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Q. What are the benefits of a 64-bit soft sampler?

I've got a computer with lots of RAM installed and want to run software that lets me play realistic sampled instruments and grooves. Somebody told me that I'll need a 64-bit software sampler to take advantage of all my RAM. Is this true?

Philip Bramley

SOS Contributor Martin Walker replies: The biggest carrot tempting many musicians to upgrade to a 64-bit sampler is the potential to load lots more sampled instruments, limited only by how much system RAM your computer has. However, it's important to note that your entire system must support 64-bit operation to gain such benefits — the processor(s) installed in the motherboard must be 64-bit capable and you must be running a 64-bit operating system such as Windows XP Professional x64, Vista 64, or Mac OS X Leopard 64-bit version.

To give you an idea of the practical benefits of 64-bit sampling over the 32-bit systems that most of us are currently running, let's take a look at a typical PC running Microsoft's 32-bit Windows XP Home or Professional operating systems. The theoretical limit for installed system RAM on these systems is 4GB, but even if you install the full 4GB, Windows will only actually see somewhere between 3GB and 3.75GB, and many applications assume that the practical maximum for system RAM is 2GB and ignore the rest. The reasons for this are too complicated to go into here, but, coincidentally, this is the focus of the PC Notes article in this issue.

Tascam's Gigastudio 4 — one of the new breed of 64-bit software samplers. Advantages are offered by 64-bit, but there's also much to consider before taking the plunge.Tascam's Gigastudio 4 — one of the new breed of 64-bit software samplers. Advantages are offered by 64-bit, but there's also much to consider before taking the plunge.For example, while Tascam's 32-bit Gigastudio 3 soft sampler can stream sample files of up to a massive 512GB in length, Tascam recommend installing a maximum of 2GB of system RAM in your PC, which is frustrating for those running orchestral mock-ups, who run into limitations on how many instruments of their massive sample libraries they can simultaneously use in their arrangements.

On the other hand, Tascam's new Gigastudio 4 [reviewed elsewhere in this issue] supports 64-bit operating systems and allows users to (theoretically) load massive sample libraries of up to 128GB, subject only to how much system RAM they have. The practical limit for system RAM will, however, be determined by how much your motherboard supports, and although a few expensive models do support up to 128GB, most typically support 8GB or 16GB. Nevertheless, for most PC users even 8GB will represent a four-fold increase in sample capacity.

With a stand-alone soft sampler like Gigastudio 4, your 64-bit system is largely complete, but if your sample player is a VST or DX Instrument running inside another host application, both the sample player and the host application must be running native 64-bit code, so you may need to upgrade your sequencer as well as your sample player (64-bit operating systems will still run 32-bit applications in compatibility mode, but then you don't get the 64-bit benefits).

Moreover, unless the host application has some sort of 'bit bridge' feature to provide an interface to 32-bit code, you'll only be able to run 64-bit versions of instruments and plug-ins (assuming they are available, and very few are just at the moment). So, even if you have a 64-bit sampler running inside a 64-bit sequencer, you may find yourself with a very limited selection of other plug-in effects and soft synths.

Mind you, there are various native 64-bit sequencers already available or on the horizon. Among others, there is a true 64-bit version of Cakewalk's Sonar 7, there's a 64-bit version of Plogue Bidule, and a 64-bit preview version of Steinberg's Cubase 4.1. Meanwhile, on the soft sampler side, as well as the aforementioned Gigastudio 4, Gary Garritan has announced his new 64-bit capable Aria Sample Player (developed in conjunction with Plogue Technologies), while EastWest have unveiled their Play Advanced Sample Engine with 64-bit support. Native Instruments have also revealed that development has started on a Kontakt 3 update, supporting 64-bit memory addressing, that will be free for registered users.

Another benefit of 64-bit operation touted by some experts is that the combination of a 64-bit processor with a native 64-bit software application can offer performance gains over otherwise similar 32-bit code, although the jury's still out on this one. Cakewalk, for instance, have measured significant improvements from the 64-bit version of some of their products, which they attribute to the enhanced CPU registers available on a 64-bit CPU that benefit floating-point computations (these are used extensively during mixing operations in a DAW).

On the other hand, Native Instruments claim that a 64-bit system offers no inherent computational advantage over similar 32-bit systems, because on a 64-bit system every piece of data that was previously 32-bit has to be 'scaled up' to double bandwidth, which creates a larger amount of data to be computed and to be transferred between the system components in the first place. It's certainly a complex issue.

Finally, I should also point out that the the marketing departments of various audio software developers have been muddying the waters by plastering the phrase '64-bit' all over new products, this time referring to something entirely different: the internal precision of their audio processing or mixing algorithms. Now, although having 64 bits of internal audio precision may (or may not) result in higher audio quality, much of this software still runs as 32-bit applications. Overall, while the 64-bit sampler is an enticing proposition, and essential to some, 'going 64-bit' can be a minefield for the unwary! 

Published August 2008