can select from any of the 24 now‑legendary sample sounds or your own single‑note samples. The track pads now turn into a little one‑octave keyboard that you can shimmy up and down in pitch with some side buttons.

You can record your sequence in real time or step time in up to eight notes of polyphony. If you don’t fancy the little pads then you can connect a MIDI keyboard for some more musical leeway. Step recording seems to offer every way you can think of to input notes. You can thumb around with the D‑Pad, find the note and position you’re after and press OK to enter the note. Or you can find the note and press the step number button to enter a note at that step, or get the cursor to the step and press the pads to enter the pitch. Entering and editing notes can only be done while the Record button is active.

You have similar automation options as with the one‑shot samples, but you will have to thumb around for the individual notes in order to apply them. You can also add an attack‑release envelope to the overall sound. As with the other tracks, the level of editing detail is nice, if a little time‑consuming with the D‑pad and tiny screen. The knobs are not very speedy either. They are clicky, and it takes a lot of winding to move through 128 values, no matter how fast you spin them.

Drum Kits

The SmplTrek comes with 12 drum kits covering all the usual suspects. They are single‑sample sets that fill all 15 of the velocity‑sensitive pads. You can get some expressive playing if you treat them gently, but even mild finger drumming tends to push them to the max. And these pads are small, smaller than the end of any of my fingers, so finger‑rolls are tricky and accidental triggering of neighbouring pads happens quite a bit. However, their size and proximity make it easy to access all 15 pads under the natural fall of your fingers, so, in the context of the device, I feel the pads work really well.

There are a number of editing pages available for a drum kit. For the kit as a whole, you have level and a ‘LoFi’ option, which possibly removes a little bit of top end, but it’s really hard to tell. If you dig down into the ‘Instrument Parameters’, you’ll find individual level and panning controls for each pad, along with effect send, pitch, reverse and slope (envelope). You can have up to six choke groups for managing hi‑hats or keeping a monophonic feel to certain hits.

You can build your own kits from imported samples by adding them to pads, or you can sample something in, chop it up and throw it into a kit. When I first got started with the SmplTrek the process of creating your own kit from sampling was so convoluted that it didn’t feel like a good use of my time. It’s now been smoothed into a flow that goes something like: sample it, save it, find it, chop it, pad it, load it and off you go. It’s no trouble at all.

Drum patterns work like the instrument track piano roll. You can record in real‑time, or use the D‑pad, step buttons and pads to set out your pattern manually. Quantisation is always present from 1 to 32 notes per bar, which is great for keeping in time, and you can enable a metronome and set a pre‑roll.

Sample Editing

Sampling into SmplTrek tends to be a separate process which you can get into at any time by pressing Func+Record. You can select any of the inputs, including internal mic, external mic, guitar, line input stereo or mono, USB input, or capture the output of an existing track. There’s also an unexpected guitar tuner, which is a nice bonus.

In the sampling page, you can check your level and hit Start to start recording, and your audio is painted on to the screen. You can then play the sample back, zoom in and scroll around it but not much else. To take things further, you need to save it and then re‑open it from the sample pool.

When loading a sample from the pool you have some decisions to make from a menu. You can load it into a clip as a loop, one‑shot or instrument track. You can chop it up manually or with auto‑slicing to generate new samples or a drum kit. You can opt to trim the sample by setting a start point and using bpm and number of bars to set the size, or just dial in a start/end point. Time‑stretch is another option, either melodic or rhythmic, which again works on bpm and bars. Other options include normalisation and changing the mono mode.

There’s no beat detection or real‑time time‑stretching, so to make things fit together, you have to know the bpm of your material and process it accordingly. This is probably the only weak area in an otherwise decent selection of sample editing tools. It would be fabulous to be able to drop in your tempo‑infused loops and have them automatically lock into the project tempo, but doing it by hand is not too taxing.

Arranging

I mentioned how the songwriting workflow of SmplTrek is a bit like Ableton Live or Roland Zenbeats. What’s important to know is that the Scene dictates what’s in play. You can’t launch clips or one‑shots willy‑nilly; you can only launch what’s in the current scene. So from the SmplTrek’s orientation this means one column of 10 clips filling the 10 tracks. Each clip can have its own length and number of loops or be empty and ready for live playing, but the length of the scene ultimately takes precedence.

If you press Play, your whole project will play back left to right taking into account any scene repeats you’ve set up to create your song. In launch mode you can either launch a whole scene by pressing the corresponding button or select a scene and launch individual clips within it. Once it’s playing, I couldn’t fathom a way to move to another scene without launching it and all its clips; I could only do it while stopped. So the scenes restrict what you can do to groups of 10 clips, rather than freeform access to a potential of 160 from purely a clip launcher point of view.

