Paul White continues his introduction to sampling with a look at some of the extras, accessories and peripherals that you might need in order to get the most out of your new purchase. This is the second article in a three‑part series.
Last month I introduced the basics of sampling and, I hope, convinced you that it is fundamentally quite straightforward. One of the first things you will have realised on getting your sampler home, is that you need to go back out and spend some more money! A typical budget sampler, such as Akai's S2000, comes with only a couple of Megabytes of RAM, which provides around 12 seconds of stereo, full‑bandwidth sampling, or twice that in mono. Even with individual samples being only a few seconds long, you will soon twig that 2Mb isn't going to stretch very far when you start to use multisamples, and if you intend to use your sampler multitimbrally, then you'll need considerably more. You'll also find out pretty quickly that most of the samples provided on CD‑ROM are greater than 2Mb in length, with sizes between 6 and 16Mb being more common.
If you can't afford to fill your machine up with memory right away, 16Mb is a good figure to aim for, but this will set you back around £400 for a SIMM (Single In‑line Memory Module), and rather more if your particular sampler uses proprietary memory cards. It's a sad but true fact that at current prices, high‑capacity SIMMs are worth rather more than their own weight in gold. It is important to refer back to your dealer or the manual to ensure you order the right type and specification of SIMM chip, and always check that the sampler's warranty is not made void should you decide to fit the memory yourself.
The Choice Is Yours
With your credit card still reeling from this unexpected assault, you start to notice all the wonderful sample CDs and CD‑ROMs advertised in SOS, and, to be honest, if you're after stock sounds, well‑produced drum loops, or exotic ethnic bits and pieces, it's far easier to buy the sounds than it is to sample your own. Creating your own samples is fun, but there are few people with the time and skill to produce something like a perfectly multisampled grand piano. So, should you opt for CD samples or CD‑ROM?
Sample CDs have the benefit of being significantly cheaper than CD‑ROM sample libraries, and you can play them directly into the analogue inputs of your sampler using a domestic CD player. All you have to do is set the record levels, and if you're lucky enough to have a sampler with a digital input and a CD player with a digital output, you can pipe the data in digitally. If you go via the analogue ins, it's as well to remind yourself that the sampler is really a digital recorder, and that banging the record level meters against the endstop (or whatever the LCD equivalent is) is likely to cause very unpleasant distortion. Even so, always aim for as much level as you can without clipping — this will produce the best signal‑to‑noise ratio, and if you do find your source sound has troublesome peaks, don't be afraid to try compressing it first. Compression also makes it easier to loop sounds, by helping keep the level more constant.
The hard work starts after you've sampled the sounds from CD, because you now have to name your samples, create loops where appropriate, sort out crossfades, and put the samples into keygroups so that you get a smooth transition from one sample to another as you work up the keyboard. You may also have to create keyboard zones so that sounds can be velocity crossfaded or cross‑switched. I don't know what you consider 'fun', but as far as I'm concerned, unless the sample is marvellous beyond belief, life is simply too short for this kind of thing. Loading drum loops from CD is fine, but multisamples? Personally I'd rather stand on top of Ben Nevis in a thunderstorm, wearing a chain mail jacket and flying a kitchen‑foil kite!
A far easier alternative is to use CD‑ROMs, but first you have to confirm that your sampler can work with a CD‑ROM drive. Not all samplers with SCSI connectors will work with a CD‑ROM drive, the old Akai S950 being one obvious example. A look in the manual (that piece of thick, awkward packing material with printing on it that you found in the box with your sampler) will tell you if your machine is CD‑ROM compatible, and it should also give you a clue as to what type of drive to buy. I use an Apple CD300 with my Akai S2000 which works well, didn't cost a fortune, and is widely regarded as being suitable for the job. Unfortunately, this is where your flexible chum gets another smack in the teeth, because not only do you have to shell out for a CD‑ROM drive, you may also have to buy a SCSI interface for your sampler. Once you've done that, you then find that most CD‑ROMs cost as much, if not more, than the drive you slot them into. One tip here: get a CD‑ROM drive that doesn't need a caddy — my early model is one that does, and they're a real pain, believe me!
