Prices for former top-of-the-line hardware samplers are ridiculously cheap these days. Emu E4XTs and 6400s and Akai Z8s can be had, fully tricked out, for a pittance. All of which begs some questions! How do these machines stack up against the likes of the mighty Halion, Kontakt and MachFive soft samplers? Much of the discussion online seems to talk about hardware samplers having 'superior filters' or 'faster envelopes' and 'punchiness'. Is that all that can be said? Is there any point in having a hardware sampler, or are they so outclassed by their software counterparts that it's hardly worth it even at cheap-as-chips prices? If I were to get a hardware sampler, which one is the best to grab? (My personal definition of 'best' is the one that still offers something unique, even when considering the mighty soft samplers of today.
George Napier via email
SOS Reviews Editor Matt Houghton replies: Hardware samplers still have their place, but they're really not at all comparable with the likes of Kontakt and Halion, as they just don't offer anything like the same spec. There's no way you can run a convincing orchestral library on an old Akai, EMU or Yamaha sampler, for example, no matter how good the best efforts seemed at the time, whereas Kontakt, with its access to vast computing power and complex scripting excels at that kind of thing. Yet there's no doubt that the prices of secondhand rackmount samplers can seem very tempting, particularly when you compare them with the multiple thousands they originally cost! I picked up a fully loaded Akai 3200 XL about a year or so ago for the princely sum of £20$35! The boot time is quick, the build quality is rugged, and any latency barely noticeable — and for those reasons it's a useful module to take to gigs for live triggering. They can sample too, of course (fancy that — a sampler that can actually sample!), which is something Kontakt can't do — you can map samples and create patches, but it relies on your DAW or audio editing program to do the recording and much of the initial editing work — but, to be honest, while some people will go misty-eyed at that idea, programming an old Akai's groups and zones is a royal pain in the arse, and the same can be said for the models of other brands.
As for the amazing sound of the filters and converters... well, I never really found it that amazing myself, and much of that can be recreated in software using bitcrushers and so on (check out ToneBoosters' Time Machine plug-in, for example). Also, bear in mind that on ageing digital equipment like this, there are a few maintenance issues to be aware of. Quite often, you'll find that the backlight of the LCD panel will be dead or on the way out — they're cheap and easy to replace, but it's hassle and makes it less of a bargain.
Spares and libraries on the relevant media (floppy disks, Iomega Jaz drives and so on) seem still to be available, but I presume that they will become increasingly scarce, and they are slow to use by today's standards. A trawl through eBay suggests that such items are more readily available for old Akai S-series samplers than anything else, presumably due to their ubiquity at the time (there were simply more around, so there are more spares from broken units).
The limitations of using a sampler might impose some useful discipline on your sound-design techniques, I suppose, but other than that I don't see an awful lot to recommend them for studio use any more, except that they can be used without a computer, which might be reason enough in itself, I suppose.