You can copy/paste clips and scenes to help you fill out your project, and of course, each clip can have its own pattern or sequence playing the selected source of the track. There’s no indication on the screen to say whether the clips are the same or different, so you’ve got to keep your wits about you. It’s relatively easy to navigate around the clip grid, program in your patterns, rearrange the clips and work towards an arrangement.

The SmplTrek’s ‘Global’ mode is actually a three‑track recorder that works alongside your sampled patterns.

Global Tracks

The oddly named ‘Global’ tracks are three audio tracks that run alongside your project. You won’t find them in launch mode, but when you play the whole project back these open up for you to record a full vocal performance, a guitar track, harmonies or whatever you want. This is a huge feature that should probably take more of our attention. While you can record yourself into clips as samples and arrange it in scenes as a vocal line, the ability to record yourself singing along to your project transforms the SmplTrek from what could be seen as a looper or clip arranger into a portastudio. And you have three tracks, and each track has three takes that you can freely swap between.

The Global tracks are tracks 11, 12 and 13 in the project, and when you go into them they are presented on a timeline of bars and corresponding scenes. Once you’ve recorded your three takes, you can split up the audio to swap between them or mute sections. You can record in from any of the usual inputs, which means you could also bounce one or more of the other tracks to a Global track to free those up for something else.

I think the sampling and looping side of SmplTrek is a huge part of its identity, but it’s all too easy to be fooled into thinking it’s just a fun sampling box. If you refocus on the Global tracks then SmplTrek becomes a three‑track studio with a built‑in drum machine, sequencer and sample looper. That’s a very different vibe and would open it up to people who might otherwise assume it’s not their thing.

Mixing & Effects

Finally, we have the mixing section, where we can combine and process the 10 tracks, the three Global tracks and the USB and external audio. With level metering, you can see up to eight tracks on the screen at once. Each channel has level, panning, send and some EQ filtering that’s light on the EQ and heavy on the filtering.

There are plenty of effects inside the SmplTrek, but the allocation is a little disappointing. There are insert effects, send effects and master effects, but you can only have one of each at one time. You can load up a reverb for the send effect and send all the tracks to it, so that’s not too bad. For master effects, it’s really an overall lo‑fi or compression option, which are fine. But for the insert effect this feels very restricted. However, there isn’t endless amounts of processing power in the SmplTrek, so you’ve got to think about it regarding resampling and signal chain. If you want to add an effect to something, you could resample it back in with the effect applied and free up the one effect for use elsewhere. Or you can put the insert effect on an input and record in wet. There are bass amps and guitar amps in here expressly for that purpose. So in that respect, the range of effects on offer and how you can use them is pretty comprehensive.

Conclusions

Comparisons to the Roland SP‑404 MkII seem obvious. When the SmplTrek was originally released as a Kickstarter, the price undercut the SP‑404 by a couple of hundred poundsdollars and so it was described as a potential 404‑killer. But it’s not an accurate or helpful comparison. The SP‑404 MkII is the master of lo‑fi beats and a sample‑triggering performance instrument; the SmplTrek is a songwriting machine with audio tracks, sampled beats, MIDI sequencing and live looping. Now the SmplTrek is on the open market, the prices are much more similar and it has to work harder to assert itself.

Once you see it as a songwriting tool, as a portastudio with bells on, it becomes a uniquely powerful and portable device.

Once you see it as a songwriting tool, as a portastudio with bells on, it becomes a uniquely powerful and portable device. While it can make beats, we need to think beyond that urban sampling stereotype and picture it on a desk next to a guitarist, a vocalist, a live streaming performer, a DAWless producer, songwriter and sound designer.

There are still some quirks and avenues of frustration in the interface that are difficult to ignore. I’d like an undo function more than anything. At times it felt like I was being hampered at every turn. Sonicware have come a long way with the firmware in only a few months, and the improvements are a source of relief; keep them coming. There are also none of the more esoteric functions like randomisation, probability, rolls or ratchets, or an easy way to reach in for some live performance filter or effects action.

However, the SmplTrek is a great alternative to a computer‑based home studio and far more portable with a lot less fiddling about. It’s not as intense as an Elektron box or as deep as a Roland, but it does a wider range of tasks well enough to give you a solid songwriting partner.

Pros

  • Different tracks types allowed.
  • Three audio tracks with take selection.
  • Easy sampling to drum kits.
  • Clip and scene launching.
  • Sample from anywhere.
  • Can also act as an audio/MIDI interface.

Cons

  • Quirky interface.
  • Small screen.
  • Fiddly knobs.
  • Small pads.
  • Underwhelming library.

Summary

SmplTrek could be your sequencing, sampling, looping and recording songwriting partner, where the versatility balances out a sometimes challenging interface.

Information

Published June 2023

From the same manufacturer