Having painted a pretty grim picture on the fiscal front, I have to say that when you actually get around to using CD‑ROMS, it's a real luxury, because the samples load up into neatly named programs, ready looped and key‑grouped, complete with the appropriate envelope settings, so that all you have to do is load and play them. I can't, however, guarantee that you'll find all the samples on any particular disk as exciting as your wife will undoubtedly find your credit card statement! (Political correctness has been thrown to the wind on this occasion, due to the statistically‑provable fact that the vast majority of sampler buyers are male.)
At least three of the major sampler manufacturers, Akai, Emu and Roland, are supported by a vast library of both in‑house and third‑party CD‑ROMs, so it comes as no surprise that each has developed an operating system allowing CD‑ROMs made for one of their competitors' machines to be used as well their own. For example, the Akai S2000 will happily load both Roland and Emu CD‑ROMs, but because every sampler has slightly different parameters, facilities and characteristics, the degree of translation isn't always perfect. Sometimes the only difference is a change in tonal quality, but there are occasions when you need to edit the programs to make them fully usable. I've also found on my S2000 that some of the samples created for earlier Akai machines load up in quirky ways, and on more than one occasion I've found that playback is only monophonic, unless further editing work is undertaken.
If a basic memory provision of 2Mb is inadequate, you might well ask what use is the integral 1.44Mb floppy drive for storing samples, especially as many machines don't have the provision to save longer samples over multiple disks? If you're working multitimbrally, then you might find that some individual programs and their associated samples will fit onto a single floppy, but this is becoming the exception rather than the rule. What you need is a SCSI hard drive. Again, this relies on your machine being fitted with a SCSI interface (or having provision for an internal drive), and it also means your bendy chum is going to take you further into the land of collateral depletion. But having accepted that a hard drive is a necessity, what type should you get?
Conventional hard drives are now relatively cheap, and you can get a 1Gb drive for less than the VAT I paid on my 100Mb drive four years ago — so there's little point in going for a smaller drive, and moving up to a 2Gb drive wouldn't be a bad idea. Even if you use a lot of CD‑ROM material, you have the benefit of being able to modify the programs or create new variations with very little effort if you store it on a hard drive.
When it comes to choosing a specific model, I think I would put quietness of operation at the top of my 'needs' list rather than speed of data transfer. Any hard drive is going to load up a typical set of samples fairly quickly, but why do some manufacturers seem to feel that a drive isn't macho enough unless it sounds like a taxi‑ing Lear jet?
You might find the idea of a removable drive appealing, and these days there are a large number to choose from. The early SyQuest 44Mb drives were not entirely reliable, and extremely noisy, but now you can buy removable drives with a far greater capacity for a lot less money. The inexpensive Iomega Zip drive (reviewed in December 1995) works with robust, 3.5‑inch cartridges, each of which holds 100Mb. This might not seem like a great deal, but the cost of the disks is very reasonable, and the drive has the benefit of being extremely quiet. The 1Gb Iomega Jaz drive is an option for those wanting more capacity from a removable media system, but at the time of writing, I haven't had the opportunity to check out how noisy it is.
If you're going to buy any type of removable drive, it might be as well to talk with other musicians or local studios with whom you are likely to collaborate, with a view to settling on the same model. Not only does this guarantee compatibility, it also provides the opportunity for you to order blank media in bulk, which can result in very significant savings.
Even with all the bolt‑ons and a selection of sample CDs at your disposal, you're still going to want to do some sampling of your own, and it soon becomes clear that working from the front panel of a typical sampler isn't the easiest way to achieve this. Looping samples and setting them into keygroups is more easily managed from a screen environment, and unless you have one of the very few samplers that supports a computer monitor, you might be tempted to check out the software sample editors on the market, the most well known of which is probably Alchemy.
MIDI can be used to transfer samples from a sampler to a computer and back again, but this is so slow that your new sampler might well be obsolete before you get your first set of multisamples perfected. A far better option is to use a system that can communicate over SCSI — which is one of the plus points of Akai's bundled Messa Mac software. However, Messa doesn't handle crossfade looping for you, so it isn't a complete solution.
Hopefully, this part of the series will have given you a feel for the other items you might need to do the job you bought your sampler for in the first place. As with so many things in life, it's often cheaper in the long run to buy an apparently more expensive product, but at least the latest generation of samplers seem to offer an upgrade path with numerous plug‑in options on cards.
Next month, I'll be looking at those odd little features tucked away inside your sampler, including resampling, time stretch, filtering and modulation.